Friday, January 29, 2010

Positive Effect

When Magic Johnson announced to the world on Nov. 7, 1991, that he had contracted HIV and would immediately retire from the NBA, most fans viewed the news as a death sentence for one of the top five basketball players on the planet.

At that time, few people could delineate between HIV and AIDS. Public faces of the disease like Ryan White painfully withered away in front of the nation. And now the man who put professional basketball on his shoulders in the 1980s would likely suffer the same fate.

Three months after his announcement, Johnson was voted by NBA fans to start the All-Star Game at the Orlando Arena. Magic, who had kept up a stringent workout regimen in Los Angeles, professed an interest in playing. Commissioner David Stern gave his blessing and Tim Hardaway graciously gave up his starting spot for the Western Conference.

Public reaction was mixed. Medical experts took to the airwaves to say that there was little in the way of risk for Johnson. But under-informed players, most notably Karl Malone and Magic’s former Lakers teammates Byron Scott and A.C. Green, stated that they didn’t feel safe bumping and sweating with someone who was HIV-positive.

Nonetheless, on Feb. 9, 1992, Johnson was set to make his 12th all-star appearance. NBC trumpeted the event as the swan song for one of the game’s all-time greats. In the pregame show, Bob Costas and Quinn Buckner discussed the risks of Magic playing in the game. Dick Enberg chimed in with a pensive piece – set to the strains of Michael Bolton’s “Back On My Feet Again” - in which Magic tried to ease concerns with his soothing smile.

During introductions, Johnson was the last player to take the court. He received a minute-long standing ovation, and every member of the Eastern Conference team came over to hug him. Magic was visibly moved as NBC’s cameras focused on him during the rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by the ubiquitous Michael Bolton.

Fittingly, Johnson got the ball after the opening tap, but he immediately forced a bad pass that was picked off. Magic also missed his first shot. However, he grabbed the rebound and was fouled on the put-back. He sank both free throws to rousing cheers from the fans.

The pace of the game began to pick up, and Johnson looked like he was keeping up. Isiah Thomas blew by Magic for a coast-to-coast layup, but Johnson immediately got the ball and sprinted back for a lay-in of his own. There was no doubt that Magic could still play when he dropped in a sky hook over Thomas on the right baseline. After the first quarter, Johnson had 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting.

Magic played down low in the second quarter and sank another hook on the block against Dennis Rodman, then the premier defensive forward in the game. For a few retrospectively poignant minutes, Johnson was guarded by first-time all-star Reggie Lewis. Back then, fans thought that Magic wouldn’t be alive much longer, but they couldn’t have guessed that Lewis would tragically pass away the next year because of a heart defect.

On paper, the West was inferior to a powerful East team that boasted Thomas, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. But the West was galvanized by Magic’s presence and bolted to a 79-55 lead at halftime. Steve “Snapper” Jones interviewed Johnson on the bench during the second quarter, and Magic reassured the nation that it didn’t have to worry about him in this game.

Johnson had 16 points at the break but, surprisingly, did not have an assist. That changed in the third quarter, when Magic reverted to “Showtime” form. He hit David Robinson with a spectacular over-the-head pass for his first assist, and then found Chris Mullin for an open jumper. Johnson finished with nine dimes in the second half.

With the West winning, 115-83, after three quarters, the end of the game was set for a Magic takeover. In the final three minutes, Thomas, then on good terms with Magic, and Jordan each cleared out one side of the court to take Johnson one-on-one. Magic stayed tight on both players, who each missed mid-range jumpers. It has never been disclosed whether those supremely gifted offensive players eased up on Johnson, a notoriously poor defender.

On the offensive end, Johnson banged home a three-pointer from the wing, then added another from the same spot on the next possession. With under a minute left, Magic threaded the needle to find a streaking Dan Majerle for a layup. On the West’s last possession, Magic dribbled until the end of shot clock, then launched a step-back three over Thomas.

Johnson knew the shot was good as soon as it left his hands, pointing to the crowd as he headed down court. Orlando Arena erupted and the East players didn’t even inbound the ball despite there being 14 seconds left in the game. Instead, they mobbed Magic at center court. There would be no counting votes to determine the MVP of the West’s 153-113 victory.

Fans thought this might be the last chance to see Magic on the hardwood. Instead, Johnson played for the Dream Team in Barcelona that summer. He was back with the Lakers in the next preseason, but retired again before the real games began. Johnson returned to the Lakers twice more – once as interim coach in 1993-’94 and 32 games as a player in 1995-’96.

Along the way, Magic took to his role as ambassador for HIV/AIDS education, and blew away previous misconceptions about the disease. It hasn’t all been positive, as Johnson’s ardent declarations that he isn’t gay always seem to have an underpinning of homophobia. But for that one night in Orlando, Magic made a scared public believe that there was hope.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Possessed Demon Deacon

When a transcendent collegiate player fails professionally, his amateur career can sometimes feel like a sham. The annals of the NBA draft are littered with can’t-miss prospects who, for a myriad of reasons, couldn’t stay in the league.

Randolph Childress is one of those cautionary tales. After a stellar four years at Wake Forest, Childress was drafted with the 19th pick of the 1995 draft. He played sparingly in 51 games for the Portland Trail Blazers and the Detroit Pistons over the next two seasons, averaging just under three points per game. He battled knee and shoulder injuries, as well as martinet coaches like P.J. Carlesimo, before asking for a release from the Pistons so he could ply his trade in Europe. He is still playing overseas, another NCAA All-American who wasn’t quite good enough for the NBA.

But for three consecutive days in March 1995, Childress might have been the hottest basketball player in the free world. Wake Forest headed into the ACC tournament at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum as the top-seeded team. Childress, who played with a phenomenal swagger, averaged 18.4 points and 5 assists per game.

The Demon Deacons’ first opponent in Greensboro would be an embattled Duke team that had faltered to a 4-13 record since Pete Gaudet took over after Mike Krzyzewski’s back surgery. The Blue Devils had beaten N.C. State in the ACC tournament play-in game (the so-called Les Robinson Invitational in "honor" of the N.C. State coach.)

Duke’s only shot at an NCAA berth was to win the conference tournament, and the Blue Devils came out blazing against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons trailed, 31-13, before an irate Dave Odom called time out. Childress, who had scored seven points at that point, decided to make a run at greatness.

He nailed a three-pointer against Duke’s 2-3 zone out of the timeout, the start of 10 consecutive made shots for Childress. He varied his attack, scoring on acrobatic drives, NBA-length three-pointers and mid-range leaners. The curmudgeonly Billy Packer, a Wake Forest graduate it should be noted, called it the best first-half performance he had ever seen in the ACC tournament. All told, Childress had 27 points as the Demon Deacons headed into halftime with a 46-45 lead.

In the second half, Childress hit his first bucket with 10 minutes remaining, a three-pointer that gave Wake Forest a 62-55 lead. Duke wouldn’t go away, however, and briefly held the lead before Childress coolly sank another three-pointer for a 65-63 lead. The Blue Devils lost their fight after that, and Wake rolled to an 87-70 victory. Childress, who played over 38 minutes, finished with 40 points and seven assists.

That set up a date the next day against Virginia in the semifinals. The Cavaliers were riding their own hot hand. Junior Burrough had scored 36 points in a 77-67 victory over Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals.

The Demon Deacons fell into another early hole before disaster struck. Childress dislocated the pinkie finger on his shooting hand while catching a pass. He refused to come out of the game and got it taped up while a teammate was shooting free throws. Worst of all for Wake Forest, Childress stopped shooting and had only nine points as the Demon Deacons trailed at the half, 36-28.

Odom often told this story about Childress: During his freshman season, the guard airballed two straight shots, and the coach was about to take him out. Childress responded by saying, “Not now, coach, I’m heating up.” The takeaway lesson is that shooters just keep shooting.

Childress didn’t hold back in the second half against Virginia. He nailed a multitude of big shots. Back-to-back three-pointers that narrowed the Cavaliers’ lead to one. Another three-pointer that gave Wake Forest its first lead of the game at 43-40. Yet another trey for a 50-49 lead with 12 minutes left. Two free throws to snap 59-59 tie. The backbreaking three came with 3:40 left and lifted Wake’s lead to 66-61. The only anxious moments after that came when Childress hurt his finger again in the final minute as the Demon Deacons salted away a 77-68 victory.

Childress had scored 70 points for a two-day ACC tournament record, but that pinkie was the focus of attention in the championship game against North Carolina. Wake Forest fans clung to hope as Childress’ first three-pointer hit hard off the back iron. Tensions were eased after he hit his next five shots from beyond the arc. Most impressive was Childress’ third three-pointer, when he spun away from the Tar Heels’ Jeff McInnis, who was so fooled that he got his feet tangled and fell to the hardwood. Much to the consternation of the UNC coaching staff, Childress stopped at the three-point line, motioned with his hand for McInnis to get up, then drilled the shot.

In the second half, the Heels seemed poised to win after an 11-0 run gave them a 61-55 lead. But Rasheed Wallace, battling down low against fellow sophomore Tim Duncan, badly sprained his ankle to stop the momentum. Wallace could only watch from the bench as Childress continued to make high-drama shots: a three-pointer that gave Wake a 66-65 lead and another three that made it 71-65. Jerry Stackhouse’s three-pointer tied the game for UNC at 73-73 with 4.5 seconds left.

Nobody doubted that Childress would get the ball in the final seconds. What was surprising was that, after three days of big shots, Childress would lose control of the ball and Wake would have to settle for overtime. Childress atoned for his mistake in the extra five minutes, banging a three-pointer, a leaner and a running one-hander to give Wake an 80-77 advantage. UNC’s Donald Williams, the 1993 Final Four Most Outstanding Player and no stranger to big shots, tied the game with 23 seconds left on a three-pointer.

That was too much time for Childress, who got by McInnis again and hit a 13-foot floater for an 82-80 lead. Stackhouse missed a three from the wing at the buzzer, giving Wake Forest its first ACC title in 33 years.

Childress final clutch shot gave him 107 points in three days, beating the old ACC tournament record of 106 set by UNC’s Lennie Rosenbluth in 1957. Childress took 44 three-pointers in three games and made 23 – both ACC tournament records. He made nine threes against UNC for another tournament mark.

The Demon Deacons made it to the Sweet Sixteen that season, falling to Bryant “Big Country” Reeves and Oklahoma State. After that, Childress faded into basketball purgatory. But for three days, Childress was on top of the hoops world. That lofty accomplishment shouldn’t be clouded by his professional failures.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Smoking Pistol

Pete Maravich can be a somewhat polarizing player for basketball historians. “The Pistol” is either an ahead-of-his time showman who played with inferior teammates; or he is a one-note soloist who presaged the virulent, me-first strain that infected NBA players in recent years.

Regardless of which school of thought one subscribes to, Maravich’s performance versus the New York Knicks on Feb. 25, 1977, is a modern-day masterpiece. The New Orleans Jazz bandleader scored 68 at the Louisiana Superdome, the flash point of a lightning-rod career.

The popular myth of that game states that Maravich lit up Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the epitome of 1970s cool and defensive ace nonpareil. True, Frazier started out guarding Maravich, but Clyde wound up playing just over 20 minutes. Butch Beard, Ticky Burden and Dean Meminger, whom the Jazz traded to Atlanta for Maravich in 1974, equally got their tastes of Pistol’s offensive weaponry.

Frazier was on the downside of his career and in his last season with the Knicks, who were the exemplars of team basketball under coach Red Holzman that decade. Still, it’s hard to imagine that, even in his prime, Frazier could have cooled the Pistol when Maravich was going great guns. Maravich got his first points on a driving three-point play two minutes into the game, then shot a 20-foot “heat check” on the Jazz’s next possession.

Sufficiently satisfied that he was on point, Maravich locked into scoring mode. Not looking to pass at all, he delved into his expansive bag of offensive moves. Maravich was a master of creating space for a shot, pump-faking his defender into the air, then fading away to hit 20-foot jumpers. He had 17 points in the first quarter and was uncommunicative the whole time, putting his head down after each basket and jogging back to play his perfunctory defense.

Holzman keyed in on Maravich in the second quarter, and double teams seemed to do the trick. Maravich air-balled his first shot of the period and, critics be damned, started passing the ball to open teammates. He notched three quick assists before nailing a 25-footer that got him shooting again. Some of the moves were unfathomable, including a spinning sky hook over Meminger on the baseline. The Jazz raced ahead in the second quarter, and Maravich had 31 at halftime. His NBA high was 51, which he had accomplished twice that season.

Maravich didn’t cool down during the break, nailing a long jumper to start the third quarter. However, the hopes for a career night dimmed a bit as he missed four straight shots and picked up a fourth foul while stuck at 43 points. Maravich stayed aggressive with the ball and had 48 heading into the final quarter.

By this point, the Jazz had a commanding lead and Maravich was the only show going. His teammates constantly fed him the ball and set multiple screens for him to run around. Maravich was more than happy to oblige, getting his 68 before fouling out on an offensive foul with under two minutes remaining. He was 26 of 43 from the field and 16 for 19 from the free-throw line.

It was, at the time, the third-highest scoring game in NBA history, the most by a guard and behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, who happened to be New Orleans’ coach. What is remarkable is that Maravich’s total should have been much higher; he missed several open jumpers and, of course, was playing without a three-point line.

Maravich led the league in scoring that season at 31.1 points per game. He played only three more years, which were marred by injuries, a descent into alcoholism and a fervent belief in extraterrestrial life. Yes, the Pistol was an unrepentant gunner, but when the shots were falling he was a sight to behold.

Friday, January 22, 2010

School Daze

The University of North Carolina and UCLA both boast storied basketball programs. It is doubtless that generations of Tar Heels and Bruins fans have sat in dark, beery taverns and bickered about which school produced better players.

Well, on a midsummer’s night in 1987, distinguished alumni from those proud schools gathered at Pauley Pavilion for a friendly battle to benefit charity. John Wooden, rolled-up program in hand, would man the sideline again and match coaching wits with Dean Smith. The two legends first squared off in the 1968 NCAA championship game, when Lew Alcindor and the Bruins cruised to a 78-55 dismantling of the Tar Heels.

Each team’s roster for the game exceeded 20 players, spanning several decades, including players from that ’68 game. ABC would broadcast the game with the surreal announcing crew of Dick Vitale, Keith Jackson and Cheryl Miller.

Here were the starting lineups:

For UNC, recent graduate Kenny Smith shared the backcourt with Tommy Kearns, who played on UNC’s 1957 title team, Charlie Scott held down the middle and James Worthy teamed with his former Lakers teammate Bob McAdoo at the forward spots. Smith must have seen something in practice that week to give Kearns the starting nod over Michael Jordan.

Wooden’s starters featured three wing players in Reggie Miller, Walt Hazzard (then UCLA’s actual head coach) and Lucius Allen with Kiki Vandeweghe and Curtis Rowe anchoring the front line.

Sounds promising, eh? Maybe the argument for collegiate hoops supremacy would finally be settled.

Well, fans had to have known that the results would be disappointing. McAdoo, then past his NBA prime and toiling in Italy, rejected Vandeweghe's stumbling shot on the first possession. Kearns, who had a sip of coffee in the NBA in 1958, air-mailed his first shot. The first 20-foot hook shot was attempted a few minutes later.

Waves of substitutions came every few minutes, probably to avoid any potential medical pitfalls that may arise with 1971 NIT MVP Bill Chamberlain trying to run a fast break with a young Kenny “The Jet.” Carolina fans got to achieve a dream by seeing Jordan share the court with Phil Ford, but the results were probably messier than they anticipated.

It’s a sad commentary that, in a game featuring many NBA players, the highlights included UNC’s Lennie Rosenbluth, 30 years since that ’57 championship season, nailing three long, sweeping hooks in the first half.

Otherwise, the spectators who half-filled Pauley Pavilion were treated to Hazzard barely squeezing into his uniform and UCLA’s Denny Miller, replete with a salt-and-pepper beard, pulling up for a 35-foot set shot.

Ford, whose demons chased him from the NBA a few years earlier, played with an angry mien for a charity game, and several times went after the Bruins’ Rod Foster with a comically physical full-court press.

The newer generation finished off the last few minutes, with Jordan, Worthy, Smith, Joe Wolf and Matt Doherty dominating a UCLA team led by Miller, Jack Haley and Stuart Gray.

The final score was 116-111, if that matters to anyone. The big victory was that no player went into cardiac arrest; the only injury being a sprained ankle suffered by UCLA’s Greg Lee.

These alumni games barely exist anymore, at least at the high-major level. But perhaps that is a good thing. Players stay forever young in memories, and reality would only get in the way of a good barroom debate.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

High-Altitude Halcyon Days

It has been well-documented that Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds Or Less” days with the Phoenix Suns and Don Nelson’s delirious machinations with the Golden State Warriors helped steer the NBA out of the darkness that was the late 1990s and early 2000s. Scoring has been up in the past few seasons, breaking away from the grind-it-out, overly physical, brick-laying games that alienated so many casual fans in the post-Jordan age.

One of the direct antecedents of those wide-open offenses was Doug Moe’s frenetic Denver Nuggets teams of the early 1980s. The high point of those freewheeling days came when another high-octane team, the Detroit Pistons, visited McNichols Sports Arena on Dec. 13, 1983.

It was clear that something was in the rarefied air of Denver when the score was 8-6 just 1:30 into the game. The teams combined to sink their first six shots, and the Nuggets’ Dan Issel scored six points in the first minute. On the Pistons Television Network, play-by-play man George Blaha and former Piston/future political hope Dave Bing struggled to verbally keep up with the action.

Three hours and three overtimes later, the Pistons had a 186-184 victory – the highest-scoring game in NBA history. The bone-tired players trudged off the court and, over 25 years later, even looking at all the statistical information is exhausting. ESPN stats guru John Hollinger or venerable numbers guy Al Einstein would probably get headaches from wading into the data.

The Nuggets and the Pistons both topped the single-game team mark of 173 points set by the Celtics in Minneapolis on Feb. 27, 1959. The aggregate of 370 points blew away the record of 337 in another three-overtime game, San Antonio’s 171-166 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on March 6, 1982.

Detroit’s Isiah Thomas had a career night with 47 points and 17 assists. John Long added 41 on 18-for-25 shooting and the mustachioed Kelly Tripucka’s 35 points included 12 points in the second overtime. Denver was led by Kiki Vandeweghe’s 51 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. A pre-acting-career Alex English had 47 points.

On a combined 251 shots, the Pistons shot .544 from the field and the Nuggets .591. Amazingly, the Pistons missed 23 free throws in a foul-happy game officiated by replacement refs because of a lockout.

But here is the most interesting stat: 2 for 4, the combined three-point shooting for the game. The three-pointer was fully instituted for the 1979-’80 NBA season, but most teams still viewed it almost as a curiosity. The offenses still mostly started well below the three-point arc.

Nowadays, when you hear “mid-range jumper” from hoops pundits it is mostly preceded by the phrase “the lost art of.” Most of that talk can be dismissed as bloviation, but it is hard to imagine a present-day NBA team draining 18-footers like the Pistons and the Nuggets were in this game. Issel drained his first eight shots of the game, mostly from mid-range, but the 14-year veteran in his penultimate season struggled to keep up the pace. Moe gave Issel long breathers, but fatigue was definitely a factor when Issel missed a 20-footer at the end of regulation, failing to break a 145-145 tie. He missed another at the end of the first overtime, which ended in a 159-159 stalemate.

The Pistons finally broke away in the waning minutes of the third overtime, forcing a turnover by Bill Hanzlik that Thomas took for a breakaway layup and a 183-179 lead. A drained Hanzlik spent the ensuing timeout prostrate next to the Denver huddle.

It was an overwhelming game, one that might never be matched, even by teams coached by D’Antoni and Nelson on their best days.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Legend In His Time

The ravages of time take no pity on aging basketball legends, and Larry Bird was making his final battle with the ticking clock in the 1991-’92 season.

His body had been betraying him for years, the cruelest breakdown being a bad back that forced Bird to famously spend nights in traction at a Boston hospital. But he also was plagued by an Achilles’ problem that made it look like he would sit out against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 12, 1992.

Bird had already missed 29 games that season. But he was in the starting lineup at the Boston Garden that night, taking his place alongside Dee Brown, Reggie Lewis, Kevin Gamble and Robert Parish.

The Trail Blazers were 46-18 heading into the game, the best record in the Western Conference. They would end up in the NBA Finals that season, losing to the Chicago Bulls in six games.

In the opening minutes, Bird looked the part of punch-drunk cager still hitting the court. He rose for an 18-footer over Buck Williams, and missed so badly that the Garden faithful audibly groaned. It’s an impossible situation for fans as a star’s game loses its shine. When is the point when you call for the plug to be pulled?

However, that embarrassing miss seemed to give Bird some verve. On the Celtics’ next possession, he demanded the ball and then drained a 17-footer from the other side of the floor. Bird missed his next two shots and the 1-for-4 start seemed to portend another dark night of the soul.

Bird settled into the rhythm of the game, bearing down on the defensive boards and letting the offense come to him instead of forcing the issue. He started to work the midrange game, the stock-in-trade of any aging scorer. Bird sank his last four jumpers of the first quarter, ending up with 10 points and six rebounds.

After the requisite breather to begin the second quarter, Bird kept the boil on high. He manhandled Danny Ainge in the post, spinning away from the ex-Celtic and hitting the archetypal “old man at the YMCA” twisting layup over Cliff Robinson. The Celtics briefly had Kevin McHale and Parish in the lineup with Bird and some of that old magic had been rekindled. Bird drilled two more high-arching, fadeaway jumpers, giving him seven straight field goals. Bird knew something was afoot, cracking a rictus grin and jawing with Portland’s Robinson after one of Bird’s makes. Heading into halftime, Bird had 16 points and nine rebounds on 8-of-12 shooting as the Celtics trailed, 62-58.

The third quarter featured another master’s seminar on the midrange by Bird. He also kept his shooting touch in rhythm by sinking technical free throws – three in the period for the Trail Blazers, two and the boot for Robinson (who was probably glad to get away from Bird) and one for Clyde Drexler. Add another 11 points for Bird’s stat sheet.

Bird now drew rapt attention from Portland coach Rick Adelman, who started sending two defenders Bird’s way in order to get the ball out of his hands. Bird promptly set to work on a triple-double, feeding the open teammates. He also set up shop on the low post against Drexler, who was in his prime “Glide” days. Bird kept the Celtics close, but the outcome seemed certain with the Trail Blazers holding a seven-point lead with just under two minutes remaining. But no lead is safe with an Adelman-coached team.

Missed free throws and poor clock management allowed the lead to be cut to a three-point deficit for the Celtics with five seconds left. Every soul in the Garden knew Bird would have the ball in his hands. He took the ball right at Drexler on the wing, lowered his head and spun like a tailback. Bird drifted toward the basket and shot-put a three-pointer to tie the game at 122 with two seconds left. He had 40 points in regulation.

Bird reached a triple-double in the first overtime and then willed himself to nine more points in extra time. His jumper with under two minutes left in the second overtime gave the Celtics a six-point lead and Boston held on for a 152-148 victory.

Bird’s line was jaw-dropping: 49 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists and five steals. The Celtics would lose in the second round of the playoffs that season, and Bird would retire after playing sparingly for “The Dream Team” in Barcelona. His body couldn’t take the grind anymore. But at least Bird got a final, masterful attempt at making time stop.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Supersized

The 1995 McDonald’s All-American Game was so rich in talent that, even at the time, it was favorably compared to the storied class of ’79 (Ralph Sampson, Isiah Thomas, James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins).

Let’s examine the ’95 game, with a McGimmick. We’ll take the stars of the game and look at them through the lens of a McDonald’s menu. This also speaks to how commodified the game had become, even at the high-school level.

Kevin Garnett is the undisputed star of this class and the MVP of the game, making him the obvious Big Mac. Two all-beef patties (inside and mid-range game) make up the meat of Garnett’s appeal, with the added appeal of American cheese (feel for the game), pickles (defensive awareness) and onions (good ball-handling for a big man). To top it off, Garnett definitely had the special sauce – a Thousand Island-like mix of irrepressible enthusiasm and a boisterous competitiveness.

Garnett was truly a man among boys at the Kiel Center in St. Louis. He brought the ball up the court, drained 17-footers, handled the rock in transition, and punctuated each swat and dunk with a guttural bellow.

Ron Mercer, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Paul Pierce could be categorized as Sausage McMuffins. Their games were definitely tasty, if a little blander than the Big Mac. There was no secret about what they offered, just sausage, egg and cheese. Mercer displayed his calling card early in the game, dialing long distance on 3 three-pointers in the first five minutes. Pierce was a crafty offensive force, shaking free for several long jumpers and mid-range bank shots. Abdur-Rahim was a quiet contributor, working hard on the low blocks and taking advantage of his opportunities in a format that is usually guard-dominated.

Future UNC stars Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison have to be packaged together, kind of like Chicken McNuggets. You can see the potential, especially in Carter’s aerial display during the game, but the teenagers still needed something extra (dipping sauces?) that college would provide.

Kris Clack, Derek Hood, B.J. McKie and Jelani McCoy are McChickens. They’re on the menu, but they won’t be the first thing to jump out at you. Clack threw down several vicious dunks in the game and McKie had the defensive highlight by pinning Louis Bullock’s layup against the board – but their names are lost among the stars that went on to NBA fame. All four went on to solid college careers, and they are still kicking around professional leagues across the globe.

Who represents the McRib? That’s got to be Stephon Marbury, much hyped and never quite as good as you want it to be. Marbury and Garnett were the faces of this class, but the point guard from Coney Island disappointed in the McDonald’s game. He drained a couple threes and dropped a few no-look dimes, but he hardly jumped out as someone to build a team, or a menu, around.

A point guard that exceeded expectations in the game, however, was another New York City product. Is there any doubt that Shammgod Wells is the Shamrock Shake? Before he anointed himself God Shammgod, he was a prestidigitatorial prodigy who delighted in finding creative ways to bring the ball up the court. It’s kind of like the Shamrock Shake, you know it doesn’t have much nutritional value, but you get excited when you see it.

Token white guys Ryan Robertson, Taymon Domzalski and Sam Okey – the pride of Cassville, Wis. – can’t be anything other than Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. Non-threatening, tasteless and devoid of meaning.

That leaves the rotund Robert “Tractor” Traylor, who looked more like fry cook than a McDonald’s All-American. Pencil him in as the Steak, Egg and Cheese Bagel. It looks sloppy, is dangerous to take a chance on and should be served with a towel. Yet it’s always tempting, like a 6-foot-8, 300-pound young man with a surprisingly athletic array of moves.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

No Comparison

In the 1970s, any singer-songwriter that could string together a couple of verses with witty wordplay was immediately hailed as “the next Bob Dylan.” If you were a hyper-athletic shooting guard in the 1990s, you ran the risk of getting tagged “the next Michael Jordan.”

Kobe Bryant was able to shake that label and forge his own legacy, just as Bruce Springsteen got away from the Dylan trap. Harold Miner was billed as a “next Jordan” just because he had a bald dome and could dunk, then he sank under the weight of that comparison.

But the player who had the toughest time playing under Jordan’s shadow was Jerry Stackhouse. The Kinston, N.C., native had heard the “next Jordan” talk since he was a teenager. It only increased when Stackhouse chose to attend the University of North Carolina, where he had two high-flying seasons. Never mind that their games were fundamentally different, with Stackhouse being more of a short-range player, it was just easier to stamp on the “next Jordan” label.

Stackhouse reached the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1995-’96 season and, after averaging 19.3 points per game in his first 32 games, remarked how easy it was for him to score against professional defenders. He probably should have stopped talking there, but the rookie went on to say that not even Jordan could stop him and that, in pickup games at UNC, Stackhouse held his own against the best player in the world.

Jordan is famous for using any perceived slight to fuel his competitiveness, and he seized on Stackhouse’s words in advance of their first pro meeting on Jan. 13, 1996, when the Bulls visited Philadelphia. Stackhouse tried to back away from the statements, but he had already sowed the seeds of destruction. The rookie’s mercurial teammate Vernon “Mad Max” Maxwell also didn’t do Stackhouse any favors by telling the Philadelphia Inquirer, “To hell with Michael. To hell with (Scottie) Pippen. Those guys haven’t done nothing for me. And you can print that.”

People tuned into Wayne Larrivee and Johnny “Red” Kerr on WGN expecting a slaughter, and Jordan was out for blood from the jump. His first points were on a long jumper that came on an isolated post-up against Stackhouse. Two minutes later, Stackhouse got his chance to go one-on-one against Jordan, but got ahead of himself and was called for traveling while trying to bully his way to the basket.

MJ scored seven of the Bulls’ first 11 points before Maxwell checked in for Stackhouse. Jordan kept rolling, finishing the opening quarter with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting. He also played cheek-by-jowl defense on Maxwell, who was visibly frustrated after missing his first five shots.

The second quarter was more of the same. Jordan toyed with Stackhouse on several possessions, shaking the rookie with a wide array of shot-fakes and jab-steps. The Bulls went into halftime with a 54-47 lead, with Jordan notching 28 points.

Chicago came into the game with a 29-3 mark, well on its way to a record 72-10 season and laying claim to being one of the NBA’s best teams ever. In the third quarter, the Bulls were in full flight. They scored 44 points in the period, with Jordan and Pippen taking obvious delight in abusing Stackhouse. Maxwell took himself out of the game and headed to the locker room early, complaining about stomach pains. It was probably sickening for 76ers fans to watch as Jordan reached 45 points after only three quarters.

Jordan took a seat for good with nine minutes remaining. His final line: 48 points in 34 minutes, 18 of 28 from the field, including 5 of 7 on three-pointers.

Stackhouse was a non-factor, scoring 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting, definitely not “next Jordan” material. Stackhouse went on to become a better-than-average pro, making two all-star appearances with Detroit, but his pro career always felt like a disappointment because of an early comparison that was impossible to fulfill.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Awesome, baby!!!

Basketball fans who came of age in the ESPN era might not know that Dick Vitale, before all the cutesy catchphrases and motormouth pomposity, was a successful college coach. He compiled a 78-30 mark at the University of Detroit before chasing down NBA money with the Pistons. As a professional, Vitale stumbled to a 34-60 record and was summarily fired, banished to the broadcast booth forevermore.

The high-water mark of Vitale’s coaching days came on Feb. 16, 1977, when the No. 15 Detroit Titans brought their 20-game winning streak to the Milwaukee Arena to take on Al McGuire and the ninth-ranked Marquette Warriors.

The Warriors had been inconsistent all season but still boasted a formidable lineup featuring Bo Ellis, Jerome Whitehead, Butch Lee and Jim Boylan.

It was clear from the start that Vitale desperately wanted to take down a national powerhouse. With a nearly silent crowd at the Arena in the first half, the broadcast easily picked up Vitale’s now-familiar rasp as the coach shouted out defensive calls and exhorted his players to crash the boards.

The defensive switches by Vitale kept the Titans in the game. Detroit mostly stuck to a 1-3-1 zone in the first half, but Dickie V. threw in some halfcourt traps and switched to a 2-1-2 several times. Detroit also held the ball for the final 2 minutes of the first half and went into the locker room down four points.

Vitale came out with a junk defense after halftime, using a triangle-and-two with Detroit’s two guards hounding Lee and Boylan. The Warriors could never get a handle on the Titans’ defense and never pulled away.

Vitale could sense that the upset was possible and, unfathomably, became more emotionally engaged. His comb-over was even more unruly and sweat stains began to form on his disco suit.

The Titans were down, 63-60, with over 2 minutes remaining when McGuire called for Marquette to stall. However, Vitale’s junk defense eventually caused some fits and the sometimes ham-fisted Whitehead lost the ball, allowing Detroit to grab a steal and sink a jumper to get within 63-62. Marquette again had trouble against Detroit’s swarming defense, which forced another steal and allowed the Titans a chance to win.

Vitale elected not to call a timeout as the Titans’ Dennis Boyd brought the ball up the court. McGuire called for the Warriors to get into their 1-2-2 zone and pack it tight in the lane. Detroit worked the ball around the perimeter for over 20 seconds and, with five seconds remaining, Boyd found himself with the ball at the top of the key. The Warriors, however, stayed way back in the zone, allowing enough room for Boyd to sink an open jumper as time expired for a 64-63 victory.

Vitale, ever the picture of restraint, sprinted to mid-court, where he proceeded to dance some variation of the Irish jig. Dickie V. also hugged all comers and planted a few wet kisses on the cheeks of some lucky Detroit cheerleaders.

McGuire thought the loss would keep Marquette out of the NCAA tournament. But the Warriors snuck into the 32-team field and eventually beat North Carolina for the title in McGuire’s last season.

Vitale’s team also made the NCAA tournament, falling to Michigan in the regional semifinals. That would be his last game at the University of Detroit.

After the victory over Marquette, Vitale told reporters. “I feel like crying. I haven’t been this choked up since I lost my eye when I was a kid.”

At least he didn’t call himself a “PTPer.”


Friday, January 8, 2010

The Furious Five Flash Grandly

During the week of Dec. 12, 1991, Michael Jackson’s single “Black or White” reached the summit of the Billboard pop chart. The song featured a prosaic verse performed by a nondescript rapper named LTB. Nonetheless, it was significant in the fact that if the King of Pop was incorporating rap into his music, then hip-hop was officially part of mainstream culture.

Hip-hop also sank its tentacles into the hoops consciousness that week, in the form of five swaggering freshmen at the University of Michigan. On Dec. 12, the Fab Five made its national television debut, taking on Eastern Michigan at Crisler Arena. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwon Howard and Jimmy King all played in the McDonald’s All-American Game, but this was the first time anyone would see the full unit, along with Ray Jackson.

Webber, Rose and Howard were the unquestioned band leaders and were instant starters. Upperclassmen James Voskuil and Michael Talley were the placeholders in the opening lineup.

The freshmen stood out even before the ball was tipped. The baggy shorts worn with a sag, the black socks and black shoes and - much to the consternation of the ESPN announcing crew – the untucked jerseys formed a defiant look.

Howard and Webber were both big guys with mid-range game and superior passing ability. The left-handed Rose was a 6-foot, 8-inch point guard. All had a little flair, evident in Webber’s first basket in the opening minutes. The forward spun away from his defender on the baseline to clear way for a two-handed dunk. Webber added a little flair with a slight pull-up on the rim and then a dramatic gesticulation with his arms on the way down.

Further hip-hop flavor was added to the mix when Jimmy King checked in for Voskuil at the 13:35 mark. This set the stage for the Fab Five’s breakout moment. After Webber blocked an Eastern Michigan shot, King corralled the ball and took off, with C-Webb not far behind in filling the lane. King dropped a resplendent behind-the-back dime to Webber, who leapt above an in-over-his-head defender for a one-handed dunk plus a foul. Crisler Arena erupted and Howard added the punctuation by sprinting down the court to get in the face of the Eastern Michigan player and politely inform the Eagles guard that he just got posterized. (Back then it was still “posterized” and not “YouTubed”.) It was the first iconic moment of the Fab Five in all its uber-talented, trash-talking glory.

Jackson, forever to be the least-remembered member of the Fab Five, finally hit the court with around 8 minutes left in the first half. The full unit only graced the court together for just under a minute in the 91-77 victory, but it was clear that a sea change in college basketball was under way.

That point was reinforced two days later, when the Wolverines played host to defending champion Duke in another nationally televised game on CBS. The top-ranked Blue Devils were the epitome of mainstream college basketball, with hip-hugging shorts and play-the-right-way emphasis.

The Wolverines embraced their role as hip-hop upstarts. They seemed to make a point of making Duke stars Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley the focal point of vocal intimidation and the occasional furtive elbow.

Michigan rallied from a 17-point deficit in the first half and ripped off a 14-0 run in the second half. The Wolverines blew a five-point lead in the final minute of regulation and then lost in overtime, 88-85, after Webber (27 points, 12 rebounds) fouled out.

The brash Fab Five had taken on the establishment and held its own. As the lyrics to the “Black and White” rap state, “It’s a turf war/ On a global scale.” The Wolverines might have lost the battles to Duke – including the national title game later that season – but the Fab Five won the turf war of hoops culture.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hoosier Dandies

The mythic schoolboy basketball hero in Indiana has a few unalterable characteristics: Feathery jumper. Ironclad grasp of fundamentals. Small-town upbringing. Uncommon passing vision. And, yes, a pale complexion.
Thus, Larry Bird and Steve Alford are in. Oscar Robertson and Shawn Kemp are out. But there is also a dark side to being anointed as the Hoosier State’s “Great White Hype,” as Scott Skiles and Damon Bailey can readily attest.
Skiles burnished his legend in 1982, leading his Plymouth Pilgrims through the celebrated one-class Indiana High School Sports Association tournament. Skiles averaged 28.8 points per game in his senior season, but his last performance would be his finest.
Plymouth totaled only 894 students, making it the smallest school to play for an Indiana title since the fabled Milan team from 1954 (which inspired “Hoosiers"). The Pilgrims, an apt name for an all-white squad, would face powerhouse Panthers from Gary Roosevelt at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. Making it an Indiana University sociologist’s dream matchup, Roosevelt didn’t have a white face in its layup line.
Predictably, Roosevelt pushed the pace in the first quarter and the announcers made sure to note how Plymouth looked gassed. The Panthers could never pull away, leaving an opening for Skiles to assume his destiny.
Skiles pumped in 16 points in the fourth quarter and his 23-footer at the buzzer appeared to be off the mark to the right before curving and settling into the net to force overtime. Skiles would dominate the two overtime periods, finishing with 39 points in a 75-74 victory.
However, Skiles eschewed the standard path of Indiana prep legends. He chose Jud Heathcote and Michigan State over The General and Indiana. Many in Indiana viewed this decision as treasonous. Skiles seemed to veer out of control after he crossed over the border, notching three arrests and spending 15 days in the clink. The scrappy player’s scrapes with the law only strengthened Skiles’ detractors, who declared that they didn’t want such a player on any state school anyway.
Bailey didn’t have Skiles’ rough edges, but their games were similar. Both had workmanlike moves inside and outside and an ability to take over when needed. The main difference between the two players was that Bailey had been performing under intense pressure since he was a middle schooler.
Bobby Knight had recruited Bailey in the seventh grade and the hype escalated from there. By the time Bailey’s Bedford North Lawrence team reached the 1990 championship game, Indiana fans were at a fever pitch. IHSSA officials were forced to move the game against Concord to the Hoosier Dome, where 41,046 fans decided to check out a high school basketball game.
Bailey didn’t disappoint, dropping 30 points in Bedford North Lawrence’s 63-60 victory. He scored his team’s last 11 points. The hype was real and, unlike Skiles, Bailey would stay true to his roots and play for Knight at Indiana, where Hoosiers fans undoubtedly knew they would win NCAA titles in each of Bailey’s four seasons.
Maybe Bailey wishes he would have taken the Skiles exit out of state. The myth and the hype would threaten to overwhelm Bailey. He battled through injuries and, despite scoring 1,741 points at IU, it was never enough as the Hoosiers only made it to one Final Four during Bailey’s years at the school.
Skiles made it past his struggles, playing 10 seasons in the NBA before becoming a coach in the league. But because he played at Michigan State, Skiles is somewhat forgotten in the conversation about great Indiana prep players.
Bailey was drafted in the second round by the Indiana Pacers in 1994. But he never played a minute for his home state’s NBA team, another disappointment to the fans who had anointed Bailey as the next Larry Bird.