Archive for the ‘Bill Russell’ Category

Sloan’s Departure Just Part of the New NBA

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

When an NBA lifer calls it quits – in the middle of the season – red flags start flying.  Especially after the guy in question is Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and his abrupt resignation takes place suspiciously close to an altercation he had with talented point guard Deron Williams.

Something sinister – with a villain?  Apparently, the answer to that depends on . . . your date of birth.  Old timers yearn for the days when the coach called the shots – even if Red Auerbach had to privately meet with Bill Russell and ask him to play along when Red yelled at Russ at practice because if he did, the rest of the guys would see Red was the boss.  This was in the day when winning took precedence over everything – including contracts, no-trade clauses, endorsement deals, personal stats.  Of course, Auerbach’s and Russell’s Celtic teams won every year so that strategy paid off handsomely – for one team in the league anyway.

Back then, there were no halftime extravaganzas, Kiss cams, tattooed players or agents.  Of course, there also weren’t chartered flights, three-point shots, NBA television network and smoking was allowed in the arenas.  In short, they weren’t the good old days as much as, merely, the “old days.”  It’s up to the individual to decide which days are good.  Or better.

What’s most disappointing about the Sloan situation is the post-announcement posturing, led by the coach himself who took the high road, a stance somewhat inconsistent with the way he normally confronted issues.  Definitely different from the way he played.  Jerry Sloan never backed down from a good battle.  Then again, maybe he was being completely honest, that it was “his time.”  Maybe the new breed of superstar (or even average player for that matter) had simply worn him down to where he realized these confrontations were no-win options.

That’s the indication the fan on the street gets when former players like John Stockton and Karl Malone make public statements regarding how highly they think of their old coach.  Each said they were surprised by his move and felt the word “quit” was something they’d never associate with their old boss.  Certainly not in the middle of the season.  Malone, when questioned about verbal player-coach battles when he was playing, openly admitted there were many, but maintained every player on the team knew who was in control and that person was the coach.

Woodard and Bernstein coined the phrase “non-denial, denial” when they reported on Watergate.  After hearing Williams’ response to Sloan’s retirement, that was the exact phrase that came to mind.  He didn’t deny the verbal disagreement he had with Sloan but claimed that, in no way was he attempting to give management an ultimatum.  Most damaging to Williams’ non-denial, denial was ESPN’s Chris Broussard, who has made his bones as the NBA’s leader in spreading gossip – and the nastier, the better.  Broussard, doing his best Stephen A. Smith impersonation, said that the removal of Sloan from the Jazz bench would be welcome to Williams, as would the promotion of assistant Tyrone Corbin who, as Broussard said, recommended different plays during games than those that Sloan did, but which Williams thought were better.  If ever something defined the difference between the old NBA and the new, that statement was it in a nutshell.

Fans of today’s NBA are witnessing superior athletes than those of yesteryear, yet a game that’s less team oriented than it was decades ago.  Some of this is due to rules changes and some of it is due to a change in culture.  Which is the better product is left to the viewer.  In the case of young fans, they don’t know any other style and seem to enjoy the game as much as their parents and grandparents did at their age.

When Pat Riley coached, he used to forbid his players from even talking to opponents before a game and actually fined them if they helped up an opposing player up after knocking them down.  Chatting it up when the teams take the court prior to formal warm ups is common place today.

Which side is right in the Jerry-Sloan-stepping-down argument?  As well respected as Jerry Sloan is, there certainly are many who will say that today’s players just don’t respect authority.  The flip side are those who state, as Thomas Jefferson (definitely classified as an old-timer) did:

“If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”

Check the Facts Before Making a Statement

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Loyal reader – and friend – Clarence Gaines posted a comment regarding my lesson #3 of what we can learn about LeBron’s decision.  I said, “He simply doesn’t realize that a true superstar has the courage to take whatever hand (or roster) is dealt him and make them into not only big winners, but champions, a la MJ and Larry Bird.”

My point was that, although MJ and Larry joined down franchises, they stayed with each until they won multiple championships.  Clarence’s research revealed that, while the Celtics won only 29 games the year before Bird got there, they won 61 games in his rookie season – and then acquired McHale & Parish which ignited their championship runs.  His comment was that Bird didn’t really suffer through several seasons with inferior talent.  Point made.

His comment jarred my memory of a quote I heard a couple days ago, but had forgotten until it was replayed last night on SportsCenter.  It was by Dwayne Wade regarding all the criticism directed toward the newest Big 3.  Before repeating his quote, let me bring up another statement made by D-Wade.

During the Rachel Nichols interview, Wade made the rather bold statement that he LeBron and Bosh are “arguably the best trio who ever played the game of basketball.”  Whoa!  A little too much Miami heat?  How about 1) Magic, Kareem & Worthy, 2) Bird, McHale & Parish, 3) Russell, Cousy & (pick one of the Hall-of-Famers: either of the Jones, Ramsey, Sharman, Havlicek, Heinsohn), 4) West, Baylor & Chamberlain?  Sure, the last trio never won a championship but that wasn’t the question.  Plus, Wade’s nominee hasn’t won a game yet.  Putting Rodman in with MJ and Pippen might be a stretch, just as including Duncan, Parker & Ginobli might be reaching, but to anoint the Heat threesome to number one all-time is quite premature.

Oh yeah, Wade’s quote regarding the “haters”?

“I just don’t like false reports . . . At least get it right.”     

The MJ-Kobe Debate: More Similarities Than Differences

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

When the question of who is the better player: Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, the results are usually easy to predict.  The older generation picks MJ, while today’s younger fans say Kobe.  When each makes their case, the obvious bias always shines through.  “The players now are better than those from Jordan’s era (as if he played in the ’50s).  That’s why I think Kobe is better.”  “Michael has six rings.  Until Kobe has that many, there’s no argument.  It’s MJ.”  Can you guess which speaker is older?

In an attempt to keep everything as equal as possible (which is never going to happen when comparing teams or players from different times – even times as close as these are), let’s look at a number of intangible categories since comparing stats is too mundane.

#1 Each player has a focus all his own.  Game’s on the line, who takes the last shot?  MJ then, Kobe now.

#2 Each has a versatility to his game – power dunker in the earlier years, maintained/s ability to go to the hole; neither can be ignored behind the three-point line and both them have fantastic mid-range games (a trait in its own right that separates them from most of basketball’s other “superstars”).  Both are primarily 2 guards,  each can take over the point if necessary.  Yet each has an unstoppable post up game.

#3 Each demanded/demands to guard the opponent’s best offensive player and was/is a shut-down defender.

#4 Each has shown no hesitation to get in teammates’ faces in order to elevate their games and each made/makes his teammates better.

#5 Each has personal flaws (this just in – as spectacular as they are on the court, they are human).  MJ has a reputation as somewhat of a womanizer and a heavy gambler.  While Kobe doesn’t have the gambling rap of MJ, Michael was never subjected to the public humiliation of Kobe’s “post-Colorado” press conference.

#6 As marketing icons go, MJ might own a higher business acumen (has his own brand), but Kobe’s younger and has the identical global appeal Michael did at that stage of his career.

#7 Each has won multiple championships, Jordan 6 (MJ is 6-0 in title series) to Bryant’s 4 (Kobe’s 4-2), BUT Kobe’s career is not yet complete and, if championships is the end-all barometer, what if Kobe ends up with 7?  Is he automatically the better player?  It’s not that simple.

#8 Each had incredible discipline when it came to personal work ethic.

#9 Interestingly enough, the fact I don’t hear when this debate is raged is that both were coached by Phil Jackson, a remarkable coincidence when comparing two players.  Nowhere else is this the case.  Russell-Chamberlain?  Mays-Mantle?  OJ-Sweetness-Sanders-Smith?  Howe-Orr?

As far as differences, Michael went to college (and was mentored by Dean Smith), whereas Kobe’s education was growing up in a foreign country and is the son of a former NBA player.  MJ was an immediate starter; Kobe began his career coming off the bench.

As a math teacher, I understand that answers and solutions mean the same, so when someone wants to know if there’s an answer (solution) to the “Who’s better” question between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, I refer them to Marcel Duchamp’s quote:

“There is no solution because there is no problem.”

The NBA Regular Season & NBA Playoffs Have NOTHING In Common

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

During the NBA’s regular season, there is so much talk about the travel and how it wears on the body, back-to-backs with an opponent in both cities, simultaneous game preparations for multiple opponents by the assistant coaches and about how players just have to play through injuries.  Then the playoffs roll around.

Travel to one site and stake out for as long as a week.  Back-to-backs?  Only if you count playing the same team over and over.  Throw out coaches working on their preparations and make it a team effort – all the coaches (and scouts) game prepping for the same opponent (whom you may play seven times in a row)!  Play a game and have at least a day, usually more, to rest and recover.

Who benefits from such a change?  Older, experienced, talented teams, that’s who.  Think I’m referring to what’s going on in this year’s playoffs?  Well, yeah, somewhat.  I mean this isn’t the History Channel blog.  But, . . . think back, if you’re as old as I am, to the 1969 NBA championship when the aging Boston Celtics and their player-coach Bill Russell limped to the end of the regular season with a 48-34.  That mark barely got them into the tourney, but they caught fire (or was it stopped traveling and got healthy) and won Big Russ’ 11th title in 13 seasons – and then promptly retired.

Fast forward, or in the case of the New York Knicks, crawl forward to 1973 when they finished 11 games behind division-leading Boston, yet beat the Celts in a seven-game series, then went on to take care of the Lakers in five.  Both the ’69 Celtics and the ’73 Knicks were old (in basketball years), experienced and talented teams.  They also wound up as champions.

So for all those Cavaliers fans who bemoan the fact that they had the best record but the older teams reaped the benefits of the “system,” just hold onto LeBron for a few more years and your club will be the beneficiaries of this format because:

“All that’s old becomes new again.”

Questions Abound As the NBA Playoffs Begin

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

After 82 games (many of those last week being played by guys who won’t see much action from here on out, so the key guys would be well-rested), the NBA playoffs are finally here.  It sure seems like a long season just to eliminate less than half the teams.

The final week of the NBA schedule was like training camp – it gave most teams a chance to see some of its “prospects” in game action, even though the games meant nothing.   Except for the Bulls and Raptors (and with Chris Bosh’s season-ending injury, it was much better for all concerned the Bulls got the 8th spot) and, maybe, a few others jockeying for a chance to move up a spot, most of the teams were resting for the playoffs (or the lottery). 

Now, the level of play will certainly ratchet up several notches (except for Joakim Noah, Chris “The Birdman” Anderson and Edjuardo Najera who are always ratcheted up) and interest in the NBA will increase in direct proportion.  I know many basketball coaches who won’t watch a pro game until the playoffs.  Ask them why and they’ll say they’re bothered by the less-than-all-out effort during the regular season.  Ask them why they like the playoffs and the answer’s usually, because then, we get to watch the greatest athletes in the world.

When the season began, and even as it progressed, many thought a Lakers-Cavs showdown was inevitable.  Now, there are diverse opinions as to whether either or both may not even be there when the finals roll around (in June, as amazing as that sounds).  Will Shaq’s return raise the level of Cleveland’s game (after all, he is one of the greatest players to ever put on a uni and has four championships on his resume) or will his presence slow them down, clog the lane and mess with what’s been pretty good chemistry to date?  He’s allegedly been working out during Cavs’ games – even on the road, where he burns a game’s worth of calories by riding the bike and working out in the weight room, on the road as well as home.  Supposedly, he’s in the best shape of his career and totally focused on fulfilling his promise of bringing a championship to Cleveland.  Shaq has been known to blow smoke every once in a while, however.

How about LA?  Is Kobe’s finger healed?  Don’t ask him.  We know what that answer will be – even if he comes out to shoot with only four of them on his hand.  What about the addition of Ron Artest?  He’s a lightning rod for controversy, but has also been a lockdown defender – and if his head is right, he’d be an major asset.  Incredible as it sounds for someone of his talent, all he’s expected to be is a role player, albeit a significant role.

Consider the potential road blocks for these two along the way.  Although Boston occasionally looks old, the every other day off format of the playoffs aids veteran teams.  Think all the way back to the Celtics when Bill Russell was at the end of his career and the Knicks a few years later.  Because of KG’s injury last season, the Celts still consider themselves the defending champs, i.e. no one’s beaten them when they’ve been at full strength.  As for their X factor, Rasheed Wallace has a bad rep with officials (and deservedly so), but, throughout the league, he’s known as a great locker room guys and is as crafty as he is talented.   Plus, now is the time Doc Rivers is at his button-pushing best.  The flu bug has hit Boston (mainly Rajon Rondo and Glen “Big, But Don’t Call Me Baby” Davis), but what could cause Boston to be really sick is if Dwayne Wade takes over the games, as he is able – and prone – to do.

There are those who feel Orlando will repeat in the East (and they have the best chance to take down the Cavs) but they have to get through Charlotte first.  Larry Brown is as good as any coach at game-planning and now that he has quelled the rumor that he’s headed to the Clips or the Nets (for at least a week), the Bobcats and Magic series is an intriguing one.

Forget even attempting to handicap the West.  The Mavs had a terrific season, got the number two seed and their reward is they get to play the Spurs.  All the other match-ups in this division are just as compelling.  In a best-of-seven series, it’s usually the better team that wins.  Yet, with all the injuries this year, no one’s sure which is the better team!

The games start today, so as far as analyzing the NBA playoffs any further, it’s time to follow the advice from the Al Pacino-Robert DeNiro movie, Heat, in which the famous exchange ends with the line: 

“Yeah, stop talking, OK, Slick?”  

Just In Case You Get the Chance to Coach Superstars

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

On last night’s Lakers-Bulls telecast, they showed the “retired jersey” of Phil Jackson in the rafters at the United Center.  As always is the case, mention was made of Phil winning all those rings but . . . how he always had great players.  First, Michael & Scottie, then Shaq & Kobe and then Kobe and the cast of characters from last year’s team (with the emphasis on Kobe). 

It seems Phil Jackson’s championships can’t be mentioned without someone bringing up the “Yeah, but he had great players” line.  While it is true, there have been many coaches with great players who have failed to win championships – at all levels (remember the Phi Slamma Jamma Houston Cougars of Guy Lewis)?  It takes more than just great players.  And the way championships are won differ with the different personalities of the coaches who lead those talented squads.

There’s Phil and his Zen approach.  Imagine getting NBA players to understand Zen, much less embrace it?  There was a story of how he tried it on one of his early championship Bulls’ teams.  He told the guys to sit quietly and close their eyes.  The legend goes that a few (or more) of the players peeked – and saw Michael Jordan sitting with his eyes closed – and that sealed the deal.  Moral: Get your best player to buy into your philosophy and the others fall right into line.

Doc Rivers coached a team put together by Danny Ainge (with help from his best friend, Kevin McHale) which initially had perennial all-star, but perennial also ran (as far as his team went), Paul Pierce.  Ainge added Ray Allen, one of the best shooters in NBA history (and in case you haven’t noticed, scoring is more important in basketball than any other team sport) and superstar, but also mired on a mediocre team, Kevin Garnett.

Doc knew he had an abundance of talent, but none of these guys had ever won.  He came up with the rallying cry/mantra, “Ubuntu” which (some thought meant “Help me, I’m in my contract year”), but actually, according to none other than Nelson Mandela, meant a concept made up of traits like unselfishness, caring and enabling others.  They rode it to a championship, to the point that when many of the Celtics were asked what their championship secret was, they claimed, “Ubuntu.”  That’s buying in.

Speaking of the Celtics, Red Auerbach had his run of championship after championship.  Bill Russell wound up with more rings than fingers.  What Red did was clever.  He made everybody else hate him, thus taking all the pressure off his guys.  It’s not like he had a bunch of slouches, but the shenanigans he pulled at the old Boston Garden (dead spots in the floor, turning up the heat in the visitor’s locker room, no hot water, and the piece de resistance – the victory cigar).  Plus, he did subtle things, like going to Big Russ and telling him not to pay attention when he yelled at him in practice, but if the rest of the players saw Russell getting an earful, they’d have no right to complain when Red jumped their cases.

The master of massaging egos (and in the NBA, there’s no shortage of that commodity) was the late Chuck Daly.  He took a team and gave it an image.  The “Bad Boys” aka the Detroit Pistons won back-to-back championships with nasty (dirty?) Bill Laimbeer; tough guy Rick Mahorn; bordering on lunatic, Dennis Rodman; if-you-need-a-score, call-me, Vinny Johnson; classy Joe Dumars (how did someone so respected, with so much class become a – vital – part of this team?) and Mr. Hidden Agenda, Isiah Thomas. 

I was working at the University of Toledo (less than an hour from Detroit) during those championship years and a little known fact is that the Pistons’ owner, Bill Davidson, made his early (and big) money in glass – and Toledo was known as the Glass Capital of the World.  We’d get choice seats (Mr. Davidson’s own – right behind the basket at the Pistons end of the floor) because there were many people in Toledo who were quite friendly with Mr. D. 

One of his confidantes told me a story that was not allowed to be leaked (so how did I find out)?  Mr. Davidson was so fond of Thomas that he pledged to him a million dollar bonus if the team won a championship.  Imagine what that kind of dissent that would have caused if it got out.

That’s how good Chuck Daly was.  Because he knew and, yet, had the ability to mold this apparent group of misfits into not one, but two championship teams.  His main strength was that he possessed so little egoWinning was his goal and he focused on working individually with each player on the team. 

Many people have said he knew how to handle players, but as Wilt Chamberlain told his new coach, Alex Hannum, when the coach said to the Big Dipper, “I heard you’re hard to handle.”

“You don’t handle people.  You handle animals,” said the player who caused more rule changes than any other in the history of the game.  Talk about making a statement early in a relationship.

When it comes to winning championships, sure, great players are needed, but as the late & great coach Chuck Daly (coach of the Original Dream Team – talk about egos!) said:

“It’s harder to take a group of really talented players and make them a championship team than it is to take a group of average guys and make them competitive.” 


If You Think It’s Impossible to Compare Players from Different Eras,…

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

A week or two ago, on the ESPN show, PTI, co-host Michael Wilbon emphatically stated that Tiger Woods was a better athlete than Roger Federer.  This occurred shortly after Federer won at Wimbledon, passing Pete Sampras for the most wins in tennis’ four major championships.  Wilbon, never short on opinion, said there was absolutely no argument that Woods was the better athlete.  What would possess Mike Wilbon to say this?

Could prejudice be behind his absurd comparison?  Certainly, but prejudice of what kind?  Racial?  Hardly.  He has more respect for the sport of golf than that of tennis?  Possibly.  He knows Tiger and is more influenced by his enormous endorsement income and international celebrity than Roger’s?  More likely.  To boost the show’s ratings?  Even more probable.  Because he has irrefutable proof?  Impossible.

Debates about who’s the best is one of the American fan’s favorite pasttimes.  Wilt vs. Russell, Mantle vs. Mays, Brady vs. Manning are fun for many to argue.  Kareem vs. Shaq, Butkas vs. Ray Lewis, Pele vs. Beckham may also be, but are more in the foolhardy category because of the time difference between their careers.  But athletes from different sports?  Ridiculous.  Enjoy their dominance.  Envy their superiority.  But to attempt to place one above another?

Examine some facts regarding Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and their respective sports.  One competes against humans, while the other also has a field of human competitors with which to contend, but in reality, is playing against a course.  One competes against opponents one at a time and is favored in every match (with the possible exception of Nadal at the French), yet could lose to an opponent who happens to have a “career day.”  Should one of the other’s competitors have such a remarkable day, it only accounts for 1/4 of the tournament score.

A tennis player can lose a set here and there (actually one or two per match) and still capture the championship, while a golfer doesn’t have to win any of the four days, but can still be the champ if his overall four-day total is better than anyone else’s.  In one of the sports, a player can catch a break if a rival is beaten and hence, is knocked out of the competition. Nothing like that happens in the other sport.  One of the two sports requires tremendous physical conditioning, where the other is much more mentally taxing, mainly because there’s so much more time to think - especially about the bad shots

Both can overcome a bad day, although it usually only takes one to crush the hopes of winning the title – the rest of the competition, at that elite level, is that good.  In tennis, Roger can win if his opponent plays poorly.  Tiger doesn’t have that luxury.  But, on the flip side, Federer can do something to cool off a sizzling hot opponent, whereas in golf, Tiger can only watch the leader board (or his playing partner) as the competitor’s score goes deeper and deeper into the red numbers.  Finally, in golf, more than any other sport, one thing for certain, you lose more than you win.

But to say the (arguably) greatest golfer of all-time is better than the (arguably) greatest tennis player of all-time is both foolish and something that will get a totally unknown blogger to stay up way too late posting a response.

The only statement that can be said regarding golf and tennis than can’t be argued is:

“It takes bigger balls to play tennis than it does to play golf.”   

Once Cleared by the Doc, Jackson’s Decision Was an Easy One

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

Phil Jackson had done it all.  He finally one-upped his nemesis, ol’ Red.  The whole chase for the most coaching championships thing (10) seemed to bother Auerbach more than it did P.J.  The argument was one of those barroom types, the kind that gets louder as more suds are consumed, the increased volume being necessary because there’s absolutely no factual way to prove which coach was better.

“Oh yeah?  Well, Red did it by winning 8 straight and going 9 for 10, while building the Celtics from nothing (hah!)” – where Phil always had, arguably, the two best players in the game (MJ & Scottie or Kobe & Shaq) until this year – when he had the best player (sorry, Bron-Bron, not yet) – and a lot of real good ones to go along with the Black Mamba.

“Sure, but Red had Russell for all those years and when Red quit, Russ won it as player-coach, begging the question, ‘wasn’t having Russell at center a zillion times more important than having Red sit there and light up?’  Also, how many teams were there in the entire NBA when Red was putting together his string – eight?  And the first place team got a bye, meaning the Celtics only had to win eight (8) games to win the NBA championship!”

You see, it’s a totally foolish argument which, I don’t think, has ever won over anyone participating in the discussion.  So, with that in mind, why would Phil Jackson return to coach the Lakers?  Another title isn’t going to change any of the “facts” used when casting a vote for the all-time best NBA coach.

Jackson has to be the highest paid Zen master in all of space, so it couldn’t be for the money.  I mean, he can afford private meditation lessons from the Dali Lama himself – even if he wants them on a holiday (when they charge for a mantra and a half).  And, as if scoring an eight figure salary (with all eight figures on the left side of the decimal point) from his boss isn’t enough, he’s shtupping the guy’s daughter too.  Talk about your sweet gig!

The real reason could be found in the moves being made in the free agent market.  First, there are still people who feel that, with a healthy KG, no one can beat the Men in Green.  With the moves made by Orlando (getting a slasher/scorer like Vince Carter to go along with Superman – the one who works full-time – and, if they can somehow keep him, Hedo Turkoglu), the Cavs adding Shaq to their roster to aid and assist LeBron James in winning a championship (getting to be Shaq’s MO) so Cleveland gets at least one of those durn things before LBJ bolts for the right coast; and, a few other teams making moves that give them hope (e.g. Denver: with the-point-guard-made-for-George-Karl, Ty Lawson – a lightning quick lead guard who matriculated at Blue Heaven), there are not only challenges for Phil and his band of merry wannabe re-peaters, but they may even take on the role of underdog - when it comes down to who’s the favorite to win it all next year.  That would be a twist – and a welcome one for a guy who doesn’t mind a little down & dirty (like the way he played when he was doing work for the Knicks in the ’60s – if his mind is clear enough to remember those days – not from any illegal substances, but from rooming with the cerebral Bill Bradley). 

It’s obvious the Lakers aren’t content.  One day, Trevor Ariza announces he’s looking around (although he did have a great playoff run, he fit in with the guys surrounding him so well that his job became a lot easier than . . . well, he’ll find out – or I will – soon enough), and, before the youngster can fill out a change-of-address card (or get his agent to do it for him), LA has his replacement and, in Ron Artest might just be an upgrade from the youthful legs and long arms, not to mention what became a pretty dependable jumper, of Ariza.

Don’t pity the LakeShow.  All Phil needed was a clean bill of health and he was going to coach.  Why?  Listen to (or read) the quote from Katherine Graham, owner of the Washington Post

“To love what you do and feel that it matters, how could anything be more fun?”

From Dynasty to Snakebit, Build Back to Dynasty…When Snakebit Again

Friday, April 17th, 2009

It used to be called “the luck of the Irish.”  They even have a little smug looking character with clovers all over his vest, bow tie and derby representing the franchise as its logo.  While his smoke of choice is a pipe,  Red (no last name needed) always had his ample supply of cigars - and kept them on the bench!  Ah, the good old days, when you (fans and coaches) could smoke during the game, eventually causing a cloud cover, hovering just above the playing surface. 

Back then, not only was smoking not outlawed in public buildings, it was, more or less, encouraged!  Uh oh, here comes another story from my book, Life’s A Joke.  Since I was one of the biggest Dodger fans in history (when I was a pre-teen and the Bums were still playing in Brooklyn), I’d listen to the games on radio religiously.  What I write in the book, is how I distinctly remember: following a Dodger home run, or if they turned a double play in the field, the announcer would say, “There’s another 20,000 Luckies”  (yeah, the little unfiltered ones – which gained the nickname, “cancer sticks” as the research intensified), to the Veterans Hospital.”  Huh, and our guys thought the enemy was the Germans!  Today, the only place a fan can go to see a cloud cover like that is Los Angeles – and the haze isn’t above the playing area, but over the entire building – and widening as I type and you read!

All those championships and all those great players – Russ, Couz, the Jones’ Boys, Hondo, Satch, Lusky, Nellie, “Please don’t squeeze the Sharman” (that’s it, all that kind of nonsense will be, in the future, left to Chris Berman).  Then, Red outfoxed them all again, plucking a Bird and waiting a year for him.  Can you imagine waiting for someone in this day and age – especially for a guy who’s supposed to be a savior?

Well, it was light up another one!  Or more than one – if the number stood for championships.  Red did it again – this time from the front office.  And not only Bird, but adding the Chief and McHale too, to form, arguably, the best frontline of all time.  Certainly one of the most cohesive. 

1978-79, the last Bird-less for the Celts, the team went 29-53.  Add Bird and the following season the team’s record became 61-21, a pretty good ROI for waiting that extra year.  Oh yeah, the Celts were back!  Red was about to pull off another coup, drafting “the new and improved version” of Larry Bird – Len Bias – with the second pick of the 1986 NBA draft.

Bias was ahead of his time, doing things at his size, we had only seen a handful of other players do – a perfect tonic for an aging, and often injured (with bad back problems) Larry Legend.  But, less than 48 hours after he was selected in the draft, the great Len Bias was gone.  It seems as though he was also ahead of many of the rest of the NBA players, as he was about to enter the league having done blow, and on more than one occasion.  “It’s the cruelest thing I’ve ever heard,” lamented Bird.

Did the Celtics ever recover?  Hope sprung eternal from local-boy-made-good, when Northeastern’s Reggie Lewis started to emerge from being a good player (who averaged over 17 for his career), to a more reliable one who had just put two back-to-back seasons of 20+ points/game.  During an off-season practice, Lewis collapsed – and, due to a strucural heart defect, never was to be seen again – not in Celtic green, not ever.

The franchise remained high in popularity, but as their success on the court dwindled, so did their number of intense fans.  A once proud franchise needed a shot in the arm – or a kick in the butt.  Since most of the things Red did (that worked), were unconventional, they tried to work the same magic and hired a flamboyant and great basketball man, Rick Pitino.

Personality issues and the bad bounce of a single ping pong ball destined to the Celts to the third pick in the NBA draft and even more mediocrity, and occasionally less than mediocre, until a former Celt, a fiery guard during the Bird era became the man with the complete control.  Danny Ainge worked his friends as well as those he didn’t know particularly well for a trade that would bring much needed help for superstar Paul Pierce.  Pierce, who could have opted out, stayed the course and, somehow (call it Auerbach’s aura), Ainge pulled off deals for Kevin Garnett, possibly the best overall player, inch for inch, in the league – when all the factors of being a great one: O, D, special situations and leadership – especially through hard work – are considered, and Ray Allen, maybe the best shooter ever, but definitely the one with the prettiest shot, in the NBA to Beantown.  Result: return of the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the team whose address is near the banks of the River Charles.

Lo and behold, snakebite returns – not as badly as before, thank the Lord – but with the overall #2 best record in the Eastern Conference (the Cleveland Cavs were #1), bad enough to seriously derail their chances of getting out of the East, much less repeating as NBA Champs.  KG, their best player, shut down defender, most inspirational leader and hardest worker got hurt and missed all or most of the final 20-25 games, obviously, as much as a precautionary move as anything else.

Now it’s come out that this megastar, who got his first championship last year and was preparing for another this season looks like he’ll miss – possibly all – of the playoffs this year.  Just to keep the casuality going, GM Danny Ainge, in a display of complete loyaly, went down with a heart attack yesterday – at the age of 50!  His short, and long term prognosis is better than that of his employer because they have several players who are getting closer to Father Time than to the stork.      

Peter Drucker knew what he was talking about when he said (even though the management can’t be blamed one iota for these mishaps):

“A crisis must never be experienced a second time.”

Which Was REALLY the NBA’s Best Era?

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

The three candidates are the original one, the one that made it famous and today’s.  Once again, we have entered an unwinnable, unprovable argument.  Still, it’s fun to compare and even more fun to hear it debated – live – at your local pub.

The old-timers point out that team play was at its best back then.  By “back then” we’re including the NBA all the way up to the 1969-70 Knicks and the 1971-72 Lakers.  Proponents will claim that sound fundamentals were more prevalent (admittedly because the players didn’t possess the innate ability of today’s freakish athletes).  Only the best played because there were only eight teams (1960, 14 in 1970), salaries were such that players had off-season jobs – and that didn’t include shooting commercials for endorsement deals – the men played for the true competitive aspect of the sport so winning was of paramount importance (playoff shares weren’t pocket change for the superstars, but coveted income) and guys had roommates on the road.  The people claiming this era say over and over, the game was pure.  Note: it is somewhat of a stretch including the ’69-’70 Knicks and the ’71-’72 Lakers in this group but the line had to be drawn somewhere – and it’s my blog.

What wouldn’t be a stretch is making the statement that the best and most dominant team of all-time was Red’s (and Russell’s) Celtics.  A team composed of Cousy, the Jones boys (Sam and K.C.), Ramsey, Heinsohn, Luskie, Nellie (yeah, that Nellie), Satch, Hondo and, of course, the greatest winner ever, Big Russ himself.  Before anyone says that era was simply the NBA’s version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, consider the ’69-70 Knicks of Clyde (talk about style & class), Monroe, Bradley, DeBusschere and the captain, Willis Reed and the ’71-’72 Laker dream team of former great Bill Sharman, made up of the Logo, Elgin, Goodrich and the greatest athlete who ever lived, Wilt. 

Chronologically, the next era was the one that introduced the world to the NBA.  It was the time ruled by the “Showtime” Lakers, the Bad Boys of Motown (that’s Detroit, for those who just recently arrived in this country) and Michael & the Jordanaires.  This is the one that gets my vote because of teamwork, superstars and entertainment value.  It tops the three eras discussed in this blog.  Remember, it’s my blog – feel free to post comments if you agree/disagree.

It was a time of salaries the common folk could understand, if not see in their own pay stub (I still recall the amazement over Magic’s 25-year, $25 million contract with Los Angeles), teams clinging to the idea that roommates helped players bond (which is especially true when those stories are told today), a league that expanded the number of teams but simultaneously expanded the pool of talent, with not only black players as the norm rather than the quota, but also foreign-born players (making it the real world-wide sport).  Teamwork and sizzle could be found when watching the Lakers of Magic, Scott, Worthy, Perkins and Kareem.  Teamwork and muscle were on display when the Pistons won back-to-back titles with cocky, but talent to match Isiah, classy 2 guard Joe Dumars, instant “O” off the bench with the microwave, Vinnie J, the enforcer, Rick Mahorn, the originator of the “pick-and-pop” center (as opposed to “roll”), Bill Laimbeer, and a tatoo-less, relatively normal (i.e. pre-Madonna), rebounding machine named Dennis Rodman.  Putting together teamwork, flash and D – as well as six championships – the Chicago Bulls of Pippen, a less than normal, but still rebounding machine, Rodman, Horace Grant, Ron Harper, shooters Paxson & Kerr, center by committee and the best who ever played, MJ, showed the world how the game was meant to be played.

There was no dearth of confidence during this time, either, as a rookie point guard decided he’d play center when his mentor was injured (and Magic pulled it and the Finals’ MVP off), coupled with the famous (and identical) lines, first by Larry Bird (when, during a time out late in the game, head coach K.C. Jones was hesitant about which play to call), “KC, just give me the bleepin’ ball and everybody get the hell out of the way” to Doug Collins’ explanation in the post-game press conference of the play they called that won it: “We call it the ‘Give the bleepin’ ball to Michael and everybody get the hell out of his way’ play.”  I’m not one who enjoys trash-talking, but at least, back then, you had to be great to do it, not after one shot block become a fool who will stare his opponent down, pound his chest and shout expletives, yet, as one current head coach mentioned recently to his team, be a guy “who hasn’t yet pissed a drop in this league.”

Magic showed us all how a 6’9″ guy could play the point, Bird how the “common man”  type of superstar, someone who wasn’t particularly quick or could jump all that high, could steal an inbounds from a guy as talented and smart as Zeke, feed DJ and win an all but lost contest and MJ could go out night after night and get everyone to want to “Be Like Mike.”

Today’s game, with fewer fundamentals, but greater natural skill (Kobe, KG), with team play taking a back seat to physical, overpowering dominance (Shaq, Amare, Dwight Howard and, of course, LeBron – 275 pound LeBron), yet with a group of point guards from Jason Kidd and Steve Nash to Chris Paul and Derrick Rose as good as any who’ve ever put on a uni – from any era - is still an entertainment phenomena.  To America -and the rest of the world’s – youth, it’s the only basketball they know and it’s more popular than ever.  So how can someone knock the current style of ball – even if there is more jumping teams, complaining publicly about minutes, shots or strategy?  Keep in mind if the internet had been around in earlier times, maybe the eras would be closer to the same in certain areas.  There’s remarkable talent although it’s watered down due to expansion, e.g. Washington, Charlotte and Oklahoma City (is there really a team in Oklahoma City?) makes it possible for teams like the Celtics, Lakers and Cavs to acquire such glossy records.  (Oh yeah, there used to be teams in Fort Wayne and Rochester, huh)?

This type of talk will surely raise blood pressure and bring out loyalties, with everyone having their favorites.  Who knows who’s truly the best?  The best line, by far, that I’ve heard when it came to comparing eras was the one the great Bill Russell said in response to a reporter’s question: “Bill, how do you think you’d compare against the centers of today?”  Big Russ paused, looked at the scribe and calmly said:   

“Young man, I think you have that question backward.”