Friday, December 23, 2011

Passing Interest

When Scott Skiles first met Brandon Jennings, the Milwaukee Bucks coach sized up the young point guard and asked him:

“Do you know who holds the NBA record for assists in a game?”

The answer, of course, is Skiles, who handed out 30 dimes for the Orlando Magic in a 155-116 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 30, 1990.

In recent interviews, however, Skiles has seemed ambivalent about his record, often stating that he wishes someone would break it because he is tired of talking about the mark.

Everything surrounding the record seems strange. One would think that Skiles would cling to the fact that he owns a piece of NBA immortality despite being a slightly above-average guard who played for five teams in a 10-season career. Without the record, he might be remembered more for a flashy pass against Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament and also his brushes with the law while at Michigan State.

These days, Skiles is mostly known as a coach that demands defensive excellence out of his players, which is another reason why he might feel a bit awkward about his 30 assists.

A case can be made that the Denver Nuggets of 1990-’91 rank as one of the worst defensive teams of all time. Paul Westhead, that “Guru of Go,” was in his penultimate season as an NBA coach and didn’t seem to have much interest in anything on defense except getting the ball back and pushing it up the floor.

The Nuggets came into the game at the Orlando Arena with a 6-22 record, worst in the league at the time. They would finish the season allowing a mind-boggling 130.8 points per game.

Denver and Orlando combined for 226 field-goal attempts and 37 turnovers. Skiles lost the ball four times in 44 minutes. He also wasn’t interested in just piling up the assists as he contributed six rebounds and 22 points on 7-for-13 shooting.

Early in the fourth quarter, Skiles tied the record of 29 assists set by the Nets’ Kevin Porter in 1978. Skiles had 13 points in the final quarter and he had eight potential assists squandered by teammates’ missed shots.

The record finally fell when Skiles fed Jerry Reynolds for a 20-foot jumper with 19.6 seconds remaining in the blowout.

Surprisingly, Reynolds (27 points) and Terry Catledge (25) were the main beneficiaries of Skiles’ assists rather than Magic sharpshooters Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson, who combined for 35 points. This is likely because the Nuggets’ porous defense allowed so many shots around the rim.

Regardless of the opposition’s defensive indifference, Skiles’ record still stands. It’s likely to be around for a good while as well, with the NBA game played at a more reasonable pace than Westhead’s preferred style, and also the careful attention paid to stopping opponents by today’s coaches.

So Skiles should get used to talking about it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Summer Dreams

It seems like an incongruous setting, but the Catskills resorts in upstate New York were the epicenter of summer hoops in the mid-20th century.

Hotels, wanting to provide their guests with top-flight entertainment, recruited pro, college and high school players for outdoor games. Well-paying bellhop jobs were given to stars like Bob Cousy (Tamarack Lodge) and George Mikan (Klein’s Hillside).

Spectators often bet on the games, creating an environment that helped foster the gambling scandals that almost brought college basketball to its knees in the early 1950s.

The Catskills also provided the stage for Wilt Chamberlain to go from regional curiosity to national sensation.

Haskell Cohen, the legendary PR man for the young NBA, helped Chamberlain get a gig at Kutsher’s Country Club in 1953 when the 7-footer was between his junior and senior years at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia. The forward-thinking Cohen likely saw Chamberlain as key figure in the growth of basketball, so it was smart to make inroads early.

Kutsher’s, another client of Cohen, had an established basketball tradition. Owner Milt Kutsher had scored a coup when a frequent lodger recommended his son to coach the hotel’s team. Red Auerbach didn’t have much to do after the Washington Capitals folded in 1949, so he agreed to help out at Kutsher’s and stayed on after he joined the Boston Celtics in 1950.

Imagine Auerbach’s salivation when the coach first laid eyes on the lanky and lithe teenage Chamberlain.

Auerbach pushed Chamberlain hard that summer. The biggest challenge came against Shawanga Lodge, which had the best counter-force for Chamberlain with post player B.H. Born.

Born had played a small role on the Kansas Jayhawks’ 1951-’52 national champions and was about to be an All-American in 1953-’54. Auerbach told Chamberlain that there was no way the youngster could handle the crafty Born.

Details are sketchy, but by all accounts, Chamberlain dominated Born. Writing for Sports Illustrated in 1965, the never-to-be-trusted-with-numbers Chamberlain recounted that at halftime he had 30 points and Born only two. Legend later had it that Born decided to forgo a professional career because he had been humiliated by a high school kid.

Regardless, it was clear to everyone that Chamberlain was the future of basketball. Auerbach tried to persuade the youngster to enroll at Harvard so the Celtics could get Chamberlain’s territorial rights. Eddie Gottlieb of the Philadelphia Warriors got word of Auerbach’s machinations and made sure that the hometown phenom didn’t end up playing with Cousy in Boston.

Born also spread the legend of Chamberlain, telling Kansas coach Phog Allen that Wilt would look good in a Jayhawks jersey.
Chamberlain indeed wound up at Kansas, and Gottlieb managed to keep Chamberlain’s territorial rights with the Philadelphia Warriors.

Even after he ascended to basketball stardom, Chamberlain kept close ties to Kutsher’s Resort. He was tight with Milt Kutsher, always coming back to the Catskills for a summer vacation or to play in charity games. They remained friends until the hotelier died in 1998.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wizard of Providence

Other schools might have backcourts with better statistics, but few can claim a history of guards with stylistic flair like Providence.

In the early 1960s, the Friars boasted a lethal backcourt of high-scoring John Egan and a slick-passing defensive ace out of Brooklyn named Lenny Wilkins. The tradition of crafty playmakers continued with Vinnie Ernst, Jimmy Walker, Billy Donovan, Eric Murdock and God Shammgod.

But nobody exemplifies the lineage better than Ernie DiGregorio. The diminutive point guard from the Italian enclave of North Providence was, with all respects to Bob Cousy, perhaps the greatest behind-the-back passer in the history of the game. For Exhibit A, please see the :20 mark of the clip below.

In his three varsity seasons under head coach Dave Gavitt, DiGregorio set the school’s all-time assists mark. The beneficiary of many behind-the-back passes was Marvin Barnes, who hailed from Providence’s south side. The hometown duo formed the core of the 1972-’73 Friars, a team that is legendary in Northeastern basketball circles.

This high-sun period for Providence crested at the 1973 Final Four against Memphis State. The Friars had gone 24-2 with an inexplicable loss to Santa Clara and a tough defeat to the Bill Walton-led UCLA behemoth.

Despite Barnes’ growing “Bad News” reputation — allegedly hitting a teammate with a tire iron during the season — the Friars were expected to easily dispatch Memphis State and get a much-anticipated rematch with UCLA.

Playing on his biggest-ever stage, DiGregorio had his floor game in top form as the Friars raced to a 26-16 lead in the first eight minutes. According to Providence lore — and it may be apocryphal — legendary CCNY coach Nat Holman called it the best eight-minute start to a game he had ever witnessed. This was coming from a guy that had been around hoops since playing for the Original Celtics.

Unfortunately for Providence, Barnes hurt his knee at the end of that glorious eight minutes. DiGregorio had to bear more of the scoring load, netting 17 points as the Friars held on to a 49-40 lead at intermission. Barnes tried to give it a go in the second half, but his knee wouldn’t hold up.

The loss of Barnes was too much to overcome. Memphis State had a 54-39 rebounding edge with Larry Kenon (28 points and 22 rebounds) and Ronnie Robinson (24-16) having an easier time inside without Barnes, who averaged 19 boards a game that season. DiGregorio had 32 points but needed 36 shots to get there, and the Friars’ championship hopes were dashed with a 98-85 loss.

DiGregorio was drafted third overall by the Buffalo Braves, signing after an intense bidding war with the ABA, and he was the 1973-’74 NBA rookie of the year. Already having a tough time guarding the bigger pro guards, a knee injury eventually made DiGregorio a defensive liability on the court and he lasted only five years in the league.

Stories circulated during DiGregorio’s pro career about him being unable to leave Providence behind, flying back to his hometown on days off with Buffalo. Providence is the place where he is venerated most, a town that has certainly seen its share of great guards.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Long Goodbye

North Carolina State's 110-103 victory over Wake Forest in four overtimes on March 4, 1989, stands as the longest game in ACC history.

The game seemed to be played with a sense of desperation by both teams. There was good reason for that: Dark clouds were gathering around the two head coaches.

Interestingly, Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano and his counterpart with the Demon Deacons, Bob Staak, had history together. Valvano was a young assistant under the legendary Donald "Dee" Rowe at Connecticut in 1970-'71, when Staak was a senior wing player for the Huskies.

In 1989, when the teams met in Greensboro, N.C., Valvano and Staak were in the crosshairs of the NCAA.

Valvano's trouble started in January that year, when word leaked out of a tell-all book about the Wolfpack program based on the recollections of a disgruntled team manager. When Peter Golenbock's "Personal Fouls" eventually hit the streets, it was riddled with factual errors but nonetheless got NCAA officials sniffing around.

Staak was under fire over alleged recruiting violations involving Anthony Tucker, a transfer player from Georgetown.

The setting also gave the game some added excitement. For a majority of the 1980s, Wake Forest had been playing many of its home games at the Greensboro Coliseum, which helped ensure that half of the crowd would probably be cheering for the other team if the Demon Deacons were playing N.C. State, Duke or North Carolina.

The players fed off the energy. Chucky Brown played a mind-boggling 59 minutes and scored a collegiate-high 34 points for N.C. State. Wake Forest was led by forward Chris King, who powered his way to 34 points. Freshman point guard Derrick McQueen, playing a day after a friend died in a car accident, was on the court for 52 minutes for the Demon Deacons and compiled 13 points and seven assists against one turnover.

The Wolfpack's vaunted "Fire and Ice" combination provided the clutch baskets. The cool Rodney Monroe had the play of the game. With two seconds remaining in regulation and Wake Forest clinging to a 77-74 lead, N.C. State's Kelsey Weems was fouled on a three-pointer. Because a player only got two free throws back then, Weems made the first and missed the second on purpose. Monroe was on the right block and curled around the back of the Wake Forest player designated to box him out. The rebound bounced right to Monroe, who hit a short fadeaway to force overtime.

The fiery Chris Corchiani (10 points, 10 assists) hit the big basket for the Wolfpack in the waning seconds of the first overtime, slicing into the lane for a runner that tied the game at 84. Monroe answered again in the second overtime, tying the game on a jumper with 45 seconds remaining. He finished with 26 points despite a 10-for-29 shooting night.

Fatigue made the game ragged in the third and fourth overtimes, with the Wolfpack having just enough to pull away.

The victory clinched a share of the ACC regular-season title for Valvano and N.C. State. Because of the NCAA investigation, the coach was stripped of his athletic director duties in the off-season. The Wolfpack was later banned from the 1990 NCAA Tournament, and Valvano soon resigned under pressure.

Staak didn't last much longer than the four-overtime game. The NCAA dropped the investigation of Tucker's recruitment, but Staak's 45-69 record (including 9-52 in the ACC) at the school was too much for him to overcome.

Even the crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum couldn't fully savor the epic game. They were forced to disperse quickly because the four overtimes had delayed a MEAC tournament game in the building.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Historical Footnotes

The 72-10 record of the Chicago Bulls in 1995-’96 is sometimes hard to comprehend. That winning percentage is absurd considering the 82-game season is such a grind of back-to-backs, injuries and cold-shooting spells. You’d have to be off your nut to think that an NBA team could ever go 82-0. That Bulls team might be as close as it will ever get. Here is a closer look at the 10 blemishes that season:

Nov. 14, 1995
Magic 94, Bulls 88: This was Chicago's first meeting with Orlando since the Magic bounced the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals the previous season. In fact, Orlando had won eight of the last 11 meetings. Michael Jordan had spent the summer trying to get into top basketball shape in his first NBA off-season since his baseball hiatus. But Jordan seemed to tire against the Magic in the sixth game of the season with only five points in the second half. Shaquille O'Neal sat this one out with a thumb injury, so the Magic leaned heavily on Penny Hardaway (36 points). The Bulls struggled with 14 points in the third quarter but tied the game with two minutes left. Hardaway, Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson hit key buckets to salt away the victory.

Nov. 26, 1995
SuperSonics 97, Bulls 92: The Bulls also struggled in the third quarter of their second loss, shooting 4 of 20 against the team they would eventually face in the NBA Finals. Jordan had just four points after halftime. With Dennis Rodman unavailable because of a strained calf, Shawn Kemp busted loose for 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting. On the plus side for the Bulls, Luc Longley had a rare star performance with 21 points and eight rebounds.

Dec. 26, 1995
Pacers 103, Bulls 97: At Market Square Arena, Indiana snapped Chicago's 13-game winning streak. This time a bad start doomed the Bulls, who fell behind 24 points in the first half while committing 10 turnovers. Chicago shot 8 for 25 in the first quarter. Jordan had 30 points but needed 28 shots to get there.

Feb. 4, 1996
Nuggets 105, Bulls 99: Chicago's 18-game winning streak was halted by a Denver team that came into the game 18-26. Another slow first half (31.9% shooting) put the Bulls in a 31-point deficit. Jordan had 22 points in the third quarter to give Chicago a shot, but it wasn't enough against a jacked-up Denver team led by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (32 points, nine assists) and Dikembe Mutombo (17 rebounds).

Feb. 6, 1996
Suns 106, Bulls 96: Amazingly, the Bulls had a losing streak this season. There was one more game after this matchup before the all-star break, so maybe Chicago was caught looking ahead. Jordan shot 9 for 22, continuing a cold stretch in which he shot 40.9% over five games. Phoenix was carried by a monster game from Charles Barkley, who had 35 points and 16 rebounds.

Feb. 23, 1996
Heat 113, Bulls 104: Miami pulled off the shocker despite a short roster. Tim Hardaway, Chris Gatling, Walt Williams and Ty Corbin were all unavailable after joining the Heat in a blockbuster multi-team trade. Miami still had Rex Chapman, who scorched the nets for 39 points, including 9 three-pointers. Jordan (9 of 21) and Scottie Pippen (4 of 18) suffered through tough shooting nights.

March 10, 1996
Knicks 104, Bulls 72: Jeff Van Gundy was coaching his second game in New York after Don Nelson stepped down. Van Gundy got his first victory on the strength of the Knicks' defense, which limited the Bulls to 32 points in the second half, including 12 in the fourth quarter. Patrick Ewing was a force in the middle with 26 points and 14 rebounds.

March 24, 1996
Raptors 109, Bulls 108: This ranks with the Heat loss as the most shocking defeats of the season for the Bulls. The expansion team scored the upset at the Sky Dome in front of 36,131 fans, the largest crowd for an NBA game that season. Damon Stoudamire hit 6 three-pointers and finished with 30 points and 11 assists. The immortal Oliver Miller hit the go-ahead free throw in the final minute and Tracy Murray knocked the ball away on the Bulls' final possession, leading to Steve Kerr hurrying a three-pointer that clanged off the rim after the buzzer.

April 8, 1996
Hornets 98, Bulls 97: This loss ended Chicago's 44-game winning streak at home. The Bulls, who were playing their fourth game in five nights, squandered a 10-point lead at halftime. Dell Curry sank two free throws to give Charlotte the lead. Toni Kukoc missed a shot at close range, then Jordan and Pippen each couldn't convert taps.

April 20, 1996
Pacers 100, Bulls 99: Indiana was the only team to beat Chicago twice, spoiling the Bulls' regular-season home finale. Chicago fans can point their fingers at a familiar scapegoat. Referee Hue Hollins called a foul on Jordan for closely guarding Eddie Johnson on the Pacers' last possession. Johnson hit a free throw with five-tenths of a second remaining. In the waning seconds of Game 5 in the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals, Hollins had called a borderline foul on Pippen against the Knicks' Hubert Davis, who sank two winning free throws.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Parallel Lives

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

It’s hard to imagine two basketball careers more closely entwined than those of James Worthy and Eric “Sleepy” Floyd.

Their connection started in Gastonia, N.C., about 25 miles outside of Charlotte. Floyd and Worthy grew up playing against each other and went to rival high schools. Although he was a year older, it seemed that Floyd was always playing in Worthy’s shadow. In 1976, Worthy became the first sophomore to be named to North Carolina’s all-state team.

In 1977, Floyd and his teammates at Hunter Huss High School lost four regular-season matchups with the Worthy-led squad at Ashbrook High School. With the help of a serendipitous bracket in the state tournament, the teams met in the 4A championship game played at Grimsley High School in Greensboro, N.C.

This time, Floyd would gain a measure of revenge with a 60-59 victory. But ACC schools still ignored him and focused their recruiting attention on Worthy. John Thompson and Georgetown eventually snatched up Floyd and, a year later, Worthy became one of Dean Smith’s biggest recruits at North Carolina.

The players would meet again on the biggest stage of the next level. The kids from Gastonia earned two slots on the All-American first team in 1982 and, as luck would have it, their teams would meet in that year’s NCAA championship game.

The game was nip-and-tuck. Floyd had 10 points and Worthy 18 as Georgetown took a 32-31 lead at the break.

The Hoyas looked like they might pull away early in the second half, taking a 49-45 lead before UNC freshman Buzz Peterson gathered a loose ball and found a streaking Worthy.

Floyd chased down his old friend and then, inexplicably, tried to block the dunk attempt from one of the game’s greatest fast-break finishers. Worthy got the slam and the foul, converting the three-point play and grabbing momentum for the Tar Heels.

Floyd would give Georgetown a 62-61 lead with just under a minute left after getting Worthy to bite on a pump fake in the lane. Of course, a freshman named Michael Jordan would answer with a jumper that gave UNC its first national title under Smith.

Here’s how UNC’s Matt Doherty recalled Floyd’s fateful decision to try to block Worthy in the documentary “Blue Heaven”:

“After the game I said: ‘James, what was Sleepy thinking?’ Sleepy is 6-2, 6-3, trying to get up and block James’ breakaway. And with James, nobody is gonna block that. And James, he’s really low-key, he said, ‘I don’t know. He tried the same thing in high school, too.’ I asked James, ‘What were the results?’ and he said, ‘The same.’ ”

Worthy finished the title game with a collegiate-high 28 points and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. He was the first UNC player since Bob McAdoo to leave early for the NBA, becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. Floyd was drafted No. 13 by the New Jersey Nets.

Floyd eventually played for four NBA teams but, without question, his greatest game came with the Golden State Warriors against, inevitably, Worthy and the Lakers in the 1987 Western Conference semifinals.

There was no way the juggernaut Lakers were going to lose a series to a Warriors team that relied heavily on journeymen like Jerome Whitehead, Joe Barry Carroll and Terry Teagle.

But in Game 4, Floyd served notice to the eventual NBA champions. He scored a playoff-record 29 points in the fourth quarter on 12-for-13 shooting. He finished with 51 points as Golden State earned its only victory in the series.

After that historical performance, even Floyd’s old foe was awestruck.

“I’ve seen him go unconscious before but not like that,” Worthy said. “Not at this level. I’ve seen him do this in summertime pickup games. When we are home this summer, it will be brought up.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Old Kentucky Home

Hubie Brown is so beloved as a broadcaster and curmudgeonly fount of basketball knowledge that it almost hard to fathom him as a rising coaching star.

Yet that was what Brown was in 1975 when he took his first professional head coaching job and led the Kentucky Colonels to the ABA championship.

Tempestuous Colonels owner John Y. Brown, head of Kentucky Fried Chicken, had churned through several coaches in search of the man that could lead his team’s talented roster to an elusive title.

Hubie Brown had risen to attention in the basketball world after Oserving as aide-de-camp for his former Niagara teammate Larry Costello with the Milwaukee Bucks. Brown was so thorough and enthusiastic about his preparation that even enigmatic personalities like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson would pay close attention to the assistant coach.

Brown certainly had a lot of talent to work with in Kentucky. Artis Gilmore was one of the game’s all-time physical specimens. Dan Issel and Louie Dampier were exceptional scorers.

What Brown brought to the Colonels was a defensive mentality. Under Costello with the Bucks, Brown had helped coordinate a defense that was ranked second in the NBA in 1972-’73 and 1973-’74.

Gilmore’s size and a top-line perimeter defender in Ted McClain gave Brown a lot of options. A 10-deep rotation allowed the Colonels to employ full-court presses on occasion.

The results were immediate. Kentucky finished with the ABA’s best record in 58-26. The Colonels won 20 of their last 25 games and clinched each of their three postseason series 4-1. Kentucky led the run-happy league in scoring defense at 101.6 points per game.

Brown’s sublime first season culminated on May 22, 1975, with a 110-105 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the ABA Finals at Freedom Hall in Louisville.

Gilmore was a rock in the middle against the much smaller Len Elmore, scoring 28 points and pulling down 31 rebounds. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter and had a key block of George McGinnis late in the game. His two clutch free throws with 15 seconds left provided the final points.

Whenever Brown reminisces about Gilmore, including during the Hall of Fame festivities this year, the old coach invariably states that the 7-foot, 2-inch center is the second strongest man to play basketball behind Wilt Chamberlain.

That strength was also evident in Gilmore’s picks, an underrated aspect of his game. Against the Pacers, Dampier (12 points and 12 assists) and Issel (16 points) would run off Gilmore to create shots or get into the lane.

Another overlooked part of the Colonels was the defense of McClain, who hounded the Pacers’ backcourt for six steals in Game 5 and 15 overall in the series.

Brown had only one season left with Colonels before the ABA folded up shop. In the NBA with the Hawks, Knicks and Grizzlies, he continued to preach defense. But nothing ever matched that first season.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Court Artistry

Don Nelson took the reins of the Milwaukee Bucks after Larry Costello, the only coach in franchise history, stumbled to a 3-15 start in the 1976-’77 season. The team had fallen on dark times and needed a more colorful personality.

The 36-year-old Nelson had just signed on to be Costello’s assistant, briefly flirting with becoming an NBA referee after wrapping up a 14-year playing career. (Nelson had been involved with the NBA so long that he was drafted by the Chicago Zephyrs!)

In Nelson’s first full season as Bucks coach, renowned pop artist Robert Indiana was commissioned to paint the basketball court of the MECCA Arena, the old-school basketball venue in Milwaukee that housed the Bucks and Marquette at the time.

After more outrageous proposals for a colorful court were scuttled, Indiana’s design included 3-D lettering of “MECCA” at mid-court, dark paint on the sidelines and a large “M” in different shellacs on each half of the floor.

The playing surface didn’t have a peer in the NBA, and the Bucks took off with the high-art court serving as a backdrop. Milwaukee racked up 50-win seasons in Nelson’s last seven seasons with the team.

As Nelson told Milwaukee Magazine in a 1989 story about Indiana’s design: “The whole thing we developed over the 11 years I was there was really special and the floor was part of it.”

But Nelson could never get the Bucks into the NBA Finals. After losing to the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games in the 1980 Western Conference semifinals, Milwaukee was shifted to the Eastern Conference.

That would prove to be a death knell for any hopes that the Bucks would get a title in the 1980s. In his last seven seasons with Milwaukee, Nelson’s teams were bounced out of the playoffs by powerhouse Eastern Conference teams from the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers.

The Bucks’ best record under Nelson was 60-22 in 1980-’81. The season ended with a 99-98 loss to the 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern semifinals. That game featured a tussle between 76ers bruiser Steve Mix and Bucks big man Bob Lanier and an official inquiry to the league office by Nelson after a typographical error by the scorer had the 76ers holding possession of the ball for 31 seconds before Caldwell Jones made two free throws that provided Philadelphia with a 99-95 lead in the final minute.

Nelson was NBA’s coach of the year in 1982-’83. The Bucks were able to sweep the Celtics in the semifinals but then advanced to face one of the greatest teams ever in the 76ers. Philadelphia dispatched Milwaukee in five games and then stormed to the title with Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney.

Nelson was also named coach of the year in 1984-’85 but was again eliminated by the 76ers, this time in a sweep.

After losing five of six playoff battles, the Bucks were able to defeat the aging 76ers in a seven-game Eastern semifinal battle in 1985-’86. In the deciding game, the Bucks took a 113-112 lead when Craig Hodges’ driving layup was goaltended by Charles Barkley with 28 seconds remaining. The 76ers set up a final play that ended with Erving getting a wide-open 12-foot shot. The shot bounced high of the rim and fans stormed the Indiana-designed court.

The reward for the hard-fought victory? A date with the Boston Celtics, whose outfit in 1985-’86 merits serious consideration for greatest basketball team ever assembled. The Bucks were swept away again.

Nelson’s final season with Bucks in 1986-’87 also ended at the hands of the Celtics. The Bucks pushed the Eastern semifinals to seven games but were edged, 119-113, in the final game.

Nelson soon joined the Golden State Warriors, spearheading the “Run TMC” teams that ran with the coach’s fast-break philosophies but ultimately didn’t have the individual defenders like Quinn Buckner and Sidney Moncrief that Nelson had in Milwaukee.

Not long after Nelson’s departure, the Bucks moved to the relatively antiseptic Bradley Center, leaving the famous MECCA court behind.

Indiana’s court was recently purchased to be part of the Hank Raymonds Educational Center, named for the former Marquette coach whose teams also competed on that magical floor.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Ties That Bind

Despite common misconception, Al McGuire wasn’t related to Frank McGuire. Yet the careers of the two coaches were inextricably linked.

Al played for Frank at St. John’s from 1948-’51 and during their three seasons together on the varsity, the then-Redmen went 66-19 and made into the prestigious NIT each year.

Al averaged just 8.1 points per game in college, but he was a scrapper known for his obstinate defense. Frank called Al one of the most competitive players that he ever coached.

That defensive attitude bought Al three seasons in the nascent NBA with the New York Knicks. The pesky guard billed himself as a Bob Cousy stopper and, yes, he did shut down the Boston Celtics’ legendary point guard on occasion.

After his playing career, Al landed as an assistant at Dartmouth in 1955 but the Ivy League didn’t suit his streetwise personality.

By then, Frank had moved on to the University of North Carolina. He led the Tar Heels to an undefeated season in 1957 and the national championship over Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain, a player Frank would later coach in the NBA.

Those bona fides give a coach considerable clout in North Carolina, and Frank used his influence to persuade Belmont Abbey, a small school near Charlotte, to take a chance on his former player at St. John’s.

Al went 109-64 as coach at Belmont Abbey. He and Frank shared similar coaching styles. The charismatic leaders would bring in talented players, preferably from New York City, and then use psychological ploys more than tactical ones to get the most out of their talent.

Al was hired by Marquette in 1964, with another solid reference from Frank, who became coach of South Carolina that same year.

The coaches would match wits against each other nine times at those schools. The first two games were probably the best of the series.

The first meeting came on Dec. 16, 1966, in the Milwaukee Classic tournament at the Arena. South Carolina won, 63-61, after referees waved off a last-second basket by Marquette’s Paul Carbins, who had knocked in the ball as it bounced on the rim after Brad Luchini’s shot.

South Carolina had been called for four technical fouls in the game. Al seemed to think that it got the referees on edge enough to make that gutsy final call. He recognized the tactics of his former coach and said afterward that Frank “used the oldest trick in the book.”

When the teams met again on Jan. 9, 1972, in South Carolina, it was a nationally televised contest between top-10 squads.

The game was intensely physical and tensions bubbled over three minutes into the second half with Marquette leading, 44-35. The Warriors’ Bob Lackey and the Gamecocks’ Tom Riker had enough of the bumping in the post. The haymakers started between those big guys and spread like a contagion.

It took 10 minutes and the South Carolina band to start playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for order to be restored. Frank, much like in North Carolina’s brawl with Duke in 1961, was right in the middle of the action on the court. Al was on the bench the whole time and said later “a bar-hall bouncer wouldn’t take his coat off for this one.”

Allie McGuire, an actual relation of the Marquette coach, hit two free throws with 1:15 remaining to give the Warriors a 72-69 lead. The Gamecocks got within 72-71, but that would be the final score after South Carolina couldn’t convert on its final two possessions.

Frank and South Carolina would win their next 27 home games before Al and his Warriors returned to Columbia to stop the streak.

Frank notched a victory against Al in 1974, but the pupil ran off with five straight victories in the series before retiring after Marquette’s national championship in 1977. The feisty former guard finished with a 7-2 record against his mentor.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Back Against The USSR

Anyone associated with USA Basketball has decried the 51-50 loss to the Soviet Union at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. However, the international outrage over the ending to that game has clouded what might be the most impressive two-game winning streak in Olympic basketball history.

The rematch between the Soviets and Americans took 16 years to happen. The teams were in different Olympic brackets in 1976, and boycotts by each country took away any chance at match-ups in ’80 and ’84.

The game finally came to fruition during the semifinals of the medal round in the Seoul Olympics of 1988. This time, the Soviets didn’t leave the final score open to debate with an 82-76 victory over the John Thompson-coached Americans.

As always, an American loss in the Olympics caused outrage and finger pointing. But it really shouldn’t have been that shocking.

The Soviets were a veteran team with an average age of 28. They had top-shelf talent with Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, before either player had landed in the NBA. Most important, the Soviet Union had played together for several years.

The Americans had a potent starting lineup of Dan Majerle, Danny Manning, David Robinson, Mitch Richmond and Georgetown point guard Charles Smith. But they were all still college-aged and had come together as a team only a few months before.

The advantages didn’t stop with the players. Thompson was thoroughly outcoached by Soviet mastermind Aleksandr Gomelsky. The Russian is legendary in basketball circles and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame after coaching the national team for over 30 years. Gomelsky hadn’t experienced the victory 16 years earlier in Munich, however. The Soviet regime thought the Jewish Gomelsky might defect, so his passport was revoked.

This game in 1988 was the biggest Gomelsky would ever coach. Marciulionis told the New York Times that the coach imparted to every Soviet player that “the American players are emotional, but also very fragile. We must try to stop their fast break, but at all cost not let them finish it with a dunk. Because when they start dunking they play as if they have wings instead of arms.”

Manning picked up two fouls in the first 2:14 and was promptly yanked by Thompson. Fresh off his “Danny and the Miracles” thrill ride to the NCAA championship with Kansas, Manning was supposed to be the focal point of the U.S. offense. But Thompson sat Manning the rest of the first half and the forward never got into the flow, finishing without a point.

Gomelsky, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind when Marciulionis and Sabonis got into foul trouble, leaving them on the floor even when Marciulionis picked up his fourth foul in the first half.

Sabonis, the newly minted Hall of Famer, had already suffered leg injuries by this point in his career. He has often said that Soviet apparatchiks forced him to play in 1988 despite a painful Achilles’ injury. Sabonis had the toughest matchup with Robinson, who was often the U.S. foil to the Soviet center during their amateur match-ups. Sabonis more than held his own with 13 points and 13 rebounds.

Marciulionis was key in the first half, scoring 11 points despite those four fouls. He finished with 19 points and was 3 for 3 on three-pointers.

The shooting from behind the arc was the key to victory, as NBC commentator Al McGuire figured it would be in his pre-game monologue. The American defenders sagged into Sabonis, but the center’s superior passing vision found open shooters.

Rimas Kourtinaitas was the biggest beneficiary. He scored a game-high 28 points and was 4 for 10 on three-pointers.

The Americans shot a combined 4 for 7 on threes. Thompson probably wished he hadn’t cut Steve Kerr or Rex Chapman during the U.S. trials.

A late rally led by Majerle and Smith wasn’t enough. The U.S. settled for bronze and the Soviet Union went on to win the gold-medal game against Yugoslavia.

The loss prompted USA Basketball officials to allow NBA players to compete in the Olympics, precipitating the formation of the Dream Team.

Even Gomelsky, with a gold medal already in hand, was OK with the changes, saying that the only way for the rest of the world to catch up with U.S. was to play against the best.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cajun Flavor

Former Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) coach Beryl Shipley has rightly been exalted for helping integrate a college basketball team in the heart of the Deep South. His hoops reputation has certainly improved since 1973 when he was forced to resign amid a torrent of NCAA violations, mostly centering on giving cash to some of the poor black players that he recruited to Lafayette.

Those big issues have overshadowed the entertainment value that Shipley’s Ragin’ Cajuns brought to the NCAA.

It’s hard to fathom that on Feb. 23, 1973, the nationally televised game of the week was Southwestern Louisiana at Oral Roberts. But they were the two highest-scoring teams in the country at the time, each pouring in a shade above 98 points per game.

This was Shipley’s last squad at Southwestern Louisiana and undeniably his best. The Ragin’ Cajuns had four players that would be NBA draft picks: Dwight “Bo” Lamar, Larry Fogle, Jerry Bisbano and Fred Saunders.

Lamar was quite a sight to behold, a blur of a point guard with a giant Afro and the temerity to pull up for a jumper from anywhere inside halfcourt. Lamar had scored 36.3 points per game the previous season, becoming the first player to lead the nation in both Division 1 and Division 2 (the Ragin’ Cajuns made the leap to the top division for the 1971-’72 season.)

Lamar’s scoring would dip to 28.9 in 1972-’73 because he had to share the ball with another offensive warhorse. Larry Fogle was a scoring legend from Detroit’s Cooley High, his 73 points against Cody in 1972 still stands as a single-game mark for Detroit’s public league.

Those dynamic scorers would help Southwestern Louisiana dominate Oral Roberts, 104-89. The teams combined for 196 shots.

Lamar was outstanding in the first half, hitting on 10 of 18 shots for 22 points. He finished with 34. Fogle added 13 points and also helped Southwestern Louisiana on the boards. Lamar and Fogle brought a street flair to a game that was still dominated by the buttoned-down approach of John Wooden and UCLA.

The Ragin’ Cajuns would advance to the Sweet 16 that season before falling to Kansas State, 66-63. Soon after, Shipley was out and the NCAA put the program on ice for two seasons.

Lamar was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the third round of the NBA draft but he opted for the ABA and landed with the San Diego Conquistadors and coach Wilt Chamberlain. Lamar didn’t soften his gunner tendencies as a rookie in the pros, jacking up 247 three-point attempts — more than the totals of three ABA teams. He made it one season with the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA after the ABA ceased operations.

After Southwestern Louisiana’s NCAA turmoil, Fogle transferred to Canisius College, where he set several scoring marks. Fogle’s NBA career lasted all of two games with the New York Knicks, but he surfaced recently on an episode of “Judge Mathis.”

Whatever that team’s future troubles, the 1972-’73 Ragin’ Cajuns anticipated the rough-around-the-edges, immensely talented and freewheeling teams in the next decades like UNLV under Jerry Tarkanian and the Fab Five at Michigan.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Stars Align

The NBA will likely never hold its All-Star Weekend in Milwaukee again.

The league’s official line would be that there is not enough hotel space for what has become a bloated event. The reality is probably that Wisconsin in early February isn’t exactly a sexy destination for celebrities, corporate lackeys and assorted basketball hangers-on.

What many people don’t know is that Milwaukee played host to one of the best All-Star Games in NBA history — and maybe the most important. The West beat the East, 125-124, on Feb. 13, 1977, in a well-played game at the Milwaukee Arena, but the box score tells only part of the story.

It was the first All-Star Game since the NBA-ABA merger, and the future of the league hinged on how well the likes of Julius Erving and David Thompson could be assimilated.

Those two former ABA stars were matched up through much of the game. Dr. J lit up the much smaller Thompson and other luckless defenders to the tune of 30 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and four steals. The biggest import to the NBA that season became the second player to be named All-Star Game MVP from the losing team. (Bob Pettit was the first in 1958.)

Erving had 13 points in the fourth quarter as the East made the game tight. The final minutes were highlighted by what everyone agrees is missing in recent All-Star Games: Defense.

The West’s Bobby Jones blocked a shot by a driving Pete Maravich, leading to a dunk by Paul Westphal that gave the West a 125-122 lead with 38 seconds remaining. Bob McAdoo followed with two free throws that got the East within one.

McAdoo then made a steal on an entry pass that gave the East a final possession. But Westphal fought around a screen and knocked the ball away from Maravich for a steal that clinched the victory for the West.

The game was an unqualified success. Denver Nuggets coach Larry Brown earned some NBA bona fides after toiling away for years in the ABA. He had the West team humming with 42 assists, an unheard-of number for an All-Star Game. Even a largely forgotten ABA player like the Indiana Pacers’ Don Buse, an injury fill-in for Bill Walton, made a seamless transition to the NBA and helped spark the West’s 39-point third quarter.

The dunk contest also took root in the NBA that year. The ABA’s inaugural event in 1976 had burnished the legend of Dr. J with his free-throw line dunk. The NBA’s first foray did not have that kind of star power, with Larry McNeill and Darnell Hillman making it to the finals.

McNeill, a former Marquette jumping jack, wasn’t even in the NBA at the time. He had been waived by the New Jersey Nets early in the season. McNeill was playing with Wilkes-Barre of the Eastern League but was allowed to dunk because the Nets had submitted his name for the contest earlier in the season.

Nonetheless, the NBA was intrigued by this new sideshow. The league looked ready to embark on a new era with this infusion of ideas and talent.

As for the atmosphere in frigid Milwaukee? Fans packed the Arena, and the sold-out crowd of 10,938 lustily booed Erving for earning the MVP in a losing effort. The hoops-savvy contingent probably saw through the forced marketing of the league’s newest star and thought Westphal (20 points, six assists, three steals, clutch plays) more deserving of the honor.

The Milwaukee fans also surprisingly cheered Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had forced his way out of town just over a year before. Abdul-Jabbar had shown up for the game in a Bucks warm-up jacket, borrowed from Milwaukee trainer Tony Spino because Kareem had left his Lakers jacket in Los Angeles.

It was just another memorable moment from a memorable game.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Business Class

Jack McCallum is a fixed star in the firmament of great basketball writers. He’s one of a chosen few that can actually be called a Hall of Famer. With all due respect to McCallum’s season-long courtside seat to the “:07 Seconds Or Less” Phoenix Suns in 2005-’06, the longtime Sports Illustrated scribe never had a more dramatic story than the 1990-’91 Boston Celtics. McCallum’s chronicle of that season became “Unfinished Business,” an essential text for any hoops scholar.

The Celtics provided plenty of grist for the narrative. The franchise’s holy trinity of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were nearing the end of their careers but weren’t exactly ready for the pasture. Head coach Chris Ford wanted to exploit the athleticism of young players like Dee Brown, Brian Shaw and Reggie Lewis and push the pace. The older players balked, and Ford was placed in an unenviable position because he had been a teammate of the Big Three just a few seasons before. Red Auerbach was still an overweening presence, puffing his ubiquitous cigar in “No Smoking” areas and loudly proclaiming his opinions. The backdrop for the story was the Boston Garden, one of the holy sites in the NBA that had become almost unusable because of its decrepit state.

All the drama of that season is encapsulated in the Celtics’ 135-132 victory in double overtime against the Chicago Bulls on March 31, 1991. The banged-up Celtics were trying to get patched up enough to make another run in the postseason. The ascendant Bulls were on a mission to be the team of the 1990s. Chicago had won the last two match-ups in the season by an average margin of 25 points.

There is a subtext of sadness to “Unfinished Business” that McCallum never could have anticipated. He got to witness the season that Lewis firmly established himself as the next great Celtics player. Lewis went to become an all-star for the first time in 1991-’92. Then on July 27, 1993, he would collapse after shooting baskets and die because of an enlarged heart.

This game could have been Lewis’ finest work, despite some missed free throws late in the second overtime. He had been torched by Michael Jordan in the teams’ meetings earlier in the season. Lewis came out determined not to let that happen again, rabidly chasing Jordan around screens and hounding the Bulls superstar whenever he got the ball. This was Jordan about to enter his prime, and Lewis blocked two of his shots in the first quarter. Jordan seemed almost frazzled, and shot 3 of 11 in the first half for seven points. Of course, Jordan finished with 37 points, but he needed 37 shots to get there. Lewis had four blocks for the game. Jordan often hung in the air on double-clutches to avoid the athletic defender, causing several misses, including on a three-pointer in the waning seconds of double overtime.

Lewis also flashed his still-developing offensive game, including a nascent outside shot. He drained a long jumper at the end of the first quarter that seemed to spur his confidence. Lewis’ biggest shot came when he calmly drilled a game-tying three-pointer with 19.4 seconds remaining in regulation. It was Lewis’ first three-pointer of the season and only the eighth in his four seasons.

Lewis finished with 25 points. The young Celtics made it look like the future was in good hands, with Brown adding 21 points in 25 minutes and Shaw contributing 11 points and 15 assists. Even “Easy” Ed Pinckney, often criticized for his lack of emotion, looked good around the basket and showed great instincts on a three-point play and a nifty assist to McHale.

But the Celtics still needed the elder statesmen to finish the job. McHale was playing for the first time in 16 days because of an ankle injury and had 10 points and six rebounds despite the rust. Parish made three big baskets in the first overtime.

Then there was one Larry Joe Bird. Bothered by back problems all season, Bird was ready to ramp it up for the playoffs. He played an absurd 52 minutes and dropped in 34 points to go along with 15 rebounds and eight assists. Bird took 36 shots but finally found the rhythm in the second overtime when he scored nine points. He hit two straight step-back jumpers and then a three-point play against the defense of Horace Grant, nine years younger than Bird.

The Celtics didn’t seem dead yet with the victory over the Bulls. But Bird’s back eventually gave out and he was limited as Boston lost to the Detroit Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

McCallum’s book caught the Celtics at the dramatic stretch where the future was hanging in the balance. Unfortunately for Boston fans, Bird’s back was never the same, McHale lasted two more seasons, Lewis tragically was lost, and the young core of Brown, Shaw and Pinckney never reached the next level. The Celtics stopped playing in the Boston Garden in 1995, and the building was demolished in 1997.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Different Racket

John Lucas’ name still crops up around the NBA, even though he hasn’t had an official affiliation with the league since being an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009-’10.

Draft hopefuls often flock to Houston to be put through the paces of Lucas’ basketball drills. More famously, whenever a player runs into substance abuse issues, Lucas inevitably steps in as a de facto “life coach.” Lucas has counseled everyone from Richard Dumas to Lloyd Daniels to NFL washout JaMarcus Russell.

That humanitarian work is probably Lucas’ biggest contribution to the game over the last couple decades, considering his 173-258 record in six seasons as the head coach of three NBA teams.

It also eases some disappointment about the playing career of the No. 1 overall pick in the 1976 NBA draft. Lucas spent most of his early career trying to outflank personal demons but eventually got clean and managed to play 14 seasons in which he averaged 10.7 points per game and seven assists per game for six teams.

There are so many narrative threads to Lucas’ story that most people have forgotten the former point guard was also an ace tennis player in his youth.

Lucas learned tennis at the foot of Carl “Bear” Easterling, a legendary figure in Durham, N.C. Easterling is probably best remembered as coach of Durham Hillside High School’s basketball team, which played at a breakneck pace unusual for prep squads in the 1960s. His 1965-’66 “Pony Express” team averaged an absurd 105 points per game.

Easterling was also the fulcrum of a hotbed of African-American tennis players in Durham. Lucas, who was the son of Hillside’s principal, became one of Easterling’s most prized pupils.

Lucas ripped off a 92-match winning streak and captured three straight 4-A NCHSAA singles titles from 1970-’72. He was named to the Junior Davis Cup team in 1971. On the basketball court, Lucas toppled some of Pete Maravich’s state scoring records and was one of the nation’s most sought-after recruits.

Lucas wanted to play basketball at a college where the coach would also let him play tennis. Maryland’s Lefty Driesell was happy to oblige. Lucas’ tenure as a four-year starter for the Terrapins’ basketball team is widely documented, but his tennis career seems to have been largely lost to history.

The left-hander won the No. 1 ACC singles titles as a sophomore in 1974 and again as a senior in 1976. Lucas teamed with Fred Winckelmann to take the conference’s No. 1 doubles crown in 1973.

Lucas debated about which sport to pursue as a professional, but the money offered by the Houston Rockets after the 1976 draft swayed him to stick with hoops. He still dabbled in professional tennis, playing World Team Tennis with the Golden Gaters of San Francisco/Oakland in 1976 and ’77 and the New Orleans Nets in 1978. With the Nets, Lucas played doubles with another left-hander, transgender athletic pioneer Renee Richards, in what has to be the most unusual pairing in that sport’s history.

Tennis also reentered Lucas’ life in the late 1990s, when he coached Lori McNeal on the WTA circuit after getting canned by the Philadelphia 76ers.

Lucas passed on his two-sport prowess. One of his sons, John Lucas III, was also talented at both tennis and basketball. He was a nationally ranked USTA junior player before concentrating on basketball and eventually playing in the NBA, including two games with the Chicago Bulls this season.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Old 'Bones"

Horace "Bones" McKinney is probably the most Zelig-like figure in basketball history.

He first rose to prominence as a 6-foot-6 power forward on a legendary team at Durham High School in the late 1930s and early '40s. One of the greatest prep teams in North Carolina's rich history, Durham won 73 straight games with a schedule that included college and professional barnstorming teams.

McKinney spurned coach Eddie Cameron and the hometown Duke Blue Devils in favor of North Carolina State. After his college career was interrupted by World War II, McKinney finished at the University of North Carolina — likely becoming the only player that will ever play hoops for both the Wolfpack and the Tar Heels. McKinney helped lead UNC to the 1946 championship game, which the Tar Heels lost to Oklahoma A&M, 43-40.

Pro basketball was still finding its footing at the time, and McKinney was there to witness epochal moments. He played with the Washington Capitals for three seasons in the Basketball Association of America before that league's teams were absorbed to form the NBA in 1949-'50.

McKinney also played two seasons for the Boston Celtics. At both of his professional stops, McKinney played under Red Auerbach. The coaching deity became a lifelong confidante. Auerbach drafted Sam Jones out of North Carolina Central University sight unseen in 1957, strictly on a favorable report from McKinney.

After his pro career ended in 1951, McKinney struggled to find direction. Famously silver-tongued, he became an ordained Baptist minister and an assistant coach at Wake Forest under Murray Greason.

McKinney took over for Greason and coached at Wake Forest from 1957-'65. McKinney still climbed onto the pulpit from time to time, but his best preaching probably came when he talked Len Chappell and Billy Packer into playing for the Demon Deacons. That duo formed the core of a team that made it to the Final Four in 1962, the high-water mark in Wake Forest's history.

McKinney cut an eccentric figure on the sideline. He was a spiritual precursor to Al McGuire with his antics and garrulous nature. McKinney claimed to drink 25 Pepsis a day and sweat through 10 pounds during an ACC battle. When the ACC wanted to cut down on coaches’ tantrums, McKinney installed a seatbelt on his chair.

Soft drinks weren't McKinney's only vice. His manic actions became increasingly fueled by booze and amphetamines. Wake Forest quietly let McKinney go in 1965 after just eight seasons at the helm. He was 122-94 with the Demon Deacons, including 8-2 against a young UNC coach named Dean Smith.

The next coaching gig didn’t come until 1969 when McKinney took charge of the Carolina Cougars in the upstart ABA. He finished 42-42 in his first season and then stepped down after starting out 17-25 in 1970-’71.

After that, McKinney lived the life of an itinerant preacher and professor emeritus of hoops. Befitting his gregarious personality, he often worked as a color commentator for ACC and Campbell College games.

McKinney died at 78 in 1997. The inimitable “Bones” left behind a body of work that is likely unrivaled in its historical scope.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dream Shakers

The Dream Team put together for the 1992 Olympics has acquired a veneer of invincibility and been venerated as the greatest collection of basketball talent ever.

You can start poking holes into those claims by pointing out that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were well past their primes; that the best point guard in the game wasn’t included because of backchannel efforts; that the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union eliminated any real competition; and that the inclusion of Christian Laettner seems laughably anachronistic in hindsight.

As everyone knows, the team romped through its overmatched international competition. But its toughest matchup came in La Jolla, Calif., in late June.

USA Basketball brought in a collection of college talent to prep the Dream Teamers. George Raveling and Roy Williams coached this Developmental Team that included Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Allan Houston, Jamal Mashburn, Rodney Rogers, Chris Webber and Eric Montross. If the U.S. had not opted to use professionals for the first time, those kids would have challenged the world’s best.

“You take that team, they’d all be No. 1 picks,” Karl Malone said at the time. “Those guys are great. They’d be in the top five this year. They could go over there and win the gold this year.”

The NBA stars were primed for a reality check. After their grinding season, most of them were more concerned with hitting the sun-spackled golf courses of La Jolla than preparing for some scrimmage that wouldn’t even be open to the public.

Charles Barkley hadn’t touched a basketball since his season ended in April. Johnson had retired because of HIV and had been playing only in posh health clubs in Los Angeles. Bird could barely move with a bad back that would never allow him to play in the NBA again. David Robinson was still recovering from wrist surgery in March. Patrick Ewing had already hurt his thumb in practice. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Clyde Drexler were physically spent after wrapping up the NBA Finals only a few weeks earlier.

Dream Team coach Chuck Daly wanted the collegians to push the tempo and bomb away on three-pointers, which would be the drive-and-kick strategy employed by most of the foreign teams later in the summer.

By most accounts, Houston and Hurley did the most damage against the NBA guys. Houston drained 10 three-pointers and Hurley’s quickness caused trouble for Johnson and John Stockton.

The scrimmage wasn’t taped and was held behind closed doors. There was no official scoring, so accounts widely differ. Michael Wilbon reported in The Washington Post that the collegians won, 88-80. David Halberstam has the score as 58-52 in “Playing For Keeps.” Johnson and Bird recall losing the 20-minute scrimmage 62-54 in “When The Game Was Ours.”

While the details are fuzzy, the college kids certainly made an impression. They reinforced the victory with some vociferous trash talking, so much so that Williams apologized to Jordan on the golf course.

The next day, Jordan and the other Dream Teamers made their rebuttal, blowing the college kids out of the gym. Jordan took special delight in shutting down Houston.

In their book, Bird and Johnson said it was the wake-up call that the team needed. The Dream Team’s average margin of victory was 51.5 in the Tournament of Americas and 43.8 during its eight games in the Olympics.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Memorable Dream

Dean "The Dream" Meminger might have set the template for the prototypical modern New York guard.

The three-time All-City pick out of Harlem's Rice High School in the 1960s had superior handle, uncommon passing vision, smothering one-on-one defense — and an outside jumper that left a lot to be desired. With that skill set, he antedated Pearl Washington, Kenny Smith, Kenny Anderson and scores of other citified point guards.

Meminger was one of coach Al McGuire's prized New York recruits at Marquette, and "The Dream" didn't disappoint. He scored 1,637 points in his three seasons with the then-Warriors, who went 78-9 in that stretch.

Meminger was drafted 16th overall in 1971 by his hometown New York Knicks. But playing time was scarce in a crowded backcourt that included Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and Dick Barnett.

Despite being undersized for the NBA at just under 6 feet, Meminger showed flashes of brilliance.

His greatest performance came in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1973 against the Boston Celtics.

The Knicks had squandered a 3-1 lead in the series. The Celtics had never lost in their nine previous Game 7s. To make things more difficult for New York, Monroe was out with an ailing hip and the game was being played at the imposing Boston Garden.

Meminger stepped into the breach left by Monroe in the starting lineup. Knicks coach Red Holzman handed Meminger, not defensive ace Frazier, the assignment of guarding Boston's red-hot Jo Jo White.

The Celtics were able to take a 22-19 lead after the first quarter, but Meminger flipped the script in the second quarter. He scored nine points as the Knicks headed into halftime with a 45-40 lead.

Meminger finished with 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and four steals in 36 minutes. His harassing defense held White to 10-of-22 shooting.

The Knicks pulled off a surprisingly easy 94-78 victory. The Celtics shot just 31 of 83 and turned the ball over 23 times.

Meminger was the catalyst that propelled the Knicks into the NBA Finals, where they beat the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.

Thirty-seven years later, former Knicks reserve Phil Jackson remembered that Game 7 against the Celtics:

“Jo Jo White was punishing us with high screen-rolls, and Dean Meminger was saying, ‘I don’t get any help,’ ” the Lakers coach said during the 2010 NBA Finals. “And Red Holzman barked at him, ‘The job has got to get done.’ As you know, Dean Meminger had the game of his life in the seventh game."

Meminger ended up playing six years in the NBA, including two with the Atlanta Hawks, averaging 6.1 points and 2.5 assists per game.

He's been all over the map since, cropping up as a coach at diverse locales like Manhattanville College, the Women's Professional Basketball League and the CBA, where he preceded Jackson with the Albany Patroons. Like many players of his era, Meminger battled substance abuse. He last surfaced as the victim of a housing fire in New York in 2009.

Based solely on career stats, Meminger's NBA stint can be viewed as a disappointment. But he had flashes where "The Dream" had to be seen to be believed.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fab Four

Al McGuire, as only he could, went out in style. With the Marquette Warriors putting the finishing touches on a 67-59 victory over North Carolina in the 1977 NCAA championship game, the retiring coach sat down on the MU bench and bawled his eyes out.

It’s a powerful image, one that came to represent college basketball that season. But it also overshadows that year’s semifinals, which should rank among the greatest Final Fours.

It was a field bursting with storylines. There were the blue-blooded Tar Heels, the clear favorite but also ravaged by injuries. They were also still looking to get Dean Smith his first title. UNC-Charlotte, from the same state as the Heels but miles apart in talent, made its first Final Four appearance. UNLV was led by its charming rogue of a coach, Jerry Tarkanian, and led the nation in scoring at an absurd 107 points per game. Marquette had been in a late-season tailspin, but the Warriors faithful hoped McGuire’s imminent retirement would galvanize the team.

The two semifinals at the Omni in Atlanta would be decided by a total of three points.

UNC-Charlotte and Marquette squared off in the opening match. The 49ers, in their first NCAA Tournament, were led by stars Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell and Lew Massey. McGuire’s final team had irrepressible offensive talents Bo Ellis and Butch Lee and key role players like Jim Boylan, Jerome Whitehead and Bill Neary.

Charlotte seemed overwhelmed by the moment in the early going. The 49ers were flummoxed by Marquette’s changing defenses and fell behind by 14 points. Charlotte’s defense dug in, however, switching easily between man-to-man and exotic zones (even the obscure 1-1-3 set). The 49ers went on a 13-2 run and headed into the locker room facing only a 25-22 deficit.

The second half would be tight the whole way. Marquette had shot poorly, but the 49ers’ zone defenses had given Whitehead (16 rebounds) enough space to attack the offensive glass. Charlotte’s swarming defenders had taken Lee (who shot 5 of 18) out of the flow until the final minutes, when the star of the Puerto Rican national team hit two clutch buckets.

Marquette eventually went ahead, 49-47, until Maxwell sank a tough leaner in the lane with five seconds left.

McGuire called time out with three seconds on the clock, then took the time to examine the height of the scoreboard at the Omni and calculate how the parabola of a court-length pass would be affected. Satisfied with the answer, the coach of the Jesuit school’s team drew up a play in which Lee heaved a “Hail Mary” to Ellis or Whitehead at the other end.

The prayer was answered when the ball glanced off the hands of the long-limbed Maxwell and right to the waiting Whitehead, who found himself wide open for a half-dunk/half-layup that almost bounced off the rim. The ball found the net, though, and after some anxious discussion among officials at the scorer’s table, Marquette was awarded the 51-49 victory.

Lee-to-Whitehead has been shunted aside in the annals of full-court final plays, getting lost behind U.S.S.R’s controversial bomb against the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics and the Grant Hill-Christian Laettner connection in the 1992 tournament. Milwaukee is probably the only place that remembers Marquette’s miracle play as well as those others.

How could the second semifinal in 1977 ever top that? The Tar Heels and Runnin’ Rebels tried to burn their own mark in the popular memory by playing at warp speed.

Tarkanian’s first great squad at UNLV boasted six players that would be chosen in the 1977 NBA draft. The draft was eight rounds deep back then, but UNLV’s Glen Gondrezick, Eddie Owens and Larry Moffet were all picked in the second round.

The Tar Heels had battled injuries all season. Team leader Tommy LaGarde was out for the season with a broken leg. Walter Davis (broken finger) and Phil Ford (elbow) were both not quite right in the NCAA Tournament.

The Rebels, who also had Reggie Theus, took a 49-43 lead at the break. But the Tar Heels caught fire in the second half, including a 14-0 run that gave UNC control. John Kuester made 5 of 6 free throws in the final minutes, giving the Tar Heels the 84-83 victory.

Fans who watched both games got the defensive chess match and a once-in-a-lifetime finish in the first semifinal. Then they were treated to offensive fireworks in the nightcap, with UNC shooting 59% and UNLV at 51%. That Final Four should be remembered as fondly as McGuire’s last game.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Origin Story

A lot of University of North Carolina fans like to proclaim that they are "Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred."

I was indoctrinated in a different manner.

It was a few months into the third grade when I moved from Illinois to North Carolina. I showed up in Ms. Nelson's class desperate for a friend of any kind.

The first kid that talked to me eyed me up and asked: "Do you like Carolina, Duke or State?"

The question took me aback. I recognized all the words in his sentence, but didn’t comprehend the meaning of them placed together.

He was wearing a sweatshirt that had “Carolina” emblazoned across the chest. So, eager to fit in as the new guy, I quickly responded: "Carolina."

It so happened that the real estate agent who sold my parents their house in Greensboro, in our first brush with Southern hospitality, offered up tickets to a Tar Heels game at the pleasant-sounding Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill.

I was an official convert. The Heels' game against UCLA on Dec. 17, 1988, would be the baptism.

Looking back at the tape and box score of the game, I had no idea what was going on during the action on the court.

There's no way that I knew the Heels were ranked eighth in the nation or that they had gone 8-1 despite the absence of All-American forward J.R. Reid, who was about to return from foot surgery.

Certainly I had no clue about UCLA, which had started 4-0 behind new coach Jim Harrick and the stellar play of guard Pooh Richardson.

I was just happy to be one of the 20,712 fans at Dean Dome, teeming with the evangelical spirit.

The crowd reached a fever pitch when Reid and his imposing flattop checked in at the 15:41 mark. A few minutes later, Reid worked himself free in the post with his ample backside and hammered home a one-handed dunk that gave the junior his first points of the season and UNC a 19-10 lead.

The game turned out to be a 104-78 dismantling by the Tar Heels. At the time, it was the third-worst loss in Bruins history. Dean Smith’s trapping defense flustered Richardson. Reid finished with six points and four rebounds in 10 minutes. Harrick and the UCLA bench were whistled for two technicals.

None of that registered in my 9-year-old mind, however. I was just taken by the rise and fall of the crowd with each three-pointer by Jeff Lebo, offensive put-back by Pete Chilcutt or defensive hounding by King Rice.

I was hooked for life even before Marty Hensley and Jeff Denny closed out garbage time against the Bruins. In subsequent seasons, I paid witness as Reid begat George Lynch, who begat Rasheed Wallace, who begat Antawn Jamison. And so on.

That passion followed me even after I moved away from the Old North State. It led me to the wayside televisions of State Street Brats in Madison, Wis., where I watched every Duke-UNC game alongside a UW graduate student and native of Boone, N.C. He got me in the habit of saying, in a drawling Appalachian accent, “Fuuuuuuck yoooooou, Wooo-joooo” every time ESPN cameras would catch a shot of Blue Devils assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski.

I don’t think I ever knew that guy’s name. We just recognized a shared passion that had long since hooked itself into our souls.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Legend of Billy Ray

For a writer, it is impossible not to be taken by the story of Billy Ray Bates.

The enigmatic Bates played in only 187 games in the NBA from 1979-'83, but he achieved immortality from his bit part in David Halberstam's "The Breaks of Game," cited in this space and nearly everywhere else as the greatest basketball book ever written. Bates also pops up in Rafe Bartholomew's immensely enjoyable "Pacific Rims," a study of the insatiable basketball jones in the Philippines.

Bates is that elusive complex character whose tale might be without rival in sports history. You'd be hard-pressed to find another son of sharecroppers in the backwoods of Mississippi who rode his athletic talent from a small college like Kentucky State to the minor leagues and then to the NBA. All of that despite a legendary wild streak and a body constitution that could overcome world-class drinking bouts to play basketball at the highest level.

That's just the beginning. When the booze eventually washed Bates from the NBA, he took his talents overseas. Bartholomew chronicled Bates' improbable second act as a near-deity for the hoops-mad Filipinos. Bates couldn't outrun his demons there, either, and he bounced around a few more basketball outposts before drunkenly trying to rob a Texaco attendant with a knife in 1998. Since his release from prison, Bates has tried to scrape together a life by trading on his basketball fame and working menial jobs.

It's almost too much to believe. With so much excellent reporting on Bates, you're often left hankering to see footage of him in action. On YouTube, you can find clips from his apex in the NBA, when he averaged 28.3 points per game against the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1981 playoffs, and also from his run in the Philippines Basketball Association.

But what about witnessing Bates in the full context of a complete game? How about Dec. 30, 1980, when Bates and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 109-108?

That game came during Bates' most successful regular season the league, when he played 20.3 minutes per game and averaged 13.8 points.

Against the 76ers, Bates checked in at the 1:31 mark of the first period. He quickly got in on the action, knocking the ball away from 76ers guard Lionel Hollins and missing a half-court shot at the final buzzer of the period.

Bates played for nearly the entire second quarter. A few minutes into the period, the Blazers' Mychal Thompson snared a defensive rebound and loosed a long outlet to a streaking Bates just across mid-court. Bates got a couple steps ahead of Hollins then took off for a "Statue of Liberty" dunk from just inside of the free-throw line.

The crowd at Memorial Coliseum went crazy. In a game that included pantheon dunkers Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins, Bates stole the show with that slam. His effortless athleticism looked remarkably similar to a player that would thrill those Portland fans in the coming seasons, Clyde Drexler.

Bates was incredible on the fast break, but often looked out of sorts when coach Jack Ramsey had the Blazers run their disciplined half-court sets. Later in the second quarter, when it looked like the 76ers' Steve Mix was going to drop in an easy lay-up, Bates flew in to force a mix. Then Bates sprinted up court and found Jim Paxson with a nice pass under the basket.

That freakish athletic ability could also spin out of control, as Bates missed two wild forays to the basket in the final minutes of the second quarter.

It's easy to see how Ramsey could get frustrated with Bates, even without bringing all the off-the-court nonsense to bear. After Bates looked like he was lost on defense in the fourth quarter, Ramsey pulled him in favor of Michael Gale

But all that talent was too tantalizing to keep on the bench. Bates checked back in with one second remaining and the Blazers trailing, 108-107.

Kermit Washington took the ball out on the side for the Blazers. Bates started on the opposite side and sprinted toward the basket. Washington lofted the ball toward the rim. Bates leaped from one side of the basket to the other, catching the ball at the peak of his leap and laying it in for the winner. He was tackled by Washington and Calvin Natt in the euphoria.

Bates scored only six points in the game, including a long jumper over Hollins. It was a game befitting his career: Flashes of brilliance that somehow make you forgive Bates for everything else.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Long, Strange Trip

Bill Walton is a national treasure. He could have been a tragic figure when horrific foot injuries derailed his professional career. But the big redhead, who overcame a childhood speech impediment, created a comic second act for himself as a beloved — often divisive — broadcaster. On the mic, Walton achieves an alchemy of John Wooden philosophies, stoner axioms, dated Grateful Dead references and non-sequiturs that would give comedian Steven Wright pause.

Sadly, a painful back condition almost ended Walton’s broadcasting gig. This season, he has dipped his toes back in the water, including filling in for Tommy Heinsohn on some Boston Celtics broadcasts.

Walton’s return sparked this question: How would he sound calling one of his own games?

How about Walton’s piece de resistance, the 1973 NCAA championship game in which he scored 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting and lifted UCLA over Memphis State, 87-66, for the Bruins’ seven straight title and 75th consecutive victory?

Here is a sampling of what could have been:

Walton’s first shot. He got the ball with his back to the basket on the left block, then hit a fade-away, eight-footer off the glass:

“What a transcendent moment in time, to play for the championship of all the world. It’s as if the Medicis of Florence gathered all of the artists in creation, placed them in a salon with a giant canvas and said: Paint, my friends.”

Walton’s second shot. He spun away from Memphis State’s Larry Kenon and took an inbounds pass from Larry Hollyfield for an easy layup:

“Most people will never experience a complete telepathic connection. I am reminded of the time Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir exchanged licks during a symphonic 47-minute rendition of “Brown-Eyed Women” at Winterland in ’72. It was a virtual dissertation on the nature of time and space.”

Walton’s third shot. Another spin on the blocks, this time leading to an acrobatic reverse:

“Coach Wooden taught us that all things are possible. This professor emeritus instilled in us the confidence of conquering heroes twice our age. When the final chapter in the history of this great nation is written, John Wooden will be mentioned in the same sentence as Allen Ginsburg and George Washington.”

Walton’s fifth shot. An up-and-under move into the lane, finishing with a jump hook despite a foul:

“My parents knew nothing of sports. My father was a man of letters, more interested DeBussy than Tom Meschery. But he understood the essence of artistry. So when he saw me play, he said: Billy, even I realize that your movements are on the order of philosopher kings.”

Walton’s eighth shot. A beautiful back cut for a lay-in that was disqualified for being a “dunk,” which was verboten by the NCAA at the time:

“Sometimes you must fight the oppressive forces of your day. Don’t believe that might makes right. Stand up for your ideals for that is truly all we have to show for during our brief stay here on Earth.”

Walton’s only missed shot. An alley-oop that he caught and tried to flip over his head, but the ball bounced off the back of the rim:

“Bill Walton, what are you doing out there? You had the opportunity of a lifetime, to catch immortality by its tail. This is a travesty, a soul-crushing exercise in futility. Coach Wooden needs to take Walton out of the game and let him know that this behavior is unbecoming of a champion.”

Walton picked up his third foul with 4:18 remaining in the first half. Swen Nater filled in until halftime, when both teams went into the locker room with the score tied at 39. Walton had 22 points:

“This young man needs to understand the gravity of the situation. 20 minutes amount to just a small bit of salt in the hourglass of time. But what inspiration can come from just a few seconds of concentrated effort.”

In the second half, Memphis State switched to a zone and packed its defenders in to try to cool down Walton. UCLA’s center instead found the holes at the back end of the zone and scored the majority of his 11 second-half baskets on lobs from Greg Lee:

“These are heady times indeed. Chaos on the streets of Los Angeles. Unjust wars in the jungles of Vietnam. But sometimes, supreme beings can block out the travesties and deliver what gods and goddesses have done since time immemorial.”

Walton’s greatest game ended three minutes early, when he rolled his ankle on a shot-block attempt. It was a dark foreboding of all the foot problems Walton would have as a professional:

“Glory is fleeting. One must drink from the cup of wisdom when it is placed in front of him. Delight in your youth, they say. But the irony of it all is that you can never understand that statement until it is too late.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Road to Redemption

I've always been a sucker for tales about basketball players with dark sides.

Stories like Chris Herren as a basketball junkie in the literal sense. Charles Shackleford locking himself in his North Carolina State dorm room and listening to Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" on repeat. Former Detroit Pistons center turned seven-foot stickup artist Reggie Harding. ABA tough guy turned Ugandan guerrilla fighter John Brisker.

I guess the fascination started with Lloyd "Swee' Pea" Daniels.

Daniels is definitely on the starting five of the All-Squandered Talent team. The excellent book "Swee' Pea and Other Playground Legends: Tales of Drugs, Violence and Basketball" by John Valenti and New York City high school coach Ron Naclerio traces Daniels' spiral from being "Magic Johnson with a jumpshot" to never getting to suit up for UNLV after getting arrested in a crack house.

The six-foot-seven forward, more of the crafty type than the typical flashy New York City player, was recovering from a gunshot wound to shoulder and getting his bloated, alcoholic body into shape for another comeback attempt in 1990. He struggled with the Miami Tropics of the USBL before falling off the wagon. He spent some time with John Lucas, the resident drug counselor for hoops stars, before seeking out another chance.

Fortunately for Daniels, the upstart Global Basketball Association was formed. The league had solid renegade credentials, starting at the top with former ABA commissioner Mike Storen (father of ESPN's Hannah Storm). The GBA had too-cute nicknames and hometown heroes, like the Raleigh Bullfrogs (yes, Jeremiah was the mascot) with former scrappy N.C. State point guard Chris Corchiani playing for former scrappy N.C. State point guard Monte Towe. The ABA had the iconic red, white and blue ball. The GBA went with the all-white rock.

My home of Greensboro, N.C., was one of the lucky townships to get a charter GBA franchise. The Greensboro City Gaters were named after the seldom-used nickname "Gate City" and illogically had their mascot be a gator.

Daniels was signed by the Gaters in October of 1991. The coach was Ed McLean, a former Jim Valvano assistant who also coached Pete Maravich at Raleigh Broughton High School.

The league couldn't hitch its wagon to washed-out NBA players like Milt Wagner (Louisville Shooters) and Chuck Nevitt (Bullfrogs), so the GBA heavily promoted Daniels.

I remember reading the requisite takeout feature on Daniels in the Greensboro News & Record and, being 12 years old without much sense of nuance, thinking how much of a coup it was that this rare talent had landed in my city.

I badgered my parents into taking me to see the Gaters at the venerable Greensboro Coliseum. My strongest memory is how the Coliseum — host to many Final Fours, ACC tournaments and NBA preseason games — seemed so small with a crowd that couldn't have topped 1,000 fans.

You could hear the kiss of the sneakers on the hardwood and the conversations on the court. I unwaveringly tracked Daniels. He looked almost middle-aged with a bald pate and battered body. He even looked slower than the other GBA players, but inevitably he would fill the box scores I pored over in the News & Record.

That season kick-started Daniels' comeback. He thrived under McLean and Jim Price, a former NBA journeyman who took over as coach a few months into the season. Daniels averaged 24.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game and was named the GBA's inaugural MVP. He was also the All-Star Game MVP. The Gaters finished 30-33 and were bounced in the first round of the GBA playoffs. For the record, the Music City Jammers, who finished 24-40 in the regular season, won the championship.

It was the first full winter of basketball for Daniels, then 24, since his junior year in high school. He hooked up with the Long Island Surf for the USBL's summer season.

In 1992, Daniels finally got his chance at the NBA. He signed with San Antonio Spurs, where he would play for Jerry Tarkanian, the coach who coveted Daniels so badly when "the Shark" was at UNLV.

Tarkanian lasted only 20 games as coach of the Spurs. The Greensboro City Gaters folded after that one season because of sparse crowds. The GBA made it only a month into its second year.

Daniels appeared in 200 games with six teams in the NBA, averaging 7.1 points per game.

I always checked the box scores for his name.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

National Pride

There always seems to be a sense of entitlement when it comes to the United States and international basketball tournaments. Even with foreign players among the best in the world, there exists some irrational distress when the Americans don't obliterate the competition.

The shock of the U.S.'s loss to the Soviet Union in the 1972 Olympics has yet to dissipate. The American players have famously never accepted their silver medals.

The controversy of that defeat, when the Soviets were given multiple chances at the winning shot, in Munich is justified. Four years later in Montreal, the U.S. was on the other side of a narrow result in the Olympics. The record shows the Americans winning, 95-94, over Puerto Rico. It is forgotten how close the U.S. came to another shocking loss.

Butch Lee wanted to play for the U.S. But Lee wasn't granted an invitation to the Olympic trials by coach Dean Smith, even though Marquette teammates Earl Tatum, Lloyd Walton and Bo Ellis were.

Lee was born in Puerto Rico. His family decamped shortly thereafter for New York City, where Lee became a hoops legend at the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School. Still, he was eligible to play for the Puerto Rican national team.

Puerto Rico coach Tom Nissalke, a longtime ABA and NBA fixture, certainly must have been glad to have Lee.

The Puerto Ricans opened with a 21-point loss to the Yugoslavians, which didn't bode well for the match-up with the Americans. Smith's roster boasted Phil Ford, Adrian Dantley, Mitch Kupchak, Ernie Grunfeld, Scott May and Quinn Buckner.

Lee came out to prove that he belonged on the world stage. Guarded mostly by Indiana star Buckner, Lee finished with 35 points on 15-for-18 shooting and 5 for 6 from the free-throw line. Eight of Lee's baskets gave Puerto Rico leads as the game was tight throughout. Lee's backcourt mate Neftali Rivera added 26 points. They combined for 36 points in the first half as the game was tied at 50 at the break.

Rivera's biggest points came with just over one minute remaining as he hit a jumper to give Puerto Rico a 92-91 lead. Dantley gave the lead back to the Americans on a tip-in with 22 seconds left.

Then came the controversy. Nissalke drew up a play to clear room for one of Lee's patented mid-range jumpers. There was contact in the lane as Lee rose up for an eight-footer. The whistle blew. Everyone held their breath to see which way the age-old, block-charge conundrum would go.

It was a charge on Lee. The Puerto Rican bench howled with incredulity.

Ford hit two free throws. The Puerto Ricans hit a meaningless shot at the buzzer for the final margin. The chances of a monumental upset were gone.

The loss to the Soviets four years earlier could at least be explained away, with the opposition having placed high emphasis on beating the Americans and the finish that reeked of conspiracy. A loss to tiny Puerto Rico would have been inconceivable, no matter how good Lee was.

Lee would get a measure of revenge against Smith in 1977, scoring 19 points as Marquette beat North Carolina in the NCAA championship game.

Lee played two seasons for four teams in the NBA, averaging 8.1 points and 3.2 assists per game. He had a long career as a player and coach in the Baloncesto Superior Nacional, Puerto Rico's professional league.

Despite that missed opportunity in 1976, Lee undoubtedly cracked a smile in 2004, when Puerto Rico shocked the U.S., 92-73, at the Athens Olympics.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Race Matters

Race is an inescapable subject in basketball. It’s front and center, not hidden under helmets or long-sleeved uniforms.

Race is present at choose-up games at the local YMCA or watching NBA League Pass on the couch. It’s joked about openly when discussing the five best white NBA players of all time, and it surfaces subliminally when clueless commentators decry the lack of fundamentals in the modern game.

All of these strains can get tied together, which makes for fascinating stories. Such is the case with “Chase The Game,” an often-overlooked gem of a basketball book by the inimitable journalist Pat Jordan that was published in 1979.

Jordan has written some wild stories for Deadspin in recent years, but “Chase The Game” is straight reportage with bits of social commentary peppered in. The narrative centers on three friends and standout prep players in the surprisingly fertile hoops vineyard of Bridgeport, Conn. A high-school aged Wes Matthews Sr. even makes a cameo appearance during a pickup game.

Two of the players are cousins, Frank Oleynick and Barry McLeod, who have stylish games that were honed on the playgrounds in the projects of Bridgeport. Walter Luckett is considered the best talent in the city, recruited by the top-tier hoops colleges because of his sweet jumper that was perfected in well-kept gymnasiums.

The twist is that Oleynick and McLeod are white, and Luckett is black. That factors into their development as players. Oleynick and McLeod come from a hard-drinking immigrant family, and they latched onto basketball and labored incessantly on their games. Luckett was from the same projects as the cousins, but had some white benefactors who pushed him to excel.
Luckett went to a rival high school, but the three played pickup games together all over the East Coast. Oleynick and McLeod would win over skeptics by faring well in games against Providence star Marvin “Bad News” Barnes and even at the famed Rucker Park in New York.

The players tried to “chase the game” to the NBA. Luckett ended up choosing Ohio University, where he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as one of the best freshmen in the nation. McLeod landed at Centenary, where his main duty was to feed the ball to a 7-footer named Robert Parish. Oleynick put some distance between himself and his hometown, choosing Seattle University.

Oleynick became a legend in The Emerald City. The white kid with an urban game won a cult following and averaged 22.6 points over three seasons. He was recently voted the ninth-best player in school history. Luckett had a hard time living up to his recruiting hype, but he averaged 20.5 points in three years. McLeod had the greatest team success of the three in college, with Centenary going 68-13 in his three varsity seasons, but NCAA violations involving Parish kept the school from the postseason.

Oleynick and Luckett incessantly measured their success against each other. Both entered the NBA draft a year early in 1975. Oleynick was the 12th overall pick by the SuperSonics and Luckett was chosen by the Detroit Pistons in the second round. McLeod was chosen a year later in the seventh round by the Chicago Bulls.

Oleynick was the only one to make a regular-season NBA roster. Luckett and McLeod were waived in training camp. Oleynick lasted just two seasons (5 points and 1.1 assists per game) with the SuperSonics under coach Bill Russell. Oleynick battled injuries and a crowded backcourt that featured “Downtown” Freddy Brown and fan favorite Slick Watts. Oleynick hinted that race might have played a factor in his limited opportunities.

As an interesting postscript to the book, the trio ended up back around their hometown. McLeod became a longtime coach at Bridgeport Central High School. Luckett worked corporate gigs but now helps Oleynick with basketball clinics.

Still chasing the game.