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.