Thursday, February 7, 2013

Basketball Diplomacy

China caught on to Dr. James Naismith's game faster than any other
country outside North America.

Naismith is credited with inventing basketball in 1891. Some historians have pointed to 1895 as the year that YMCA proselytizers introduced the sport to rural China. Max Exner, a missionary who learned at the right hand of the good doctor, brought basketball to Beijing in 1908 as the country was in the last throes of the Qing dynasty.

Hoops took hold immediately and has been a part of China's culture ever since. It survived the rise of Communism in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, when the country went insular and the United States cut off contact.

The “ping-pong diplomacy” of 1971 helped thaw the icy Sino-American relationship, clearing the way for Richard Nixon's visit the next year.

With China partially opened to the U.S, there also came some “basketball diplomacy” in 1973: A group of men’s college players became the first Americans to play a team competition in China. An amateur women's team from John F. Kennedy College also joined the trip.

Gene Bartow of Memphis State coached the U.S. men's team, which toured China for three weeks and played three games.

The top players were a wiry and scraggly haired George Karl, fresh off setting the UNC single-season assist record with 192, and Quinn Buckner, a young Indiana marvel who played basketball for Bob Knight and football for Lee Corso.

Other future pros on the U.S. team included Ricky Kelley, Kevin Grevey and Alvan Adams.
The trip included a televised game at the Capital Gymnasium in Beijing on June 16, 1973. It was attended by Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong.

The theme of the event, as noted by TV broadcaster Dick Enberg and later in a Sports Illustrated article, was "friendship first, competition second."

That sentiment was established immediately, with both teams greeting each other effusively and the players marching across the court together with their hands held high.

The early action was ragged with several foul calls. But, in keeping with the spirit of the game, after each whistle a player would raise his hand and acknowledge the foul.

The Chinese team played like it hadn't seen much of the modern game, dutifully running its plays and going through all the passing progressions. Still, China had some solid mid-range shooters like Chang Ta-Wei, who finished with a game-high 17 points.

The U.S. team, which hadn't practiced together much before the trip, took some time to get its bearings. China took leads of 11-10, 13-12 and 15-14.

But Karl began picking apart the Chinese defense as the U.S. went on an 8-0 run to establish control. It's likely that China had never seen a player with Karl's quickness and ball-handling.

The U.S. won in a rout, 88-59, as Karl had 16 points and at least 10 assists.

But China had been thrust into basketball modernity. The country became part of the global game and devoted more resources to the sport as the government loosened the reins on the economy.

The game that had intrigued China in the early 20th century grew at an accelerated rate, with Wang ZhiZhi making it to the NBA in 2001. A year later came the country’s high point in hoops — Yao Ming selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Falling Stars

It’s a common refrain for anyone talking about NBA history: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the league when they entered in 1979-’80.

In this light, the 1980 NBA All-Star Game, played at the Capitol Centre in Landover, Md., can be seen as a historical crossroads.

There were still plenty of stars that carried the basketball in the 1970s like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, George Gervin and Elvin Hayes. There were fascinating characters from that decade like World B. Free and Kermit Washington.

Bird and Johnson were the hyped rookies playing in their first All-Star Game, heralds of a new era.

Then there were the players that eventually were lost in the darkness. Cocaine was ravaging professional sports in the late ’70s and early ’80s, hoovering up promising careers.

Look at some of the names on the Eastern Conference’s all-star team in 1980: John Drew, “Fast” Eddie Johnson and Micheal Ray Richardson.

Drew and Eddie Johnson were teammates on an Atlanta Hawks team that was brimming with talent and coached by the hard-driving Hubie Brown. Rugged big man Dan Roundfield, who scored 18 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in the 1980 All-Star Game, also starred on those teams.

Drew was drafted in 1974 out of Gardner-Webb, which surprisingly has sent four players to the NBA. He scored 32 points in his first NBA game. One of the game’s greatest gunners in a freewheeling era, he never averaged less than 19 points per game in his first seven seasons with the Hawks.

Clashes with Brown led to Drew being traded to the Utah Jazz in 1982. A stint in rehab followed, then after several drug tests he was banned from the NBA in 1986. Charles Barkley, another small-town Alabama legend, said in 2002 that Drew lives in Houston and drives a cab.

Eddie Johnson came to the Hawks in 1977 and, despite competing for shots with Drew, averaged 18.5 points per game in 1979-’80 and a career-high 19.1 in ’80-’81. His fall from grace nearly mirrors Drew’s: rehab in 1986 and then a suspension by the NBA in 1986-’87.

What followed is one of the darkest post-NBA lives. Johnson compiled a lengthy rap sheet and was convicted in 2008 of some gruesome molestation charges. He is in prison facing life without parole.

Richardson’s story is better known, spending his early years with the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets and being the subject of a good-but-uneven 2000 TNT documentary narrated by Chris Rock.

Frequently compared to Magic Johnson, Richardson drew a cult following but then followed the same downward spiral of Eddie Johnson and Drew. Richardson was banned by the NBA in 1986 and has since played and coached in U.S. and European minor leagues.

But at the 1980 All-Star Game, those three players still seemed to be in full possession of their talents.

In the third quarter of a close game, East coach Billy Cunningham — and his whip-smart assistants Chuck Daly and Jack McMahon — put out a lineup of Drew, Eddie Johnson, Richardson, Bird and rookie Bill Cartwright.

Cartwright’s rebounding plus the versatile talents of the other four players sparked the East.

Richardson, with his smooth game, stroked back-to-back 18-footers. He went backdoor on Paul Westphal, got a pass from Drew and then dumped a great pass to Cartwright underneath the basket.

Bird tipped a pass to Richardson, who threw a long pass to a streaking Johnson. Bird also had a beautiful, leaping baseball pass to Richardson. Johnson, who finished with 22 points on 11-for-16 shooting, was abusing the West’s Otis Birdsong.

Broadcasters Brent Musburger and Bill Russell gushed over the caliber of play. That East lineup played the majority of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, building a 17-point lead.

Eventually, West coach Lenny Wilkens went big with Jack Sikma and Abdul-Jabbar and the East stars were dimmed.

The West forced overtime and, while Eddie Johnson got a bucket in the extra five minutes, the star that put the finishing touches on the East’s 144-136 victory was Bird.

The Celtics rookie hit two jumpers, including the first three-pointer in an NBA All-Star Game, and had one of the highlights of the game by tapping an offensive rebound to Gervin for a reverse layup.

Bird was definitely part of the league’s future. Drew, Johnson and Richardson were soon to burn out. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Stealing Attention

The University of North Carolina has seen no shortage of star power, a cursory glance at the jerseys in the rafters of the Dean E. Smith Center can attest to that.

Dudley Bradley’s No. 22 doesn’t hang up there with UNC’s upper echelon, but he etched himself into Tar Heels lore by doing the thankless tasks that the storied program holds dear.

 Bradley came to Chapel Hill as one of the most highly regarded players ever from the Baltimore area. At Edgewood High School, Bradley teamed with brothers Charles and Carl to win a Maryland state championship in 1974-’75.

 Sadly, the 16-year-old Carl died of a heart ailment only a month later while playing in a recreational league. Charles went on to play at the University of Wyoming and played in 110 games with the Boston Celtics and the Seattle SuperSonics.

 When 6-foot-6 Dudley landed at UNC, he had to wait his turn behind Walter Davis for two seasons.

 Bradley became a starter as a junior in the 1977-’78 season, finding his niche as a defensive ace.

 By his senior season Bradley had perfected his role, and his performance in 1978-’79 is surely among the best defensive seasons in UNC history.

 Bradley’s standout performances came in a pair of 70-69 victories for the Tar Heels.

 On Dec. 16, 1978, Bradley helped “hold” Michigan State’s Earvin Johnson to 18 points, six rebounds and six assists. Johnson’s numbers ended up looking good cosmetically, but Bradley’s harassing defense helped slow the fast-paced attack of the eventual NCAA champion Spartans.

 Then on Jan. 17, 1979, Bradley had an iconic performance for UNC against North Carolina State at venerable Reynolds Coliseum.

 The signs were there from the start, when Bradley darted behind the Wolfpack’s Kendall “Tiny” Pinder for a steal on the game’s opening possession.

 A few minutes later, Bradley beautifully read a lob pass to Craig Watts and sprinted over from his help position to swat away Watts’ layup attempt.

 That set the tone for a dominant first half as the Tar Heels rolled to a 40-19 lead at intermission.

 It appeared to be more of the same in the second half when, on the Wolfpack’s first possession, Bradley’s quick hands knocked the ball away from Clyde Austin for another steal.

 But N.C. State kept chipping away at the big deficit. Pressure defense, hot shooting by Charles “Hawkeye” Whitney and Kenny Matthews, and UNC’s inability to execute the “Four Corners” stall offense helped give the Wolfpack a 69-68 lead in the final minute.

 Bradley missed a mid-range jumper and Austin corralled the rebound with 16 seconds remaining. UNC’s only hope for another shot at victory was to foul immediately.

 Austin got loose from mustachioed Ged Doughton and was picked up by Bradley when the N.C. State point guard crossed the half-court line. Austin tried to spin away immediately, but Bradley saw an opening and came from behind to swipe the ball away.

 Bradley had a clear path for a dunk with five seconds remaining to give UNC the lead for good and crush the hopes of a Reynolds crowd that was riled up after the comeback.

 After the game, Austin offered up one of the great quotes in ACC history:

“I saw Dudley and tried to move away from him, and the next thing I know Coach is calling me a son of a bitch.”

Bradley finished that season with 97 steals (3.3 per game), still UNC’s single-season record. He swiped the ball seven times against Duke in the Tar Heels’ 71-63 victory in the ACC championship game.

However, Bradley’s senior season ended in the second round of the NCAA tournament with a 72-71 loss to Penn. Top-seeded UNC and second-seeded Duke both lost hours apart in Raleigh, a day known as Black Sunday in ACC circles. Perhaps that’s way Bradley’s stellar season is often neglected.

Bradley was picked by the Indiana Pacers with the 13th pick in the 1979 NBA draft. Building on the defensive prowess he showed in his senior season, he set an NBA rookie record with 211 steals.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Age-Old Question

NBA legends have mostly figured out how to handle their sunset years.

 Simple works best: Be shown on TV sitting courtside; trot out at halftime to wave at the crowd; sit in the broadcast booth for some light banter.

 But, for the love of all things sacred, don’t attempt to make aging bodies do what they once did so gracefully.

 There have been many missteps along the way. The Legends Game was a part of the NBA All-Star Weekend from 1984-’93 until it was scrapped in the wake of blown-out knees and used-up oxygen tanks.

 The nadir of hoops icons embarrassing themselves came on Feb. 28, 1992, at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. That’s when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, combined with the hucksterism of a more hirsute Donald Trump, brought the world “Clash of the Legends” ­— a one-on-one, pay-per-view matchup featuring two retired players whose credentials are unimpeachable.

 Of course, Abdul-Jabbar was 44-years-old and a couple seasons removed from ending his 20-year career. Dr. J was a spry 42 with a salt-and-pepper mane and hadn’t played in the NBA since 1987.

 The spectacle would cost $19.95 for fans’ TV viewing pleasure. There would be an undercard of two other legends and the main event would feature four 5-minute quarters, all refereed by an over-the-top Earl Strom.

 What could possibly go wrong? Well, nobody brings up the event much anymore.

 The broadcast was quarterbacked by an earnest John Saunders, with some able assistance from Bill Russell and Billy Cunningham. All were clad in tuxedos.

 The roving reporter was Jim Gray, who opened the show by interviewing the contestants backstage. Both Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J. sported Zubaz and discussed strategy without any sense of irony.

 The undercard was between Rick Barry and George Gervin. Barry had defeated Connie Hawkins, 29-17, and Gervin had eliminated Tiny Archibald, 35-14, in semifinals that were not fit to be televised.

 Barry, inexplicably wearing weightlifting gloves, lasted all of one possession before he started whining to Strom about his officiating. This would continue for the duration of the game.

 The action was only a few minutes old before Barry and Gervin were visibly winded. The game then descended into two guys watching each other hoist three-pointers.

 Gervin raced to a big lead, with Cunningham imploring Barry to foul and shoot more three-pointers. Many fouls were called in the final minutes before Gervin put away Barry, 29-26.

 The main event started like a Vince McMahon fever dream, with Dr. J and Abdul-Jabbar ascending on a rising platform through tendrils of manufactured smoke. The most amazing visual was that Dr. J was also wearing gloves.

 Abdul-Jabbar missed his first skyhook, then rejected a weak layup attempt by Dr. J. Those first two possessions seemed to exhaust both players.

 With no three-second rule and a decided size advantage, Abdul-Jabbar pounded the ball inside. He led, 11-0, after one quarter with the highlight being a banked three-pointer that wouldn’t have looked out of place at your local YMCA.

 The sloppy action continued apace, with Cunningham imploring Dr. J. to get into the open court, regardless of the fact that Erving was in his 40s and it was a half-court game.

 Hopelessly behind, Dr. J turned to his “coach” — the legendary John McLendon — in the break before the fourth quarter and said “it’s all about pride now.”

 Dr. J then went out and skied over Abdul-Jabbar for a dunk, following it up with an emphatic rejection. All jokes aside, it was an amazing sequence for a man of Dr. J’s age.

 That sapped all of his strength, however. The rest of the final quarter was hacky fouls, missed shots and legends bent over at the waist, gasping for air.

The last shot was, fittingly, an airball by Dr. J.

 Abdul-Jabbar won, 41-23, on 16-of-31 shooting. Dr. J was just 9 of 44.

 Only 55,000 people — 0.3% of the available audience — paid to watch the sad show. The meager profits were given to Magic Johnson’s AIDS Foundation.

 A worthy cause, no doubt, but Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J likely wished they had just cut a check instead.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Guy Behind The Guy

Behind every charismatic college head coach, there is often a hard-working assistant.

When the leader is cracking jokes at booster functions or holding court in the home of a recruit, the loyal aide is often doing the grunt work of scouting, crafting game plans and running practices.

For Frank McGuire, that trusty sidekick was a crusty basketball lifer named James Ambrose “Buck” Freeman.

Most coaching careers follow the trajectory of assistant to head man. Freeman’s story flipped the script.

Freeman played at St. John’s from 1923-’27, averaging 7.4 points per game in those slow-paced days of center jumps after every made basket.

Freeman was immediately named coach of his alma mater upon his graduation. The game had taken root in New York City, and St. John’s had mined the best talent.

Freeman molded his best players —Mac Kinsbrunner, Matty Bogovich, Allie Schuckman, Max Posnak and Rip Gerson — into “The Wonder Five,” one of the great teams of basketball’s early era.

The Redmen went 88-8 in Freeman’s first four seasons on the job. The St. John’s teams under Freeman are often credited with bringing ball movement, the give-and-go and switching on defense to prominence.

McGuire was recruited by Freeman and averaged 5.4 points per game in three seasons. It was during their time together that St. John’s met Westminister (Pa.) on Dec. 29, 1934, part of the first regular-season college doubleheader at Madison Square Garden and a watershed event in the sport’s evolution.

Freeman was a confirmed bachelor, a night owl and a hard drinker. His battle with alcohol cost him the job at St. John’s, despite a 177-31 record in 10 seasons. Joe Lapchick replaced him.

Freeman became a basketball vagabond. He was head coach for two stints at the University of Scranton (going 12-9 in 1937-’38 and 16-36 from 1947-’48). Sandwiched between that was an assistant’s gig with the legendary Clair Bee at Long Island University.

During the summers, Freeman built his reputation as a first-rate basketball mind by working at camps and clinics in New York City.

McGuire eventually became coach himself at St John’s and, understandably, couldn’t bring his mentor back to that touchy situation. But when McGuire took the University of North Carolina job in 1952, he hired a clean-and-sober Freeman as the only assistant.

McGuire is often credited with creating an “underground railroad” that delivered talent from New York City to Chapel Hill. New York talent scout Java Gotkin, who often steered recruits toward the Tar Heels, was a former player for Freeman at St. John’s.

Some of those New York recruits — including Lennie Rosenbluth, Tommy Kearns, Pete Brennan and Joe Quigg — formed the nucleus of UNC’s undefeated national champions in 1957.

Freeman was obsessed with the game, often walking the streets of Chapel Hill deep into the night while devising strategies. According to Adam Lucas’ “The Best Game Ever,” Freeman even slept in a tiny apartment attached to Woollen Gym, where the Tar Heels played at the time.

The relentless drive to a title frayed Freeman’s nerves. After the season, Freeman retired due to “health concerns” —most likely a relapse with the bottle. That led McGuire to hire an eager assistant from Air Force named Dean Smith.

Freeman must have eventually cleaned up because McGuire hired him again after becoming coach at South Carolina in 1964.

The “underground railroad” moved farther south, and eventually New Yorkers like Brian Winters, Mike Dunleavy and Bobby Cremins were playing for the Gamecocks.

Freeman retired after 10 seasons as an assistant at South Carolina, where he had been in poor health for the last few seasons. He didn’t last long without the game, dying at 69 on Feb. 16, 1974.

McGuire was always gracious in his praise of Freeman. The head coach never hesitated to call Freeman “the best assistant in the business.” After Freeman died, McGuire said his mentor-turned-assistant was “a coach’s coach, one of the great basketball coaches of all time.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

'X' Marks His Spot

Xavier McDaniel found mainstream renown in 1992.

Drafted fourth overall by the SuperSonics in 1985, the "X-Man" toiled as a swaggering, hyper-rebounding, Wes Matthews-choking cult hero in Seattle for five seasons in the dark days before the Internet and NBA League Pass fully opened the West Coast to fans.

He was traded to the Phoenix Suns 15 games into the 1990-'91 season and then dealt again to the New York Knicks a month before the next season began.

Amid this career upheaval, McDaniel filmed his scene-stealing cameo in Cameron Crowe's Generation X treatise, “Singles." The film’s release was delayed until September 1992, but the “X-Man” had nailed one of the greatest walk-on parts for an athlete in movie history.

McDaniel also found a propitious fit with the Knicks. Coach Pat Riley was in the first season of bringing his bruising style to the Big Apple, and McDaniel formed a hard-hitting forward rotation with Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason.

McDaniel started every game that season for a team seriously lacking in depth. Looking at a list of bench players for the Knicks that season — Tim McCormick, Carlton McKinney, Brian Quinnett, Kennard Winchester and an over-the-hill Kiki Vandeweghe — the names sound more like a Princeton eating club than ballers ready for Madison Square Garden.

With McDaniel providing the muscle, the hardened Knicks advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals to face the defending champion Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls’ Scottie Pippen had earned legitimacy as an NBA superstar with an NBA title and a berth on the Olympic "Dream Team," but teams still believed the lithe forward could be bullied into passivity.

McDaniel was singularly wired for that kind of duty.

With McDaniel hounding Pippen's every step, the Bulls forward shot just 30 of 84 over the first six games of a brutal series.

Over those games, the Knicks committed five flagrant fouls, including John Starks' infamous clothesline of Pippen in Game 6. So there was quite a bit of bloodlust for Game 7 at Chicago Stadium.

It didn't take long for sparks to fly. After the Bulls took a 15-10 lead, Pippen and McDaniel went face to face after a timeout.

With 3:30 left in the first period, they were invading each other's personal space again after banging in the paint.

Thirty seconds after that, McDaniel was called for an offensive foul while backing down Pippen with his elbow. After the requisite jaw-jacking on the way down court, Michael Jordan settled the issue.

Jordan put his forehead right on McDaniel's, and even a novice lip-reader watching NBC’s telecast could see the Bulls star saying "F--k you, X" repeatedly.

Double technicals were called, meaning McDaniel didn't have much leeway over the remaining three quarters.

Pippen took the ball hard to the basket on the Bulls' next possession, gladly absorbing a hard foul and hitting two free throws. He seemed freed of McDaniel’s malice. Jordan was particularly juiced and had 29 points by halftime.

The Knicks, with only an eight-man rotation, were enervated in the third quarter, scoring just 13 points. The defanged McDaniel wasn't much of a factor after that rough-and-tumble first quarter.

The Bulls won going away, 110-81. Pippen finished with a triple-double (17 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds), easily his best performance of the series.

It was the last time McDaniel would wear a Knicks jersey. He signed with the Boston Celtics in the off-season and played five more NBA seasons.

Temperamental power forwards usually have a short shelf life, but McDaniel lasted longer than most. He's one of the archetypes of that particular breed, with that one punishing season with the Knicks galvanizing his reputation.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Passing Interest

When Scott Skiles first met Brandon Jennings, the Milwaukee Bucks coach sized up the young point guard and asked him:

“Do you know who holds the NBA record for assists in a game?”

The answer, of course, is Skiles, who handed out 30 dimes for the Orlando Magic in a 155-116 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 30, 1990.

In recent interviews, however, Skiles has seemed ambivalent about his record, often stating that he wishes someone would break it because he is tired of talking about the mark.

Everything surrounding the record seems strange. One would think that Skiles would cling to the fact that he owns a piece of NBA immortality despite being a slightly above-average guard who played for five teams in a 10-season career. Without the record, he might be remembered more for a flashy pass against Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament and also his brushes with the law while at Michigan State.

These days, Skiles is mostly known as a coach that demands defensive excellence out of his players, which is another reason why he might feel a bit awkward about his 30 assists.

A case can be made that the Denver Nuggets of 1990-’91 rank as one of the worst defensive teams of all time. Paul Westhead, that “Guru of Go,” was in his penultimate season as an NBA coach and didn’t seem to have much interest in anything on defense except getting the ball back and pushing it up the floor.

The Nuggets came into the game at the Orlando Arena with a 6-22 record, worst in the league at the time. They would finish the season allowing a mind-boggling 130.8 points per game.

Denver and Orlando combined for 226 field-goal attempts and 37 turnovers. Skiles lost the ball four times in 44 minutes. He also wasn’t interested in just piling up the assists as he contributed six rebounds and 22 points on 7-for-13 shooting.

Early in the fourth quarter, Skiles tied the record of 29 assists set by the Nets’ Kevin Porter in 1978. Skiles had 13 points in the final quarter and he had eight potential assists squandered by teammates’ missed shots.

The record finally fell when Skiles fed Jerry Reynolds for a 20-foot jumper with 19.6 seconds remaining in the blowout.

Surprisingly, Reynolds (27 points) and Terry Catledge (25) were the main beneficiaries of Skiles’ assists rather than Magic sharpshooters Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson, who combined for 35 points. This is likely because the Nuggets’ porous defense allowed so many shots around the rim.

Regardless of the opposition’s defensive indifference, Skiles’ record still stands. It’s likely to be around for a good while as well, with the NBA game played at a more reasonable pace than Westhead’s preferred style, and also the careful attention paid to stopping opponents by today’s coaches.

So Skiles should get used to talking about it.