Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Training Camp


The gold standard of basketball blogs, Henry Abbott’s True Hoop, recently went into exhaustive detail about Michael Jordan’s stewardship of the Charlotte Bobcats. Central to most of Jordan’s business dealings throughout his career have been a handful of loyal confidantes, with Fred Whitfield arguably chief among them. Abbott shed some light about the importance of Whitfield, who has been a consigliere to Jordan as a friend/adviser/lawyer during the NBA star’s playing days and later as a partner with Brand Jordan, the Washington Wizards and now the Bobcats.

In an indirect fashion, the partnership of Whitfield and Jordan is also responsible for this blog that you are reading.

Whitfield hails from my hometown of Greensboro, N.C., where he was a standout player at Southeast Guilford High School. Whitfield went on to play at Campbell College, the site of a legendary basketball camp (where Whitfield befriended a young Jordan). Perhaps inspired by his experience at Campbell, Whitfield started his own camp in Greensboro, with a little help from well-known friends like Jordan, Johnny Dawkins and Ralph Sampson.

Whitfield’s Achievements Unlimited camp began in 1984, and grew in popularity every year. I started becoming obsessed with basketball in the early 1990s, when I was around 12. Most of the kids on the Guilford College YMCA all-star teams often sported AU T-shirts, so I figured that if I wanted to play at their level I would have to go to that camp.

Achievements Unlimited is famous around North Carolina for its “World’s Greatest Pickup Game”— featuring pro and college players — that campers and their families can attend at the end of the week. Jordan faithfully played every year, even as his fame reached astronomical levels. It always blew my mind to see the teachers’ parking lot at Western Guilford High School filled with Mercedes Benzes and BMWs. Jordan was the unquestioned king of those games, but in the three years I attended, it was awesome to see Mugsey Bogues, Kenny Smith, King Rice, J.R. Reid, Rick Fox, Dell Curry, Grant Hill and Alaa Abdelnaby. All those players were minor royalty in North Carolina at the time, so seeing them play at this bandbox of a high-school gym was quite an experience.

But nothing could compare with witnessing Jordan in that environment. Remember that this was during the years of the first Bulls three-peat, when Jordan was probably the most famous person in the world. The other players would be warming up, and everyone in the stands would be on edge because Jordan wasn’t there. After all, why would the greatest player ever carve out time to come to this nondescript high school in Greensboro? But then the double doors in the corner would swing open, and Jordan would enter surrounded by a security detail. The buzz at that moment was palpable, and you could hear the electricity spread across the crowd. I remember sitting in the bleachers diagonally across from where Jordan entered. I couldn’t make out his facial features, but the profile of Jordan’s bald dome was instantly recognizable.

There were great players in those games, but Jordan always dominated. Whenever I want to wax poetic about Jordan’s greatness, as basketball fans are wont to do, I think about those pickup games. Jordan knew that every set of eyes in that gym was focused on him, and every spectator demanded that Jordan live up to his reputation as the best in the world. And Jordan always delivered. Even in the summer after a grueling 100-game season. Even in a high-school gym in Greensboro.

For a novice player, the basketball education at the camp was tremendous. It’s where I first learned the pick-and-roll and how to fill the lane on a fast break. My clearest memory of the instruction was Dawkins telling us how to find our shooting range, which he defined as anywhere you can consistently make three of five shots. Dawkins showed us by starting under the basket, then taking a step back after making three shots. He ended up drilling a few jumpers just shy of half court.

But the part about AU that I didn’t appreciate at the time was Whitfield’s insistence that the camp not only be about basketball. We had a list of vocabulary words that we had to learn every night and would be quizzed on the next day. I dutifully studied words like “inevitable” and “exemplary” while I soaked my weary bones in the tub. The test scores would be factored in with the points and rebounds to establish the camp all-stars. Standout campers were awarded dictionaries instead of the traditional plaques or trophies.

I was never that good, so I was insanely jealous of those players that got the dictionaries. Like hoops, words became an obsession of mine. I still put a checkmark next to every new word I look up in my Webster’s New World. The outgrowth of those twin passions is this blog, which owes a debt of gratitude to Whitfield and Jordan for stoking those interests.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Double-Booked


Home-and-home series on consecutive nights are a scheduling quirk not that uncommon in the NBA. It almost never happens in college basketball.

Even rarer in college hoops is back-to-back games against a bitter conference rival from 25 miles down the road. Yet that was the case on Feb. 6 and 7, 1991, when North Carolina and North Carolina State had the hoops version of a doubleheader.

The teams’ first meeting that season was scheduled for Jan. 16. On that day, however, the game was postponed because President Bush had issued orders to start bombing Baghdad. The only wiggle room for another game in the schedule was the day after the teams’ second meeting.

It was the first time in the 38 years of the Atlantic Coast Conference that teams would play each other on consecutive days. So on Feb. 6 at the rollicking Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C., the players came out with a sense of history.

They played a classic college battle, with both teams pushing the ball and a rabid crowd that urged the Wolfpack to a 97-91 victory. Chris Corchiani played almost as perfect a game as you would want from a point guard: 10 points, 12 assists, six steals and one turnover with fiery leadership for his N.C. State teammates. His backcourt mate in the historically underrated “Fire and Ice” tandem, Rodney Monroe, dropped in a cool 37 points, including 21 after halftime. Tom Gugliotta went inside and outside to finish with 28 points.

Gugliotta and Monroe combined to shoot 22 of 38, including 11 for 19 on three-pointers. Most of those three-pointers came in transition or when Corchiani knifed into the heart of the Tar Heels’ defense. Corchiani piled up 1,038 assists in his four years with the Wolfpack. He was briefly the all-time NCAA leader until Bobby Hurley eclipsed Corchiani a few seasons later (Corchiani is still second). The amazing thing is that Corchiani got those assists by mostly relying on jump shooters. There’s no telling how many more dimes he could have gotten with better big men than Bryant Feggins and Kevin Thompson (who did get a cup of coffee in the NBA).

The Tar Heels stayed in the game by also having a hot-shooting night (35 of 64). Dean Smith’s masterful use of timeouts and clutch three-pointers by Pete Chilcutt and Hubert Davis got UNC within one point in the final minute, but the Tar Heels couldn’t get over the top.

The Wolfpack left everything on the floor. Corchiani, playing his all-out style, was banged up after several hard hits. The problem for N.C. State was that the teams would meet less than 24 hours later at the Dean E. Smith Center.

The Tar Heels started the second game on a 10-0 run and never looked back in a 92-70 victory. The two games highlighted one of Smith’s many geniuses: substitutions. He made 98 subs over both games. His counterpart on the N.C. State bench, Les Robinson, used only six players in the first game. Fourteen players logged time for UNC in the first game, with eight getting more than nine minutes.

Smith kept those subs coming in the second game, especially against Corchiani. King Rice and Derrick Phelps, both physical defenders, were used in short bursts to wear down the Wolfpack’s sparkplug. Corchiani gamely had 13 points and nine assists, but the N.C. State offense had no flow. Monroe struggled to a 7-for-20 night and Gugliotta was a non-factor with seven points on 2-for-10 shooting. Feggins and Thompson barely made it up and down the court in the second half.

UNC shot 34 for 65 in the second game, almost matching its numbers from the first game. Depth is obviously important, but it has to be deployed the right way.

N.C. State shot only 37% in the second game, including only 28% in the second half with its bone-tired players. Back-to-back games are brutal on the players’ bodies, even those at the highest level, so it is probably a good thing that these home-and-home series are so rare.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Undervalued King


Like most people interested in basketball history, I don’t pay enough attention to Bernard King. He hasn’t been elected to the Hall of Fame, despite 19,655 career points in 14 seasons, twice being named first-team All-NBA and making four All-Star Games.

I had read great things about King in Spike Lee’s book “Best Seat in the House,” but I always thought Bernard’s brother Albert King was better because Albert was featured in Rick Telander’s book “Heaven is a Playground.” I knew Bernard from his shoutout in Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” (Basketball has always been my thing/I like Magic, Bird and Bernard King). And, oddly, I vividly remember his 1989 NBA Hoops basketball card when he was with the Washington Bullets.

But I couldn’t recall ever watching King actually play. He seems to have fallen through the cracks of history. Maybe he was a victim of timing, coming into the NBA when the league was at its fighting-and-cocaine nadir in the late 1970s and early ’80s. King got caught up in that scene for a while, and when he finally got straight, Magic and Bird had taken over, closely followed by Michael Jordan. King verged on superstardom when he landed with the Knicks, including averaging a league-best 32.9 points per game in 1984-’85. But then King blew out his knee and, by all accounts, was never the same player.

I wanted to see King at the peak of his powers, so I watched his back-to-back 50-point games against the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, respectively, in 1984.

It’s implausible to say that a player can get a quiet 50 points, but King has definitely come the closest. A casual fan glancing at the TV between sips of craft beer would be more apt to remember the showier scoring in those games from the Spurs’ George Gervin and the Mavericks’ Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman. King could have efficiently dropped in three fast-break lay-ups while you were pondering the mellifluous name of Dallas’ Kurt Nimphius or wondering if the Mavericks’ Brad Davis, with his blond curls and wispy moustache, was the oddest-looking point guard in league history.

King’s two 50-point games came on the road, just after he scored 18 points in 22 minutes in the 1984 All-Star Game. That he scored 50 against the Spurs would have come as no surprise, given that San Antonio under coach Bob Bass runned-and-gunned with little regard for defense.

Gervin and King each had 16 points at the end of the first quarter. Gervin’s baskets were more pleasing to the eye, with his high-arching finger rolls and feathery jumpers. King was ruthlessly effective, filling the lane on fast breaks for lay-ups or lofting quick turnaround jumpers on the baseline. All the while, King showed no emotion. Gervin faded late, getting just two points in the fourth quarter and finishing with 41. King just kept going, getting a wide-open dunk in the final seconds to finish with an even 50 in the 117-113 victory.

King grabbed the opening tap against the Mavericks and got an easy bucket. It looked to be another shootout, with Aguirre scoring 16 points to King’s 11 in the first period. Once again, King would outlast his competition as Aguirre eventually got into foul trouble. King’s third quarter was a brilliant study in economic movement. He made all eight of his shots, filling the lanes on breaks as usual but also creating just enough space so he could unleash his quick jumper. Like a Raymond Carver short story, King’s game was Spartan and precise.

Again, King had 48 points as the final seconds ticked down. Teammates were screaming to get the ball to King, who drained a long jumper over Jay Vincent with seven seconds left to make King the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 to record back-to-back 50-point games.

How efficient was King? Against the Spurs he was 20 for 30 from the field, and he was 20 of 28 against the Mavericks. There was nothing flashy about King, and he never drew attention to himself. That’s probably why he is so often forgotten.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bulldog Mentality



Most documentary filmmakers will tell you that luck is the biggest factor in a successful project. Director Steve James couldn’t have foreseen all the twists and turns to come when he first trained his cameras on Arthur Agee and William Gates for what would become indisputably the greatest basketball documentary ever, “Hoop Dreams.”

Similarly, when a production crew started following the 1997-’98 Fresno State Bulldogs, it couldn’t have envisioned the final cut of the tragically underrated “Between The Madness.” The plotlines of the documentary, which aired on FSN in November 1998, include multiple suspensions, drug rehab, a lascivious Rolling Stone photo shoot, a conniving Mike Wallace, and an alleged assault and robbery involving a samurai sword.

The governing idea of the film was to profile Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian, who was infamous for providing safe harbor to troubled hoopsters. So there was obviously the strong possibility that the Bulldogs would be beset by off-the-court issues.

Troubles started piling up early in the season for Fresno State, which boasted several former McDonald’s All-Americans and was ranked in the preseason top 15 by most publications. Point guard Rafer Alston was suspended for the first few games for a domestic incident, and Terrance Roberson and Daymond Forney were out a couple weeks because of testing positive for marijuana.

The cameras found their leading man in charismatic shooting guard Chris Herren (who incidentally is also the subject of a tragically underrated basketball book, Bill Reynolds’ “Fall River Dreams”). To anyone who watched Fresno State’s late-night WAC games on ESPN in the late 1990s, it was plain to see that Herren was the driving force of those teams. The best on-court action in “Between the Madness” shows the fiery Herren igniting the crowd and his teammates. There’s no denying that Herren, with his frosted tips and “Good Will Hunting” accent, had a magnetic presence, something that didn’t escape the notice of Rolling Stone. The magazine profiled the team and singled out Herren for shirtless photos inside the Bulldogs’ locker room.

Herren partied as hard as he played, which is how he washed out of Boston College a few seasons earlier and became another of Tarkanian’s reclamation projects. Three games into the 1997-’98 season, Herren left the team for a few weeks to enter drug rehab (Nothing is specifically mentioned, but Herren admits that his drugs were harder than marijuana). The team’s play deteriorated without its leader. Herren’s demons would continue to plague him, even during his 70-game NBA career. He was busted for heroin possession twice, but now claims to be sober and is working on another book with Reynolds, called “Basketball Junkie.”

The most touching relationship in the film is between Tarkanian and Herren. At the news conference announcing Herren’s decision, a choked-up Tarkanian says that, besides his son Danny, Herren is the player he is closest to. It’s an affecting moment that underscores the biggest revelation of the film: the repudiation of the popular image of “Tark the Shark.”

Many would have you believe that Tarkanian was a Machiavellian coach that would break any regulations in pursuit of victories. But in this film, Tarkanian comes off as an avuncular optimist who refuses to give up on troubled players. The coach was almost na├»ve when Wallace and “60 Minutes” rolled into Fresno. Tarkanian knew Wallace wanted to cover the salacious stories surrounding the team, but after Wallace repeatedly praised the coach, Tarkanian thought the story could be spun into a positive. Wallace tells Tarkanian that the coach won’t be disappointed in the piece. Of course, when the story aired it focused on all the arrests and suspensions. There is a great moment when Wallace shows up for the Bulldogs’ NIT semifinal at Madison Square Garden and Tarkanian scolds the veteran newsman: “You lied to me.”

It was bad timing for Fresno State that around the time that the “60 Minutes” piece aired, center Avondre Jones and guard Kenny Brunner were arrested for allegedly robbing someone with a samurai sword. Jones had been kicked out of USC and had failed two drug tests already during the 1997-’98 season, so he was dismissed from the team by a wearied Tarkanian.

Herren’s return from rehab sparked a late-season resurgence by the Bulldogs, who in the film also deal with the suspension of Tremaine Fowlkes (failed drug test), the quitting of defensive stopper Willie Farley (he wanted to score more) and a heated spat between Alston and assistant coach Danny Tarkanian (shot selection being the key issue). Fresno State made it to the NIT semifinals, losing to Minnesota, which is pretty amazing given all the players coming and going.

Highlights of the film also include a pre-ESPN Andy Katz, who was covering the team for the Fresno Bee, and Portishead on the soundtrack to give it an ultimate late '90s feel. After the loss to Minnesota, Tarkanian is seen telling Katz, “Boy, I’m glad its over.” No doubt that he was, but that certainly made for a good documentary. The filmmakers were lucky to have been there to catch it on film.

Documentary Evidence

Watching the documentary on Fresno State’s 1997-’98 team, got me thinking about the best basketball documentaries. My top five:

1. Hoop Dreams: An easy layup of a choice, this film and David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game” are essential works of basketball non-fiction. Like Halberstam’s book, “Hoop Dreams” tackles the big themes of the sport: Race, exploitation, grievous injury, and the tension between individual and team success.

2. The Heart of the Game: Director Ward Serrill captured lightning in a bottle when he chose to document the Roosevelt Roughriders girls basketball team: An eccentric head coach and a troubled star player who come together for an us-versus-them fight.

3. Soul In the Hole: The dark side of the city game. Playground legend Ed “Booger” Smith flashes otherworldly talent, but can’t resist the pull of the streets.

4. Winning Time: Basketball is supposed to be fun, after all. The film doesn’t examine weighty issues, but it doesn’t get much more enjoyable than pairing Reggie Miller’s heroics with an operatic soundtrack, grainy Cheryl Miller highlights and also hearing John Starks say “Man, did this dude just did this?”

5. Between The Madness: The ultimate hoops reality show. Fresno State’s 1997-’98 team was a train wreck of arrests, suspensions and occasionally brilliant players.

Honorable mention: “Black Magic” (highlighting a too-often forgotten period of hoops history), “The Street Stops Here” (Bob Hurley Sr.’s profane genius), “Through The Fire” (the sheer hard work of modern players, although the film has been dimmed by Sebastien Telfair’s lack of pro success).