Thursday, December 31, 2009

Money Talks

There are arguments heard all too often by the small-but-dedicated band of hardcore NBA followers:

“The season’s too long. So many games are meaningless.”

“The players complain and snipe at each other too much. It’s so disrespectful to the game.”

Let’s introduce Exhibit A as a rejoinder to that line of thinking: Houston Rockets at Chicago Bulls on Jan. 18, 1998.

The mid-season game didn’t have the makings of anything special. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were out with injuries for the Rockets, leaving Charles Barkley and an ageless Kevin Willis to compete alongside a rogue’s gallery of players including Matt Maloney, Rodrick Rhodes, Emanual Davis and Othella Harrington.

The Bulls were in the final year of their dynasty. They were also battling bumps and bruises: Toni Kukoc would play limited minutes, marksman Steve Kerr was out and Scottie Pippen was still catching his wind after missing the first 35 games of the season.

The Sunday afternoon NBA on NBC tilt didn’t start promisingly, either. Michael Jordan sank his first six shots from the floor, dropping 16 points in the first quarter as the Bulls built a double-digit lead and seemed poised to cruise against the undermanned Rockets.

Barkley was the lone player keeping the Rockets afloat and the combustible Sir Chuckles was riled up when he went to the free-throw line right before halftime. At issue was a non-call on the Rockets’ previous possession, when Jordan – according to Barkley – got away with a foul while guarding Rhodes.

The NBC boom microphone picked up Barkley barking at the referees: “That is a foul. I know he’s Michael Jordan but come on.” The refs responded in kind with a technical foul on Barkley. Jordan also took exception to Barkley’s comments, getting in the face of his close friend. The tone for the rest of the game was set.

Jordan finished the half with 21 points. Barkley had 10 in the first two quarters but came out after halftime with fire in his ample belly.

The Round Mound of Rebound went right after pantheon defender Dennis Rodman, scoring 12 points and hauling down eight rebounds in the third quarter. All the while, Barkley was keeping up an animated discussion with the entire Bulls roster – even going bald pate to bald pate with Jordan on one occasion. After the third quarter, Jordan gave Barkley a forearm shiver as the two stars headed to their respective benches.

The pitched battle continued in the fourth quarter, with Jordan abusing Rhodes and Davis and Barkley matching MJ shot for shot. The trash talking was constant; if only we could have muted NBC’s Isiah Thomas and Bob Costas and been able to listen to the constant dialogue on the court.

Barkley wouldn’t let the Rockets go away and Houston got within three points before Jordan nailed a backbreaking three-pointer halfway through the final quarter. The Rockets just didn’t have the horses to get over the hill and the Bulls eked out a 106-100 victory.

MJ finished with 45 pointes and Barkley posted a 35-14. Most people watching the game knew that they were ace buddies off the court. But sometimes you compete harder against your best friend than your mortal enemy. This was probably their last great battle on an NBA court and the two stars pushed each other with their skills – and yes, their trash talk - to elevate a mid-January game into a classic.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Killer Look

The nice young men at The Basketball Jones liked my comparison of the Milwaukee Bucks' Ersan Ilyasova and serial killer Richard Ramirez:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Foreign Affair

There were seismic changes going on across the pond in 1989. Sure, the fall of communism grabbed all the headlines. But lost in all the geopolitics is that foreign basketball players were starting to get taken seriously as professionals.

A possible apotheosis of this global shift in basketball thinking came on March 14, 1989, in Athens, Greece, when Real Madrid met Snaidero Caserta for the European Cup. It was a matchup between two of the top non-American players at that time, Real’s Drazen Petrovic and Snaidero’s Oscar Schmidt.

Both players had been drafted by NBA teams. Schmidt was chosen by the New Jersey Nets in the sixth round (131st overall) in 1984; Petrovic was picked by the Portland Trail Blazers in the third round (60th overall) in ’86.

When worldly hoopheads bloviate on the best foreign players never to play in the NBA, Schmidt is always in the conversation with a young and injury-free Arvydas Sabonis. Schmidt, known in his homeland of Brazil as ‘Mao Santa’ (Holy Hand), helped put one of the first chinks in the armor of American hoops imperialism. He dropped 46 points in a 120-115 upset of David Robinson and the U.S. in the championship match of the 1987 Pan-Am Games. Schmidt played in five Olympics but, during his prime, chose to remain professionally in the Italian League.

Petrovic was a Croatian prodigy that took his textbook jumper and petulant demeanor to several clubs across Europe. He started playing professionally as a teenager in the former Yugoslavia and was having so much success against men that he declined a scholarship offer to play for Digger Phelps at Notre Dame. He was voted the best player in Europe at 22.

Petrovic came out like a house afire against Snaidero. He hit 3 three-pointers to go with an array mid-range moves, piling up 27 points by halftime. Against the laissez-faire defense of Snaidero’s guards, Petrovic could get any shot he wanted. Schmidt wasn’t that far behind Petrovic in heating up and, by the end of regulation, both stars were going shot for shot.

Schmidt’s three-pointer with 17 seconds remaining forced overtime. Petrovic finished regulation with 52 points and Schmidt had 41. Petrovic was able to grab the momentum in overtime, finishing with 62 points to Schmidt’s 44 as Real Madrid earned a 117-113 victory.

Clearly, Petrovic had skills that could translate to success in the NBA. This was his only season with Real Madrid; he would jump ship to the Trail Blazers the next year. After struggling to get some burn in Portland, Petrovic was shipped to New Jersey during the 1990-’91 season. He finally found his niche in America with the Nets, averaging 22.3 points per game in 1992-’93, his final season before dying in a car accident.

It is tough to say how Schmidt would have fared if he had tried to join Petrovic in the NBA. He had inside-outside skills but his game – and physical appearance – bore a striking resemblance to Danny Ferry. Then again, he averaged 28.8 points per game in Olympic play.

The matchup between Real Madrid and Snaidero Caserta also provided some evidence to dismiss foreign basketball (stringent motion offenses, non-commitment to defense) as well as perpetuate some stereotypes (a stadium befouled by cigarette smoke, a massive police presence to limit skirmishes in the stands).

But Petrovic and Schmidt foreshadowed the global game that basketball would become in the 1990s and 2000s. They prefigured Nowitzki and Ginobili and helped to tear down the wall between the U.S. and the rest of the basketball world.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Seed of Hope

Certain American college basketball truths are immutable: Dick Vitale will spew nonsense, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski gets the benefit of all the calls and no No. 16-seeded team will beat a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament.

The closest that belief system came to crashing was in 1989 when the buttoned-down Princeton Tigers took on the free-wheeling Georgetown Hoyas in the first round.

Georgetown was coming down from its “Hoya Paranoia” high from earlier in the decade but still boasted high-scoring guard Charles Smith and a freshman shot-blocking savant named Alonzo Mourning. John Thompson still cut an imposing figure on the sideline, always giving his team an added swagger.

Princeton was fresh off an Ivy League title and Pete Carril was mostly known as a coach’s coach, a mad scientist cooking up schemes with backdoor cuts and precision passing. Carril played the part to perfection, looking like the avuncular professor until a missed call by the referees got him off his seat and screaming like an overserved Norman Mailer.

It is too easy to cut this matchup along racial lines, with Georgetown cast as the black, in-your-face street hustlers and Princeton as the throwback to a whites-only era when players listened to their coach and suppressed individual desires. That issue wouldn’t come to a head until Michigan’s Fab Five brought hip-hop to the college basketball mainstream a few years after this game.

Leaving race in the subconscious, this was just a matchup of diametrically opposed styles. The Hoyas press and run, block shots and run, trap and run. The Tigers milk the 45-second shot clock (45 seconds!) and lull the defense to sleep or to becoming overanxious, leaving the backdoor open.

Did Georgetown take Princeton too lightly? No way, Thompson knew the genius of Carril first-hand – John Thompson III had been a senior guard for the Tigers just a year before.

Regardless, reality must have set in early for the Hoyas. Princeton scored the first basket of the game on a running hook over Mourning by the dewy Kit Mueller of Downer’s Grove, Ill.

The Tigers’ confidence was full-bore after taking a 15-10 lead and Georgetown started pressing, figuratively by forcing up shots and literally by picking Princeton up full court in an attempt to speed up the game.

Nonetheless, Princeton dictated the pace of the game and racked up a 29-21 lead at halftime.

The Tigers remained in control until the last few minutes when the beast awoke inside Mourning. The future NBA all-star scored seven of the Hoyas’ last nine points and rejected shots by Princeton captain Bob Scrabis and Mueller in the final seconds.

The anguish on Carril’s face after the upset bid was foiled showed the real truth about there being “moral victories.”

The legendary coach would have to wait until 1996 to bag a giant, when the Tigers sent defending champions UCLA out the backdoor. That victory shook up college basketball, but wasn’t the earth-shattering temblor that could have happened in 1989.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Triple Threat

Georgia Tech’s “Lethal Weapon 3” team of 1989-’90 can actually lay claim to being ahead of its time.

Hollywood’s version wasn’t released until 1992, when Kenny Anderson was already teasing New Jersey Nets fans, Dennis Scott had adjusted to the NBA three-point line with the Orlando Magic and Brian Oliver was playing his way out of the Association.

The Platonic ideal of the “Big Three” had already been established with the Boston Celtics in the 1980s, but Yellow Jackets coach Bobby Cremins had to maintain a happy balance among a trio of perimeter-based personalities.

The filmic “Lethal Weapon 3” had an established structure to plug into. Loose cannon Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and perpetually put-upon Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) would stumble into a big case, which they would solve with the help of wisecracking former federal witness Leo Getz (Joe Pesci). The plot is essentially secondary, just throw in a vaguely Aryan villain, some “cop killer” bullets and whizbang pyrotechnics. But the real fun is in the characters’ rapport.

Anderson, Scott and Oliver didn’t have two blockbusters under their belt when they hit the court for the first time together, but the chemistry was apparent.

Anderson was the Riggs: the fictional cop with natural instincts for the detective game and a flair for the dramatic. He was trained from a young age to be a killing machine. As far as research indicates, Anderson lacks manic depression and did not have a wife that died in a car accident. However, the point guard prodigy arrived at Georgia Tech as an established New York City legend with ball-handling legerdemain and the court vision of a soothsayer.

Scott played the Murtaugh role, forced to adjust his game with the addition of a new partner. Scott slimmed down about 20 pounds before the season and also established a low-post game to pair with his textbook outside shot. Scott was never quoted as saying “I’m too old for this shit” but he did bolt the Yellow Jackets after the 1989-’90 season to enter the NBA draft.

That leaves Oliver as Getz. Both are the forgotten face of the franchise. Both were versatile actors, capable of carrying the load in dramatic moments but comfortable not being the alpha dog.

Cremins handled Richard Donner’s duties, making sure each player was happy with his scenes and pushing the right buttons. The results were impressive: an 11-0 start, an ACC Tournament victory and a Final Four berth. The triumvirate averaged over 20 points apiece, the only time that has happened in the ACC.

Georgia Tech had one of the more memorable NCAA tournament runs in recent memory. The Yellow Jackets dispatched a loaded LSU team that boasted Stanley Roberts, a young Shaquille O’Neal and the scoring artist formerly known as Chris Jackson, then scored a controversial victory against Steve Smith and Michigan State (Anderson’s overtime-forcing shot appeared to come after the buzzer sounded). “Lethal Weapon 3” gave Georgia Tech its first Final Four berth with a 93-91 victory over a tough Minnesota team as Anderson, Oliver and Scott combined to score an astounding 89 of the Yellow Jackets’ points.

The ride ended at the hands of Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels juggernaut. No national title. “Lethal Weapon 3” did brisk business in Hollywood, earning an estimated $145 million at the box office, but also fell short of earning any major award. But it was an explosive ride.