Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Defensive Posture

Dan Dakich has been the head coach at Bowling Green and his alma mater, Indiana University. He has a burgeoning media career with an analyst gig on the Big Ten Network and a radio show in Indianapolis. But Dakich will forever be best known for one thing: shutting down Michael Jordan in the future superstar’s final college game at North Carolina. It is mandatory to mention that information in any news story or press release about Dakich. It will be the lead to his obituary.

The Tar Heels entered the regional semifinal matchup with the Hoosiers at the Omni in Atlanta as the undisputed favorite to win the title in the 1984 NCAA tournament. Despite its disappointing finish, the team often is cited as one of the best in Dean Smith’s Hall of Fame coaching career. UNC had a loaded roster with future pros Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith, Joe Wolf and glue guy Matt Doherty. Smith and Daugherty were battling nagging injuries late in the season, disrupting UNC’s offensive flow.

Bob Knight’s team was an odd mix that included talented freshman Steve Alford and role players like Uwe Blab, who probably rivals brothers Majestic and Scientific Mapp for best name in NCAA history.

“The General” gave Dakich the marching orders to guard Jordan. Legend has it that when he got the assignment, Dakich made a beeline to the lavatory to vomit. That is probably apocryphal, but Dakich’s stomach was likely uneasy when Jordan got loose for four quick points in the early minutes of the game. The game plan was to play off Jordan, daring him to shoot jumpers, and keep him off the offensive boards.

Jordan kept trying to force the action closer to the basket, and ran into Dakich’s defensive helpmates Blab and Mike Giomi. That aggressive mentality got Jordan into early foul trouble. He picked up his second personal at the 12:45 mark on a questionable push-off call while trying to catch a lob pass over Dakich. That sent Jordan to the bench for eight minutes. After he got back in with 5:40 remaining in the half, Smith kept shuffling him in and out of the game to avoid him getting whistled for another foul. Jordan was never able to get into the flow of the game, and Indiana took a 32-28 lead at the break.

The legend of Dakich’s defensive masterpiece stems from Jordan going scoreless for a 12-minute stretch in the second half. The amazing thing is that Dakich picked up his fourth foul with over 13 minutes remaining in the game, and Knight kept Dakich on Jordan.

Given space to shoot, Jordan had two jumpers that went halfway down before spinning out. Dakich’s defense had nothing to do with those. The greatest accomplishment of Dakich in this game was holding Jordan to one rebound. Watch any game film of Jordan’s college years, and his offensive rebounding stands out. No opponent could match Jordan’s athleticism, so Dakich made a point to body Jordan as soon as a shot went up.

Dakich fouled out with four minutes still on the clock. Jordan got five points after that, but Indiana was money at the free-throw line down the stretch in the 72-68 victory that ranks among the top upsets in that storied program’s history.

So have Dakich’s defensive accomplishments been overstated as the years have passed? Probably. But there is no doubt Dakich did a more-than-admirable job. Jordan was never in the game after those early fouls. He finished 6 for 14 from the field for 13 points in only 26 minutes. Given Dakich’s own foul trouble, he probably guarded Jordan for around 20 minutes in the game.

The focus on Dakich also takes away from the artistry of Alford in this game. The sharpshooter had 27 points (Dakich had four), including a clutch 23-footer in the closing seconds of the first half. Alford also handled UNC’s pressure late in the game, and coolly knocked down free throws as the Tar Heels fouled in desperation.

But the Dakich angle just makes for a better story, and Indiana traffics in myths more than any other school. Dakich sure isn’t likely to set the record straight. What’s better than being known as one of the select few to shut down the greatest player of all time?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Pressing Matters

When Malcolm Gladwell published his think-piece last year in the New Yorker about how underdogs are best-served by utilizing the full-court press, basketball novices might have been hypnotized into wondering why teams just don’t press all the time.

It is certainly an interesting theory, and Gladwell did his due diligence by speaking to the capo di tutti capi of full-court defense, Rick Pitino. Of course, Rick The Ruler’s teams have rarely been cast in the underdog role since Billy Donovan was running the point for Pitino at Providence in the 1980s. Pitino’s full-court defense mostly relied on superior and better-conditioned athletes breaking the will of weaker ones.

The perfect storm of Pitino’s pressure system probably came when he was coaching Kentucky in the second half against Louisiana State at Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Feb. 15, 1994 — a Fat Tuesday that bore witness to what the Bluegrass faithful christened “The Mardi Gras Miracle.”

LSU coach Dale Brown didn’t have the star power that Shaquille O’Neal, Stanley Roberts and Chris Jackson brought to his teams at the beginning of the decade. In the 1993-’94 season, the Tigers were a middle-of-the-pack SEC team struggling to get an at-large NCAA berth. However, LSU always came to play against Kentucky, which had lost in its previous four trips to Baton Rouge, La.

The Wildcats seemed destined for another loss after a first half in which LSU rode the hot hands of Clarence Ceaser and Ronnie Henderson for a 48-32 lead. Henderson, a highly recruited freshman shooting guard, had 22 points and sank six of seven three-pointers in the first 20 minutes. The Tigers then ripped off an 18-0 run at the start of the second half. At the 15:34 mark, Henderson and Ceaser had a combined 51 points as LSU opened up a 68-37 lead.

Pitino’s emphasis on pressure and three-point bombing makes his teams well suited to big comebacks, but 31 points seemed out of the realm of possibility. The fact that the Wildcats were playing on the road made the defeat even more of a certainty.

The biggest selling points of full-court press are physically and mentally exhausting the opponents, thus creating turnovers. Pitino is known for his grueling practices, specifically designed to make sure his players don’t tire first in a game.

In the final 15 minutes, the pace started getting to LSU. Suddenly, the shots that had been falling for the Tigers were bouncing off the rim. Henderson missed four of his six three-point attempts in the second half. Turnovers also became a factor, with Kentucky getting six steals and LSU coughing up the ball 10 times after halftime.

The cold shooting for LSU extended to the free-throw line. The Tigers shot 13 of 24 in the final 12 minutes and 24 for 37 overall. That fell right into the hands of Pitino as he employed a desperation strategy of fouling on defense and hoisting threes on offense.

It’s hard to believe that rallying from a 31-point deficit can seem methodical, but that is what Pitino’s troops did. The Tigers tightened with the pressure, but Kentucky never seemed frantic in its comeback.

With LSU missing from the line, the Wildcats’ three-pointers ate up large chunks of the lead. After a 3-for-14 showing from behind the arc in the opening half, Kentucky found the range to shoot 12 of 23 in the second half — including nine in the final 10 minutes.

The 31-point lead for LSU crumbled. Kentucky’s Jeff Brassow hit one of his four three-pointers to cut the deficit to 79-69 with 7:38 remaining. Just under a minute later, Walter McCarty had a steal and a dunk that brought Kentucky to within eight points. McCarty hit the three-pointer that gave the Wildcats the lead at 96-95 with 19 seconds remaining. A missed shot and a turnover in the waning seconds sealed the loss for LSU, and Kentucky got out of town with a 99-95 victory.

Proponents of the press might point to this game as case study of the system’s effectiveness. The results are undeniable, but even Pitino would admit that it is an extreme example. It would be difficult for any team to extend that 15-minute stretch to 40 minutes. LSU could have benefited from the steady hand of a competent point guard. The reality is that the press, like most things, should be enjoyed in moderation.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Miracle Minute

It is a tough moment for coaches, players and fans to face in a basketball game: when to fold up the tents and give up on the victory. There’s always a small voice echoing that old broadcasting trope “stranger things have happened.”

Well, things don’t get much stranger than Duke’s 98-96 overtime victory over Maryland at Cole Field House on Jan. 27, 2001. The 10th-ranked Terrapins seemed assured of knocking off the No. 2 Blue Devils with a 90-80 lead and 1:01 showing on the clock.

Maryland had weathered an opening run by Duke and took control of the game with an 11-0 run in the first half. Terrapins sophomore point guard Steve Blake had thoroughly outplayed his more celebrated Duke counterpart, Jay Williams.

Williams was having one of his worst games in a Duke uniform. He committed 10 turnovers in the first 25 minutes, and the Blue Devils’ leading scorer had only six points (2-6 FGs, 2-5 FTs) when coach Mike Krzyzewski yanked Williams with over 14 minutes left in the second half. After some teaching moments by Coach K, Williams came back in at the 12:44 mark and hit a driving layup. He didn’t have another turnover.

With about two minutes remaining, Williams fouled out Blake (11 points, nine assists) with a wicked crossover. Williams’ two free throws cut Maryland’s lead to 84-75.

The Terrapins had several strategic errors in the game. Just before halftime, Maryland’s Tahj Holden missed a long jumper as the shot clock expired. The players thought the game clock ran out as well, and Maryland headed to the locker room with a 46-35 lead. But the officials huddled and decided to give Duke 1.4 seconds. The Terrapins promptly allowed Duke’s Mike Dunleavy to heave a full-court pass that hit Williams in stride for a five-footer that banked in at the buzzer. Those two points would prove invaluable.

Also to Duke’s advantage were the five fouls committed by Maryland in the waning minutes of the game. The Blue Devils were able to put points on the scoreboard without using much clock. Duke also hit its free throws down the stretch in regulation, while the Terrapins’ Drew Nicholas was 2 of 6 from the line in the final 1:33.

Nicholas made 1 of 2 free throws for that 90-80 lead. Duke didn’t have any timeouts left, and ESPN took the opportunity to acknowledge Blake as the player of the game.

Then came maybe the greatest 13-second offensive explosion in basketball history. Williams cut through the defense for a reverse layup with 53.5 seconds remaining. Then just as play-by-play man Mike Patrick was saying that the Blue Devils “need a miracle,” Williams stole the ball from Nicholas and stepped into a deep three-pointer that cut the lead to 90-85 with 48.7 seconds to play.

Nicholas was fouled before the clock started, and he clanged two shots off the rim. Williams sprinted down the court and drilled another three-pointer over the outstretched arms of Danny Miller with 40.4 on the clock. That’s eight clutch points in 13 seconds.

Duke’s Nate James then took over hero duties, knocking the ball away from Juan Dixon for a steal, and then getting fouled on a tip-in attempt with 21.9 seconds left. James coolly nailed the two free throws that tied the game at 90. The Maryland fans, who were celebrating what would have been the biggest victory of the season one minute earlier, watched with dread as Nicholas’ three-pointer missed at the buzzer.

The Terrapins were shell-shocked, there was no way Duke would lose in overtime. Williams made two free throws to give Duke a 92-90 lead; moments later he got into the lane and dished out for a three-pointer by Shane Battier that gave the Blue Devils the lead for good at 95-92.

It’s hard to think of a more dramatic comeback in such a constrained period of time. The game has also probably provided great fodder for countless coaches who exhort their players not to give up hope, despite the clock and the scoreboard conspiring against them.

Monday, April 19, 2010

If The Shoes Fit ...

The early 1990s was the heyday of “grassroots” basketball for the big shoe companies. Grassroots is basically a code word for giving talented teenage players a crash course in capitalism. They get free merchandise and plane tickets for playing in tournaments and high-profile camps, with shoe companies pinning their hopes on engendering loyalty that will last though possible professional careers. Falling short of that, the corporations still get exposure by putting shoes on the feet of the kids who determine what’s hot in the market.

Setting aside the issues of exploitation and backroom deals in this relationship, the shoe camps provided a lot of good in a strictly basketball sense. An unknown kid from the basketball backwaters got the chance to compete against the New York City prodigies that already had manila folders full of press clippings.

The shoe companies could become kingmakers, and the first ruling power to set about expanding its influence was Nike. The Air Jordan shoes changed the game, and with Michael Jordan at the height of his popularity in the early ’90s, Nike was sitting pretty. The Nike All-American Camp was the main proving ground for any serious baller. In 1993, Converse started cutting in on the market with its ABCD Camp, and Reebok also was growing in popularity.

Nike wasn’t worried yet, and its 1993 camp all-star game has become the stuff of legend. The ABCD Camp had its first coup that year, getting a commitment from top prospect Felipe Lopez, but Nike had amassed an impressive array of talent. ESPN even broadcast the all-star game (on tape delay), another benchmark in high school basketball becoming big business.

It is fascinating to watch 17 years later, with all the personalities involved. The most controversial was Allen Iverson, who had just been convicted in Virginia for his involvement in a bowling alley melee. Nike still paid Iverson’s way to Indianapolis, which stirred up more controversy in his hometown. The legal situation would keep Iverson from playing his senior season, so this was the last sight of him on the court until he surfaced at Georgetown. He was the best player in the IUPUI gym, and Iverson played with the now-familiar chip on his shoulder. No defender could stay in front of Iverson, and he could get his shot off at will despite being the smallest guy on the court. Too bad for Nike that Iverson signed with Reebok upon turning pro.

These glorified pickup games are always dominated by perimeter players who control the ball and push the tempo. Curtis Staples’ talents were suited to this kind of game, and the future three-point artist at Virginia put on an offensive showcase: drilling long-range bombs and finishing around the rim on fearless drives. Ron Mercer and Terrance Roberson were similarly impressive.

The action was above the rim, and the most intriguing aerial talents were Toby Bailey and Ronnie Fields. Bailey was a rising senior from California, with the emphasis on “rising.” He had several breathtaking dunks, the kind that would endear him to UCLA fans and make people wonder why he played only 73 games in the NBA. Fields was the youngest player in the game, having just finished his freshman season at Farragut Academy in Chicago. Fields definitely proved that he belonged with the likes of Iverson, Staples and Mercer. His two dunks in the game showed why people still talk about him despite a tough road that never reached the NBA.

Then there was a skinny kid from Mauldin, S.C., named Kevin Garnett. He was the breakout star that year. He was blocking shots, dunking with ferocity, passing behind his back and screaming out defensive assignments. The college coaches must have been drooling. Interestingly, sometimes it was hard to distinguish between Garnett and Samaki Walker, so predicting NBA superstardom is a fickle enterprise.

Garnett was thrust into the star system by the Nike camp. He would later play his senior season with Fields on a legendary team at Farragut Academy, and he skipped college altogether after finishing high school in 1995. Among his first endorsements as a pro was a contract with Nike.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Best 'Answer'

Allen Iverson has been on the minds of a lot of people lately, from the seemingly ignominious end to his professional career to stirring documentaries and wistful blog entries. The theme that cuts across all of these stories is the divisive nature of Iverson: You either loved AI’s keep-it-real earthiness or bristled at his tatted-up churlishness.

Regardless of which embankment one stakes on the “Iverson Divide,” one performance can be appreciated by all sides: his 48-point missive in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It is the shining example of Iverson’s athletic genius.

No basketball bloviator gave Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers much of a chance against the juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers, who came into the series as winners of 17 straight games. The finals seemed destined to be a four-game coronation for the Lakers as they bolted out to an 18-5 lead against the 76ers. Iverson started 1 of 5 from the field.

But the watchword in any Iverson story is “heart,” and the diminutive guard wasn’t about to fold up his tent this early in the game. He hit five of his last eight shots in the quarter and had 12 points as the 76ers narrowed the gap to 23-22.

After a cursory rest in the final seconds of the first quarter, Iverson started the second frame running the show as the point guard. Bringing the ball up on the 76ers’ first possession, Iverson ducked behind a screen to bury a long jumper. Iverson’s form is a metaphor for the man: The ball doesn’t have a classic rotation and he always seems to fade sideways in his approach, but he just seemed to will the ball into the basket.

The second quarter also provided a sequence of Iverson’s importance that didn’t show up in the box score. On a Lakers fast break, 76ers center Dikembe Mutombo knocked away an attempted lob for Kobe Bryant, and Iverson hustled into the picture to save the ball from going out of bounds. On offense, Iverson shook Bryant (then a 22-year-old all-NBA defender) and attempted a layup between the comparatively towering Shaquille O’Neal and Robert Horry. Iverson was knocked to the hardwood and didn’t get the call or the basket, but he got up and hustled back on D. It was indicative of the hard-nosed and fearless style of the 76ers and their star.

Iverson nailed his first three-pointer with 30 seconds left in the half to give Philadelphia a 56-48 lead. He had 30 points at halftime, on 11-for-24 shooting. The volume of shots falls right into the image of Iverson as unrepentant chucker. But consider the 76ers’ offensive-challenged rotation of Mutombo, Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, Jumaine Jones, Eric Snow, Raja Bell and Matt Geiger. Would you rather have one of those journeymen jacking up shots?

Iverson kept up the hot shooting in the third quarter, but O’Neal also caught fire for the Lakers. Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson also summoned the little-used Tyronn Lue to check Iverson, and the third-year guard provided a spark. Iverson was held scoreless for over 20 minutes, and Lue stepped in front of AI for two big steals in the fourth quarter.

The game was tied at 94 after four quarters, but Iverson didn’t appear to be tiring. That was always surprising given his much-discussed disdain for conditioning (Cue the obligatory “Practice?” joke.).

Iverson scored seven straight points in overtime to seal the 107-101 victory for Philadelphia. The iconic image was of Iverson stepping back on Lue, who fell to the court and watched as AI drained a jumper to give the 76ers an insurmountable 103-99 lead. After he hit the shot, Iverson made the point of stepping over Lue and letting out a primal scream — all directly in front of the Lakers’ bench.

The amazing thing is that none of the Lakers’ reserves voiced any objection to Iverson. Here is a visiting player embarrassing one of their own, and nothing gets said; that is how much respect Iverson commanded.

Iverson’s 48 points came in 52 minutes, with his only rest coming in those waning seconds of the first quarter. It was the only NBA Finals victory of his career; the Lakers would easily win the next four games. Nonetheless, it encapsulates much about Iverson that has endeared him to his fervent fan base.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Shot Down

The Loyola Marymount teams of the late 1980s and early ’90s are held up as the quintessential purveyors of freewheeling basketball. Paul Westhead was able to attract supreme talents like Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble because every kid wants the latitude to gamble for steals on defense and be indiscriminate in his shot selection.

But by the 1990-’91 season, opponents had to love playing the Lions. Loyola Marymount was still reeling from the tragic death of Gathers. The galvanized good feelings from the Lions’ run to the Elite 8 in 1990 had dissipated with the departures of Kimble and Westhead and a lawsuit against the school filed by Gathers’ family. Longtime Westhead aide Jay Hillock took over as coach and stuck with the run-and-gun style even though the Lions didn’t have the talent of previous seasons. That left Loyola Marymount vulnerable to being on the wrong end of blowouts — and big games by offensive-minded guards who played in equally frenetic systems.

On Dec. 15, 1990, the Lions took on Oklahoma at the Lloyd Noble Center, where the Sooners had a 50-game home winning streak. The Sooners’ Brent Price was settling in at his home state’s flagship university after spending two seasons at the University of South Carolina. Like older brother Mark, Brent’s game was predicated on being in the right spots and hoisting classical-beauty jumpers.

Those skills served Price well against Loyola Marymount. The Lions’ full-court zone press was full of holes, so Sooners coach Billy Tubbs sent Price sprinting down court to either set up on the wings for a three-pointer or get behind the whole defense for a lay-up.

The pace was breathless from the start, and Price got the scoring going by hauling in an 80-foot inbounds pass on the wing for a three-pointer. Price scored eight of Oklahoma’s first 16 points. Hillock was intractable in sticking to the Lions’ style, and Price kept getting wide-open looks. By halftime, Oklahoma had a 79-55 lead with Price scoring 21 points (all in the first 11 minutes) and handing out seven assists. The teams combined for 107 field-goal attempts in 20 minutes.

Loyola Marymount didn’t make any strategic tweaks in the locker room, so Price was still leaking out and bombing away in the second half. The Sooners reached 100 points with 16 minutes left in the game. Price shot 20 for 33 for the game, including 11 of 19 on three-pointers. His 10th three-pointer came on a step-back fadeaway from the corner that banked in off the side of the backboard.

Price’s last basket came on a wide-open layup with three minutes left in the game, giving him 56 points and Oklahoma a 155-102 lead. The Sooners managed to hold on for a 172-112 victory, with Price also contributing nine assists and nine steals. He wouldn’t be known as Mark Price’s little brother anymore, and Brent would get drafted 32nd overall by the Washington Bullets in 1992 and play nine seasons in the NBA.

Seven days after Price’s breakout game, another offensively savvy guard — Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson — would put 50 points on Loyola Marymount. The system was broken, and Hillock would last only two underwhelming seasons before getting the ax and officially ending the fast-paced run of the Lions.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Centers' Stage

It used to be an every-generation event in college basketball, a heavyweight battle between the top big men in the game. The most-celebrated clash came on Jan. 20, 1968, when Elvin Hayes helped Houston stop the 47-game winning streak of Lew Alcindor and UCLA in front of 52,693 fans at the Astrodome.

That matchup was billed as “The Game of the Century” and was unequaled in hype until Dec. 11, 1982, when Virginia’s Ralph Sampson and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing squared off for the mythical title of “best big man in his generation.”

The hype machine had become more sophisticated since 1968. Sports Illustrated set up the game with a pull-out cover of a prostrate Sampson and Ewing. An enterprising sports promoter named Russ Potts had put together the event and sold the TV rights to the nascent cable company Turner Broadcasting System. The basketball cognoscenti descended on the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., and breathless comparisons to battles of yore like Hayes-Alcindor and Russell-Chamberlain were made by Red Auerbach and Abe Lemons.

The game was played without a shot clock or three-point line, as if trying to force the action into the painted area. As the players gathered for the tap, Sampson almost seemed to dwarf Ewing, who was listed as four inches shorter. Despite his advantage in height, Sampson came from the finesse tradition of big men, whereas Ewing was the classic banger.

The matchup seemed destined not to live up the advanced billing in the first half, with Sampson drifting mostly around the high post and Ewing, who picked up two early fouls, anchoring the middle of a 2-3 zone. When Hoyas coach John Thompson elected to go man-to-man, 6-7 power forward Bill Martin mostly checked Sampson. Virginia went into halftime with a comfortable 33-23 lead. The stats at the break: nine points, eight rebounds and four blocks for Sampson, as compared to five, six and two for Ewing.

The Cavaliers quickly extended their advantage to 14 points early in the second half, and it looked like there would be no “Game of the Century Redux.” But Georgetown’s incessant defensive pressure sparked a 10-2 run that put some wind back in the sails of the Hoyas.

Once the game tightened, there was a back-and-forth between Sampson and Ewing that befitted all the similes and metaphors spent on the game. With Virginia nursing a four-point lead, Sampson spun away from Ewing and took a lob pass from Rick Carlisle (who, then and now, always seems to be described as “cerebral”). Ewing couldn’t recover, and Sampson was free for a vicious dunk. That put a charge into Ewing, who sprinted down the court and awaited the ball down low. Once he got it, Ewing turned and threw down an earth-rattling, one-handed jam over the Go-Go-Gadget arms of Sampson.

Now the crowd was rocking, this was the battle royale they paid to see. Sampson took it right back at Ewing. This time, Sampson’s shot was returned to sender, and Ewing did the same to Sampson’s follow-up. Sampson wouldn’t be denied and was fouled on his third attempt.

Virginia made nine of 10 free throws down the stretch to win, 68-63. It could never match Hayes-Alcindor, but Sampson-Ewing had some transcendent moments.

The college game became more guard-oriented in the following years. Big men increasingly became more multi-dimensional, eschewing the traditional back-to-the basket repertoire. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the best big men weren’t even going to college. Add it all up, and there has yet to be another battle on par with Hayes-Alcindor or Sampson-Ewing.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Ties That Bind

It’s been a banner few days for the Hurley family. First, the stellar PBS documentary “The Street Stops Here” profiled the great work done by legendary St. Anthony’s (Jersey City, N.J.) coach Bob Hurley Sr. Then, on the same day Hurley Sr. was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, youngest son Dan was named coach at Wagner and oldest son Bobby’s former school, Duke, won the national title.

The elder Hurley is known for his hard-line coaching methods. It’s the only way he can keep his mostly impoverished players from falling victim to the temptations of the street corners. But Hurley Sr. also is an equal-opportunity browbeater. Bobby and Dan both played under their father at St. Anthony’s, and the sons have spoken about how they got worse treatment on the court because Hurley Sr. wanted no accusations of nepotism.

When Bobby was a senior and Danny a junior in 1989, St. Anthony’s went 32-0 and claimed its fourth straight state championship. The Hurley boys wouldn’t share a court again until an NCAA tournament regional semifinal in 1992 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

This time, the brothers would be on opposite sides, a conundrum Hurley Sr. told the press was like “an emotional nightmare.” Bobby’s Duke team was the defending national champion and the heavy favorite to repeat. Danny was the backup point guard for Seton Hall, which finished in a three-way tie for first in the Big East that season. The Pirates’ main offensive weapons were Terry Dehere and Jerry Walker, who both played with the Hurleys on that 1989 championship team at St. Anthony’s.

The matchup between brothers didn’t begin in earnest until Dan checked into the game with about 11 minutes left in the first half. The players are a mirror-image of each other: Bobby a righty, Dan a lefty, same gym-rat, sun-deprived skin and sunken eyes, both stood at ease with hands on their hips and heads cocked to the side.

Dan’s first pass went to Walker, who got free under the basket for an easy lay-in that cut Duke’s lead to 18-14. Bobby responded in kind with spectacular assists to Christian Laettner and Grant Hill. Then with 8 minutes remaining before halftime, Bobby broke free of Dan’s defense by driving to right, then stopping on a dime with a behind-the-back dribble that set up a long jumper over his brother.

It was the only field goal scored by the Hurleys when guarding each other. Like when Serena and Venus Williams meet up at a tennis tournament, the siblings didn’t have great games to match the breathless press coverage. Bobby did have seven assists, including a dexterous feed to Brian Davis at the end of the first half that gave Duke a 38-32 advantage. Otherwise, it was a forgettable game for Bobby as the Blue Devils held off the pesky Pirates, 81-69: 39 minutes, 2-7 from the field, 0-2 on the free-throw line, four points and six turnovers. Dan played 18 minutes, missing all four shots he took, and notched one assist and one steal. According to media accounts of the game, Dan also had to endure chants of “Our Hurley’s better” from the Duke faithful.

The Blue Devils went on to claim another championship. Much can be said about Bobby Hurley’s whiny countenance, but the dude was a winner. From 1985 to1992, Bobby won four high school and two college titles, also getting to the NCAA championship game in 1990. Questions about his ability to play in the NBA were never answered because his career was severely hampered by a car wreck in his rookie season. Bobby ended up playing 269 games over five seasons, averaging 3.8 points and 3.3 assists per game.

It was hard for Dan to play under the shadow cast by his older brother. He became a starter at Seton Hall in 1993 but suffered bouts of depression and took a long leave of absence from the Pirates before finishing his career.

The game was too entrenched in the Hurley DNA for Dan to leave basketball behind. He hooked on as an assistant at Rutgers before cutting into Hurley Sr.’s territory as coach of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. There is talk that Dan will bring in Bobby as an assistant in his new job at Wagner.

As a high school coach, Dan went 223-21. Not too shabby, but it’s a far cry from the 984 victories and 24 state titles won by Hurley Sr. at St. Anthony’s. There’s a great scene in “The Street Stops Here” when Hurley Sr. brings his team to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and the father stops to examine an exhibit honoring Bobby as the NCAA career leader in assists. Soon, Bob Hurley Sr. will have his own achievements honored in Springfield, Mass.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Much In Reserve

The ground has thawed. The upper-echelon NBA teams have shortened their rotations. Both are sure signs that the playoffs are nigh.

No current coach knows the postseason better than Phil Jackson, who has helmed 10 championship teams. The Zenmaster will always be plagued by a school of thought that trumpets how Jackson always boasted several of the league’s top players: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Jackson’s first stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, and now Bryant and Pau Gasol in the Lakers’ current version.

But Jackson has never been afraid of following some unorthodox intuitions. Take Game 6 of the 1992 NBA Finals between Jackson’s Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers. Chicago was up 3-2 in the series and, of course, all-or-nothing Game 7s are best avoided. The Bulls also wanted to clinch the championship on their own floor at Chicago Stadium, after winning the team’s first title on the road against the Lakers in the previous season’s Finals.

However, Chicago entered the fourth quarter against the Blazers trailing 79-64. Portland had dominated the third quarter, muscling the Bulls off the glass and taking the air out of crowd.

Jackson’s team needed a spark, and the coach trotted out this lineup: Pippen, B.J. Armstrong, Stacey King, Scott Williams and Bobby Hansen. Conspicuous in his absence from the court was Jordan, as the game’s greatest player was reduced to cheerleading in a pivotal stretch for his team.

No team in the history of the NBA Finals had ever overcome any deficit larger than 12 at the start of the fourth quarter. The Bulls players tasked by Jackson to start a historic comeback were more known for their flaws.

At that time, Pippen was still viewed strictly as a sidekick and there were doubts that he could be the solo go-to player (although he was named to the Dream Team that season). The baby-faced Armstrong was deemed too small to supplant John Paxson in the starting lineup. King was a chronic disappointment since being drafted sixth overall in 1989. Williams, in his second season, was a wild card whose energy could swing in positive or negative directions from one possession to the next. Hansen was already considered washed up when the Bulls traded for the ninth-year guard early that season.

Bulls fans were still digesting that lineup when Hansen nailed a three-pointer in front of the Portland bench. The crowd exploded when Hansen followed up that shot by stripping the ball away from the Blazers’ Jerome Kersey. King took the ball in the post and took it right at Kersey, whose frustration resulted in a flagrant foul.

Pippen took the reins from there. He scored on an up-and-under, then his suffocating defense forced Clyde Drexler to double-dribble. The crowd was at a fever pitch when Armstrong hit a mid-range jumper that cut the Blazers’ lead to five.

Jackson got what he had wanted. Total momentum shift. The reserves had brought the energy level up, with Williams and King hustling on the glass to shore up a problem in that particular game. Not used to the extended playing time, the substitutes also were running out of gas. Jackson brought Jordan back in for Hansen with 8:36 left. Paxson relieved Armstrong at the 5:45 mark. Williams and King stayed in, keeping Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright on the bench.

Pippen’s jumper gave the Bulls the lead for good at 91-89 with 2:21 remaining, and Chicago held on for a 97-93 victory and back-to-back NBA titles. The players headed back to the locker room to celebrate their nascent dynasty.

Jackson was embraced by Hansen, who was also holding tight to the game ball. It was a fitting image: the journeyman player giving thanks to the maverick coach for a five-minute stint that helped win a championship.

Friday, April 2, 2010

"The Dream" Accomplishment

The recent stats revolution in basketball has come up with myriad ways to rate a player’s performance in addition to the banal points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

But no matter how much adjusted plus-minus or defensive win shares make sense, there is still nothing sexier than a quadruple-double. It is a rare species; only four players have filled up that kind of stat sheet in NBA history (the league began recording blocks and steals for the 1973-’74 season). It makes sense that David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon are two of them: Both were athletic marvels despite their size and blessed with impeccable basketball timing.

Olajuwon got there before Robinson, on March 29, 1990, against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Houston Rockets center (who still spelled his name “Akeem” at the time) thought he had reached the summit earlier that month, but David Stern and the league office stripped Olajuwon of an assist.

On the Bucks’ first possession, Olajuwon pulled down his first rebound off a miss by Alvin Robertson, who incidentally recorded a quadruple-double when he was with the San Antonio Spurs in 1986. (Nate Thurmond of the Chicago Bulls recorded the NBA’s first quadruple-double in 1974.) Olajuwon got into the scoring column by sinking 1 of 2 free throws, and by the end of the first quarter he had seven points and seven rebounds.

Olajuwon also picked up two fouls and took a seat on the bench with three minutes remaining in the first quarter. But with the Rockets dominating, 37-21, heading into the second quarter, Olajuwon did not need to limit his aggressiveness. He registered blocks on the Bucks’ first two possessions of the period. Olajuwon also had his most breathtaking sequence of the game: a block of Milwaukee’s Larry Krystkowiak that was immediately followed by a rebound, then a nice dish down low to Buck Johnson for an assist.

Olajuwon was truly in full command of his talents in this game. His best pass of the game didn’t even get an assist. After pulling in a rebound, Olajuwon unfurled a full-court baseball pass in perfect stride to Mitch Wiggins, who was fouled before he could attempt a layup.

Olajuwon blocked six shots in the second quarter, then switched his emphasis to assists after halftime. Wiggins was the main recipient, knocking down long jumpers as Olajuwon passed away from double teams. When Olajuwon went to the bench with 2 minutes left in the third quarter, a Rockets assistant pulled him aside for a long talk. Olajuwon was probably told he had a chance to make a run at history, because he had 16 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks and eight assists heading into the fourth quarter.

The Bucks were never in the game, so the fourth quarter became a shameless stats-grab for Olajuwon. That doesn’t put a damper on the accomplishment, not least because the back-to-back blocks he had to put him into double figures midway through the fourth quarter were nothing short of breathtaking. On offense, Rockets coach Don Chaney had Olajuwon mostly stationed at the high post, where he continuously fed teammates. The Rockets missed on six consecutive opportunities to pad Olajuwon’s assists total. But Vernon Maxwell drained a three with 3:46 left for Olajuwon’s ninth assist, then Lewis Lloyd nailed a 20-footer for the monumental assist with 2:50 to spare. Olajuwon’s final tally in the 120-94 victory was 18 points, 16 rebounds, 11 blocks and 10 assists.

Robinson got his quadruple-double (34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 blocks, 10 assists) in the Spurs’ 115-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Feb. 17, 1994. Since then, Andrei Kirilenko and Chris Paul have probably come closest to getting to that particular promised land.

Paul still has a window of a few prime years to reach a quadruple-double. LeBron James, of course, is a threat to put up those numbers any time he steps on the court. Josh Smith is another player who has all the tools. But whoever becomes the fifth NBA player to get a quadruple-double, statheads and laymen alike will agree that it’s an awesome accomplishment.