Thursday, July 29, 2010

Most Respected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 19, 2010

Jerry and Me

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

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

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

Stackhouse pretty much dominated any conversation that summer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 16, 2010

Gunner/Gunnar Mentality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Forgotten Barry Brother

Drew Barry must be used to living in the shadows. Coming into Georgia Tech and redshirting as a freshman, he was an afterthought to higher-profile players like James Forrest, Martice Moore, Fred Vinson and Travis Best. Brothers Jon and Brent had more prolific NBA careers and hold better television analyst gigs (Drew does work for ESPNU). Drew might even lose the battle of most underappreciated Barry brother: Scooter helped Kansas win the NCAA title in 1988.

Drew Barry was one of the best players in the ACC in the 1990s, arguably the most talent-studded decade for that conference. He ended his collegiate days as Georgia Tech’s all-time assists leader, no small feat for a school with a tradition of elite point guards. Barry led the ACC in assists for three straight seasons despite sharing the backcourt with Best and then Stephon Marbury.

So it wasn’t often that Barry got to take center stage. But he did on Feb. 10, 1996, when Barry nailed nine three-pointers and scored 30 points in the Yellow Jackets’ 92-83 overtime victory over North Carolina at the Dean Smith Center.

Even in his senior season, Barry couldn’t carry the mantle of being Georgia Tech’s go-to option. Marbury came in as one of the most sought-after high school players ever, and Yellow Jackets coach Bobby Cremins handed the keys to the offense over to the phenom. Rugged power forward Matt Harpring also demanded a fair share of the offense.

A common thread among the descendents of basketball legends is an innate sense of the game and an ability to avoid forcing the action. Players like Luke Walton and the Barry boys let the game come to them. So even if Drew Barry was the third fiddle on Georgia Tech, he would have a hand in the outcome. Marbury was the nominal point guard, but Barry handled the ball a lot. Especially on fast-break opportunities, when the young Marbury had a tendency to go for the spectacular.

Barry sank his first three-pointer to give Georgia Tech a 21-19 lead. He knew the shot was good the moment it left his hands, and he went sprinting down court before the ball cleared the net. That first three must have tipped him off to how hot he was going to be in the game, because the normally pass-minded Barry was now finding open holes in UNC’s zone to launch long-range shots. He hit six three-pointers on seven attempts in the first 20 minutes. Several of the threes were taken from three feet behind the line, and all of them never hit anything but net.

The second half brought Barry a bit down to reality. He had a hard time staying in front of UNC point guard Jeff McInnis on defense, and Cremins benched him for a spell. Barry’s shooting also cooled. He shot 3 of 10 on three-pointers in the second half, but sank a big one in the final minute that helped force overtime. Barry got back to traditional game, handing out beautiful assists. In the second half, Barry led Marbury with three pinpoint passes that resulted in easy layups. Cremins called Barry the greatest passer he ever coached, high praise from a guy who had Best, Kenny Anderson and Mark Price as point guards.

Barry was drafted in the second round by Seattle (57th overall) in 1996 but was waived by the SuperSonics. He battled back to the league and lasted only 60 games with three teams in three seasons. He had the vision and offensive ability to play at the highest level, as evidenced by the 10 assists he had in a game for the Hawks as a rookie in 1997-’98, but the defense that so infuriated Cremins probably kept him from a longer tenure.

Jon Barry found a way to stick around in the NBA with a consistent jumper and gritty play, and Brent Barry had a lengthy career after transitioning from a rangy athlete to a cerebral role player. Their successful pro careers have clouded Drew’s accomplishments. He’s probably used to it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Setting of the Suns

With Amar’e Stoudemire jumping ship to the New York Knicks, Steve Nash is the only remaining key player from the Phoenix Suns’ “Seven Seconds Or Less” era. It was fun while it lasted. After all, despite not winning a championship, the Suns reinvigorated offensive basketball, rejuvenated Nash and reinforced the timeless beauty of a well-executed pick-and-roll.

Let’s face it, those Suns were a great regular-season team. Sure, Phoenix made it to back-to-back Western Conference finals with Mike D’Antoni’s frenzied system. But the Suns were at their best outside of the suffocating defense and intensity of the playoffs. So to close the book on this influential team, the era will be examined through the lens of the Suns’ 129-127 victory in double overtime against the Dallas Mavericks on March 14, 2007.

Dallas and Phoenix were the best rivalry going for a brief window. The biggest link between the teams, of course, was Nash, who bolted Dallas for the desert when the Mavericks wavered on a long-term deal. Nash got better with age and wound up with back-to-back MVPs in an offense expertly tailored to his strengths. There were tense playoff battles between the teams in 2004-’05 and ’05-’06. Really, it was appointment viewing anytime they played each other. For the game under examination, it was the first NBA game since 1972 that featured two teams with a .778 winning percentage after 60 games.

All the major characters were still in place for the Suns in 2006-’07. D’Antoni was still on the sideline, Nash was in MVP form, Shawn Marion was on the wing and Stoudemire played a full season without showing any ill effects of microfracture knee surgery.

The staple of D’Antoni’s offense is the pick-and-roll. Dallas coach Avery Johnson made the decision for this game that the Mavericks were going to switch defenders on every pick. This played right into Nash’s hands because his best attribute is making the quick reads on whether to pass, shoot or dribble to the hole. With the Mavericks’ strategy, Nash often found a big man guarding him. That meant he was taking old friend Dirk Nowitzki off the dribble or draining a three-pointer when Desagana Diop was too slow in coming out on Nash. The Suns’ driving force was in control of the game from the start (7 points, 4 assists in the first quarter) to the end (10 points in last minute of regulation to force overtime). Nash and the Suns are still running the basic principles of the offense, even after D'Antoni bolted for the Knicks in 2008. Unless there is a surprising decline in his physical abilities, Nash will still be effective in 2010-'11. But running the pick-and-roll with Hakim Warrick doesn't have the same cachet.

The biggest subplot during the “Seven Seconds Or Less” era was the manic mood swings of Marion. He wanted the ball more, but also said he was happy doing the little things. He was often unhappy with the attention given to Stoudemire. All of this played out against the Mavericks. The Suns rarely ran plays specifically designed for Marion, who mostly picked up his points on fast breaks and offensive rebounds. He would show a momentary burst of uncommon athleticism, then you could forget he was on the court for long stretches. After Stoudemire dived for a loose ball and threaded a perfect pass that Marion fumbled out of bounds, you could almost feel the tension between the players as they ran down court. Marion has kept slipping more and more into obscurity since being traded by the Suns in February 2008.

Stoudemire was not without his faults, either. As usual, he was highly efficient on offense (41 points on just 19 shots). Yes, a lot of the easy conversions were the result of Nash’s passes, but he also made some tough shots. He’ll still score without Nash, although Knicks fans should be worried that Stoudemire doesn’t have go-to post moves as his athleticism declines. The other side of the coin with Stoudemire is his terrible defense. He allowed an aging Erick Dampier to grab 11 offensive rebounds. Stoudemire did grab 10 boards himself, which is stunningly not a common occurrence for a player with his physical gifts. But Stoudemire’s faults can sometimes be glossed over with those remarkable pick-and-rolls. Stoudemire’s size and coordination in converting two of those plays clinched the victory in the second overtime.

Such was the high-risk, high-reward nature of the “Seven Seconds Or Less” Suns. They rolled out to a 32-18 lead against the Mavericks in the first quarter. Then when forced to play the halfcourt game by a determined Dallas defense in the third quarter, the offense stalled and the Suns found themselves in a 15-point hole. That didn’t matter much in the regular season, as Phoenix showed here by rallying to win. But it always came back to bite the Suns in the playoffs, which is why those teams will never have the historical importance that they could have had. It was still a pleasure to watch.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Prep Work

Felipe Lopez is an interesting case study. He was, at best, an average NBA player and hung around the league long enough to play 249 games with three teams. But his career should be filed as a success story because he was able to avoid sinking under the weight of unreal expectations.

Lopez’s background was custom-built for the hype machine. He was a gangly teenager when he immigrated with his family to New York City from the Dominican Republic. He built himself into a prep legend at Rice High School, learning English at the same time he mastered hoops. That’s an easy-to-swallow narrative, and Lopez became a media sensation. Lopez was on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college preview (“The Big East Is Back”) before even playing a game for St. John’s. Even The New Yorker deigned to cover hoops, dispatching Susan Orlean for a superb profile of Lopez as a high schooler.

As with any outsized attention, timing is everything. By the time Lopez was a high-school senior in 1994, Michael Jordan had built basketball into a global business. Jordan had left the NBA for his baseball sabbatical, so the search was on for the next generation’s star. ESPN had become a surprise success in offering rabid fans around-the-clock coverage of sports. One of the many impacts of Michigan’s “Fab Five” earlier in the 1990s was a bigger focus on the prodigious talents of high schoolers. Along with that came the big shoe companies, who tried to cultivate relationships with prep All-Americans.

So when Lopez was set to play in the 1994 McDonald’s All-American Game, his legend was already burnished. The national-television audience tuned in to see if this kid really belonged in the same rarefied air as other recent NYC schoolboy legends like Kenny Anderson.

Again, the stars seemed to align perfectly for Lopez. The game was played in his hometown at tiny Alumni Hall on the campus of St. John’s, where Lopez had already committed. The All-American field also was unusually weak that year.

Lopez’s East teammates in the starting lineup were Corey Louis, Danny Fortson, Curtis Staples and Steve Wojciechowski. The West countered with starters Trajan Langdon, Lorenzen Wright, Ricky Price, Jerod Ward and Neil Reed. When visiting with broadcasters Bill Raftery and Verne Lundquist during the game, New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing proved adept at scouting talent, saying “Looking at the game, I don’t know if any will make the NBA.” Antoine Walker, almost unrecognizable as a bone-thin teenager, was the best future pro in this game.

With the hometown crowd behind him, this game seemed earmarked as a showcase for Lopez. He didn’t disappoint. With Langdon guarding him, Lopez hit a three-pointer and then a three-point play in the first few minutes. Lopez finished with 24 points, eight coming on free throws, to win the game’s MVP.

Lopez clearly had skills to make coaches salivate. He stood 6 feet 5 inches and had rangy arms. He had good form on his jumper and scored on some tough maneuvers around the basket (although mostly against Langdon, a few inches shorter and known more as a shooter than defender). Granted it was an all-star game, but Lopez seemed lost without the ball, unsure of how to impact the game if he wasn’t scoring. That didn’t bode well for the next level, with better coaches and defenses that could be geared to stop him.

Nonetheless, expectations for Lopez were kicked up a tick after his performance (I remember a lengthy highlight package and profile on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” the day of the game). He had a solid freshman season at St. John’s, averaging almost 18 points per game. But despite ending up as one of the school’s top scorers, Lopez’s college career has often been classified as a disappointment. He was the 24th overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft.

Still, Lopez can be viewed as a trailblazer. The attention paid to Lopez as a high-school senior presaged the booming business that prep hoops would become in the latter half of the decade. One year after Lopez finished high school, Kevin Garnett would be the first player in almost two decades to bypass college on the way to the NBA. Soon after, even regular-season prep games were shown on national television and more players were saddled with unrealistic expectations.