Archive for the ‘Bill Russell’ Category

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.”

I Want to Be Like … Me

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Every time a player (I’ll keep the content of this blog confined to the field of athletics) comes along who’s remarkable, the media, fans, scouts and coaches feel compelled to compare him to someone.  And usually, it’s a totally unfair comparison based on a play, an individual skill (like jumping, for instance), a game or even a season. 

This comparison often leads to disappointment, sometimes worse.  Any great running back “reminds us” of LT; great quarterback, Peyton Manning; shortstop, Derrick Jeter; big guy, Wilt, Russell, Kareem, Shaq or, now, Dwight Howard.  Big, strong perimeter players are “the next LeBron” and soccer players were first Pele, now David Beckham.  When a LeBron comes along, comparisons increase since – it really happened - a guy actually lived up to the billing.

One example I was close to occurred during my time at USC.  We had a player (and a good one) named Harold Miner.  He was an incredible one-on-one player, a better than adequate three point shooter and a guy who could really jump (meaning he had an unbelievable array of dunks).  After a highly successful career at Inglewood High School, he decided to stay close to home and play at SC, a school whose basketball tradition (15-30 years prior had been good, but whose more recent teams) had been mediocre to below average.

Here was the savior – and a local product at that.  He wore his idol, (and, it seemed, everyone else’s), Michael Jordan’s number 23 and each game he’d make two or three breath-taking moves (many ending in a throw down) so it wasn’t long before some sportswriter dubbed him “Baby Jordan.”  At first, it was a compliment, then it turned into a curse, especially when you can’t produce like the superstar (often a once in a lifetime player) people are comparing you to.  Then the critics come out, and in many cases, one of them is the person who came up with your new moniker.

I was on the Trojans’ coaching staff Harold’s last year (he left following his junior campaign) and I remember us, as a staff, talking about how it was mandatory for him to go to the right team (as it is for all but the top 1% of the players in the world, e.g. it wouldn’t have mattered where Derrick Rose ended up but for most everyone else, they’d better be a good fit for the system they’re in).  Harold’s glaring weakness was his inability to guard – anybody.  Imagine being compared to MJ and you’re not a lock down defender?  But the guy who dubbed him “Baby Jordan” never stopped to think of Jordan’s overall game, just one small section – individual offensive moves – when he decided to place the tag on Miner.

It was definitely a case of rush to judgment and a nickname was born – one that proved impossible for him (or anybody else) to live up to.  Harold slipped in the draft and went to the Miami Heat – a team, at that time whose main focus was on the defensive end of the floor, which might not have been so bad for “H” if they would have cleared a side for him so he could use the overwhelming skill he had, i.e. he could take anybody off the dribble, had a solid body that could absorb the hit and was an excellent foul shooter.  Instead, he had to get his shots in the flow of the offense, while at the other end, teams would isolate against him.  This was a sure-fire recipe for limited minutes.  He did, however, win the NBA Dunk Contest on a couple of occasions.

I didn’t mean to make this a blog solely about Harold Miner, but his is a case with which I’m very familiar.  There are literally thousands of others, and many aren’t caused by someone comparing a player to a star, but rather, a kid trying to be someone else.  Most often, it’s a youngster shooting for a totally unrealistic dream (check the number of kids who still wear 23, but now it’s probably for LeBron).  And it’s not always a wishful youngster who tries to emulate.

Michael Jordan has had an impact on the game in more ways than just playing.  He was the first to wear long shorts (which along with jumbo shrimp and administrative intelligence are three of the world’s greatest oxymorons), play with his tongue out and, the one that’s getting the most play today – putting powder on his hands (which he playfully would clap in the face of former NBA ballplayer and current Bulls’ color commentator, Johnny “Red” Kerr) before the start of each game. 

I’m sure this ritual is performed by many wannabees throughout the country (who knows, with the influence Jordan had, maybe throughout the world), but the first superstar to copy it was Kevin Garnett.  LeBron, though, has taken it the next level – possibly to the next galaxy.  He throws a handful in the air, forming a cloud, followed by his looking skyward and finally, pounds on his chest several times, showing people he’s not only to be thought of as King James, but also King Kong – all of this charade being performed while the other nine players and three referees await his presence so the game can begin.

It’s not like he needs to draw further attention to himself (when the game starts, he does a pretty good job of that) but why he behaves like this could blamed on the fact he’s so dominant that he’s completely bored, or that he thrives on being center stage or that he has the brain of an after dinner mint and doesn’t realize he’s holding up the game.  Plus, it’s not even an original act.

His Nike contract is for a small number, followed by a lot of zeros, and they want to keep the big guy happy.  His commercials have tried to show off the range of his acting ability (remember the four stages of LeBron), then the single, virtuoso peformance (the lawyer, who throws – or shoots – his notes into the garbage can from three point range and declares, “Dude’s fakin’ “) to now – the powder routine and how it’s spread across the continent, into the women’s game and onto the playgrounds.  It’s hard to criticize him because who else knows how it feels to be the absolute best at what you do (oh, yeah, except for Kobe).  We all might want to spread our wings if we were in that same situation.

For the rest of us mortals out there (which include pretty much the remainder of the universe), we ought to take heed of the late Charles Schulz’s advice:

“Be yourself.  Everybody else is already taken.” 

One Guy’s Never Enough, But the Right One’s a Good Start

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

More computer problems over the past two days causing a late entry on 11/17 and no blog the following day.  Unplugged it and took it to the “computer doctor” for a check up.  Prognosis is it’s either fixed … or its days are numbered.  Pray for the former.

The reason there are so many more Cinderella stories in college basketball than the other sports is that one guy can make so much more of an impact on the entire game in hoops.

In baseball, if you get Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter, they only get to bat one every nine times – and you still need somebody to pitch to the opponent.  Tim Lincecum might be able to shut somebody down – or even out – but, in that case, you’re still only assured of a tie.

As far as football goes, we’ve seen a Peyton Manning or a Tom Brady make a major difference in a game, but they still need blockers, guys to catch passes – and, even with those two groups, somebody has to play defense.  Ditto for a great running back or a big-time defender.  Similar cases can be made for the other team sports, e.g. scorer or goal tender in soccer.

Basketball is the one sport where a superstar can dominate at both ends of the floor.  Or, in the case of an unstoppable scorer (Pete Maravich, Stephen Curry), he makes the other players on the floor so much more effective because he has so much of the opposing defense focused on him.  In this scenario, a coach may take the approach that, “OK, we can’t stop you, but we’re going to outscore you.”  You’re an underdog anyway, why not give that philosophy a shot? 

Maybe the team has the opposite strength going for them, i.e. a player who may not be a prolific scorer, but allows no shot inside 8′ to go uncontested and no second shots, independent of where they’re launched (Bill Russell, Hasheem Thabeet).  That type will always get points, too, even if by accident.

Still and all, in team sports, the real name of the game is winning.  So each of these guys needs to make certain (as most do, although occasionally there will be one who tends to be a little more interested in personal stats than the team’s record – especially in the “play for pay” league) that they subscribe to the theory I read in a coaching book (but can’t remember who the author was):

“You can either do your own thing and get all the credit or do the team thing and share the credit.”

Individual Rivalries in Team Sports Were Most Fun

Monday, July 7th, 2008

First a comment on the, as they say across the Pond, Gentlemen’s Finals (how loosely was that term used when McEnroe played in it) of Wimbeldon.  Rafael Nadal versus Roger Federer has become the new “rivalry” in men’s tennis – as well it should, since it involves the two best players in the world.  It’s just difficult for Americans to get excited about it (the rivalry, not the tennis; if you weren’t inspired by the tennis, put a mirror under your nose) because one guy’s a 26-year-old German righty and the other’s a 22-year-old lefty from Spain.  Unless you have a rooting interest in either their age, their heritage or which side they swing from, it’s just another two players who excel at their sport.  I have several passionate tennis friends and, although there’s a debate as to which is better, I’ve yet to hear any of them raise their blood pressure when a Nadal-Federer discussion comes up.  Note: In the post-match interview, the word gentleman certainly referred to McEnroe – see what maturity does to people.

In contrast, that is not at all the case when individuals participating for different teams in the same sport – meaning football, basketball or baseball (hockey, and even possibly soccer, for those outside the groups I associate with) are the sports that merit discussion here.  As far back as my teenage years, the arguments regarding which guy – Jim Brown, Walter Payton or Gale Sayers, Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, was better (or the greatest) are some of the most memorable childhood experiences I have.

What was best about these heated debates (and they did get heated) was logical or reasonable thinking always took a back seat to loyalty and volume.  If you ever were fortunate enough to meet one of these stars, he himself admitting he wasn’t as good as his contemporary wouldn’t even sway your opinion.  That would just show how, not only he was the greatest, but also the most humble.

Naturally, most of your favorite players played for your favorite teams (back in those days, guys usually played for the same team their entire careers, making these arguments so much easier).  Being a Dodger fan at the age of four, I can remember staunchly defending Duke Snider as being better than either Mays or Mantle, two guys playing on teams I despised.  It wasn’t until a couple decades later that I admitted to myself that, as good as the Duke was, the other two were probably superior.  Another bit of flawed reasoning was that your opinion would remain even if your “man” played beyond his prime, e.g. Joe Namath or Wille Mays.  The last few seasons were always easily discounted and, in fact, made the glory years that much better.  Conversely, if your “idol” got out at the top, this would simply cement his claim to “best ever” as in the cases of Joe DiMaggio, Jim Brown, Sandy Koufax and Barry Sanders, meaning, “if they had played a few more years, there would be no need for a discussion, the numbers would be so overwhelming.”

Anytime you could bring into the debate items that sounded good, but meant nothing, it also (in your eyes) enhanced your point, e.g. Wilt Chamberlain being the all-around athlete (track & field and volleyball) or Jim Brown (arguably the best lacrosse player ever – quick, name another lacrosse star).  But, on the flip side of the Chamberlain argument was Russell’s championships (“and isn’t that the reason you play a team sport”)?  That’s what made this argument impossible to win, or in each debater’s eyes, impossible to lose.

The one thing that’s tarnished this battle of superstars is post-career decisions, e.g. Jim Brown’s political views (although he couldn’t care a flip, I’m sure he lost the vote of most of the rednecks who thought there was no running back who could “hold his jock” – redneck term) or the ultimate about face by an athlete once enamored by all when O.J. Simpson got on the cover of Sports Illustrated for his off-the-field actions.

Since those golden days, we have new comparisons to make: with each other and to the all-timers, e.g. Larry and Magic, Kobe and LeBron, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, A-Rod and Jeter (the fact they’re on the same team makes for even more absurd remarks than I thought my generation had).  There aren’t any right answers (although some are certainly more rational than others) and this is what makes arguing about rivals who play team sports so much more ridiculous (and fun) than players who actually compete against one another head-to-head.  Shakepeare once said:

“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

And fans will be arguing about who’s the greatest for time in memorium.

A (Probably Too) Rational Look at the NBA Finals

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers.  It’s what the NBA executives want (although they’d never admit it), it’s what the television gurus want (and they’d openly admit it), but most of all, it’s what the fans want.  Why?  Possibly it has to do with the following statistic: by the end of these finals, those two franchises will have won exactly half (31 of 62) of all the NBA Championships ever played. 

In a series matching these two proud organizations, long on tradition (which means there’s also a large contingency that despises each – as a dynasty tends to attract), everyone has an opinion on who will win and why.  Maybe it’s my mathematical background (or maybe it’s because I grew up in New Jersey and can still remember the Captain, Willis Reed, limping out for Game 7, being overcome with emotion and screaming like crazy when the Knicks pulled out an impossible victory), but I tend to view this series from a completely logical viewpoint.  Because of regional loyalty that existed when I was growing up (you never got to see any team other than your own on a consistent basis), I grew up as a fan of neither Boston nor LA.  Not a hater, but if the Knicks couldn’t be there at the end, well, just call me when the next season started.

To analyze this matchup, it’s like every other where the top two teams are involved – some factors favor one squad; some point toward the other.  First of all is home court advantage.  It initially looked as though this was so strongly going to determine the winner, there’d be no reason to watch.  But then, all of a sudden, teams started winning away from home.  So, Boston’s home court advantage, while a major plus for the Celts, isn’t as important as we all thought when Round Two of the playoffs was following a “home team inevitably wins” theme.

From a “who has the most dominant player” perspective, even Boston fans have to admit there’s no one playing basketball right now (on this planet anyway) who’s even close to Kobe Bryant.  Kevin Garnett is sensational and deserves more credit than any other Celtic since Larry Bird (and Bill Russell before him) for getting the “Men in Green” this far (starting with the first game he strapped it on for Boston) and, yes, he is the defensive player of the year … but Kobe’s unstoppable and he’s on the same level as defender as KG.  It’s been noted that Kobe’s such a great defender, he’s the only guy who can stop Kobe!

“But we have the ‘Big Three!'” cry the Celtic faithful.  True, but Bryant, Gasol and Odom are a formidable trio as well.  Therefore, it may come down to a game of one-on-one matchups.  From a size perspective, Boston is pretty much forced to put Perkins and Garnett on Radmanovic and Gasol, but the problem isn’t just finding a defender for Kobe (and that problem can in no way be minimized), but who plays the 6’9″ Odom (another guy who can shut himself down, but in a different way than Kobe taking bad shots, i.e. nobody has ever described Kobe with the word “knucklehead,” a moniker Odom occasionally answers to)?  Rondo and Allen are too small to guard Bryant and if Boston’s going to put Paul Pierce on Kobe, it’s bound to cut into his offensive effectiveness.  Sam Cassell and Eddie House can’t guard any of the Lakers’ starters other than Derek Fisher (and even that’s not an easy cover).  James Posey has the size, but foul trouble is a major concern with him (and anyone else who draws the assignment of guarding Kobe).  And with Tom Thibodeau running the defense for the Celtics, don’t expect to see too much zone being played.  I was fortunate to meet “Dr. Tibs” at one of our “self-improvement seminars” (see 5/2/08 blog) and, while he’s an absolutely brillaint defensive mind (as well as one helluva nice guy), the word “zone” doesn’t make its way into too many of his conversations.

On the flip side, defending Garnett on the block (if he’ll spend most of his time there) is no slice of heaven for any of the Laker bigs.  And do the Lakers put Bryant on Pierce in an attempt to take away the guy who’s been the Celtics most effective scorer or do they put him on the non-offensive minded Rondo and let him play free safety?

As far as the respective benches go, much has been made of the confidence Phil Jackson has shown in his “Wild Bunch” of Turiaf, Farmar, Walton and Vujacic.  Recall how he played them (and none of his “big three” when they were down 17 points).  Their opponents have seen some heroic play from bench members and some unlikely ones at that.  The Celtics bench, while not as productive as their Laker counterparts, have given the Boston coaching staff some solid contributions.

Speaking of coaching, the Zen-master himself, Phil Jackson (whom analyst Jeff Van Gundy used to refer to as “Big Chief Triangle” for a couple of apparent reasons), might have met his match with Glenn “Doc” Rivers, an up and coming motivational expert in his own right, e.g. showing old Muhammed Ali fights to his guys to show how to deal with adversity and, no matter what’s happening to you, make sure you get in your swings, too.  Phil’s been there more often, but when it gets to this point, it becomes more a players’ game anyway.

In all, it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks (although it makes for interesting water cooler, or watering hole, chit-chat), so let’s watch, enjoy … and, if you have a favorite, pull for your team.  Looking at “equality of rights before the law” as “the same rules of the game apply to all players,” the quote by Teddy Roosevelt sums up the true reason players play and fans watch:

“Our aim is to recognize what Lincoln pointed out: the fact that there are some respects in which men are obviously not equal, but also insist that there should be an equality of self-respect and of mutual respect, an equality of rights before the law, and at least an approximate equailty in the conditions under which each man obtains the chance to show the stuff that is in him when compared to his fellows.”