Thursday, February 7, 2013

Basketball Diplomacy

China caught on to Dr. James Naismith's game faster than any other
country outside North America.

Naismith is credited with inventing basketball in 1891. Some historians have pointed to 1895 as the year that YMCA proselytizers introduced the sport to rural China. Max Exner, a missionary who learned at the right hand of the good doctor, brought basketball to Beijing in 1908 as the country was in the last throes of the Qing dynasty.

Hoops took hold immediately and has been a part of China's culture ever since. It survived the rise of Communism in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, when the country went insular and the United States cut off contact.

The “ping-pong diplomacy” of 1971 helped thaw the icy Sino-American relationship, clearing the way for Richard Nixon's visit the next year.

With China partially opened to the U.S, there also came some “basketball diplomacy” in 1973: A group of men’s college players became the first Americans to play a team competition in China. An amateur women's team from John F. Kennedy College also joined the trip.

Gene Bartow of Memphis State coached the U.S. men's team, which toured China for three weeks and played three games.

The top players were a wiry and scraggly haired George Karl, fresh off setting the UNC single-season assist record with 192, and Quinn Buckner, a young Indiana marvel who played basketball for Bob Knight and football for Lee Corso.

Other future pros on the U.S. team included Ricky Kelley, Kevin Grevey and Alvan Adams.
The trip included a televised game at the Capital Gymnasium in Beijing on June 16, 1973. It was attended by Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong.

The theme of the event, as noted by TV broadcaster Dick Enberg and later in a Sports Illustrated article, was "friendship first, competition second."

That sentiment was established immediately, with both teams greeting each other effusively and the players marching across the court together with their hands held high.

The early action was ragged with several foul calls. But, in keeping with the spirit of the game, after each whistle a player would raise his hand and acknowledge the foul.

The Chinese team played like it hadn't seen much of the modern game, dutifully running its plays and going through all the passing progressions. Still, China had some solid mid-range shooters like Chang Ta-Wei, who finished with a game-high 17 points.

The U.S. team, which hadn't practiced together much before the trip, took some time to get its bearings. China took leads of 11-10, 13-12 and 15-14.

But Karl began picking apart the Chinese defense as the U.S. went on an 8-0 run to establish control. It's likely that China had never seen a player with Karl's quickness and ball-handling.

The U.S. won in a rout, 88-59, as Karl had 16 points and at least 10 assists.

But China had been thrust into basketball modernity. The country became part of the global game and devoted more resources to the sport as the government loosened the reins on the economy.

The game that had intrigued China in the early 20th century grew at an accelerated rate, with Wang ZhiZhi making it to the NBA in 2001. A year later came the country’s high point in hoops — Yao Ming selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Falling Stars

It’s a common refrain for anyone talking about NBA history: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the league when they entered in 1979-’80.

In this light, the 1980 NBA All-Star Game, played at the Capitol Centre in Landover, Md., can be seen as a historical crossroads.

There were still plenty of stars that carried the basketball in the 1970s like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, George Gervin and Elvin Hayes. There were fascinating characters from that decade like World B. Free and Kermit Washington.

Bird and Johnson were the hyped rookies playing in their first All-Star Game, heralds of a new era.

Then there were the players that eventually were lost in the darkness. Cocaine was ravaging professional sports in the late ’70s and early ’80s, hoovering up promising careers.

Look at some of the names on the Eastern Conference’s all-star team in 1980: John Drew, “Fast” Eddie Johnson and Micheal Ray Richardson.

Drew and Eddie Johnson were teammates on an Atlanta Hawks team that was brimming with talent and coached by the hard-driving Hubie Brown. Rugged big man Dan Roundfield, who scored 18 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in the 1980 All-Star Game, also starred on those teams.

Drew was drafted in 1974 out of Gardner-Webb, which surprisingly has sent four players to the NBA. He scored 32 points in his first NBA game. One of the game’s greatest gunners in a freewheeling era, he never averaged less than 19 points per game in his first seven seasons with the Hawks.

Clashes with Brown led to Drew being traded to the Utah Jazz in 1982. A stint in rehab followed, then after several drug tests he was banned from the NBA in 1986. Charles Barkley, another small-town Alabama legend, said in 2002 that Drew lives in Houston and drives a cab.

Eddie Johnson came to the Hawks in 1977 and, despite competing for shots with Drew, averaged 18.5 points per game in 1979-’80 and a career-high 19.1 in ’80-’81. His fall from grace nearly mirrors Drew’s: rehab in 1986 and then a suspension by the NBA in 1986-’87.

What followed is one of the darkest post-NBA lives. Johnson compiled a lengthy rap sheet and was convicted in 2008 of some gruesome molestation charges. He is in prison facing life without parole.

Richardson’s story is better known, spending his early years with the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets and being the subject of a good-but-uneven 2000 TNT documentary narrated by Chris Rock.

Frequently compared to Magic Johnson, Richardson drew a cult following but then followed the same downward spiral of Eddie Johnson and Drew. Richardson was banned by the NBA in 1986 and has since played and coached in U.S. and European minor leagues.

But at the 1980 All-Star Game, those three players still seemed to be in full possession of their talents.

In the third quarter of a close game, East coach Billy Cunningham — and his whip-smart assistants Chuck Daly and Jack McMahon — put out a lineup of Drew, Eddie Johnson, Richardson, Bird and rookie Bill Cartwright.

Cartwright’s rebounding plus the versatile talents of the other four players sparked the East.

Richardson, with his smooth game, stroked back-to-back 18-footers. He went backdoor on Paul Westphal, got a pass from Drew and then dumped a great pass to Cartwright underneath the basket.

Bird tipped a pass to Richardson, who threw a long pass to a streaking Johnson. Bird also had a beautiful, leaping baseball pass to Richardson. Johnson, who finished with 22 points on 11-for-16 shooting, was abusing the West’s Otis Birdsong.

Broadcasters Brent Musburger and Bill Russell gushed over the caliber of play. That East lineup played the majority of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, building a 17-point lead.

Eventually, West coach Lenny Wilkens went big with Jack Sikma and Abdul-Jabbar and the East stars were dimmed.

The West forced overtime and, while Eddie Johnson got a bucket in the extra five minutes, the star that put the finishing touches on the East’s 144-136 victory was Bird.

The Celtics rookie hit two jumpers, including the first three-pointer in an NBA All-Star Game, and had one of the highlights of the game by tapping an offensive rebound to Gervin for a reverse layup.

Bird was definitely part of the league’s future. Drew, Johnson and Richardson were soon to burn out.