Friday, October 29, 2010

Here's The Pitch

Watching the 1998 HBO documentary “City Dump: The Story of the 1951 CCNY Basketball Scandal,” I kept thinking how the material was screaming for the full-length fictional feature treatment.

I thought the same thing about the Jack Molinas-Connie Hawkins story arc, then I did a little research and found out that it was a dream project for Bethlehem Shoals until Free Darko’s mad genius learned that Spike Lee and John Turturro were trying their hand at a screenplay.

Both stories mine the same territory: Basketball in New York City around mid-century. The original Madison Square Garden engulfed with tendrils of cigarette smoke. Low-rent hucksters and cut-rate bookmakers in sharkskin suits and fedoras on the sideline, making side bets on the action. Nattily dressed coaches, pocket squares included, directing the fast-paced, hard-cutting action on the court that was the prevalent style of the time in the city.

The CCNY story is a little less familiar than Molinas-Hawkins. The Beavers had caught the fancy of New York, which was enthralled with baseball at the time as the city still had the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants. CCNY had a team that encapsulated the melting pot feel of the town, with black, Jewish and Irish city natives combining their talents. The team won both the NCAA and NIT championships in 1950, both games against Bradley University, relegating the professional New York Knickerbockers to other accommodations because college basketball was king in the Garden.

But it all came crashing down when crusading district attorney Frank Hogan, an evangelical on issues of corruption, began investigating allegations of point shaving in college basketball. College hoops had become a cottage industry for two-bit hustlers, who found no shortage of enthusiastic bettors at the Garden and also broke-as-a-joke students who were willing to take a dive for some scratch.

The star players on CCNY had dumped a few games. Their careers were over, and the wider net of the investigation had ensnared players across the nation, including the sanctimonious Kentucky team of Adolph Rupp.

It could work cinematically even as a thinly veiled version. Focus on a Jewish immigrant, the first in his family to go to college in America, the pride of his ethnic enclave. At CCNY, he plays with black teammates for the first time. It’s awkward at first, but they work through it and get to championship heights. The coach is a taskmaster, and the players have no money to squire women in this hopping city. A city-slick former college player recruits the CCNY stars to work for his mobbed-up partner. The players make a few dollars, and then in the third act the house of cards falls down.

It’ll work. Get a “Boardwalk Empire” set of the block with the old Garden and neon signs for 24-hour coffee shops and liquor lounges. Slap on a jazzy soundtrack, and we’re in business.

Here’s who I envision as the star: Jason Segel of “How I Met Your Mother,” “Freaks and Geeks” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” fame. He’s got the build — no need for the eight-foot rims for tiny actors — and also a visage that wouldn’t look out of place on a Jewish or Irish immigrant.

In point of fact, Segel is a baller. He was the seventh-man on the Harvard Westlake team in North Hollywood, Calif., that won the Division III state championship in 1996, and he played in the same front court as future NBAers and twin brothers Jason and Jarron Collins.

Here is an excerpt from a Los Angeles Times feature in 1996 about the team and Segel, who was known as “Doctor Dunk” as a 6-foot, 4-inch junior:

"I'm not nearly as skilled a basketball player as some of the other guys," Segel says. "But I have a lot of bravado."

Not to mention a made-for-the-highlight-reels dunk.

During Harvard's two-week East Coast trip in December, Segel wowed a Florida crowd with a two-handed slam made with the front of his jersey pulled over his head. Before the dunk, Segel stood poised, calling for silence with outstretched arms. After the dunk, he dove headfirst into the stands.

"He put on an absolute show," (point guard Leo) Da Costa said.

Segel also keeps the team loose with impressions of everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Kermit the Frog. He even does (Harvard coach Greg) Hilliard.

"You spend five minutes around Jason and he'll come up with a pretty good impression of you," Abed Abusaleh said.

An aspiring actor, Segel has dabbled in bit parts and studied in England. After the season, Segel is scheduled to begin rehearsals for a school production in which he will deliver a 22-minute soliloquy on stage.

"I love getting up in front of people," he says.

His most memorable moment this season? The dunk, of course. Not because he made it but because Jarron allowed him to. Jarron qualified for the competition ahead of Segel but deferred to his teammate.

"He knew it was something important to me, so he stepped back and let me do it," Segel said. "I appreciated that."

It might not be blockbuster summer fare, but critics and hoopheads would eat this stuff up. So, budding Hollywood moguls, give me a call and let’s do brunch somewhere.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Old College Try

It’s not often that you prepare for the upcoming NBA season by watching an old college game between Oklahoma and Davidson.

But with Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry now plying their trade on West Coast NBA teams with limited nationally televised games, it’s hard to think of them beyond names in a box score or brief images in an Internet video. So a refresher course was in order, even if it was a early season college matchup that the Sooners won, 82-78, in the NIT Tip Off tournament on Nov. 18, 2008, in Norman, Okla.

Griffin missed all of last season for the Los Angeles Clippers after breaking his kneecap in the preseason. By most accounts, the top overall draft pick in 2009 has regained all of his quickness, leaping ability and his non-stop motor.
Those first-rate qualities are the first things that jump out at the viewer in the game against Davidson. Griffin tapped an awkward jump ball, then sprinted ahead of everyone to corral the ball and lay it in with great fluidity.

It also didn’t take long for Curry to justify all those vague descriptions that are pressed upon him: savvy, basketball IQ, court awareness. Curry’s first basket came on a cut across the court, and he fielded a pass with his back to the basket. Curry knew exactly where he was in relation to the hoop (and where his defender was), so he caught the ball and flicked it perfectly off the glass. You’re left with the impression that Curry had done this countless times before.

A basketball fanatic could be wholly satisfied just watching Curry move without the ball for 40 minutes. Oklahoma defenders were overplaying him to deny him the ball. That just left open the possibility for Curry to make precise backdoor cuts and get some higher percentage shots near the basket. With the ball, Curry also made advantageous use of screens. His first three-pointer came as he curled around a pick, then duped the overanxious defender with a pump fake before calmly drilling the shot. Again, it’s like Curry could do this 10 minutes after rolling out of bed on a Tuesday morning.

Griffin took only four shots in the first half, but it’s not like he was missing in action. He went hard to the glass on every play, getting 11 rebounds by halftime. You hesitate to invoke Dennis Rodman, but Griffin would get boards with such intensity and guile and then sprint down the court with such alacrity that the comparisons to the Worm wouldn’t be baseless.

Griffin’s offense came alive in the second half, when he scored 21 of his 25 points. College defenders didn’t have enough quickness to stay in front of him. Commentator Fran Fraschilla kept noting that Griffin would be an outstanding pick-and-pop guy in the NBA with his great hands and quick feet. Griffin’s intensity never lagged either, and he finished with 21 rebounds.
There were lots of questions by pro scouts about whether Curry could thrive in the NBA with longer defenders. He certainly answered those concerns during his rookie year with the Golden State Warriors, especially later in the season as Curry began to sort the league out.

A glimpse at Curry’s ability to score against NBA-level athletes came in the final minute, when he found himself matched up with Griffin on the perimeter. Curry dribbled right at Griffin, then got enough separation on a step-back to get off a high-arching three-pointer that got Davidson within three points.

Griffin would eventually pull down an offensive rebound with 26 seconds left to seal Oklahoma’s victory. Curry had 44 points, made all the more amazing because he missed five minutes in the first half with foul trouble and his outside jumper wasn’t on the mark (he shot 12 for 29). It’s going to be tremendous watching both players’ skills translate to NBA success in the coming years. Maybe it’s time to get NBA League Pass for those West Coast games.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Scaling the Mount

Shooters are a breed apart. It takes a different kind of cat to spend countless hours in empty gyms, often all by his or her lonesome, hoisting jumper after jumper.

You know them when you see them, the kind of basketball player often referred to as a “pure shooter.” They often have similar personality traits. Most have placid demeanors and often endured strange childhoods. Ray Allen was a peripatetic Army brat. Steve Kerr was the son of an academic who was assassinated while serving as president of the American University of Beirut.

Then there is Rick Mount. One of basketball’s first prep prodigies, Mount was an Indiana legend from the small town of Lebanon. He seemed to be interested in nothing except perfecting his jump shot, taking care from an early age to get in his 400 shots daily. He landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school senior in 1966 and went on to Purdue.

Watching silent footage of the Boilermakers’ 75-73 overtime victory over Marquette in the 1969 NCAA Mideast Regional final at the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse, it is easy to get transfixed by Mount’s game. He could be the ultimate archetype of a cold-blooded shooter.

Mount’s best moves were his one- or two-step dribbles, going to his left or right, then pulling up for the jumper. This was a master craftsman. His moves had perfect rhythm, with the dribbles getting a harder bounce to ease seamlessly into his form. Mount also had a high-arching runner in the lane, often coming off his opposite foot. His baseline fadeaway was stunning.

Mount also didn’t have a conscience, going 11 for 32 in the game and finishing with 26 points, Mount shot from 24 feet with two guys in his face. He was gunning after every ball screen he got. The misses wouldn’t deter Mount. As every broadcaster has probably uttered during his or her career, “Good shooters always think the next one is going to fall.”

It’s a good thing for Purdue that he kept shooting, because in the waning seconds of overtime he came around a screen set by center Jerry Johnson. For some odd reason, Marquette’s Jack Burke didn’t step out on Mount, who found himself all alone for from 20 feet out. Everyone in the Fieldhouse that day had to know that the ball was going in to give the Boilermakers the 75-73 victory. Purdue would advance to the championship game, where it became another victim in John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty.

Mount had an uneven professional career in five ABA seasons, averaging 11.8 points per game before injuries forced him to retire. He never lived up to being the top overall pick by his home-state Indiana Pacers, especially under defensive-minded head coach Slick Leonard. Shots were harder to come by in the pros, and the book on Mount was to not let him get open coming off screens because he would sink any open shot.

Mount made it back into Sports Illustrated in the magazine’s “Where Are They Now?” issue in 2001. It didn’t come as much surprise that, even at age 54, Mount was still getting up 500 shots a day in Lebanon, Ind.

After some failed business ventures, Mount is teaching what he knows best. He runs a shooting camp, and he sells a contraption that rebounds the ball for the solitary shooter. There’s an awesome clip of Mount instructing some kids in his driveway with one of those machines. Definitely a different kind of cat.