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.