Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Frozen In Time

Isiah Thomas and the landed gentry of NBA stars conspired to keep the ball away from upstart Michael Jordan at the rookie’s first All-Star Game in 1985.

At least that’s the accepted version of history.

It’s easy to see how that conspiracy has gained traction over the years. It fits into the well-established narrative of Isiah-as-nefarious-meddler, and the young Jordan was such an inconceivable alloy of skills that it had to have been discomfiting for the older generation of stars.

What does the tape reveal? Like the Zapruder film, there are just enough moments to back every side of the argument.

The genesis of the “freeze-out” supposedly came out of Jordan’s unwillingness to show proper deference to the veterans. The audacious young star wore a gold chain over his jersey when he competed in the dunk contest. In the locker room he acted like, well, Michael Jordan. He boasted, he embarrassed teammates, he challenged Moses Malone to a free-throw shooting contest (with MJ winning, of course).

There was also the matter of those shoes. In time, the Air Jordan I would revolutionize basketball footwear and marketing. In 1985, however, it looked like Jordan was putting on airs by refusing to wear the standard-issue all-star apparel. The shoes were even brought up during the broadcast, with color commentator Tommy Heinsohn remarking the shoes “look like they have horns on them.”

So that set the stage for the game at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. In the first minutes, Jordan skied for a defensive rebound, then tipped the ball in on the offensive glass for the game’s first points.

Jordan didn’t put himself above the game. He passed to his point guard —Thomas — immediately after getting rebounds or steals. But why did Thomas, the game’s consummate playmaker at the time, not give the ball right back to Jordan on the fast break early in the first quarter?

Jordan’s next point came on a free throw after he was fouled under the basket, where Thomas had found him with a nice dish. But a few minutes later, Thomas refused to look Jordan’s way again on a break, preferring to give the ball to rumbling big man Malone.

You could also read a lot into the flippant behind-the-back pass that Thomas gave to Jordan, before everyone on the East team cleared out so the Bulls star could go one-on-one against George Gervin. Who was this rookie to call for a solo voyage to the basket when he was on the same team with Thomas, Malone, Julius Erving and Larry Bird?

In the second quarter, Thomas also didn’t pull the trigger on a lob to a backdoor-cutting Jordan. Thomas had connected with Erving on the exact play earlier in the game. As the clock ticked down toward halftime, Jordan drove into the paint before kicking it out to Thomas in the corner for a three-pointer at the buzzer that tied the game at 68.

The second half continued in the same vein. Thomas refused to acknowledge Jordan when the rookie was wide open coming off a screen. Then Thomas would feed Jordan for jumpers on the wing.

In the end, Jordan played only 22 minutes and scored seven points with six rebounds, two assists and three steals. Was East coach K.C. Jones in on the conspiracy or was it hard to divide playing time on the wing with Bernard King and Micheal Ray Richardson? Jordan took nine shots, making two, and was 3 of 4 from the free-throw line. Thomas had 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting in 25 minutes.

Several stories have fingered Dr. Charles Tucker, the agent for Magic Johnson and Thomas at the time, for leaking the “freeze-out” angle to several writers. True or not, Jordan probably latched onto it, as he usually did, to use as grist for his competitiveness.

The conspiracy probably took hold as people filled out the back-story on the animosity-fueled battles between Jordan’s Bulls and Thomas’ Pistons in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Then came the rumors that Jordan was a key voice in keeping Thomas off the 1992 Dream Team.

Of course, nobody has gone on the record in saying that Jordan was denied the ball in 1985. But that hasn’t stopped conspiracy-minded fans from scouring the tapes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Points Well Taken

High-scoring basketball games are generally better viewed on paper than by actually bearing witness to them.

No video footage exists of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962. But while the box score is certainly something to marvel at, it probably would grow a little tedious to watch the Dipper take lobs from Guy Rodgers and put up his 63 shots against the New York Knicks’ undersized defense. The myth is always better when shrouded in a little mystery.

The highest-scoring basketball game — college or NBA — came on Jan. 12, 1992, when NCAA Division II Troy State routed DeVry University in Atlanta by the inconceivable score of 258-141.

Yes, you read that correctly. Yes, the numbers are shocking for a 40-minute game played when college basketball teams still had the 45-second shot clock at their disposal:

- Troy State led at halftime, 123-53.

- Troy State beat its own NCAA record for points in a game -— 187 against DeVry the previous season —with over 10 minutes remaining in the game.

- Troy State took 109 three-pointers, making 51.

- DeVry had 44 turnovers, with 28 coming on steals by Troy State.

- Troy State’s Brian Simpson played 15 minutes but still managed to get up 29 shots, 26 of them three-pointers.

- For the game, Troy State averaged six points a minute.

According to the ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia, seven statisticians put their heads together for 57 minutes to compile the final box score.

Troy State’s playing style is easy to understand, coming on the heels of Loyola Marymount’s run-and-gun success in the late 1980s. Don Maestri, still the Troy State (now just Troy) coach, had a team that season that was short in both height and experience, so that style likely gave the team its best chance to win.

Troy State’s players should also be accorded some respect. You need to be in superior physical shape to play that type of game, and the 135 points that Troy State put up in the second half is impressive. DeVry had only seven players, and by the end of the game they were clearly spent.

That said, this is train-wreck basketball of the highest order. Dean Smith or John Wooden wouldn’t stomach this type of game, but it is still hard to look away.

Think of your regular pickup game when you are trying to slog through the last game of the night. Everyone is gassed, every pass is lazy and every shot is an unchallenged three-pointer. That’s kind of how the Troy State-DeVry game played out, except with better-conditioned players.

DeVry didn’t even put up the fa├žade of playing defense. Two of DeVry’s players didn’t even cross halfcourt to play defense on most of Troy State’s possessions. They would wait on their own end for Troy State to shoot, then a DeVry player would try to throw a long pass down the court. This resulted in a majority of those 44 turnovers.

Troy State’s effort on defense mirrored DeVry’s. Coach Maestri was content for his opponents to score as long as they did it quickly. DeVry just quickened the pace by blowing layups and losing control of the ball.

The game almost played out in real time. With only one foul called on a shot attempt, there were only three free throws shot in the game. Troy State had to wait until a ball went out of bounds to bring in its constantly rotating cast of five fresh players.

Basketball purists surely would love to burn any existing copies of this game. But those eye-popping numbers put up by Troy State will always draw attention.