Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Frozen In Time

Isiah Thomas and the landed gentry of NBA stars conspired to keep the ball away from upstart Michael Jordan at the rookie’s first All-Star Game in 1985.

At least that’s the accepted version of history.

It’s easy to see how that conspiracy has gained traction over the years. It fits into the well-established narrative of Isiah-as-nefarious-meddler, and the young Jordan was such an inconceivable alloy of skills that it had to have been discomfiting for the older generation of stars.

What does the tape reveal? Like the Zapruder film, there are just enough moments to back every side of the argument.

The genesis of the “freeze-out” supposedly came out of Jordan’s unwillingness to show proper deference to the veterans. The audacious young star wore a gold chain over his jersey when he competed in the dunk contest. In the locker room he acted like, well, Michael Jordan. He boasted, he embarrassed teammates, he challenged Moses Malone to a free-throw shooting contest (with MJ winning, of course).

There was also the matter of those shoes. In time, the Air Jordan I would revolutionize basketball footwear and marketing. In 1985, however, it looked like Jordan was putting on airs by refusing to wear the standard-issue all-star apparel. The shoes were even brought up during the broadcast, with color commentator Tommy Heinsohn remarking the shoes “look like they have horns on them.”

So that set the stage for the game at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. In the first minutes, Jordan skied for a defensive rebound, then tipped the ball in on the offensive glass for the game’s first points.

Jordan didn’t put himself above the game. He passed to his point guard —Thomas — immediately after getting rebounds or steals. But why did Thomas, the game’s consummate playmaker at the time, not give the ball right back to Jordan on the fast break early in the first quarter?

Jordan’s next point came on a free throw after he was fouled under the basket, where Thomas had found him with a nice dish. But a few minutes later, Thomas refused to look Jordan’s way again on a break, preferring to give the ball to rumbling big man Malone.

You could also read a lot into the flippant behind-the-back pass that Thomas gave to Jordan, before everyone on the East team cleared out so the Bulls star could go one-on-one against George Gervin. Who was this rookie to call for a solo voyage to the basket when he was on the same team with Thomas, Malone, Julius Erving and Larry Bird?

In the second quarter, Thomas also didn’t pull the trigger on a lob to a backdoor-cutting Jordan. Thomas had connected with Erving on the exact play earlier in the game. As the clock ticked down toward halftime, Jordan drove into the paint before kicking it out to Thomas in the corner for a three-pointer at the buzzer that tied the game at 68.

The second half continued in the same vein. Thomas refused to acknowledge Jordan when the rookie was wide open coming off a screen. Then Thomas would feed Jordan for jumpers on the wing.

In the end, Jordan played only 22 minutes and scored seven points with six rebounds, two assists and three steals. Was East coach K.C. Jones in on the conspiracy or was it hard to divide playing time on the wing with Bernard King and Micheal Ray Richardson? Jordan took nine shots, making two, and was 3 of 4 from the free-throw line. Thomas had 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting in 25 minutes.

Several stories have fingered Dr. Charles Tucker, the agent for Magic Johnson and Thomas at the time, for leaking the “freeze-out” angle to several writers. True or not, Jordan probably latched onto it, as he usually did, to use as grist for his competitiveness.

The conspiracy probably took hold as people filled out the back-story on the animosity-fueled battles between Jordan’s Bulls and Thomas’ Pistons in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Then came the rumors that Jordan was a key voice in keeping Thomas off the 1992 Dream Team.

Of course, nobody has gone on the record in saying that Jordan was denied the ball in 1985. But that hasn’t stopped conspiracy-minded fans from scouring the tapes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Points Well Taken

High-scoring basketball games are generally better viewed on paper than by actually bearing witness to them.

No video footage exists of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962. But while the box score is certainly something to marvel at, it probably would grow a little tedious to watch the Dipper take lobs from Guy Rodgers and put up his 63 shots against the New York Knicks’ undersized defense. The myth is always better when shrouded in a little mystery.

The highest-scoring basketball game — college or NBA — came on Jan. 12, 1992, when NCAA Division II Troy State routed DeVry University in Atlanta by the inconceivable score of 258-141.

Yes, you read that correctly. Yes, the numbers are shocking for a 40-minute game played when college basketball teams still had the 45-second shot clock at their disposal:

- Troy State led at halftime, 123-53.

- Troy State beat its own NCAA record for points in a game -— 187 against DeVry the previous season —with over 10 minutes remaining in the game.

- Troy State took 109 three-pointers, making 51.

- DeVry had 44 turnovers, with 28 coming on steals by Troy State.

- Troy State’s Brian Simpson played 15 minutes but still managed to get up 29 shots, 26 of them three-pointers.

- For the game, Troy State averaged six points a minute.

According to the ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia, seven statisticians put their heads together for 57 minutes to compile the final box score.

Troy State’s playing style is easy to understand, coming on the heels of Loyola Marymount’s run-and-gun success in the late 1980s. Don Maestri, still the Troy State (now just Troy) coach, had a team that season that was short in both height and experience, so that style likely gave the team its best chance to win.

Troy State’s players should also be accorded some respect. You need to be in superior physical shape to play that type of game, and the 135 points that Troy State put up in the second half is impressive. DeVry had only seven players, and by the end of the game they were clearly spent.

That said, this is train-wreck basketball of the highest order. Dean Smith or John Wooden wouldn’t stomach this type of game, but it is still hard to look away.

Think of your regular pickup game when you are trying to slog through the last game of the night. Everyone is gassed, every pass is lazy and every shot is an unchallenged three-pointer. That’s kind of how the Troy State-DeVry game played out, except with better-conditioned players.

DeVry didn’t even put up the façade of playing defense. Two of DeVry’s players didn’t even cross halfcourt to play defense on most of Troy State’s possessions. They would wait on their own end for Troy State to shoot, then a DeVry player would try to throw a long pass down the court. This resulted in a majority of those 44 turnovers.

Troy State’s effort on defense mirrored DeVry’s. Coach Maestri was content for his opponents to score as long as they did it quickly. DeVry just quickened the pace by blowing layups and losing control of the ball.

The game almost played out in real time. With only one foul called on a shot attempt, there were only three free throws shot in the game. Troy State had to wait until a ball went out of bounds to bring in its constantly rotating cast of five fresh players.

Basketball purists surely would love to burn any existing copies of this game. But those eye-popping numbers put up by Troy State will always draw attention.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Oops. My Bad.

If you’ve played pickup basketball long enough and in various cities across the nation, the chances are pretty good that you’ve shared the court with a player of some renown.

Maybe in college you teamed with your school’s star shooting guard to form a formidable backcourt for that one game in the student activities center. Maybe one day in the NBA off-season, the eighth man on your local franchise was starting to get back into shape and wanted to get some burn at the posh health club, and you ran up and down the court with him and passed him the ball every time.

Well, I once threw an errant alley-oop to Pat Sullivan.

Sullivan is a fondly remembered figure in UNC’s storied basketball history. He arrived in Chapel Hill from Bogota, N.J., as the least-heralded member of a recruiting class (Eric Montross, Clifford Rozier, Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese) that was considered one of the greatest ever, until it was eclipsed the next year by Michigan’s Fab Five.

Sullivan played 118 games for the Tar Heels and appeared in three Final Fours, with the historical record noting that he scored 478 points, grabbed 223 rebounds and dished 120 assists. But beyond statistics, Sullivan seemed to personify the unselfish ideals of coach Dean Smith. Sullivan took charges, ran the offense, boxed out, helped from the weak side. After three solid years of solid production, Sullivan agreed to redshirt to ease a logjam in the frontcourt. It’s a shame that he is mostly remembered for missing the back end of a one-and-one in the 1993 NCAA title game against Michigan, setting the stage for Chris Webber’s infamous timeout.

It’s a natural transition for a player like Sullivan to get into coaching. He’s carved out a niche for himself as an NBA assistant, currently in his second stint with the Detroit Pistons. He helped coach at UNC in the late 1990s, but when Matt Doherty was hired as the Tar Heels’ coach in 2000, Sullivan was relieved of his duties. Stories circulated about Sullivan packing up his Tar Heels memorabilia in his Carolina-blue apartment. That helped poison the well of Doherty’s UNC tenure.

Sullivan had just finished his playing days at UNC in 1995. He was probably making the coaching rounds of North Carolina when he came to Greensboro to be the featured speaker at the Crown Automobile/Gaters AAU All-Star Camp.

The Greensboro Gaters were a nascent organization that, if memory serves, grew out of the Guilford College YMCA all-star teams. They had not ballooned into the NC Gaters juggernaut that would become a power on the national circuit. Still, it was every Greensboro baller’s fervent wish to be on those teams with the free sneakers and the sleek practice jerseys.

I was never quite good enough to make the Gaters, whose ranks at the time included future ACC players Brendan Haywood, Jason Capel and Justin Gainey. But I kept trying out for those teams, making tiny inroads (like notching the “Most Improved Player” at the Gaters camp the year before) but never earning a spot on the traveling squads. So Sullivan’s make-the-most-of-your-talent, work-hard-good-things-will-happen, I-made-it-to-UNC-and-so-can-you speech was directed mostly at the marginal talents like myself. I had already started dipping my toe into the slipstream that carried me from can-do hustler to self-aware deprecator of my own limitations.

Sullivan was gracious enough after his speech to join the choose-up scrimmage with the bird-chested 15-year-olds on Greensboro Day School’s main court. Fate would have it that Sullivan ended up on my team. This would be my chance to prove my worth to the local hoops cognoscenti.

It was just a few minutes into the action when I brought the ball up the court on the wing. Sullivan set up on the blocks and was fronted by a Northwest Guilford High School standout. Sullivan put his hand up and made eye contact with me, then lifted his chin to acknowledge that the door was open.

I achingly wanted to thread that needle. I snapped my wrist on an overhead pass with the form that had been drilled into me over several years of basketball camps.

The ball seemed to hang in the air for a couple of dramatic beats.

Then it clanged off the rim and skipped out of bounds. A teammate said, “Man, what the hell was that?” Sullivan scrunched his face in confusion. He must have sensed my disappointment, because he winked at me while running down the court and said:

“It was there.”

Friday, October 29, 2010

Here's The Pitch

Watching the 1998 HBO documentary “City Dump: The Story of the 1951 CCNY Basketball Scandal,” I kept thinking how the material was screaming for the full-length fictional feature treatment.

I thought the same thing about the Jack Molinas-Connie Hawkins story arc, then I did a little research and found out that it was a dream project for Bethlehem Shoals until Free Darko’s mad genius learned that Spike Lee and John Turturro were trying their hand at a screenplay.

Both stories mine the same territory: Basketball in New York City around mid-century. The original Madison Square Garden engulfed with tendrils of cigarette smoke. Low-rent hucksters and cut-rate bookmakers in sharkskin suits and fedoras on the sideline, making side bets on the action. Nattily dressed coaches, pocket squares included, directing the fast-paced, hard-cutting action on the court that was the prevalent style of the time in the city.

The CCNY story is a little less familiar than Molinas-Hawkins. The Beavers had caught the fancy of New York, which was enthralled with baseball at the time as the city still had the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants. CCNY had a team that encapsulated the melting pot feel of the town, with black, Jewish and Irish city natives combining their talents. The team won both the NCAA and NIT championships in 1950, both games against Bradley University, relegating the professional New York Knickerbockers to other accommodations because college basketball was king in the Garden.

But it all came crashing down when crusading district attorney Frank Hogan, an evangelical on issues of corruption, began investigating allegations of point shaving in college basketball. College hoops had become a cottage industry for two-bit hustlers, who found no shortage of enthusiastic bettors at the Garden and also broke-as-a-joke students who were willing to take a dive for some scratch.

The star players on CCNY had dumped a few games. Their careers were over, and the wider net of the investigation had ensnared players across the nation, including the sanctimonious Kentucky team of Adolph Rupp.

It could work cinematically even as a thinly veiled version. Focus on a Jewish immigrant, the first in his family to go to college in America, the pride of his ethnic enclave. At CCNY, he plays with black teammates for the first time. It’s awkward at first, but they work through it and get to championship heights. The coach is a taskmaster, and the players have no money to squire women in this hopping city. A city-slick former college player recruits the CCNY stars to work for his mobbed-up partner. The players make a few dollars, and then in the third act the house of cards falls down.

It’ll work. Get a “Boardwalk Empire” set of the block with the old Garden and neon signs for 24-hour coffee shops and liquor lounges. Slap on a jazzy soundtrack, and we’re in business.

Here’s who I envision as the star: Jason Segel of “How I Met Your Mother,” “Freaks and Geeks” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” fame. He’s got the build — no need for the eight-foot rims for tiny actors — and also a visage that wouldn’t look out of place on a Jewish or Irish immigrant.

In point of fact, Segel is a baller. He was the seventh-man on the Harvard Westlake team in North Hollywood, Calif., that won the Division III state championship in 1996, and he played in the same front court as future NBAers and twin brothers Jason and Jarron Collins.

Here is an excerpt from a Los Angeles Times feature in 1996 about the team and Segel, who was known as “Doctor Dunk” as a 6-foot, 4-inch junior:

"I'm not nearly as skilled a basketball player as some of the other guys," Segel says. "But I have a lot of bravado."

Not to mention a made-for-the-highlight-reels dunk.

During Harvard's two-week East Coast trip in December, Segel wowed a Florida crowd with a two-handed slam made with the front of his jersey pulled over his head. Before the dunk, Segel stood poised, calling for silence with outstretched arms. After the dunk, he dove headfirst into the stands.

"He put on an absolute show," (point guard Leo) Da Costa said.

Segel also keeps the team loose with impressions of everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Kermit the Frog. He even does (Harvard coach Greg) Hilliard.

"You spend five minutes around Jason and he'll come up with a pretty good impression of you," Abed Abusaleh said.

An aspiring actor, Segel has dabbled in bit parts and studied in England. After the season, Segel is scheduled to begin rehearsals for a school production in which he will deliver a 22-minute soliloquy on stage.

"I love getting up in front of people," he says.

His most memorable moment this season? The dunk, of course. Not because he made it but because Jarron allowed him to. Jarron qualified for the competition ahead of Segel but deferred to his teammate.

"He knew it was something important to me, so he stepped back and let me do it," Segel said. "I appreciated that."

It might not be blockbuster summer fare, but critics and hoopheads would eat this stuff up. So, budding Hollywood moguls, give me a call and let’s do brunch somewhere.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Old College Try

It’s not often that you prepare for the upcoming NBA season by watching an old college game between Oklahoma and Davidson.

But with Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry now plying their trade on West Coast NBA teams with limited nationally televised games, it’s hard to think of them beyond names in a box score or brief images in an Internet video. So a refresher course was in order, even if it was a early season college matchup that the Sooners won, 82-78, in the NIT Tip Off tournament on Nov. 18, 2008, in Norman, Okla.

Griffin missed all of last season for the Los Angeles Clippers after breaking his kneecap in the preseason. By most accounts, the top overall draft pick in 2009 has regained all of his quickness, leaping ability and his non-stop motor.
Those first-rate qualities are the first things that jump out at the viewer in the game against Davidson. Griffin tapped an awkward jump ball, then sprinted ahead of everyone to corral the ball and lay it in with great fluidity.

It also didn’t take long for Curry to justify all those vague descriptions that are pressed upon him: savvy, basketball IQ, court awareness. Curry’s first basket came on a cut across the court, and he fielded a pass with his back to the basket. Curry knew exactly where he was in relation to the hoop (and where his defender was), so he caught the ball and flicked it perfectly off the glass. You’re left with the impression that Curry had done this countless times before.

A basketball fanatic could be wholly satisfied just watching Curry move without the ball for 40 minutes. Oklahoma defenders were overplaying him to deny him the ball. That just left open the possibility for Curry to make precise backdoor cuts and get some higher percentage shots near the basket. With the ball, Curry also made advantageous use of screens. His first three-pointer came as he curled around a pick, then duped the overanxious defender with a pump fake before calmly drilling the shot. Again, it’s like Curry could do this 10 minutes after rolling out of bed on a Tuesday morning.

Griffin took only four shots in the first half, but it’s not like he was missing in action. He went hard to the glass on every play, getting 11 rebounds by halftime. You hesitate to invoke Dennis Rodman, but Griffin would get boards with such intensity and guile and then sprint down the court with such alacrity that the comparisons to the Worm wouldn’t be baseless.

Griffin’s offense came alive in the second half, when he scored 21 of his 25 points. College defenders didn’t have enough quickness to stay in front of him. Commentator Fran Fraschilla kept noting that Griffin would be an outstanding pick-and-pop guy in the NBA with his great hands and quick feet. Griffin’s intensity never lagged either, and he finished with 21 rebounds.
There were lots of questions by pro scouts about whether Curry could thrive in the NBA with longer defenders. He certainly answered those concerns during his rookie year with the Golden State Warriors, especially later in the season as Curry began to sort the league out.

A glimpse at Curry’s ability to score against NBA-level athletes came in the final minute, when he found himself matched up with Griffin on the perimeter. Curry dribbled right at Griffin, then got enough separation on a step-back to get off a high-arching three-pointer that got Davidson within three points.

Griffin would eventually pull down an offensive rebound with 26 seconds left to seal Oklahoma’s victory. Curry had 44 points, made all the more amazing because he missed five minutes in the first half with foul trouble and his outside jumper wasn’t on the mark (he shot 12 for 29). It’s going to be tremendous watching both players’ skills translate to NBA success in the coming years. Maybe it’s time to get NBA League Pass for those West Coast games.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Scaling the Mount

Shooters are a breed apart. It takes a different kind of cat to spend countless hours in empty gyms, often all by his or her lonesome, hoisting jumper after jumper.

You know them when you see them, the kind of basketball player often referred to as a “pure shooter.” They often have similar personality traits. Most have placid demeanors and often endured strange childhoods. Ray Allen was a peripatetic Army brat. Steve Kerr was the son of an academic who was assassinated while serving as president of the American University of Beirut.

Then there is Rick Mount. One of basketball’s first prep prodigies, Mount was an Indiana legend from the small town of Lebanon. He seemed to be interested in nothing except perfecting his jump shot, taking care from an early age to get in his 400 shots daily. He landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school senior in 1966 and went on to Purdue.

Watching silent footage of the Boilermakers’ 75-73 overtime victory over Marquette in the 1969 NCAA Mideast Regional final at the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse, it is easy to get transfixed by Mount’s game. He could be the ultimate archetype of a cold-blooded shooter.

Mount’s best moves were his one- or two-step dribbles, going to his left or right, then pulling up for the jumper. This was a master craftsman. His moves had perfect rhythm, with the dribbles getting a harder bounce to ease seamlessly into his form. Mount also had a high-arching runner in the lane, often coming off his opposite foot. His baseline fadeaway was stunning.

Mount also didn’t have a conscience, going 11 for 32 in the game and finishing with 26 points, Mount shot from 24 feet with two guys in his face. He was gunning after every ball screen he got. The misses wouldn’t deter Mount. As every broadcaster has probably uttered during his or her career, “Good shooters always think the next one is going to fall.”

It’s a good thing for Purdue that he kept shooting, because in the waning seconds of overtime he came around a screen set by center Jerry Johnson. For some odd reason, Marquette’s Jack Burke didn’t step out on Mount, who found himself all alone for from 20 feet out. Everyone in the Fieldhouse that day had to know that the ball was going in to give the Boilermakers the 75-73 victory. Purdue would advance to the championship game, where it became another victim in John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty.

Mount had an uneven professional career in five ABA seasons, averaging 11.8 points per game before injuries forced him to retire. He never lived up to being the top overall pick by his home-state Indiana Pacers, especially under defensive-minded head coach Slick Leonard. Shots were harder to come by in the pros, and the book on Mount was to not let him get open coming off screens because he would sink any open shot.

Mount made it back into Sports Illustrated in the magazine’s “Where Are They Now?” issue in 2001. It didn’t come as much surprise that, even at age 54, Mount was still getting up 500 shots a day in Lebanon, Ind.

After some failed business ventures, Mount is teaching what he knows best. He runs a shooting camp, and he sells a contraption that rebounds the ball for the solitary shooter. There’s an awesome clip of Mount instructing some kids in his driveway with one of those machines. Definitely a different kind of cat.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Training Camp

The gold standard of basketball blogs, Henry Abbott’s True Hoop, recently went into exhaustive detail about Michael Jordan’s stewardship of the Charlotte Bobcats. Central to most of Jordan’s business dealings throughout his career have been a handful of loyal confidantes, with Fred Whitfield arguably chief among them. Abbott shed some light about the importance of Whitfield, who has been a consigliere to Jordan as a friend/adviser/lawyer during the NBA star’s playing days and later as a partner with Brand Jordan, the Washington Wizards and now the Bobcats.

In an indirect fashion, the partnership of Whitfield and Jordan is also responsible for this blog that you are reading.

Whitfield hails from my hometown of Greensboro, N.C., where he was a standout player at Southeast Guilford High School. Whitfield went on to play at Campbell College, the site of a legendary basketball camp (where Whitfield befriended a young Jordan). Perhaps inspired by his experience at Campbell, Whitfield started his own camp in Greensboro, with a little help from well-known friends like Jordan, Johnny Dawkins and Ralph Sampson.

Whitfield’s Achievements Unlimited camp began in 1984, and grew in popularity every year. I started becoming obsessed with basketball in the early 1990s, when I was around 12. Most of the kids on the Guilford College YMCA all-star teams often sported AU T-shirts, so I figured that if I wanted to play at their level I would have to go to that camp.

Achievements Unlimited is famous around North Carolina for its “World’s Greatest Pickup Game”— featuring pro and college players — that campers and their families can attend at the end of the week. Jordan faithfully played every year, even as his fame reached astronomical levels. It always blew my mind to see the teachers’ parking lot at Western Guilford High School filled with Mercedes Benzes and BMWs. Jordan was the unquestioned king of those games, but in the three years I attended, it was awesome to see Mugsey Bogues, Kenny Smith, King Rice, J.R. Reid, Rick Fox, Dell Curry, Grant Hill and Alaa Abdelnaby. All those players were minor royalty in North Carolina at the time, so seeing them play at this bandbox of a high-school gym was quite an experience.

But nothing could compare with witnessing Jordan in that environment. Remember that this was during the years of the first Bulls three-peat, when Jordan was probably the most famous person in the world. The other players would be warming up, and everyone in the stands would be on edge because Jordan wasn’t there. After all, why would the greatest player ever carve out time to come to this nondescript high school in Greensboro? But then the double doors in the corner would swing open, and Jordan would enter surrounded by a security detail. The buzz at that moment was palpable, and you could hear the electricity spread across the crowd. I remember sitting in the bleachers diagonally across from where Jordan entered. I couldn’t make out his facial features, but the profile of Jordan’s bald dome was instantly recognizable.

There were great players in those games, but Jordan always dominated. Whenever I want to wax poetic about Jordan’s greatness, as basketball fans are wont to do, I think about those pickup games. Jordan knew that every set of eyes in that gym was focused on him, and every spectator demanded that Jordan live up to his reputation as the best in the world. And Jordan always delivered. Even in the summer after a grueling 100-game season. Even in a high-school gym in Greensboro.

For a novice player, the basketball education at the camp was tremendous. It’s where I first learned the pick-and-roll and how to fill the lane on a fast break. My clearest memory of the instruction was Dawkins telling us how to find our shooting range, which he defined as anywhere you can consistently make three of five shots. Dawkins showed us by starting under the basket, then taking a step back after making three shots. He ended up drilling a few jumpers just shy of half court.

But the part about AU that I didn’t appreciate at the time was Whitfield’s insistence that the camp not only be about basketball. We had a list of vocabulary words that we had to learn every night and would be quizzed on the next day. I dutifully studied words like “inevitable” and “exemplary” while I soaked my weary bones in the tub. The test scores would be factored in with the points and rebounds to establish the camp all-stars. Standout campers were awarded dictionaries instead of the traditional plaques or trophies.

I was never that good, so I was insanely jealous of those players that got the dictionaries. Like hoops, words became an obsession of mine. I still put a checkmark next to every new word I look up in my Webster’s New World. The outgrowth of those twin passions is this blog, which owes a debt of gratitude to Whitfield and Jordan for stoking those interests.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Home-and-home series on consecutive nights are a scheduling quirk not that uncommon in the NBA. It almost never happens in college basketball.

Even rarer in college hoops is back-to-back games against a bitter conference rival from 25 miles down the road. Yet that was the case on Feb. 6 and 7, 1991, when North Carolina and North Carolina State had the hoops version of a doubleheader.

The teams’ first meeting that season was scheduled for Jan. 16. On that day, however, the game was postponed because President Bush had issued orders to start bombing Baghdad. The only wiggle room for another game in the schedule was the day after the teams’ second meeting.

It was the first time in the 38 years of the Atlantic Coast Conference that teams would play each other on consecutive days. So on Feb. 6 at the rollicking Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C., the players came out with a sense of history.

They played a classic college battle, with both teams pushing the ball and a rabid crowd that urged the Wolfpack to a 97-91 victory. Chris Corchiani played almost as perfect a game as you would want from a point guard: 10 points, 12 assists, six steals and one turnover with fiery leadership for his N.C. State teammates. His backcourt mate in the historically underrated “Fire and Ice” tandem, Rodney Monroe, dropped in a cool 37 points, including 21 after halftime. Tom Gugliotta went inside and outside to finish with 28 points.

Gugliotta and Monroe combined to shoot 22 of 38, including 11 for 19 on three-pointers. Most of those three-pointers came in transition or when Corchiani knifed into the heart of the Tar Heels’ defense. Corchiani piled up 1,038 assists in his four years with the Wolfpack. He was briefly the all-time NCAA leader until Bobby Hurley eclipsed Corchiani a few seasons later (Corchiani is still second). The amazing thing is that Corchiani got those assists by mostly relying on jump shooters. There’s no telling how many more dimes he could have gotten with better big men than Bryant Feggins and Kevin Thompson (who did get a cup of coffee in the NBA).

The Tar Heels stayed in the game by also having a hot-shooting night (35 of 64). Dean Smith’s masterful use of timeouts and clutch three-pointers by Pete Chilcutt and Hubert Davis got UNC within one point in the final minute, but the Tar Heels couldn’t get over the top.

The Wolfpack left everything on the floor. Corchiani, playing his all-out style, was banged up after several hard hits. The problem for N.C. State was that the teams would meet less than 24 hours later at the Dean E. Smith Center.

The Tar Heels started the second game on a 10-0 run and never looked back in a 92-70 victory. The two games highlighted one of Smith’s many geniuses: substitutions. He made 98 subs over both games. His counterpart on the N.C. State bench, Les Robinson, used only six players in the first game. Fourteen players logged time for UNC in the first game, with eight getting more than nine minutes.

Smith kept those subs coming in the second game, especially against Corchiani. King Rice and Derrick Phelps, both physical defenders, were used in short bursts to wear down the Wolfpack’s sparkplug. Corchiani gamely had 13 points and nine assists, but the N.C. State offense had no flow. Monroe struggled to a 7-for-20 night and Gugliotta was a non-factor with seven points on 2-for-10 shooting. Feggins and Thompson barely made it up and down the court in the second half.

UNC shot 34 for 65 in the second game, almost matching its numbers from the first game. Depth is obviously important, but it has to be deployed the right way.

N.C. State shot only 37% in the second game, including only 28% in the second half with its bone-tired players. Back-to-back games are brutal on the players’ bodies, even those at the highest level, so it is probably a good thing that these home-and-home series are so rare.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Undervalued King

Like most people interested in basketball history, I don’t pay enough attention to Bernard King. He hasn’t been elected to the Hall of Fame, despite 19,655 career points in 14 seasons, twice being named first-team All-NBA and making four All-Star Games.

I had read great things about King in Spike Lee’s book “Best Seat in the House,” but I always thought Bernard’s brother Albert King was better because Albert was featured in Rick Telander’s book “Heaven is a Playground.” I knew Bernard from his shoutout in Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” (Basketball has always been my thing/I like Magic, Bird and Bernard King). And, oddly, I vividly remember his 1989 NBA Hoops basketball card when he was with the Washington Bullets.

But I couldn’t recall ever watching King actually play. He seems to have fallen through the cracks of history. Maybe he was a victim of timing, coming into the NBA when the league was at its fighting-and-cocaine nadir in the late 1970s and early ’80s. King got caught up in that scene for a while, and when he finally got straight, Magic and Bird had taken over, closely followed by Michael Jordan. King verged on superstardom when he landed with the Knicks, including averaging a league-best 32.9 points per game in 1984-’85. But then King blew out his knee and, by all accounts, was never the same player.

I wanted to see King at the peak of his powers, so I watched his back-to-back 50-point games against the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, respectively, in 1984.

It’s implausible to say that a player can get a quiet 50 points, but King has definitely come the closest. A casual fan glancing at the TV between sips of craft beer would be more apt to remember the showier scoring in those games from the Spurs’ George Gervin and the Mavericks’ Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman. King could have efficiently dropped in three fast-break lay-ups while you were pondering the mellifluous name of Dallas’ Kurt Nimphius or wondering if the Mavericks’ Brad Davis, with his blond curls and wispy moustache, was the oddest-looking point guard in league history.

King’s two 50-point games came on the road, just after he scored 18 points in 22 minutes in the 1984 All-Star Game. That he scored 50 against the Spurs would have come as no surprise, given that San Antonio under coach Bob Bass runned-and-gunned with little regard for defense.

Gervin and King each had 16 points at the end of the first quarter. Gervin’s baskets were more pleasing to the eye, with his high-arching finger rolls and feathery jumpers. King was ruthlessly effective, filling the lane on fast breaks for lay-ups or lofting quick turnaround jumpers on the baseline. All the while, King showed no emotion. Gervin faded late, getting just two points in the fourth quarter and finishing with 41. King just kept going, getting a wide-open dunk in the final seconds to finish with an even 50 in the 117-113 victory.

King grabbed the opening tap against the Mavericks and got an easy bucket. It looked to be another shootout, with Aguirre scoring 16 points to King’s 11 in the first period. Once again, King would outlast his competition as Aguirre eventually got into foul trouble. King’s third quarter was a brilliant study in economic movement. He made all eight of his shots, filling the lanes on breaks as usual but also creating just enough space so he could unleash his quick jumper. Like a Raymond Carver short story, King’s game was Spartan and precise.

Again, King had 48 points as the final seconds ticked down. Teammates were screaming to get the ball to King, who drained a long jumper over Jay Vincent with seven seconds left to make King the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 to record back-to-back 50-point games.

How efficient was King? Against the Spurs he was 20 for 30 from the field, and he was 20 of 28 against the Mavericks. There was nothing flashy about King, and he never drew attention to himself. That’s probably why he is so often forgotten.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bulldog Mentality

Most documentary filmmakers will tell you that luck is the biggest factor in a successful project. Director Steve James couldn’t have foreseen all the twists and turns to come when he first trained his cameras on Arthur Agee and William Gates for what would become indisputably the greatest basketball documentary ever, “Hoop Dreams.”

Similarly, when a production crew started following the 1997-’98 Fresno State Bulldogs, it couldn’t have envisioned the final cut of the tragically underrated “Between The Madness.” The plotlines of the documentary, which aired on FSN in November 1998, include multiple suspensions, drug rehab, a lascivious Rolling Stone photo shoot, a conniving Mike Wallace, and an alleged assault and robbery involving a samurai sword.

The governing idea of the film was to profile Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian, who was infamous for providing safe harbor to troubled hoopsters. So there was obviously the strong possibility that the Bulldogs would be beset by off-the-court issues.

Troubles started piling up early in the season for Fresno State, which boasted several former McDonald’s All-Americans and was ranked in the preseason top 15 by most publications. Point guard Rafer Alston was suspended for the first few games for a domestic incident, and Terrance Roberson and Daymond Forney were out a couple weeks because of testing positive for marijuana.

The cameras found their leading man in charismatic shooting guard Chris Herren (who incidentally is also the subject of a tragically underrated basketball book, Bill Reynolds’ “Fall River Dreams”). To anyone who watched Fresno State’s late-night WAC games on ESPN in the late 1990s, it was plain to see that Herren was the driving force of those teams. The best on-court action in “Between the Madness” shows the fiery Herren igniting the crowd and his teammates. There’s no denying that Herren, with his frosted tips and “Good Will Hunting” accent, had a magnetic presence, something that didn’t escape the notice of Rolling Stone. The magazine profiled the team and singled out Herren for shirtless photos inside the Bulldogs’ locker room.

Herren partied as hard as he played, which is how he washed out of Boston College a few seasons earlier and became another of Tarkanian’s reclamation projects. Three games into the 1997-’98 season, Herren left the team for a few weeks to enter drug rehab (Nothing is specifically mentioned, but Herren admits that his drugs were harder than marijuana). The team’s play deteriorated without its leader. Herren’s demons would continue to plague him, even during his 70-game NBA career. He was busted for heroin possession twice, but now claims to be sober and is working on another book with Reynolds, called “Basketball Junkie.”

The most touching relationship in the film is between Tarkanian and Herren. At the news conference announcing Herren’s decision, a choked-up Tarkanian says that, besides his son Danny, Herren is the player he is closest to. It’s an affecting moment that underscores the biggest revelation of the film: the repudiation of the popular image of “Tark the Shark.”

Many would have you believe that Tarkanian was a Machiavellian coach that would break any regulations in pursuit of victories. But in this film, Tarkanian comes off as an avuncular optimist who refuses to give up on troubled players. The coach was almost naïve when Wallace and “60 Minutes” rolled into Fresno. Tarkanian knew Wallace wanted to cover the salacious stories surrounding the team, but after Wallace repeatedly praised the coach, Tarkanian thought the story could be spun into a positive. Wallace tells Tarkanian that the coach won’t be disappointed in the piece. Of course, when the story aired it focused on all the arrests and suspensions. There is a great moment when Wallace shows up for the Bulldogs’ NIT semifinal at Madison Square Garden and Tarkanian scolds the veteran newsman: “You lied to me.”

It was bad timing for Fresno State that around the time that the “60 Minutes” piece aired, center Avondre Jones and guard Kenny Brunner were arrested for allegedly robbing someone with a samurai sword. Jones had been kicked out of USC and had failed two drug tests already during the 1997-’98 season, so he was dismissed from the team by a wearied Tarkanian.

Herren’s return from rehab sparked a late-season resurgence by the Bulldogs, who in the film also deal with the suspension of Tremaine Fowlkes (failed drug test), the quitting of defensive stopper Willie Farley (he wanted to score more) and a heated spat between Alston and assistant coach Danny Tarkanian (shot selection being the key issue). Fresno State made it to the NIT semifinals, losing to Minnesota, which is pretty amazing given all the players coming and going.

Highlights of the film also include a pre-ESPN Andy Katz, who was covering the team for the Fresno Bee, and Portishead on the soundtrack to give it an ultimate late '90s feel. After the loss to Minnesota, Tarkanian is seen telling Katz, “Boy, I’m glad its over.” No doubt that he was, but that certainly made for a good documentary. The filmmakers were lucky to have been there to catch it on film.

Documentary Evidence

Watching the documentary on Fresno State’s 1997-’98 team, got me thinking about the best basketball documentaries. My top five:

1. Hoop Dreams: An easy layup of a choice, this film and David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game” are essential works of basketball non-fiction. Like Halberstam’s book, “Hoop Dreams” tackles the big themes of the sport: Race, exploitation, grievous injury, and the tension between individual and team success.

2. The Heart of the Game: Director Ward Serrill captured lightning in a bottle when he chose to document the Roosevelt Roughriders girls basketball team: An eccentric head coach and a troubled star player who come together for an us-versus-them fight.

3. Soul In the Hole: The dark side of the city game. Playground legend Ed “Booger” Smith flashes otherworldly talent, but can’t resist the pull of the streets.

4. Winning Time: Basketball is supposed to be fun, after all. The film doesn’t examine weighty issues, but it doesn’t get much more enjoyable than pairing Reggie Miller’s heroics with an operatic soundtrack, grainy Cheryl Miller highlights and also hearing John Starks say “Man, did this dude just did this?”

5. Between The Madness: The ultimate hoops reality show. Fresno State’s 1997-’98 team was a train wreck of arrests, suspensions and occasionally brilliant players.

Honorable mention: “Black Magic” (highlighting a too-often forgotten period of hoops history), “The Street Stops Here” (Bob Hurley Sr.’s profane genius), “Through The Fire” (the sheer hard work of modern players, although the film has been dimmed by Sebastien Telfair’s lack of pro success).

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dante's Peak

I own a No. 17 jersey worn by Dante Calabria during his preseason stint with the Chicago Bulls in 1997. A precious few can write that sentence, probably just me and Calabria himself and maybe one of his close relations. The jersey was a gift from my wife on our wedding day, which arguably ranks among the coolest things ever.

The reason that my blushing bride scoured the Interwebs for that present is that Calabria is among my favorite players of all time. And since Calabria recently retired after 13 successful seasons in Europe, it seems an appropriate time to sing his praises.

Most U.S. basketball fans, of course, remember Calabria from his four years at North Carolina, where he was around for some heady times with the Tar Heels. Despite being a 2,000-point scorer under legendary coach John Miller at Black Hawk (Pa.) High School, Calabria was an under-the-radar recruit. Nonetheless, Calabria earned limited action as a freshman and played a minute in the Tar Heels’ 77-71 victory over Michigan in the 1993 NCAA championship game. Calabria’s role expanded from there, and his well-rounded skill-set meshed with Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse for two years, then with Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter for one season.

Dean Smith always praised Calabria’s hands. UNC’s coaching deity also loved Calabria’s passing ability and versatility, sometimes even inserting the 6-4 wing player at point guard. Calabria was also skilled practitioner of one of the game’s subtle arts: the entry pass to the post. If you watch a highlight package of Wallace’s college dunks, a lot of them came on gorgeous feeds from Calabria that perfectly led Wallace away from the defense and into scoring position.

Calabria’s most overt skill was his shooting touch. He had classical form on his jump shot, learned from his father, Chad Calabria, who starred at Iowa in the late 1960s. Dante Calabria shot 41.4% (188 of 454) on three-pointers during his four years with the Tar Heels. His best season came in 1994-’95, with defenses keyed on stopping Stackhouse and Wallace. That space allowed Calabria enough good looks to finish a remarkable 49.6% (66 of 133) on three-pointers.

Rare was the game in which Calabria carried the scoring load for UNC, but it happened in the third-ranked Tar Heels’ 100-70 victory over Florida State on Jan. 25, 1995. Seminoles coach Pat Kennedy started out with Bob Sura on Calabria, who drilled his first three-pointer after the defense lost track of him at the 17:40 mark of the first half. After the first eight minutes and a variety of zone looks by Florida State, Calabria had 11 points and made his first 3 three-pointers. He finished with 8 three-pointers in the game, including three during the game-clinching run in the second half, to tie Hubert Davis’ UNC record.

Calabria’s persona was also essential in his appeal. He played with a remarkable placidity, a common trait among great shooters. Calabria rocked low-top white sneakers with no socks showing, a rebellion against what was sartorially popular at the time (think of the high socks and heavy black shoes of Kerry Kittles and Glenn Robinson). Calabria’s singular style also often included an arm band just below his shoulder with the initials “C.S.” a tribute to his friend Chris Street, the Iowa player who died in a car wreck during the 1992-’93 season.

Calabria was categorized as a “grunge” player, a designation that was as cringe-worthy then as it is dated now. He was tagged with the label mostly because of his unkempt locks and an often-cited affection for Pearl Jam. It seems benign now but it went against the often buttoned-down approach of most UNC players under Smith. The cultivation of this “alternative” image, along with his leading-man looks, undoubtedly explained Calabria’s popularity with the female demographic.

All of this explains why I was such a fan of Calabria. Being in high school during Calabria’s heyday, all I wanted to do with my life was shoot threes, listen to “Vitalogy,” impress girls with my indifferent demeanor and be the cool white dude who got to play with the likes of Stackhouse and Wallace.

Calabria wasn’t drafted by an NBA team, but quickly found his niche overseas. He would surface Stateside during the summer leagues and show flashes of brilliance for the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Lakers (including 33 points on 14-for-16 shooting for L.A. against the Rockets in a 2001 summer league game).

But Calabria never played a regular-season game in the NBA. The closest he came was his preseason run with the Bulls in 1997-’98. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman weren’t playing because of injuries, so Calabria filled the team’s need for warm bodies. Calabria accompanied Chicago to the McDonald’s Open in Paris, where adoring crowds filled the Palais Omnisport de Bercy for a chance to watch Michael Jordan.

Calabria didn’t see any action as the Bulls wore their red jerseys in an 89-82 victory over PSG Racing. But in the championship game against Olympiakos Piraeus, with the Bulls leading, 93-70, Calabria and his white jersey checked into the game with 4:12 remaining. He shared the court with Rusty LaRue, Keith Booth, Boris Gorenc and Joe Klein. Calabria brought the ball up the court, got an offensive rebound, missed two shots and notched a steal during garbage time of the 104-78 victory.

I remember watching that game and fervently wishing Calabria could reprise that game against Florida State and earn a spot on a team that was destined to win its sixth championship of the 1990s. That didn’t stand to reason because the Bulls didn’t have a roster spot and Calabria’s game was more suited for Europe. He was waived shortly after the Bulls returned home. I didn’t give up hope for an NBA career, though, because that was my guy and there are always players who hit you at just the right times. And, little did I know that I would one day own that Bulls jersey.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Other Guys

Few games have more historical significance than the 1979 NCAA championship game. Michigan State’s 75-64 victory over Indiana State in Salt Lake City gave fans the first taste of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. It remains one of the most-watched basketball matchups ever.

But, quick, what happened in the semifinals of the 1979 Final Four? It’s easy to forget about Penn, which was dominated by the Spartans, 101-67. And despite all that sprang forth from the title game, Bird would probably rather have people remember the Sycamores’ 76-74 victory over DePaul.

Often lost among all the mythologizing and rhapsodic re-telling is the fact that Bird struggled against Michigan State, playing with a hurt thumb and scoring 19 points on just 7-for-21 shooting. He was the focus of double teams by the Spartans throughout the game. That stood in stark contrast to the strategy of DePaul coach Ray Meyer in the semifinals. The Blue Demons thought that they would let Bird score, but completely shut down the rest of his less-heralded teammates.

In retrospect, that probably wasn’t Meyer’s smartest coaching decision. Bird had gotten a fair amount of publicity, but the Sycamores’ game against DePaul would be the first time that a large national audience got to see him play.

Bird didn’t leave anyone disappointed. He was outstanding from the jump ball, which fell to Bird, who expertly tapped it to a streaking Carl Nicks for a layup. A few minutes later, Bird found some space against DePaul’s Curtis Watkins and got his first points on a 15-footer off the glass.

It was a sign of things to come. After the first 20 minutes, Indiana State had a 45-42 lead and Bird had 23 points on 11-for-12 shooting. He scored from all over the court, with either hand, making true believers of the venerable NBC announcing crew of Al McGuire, Billy Packer, Dick Enberg and sideline reporter Bryant Gumbel.

Watkins was hampered by a bum knee and couldn’t slow Bird. The Blue Demons also played their five starters for the entirety of the game, so they sometimes switched to a 2-3 zone to conserve energy. There probably isn’t a player in basketball history more equipped than Bird to destroy a zone. He had the brains to find the soft spots, the shooting touch and the passing vision when the defense collapsed on him. Bird finished with 35 points on 16-for-19 shooting, with 16 rebounds and nine assists.

Still, Indiana State could not put away DePaul. All five of the Blue Demons’ starters would be drafted by NBA teams, and they were led in this game by hotshot freshman Mark Aguirre and Gary Garland, who went by the nickname “the Music Man” and later worked as a backup singer for half-sister Whitney Houston.

Aguirre had 19 points, but missed his chance to alter history. With DePaul trailing, 75-74, in the waning seconds, Aguirre’s long jumper bounced off the rim and into the hands of Indiana State’s Leroy Staley, who added a free throw for the final margin.

If Aguirre’s shot had fallen, who knows how the next few years of basketball would have played out. Johnson and Bird certainly still would have been NBA stars, but there wouldn’t be the narrative of their rivalry without the founding story of the 1979 NCAA championship game. You just don’t mess with destiny.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Basket Case

Scottie Pippen now has a rightful place alongside the best players ever. But in the run-up to his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, it seemingly was a must to bring up the 1.8 seconds.

Pippen infamously refused to come back onto the court after Phil Jackson drew up the winning shot for Toni Kukoc in the Chicago Bulls’ 104-102 victory over the New York Knicks in Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals. The incident has been used to darken Pippen’s reputation as a selfish player. Somehow it also cemented the idea in some people’s minds that Pippen didn’t know how to handle being the locus of attention on a team.

The 1.8 seconds, of course, are merely a blip on Pippen’s remarkable road from abject poverty to team manager at Central Arkansas to one of the greatest NBA players of all time. But that shot should have been Pippen’s, and it is a good surmise that if Phil Jackson had to do it over again, Pete Myers would have been lobbing the ball in for No. 33.

Pippen momentarily lost his mind. It was a childish decision, to be sure, but it was a split-second response to a highly emotional situation. It helps Pippen’s side of the argument to get the full back story.

There was already the emotionally fraught dynamic between Pippen and Kukoc. This was also Pippen’s first year playing in the NBA without Michael Jordan, and the running theme of the season was whether Pippen could truly be a top dog.

Then there were the Knicks. Pat Riley’s teams had tried to scrap and pull and grab their way past the Bulls for years, often targeting Pippen for the most physicality. With Jordan off on his baseball sabbatical, the Knicks sensed a window of opportunity and were going to do whatever it took to knock the Bulls aside.

Pippen was often frustrated by the physical play. In this series, he had five fouls in Game 1 and fouled out of Game 2. It didn’t take long for the Knicks to go hard at Pippen in Game 3. Charles Smith checked into the game with eight minutes left in the first period and was involved in two shoving matches with Pippen in the span of 60 seconds.

All the grappling spilled over in the second quarter, when Bulls reserve Jo Jo English and Knicks guard Derek Harper touched off a brawl that spilled in the stands at Chicago Stadium just a few feet from the watchful eyes of NBA Commissioner David Stern.

So emotions were definitely running high in this game. Pippen was in the middle of the scrum but was mostly acting as a peacemaker. This was his team, the Bulls needed him on the court, and he took his job very seriously. He set the tone defensively, as always, guarding Harper on the ball, chasing sharpshooter Hubert Davis on the perimeter and bumping with Anthony Mason on the blocks. Pippen also got on teammate Luc Longley for being too passive and got in the ear of Scott Williams for being too reactive.

Pippen was also in the groove offensively. He had 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting at halftime. He pushed the tempo of the game as the Bulls upped the lead to 22 points at one point in the third quarter. Stupid fouls and mental mistakes by the Bulls let the Knicks back into game. Pippen scored his final basket to give him 25 points and the Bulls a 98-86 lead with just under five minutes remaining.

Pippen was obviously going full-tilt to get the Bulls past a hated rival. What was Kukoc doing? Not much. The rookie made a few nice passes, had some nifty post moves, but played only 13 minutes. Kukoc hadn’t been in on the court at all in the fourth quarter until checking in after the Knicks cut the lead to 102-100 in the final 30 seconds.

Pippen had his chance to the play the hero here but was caught with the ball as the shot clock was running out. He tried to make a one-on-one play but ran out of room on the wing because Kukoc was firmly planted in the corner. After Pippen’s wild three-pointer missed badly and the Knicks called timeout, he was seen yelling at Kukoc as the teams headed to their huddles.

So after Patrick Ewing’s runner tied the game, leaving those famous 1.8 seconds, and Jackson put the ball in Kukoc’s inexperienced hands, it was all too much for Pippen.

He melted down in an impossibly charged atmosphere. Who knows why “The Zenmaster” entrusted a rookie that was often criticized as being soft? Perhaps he knew that, with the Bulls inbounding on the right side, the left-handed Kukoc could field a lob pass against Mason and get off an easier shot than a right-hander could.

You can’t argue with the result: Kukoc calmly sank the jumper at the top of the key. But you can certainly argue with those who permanently grade down Pippen for refusing to play those 1.8 seconds. It was his team and his game to win against an opponent that had bullied and bloodied him in the past. That should have been Pippen’s shot.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Friars Club

The 1988-’89 St. Anthony (N.J.) Friars can legitimately lay claim to being one of the greatest high school teams of all time.

A cogent argument can be made for any of the Baltimore Dunbar Poets teams that went undefeated from 1981-’83 and, at various times, featured future NBA players Mugsey Bogues, Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Reggie Lewis. LeBron James’ teams at Ohio’s St. Vincent/St. Mary have gotten a fair amount of hype recently as well.

But the reason St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley Sr. can now call himself a Hall of Famer is that his teams are always tough defensively and highly disciplined on offense, with the ’88-’89 team best personifying his philosophies. Hurley’s teams also boast big names, and these Friars had Bobby Hurley, Terry Dehere, Jerry Walker and freshman big man Rodrick Rhodes.

That team was at the vanguard of the explosion in popularity of high school basketball. The Friars played a national schedule, flying to big tournaments from coast to coast. This is commonplace for powerhouse teams now, but it was rather revolutionary at the time. Hurley and other elite coaches drew criticism for what some deemed the “professionalization” of amateur athletics. But it is hard to argue with a loaded team like St. Anthony that needed to seek out the best competition available. What is the point of sticking around New Jersey and beating vastly inferior teams by 40 points every game?

The Friars also got national publicity. They even had a game televised by ESPN: a 64-45 victory over Flint Hill (Va.) in the championship game of the King Cotton Classic on Dec. 29, 1988, in Pine Bluff, Ark.

The tournament was one of the biggest for top-shelf prep teams, along with the Big Time in Las Vegas and the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C. ESPN’s first televised regular-season high school game was the 1987 King Cotton title game.

A year later, the nation had the chance to see how far prep hoops had come. St. Anthony’s opponent, Flint Hill, epitomized the new order. The prep school had taken its cues from another Virginia institution, Oak Hill Academy, in piecing together teams of all-stars.

Whereas St. Anthony largely took players from its area (granted it is a very fertile vineyard for the game), Oak Hill had set the standard of bringing in blue-chip recruits from anywhere, which in turn brought prestige and money to the school. This set the stage for the cash grab of the bloated 1990s, when fly-by-night schools cropped up across the U.S.

Flint Hill didn’t yet have that national reach, but it had struck gold by mining players from the Washington, D.C., area. The 1988-’89 team was anchored by senior forward George Lynch and junior guard Randolph Childress, both future ACC stars, and was widely seen as the No. 2 team in the country after St. Anthony.

So the nationally televised matchup was highly anticipated. It didn’t take long for St. Anthony to show that it was on a different level than Flint Hill. The Friars’ swarming help defense held Lynch scoreless in the first half, and the future stalwart defender was repeatedly torched by Walker (19 points and nine rebounds.)

Childress had just as much trouble with the younger Hurley, whose heady game was already fully formed. Hurley, as he always would, looked like a player that wouldn’t be out of place on a JV team. But he was the fearless leader of this team, and by the time he came out of the game late in the fourth quarter, he had 24 points, four rebounds and four assists. True to the breed of coach’s sons, Hurley rarely made bad decisions with the ball. Childress and Lynch combined for only 14 points. In fact, Flint Hill’s best prospect looked like future Villanova player Aaron Bain.

St. Anthony easily passed its biggest test of the young season. The Friars would run the table, finishing 32-0 and claiming that mythical national championship. The best prep team ever? Impossible to say, of course, but you certainly can’t go wrong by backing the 1988-’89 St. Anthony Friars.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Art of the Steal

Talking about defense is never easy. As hard as it is to actually play good defense, it’s almost as difficult to analyze during a game. There are so many strategies and moving parts that the human eye can’t process all the information at once. That’s why discussing it is usually limited to played-out maxims like “defense wins championships.”

Few coaches, on any level, have taught the nuts and bolts of defense like Dick Bennett. The crown jewel of Bennett’s impressive coaching career was taking a band of hard-nosed players at Wisconsin to the 2000 Final Four. UW was often criticized for its methodical offense, but the team made its bones on defense and the Badgers were fourth in the nation that season in scoring defense at 58.8 points per game.

Spearheading that team’s defense was point guard Mike Kelley, the school’s all-time steals leader with 275 and generally regarded as one of the best off-the-ball defenders in recent college basketball memory. He also shares UW’s single-game record for thefts with 10 against Texas on Dec. 7, 1999.

Probably Kelley’s best defensive work came in the first two games of the Badgers’ tournament run in 2000. The four players he matched up with all later played in the NBA — Fresno State’s Courtney Alexander and Arizona’s Luke Walton, Richard Jefferson and Gilbert Arenas.

Kelley had run into trouble before with big, athletic guards (Ball State’s Bonzi Wells gave him fits one game). Alexander fit that mold. Fresno State’s star led the nation in scoring at 25.3 points per game, so Kelley had to be in top form.

Kelley responded early, fighting around a screen by Fresno State’s Larry Abney, then jumping into the passing lane with his right hand to steal a pass by Demetrius Porter just over a minute into the game. That led to a fast-break layup and was the first of 17 turnovers by the Bulldogs. Alexander couldn’t get by Kelley and never looked comfortable, finishing 5 of 19 for just 11 points as UW won, 66-56. Kelley had six steals to match his assists.

Against Arizona, Kelley struck early again, knocking the ball away from Walton for a steal at the 18:40 mark. However, guarding Jefferson, Kelley picked up his second foul with 14:29 still to play in the first half. Kelley had to watch from the bench as Arenas got hot. The future “Agent Zero” had 12 of Arizona’s 23 points at halftime on 5-for-9 shooting.

Kelley was tasked with slowing down Arenas in the second half. He harassed Arenas into going 2 for 9 in the final 20 minutes. Kelley had five steals as UW knocked off the top-seeded Wildcats, 66-59.

So what did Kelley do so well? Why were the Badgers so good at slowing other teams’ offenses? Again, dissecting defense is difficult, so it is best to go straight to the source. After all, Kelley moonlights as an ESPN game analyst. Kelley was kind enough to respond to some wonky questions about defense, Bennett and the 2000 tournament.

Q. In the first two rounds of the 2000 NCAA tournament, you spent time guarding some future pro players, mostly Alexander, Jefferson and Arenas. Do you remember anything about your game plan for defending them?

A. We (I) had a more specific game plan against Alexander than the other two. The NCAA loss in the first round the prior year left such a bad taste in our mouth that we didn’t even bother worrying about our second round matchup, we just wanted to get a “W” any way we could. So, for Fresno State, the coaches spliced together all of his shots from about 3-4 games (I think they were his conference tournament games, but can’t remember exactly). It was a highlight tape like you wouldn’t believe. It was frightening because the guy could/would score from anywhere. But we were able to notice that when he went to his left, he usually pulled up for a mid-range jumper, and when he went right he went all the way to the bucket. He also preferred to take the deep 3 above all else. With that knowledge, our plan was to extend our “Pack” defense on him and take away the quick 3. Then force him left (a typical plan with a right-handed shooter) with the understanding that I needed to be ready for a quick pull-up.

Q. Coach Bennett is hailed as a defensive mastermind. What were his core principles on defense and what did he teach you as an individual?

A. Coach Bennett IS a defensive mastermind, and I don’t think you could find any of his peers that would disagree. He taught the “Pack” defense, which essentially consisted of a mini-three point line set in about two feet from the standard three-point line. The idea was that unless you were guarding the ball, you had to be inside the pack. A typical drill for us consisted of a half court 5-on-4 game where the defense had to match up one-on-one and the offense had one extra guard trying to penetrate. The extra guard could only shoot a layup or drive and dish to a teammate, but his goal was to test out the help ability of the defense. Tony Bennett typically played the extra offensive guy and he was fantastic. Bottom line, I’m a firm believer in the adage, “You are what you emphasize,” and with Coach Bennett, everything started and ended with the “D.”

Q. Creating steals has been compared to playing poker and reading an opponents “tells.” Is that something you pick up through playing a lot or is it a skill gleaned from watching video of other players?

A. The majority of defense is effort and positioning. If you want to be good at it, are willing to put in the effort, and have some basic principles that all five guys are trying to execute at the same time, you’re guaranteed an above average defensive team. I would say most steals come from within the normal course of business when playing in that sort of system. But the remaining steals typically come from the “tells” and almost always are learned on the fly … you see an opponent who’s winded and getting lazy with the ball, or maybe he’s not curling hard off a screen, etc. It’s kind of hard to explain, but you just see things or patterns that you’ve seen before or you just get a gut instinct and you go for it.

Q. You were lauded as a great off-the-ball defender. What did you focus on when your man didn't have the ball? How do you know how much space to give?

A. When defending a shooter off the ball, more than anything you have to focus on the screens. If you get picked off by a screen, it doesn’t matter how fast your closing speed is, it’s too late. As a result, I was allowed greater leniency to be out of the typical help position — because the further you are removed from the guy you’re defending, the easier it is to get caught up in the melee and get screened. The better the player/scorer, the closer I stayed at all times.

Q. How do you know when to gamble in the passing lanes for a steal? Do you get more conservative if the game is close?

A. It all depends. I probably got more conservative later in close games because of the risk involved. Also, I typically never tried to jump the passing lanes right away in a game because the other team was fresh and thus their passes were crisper. Usually after a few minutes you’ll notice a lazy pass here or there and then you start to look for your chances.

Q. What is the order of importance for getting steals — hands, feet, heart and head?

A. Great (tough) question. If I had to put in order, I would say heart, head (eyes/brain), feet, hands. As stated above, if you really want it and are willing to put in the work (heart), and have been taught a solid defensive system (head/feet), you’re 90% there.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Gone Too Soon

There is no greater basketball tragedy than Ben Wilson’s story. Len Bias’ death of a cocaine overdose shocked the sports world, but it is unassailably true that Bias put himself in a bad position that night.

Wilson was shot and killed in Chicago after accidentally bumping into three young men while crossing the street on the eve of the first basketball game of his senior year in high school. Wilson was already a legend in the world of Chicago hoops; he had built himself from a run-of-the-mill freshman into the nation’s No. 1 prep prospect as a junior at Chicago Simeon in 1984. By all accounts, Wilson was the best kid that anyone could have hoped to know. But he ended up being a victim of the urban violence that was all too common in America during the 1980s.

Wilson had solidified his rep as the best high school player in America at the venerable Nike All-American camp the summer after his junior season. The other top players in Wilson’s class included Danny Ferry, Sean Elliott and Pervis Ellison. But the last time the general public got to witness Wilson’s startling talents came on the final day of the Illinois High School Association tournament in 1984. Wilson’s stacked Simeon team beat Aurora West, 67-58, in the AA semifinal, and later in the day beat Evanston, 53-47, for the championship at Assembly Hall in Champaign.

Wilson was saddled with foul trouble and played limited minutes in the title game, but that is largely forgotten because of the show he put on against Kenny Battle and Aurora West in the semis.

Wilson was 6 feet 8 inches and could do a little of everything, which back in those days would earn a player the “Magic Johnson with a jump shot” honorific. That’s flattering, for sure, but not entirely accurate. Wilson was an able passer from the high post, but he lacked Magic’s incomparable vision and showmanship. The cool Wilson could probably best be likened to George Gervin. Like the Iceman, Wilson was venerated for his cardsharp’s sang-froid and smooth-as-silk forays to the basket.

Aurora West tried to contain Wilson by using multiple zone looks, anchored by the freakishly athletic Battle. Wilson never panicked, getting double-clutch shots off against Battle or dumping the ball down to fellow big man Rodney Hull. Wilson had classic post moves and could fill the lane on the fast break. He finished with a team-high 21 points in the semifinals.

It wasn’t just the numbers. Wilson was well-schooled by Chicago Public League coaching legend Bob Hambric. He came into the backcourt to help Simeon beat the pressure of Aurora West and Evanston. On the other end, Wilson’s impossibly long arms wreaked havoc for opposing players trying to crack Simeon’s full-court press or fearsome 2-3 zone. Wilson also quickly diagnosed what the other teams were doing on defense, and could often be seen directing traffic for the Wolverines’ offensive attack.

Wilson’s good nature was also clearly evident in his final two games. He’s seen patting officials on the back, even when questionable calls forced him to the bench during the championship game. He helped lift opponents off the court and was the first to congratulate teammates after a good play.

That’s what makes Wilson’s story all the more harrowing. A senseless crime deprived the world of a unique basketball talent, but it also took away an unimpeachably good person.

Wilson’s gone, but certainly not forgotten. Chicago Tribune hoops writer K.C. Johnson, who played on the Evanston team that lost to Simeon for the championship, wrote an affecting piece on the 25th anniversary of Wilson’s death. Childhood friend Nick Anderson wore No. 25 throughout his NBA career to honor Wilson. Another Simeon star, Derrick Rose, wore the number out of respect for a player from the neighborhood that died before Rose was born. The school retired No. 25 in 2009.

Who knows where basketball would have taken Wilson. The commonly held theory is that Wilson would have gone to DePaul, Indiana or Illinois. This has led fans of those schools to tantalizingly wonder what might have been. How about Rod Strickland running the break at DePaul with Wilson trailing? Or the inside-outside combination of Steve Alford and Wilson at Indiana? Or imagine the possibilities at Illinois with Wilson joining forces with Battle and the other Flyin’ Illini?

We’ll never know. And that’s only part of the tragedy.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Most Respected

The phrase “They don’t make ’em like they used to” is clichéd, trite and often wrongheaded. That said, there will likely never be another NBA broadcaster like Johnny Most. He was the radio voice of the Boston Celtics for almost 38 years, starting in 1953.

Some younger fans might not know Most by name, but they’ve definitely heard his greatest-hits reel from any reputable NBA history documentary: “Havlicek stole the ball!;” “Bird follows his own shot;” and “Now there’s a steal by Bird, lays in underneath to D.J. …”

Of course, the words were secondary to Most’s inimitable voice: a smoker’s rasp twinned with the Runyonesque cadence of his native New York. Listening to Most do a full game is a pure pleasure, especially if the game turned out to be a classic like the Celtics’ 140-139 victory over the Washington Bullets in double overtime on Nov. 7, 1987.

This was Most at his best. It was Boston’s second game of the season, but Most broadcast it like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. That’s even more amazing when you remember that he was well into his third decade of broadcasting. Most’s rat-a-tat play-by-play was perfect for the crispness of the Larry Bird-era Celtics. The game also had three clutch shots in the waning seconds of regulation and the two overtimes, two by Bird and one by the Bullets’ Darrell Walker, which brought out the histrionics in Most.

Most had a dexterity with language that is altogether different from the garrulous slickers behind the mic these days. In the opening minutes, Most called Bullets rookie Mugsey Bogues “a noted plagiarist, he can really pilfer the basketball.” Somehow that came off as humorous rather than obnoxious.

Most is credited with adding the phrase “stop and pop” to the basketball lexicon. Other catchphrases of Most’s never really took, like when he said Bernard King was “fiddlin’ and diddlin’ ” with the basketball on the wing.
Most was also beloved for his humor. When bantering with partner Glenn Ordway about the sparse Washington crowd, Most quipped that “it takes awhile to get here from Europe.” When a referee blew his whistle for physical play under the basket, Most said it “would break a city ordinance if that foul was called on (Bullets center) Moses Malone.”

That also speaks to Most’s blatant lack of impartiality. A broadcaster might be excoriated for that these days, but it was almost expected of a curmudgeon like Most. He was tireless in criticizing officials and the Celtics’ opponents. It was “an injustice” when no foul was called on Moses Malone down low. Bullets guard Jeff Malone was “a good Stanislavski” for selling a foul.

Most never really incorporated statistics into his broadcasts, not surprising because he worked in the pre-digital age when instant numbers weren’t readily available. Who knew that Bird posted a 47-8-7 or Moses Malone had a 32-13 in this game? But Most was great at calling the grittier action on the court: the rugged picks, which players were elbowing each other or who had a solid box-out.

Most’s greatest attribute was probably channeling the feelings of a fan. When the excitement hit, Most’s cigarette-addled voice always hit the upper register. After Bird hit a running three-pointer to tie the game at 119 with seven seconds left in regulation, Most excitedly declared the game a “wing-dingler.” He even mustered some excitement to call the 20-footer that Walker sank to send the game into overtime, although with just a prosaic “And he hits it!” Another running three-pointer by Bird to win the game at the end of the second overtime left Most shouting, “Can you believe it?” over and over.

Again, that was more than enough enthusiasm for the second game of the season. It’s hard to believe that just a few years later, on Oct. 10, 1990, Most would announce his retirement. A streetwise World War II veteran calling basketball games for 38 years, encompassing Cousy, Russell, Havlicek and Bird? The only thing you can say is that they don’t make ’em like they used to.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Jerry and Me

It’s impossible for me to be impartial about Jerry Stackhouse. It might seem like an odd choice, but there’s always a player or two that grizzled observers have a blind spot for and Stackhouse is mine. I’ve poked holes at the idea that he was the next Michael Jordan, but that was low-hanging fruit and I felt rotten afterward, like I’d just turned state’s evidence on a distant relative.

As is typically the case with these situations, my connection with Stackhouse stems from childhood. For several summers in the early 1990s, I attended the Carolina Basketball School. It was your typical camp experience, with endless games and former college players running you through drills (thanks Joe Jenkins, bench staple on UNC’s 1987- ’88 team, for fixing my jumper). At the end of the week, the thousands of campers would line up for hours in the humid June weather of North Carolina to shake the hand of Dean Smith, which in that state is on par with getting a private audience with the pope.

In 1993 the camp had a different buzz because the Tar Heels had won the national title a few months earlier. They were losing only George Lynch from the starting lineup, and were bringing in a stellar recruiting class with Rasheed Wallace, Jeff McInnis and this phenom from the rural outpost of Kinston, N.C., Jerry Stackhouse.

Stackhouse pretty much dominated any conversation that summer:

“Hey, man, didja see him score 27 points and win the MVP at the McDonald’s All-American Game? He’s definitely the next Jordan.”

“Yo, my brother played AAU against Stack when he was on the Charlotte Sonics with McInnis and Jeff Capel and them. My brother says Stackhouse’s already better than Jordan.”

The highlight of each week at Carolina Basketball School was always the pickup game at the Dean Dome with Tar Heels past and present. But that year everyone’s eyes darted around the building because word coursed through the crowd that Stackhouse was in the building.

“STACK! HOUSE! STACK! HOUSE!” That was the chant, because that’s what a teeming mass of young males does.

Improbably, Stackhouse surfaced in the stands, running down the steps and onto the court. The campers were sent into quivering hysterics like true believers at a tent revival. Kindly remember that he had yet to suit up for the Tar Heels, and this was well before prep stars were granted instant celebrity status.

As per NCAA rules, Stackhouse couldn’t play in the pickup game because he wasn’t a UNC student yet. I don’t remember the game, because I just watched Stackhouse listlessly bouncing a ball on the sideline. He had a pro’s body already. Maybe he could be better than Jordan.

Stackhouse’s first college game on the national stage (and third overall) came against the John Calipari-led University of Massachusetts in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 24, 1993. I knew this would be the game that Stackhouse convinced everyone of his Jordan-ness.

Stackhouse came off the bench because Dean Smith was always reluctant to start freshmen, especially early in the season. When he checked into the game, Stackhouse promptly tossed an alley-oop way too high for Brian Reese, got whistled for traveling, lost Donta Bright on defense, then got stripped by Lou Roe and turned the ball over. The seemingly indestructible Tar Heels fell in overtime, 91-86, to the Minutemen (Roe was a beast with a 28-14).

Stackhouse played 22 minutes and was only 1 for 7 from the field, finishing with seven points. I was absolutely crushed. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be; it was a quick-and-dirty lesson in reality for a young kid. That season was probably the most confounding in UNC’s history. All that talent never meshed, and the Heels were bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Boston College.

Despite being a more jaded fan, the next season I got tickets when the Tar Heels came to my hometown to play Virginia Tech at the Greensboro Coliseum on Jan. 21, 1995. Stackhouse was already well on his way to being a first-team All-American. But to me, he had lost some of that aura that I had attached to him in my more innocent basketball days.

The Tar Heels had the devil’s own time trying to put away Virginia Tech, thanks to a hot second half from Hokies star Ace Custis. UNC was starting to pull away when, with just under three minutes remaining, Stackhouse got the ball on the left wing. He faked left, getting his defender off balance so he could drive right. He got into the lane and I thought he was going to take a little pull-up jumper before the weak-side help came over. But Stackhouse had no such intention, taking two powerful steps before launching himself into the air off his left foot.

The Hokies’ center finally got over and looked like he was going to try to take a charge, then tried to bail out when he saw that Stackhouse kept rising with the ball cocked. Amazingly, Stackhouse kept going and then tomahawked the ball through the basket, almost decapitating the rim in the process.

The video doesn’t do the dunk justice. The Coliseum went certifiably insane. All I could do was let loose with a guttural howl. The hardness hadn’t completely set in, there was still some giddiness inside. It was easily the greatest dunk I have ever seen in person. (The only one that can even compare is when I watched a former star running back for Western Guilford High School crack the backboard at the Guilford College gym).

So I can never be too harsh regarding Stackhouse. Even when he chafed at playing alongside Allen Iverson with the Philadelphia 76ers or when he shut himself down because of a questionable knee injury with the Washington Wizards, that stuff never bothered me as much as it should have. I’d always be able to mount a defense, and central to that argument would be that thunderous dunk from one of the greatest players to ever come out of North Carolina.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Gunner/Gunnar Mentality

Kobe Bryant can’t be understood. Hundreds of journalists have attempted to penetrate the heart of darkness that seemingly ticks only to destroy his opponents’ will. The results feel like they are only scratching the surface of arguably the most polarizing player ever.

Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson is better positioned than most to examine the recesses of Bryant’s soul. Jackson has been around for Precocious Kobe, Willing Sidekick Kobe, Unwilling Sidekick Kobe, Petulent Kobe and, now, Redeemed Champion Kobe. The Zen Master is famous for handing out books for his players to read, nudging them down the path to enlightenment. In 2000, Jackson’s pick for Bryant was Paul Beatty’s ferociously biting satire “The White Boy Shuffle.”

Jackson saw the easy parallels between Bryant and the novel’s main character, Gunnar Kaufman, a young African-American searching for a cultural identity. Back then, Bryant was still defining his basketball identity, vacillating from game to game between poles of the age-old hoops conundrum of individual vs. team success. As with the fictional Kaufman, Bryant’s struggle would have to combust in some historic manner. It did with the 81-point explosion against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006.

Kaufman starts out at as a skateboarding, heavy-metal listening beach bum in Santa Monica, then experiences a shock to the system when he moves to a grittier neighborhood. Kaufman finds outlets in poetry and, yes, basketball. Bryant’s peripatetic childhood also shaped his character. He followed his father across Europe as Joe “Jellybean” Bryant found pro hoops work, then the family settled into a leafy Philadelphia suburb. New schools, shifting sets of friends … basketball was the only constant for Bryant.

Owing to his unusual upbringing, Bryant faced questions of authenticity. His game was traditional, almost aristocratic. In “The White-Boy Shuffle,” there is a striking scene when Kaufman gets his first basketball from his father:

“As I ran out to retrieve the ball, a book landed at my feet. The book was a thin paperback entitled ‘Heaven Is A Playground.’ From what I could glean from the back cover, it was a sports journalist’s treatise on a pack of inner-city Brooklynites who spent the better part of their days scampering around a basketball court known as the Hole. Inside my father had scribbled a note: ‘Read this and remember you’re a Kaufman and not one of the black misfits sociologically detailed herein.’ ”

Kaufman becomes an All-American baller, a mega-selling poet and then a reluctant “leader” of African-Americans. Rebelling against those stereotypical pathways to success, his fame explodes when he advocates suicide as a means of societal change. Bryant became an All-American, the anointed leader of a new generation of stars and then was vilified for his soloist leanings.

The period of the 81-point game was Bryant at a low ebb. He still hadn’t shaken the stigma of the Colorado charges and the fallout from the Shaquille O’Neal trade. He was forced to play in a starting lineup that included Chris Mihm, Kwame Brown and Smush Parker.

Bryant tried to play it straight in the first quarter against the Raptors. He ran the triangle offense. He was patient, not taking a shot until several minutes into the game. But the frustration was visibly mounting, as Brown bobbled another ball away and got lost on defense or Parker jacked up an outrageous three-pointer. Bryant started taking over after Toronto raced to a 21-11 lead. He had 14 points at the end of the first.

Bryant sat the first six minutes of the second quarter, watching as a mediocre Raptors team pushed the lead to 18 points. It was then that Bryant likely decided to strap on the messiah shoes. He had 26 at halftime and the Lakers were still down 14.

The third quarter could be the defining 12 minutes of Bryant’s career, possibly more than the most recent championships. Like Kaufman, his inner rage would spill out with historical consequences. He had 27 of the Lakers’ 42 points in the quarter on 11-for-15 shooting. The Raptors’ soft zone and a passel of average defenders — Morris Peterson, Jalen Rose, Jose Calderon, Joey Graham — never stood a chance when Bryant got that monomaniacal glint in his eye.

The fourth quarter was a farce that even Beatty couldn’t have conceived. There was no pretense that the Lakers were playing a straight-up basketball game; Bryant was going to shoot virtually every time down the floor. It was almost like a catharsis for him, if Bryant was going to be labeled as selfish he was going to take that criticism to such an extreme that no one could look away. It was a remarkable exploration of individual play, the loping traipses in the lane, the artful pump fakes, the dead-eyed three-pointers from the wing. Jackson just looked on slack-jawed (disgust or amazement?) on the sideline as Bryant got his 81 (28-46 FG, 18-20 FT). The masses at the Staples Center ate it up.

After his self-immolation proclamation, Kaufman retreats to a motor court motel with his mail-order bride and new daughter. After his 81 points, Bryant realized he couldn’t put forth that kind of effort every game. He later got his help in Pau Gasol, and the third act of his career now features Bryant as the ultimate winner. It’s like he realized Gunnar Kaufman’s first statement in the prologue to “The White Boy Shuffle”: “On one hand this messiah gig is a bitch.”