Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fight For The Ages

Sometimes a torch isn’t passed between players and/or teams. Once in a while, it is wrestled away, with the resultant burns and bruises.

The preeminent NBA rivalry of the 1980s is remembered as the Celtics-Lakers. That’s near impossible to argue against, but often lost in the debate is Boston’s heated battles with the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half of that decade.

Starting with Larry Bird’s rookie season in 1979-’80, the Celtics and 76ers met in three straight Eastern Conference Finals. Philadelphia took two of those series, but Boston dug out of a 3-1 hole to bury the 76ers in 1980-’81 and then went on to win the title. The 76ers signed Moses Malone for the 1982-’83 season, and then claimed their own championship. There were plenty of testy moments between the teams, including a no-holds-barred brawl during a preseason game in 1983-’84, a season that ended with the Celtics winning another title.

The 76ers and the Celtics both started the 1984-’85 season by winning their first five games before the teams’ first meeting on Nov. 9. But for anyone watching that game, it seemed that Philadelphia’s window as a championship contender was closing fast. The 76ers’ lineup that game (minus an injured Andrew Toney) featured luminaries like Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks and a rookie off the bench named Charles Barkley. Those are all impressive names, although only Cheeks and Barkley were not getting long in the tooth.

Despite being the sixth game of the season for both teams, it still had that elusive feeling often called a “playoff atmosphere.” The aging 76ers seemed to wilt in that pressure, missing layups and turning the ball over seven times in the first quarter. Erving, in his 14th professional season, looked especially out of sorts, though his graceful athleticism was still evident. The Celtics-friendly announcing crew of Tommy Heinsohn and Mike Gorman showed their respect to the face of 1970s basketball by calling him “J.” Not “Erving,” “Julius” or even “Doctor J.” Just “J.” That’s just cool.

Philadelphia only stayed in the game because of the youthful spark that Barkley provided. Barkley checked in and immediately went to work on Boston’s sixth-man extraordinaire, Kevin McHale. Barkley threw a nice pass on a fast break for a layup, then hit a couple of fadeaway 15-footers over McHale.

However, it wasn’t Barkley’s time yet. This was still Bird’s prime. He scored 17 points in the first quarter, often abusing Erving and Bird’s personal nemesis, Marc Iavaroni. As Bird reached 29 points at halftime, the 76ers were visibly frustrated and started getting more physical. Erving had only two points in the first half.

The officials, Dick Bavetta and Jack Madden, were wildly inconsistent. The Boston Garden crowd was so animated that they sarcastically cheered when Boston’s Dennis Johnson accidentally landed on Madden after a strong drive to the basket. Madden, however, seriously injured his knee. That left Bavetta to fend for himself in a physical game between fierce combatants. (The NBA didn’t start using three-man officiating crews until 1988-’89).

As expected, the action got even more chippy, especially under the basket as a winded Bavetta struggled down the court. Bird, meanwhile, stayed white hot and pushed the Celtics to a 24-point lead in the third quarter. He had 42 points as the third quarter wound down.

Erving, who had only six points at that point, had no answers for Bird. Athletes might know that their bodies are starting to betray them, and they realize can’t do the amazing things they once instinctively did. But that fierce competitiveness doesn’t fade away. No prideful star likes to get embarrassed, which is what Bird was doing to “J.”

So when the stars got tangled up with under two minutes left in the third quarter, Erving tossed Bird to the floor. Bird wasn’t going to lay down to one of league’s beloved players, and got up in Erving’s face. Malone and Barkley teamed up to hold back Bird’s arms, and Erving started throwing jabs at the defenseless Celtics star. That started a free-for-all with Boston’s M.L. Carr taking down Malone to free up Bird, who got some good shots in at Erving.

After the dust settled, Erving and Bird were tossed. Heinsohn and Gorman were livid while watching the replays. Erving was no longer “J” but “Julius Erving.” As in “I thought Julius Erving would show more class than that.”

The way he was shooting, Bird might have hit for 60 that game. Instead, the 76ers got back to within seven points before some big shots by Danny Ainge and two key steals by Johnson keyed the Celtics’ 130-119 victory. Barkley had 29 points, signaling a new era for the 76ers.

The teams split their six regular-season meetings that season, after the 76ers had won four of six the previous season. Philadelphia would have no fight in the Eastern Conference Finals, with Boston cleaning up in five games.

The Celtics were then firmly established as the top dogs in the conference. Erving would last two more seasons, with decreased minutes and scoring, as Bird was entrenched on the all-NBA first team. Philadelphia’s time was over, frustrating for the old guard and a fight they couldn’t win.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Last Call

Al McGuire went into the Basketball Hall of Fame because of his coaching bona fides: 295-80 in 13 seasons with Marquette, the NIT title in 1970 and the memorable run to an NCAA title in his swan song of 1977. But McGuire also endeared himself to another generation of basketball fans as an eccentric broadcaster.

NBC first teamed up McGuire with the cantankerous Billy Packer and the unflappable Dick Enberg in 1978. The chemistry was undeniable. McGuire was given latitude to expound in his unique vernacular — a mishmash of tasty bon mots, colorful nicknames and coaching insight — in his thick, Long Island accent.

The trio was eventually broken up, but McGuire kept working games until his health started failing in the 1999-2000 season. His last broadcast came on March 5, 2000, in a pivotal game between Wisconsin and Indiana. CBS paired McGuire with his old pal Enberg for the call.

As reported later by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McGuire was a mess before the game. Enberg recalled seeing his friend in tears at the hotel in Madison, Wis., the morning of the game, with McGuire saying he couldn’t do it anymore.

Enberg definitely picked it up for his longtime partner at the beginning of the broadcast, filling much more air than he usually does. But McGuire began to warm up, explaining that the Badgers needed to win the game to have any shot at an NCAA tournament berth.

The first shot of the broadcasting pair showed McGuire looking emaciated. He later announced that he was suffering from anemia and other “issues” stemming from that, though he declined to get specific.

But McGuire’s mind was still sharp. On the master tape of the broadcast, McGuire can be heard fixing a typo in the “Keys to the Game” graphic during a commercial break.

The old coach’s feel for the game also was still evident. With Wisconsin trailing, 28-18, Enberg noted that the Badgers desperately needed a basket. McGuire, known for his intuition during his days at Marquette, saw a play developing in which Wisconsin’s Jon Bryant worked around some screens to fade into the corner. As it unfolded, McGuire said “Here comes a three-pointer” before the ball was passed to Bryant for the shot that got the Badgers back into the game.

As the game tightened up, McGuire’s old energy returned. It wasn’t quite at the level of his “Holy mackerel” call after James Forrest’s three-pointer at the buzzer to lift Georgia Tech over USC in the 1992 NCAA tournament. Definitely not as energetic as McGuire’s twitchy dance moves with Syracuse at the 1996 Final Four.

But McGuire was ecstatic after Maurice Linton made a layup to give the Badgers a 52-50 lead with under a minute remaining. He was so hyped up that he was effusive in his praise of Wisconsin guard Mike Kelley’s deep knee bend in sinking four clutch free throws that sealed a 56-53 victory. The Badgers went on to become the first team from the state of Wisconsin to make the Final Four since McGuire’s title in 1977.

There was debate between the officials about a clock issue and if Indiana should get a final shot at tying the game. The game was ruled over, leaving Bob Knight expectedly apoplectic. McGuire’s call of the replay, in which an Indiana player falling out of bounds tried to throw the ball off a Wisconsin player, was convoluted. Enberg was left shaking his head, saying “You’ve always confused me, Al.”

Those words would be Enberg’s last repartee with McGuire, who couldn’t work the NCAA tournament. McGuire soon was to enter a hospice in the Milwaukee area, and he died of leukemia on Jan. 26, 2001.

Enberg was right, McGuire’s phraseology could be hard to unpack. But the great thing about McGuire’s broadcasts was that he could make poetry out of confusion.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fallen Stars

Everyone associated with basketball has a tale about a talented player who lost his way on the path to greatness. These stories even have stock characters. There’s the childhood friend with ungodly amounts of natural skills — except the ability to follow authority. There’s the high-school star that couldn’t make it academically, bouncing around community colleges before fading into obscurity.

More often than not, the cautionary tales involve a star falling victim to drugs and/or alcohol. This was especially true in the 1980s. Two of the biggest hoops casualties met on Jan. 19, 1985, when Len Bias and the Maryland Terrapins took on Richie Adams and UNLV at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Just a passing glance at the court could identify the most talented players. Adams and Bias were just physically superior to their teammates.

Adams was 6 feet, 9 inches with long, sinewy arms and fast-twitch legs that allowed him to be a shot-blocking and rebounding force. He was a playground legend from the Bronx and earned the moniker “The Animal” because of his intensity on defense. Adams was also a deeply troubled soul. He barely attended classes in high school, and by the time he reached UNLV already had a burgeoning appetite for pot and cocaine.

But players with physical tools like Adams are always given a shot somewhere. UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian was famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for his reclamation projects. He accepted any washout, dropout or petty criminal — provided he still had some game. It was a modus operandi that infuriated coaching rivals in general and the NCAA in particular. As any social worker can attest, Tarkanian’s approach would warrant as many failures as success stories.

Adams appeared to have righted his sinking ship in his senior season after trying the seemingly endless patience of Tarkanian and his staff. He was averaging 18.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Against Maryland, Adams flashed his skills early. During one stretch in the first half, he hit a sweeping hook on the left block, then stuck his long arm in the passing lane for a steal at and a breakaway layup to give UNLV a 26-24 lead.

Former UNLV teammate and nine-season NBA veteran Sidney Green once said Adams was “a small Bill Russell.” That’s a reach; he probably compares more favorably to Keon Clark, another demon-plagued Runnin’ Rebels player. Both were left-handed with springy hops and an inborn timing for the game.

For Maryland, Bias was like Dominique Wilkins with a jumper. He had the natural leaping ability like Adams, but it sprang forth from a compact body that had muscles on top of muscles. Late in the first half against UNLV, Bias quieted the crowd with a thunderous slam on a three-point play. It was the same strain of dunk that Dominique was famous for — a thrilling alloy of brute strength and balletic grace.

Whenever matched against each other, neither player could gain an edge because their skills were so evenly matched. The game was tied at halftime, 38-38, with Adams notching 10 points and Bias getting nine.

Adams showed how infuriating his talent could be in the second half. He sparked a 9-0 run coming out of the locker room, punctuating a three-point play by tossing the ball into the chest of Maryland’s Derrick Lewis. But Adams often looked lost on offense, drifting around the free-throw line and crowding his teammates’ spaces.

Meanwhile, Bias battled foul trouble early and lost his shooting touch. He ended up 6 for 14, but started powering to the basket to draw fouls. The Terrapins battled back from a 12-point deficit after the Runnin’ Rebels inconceivably went into slow-down mode.

Maryland got to within 77-76 after Adams threw a lazy pass that was picked off under the basket for a layup. Adams made up for it on the next possession, making 1 of 2 free throws for a 78-76 lead with eight seconds left that stood up after Maryland threw the ball away.

Bias (20 points) and Adams (21) had played evenly. The future seemed bright for the two stars. No one could have known that the most successful NBA players in that game would be UNLV’s Armen Gilliam and Maryland’s Adrian Branch.

Bias’ tragic end is well-trodden territory, examined most recently in ESPN’s excellent documentary “Without Bias.” He died of a cocaine overdose two days after getting picked second overall in the 1986 draft by the Boston Celtics. Fans never got the chance to see Bias catching backdoor lobs from Larry Bird.

Interestingly, Bias’ last game came against UNLV, when he scored 31 points in Maryland’s 70-64 loss in the second round of the 1986 NCAA tournament.

Adams’ fall wasn’t as sudden. He ended up being named Pacific Conference Athletic Association player of the year in 1985, the second time he won that honor. He played a few games for the Long Island Knights of the USBL before getting picked by the Washington Bullets in the fourth round of the 1985 NBA draft. The trouble was that on the same day he was drafted, Adams stole a car. Needless to say, he didn’t make it past training camp with the Bullets.

Tarkanian and others kept trying to help Adams, getting him on the rosters of professional teams in the U.S. and abroad. Inevitably, Adams ended up back on the streets of the Bronx. The drug habit escalated, and so did the crimes. He was sent to jail for more than four years on robbery charges in 1989. Ten years later, he was sentenced to 25 years on a manslaughter charge in the stomping death of a 15-year-old girl.

Adams had finally reached the bottom after wasting his seemingly limitless talent. Bias became the story that every athlete hears about the dangers of drugs. Both are among the countless lost souls that haunt old gyms everywhere.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Birth of Cool

The image of a hobbled Willis Reed walking out of the New York Knicks’ locker room to frenzied cheers at Madison Square Garden before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals is indelible to anyone with even a rudimentary sense of NBA history.

The Knicks captain’s heroic return from a hip injury to make New York’s first two shots against the Los Angeles Lakers has dominated the popular recollection of that game. Reed’s gutty effort still raises goosebumps, and it is rightfully lauded for giving the Knicks an emotional boost after Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers dominated in Game 6.

But the focus on Reed obscures the brilliance of Knicks point guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier in that game. The inimitable Frazier put on a master’s class in the art of playing point guard in the 113-99 victory that gave the Knicks their first NBA title.

In studying team management under Professor Clyde, it is useful to use his textbook “Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball & Cool” — written with Ira Berkow. It is one of the seminal works in the Western hoops literary canon.

LESSON NO. 1: The essence of a playmaker

“It’s like making something up — making a poem or something. You’re coming down, playing around. With words it’s the same thing. You’re in control, you know what the goal is and you’re not sure how you’re going to get there. But you’re pretty sure you will, and it’s going to be exciting. That’s one of the joys of basketball — improvising.”

Reed provided the drama, but Frazier was in control of Game 7 from the jump. The Garden crowd had been primed, and was ready to explode. On the Knicks’ first possession, Clyde coolly brought the ball up the court on the left side. He paused for the limping Reed to join the offense, then fed the center a pass for mid-range jumper that splashed the net. Pandemonium. The Lakers never had a chance after that.

Frazier played his old Southern Illinois teammate Dick Garrett like a Hammond B3 organ. The Lakers guard was kept off balance by Frazier’s wide array of pump fakes and behind-the-back dribbles. Clyde hit all five shots he took in the first quarter and sank all five of his free-throw attempts. His numbers after the first 12 minutes: 15 points, four assists, four rebounds and an impressive block on an attempted breakaway layup by Jerry West.

LESSON NO. 2: Steal the opponents’ thunder

“Funny thing, stealing is the part of the game I love best. Stealing a ball and then scoring the basket, or passing for the score. Stealing is a calculated gamble. I don’t think you can be conservative and make steals. You got to gamble to a certain extent. But you can look foolish if you lose. It’s like a card player. You’re watching what the other guy does. As the game goes on you know what the guy would bet on, right? And like you try to sucker him with different hands, try to make him show his hand, you know? Stealing a basketball is about the same. Anticipation and quickness and cool.”

Defense became Frazier’s calling card early in his career. He kept a mental Rolodex of opponents’ tendencies and dribbling rhythms. In the second quarter, Clyde got two Lakers stars to show their hands.

West was bringing the ball up the court with Frazier lying in wait at half-court. As West drew near, Frazier struck with the precision and quickness of a venomous snake. Frazier details in “Rockin’ Steady” his philosophy on catching flies with his hands (complete with visual aids). Those quick hands knocked the ball away from West, and Frazier directly segued into a sprint to the basket. Frazier hit the layup and was fouled by West, the three-point play giving the Knicks a commanding 51-31 lead.

A few minutes later, Elgin Baylor was dribbling near the elbow and Frazier was playing off Garrett a few feet away. The double-team caught Baylor by surprise, and his attempt at shielding the ball from Frazier was a split-second slow. By the time Baylor turned around, Frazier was on his way for another layup.

Frazier’s swarming defense helped force the Lakers into 14 turnovers in the first half. The Knicks were up, 69-42, and Frazier already had 23 points (on 8-for-11 shooting), nine assists and six rebounds.

LESSON NO. 3: Control the environment

“It’s my responsibility as ball-handler to get the whole team wheeling and dealing. Willis says it’s my ball and I just let the other guys play with it. Well, most players don’t care if that’s true as long as they get their shots.”

With the Knicks holding a big lead, Frazier’s main concern in the second half was to orchestrate the tempo. The Lakers charged West with disrupting Clyde in the third quarter, and “The Logo” had as much success as Garrett did.

Frazier scored eight of the Knicks’ first 10 points after halftime. He came off a crushing pick by Reed to nail a long jumper over the outstretched arm of Chamberlain. Clyde got into the lane at will, and showed his innate understanding of a point guard’s existential question: when to shoot and when to pass.

Frazier moved the Knicks’ chess pieces around on offense. He hit Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley directly in their shooting pockets. Frazier’s traffic directing often didn’t lead to an assist for himself, but his passes set up teammates to find another Knick for a basket.

Fittingly, the Knicks’ final basket came after Frazier ran the team’s delay offense, then knifed into the defense to set up Dick Barnett for an open jumper.

Frazier’s final line was astronomical: 36 points (12 of 17 from the floor, 12 for 12 from the line), 19 assists, seven rebounds and five steals. If that’s not the best game by a point guard in basketball history, it is at least in the conversation.

FINAL LESSON: Style points

“Some people say, well, how can girls want to kiss you when you have a mustache and beard? It’s like what Archie Moore the old fighter answered to that question. Girls are thrilled to go through the forest to get to the picnic.”

Walt Frazier became “Clyde” for his outsized personality and his affinity for fedoras and Rolls-Royces. “Rockin’ Steady” contains exhaustive accounts of Frazier’s grooming habits and game-day preparations. He catalogues the contents of his closet (49 suits and 18 lids) and extols the virtues of his nine-foot round bed with a fitted white mink bedspread.

Frazier played the game with similar style. His uniform was always crisp and complemented with his “Puma Clydes.” In Game 7 against the Lakers, his mini-fro, mutton chops and mustache were immaculately manicured. He also didn’t seem to sweat, keeping with his cool persona. You couldn’t ask for anything more in a point guard.

Wade's World

It has become de rigueur that in any story written about the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade the words “summer” and “free agency” must appear. Theorizing about whether Wade will stay with the team that drafted him fifth overall in 2003 is inherently a useless endeavor. What can be said with certainty is that Wade’s meteoric rise to coveted superstar hit hyper-speed in Marquette’s 83-69 victory over Kentucky in the NCAA tournament regional final.

Wade wasn’t a heralded recruit when he arrived at Marquette to play for Tom Crean. He slipped further from the national consciousness when, as an academic partial-qualifier, he got a late start to his college career. Wade unquestionably became Marquette’s star as a sophomore, but he didn’t register on the national radar until averaging 21.5 points per game and becoming Conference-USA’s player of the year in his junior season.

The Golden Eagles got on a roll in the 2003 NCAA tournament, knocking off Holy Cross, Missouri and then Pittsburgh. That ride was supposed to end against Kentucky, which had won 26 straight games for the longest winning streak in college basketball since 1996. The Wildcats were led by Keith Bogans, the SEC player of the year, who was battling a high-ankle sprain.

With Bogans ailing, the task of guarding Wade fell to Chuck Hayes, by trade a power forward and now a 6-foot, 6-inch center with the Houston Rockets. Wade was held in check offensively in the opening minutes, missing his first three shots. But he was making an impact on defense, with two early blocked shots. Wade started to come alive offensively when Kentucky started guarding him with the smaller Gerald Fitch. Wade began going to the boards, and got his first basket on an offensive rebound and dunk.

Later in the first half, after a quick breather, Wade took over point-guard duties from Travis Diener and sparked Marquette’s first big run. He hit a three-pointer and handed out two assists as the Golden Eagles scored eight consecutive points to take an 18-14 lead.

Wade’s ascendancy really began with just under seven minutes remaining in the first half after Kentucky big man Marquis Estill grabbed an offensive rebound. As Estill gathered himself for the put-back, Wade dropped down from the top of the key, then elevated to register yet another block by swatting the ball into the backboard. Wade then took the outlet pass and went the length of the floor, splitting Hayes and Bogans at the basket and getting the points when Estill goal-tended Wade’s reverse layup. It was the nation’s first real sneak preview of Wade’s unique skill set — his incredible change-of-pace dribbling, long strides to the hoop and creativity around the rim.

By the end of the first half, Wade had recorded 11 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four blocks. Wade knocked knees with Bogans on Marquette’s first possession after halftime, but showed he was alright a few minutes later on a reverse dunk off a beautiful lead pass from Diener.

Wade’s transcendence was official when he scored 11 straight points to give the Golden Eagles an insurmountable 72-54 lead. First, he was fouled by Estill on a fast-break dunk, then he hit a dagger three-pointer. That was followed by a baseline dunk and then another three-point play that fouled out Hayes.

The triple-double was sealed a few minutes later on an inside feed to Robert Jackson, whose monster game of 24 points and 15 rebounds was obscured by Wade’s artistry. Wade left the game to a raucous ovation after recording 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, joining Magic Johnson and Andre Miller as the only players to notch a triple-double in the NCAA tournament. Wade’s performance also lifted Marquette to its first Final Four since Al McGuire’s championship run in 1977.

Wade was a known entity after that game against Kentucky. He became the first Marquette player to be a first-team All-American since Butch Lee in 1978. Miami Heat president Pat Riley, a Kentucky standout from 1963-’67, was watching Wade’s triple-double from a Stairmaster in, interestingly enough, Milwaukee. That game confirmed Riley’s notion that the Heat had to get Wade if the Marquette star was available in the draft.

As luck would have it, the Heat grabbed Wade with the fifth pick a few months later. Guessing where he is playing next season is a mug’s game at this point, but Wade’s rise to the upper echelon of NBA stars has been jaw-dropping.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

National Interest

USA Basketball guru Jerry Colangelo recently named 27 players that will make up the pool for the men’s national team from 2010-’12.

It’s up to the brain trust of Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski to devise how the players compete for spots on the team that will eventually land in London for the 2012 Olympics. The whittling process will likely be done behind closed doors, but it would be ideal for fans if they got to see as much of the action as they did in 1984.

A litany of talented players descended upon Bloomington, Ind., to take part in the 1984 Olympic Trials. Players ran the gamut from established college stars (Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing) to relatively unknown players including UW-Stevens Point’s Terry Porter. The list even included two high-school stars, Danny Manning and Delray Brooks. U.S. coach Bobby Knight ran the show, and the exacting “General” would trim the fat as he saw fit.

The highlight of the Olympic Trials was two nationally televised scrimmages in front of 18,000 fans at the sold-out Assembly Hall. Billy Packer and Pete Newell, coach of the fabled 1960 U.S. team, would call the action. Fans got the chance to scout the talent, just like the U.S. Selection Committee.

Well-known stars such as Jordan and Chris Mullin were virtual locks to make the team, but the players to watch were the ones on the bubble. Arkansas guard Alvin Robertson made his case with some suffocating defense. A young guard from Gonzaga named John Stockton was intriguing with his bulldog mentality and pass-first mien. But the toughest call to make was Auburn’s enigmatic Charles Barkley. The freshly named “Round Mound of Rebound” was clearly talented, but also was visibly out of shape in the scrimmage. Packer made the point of saying that Barkley excelled during the private practices, but Knight was unlikely to be happy with the forward’s robust (in all forms of the word) personality.

In the end, 12 players were chosen for the team that would represent America in Los Angeles that summer. A team of those who got cut might have still won gold at the Games. Barkley, Stockton, Porter, Joe Dumars, A.C. Green, Mark Price, Pearl Washington and Ed Pinckney were among the bold-faced names left off the final roster.

The lucky ones were subject to Knight’s rigorous practices and a barnstorming tour against NBA players. The Olympians played eight exhibitions across the U.S., with the best game coming at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix against a grab bag of NBA talent coached by the Lakers’ Pat Riley. The pro team’s starting lineup was Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Walter Davis, Alex English and Larry Nance. Knight settled on these starters: Jordan, Ewing, Robertson, Sam Perkins and Vern Fleming.

The pros looked a little out of shape and very sloppy. That was unsurprising for an unfamiliar group of stars in the heart of the off-season. Still, it was better competition than the Americans would see in the actual Games. Riley and the pros would help out the U.S. by playing international rules (different lanes, 30-second shot clock, 3-for-2 free throws) and switching up defenses.

The game definitely got competitive and was tight until a late run by the U.S. team. Jordan was clearly the most physically talented player on the court, and he finished with a game-high 27 points in the Americans’ 84-72 victory.

As expected, the U.S. team steamrolled to gold in Los Angeles. The Americans won by an average of 32.1 points, and shot a blistering 63.9% in a 96-65 victory over Spain in the gold-medal game. They were the last U.S. amateur team to claim gold. Debating the best non-professional U.S. team mostly oscillates between Knight’s squad in 1984 and Newell’s 1960 team (Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas) that won gold in Rome.

The fondness for that 1984 team likely stems from its many public showings. It would be high heaven to watch the current NBAers scrimmage against each other, especially in the hoops-deprived doldrums of the off-season.

Could you imagine watching in 1992, when a group of star collegians took it to the Dream Team at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, Calif.? That would have been something to see, with Bobby Hurley shaking Stockton and Allan Houston drilling threes on Jordan.

Since it is the national team, Colangelo and Co. could at least democratize the process by letting the unwashed masses watch some of the action.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Clash Of Titans

It’s unimaginable that another regular-season NBA game will be more hotly anticipated than the matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks was on Jan. 9, 1972.

The Lakers came into The Arena in Milwaukee with a 33-game winning streak, still the longest mark in professional sports. The Bucks previously held the longest NBA winning streak, a 20-game tear in 1970-’71. Milwaukee ended that season with its only NBA title and, along with the Lakers, was among the favorites to claim the crown in 1971-’72. The court was graced by some of the biggest names in the league: Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.

The game couldn’t possibly have lived up to the hype, and the first half was startlingly ragged. Abdul-Jabbar scored seven points as the Bucks jolted out to a 9-2 advantage. His trademark “Sky Hook” was in full flower, even against a perfect basketball specimen like Chamberlain.

The Lakers battled back to take a 28-26 lead after the first quarter. The intensity was ratcheted up in the second period, when Abdul-Jabbar was fouled hard by Happy Hairston. The always-prickish Abdul-Jabbar took a swipe at Hairston after the foul, and Chamberlain raced over to confront the Bucks center. A brave official stepped between the two towers, and peace was brokered. Abdul-Jabbar was whistled for a “punching foul,” something you don’t hear much anymore.

With all the Hall of Famers in the game, it was disconcerting to watch Bucks reserve bruiser John Block have the best half, piling up 11 points and seven rebounds. Chamberlain was in the twilight of his career, and was sublimating his oversized scoring ego in a last-grasp attempt to win a final title. The man who took 3,159 shots (39.5 FGA per game) with Philadelphia in 1961-’62 was being passive on offense. He averaged just 13.3 points per game that season.

(In an interesting aside, the Bucks had traded Block earlier that season with a future draft pick to the 76ers for the eccentric Wali Jones and a player to be named. Block himself turned out to be the player to be named.)

The Lakers could have used the younger Big Dipper because they trailed at halftime, 51-46. Los Angeles shot only 29% in the first two quarters, and turned the ball over 15 times.

As uneasy on the eyes as the first half was, the last two quarters were as aesthetically pleasing as anything you would ever wish to see on a basketball court. The crucial moment came just minutes into the third quarter, when Chamberlain picked up his fourth foul. Wilt “The Stilt” had famously never fouled out of a game in high school, college and his professional career. It was common knowledge that if he got close to six fouls, he’d markedly back off on defense.

Abdul-Jabbar took quick advantage of the situation. He had cooled off after a blazing start, but he started going right at Chamberlain. After Chamberlain picked up his fourth foul, Abdul-Jabbar made 11 of his final 15 shots. Chamberlain would finish the game with a quiet 15 points and 12 rebounds.

The transformative moment of the game came with 6:40 remaining. The Bucks had the ball with a 94-92 lead, and Robertson cleared out the right side to run the two-man game with Abdul-Jabbar.

The battle on this possession was one for the ages: West guarding Robertson, and Chamberlain on Abdul-Jabbar. Robertson dribbled in, and Abdul-Jabbar showed like he was going to set a screen. Robertson broke down West and got into the lane with a wicked crossover. Chamberlain moved in to help, giving Robertson a tight window to drop the pass to Abdul-Jabbar, who threw down a one-handed dunk that brought the house down.

That started an 18-2 run for the Bucks and effectively killed the Lakers’ record winning streak. Robertson orchestrated Milwaukee’s offense beautifully down the stretch, and finished with 17 points and nine assists in the 120-104 victory. Abdul-Jabbar’s line was absurd: 39 points, 20 rebounds, 10 blocks and five assists.

The Bucks finished the season 63-19. The Lakers had one of the canonical seasons in NBA history, ending up 69-13 for a record that stood until the Chicago Bulls went 72-10 in 1995-’96.

The Lakers earned a measure of revenge on the Bucks, winning the matchup in the Western Conference finals, 4-2, before dispatching the New York Knicks in five games for the NBA championship.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Blood Feud

As a companion piece to yesterday’s post on UNC’s 102-100, double-overtime victory over Duke in 1995, here are four instances when tensions ran high between the rivals:

Feb. 4, 1961: The moment when the rivalry hit a new level of intensity at what was then called Duke Indoor Stadium. Bad blood already existed between the teams. Duke star Art Heyman had originally committed to attend UNC in 1960, but backed off his word when an argument arose between Tar Heels coach Frank McGuire and Heyman’s stepfather. New Blue Devils coach Vic Bubas quickly swooped in to poach one of the nation’s top recruits. Larry Brown, a childhood foe of Heyman’s from New York, often stated his disregard for Duke’s star. As the final seconds ticked away on Duke’s 81-77 victory on the snowy night of Feb. 4, Brown drove to the basket only to run into Heyman. The Duke big man wrapped up Brown by the shoulders. The small-but-feisty Brown shook loose and then threw the ball at Heyman. UNC’s Donnie Walsh, a future NBA executive, came from behind to hit Heyman. The cauldron of ill will was ignited, and what resulted was one of the worst brawls in college basketball history. Fans, coaches and scrub players all got in on the action. It took 10 minutes and several policemen to cool the situation. Heyman was the only player bounced from the game. Later, Heyman, Brown and Walsh were all suspended for the remaining ACC games. McGuire stepped down as UNC’s coach in the off-season after allegations of recruiting violations surfaced, paving the way for Dean Smith to take the reins of the Tar Heels. Interestingly, Brown was coaching the Pistons in 2004 when Detroit and the Indiana Pacers engaged in one of the worst brawls in NBA history.

March 12, 1989: The ACC tournament championship game at the Omni in Atlanta was one of the more ferociously contested games in the history of the schools. There were 49 fouls whistled in the game, and four players fouled out. Duke’s Danny Ferry suffered a long gash on his cheek. A steady dialogue of woofing was kept up throughout the game, notably between Ferry and UNC’s J.R. Reid. The teams’ respective stars had done their share of verbal sparring in UNC’s 91-71 victory on Jan. 18 that season. In this game, Ferry was the recipient of several hard fouls by Reid and Scott Williams. Tempers flared in the first half when UNC’s Jeff Lebo and Duke’s Robert Brickey battled for a rebound, but the situation was quickly diffused. Things finally came to head in the second half as the teams headed to their benches for a TV timeout. The players bumped into each other, touching off a pushing scrum with UNC’s King Rice and Kevin Madden and Duke’s Quinn Snyder, Phil Henderson and Brickey the main instigators. The dust settled without any major fisticuffs, and UNC pulled out a tough 77-74 victory for the Tar Heels’ first ACC tournament title since 1982.

March 9, 2003: UNC coach Matt Doherty was feeling the pressure about his job security as the Tar Heels were finishing up another disappointing season. UNC also desperately wanted to snap its six-game losing streak to Duke. In the Blue Devils’ 83-74 victory on Feb. 5 that season, Doherty had taken exception to some peacocking by Duke’s Dahntay Jones. Everything bubbled over with more than eight minutes remaining on March 9, when Jones inadvertently drew blood on Raymond Felton with a swipe of his hand. Jones hit a jumper to tie the game at 63-63, and officials called time out with Felton prostrate on the court. Doherty came across the court to check on Felton and talk to the referees. Duke assistant Chris Collins walked onto the court to say something to a referee, and then made some remarks to UNC’s Rashad McCants. Doherty and Collins, both fierce competitors in their playing days, were soon in each other’s faces. Duke benchwarmer Andre Buckner stepped onto the court to shove Doherty. Peace was quickly rendered in a confrontation that easily could have gotten out of hand. UNC went on to win the game, 82-79, to snap its skid against the Blue Devils. It still wouldn’t be enough to save Doherty’s job.

March 4, 2007: The video has been dissected by fans like the Zapruder film. Tar Heels star Tyler Hansbrough, with 17.5 seconds remaining and UNC holding an 84-72 lead, grabbed the rebound of his own missed free throw. As Hansbrough gathered himself for the putback, Duke’s high-flying Gerald Henderson swooped in from the opposite side of the basket. Henderson leaped to block the shot, then tucked his arm in at the last moment. Henderson’s elbow landed a direct hit on Hansbrough’s nose, leaving UNC’s star crumpled on the floor. Hansbrough stayed down for a few seconds, then bolted to his feet with a full-on crimson mask. Teammate Dewey Burke held “Psycho T” back as the big man sought blood vengeance. Hansbrough was directed to the locker room, but he kept pausing and looking back to the court like he wanted to get into the ring. The officials huddled while coaches Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski talked calmly. Henderson was ejected, missing the final seconds of UNC’s 86-72 victory. The Duke side pleaded innocence in the aftermath, but Henderson still was slapped with a one-game suspension. It’s hard to determine from the video what Henderson’s intent was, leaving the debate open.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Instant Classic

As all-knowing ESPN has decreed it, this is “Rivalry Week” in college basketball. The slate of games, as always, is highlighted by the first matchup this season between Duke and North Carolina. The pregame chatter is likely to focus on the Tar Heels’ maddeningly sloppy play and confounding losses (College of Charleston? Really?).

But in the case of these two teams, a shopworn cliché is apt: Throw the records out the window. In point of fact, some of the best games between the schools have occasioned when one of the teams was mired in a down season. Arguably the greatest game in the rivalry came on Feb. 2, 1995, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

As noted in an earlier post, Duke was having a season to forget. Mike Krzyzewski had taken a leave of absence to recover from back surgery, leaving the team in the care of assistant Pete Gaudet. The Blue Devils remained a mess and came into the game against UNC winless in seven conference games.

On the other side, Dean Smith had the Tar Heels humming. UNC was 6-1 in the ACC despite a short bench. The Tar Heels started a smallish lineup, with Jerry Stackhouse playing power forward, Rasheed Wallace at center and a three-guard set with Dante Calabria, Jeff McInnis and Donald Williams.

The biggest fallout of Coach K’s absence for Duke came on the defensive end, and it showed in the opening minutes of the game. The overplaying Blue Devils consistently failed to rotate on defense, allowing Williams to go back door on Duke’s Trajan Langdon for the first points. More of the same followed: Stackhouse kept beating Cherokee Parks off the dribble, Williams was left alone for three-pointers and Wallace was having his way on the interior. By the time the Blue Devils took their first timeout, UNC was up, 12-2.

The Tar Heels eventually built their lead to 17 points on one of the greatest dunks in college basketball history. Stackhouse came down on the fast break with Parks and fellow Duke big man Eric Meek hustling to cover the basket. Parks fouled Stackhouse on the takeoff, but UNC’s star sophomore kept rising. Stackhouse swooped to the other side of the basket, got bumped by Meeks in mid-air, then threw down in reverse slam.

Duke started to chip away at the lead as UNC cooled off. The Cameron Crazies, silenced by Stackhouse’s dunk, came back alive as the Blue Devils cut the lead to three in the closing minutes of the first half. Calabria sank a jumper to get UNC ahead, 34-29, and then Duke’s Jeff Capel, in a bit of foreshadowing, barely missed a running 40-footer as the first half drew to a close.

Duke seized momentum early in the second half. Led by Langdon’s hot hand, the Blue Devils sank their first 5 three-pointers after halftime. The Crazies were at fever pitch after Chris Collins grabbed an offensive board, drew a foul and hit a layup for a 12-point lead. Collins sprinted to the Duke bench after making the shot, knocking over diminutive backcourt mate Steve Wojciechowski in his glee. Duke clearly wanted this game to somehow salvage a lost season.

An emphatic dunk by Wallace made it 68-58, and momentarily quieted the crowd. It was then the Tar Heels’ turn to get hot from long distance. Stackhouse, Williams and Calabria each sank key three-pointers as UNC pulled even at 76-76.

Fouls became a factor in the final minutes. Meek fouled out with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Wallace (25 points) committed his fifth personal, allowing Parks to sink two free throws that tied the game, 81-81, in the final minute. UNC had the last possession of regulation, but McInnis missed a 14-footer after trying to shake free of Wojciechowski.

Home court likely made Duke the favorite in overtime, but UNC quickly raced out to a nine-point lead. The Blue Devils didn’t get their first basket in OT until Ricky Price drained a three-pointer with 1:24 remaining.

The Tar Heels used the whole shot clock on their next possession, and seemingly clinched the victory when Pearce Landry corralled an offensive rebound. The television producers at Raycom/Jefferson Pilot Sports definitely thought the game was over, running their credits as Landry sank two free throws. Down eight with 40 seconds left, Price hit another three-pointer. Calabria hit two free throws, then Langdon drained another three for Duke. McInnis made 1 of 2 from the free-throw line, then Capel’s three-point play on a drive brought the Blue Devils within three.

Duke brought out the full-court pressure after Capel’s free throw, and UNC’s only option at getting the ball in was a lob pass to seven-footer Serge Zwikker, who was forced to play crunch-time minutes in Wallace’s stead. Zwikker was quickly fouled and, after missing the first free throw, Smith called time out to set up UNC’s defense.

The four other UNC players stayed in the back court, leaving Zwikker alone at the line to clang his second shot. Capel got the outlet pass with four seconds left. He raced up the court, taking a running 35-footer not unlike the one he missed right before halftime.

This shot found the net, however, and tied the game at 95-95. The Cameron Crazies truly made the arena feel like a loony bin.

But there was still more of the game to play. The players, coaches and referees were drenched in sweat while working OT in that bandbox of a gym. The teams stayed tight until a tough jumper by Williams was followed by a steal and layup by McInnis that gave UNC a five-point lead with a minute left.

Duke worked its way back to within two after a Price jumper, then the Blue Devils forced a turnover to get the final possession. But there wouldn’t be another miraculous shot as Wojciechowski missed a 12-footer and Greg Newton bricked a follow from six feet to give the Tar Heels a 102-100 victory.

There wasn’t much celebration after the game, with the exhausted players loping off the court. The records can fluctuate and coaches can change, but when UNC and Duke gather on the court there is always the strong possibility that history can take place.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The First Family of Wisconsin

The Bennett family is to basketball in Wisconsin as the Kennedy clan is to politics in Massachusetts.

Brothers Jack and Dick Bennett each taught the game at high schools across Wisconsin before earning success at the college level. Dick Bennett coached Terry Porter at UW-Stevens Point and his son Tony at UW-Green Bay, then found a modicum of national respect at the University of Wisconsin.

Jack Bennett also coached at UW-Stevens Point, and retired after winning back-to-back NCAA Division III national championships — with help from son Nick — in 2004 and ’05. Dick Bennett is still mostly known as a coach’s coach. In the late 1990s, Sports Illustrated polled college coaches on whom they would like to attend a clinic with, and Bennett was among the top choices, along with the likes of Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski.

But back in 1991, Bennett’s prowess was still provincial. His reputation began to leak out across Wisconsin’s border when 12th-seeded UW-Green Bay took on fifth-seeded Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament that year.

The Phoenix earned its first-ever NCAA invitation by winning the Mid-Continent Conference tournament. Green Bay’s tallest player was 6 feet, 9 inches, so the Phoenix relied heavily on perimeter shooting.

Green Bay, led by sweet-stroking lefty Tony Bennett, was the nation’s top three-point shooting team at 46%. Still, nobody outside of Wisconsin thought that a team with names like Vander Velden, Rondorf, Ludvigson and Vander Plas could hang with Jud Heathcote’s Spartans at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

If Green Bay were to have any chance, it would have to slow down Michigan State’s All-American, Steve Smith. The Phoenix’s Ben Johnson, whom Dick Bennett has called the best defender he ever coached, was tasked with the challenge.

Smith made his first four shots, but the Phoenix’s marksmanship kept it in the game. Bennett’s methodical offense was built upon patience and bone-rattling screens that freed shooters. Green Bay sank 8 of 10 three-pointers to take a 35-30 lead at the half.

Tony Bennett nailed 3 three-pointers in the first half, but was plagued by foul trouble after halftime. On the credit side for Green Bay, Johnson’s harassment slowed down Smith, who had missed six straight shots since his hot start.

Dick Bennett’s team seemed poised for a breakout victory when Johnson’s three-pointer with 3:45 remaining gave the Phoenix a 56-52 lead. But Bennett switched to a zone on defense, likely to keep Tony from getting his fifth foul. Smith, freed from Johnson’s constant presence, nailed back-to-back threes to tie the game at 58-58.

The Phoenix went back to man-to-man defense on the Spartans’ next possession, and Smith missed a three-pointer with Johnson draped all over him. Tony Bennett, never getting into the flow of the game, missed a tough leaner against two defenders with 18 seconds left in the game. Bennett, who averaged 21.3 points per game that season, finished the game 3 of 12 from the field for nine points, all on those first-half three-pointers.

Dick Bennett knew Smith would take the last shot. Smith got the ball against Johnson with 8 seconds left on the right wing. Smith took a couple hard dribbles to his left and then stepped back to take a 19-footer. Johnson was right there, but the Michigan State star’s long arms helped him get the shot away. The ball settled into the net as the buzzer sounded, giving the Spartans a 60-58 victory.

There was no upset, but Bennett’s reputation grew by leaps and bounds with Green Bay’s performance. His legend as a miracle worker would be fully burnished in the first round of the 1994 NCAA tournament, when the Phoenix knocked off Jason Kidd and California.

By then, Tony Bennett was in his second season with the Charlotte Hornets. Bennett The Younger lasted 152 games in the NBA before landing on his father’s staff at Wisconsin, where they teamed up to shock the hoops world by leading the scrappy Badgers to the 2000 Final Four.

The Bennetts eventually took their brand of basketball to the West Coast at Washington State. Dick coached three seasons before handing the reins to Tony. Tony Bennett’s fidelity to his father’s basketball vision helped resurrect the Cougars, and now the son has brought “Bennett Ball” to Virginia and the hallowed grounds of the Atlantic Coast Conference. His success shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with the family’s roots in Wisconsin.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Nash's Bridges

Steve Nash’s credentials as an all-time legend are impeccable. His resume is well-worn: back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and ’06, over 8,000 career assists to rank in the top 10, inspiration to a generation of undersized white point guards, enterprising viral video director.

Even Nash’s origin story is better than average: A hyper-athletic scrapper from Victoria, British Columbia, has a fervent belief that he can play in the NBA. He sends grainy footage of himself dominating inferior competition to college coaches throughout the United States. Santa Clara is the only school to bite. Nash heads to California and builds himself into the 15th pick of the 1996 draft.

The West Coast Conference learned about Nash as the Broncos raced to the conference title in Nash’s freshman season of 1993. The nation would begin to take heed when 15th-seeded Santa Clara met second-seeded Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats had spent most of the seasons at or near the top of the polls and had one of the best backcourts in the nation with Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudemire.

Nash wasn’t even the starting point guard; that honorific belonged to John Woolery. Nash was the off-guard with the classic early 1990s haircut that is shaved in the sides and back with a bowl up top. Does that have a name? The Snow? The Color Me Badd? The Joey Russo?

Nash didn’t have a particularly good first half against Arizona. He shot 1 for 7 and got called for three fouls. That landed him on the bench for the start of the second half.

When Nash checked back in, the Wildcats were in the midst of a 25-0 run that looked likely to quell any chance of an upset by Santa Clara. Arizona led by 13 before the Broncos battled back to get within 50-47. The game would be tight the rest of the way, and Nash’s leadership abilities were evident despite being a freshman from Canada.

He exhorted his teammates between foul shots and kept them calm as the possibility of a historic victory drew close. Nash sank six straight clutch free throws in the final two minutes. He missed his last two from the foul line, but the Broncos held on for a 64-61 victory. They became the second 15th seed to win in the first round after the Richmond Spiders beat Syracuse in 1991. Nash finished with 10 points (eight on free throws) to go with seven rebounds and four assists.

Although Temple ousted Santa Clara in the next round, it was evident this Nash kid was someone to keep tabs on.

By the time Nash was a senior in the 1995-’96 season, he had added some bulk to his 6-2 frame and had blossomed into one of the nation’s top point guards. He was named WCC player of the year two straight seasons.

In Nash’s final NCAA tournament appearance – he lost in the first round in 1995 – Santa Clara would be the underdog again. The 10th-seeded Broncos were slated to play 7th-seeded Maryland, which employed an oppressive full-court press anchored by ACC career steals leader Johnny Rhodes and a passel of athletic guards such as Exree Hipp and Laron Profit.

That press was supposed to take the ball out of Nash’s hands. It worked for a while, but soon Santa Clara coach Dick Davey found different ways of using Nash. Sometimes Nash would just get the ball at the end line and then dribble through the defense. Other times, Nash would be stationed at half court and he would take a long crossing pass to start a fast break. The Broncos began finding holes in the press, and Nash had 10 points and six assists as Santa Clara staked a 35-31 lead at halftime.

Nash dominated the ball in the second half. Hipp and Profit each took turns trying to slow him down after Nash knifed through the pressure. Nash kept finding open teammates and, just as he did as a freshman, nailing crucial free throws. The Broncos pulled away for a 91-79 victory and Nash piled up 28 points, 12 assists and six rebounds. He was 17 of 18 from the free-throw line. The skinny kid who couldn’t get a college scholarship was being mentioned as a possible lottery pick in the NBA draft.

Santa Clara was dominated by Kansas in the next round, ending Nash’s college career. Jacque Vaughn held Nash to six points, tempering the adulation that Nash had received days before. Maybe he couldn’t make it in the NBA. After seeing his growth over four years, there shouldn’t have been any doubt about what Nash could achieve.