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

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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.