Friday, May 28, 2010

Skywriting


To most basketball fans, David Thompson is synonymous with squandered talent. He’s a reckless symbol of the cocaine-addled NBA that was self-destructing in the late 1970s. But to the majority of hoops fans from Thompson’s home state of North Carolina, the “Skywalker” is viewed in a kinder light as one of the greatest players ever who ran into a few personal problems.

I grew up in Greensboro, N.C., long after Thompson had washed out of the NBA. When I was in middle school and getting indoctrinated into hoops culture, Thompson came to talk to our student body. I don’t remember the speech besides being the usual stay-in-school/don’t-do-drugs boilerplate. What I remember is that the gymnasium was packed; parents had ducked out of work at the chance to hear Thompson speak. The physical education teachers wore suits and ties. I was left with the impression that Thompson was on par with the president of the United States.

Thompson became embedded in my hoops consciousness, and his name started cropping up everywhere. When I would write research projects about Michael Jordan, I’d read about how the young MJ patterned his game after Thompson and longed to wear an N.C. State jersey like his idol. When the ACC tournament would hit town, the Greensboro News & Record was chockablock with tales of Thompson’s exploits with the Wolfpack: 26.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game and a 79-7 record in three college seasons.

It must have been tough for Thompson to come to Greensboro to talk about his personal failures because that city played host to the three biggest victories of his college career in the 1973-’74 season. After watching video of Thompson scoring 42 points in the ABA’s swan song, I realized that I had never seen any of his college work besides the obligatory highlight packages. To understand why all those Carolina folk got starry-eyed when talking about Thompson, I viewed tapes of N.C. State’s victories over Maryland (in the famous ACC championship game), UCLA (in the Final Four) and Marquette (in the NCAA championship game).

I never thought Thompson could live up to the images I had created in my mind since back in the day. But he might have exceeded expectations.

As expected, Thompson’s athleticism is the first thing that jumps out at the viewer. Depending on whom you believe, Skywalker’s vertical leap was somewhere between 35 and 44 inches. N.C. State coach Norman Sloan tailored the offense to fit Thompson’s gifts. This team basically made the alley-oop a staple of the modern game. Everyone on the team could loft that pass to a hard-cutting Thompson, from 5-foot, 7-inch point guard Monte Towe to 7-2 center Tom Burleson.

Against Maryland in the ACC championship, the Wolfpack’s signature play was on full display in what by common consent is the greatest game in that conference’s history. Since each conference got only one bid to the NCAA tournament, one of the nation’s best teams would have its season end early. Thompson made sure it wasn’t N.C. State. His back-door cuts were a thing of beauty: He would lazily bring his defender to the free-throw line, then sell hard like he was sprinting out to the perimeter to get the ball. Before his defender could blink, Thompson would plant his feet and cut like lightning back to the basket. Since dunking the ball was outlawed by the NCAA at that time, it made each of Thompson’s alley-oops a separate art performance. Only 6-4, Thompson would glide over the rim, gather the ball then smoothly drop it into the basket. He scored a large chunk of his 29 points in this manner in the dramatic 103-100 overtime victory.

Dunking became what Thompson has been best remembered for in his professional career. That is definitely historically noteworthy, but it also obscures Thompson’s whole game. In the 80-77 double-overtime victory against UCLA (which ended the Bruins’ seven-year stranglehold on NCAA titles), Thompson made several jaw-dropping blocks against Bill Walton that proved to N.C. State that the upset was possible. Thompson’s 28 points and 10 rebounds helped, too.

Thompson made sure the Wolfpack avoided a letdown against Marquette in the national championship by displaying his total game in playing all 40 minutes. With intimidator Maurice Lucas roaming underneath the basket, the alley-oops were largely choked off. Thompson went to work with his mid-range game, finishing with 21 points in the 76-64 victory to cap off his Most Outstanding Player performance at the Final Four. Another underrated part of Thompson’s game was his defense. Especially at the college level, where Thompson’s athleticism was far superior to the competition, he would soar for rebounds and sprint into passing lanes for steals.

So watching Thompson did nothing to disabuse me of the notion that he is one of the greatest players ever. You can’t gloss over the fact that his personal demons likely robbed him of a more noteworthy professional career, but you also can’t ignore those plays that still make grown men in my home state shake their heads in awe.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Cult Of Rubio


It has become nearly impossible for a teenage basketball phenom to hoop below the radar. Gone are the days when a relative unknown could finagle an invite to some elite camp and become the nation’s hottest recruit overnight, like Tracy McGrady did at ABCD in 1996.

The scouting and recruiting apparatuses are so well-oiled that a current player with transcendent physical tools like McGrady would have been showcased and written up in reports and puff pieces before he even played a game in high school, no matter what dusty corner of the U.S. he lived in.

Today, the only intrigue in the prospect game concerns foreign players, and the greatest mystery going is how well Spanish wunderkind Ricky Rubio will fare in the NBA. Anyone reading about Rubio in the run-up to the 2009 draft (and after he was selected fifth overall by the Timberwolves) would be under the impression that he was the second coming of (insert breathless point guard comparison here). But only a select few fans/pundits in the U.S. had ever seen Rubio play outside of the Olympic gold-medal game won by the Americans in 2008. How did Rubio become a cult of basketball personality?

The legend of Rubio began its worldwide ascent with his performance in the 2006 FIBA Under-16 European Championship game. In Spain’s 110-106 victory in double overtime over Russia, Rubio had the sublime line of 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists and seven steals.

The game was filmed by a spectator in the stands, and the footage begins with the camera trained on a figure that stands out in the layup line among his red jersey-clad teammates. The pro-Spain crowd cheered wildly as Rubio wrapped the ball behind his back then dropped in an acrobatic lay-in from the left side. On his next trip through the line, Rubio played to the crowd’s anticipation and threw an alley-oop to himself off the glass for a one-handed dunk.
That was just the sound check for Rubio’s rock-star performance in the game. The footage is grainy, you can’t make out faces or read numbers, but you are always aware of which player is Rubio. He was clearly on a different level than his peers in this game. He got into the lane on nearly every possession.

Rubio’s assists total could have been at least five higher had he been playing with better teammates who could handle his passes. The kid oozed confidence even through an amateur camcorder lens. The most striking aspect of Rubio’s game, as often noted, is his passing vision. A 16-year-old kid shouldn’t have that kind of feel for the game. He was also at his best in the clutch moments, taking over the scoring burden in the final minutes and hitting a long shot to send the game into overtime.

Video from Rubio’s performance leaked out on the Internet, whetting the appetite of Stateside fans. It showed just enough, and was tantalizingly incomplete and grainy. Plus, Rubio’s flashy game was tailor-made for YouTube. He had enough no-look dimes and gymnastic forays to the hoop to cobble together several “mix tapes” on the Web.

Journalists started to pick up the scent. Lang Whitaker of Slam magazine was the first American scribe to spread the gospel of Rubio, heading across the pond to actually dig into the phenomenon and banging out a feature in 2007. After that, more mainstream publications took notice, and the ball of hype picked up steam quickly.

Fans clamored for their team to draft Rubio strictly on the basis of Internet clips and second-hand stories. It was like a perfectly orchestrated guerrilla marketing campaign. It could never have worked with an American prospect, one whose game had been studied and dissected from every angle since he was a teenager.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 6


With the NBA playoffs getting down to brass tacks, Order of the Court will take a look at a great post-season series of the past: The Portland Trail Blazers’ 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals. There will be a post for each game.

Game 6: Portland 109, Philadelphia 107 (Blazers win, 4-2)

The series had to end this way, with the Trail Blazers returning to one of the best NBA cities and Bill Walton turning in an immortal Finals performance. Portland was ready — 4,500 fans had shown up at the airport in the middle of the night to greet the team after the Blazers’ victory at Philadelphia in Game 5. The volume at Memorial Coliseum for Game 6 was at ear-splitting levels even before the tap.

Then the fans got to witness one of the finest opening quarters they could ever hope to see. The Blazers and 76ers had yet to play at their highest levels simultaneously in the previous five games. So it was a good sign that Philadelphia’s George McGinnis, plagued by 35% shooting in the series, sank his first four shots. Both teams were hot, combining to make 16 of the initial 22 shots in the game. The game was tied, 27-27, after the opening 12 minutes.

Portland put together a 10-0 run in the second quarter to take a 50-40 lead with five minutes to go before halftime. The Blazers headed into the break with a 67-55 advantage after their fourth 40-point quarter of the series.

The Portland fans probably thought that the 76ers, laden with egocentric players, would fold. But Philadelphia kept battling back in the second half. The 76ers got three good looks at the basket in the final seconds, and Portland secured its lone title only after McGinnis’ shot fell short at the buzzer.

It was an unexpected special season for the Blazers. The team had never been in the playoffs before, or even had a winning season. Portland had a first-year coach in Dr. Jack Ramsay, who had to mold together seven new additions to the roster.

The Blazers went 49-33 in the regular season, thanks to the relative good health of Walton. Portland was 5-12 in games without its star center. Walton was probably never better as a professional than he was in Game 6: 20 points, 23 rebounds, eight blocks and seven assists.

This series is often remembered as the one in which Walton outshone Julius Erving. Dr. J was equally brilliant in the final game, pouring in 40 points, including some dunks that could make you wear out the rewind button. Any highlight package of the 1977 NBA Finals will show Erving magnificently jamming over an outstretched Walton. That happened several times in the series. But Walton also won a fair number of the battles in which their paths crossed, blocking several of Erving’s headlong forays to the basket.

It seemed like there was a budding dynasty in Portland. Walton was finally healthy, and the talented players surrounding him were still young. The Blazers started the next season 50-10 before Walton went down again. The heartbreaking end to those dynastic hopes can never be told better than in David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game.”

But at least Walton got Portland to the top of the mountain before the wheels came off the team. The Blazers’ four victories in eight days were a sight to behold, personifying the team concept of basketball in an era of the NBA that many observers would like to forget. Everything aligned perfectly for Portland that season, and it brought a title to a town that deserved a champion.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 5


With the NBA playoffs getting down to brass tacks, Order of the Court will take a look at a great post-season series of the past: The Portland Trail Blazers’ 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals. There will be a post for each game.

Game 5: Portland 110, Philadelphia 104 (Blazers lead series, 3-2)

There have been a few dime-store psychologists who have posited that a big reason for the enduring popularity of the Portland Trail Blazers’ 1976-’77 team was the big roles played by several white players.

Remember that the NBA was in a period of turmoil in the late 1970s. Cocaine use was rampant throughout the league, likely a reason for the erratic play and violent behavior on the court that alienated a lot of fans. It was a low ebb of popularity for the league; some of these Finals games were even shown on tape delay by CBS.

But it can’t be overlooked that a lot of fans from mainstream white American were turned off by the brash, in-your-face street style that many African-Americans brought to the NBA in the 1970s. So it is not a stretch to say that many of the remaining white fans clung to the players who looked like themselves — guys like Portland’s Bill Walton, Dave Twardzik and Bobby Gross.

But that line of thinking also discredits those players’ skills a bit. Walton, Twardzik and Gross could all play, and their standout performances were instrumental in helping Portland take Game 5 at the Spectrum. As we are reminded every year in the playoffs, Game 5s are pivotal and a series truly begins when a team wins on the road.

The Blazers started off a bit like they had in their forgettable performances in the first two games of the Finals in Philadelphia. They had four turnovers in the first few minutes of the game, something they desperately needed to avoid to have any chance. Gross was the calming influence with his dead-eye mid-range game. He dropped in eight points as Portland staked an 18-10 lead. However, Gross was saddled with three fouls in the first quarter, and the Blazers missed his defense on Julius Erving as Philadelphia crept back to within 45-41 in a relatively low-scoring half.

Gross helped ignite the Blazers in the third quarter. His steal and three-point play were the key moments of a 17-2 run that put Portland in control of the game. The Blazers put 40 points on the scoreboard in the period, taking an 85-66 lead into the fourth quarter.

Philadelphia would make some runs in the fourth quarter, whittling the lead to five on several occasions. Gross hit a crucial shot to quell a spurt by the 76ers and give Portland a 96-84 advantage, but he fouled out with 4:54 left in the game. He finished with 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting, adding five assists and three steals.

Walton was his usual dominating self throughout the game, and he didn’t need the ball to do it. With Gross giving some unexpected scoring punch, Walton could focus on doing the dirty work. For the game, Walton had 14 points and pulled down 24 rebounds. On defense, he blocked several shots and altered many others.

Still, there were several stretched in the fourth quarter where it looked like the 76ers were going to run right by the Blazers. Earlier in the game, CBS had run a brief interview with Twardzik and the guard was asked about his role on the Blazers. He responded that he was in charge of making the right decisions, when to run if the action needed picking up or when to slow things down and run the pattern offense. That’s exactly what he did when Portland coach Dr. Jack Ramsay inserted him in the crunch-time lineup. Twardzik had 15 points and handled the offensive reins almost perfectly, save for a turnover with 36 seconds left and the Blazers clinging to a seven-point lead.

Maurice Lucas, one of those oft-criticized “street players,” added his usual steady offering of 20 points and 13 rebounds. But the Trail Blazers shouldn’t be broken down into black-and-white terms. Walton, Gross and Twardzik weren’t given any special pass on the court. Portland was just a perfect team, one that was headed home to claim a title on the court where the Blazers had won 17 straight games.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 4


With the NBA playoffs getting down to brass tacks, Order of the Court will take a look at a great post-season series of the past: The Portland Trail Blazers’ 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals. There will be a post for each game.

Game 4: Portland 130, Philadelphia 98 (Series tied, 2-2)

This is what all the pundits had predicted, except that it wouldn’t have taken the Portland Trail Blazers until Game 4 to put it all together. Philadelphia was supposed to be a collection of individuals, and Portland’s team game was going to cause the 76ers to self-destruct.

Riding the wave that started with nine minutes remaining in Game 3, the Blazers burst out of the gates at Memorial Coliseum, where they had won 16 straight games. Philadelphia coach Gene Shue was forced to call quick timeouts with Portland staking 9-2 and 17-4 leads. Lionel Hollins broke out of his mini-slump, sinking long jumpers and making good decisions as the Blazers ran their fast break to perfection. The ball was finding Bill Walton easily enough as Portland’s star got at least 20 touches in the first half.

The 76ers were caught in a downward spiral, with the snake-bitten George McGinnis called for three fouls in a first quarter that ended with Portland winning, 29-16. The 76ers tried to force their way back into the game, letting Lloyd B. Free gun away in the second quarter. The result? A 57-46 lead for the Blazers at halftime, with Portland getting 17 assists and the one-on-one 76ers getting only five.

Hollins (25 points and six assists) and Maurice Lucas (24 points and 12 rebounds) were the stars for Portland in this game. They needed to be as Walton (12 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists) picked up his fifth foul with 7:02 remaining in the third quarter and the Blazers leading, 71-47.

If ever there was a time for the 76ers to make a run it was then. But Shue inexplicably left Julius Erving to rest on the bench when Walton headed to the sideline. Lucas scored 10 of the Blazers’ next 13 points for an 84-59 advantage, and the rout was on. Portland was even getting fast breaks on Philadelphia’s made baskets. By the time third quarter was over it was 98-67 and Walton didn’t ever need to check back into the game.

It was all garbage time in the fourth quarter, and an 11-0 run by the 76ers couldn’t make the score respectable. Even Portland coach Dr. Jack Ramsay stopped pacing the sidelines and cracked a smile watching his reserves, including a red-hot Wally Walker, pour it on in the fourth quarter.

The 76ers had become unraveled on and off the court. There were accusations lobbed in the press from Philadelphia players after the game accusing the team of playing selfishly. McGinnis could come up with no answers for his 16-for-48 shooting in the Finals.

The only good news for the 76ers was that they were headed home to play Game 5. But the worm had turned since Game 2 in Philadelphia. The Blazers were well on their way to history.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 3


With the NBA playoffs getting down to brass tacks, Order of the Court will take a look at a great post-season series of the past: The Portland Trail Blazers’ 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals. There will be a post for each game.

Game 3: Portland 129, Philadelphia 107 (76ers lead series, 2-1)

Forget the fight. It proved not to be the turning point of the series — that came in the fourth quarter of this game. The Portland Trail Blazers also needed to put the Game 2 ruckus out their minds, much easier now that the series had shifted to Portland and its raucous bandbox of a gym.

Any lingering hostilities after the Maurice Lucas-Darryl Dawkins punch-up were quashed when Lucas surprisingly ran over to Philadelphia’s bench during player introductions and shook hands with Dawkins. The Blazer faithful at Memorial Coliseum roared their approval. After some obligatory booing of Dawkins when he first checked into the game, the matter was old news.
Portland couldn’t waste any thought on the first two games, anyway. It had to clean up its act, mostly on the offensive end. The Blazers needed stronger play out of their backcourt, cutting down on the turnovers and hitting open shots so things would loosen up for Bill Walton in the post.

Dr. Jack Ramsay also wanted his team to come out firing to get the crowd going early. Portland obliged, racing out to a 10-4 lead before Philadelphia’s Gene Shue called a timeout to settle his team down. Rookie guard Johnny Davis (that’s him in the above photo) provided the backcourt spark, scoring 10 of the Blazers’ first 20 points. Portland led, 34-21, after the first quarter and it seemed like the team had righted its listing ship.

But the Blazers’ old demons reared their ugly heads in the second quarter. The hot shooting cooled, and the turnovers began to mount. Portland, which averaged 15 turnovers per game in the season, coughed it up 13 times in the first half of Game 3. For a team that prided itself on crisp ball movement, the 76 turnovers in the first 10 quarters of the Finals were unacceptable. Adding to the Blazers’ troubles was the play of Lionel Hollins. The normally steady guard was atrocious in the first two quarters of Game 3, shooting 1 for 9 and missing several easy shots.

The 76ers crawled back into the game behind usual suspects Doug Collins and Julius Erving. They cut Portland’s lead to 54-53 before a miss by the 76ers’ George McGinnis (still deep in a slump) precipitated a 6-0 run by the Blazers to end the half.
Still, the only way the Blazers could run off four straight victories was if Walton got room to operate. Davis did his part by hitting outside shots so that the wing defenders couldn’t sandwich Walton. Ramsay helped by drifting Walton more to the elbow, creating more lanes so one of the greatest-passing big men ever could hit cutters.

Then there was Lucas, Walton’s partner in the post and confidant off the court. It might have seemed an unlikely pairing, the glowering black man from rugged Pittsburgh and the free-spirited “great white hope” from the West Coast. But here’s what David Halberstam wrote in “The Breaks of the Game”:

“When Lucas came to Portland he had gone out for dinner with Walton the first night, and they decided that they both could be winners. Luke promised that he would take the physical pressure off Walton — he would love banging bodies. They had agreed, in addition, and this was crucial for two big men, that they would not let their egos get in the way, they would not be jealous of each other; they were the big men, they would run this team and they would from the outset be friends.”


That relationship played out beautifully in Game 3. One could see the influence of Walton in how Lucas started making the snappy outlet pass on the way down from grabbing a rebound. Lucas’ vastly improved mid-range jumper, which was going great guns in this game, freed up more space for Walton. The two also worked the high-low game, giving each other gorgeous feeds. The offense was in gear, with the Trail Blazers giving up the ball only twice in the second half and Walton (20-18-9) and Lucas (27-12-5) posting big numbers for the game.

The Blazers had trouble putting Philadelphia away in the second half. Portland would go up by 10 or 12, then let the 76ers close the gap. Everything changed, including the momentum of the series, after Philadelphia got to within 91-87 with 9:20 remaining in the game.

The key substitution was getting Dave Twardzik in for the struggling Hollins. Twardzik had been a starter before badly spraining an ankle earlier in the post season. Portland’s offense started to have more flow, then Walton made the two biggest plays of the series. First, he cut backdoor and made a stunningly athletic tap-in of a lob pass from Bobby Gross. Twardzik stole the ball at mid-court and lofted another pass that Walton crammed home.

The Memorial Coliseum was quaking. Those two baskets by their star center and a shot of adrenalin from the home crowd were what it took for the Blazers to play at their highest level. The shots started falling, the ball moved around the perimeter with more authority. Portland oozed confidence, going on a 38-20 run to end the game. The sign unfurled behind the Trail Blazers’ bench at the end of the game said it all: “Red hot and rollin’.”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 2


With the NBA playoffs getting down to brass tacks, Order of the Court will take a look at a great post-season series of the past: The Portland Trail Blazers’ 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals. There will be a post for each game.

Game 2: Philadelphia 107, Portland 89 (76ers lead series, 2-0)

The fight was inevitable. The Portland Trail Blazers were playing too poorly and were too frustrated by the Philadelphia 76ers dictating the tempo of the game. The referees had swallowed their whistles in the fourth quarter. Most of all, there were just too many outsized personalities at the Spectrum in Philadelphia for Game 2.

By most accounts, the plot of the 1977 NBA Finals pivoted with the fracas that occurred a little more than halfway through the fourth quarter of Philadelphia’s victory. Something had to change for Portland, which kept making the same mistakes that doomed them in Game 1.

Above all else, the Trail Blazers wanted to take care of the basketball after committing 34 turnovers in the series opener. Well, Portland had five turnovers in the first five minutes of the game and ended up with 29. The Trail Blazers were frosty from the field the entire game, shooting just 36 of 101. Once again, Bill Walton was bottled up inside and couldn’t jump-start Portland’s passing game. Silly fouls kept putting Philadelphia on the line.

Philadelphia pulled away in the second quarter, forcing a breakneck game and scoring 14 points in three minutes. The run was sparked by 76ers power forward George McGinnis, who was mired in a shooting slump throughout the post-season. After he checked in, McGinnis immediately got an acrobatic layup, a steal and an assist that gave Philadelphia a 43-32 lead with 6 minutes left in the half. McGinnis finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, giving 76ers fans hope that he had come out of his funk.

Speaking of funk, the 76ers also got a lift from Darryl Dawkins, two years out of high school and not yet fully into his “Chocolate Thunder” persona. Dawkins was a high-energy crowd favorite at the Spectrum. He led a fast break after blocking a Walton shot that pushed the pace to a frantic level, and Julius Erving’s swooping dunk just before the halftime buzzer helped the 76ers sprint into the locker room with a 61-43 advantage. Dawkins’ play also prompted CBS’ Brent Musberger to explain to viewers that Dawkins moonlighted as a DJ, providing a clip of the 20-year-old “talking his jive.”

The 76ers welcomed back another outlandish player, Lloyd B. Free, who still hadn’t legally changed his name to “World.” He had been out with a fractured rib and collapsed lung, but that didn’t slow his chucker tendency. He played only a few minutes, but was sure to get some shots up. It would have been something to watch the 76ers scrimmage that season, with unrepentant gunners Erving, Free, McGinnis, Doug Collins and Joe “Jellybean” Bryant all vying for shots.

Philadelphia pushed the lead to 20 in the third quarter, and Portland’s frustration began to manifest itself into hard fouls. The main culprit, as always for the Trail Blazers, was Maurice Lucas. The former Marquette and ABA star must have been upset after breaking loose for 10 points in the first quarter but only four thereafter. There was also the constant physicality of McGinnis underneath the basket.

Lucas was definitely near the breaking point in the fourth quarter, with the Trail Blazers unable to mount any sort of run to get back into the game. First he challenged Erving to try and take Lucas one-on-one (probably never a good idea). Then Lucas got into some jawing with Collins and 76ers tough guy Steve Mix. The officials kept letting these episodes escalate. A dustup was nearly touched off when McGinnis tangled with Portland’s Lloyd Neal for a rebound. There was some preliminary pushing, and Lucas wanted to get into the action, sprinting over for a piece of fellow hothead McGinnis. Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsay was quick on his feet, however, running off the sidelines directly to Lucas — not the main combatants — so he could hold back the team’s enforcer from doing anything crazy.

That was just the undercard, however. A few minutes later, Dawkins and Bobby Gross simultaneously grabbed a rebound, and when Dawkins tried to wrest control he slammed Gross to the floor. Gross took exception and words were exchanged. Dawkins took a swing a Gross but accidentally hit teammate Collins. Dawkins backpedaled fatefully into the waiting elbow of Lucas. Those two started another tussle, actually putting up their dukes, with Dawkins bobbing and weaving like an elongated Michael Spinks. It was now a full-scale melee, with fans, coaches and hangers-on streaming onto the court. In other words, it was a typical NBA game in the late 1970s. Erving, as cool a customer as ever there was in the league, took a seat on the court and calmly watched the donnybrook.

Dawkins and Lucas were ejected, but unlike today’s NBA, there would be no further ramifications. There was finally some tension in a series that saw the 76ers rather breezily take a 2-0 lead. But it’s too hard to tell if the fight gave Portland the spark that ignited its four-game run to the title. The Trail Blazers just needed to find a way to clean up the 63 turnovers and to get Walton loose after the star center’s lackluster 17-point, 16-rebound performance in Game 2.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Portland's Crowning Achievement: Part 1


With the NBA playoffs getting down to brass tacks, Order of the Court will take a look at a great post-season series of the past: The Portland Trail Blazers’ 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals. There will be a post for each game.

Game 1: Philadelphia 107, Portland 101

The Portland Trail Blazers of 1976-’77 have a secure spot among the most revered teams of all time. Like the New York Knicks from earlier that decade, the Trail Blazers’ championship and its aftermath were the subjects of a pantheon hoops book (David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game”), and the title squad is always included in conversations about team-first basketball.

But it is hard to find much to wax eloquent about in Portland’s performance in Game 1 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Maybe it was the nine-day layoff after eliminating the Los Angeles Lakers, but Portland’s venerated passing attack resulted in an unsightly 34 turnovers. Three starters for the Trail Blazers — Maurice Lucas, Bobby Gross and Lionel Hollins — fouled out of the sloppy game.

Even Portland’s Hall of Fame coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay, was outmaneuvered by his less-celebrated counterpart. Philadelphia coach Gene Shue devised an ingenious solution to Portland’s backcourt pressure: Let 7-foot-1-inch center Caldwell Jones occasionally bring the ball up the court. The Trail Blazers were on their heels from the opening tap, which Jones knocked to George McGinnis, who fed Julius Erving for a dunk and a 2-0 lead for Philadelphia before the ball had even touched the court.

Despite its self-inflicted wounds, Portland hung tough and got to within 101-99 with just under two minutes left. Philadelphia’s Darryl Dawkins hit three clutch free throws and grabbed a key offensive rebound to preserve the victory.

The uneven play was surprising given the number of so-called “cerebral” players on the court. Erving and Trail Blazers star Bill Walton are certified basketball geniuses. Philadelphia’s Doug Collins and Mike Dunleavy and Portland point guard Hollins became NBA head coaches. Walton, Dunleavy and Philadelphia’s Henry Bibby and Joe “Jellybean” Bryant sired professional offspring. (If you ever wonder why Kobe Bryant lapses into gunner mode sometimes, just watch tape of his father. In this game, “Jellybean” came into the game late in the second quarter and hoisted two shots in under a minute. It’s ingrained in the DNA.)

The game might not have been easy on the eyes, but it set up some themes to watch for throughout the series:

Maurice Lucas vs. George McGinnis: The battle at power forward was between two rugged, quick-tempered ABA refugees. Lucas was a tough rebounder for Portland who that season had added a consistent mid-range jumper. He also acted as sort of an enforcer for Walton (who named his NBA-playing son after his beloved teammate). Lucas got into foul trouble banging with the equally powerful McGinnis. Every rebound was a battle between the two, and a brief flare-up of tempers occurred in the second quarter but no blows were thrown (which often was the case with these bruisers).

The pace of play: Philadelphia wanted to lure Portland into a run-and-gun street game. The 76ers’ success in that endeavor helped turn Game 1 into a festival of turnovers. Portland liked to run, but did so selectively. The Trail Blazers’ fast break was more textbook, whereas Philadelphia’s was more improvisatory. Walton would snap one of his vaunted outlet passes to Hollins, who would make the decision whether to push it with Gross or Johnny Davis on the wings. Philadelphia would get the ball to Collins or Erving and let them sprint headlong to the rim.

The genius of Bill Walton: As often noted, this was the best professional season for the injury-plagued big man. He logged 2,264 minutes that season in 65 regular-season games, by far the most action of his career. The Portland offense revolved around Walton and his superior passing ability. Walton got 28 points and 20 rebounds in Game 1, but the key number was his three assists. The 76ers were constantly sending double teams to get the ball out of Walton’s hands quickly, before he could initiate the Trail Blazers’ attack.

The genius of Julius Erving: These Finals were described as the one-on-one 76ers against the celebrated teamwork of the Trail Blazers. But it’s hard to argue against just giving the ball to the good Doctor and getting out of the way. Erving was at his best in this game, stealing the ball and swooping in for a dunk just before the buzzer at the end of the first quarter for a 27-25 lead. He took over right after halftime, getting another steal and breakaway dunk on Portland’s first possession. He scored eight of Philadelphia’s first 10 points in the third quarter and finished with 33. Erving had highlight-reel dunks, of course, including a cram over an outstretched Walton after coming around a screen. But Erving’s most underrated moves, and maybe the prettiest, were when he drove on the left side of the basket and finished with his right hand, going right into the body of his defender.

It might have been an inauspicious beginning, but the seeds of a classic series were evident. Portland had played terribly, but was right in the game at the end. The chance for immortality was still there.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Flying Machine


College basketball teams that don’t win national titles are usually relegated to the dustbin of history, only to be remembered by partisan supporters. In order to be burned into the memories of hoops fans, several factors need to come into play for non-championship teams. A catchy nickname helps. So does an unconventional lineup. The two best examples of this are Michigan’s youthful “Fab Five” and Illinois’ “Flying Illini” squad of 1988-’89.

The Illinois team reached its summit in the 1989 NCAA tournament regional final against Syracuse at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The Fighting Illini were trying to reach their first Final Four since the heyday of Johnny “Red” Kerr in 1952. Coach Lou Henson had cobbled together a homegrown rotation that went eight players deep. The hook was that all the players were between 6 feet 4 inches and 6-8. The Illini tried to win by out-running and out-leaping their opponents, so the “Flying Illini” was a natural moniker.

Sports Illustrated scribe Curry Kirkpatrick called them the “Positionless Clones.” For fans just getting acquainted to the Illinois players during the tournament, it must have been hard to distinguish between Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson and Stephen Bardo. They were just a blur of 6-6 dynamos skying in for a rebound or getting behind the zone for a dunk off a lob pass.

That’s what happened to Syracuse in the first few minutes of the regional final. Illinois “point guard” Kendall Gill jumped over the entire front line of Syracuse for an offensive rebound and put-back for the game’s first points. Battle ran the baseline against Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone and caught three alley-oop dunks in the first three minutes.

But Syracuse was as equipped as any other team to match Illinois’ athleticism. Freshman Billy Owens had a breakout tournament and was a legitimate third option behind leading scorers Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas. Stevie Thompson was probably the best leaper on the court that day, which is saying a lot with Illinois’ Battle and super-sub Marcus Liberty also on the airwaves. “The Flying Orangemen” just didn’t have the same cachet, however.

The Orangemen ran off 14 unanswered points, hitting 15 of their first 20 shots and eventually taking a 13-point lead with 6:47 left in the first half. Illinois battled back to get within 46-39 at intermission.

The Illini weren’t a team that could be bottled up for long. The second half was vintage “Flying Illini.” Battle kept soaring over the zone, so Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was forced to play man-to-man defense for long stretches. That played right into Illinois’ strengths.

As time has gone by, the “Flying Illini” now connotes a team that relied on dunk after dunk. In point of fact, the Illini’s prodigious leaping ability served them best on the glass. Every player crashed the boards, which was necessary as “center” Lowell Hamilton stood only 6-7. NBA fans probably best recall Anderson as a shooter, but he was a terror on the offensive glass in college. He had 24 points and 16 rebounds against Syracuse.

The Illini made 20 of their 27 field-goal attempts in the second half. Battle scored 28 points on 12-for-17 shooting for the game and teamed with Gill to slow down Douglas, the general of Syracuse’s attack. Gill finished with 18 points and had the two biggest offensive rebounds of the game — a put-back dunk that gave Illinois an 83-78 lead and a snare of Liberty’s missed free throw with 22 seconds left that set up two free throws by Battle for the final margin of 89-86.

Illinois was back in the promised land of the Final Four, where it faced Big Ten mate Michigan. The Illini had dominated the Wolverines in their two regular-season matchups, but Michigan rode the spark of interim coach Steve Fisher to an 83-81 victory. Ironically, the hard-rebounding Illini lost when Michigan’s Sean Higgins scored on a put-back over Anderson in the waning seconds.

So the “Flying Illini” didn’t get to hang a national championship banner. But the team had such an inimitable style that it is still held in reverence today.

Monday, May 3, 2010

League of Legends


Almost 35 years after its demise, the American Basketball Association is still hard to take seriously. The league’s nine-year tenure can’t shake its sideshow image, conjuring thoughts of blown-out Afros, borderline psychopathic players and hucksterish financial dealings.

That fringe element certainly existed, and the presence of Pat Boone and Morton Downey Jr. as early franchise owners certainly doesn’t help the ABA’s historical record. Game 6 of the 1976 ABA finals would end up being the swan song for the league, but it also serves as a metaphor for how far the NBA’s red, white and blue-headed stepchild had come.

As the New York Nets and Denver Nuggets gathered for the opening tap at the Nassau Coliseum, the collection of basketball talent was eye-popping. The Nets’ Julius Erving would vie for the jump ball against the Nuggets’ Bobby Jones. Denver had a high-scoring team with Dan Issel and David Thompson and was coached by Larry Brown in the first stop of his peripatetic career. Erving was the undisputed star of New York, but coach Kevin Loughery deployed key role players like Swen Nater, Brian Taylor and John Williamson.

That star power was a far cry from the ABA’s inaugural season in 1967-’68 when the league cast its lot with players banned from the NBA like Connie Hawkins and Doug Moe, and lesser-talented refugees from industrial teams. In 1976-’77, after the NBA absorbed four ABA teams, 10 of the 24 players in that year’s All-Star Game had logged time in the ABA.

There was also the matter of the red, white and blue ball. It is the obvious symbol of the ABA and was the brainchild of its first commissioner, George Mikan, the legendary NBA big man who lent the upstart league instant credibility. From the moment Erving and Jones jumped for the opening possession, the spinning ball had a hypnotic pull. In Terry Pluto’s indispensable ABA book “Loose Balls,” players spoke of being transfixed by the rotation of the ball on a jump shot. It was fitting for a league based on offensive exploits that the fans’ eyes were always on the ball.

Issel was the first player to get hot in Game 6. Despite looking like a middle-aged weekend warrior, Issel was only 27 and in the prime of a 15-year ABA/NBA career that saw him score 27,482 points. His game was predicated on mid-range jumpers, and they were falling as the Nuggets raced to an early lead.

As expected, the scoring load for Denver eventually transferred from Issel to Thompson, the star rookie who averaged 26 points per game. This might have been the only professional season that “Skywalker” was in full possession of his talent, before he was beset by injuries and cocaine abuse. A key component to the ABA luring Thompson away from the NBA was the signing of his former N.C. State teammate Monte Towe. During their college days, the duo had such a connection that they brought the “alley-oop” into basketball’s working vocabulary. Towe and Thompson hooked up for their signature play a couple times in the first half, and Thompson had 27 points on 13 shots as Denver took a 58-45 lead at halftime.

The Nets were able to stay in the game only because of Erving and Taylor. Taylor hit a couple of three-pointers, which are probably the greatest legacy of the ABA. The three-point shot was an idea the ABA had taken from the American Basketball League, a precursor to the ABA that lasted a little more than one season in the early 1960s. Basketball purists decried the three-pointer, saying players would start bombing away from long range. But the fans loved it and the three-pointer stuck, eventually getting adopted by the NBA in 1979-’80.

It is often stated that one couldn’t understand the greatness of Erving if one didn’t see him the ABA. He was truly an athletic marvel in Game 6. He took over after the Nuggets established a 22-point lead in the third quarter. Erving, with his Afro in full flower, used his unmatched leaping ability and large hands to make gymnastic forays to the rim. He scored 31 points and pulled down 19 rebounds in his final ABA game, often against Jones, Erving’s future teammate with the Philadelphia 76ers and an acknowledged defensive ace. The Nets outscored the Nuggets, 34-14, in the fourth quarter and claimed the last ABA championship with a 112-106 victory.

The goal of the ABA from the beginning was to force a merger with the NBA. That finally came to fruition in the months after the Nets’ victory. The Nets and the Nuggets were admitted to the NBA, along with the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers. The ABA’s St. Louis Spirits, Kentucky Colonels and Virginia Squires settled and closed up shop. The Nets had to pay such hefty fees (mostly for cutting in on the Knicks’ market) that they had to sell Erving to the 76ers to stay solvent.

That was it for the ABA. Most of its games weren’t televised and were played before sparse crowds, so the re-telling of some of the league’s memorable moments have probably been exaggerated. But the stylistic, wide-open artistry of Thompson and Erving that was fostered in the irreverent ABA had an undeniable effect on basketball culture.