Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sizing Up The Madness: NBA Playoffs Round 2 Preview

I'm feeling intensely conflicted about today's basketball-lessness. (Shut up, it's a word.) On one hand, any day without hoops loses significant points in the fun-and-exciting department. On the other, I may need a towel, a cold shower, and a good rest after round one. I'm struggling and failing to recall a time when so much lunacy and so many theatrics have unfolded in so brief a period of time. A quick recap:

*Chris Paul exploded for one of the great playoff performances we've ever witnessed.
27-15-13. Uh ... a point guard grabbed 13 boards while doing all of that, too? What?!?!?!?!?

*Brandon Roy hopped in a Delorean and tossed us a throwback gem.

*Kevin Durant made Denver look silly. A lot.

*The Hawks gained revenge for last year's humiliation by eliminating the Magic.

*A young Memphis squad went from fringe afterthought to "Holy %#%$!!!!" in record time. (Also, we may have seen a heroic last stand for the boys from the Alamo.)

*Derrick Rose was, well, himself.

*The Heat put it together on the postseason stage. Against Philly, but still.

*The Celtics got their mojo back, especially Rajon Rondo.

*The Mavs thumbed their collective noses at all the "soft" talk of playoffs past.

*Oh yeah, and Kobe posterized dudes on a bum ankle. Twice.

Round one was a whirlwind of breathtaking performances, unlikely heroics, and the first real sign, as exemplified by the Grizzlies/Spurs series, of a monumental (and generational) changing of the NBA guard that is either arriving as I type or is just over the horizon. The best part: starting now, we get to find out which it is.

Without further ado, the round two preview:

Eastern Conference Semis.

Boston Celtics/Miami Heat. This almost feels like a battle for the soul of basketball philosophy. Two diametrically opposed teams are putting their methodologies and assets to the test. Veterans vs. (relative) Youth. Homegrown Chemistry vs. Manufactured Excellence. In the battle of the whiteboards, Boston has a definitive edge. I haven't seen anything from Erik Spoelstra all year that would make me think he's in Doc Rivers' class in terms of adjustments, drawing plays up out of timeouts, or anything else. The Celtics also have a demonstrable (read: HYPER-MASSIVE) advantage at point guard. If he's on his game, Rajon Rondo will eat Mike Bibby alive. However, Boston's post-Perkins-weakened interior is a concern. Joel Anthony may not exactly be D12, but he's no slouch, and KG will be too busy with Chris Bosh to give Anthony much thought in the paint, leaving the task to Jermaine O'Neal, Nenad Kristic, or, if he's actually healthy, Shaq. None of those options are particularly appealing. The real fun, of course, is who guards who when LBJ and Dwayne Wade square off against Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Throughout his career, Pierce has done reasonably well defending James one-on-one, and Rondo had a brief but successful defensive outing against him earlier this year, but Allen simply can't keep up with Wade. Like, at all. The C's have some of the best help defense in the league, and they'll need every ounce to try and contain Miami's duel threats. This is going to be hard-fought, tooth-and-nail hoops wire to wire, but I believe Boston has enough left in the tank, thanks to a nice rest after sweeping the Knicks, to prevail. Celtics in 7.

Atlanta Hawks/Chicago Bulls. The Hawks got here by eliminating an unbalanced and unlucky Magic squad who simply couldn't give Dwight Howard enough help. It's rare if ever that a bench player determines a team's destiny, but if we learned anything from round one, it's this: as Jamal Crawford goes, so go the Hawks. When Crawford is contributing meaningfully off the bench, as he did in all four Atlanta victories, the Hawks take on an added dimension. Of course, no matter how great their sixth man is playing, ATL still has to hope Joe Johnson can play consistently, and that Josh Smith can curb some of his more undesirable tendencies and focus only on what he can do well on the floor. The Bulls took out the lowly Pacers to advance, but they have to be concerned about how much trouble Indy gave them. Coach Thibs' vaunted defense was extremely patchy in stretches, and the Bulls held actual leads for only a small fraction of total game clock in the series, though it was the fraction that mattered most. Regardless of the condition of Carlos Boozer's injured toe, Al Horford is going to destroy him in the post, so that's one advantage for the Hawks. But of course, they have to try and contain Derrick Rose, and they may have lost their best hope of doing that if Kirk Hinrich misses a significant part of the series due to an injury he suffered in Atlanta's clinching victory over Orlando. No matter how badly his ankle is feeling, Rose should be able to carve up Atlanta's lackluster defense at will, and that will be the difference. Bulls in 5. (Bonus prediction: Number of altercations between Joakim Noah and Zaza Pachulia in this series: at least 10.)

Western Conference Semis.

Dallas Mavericks/Los Angeles Lakers. Finally, at long last, we get a Dirk vs. Kobe showdown in the postseason. It seems nigh-impossible that it hasn't happened before, but that's the NBA for you. Well, it's here now. I apparently had far too much faith in Portland and far too little in the Mavs when I predicted a Blazers win in round one, so consider my plate of crow respectfully eaten and washed down with a slice of humble pie. Leaving aside Kobe's formidable skills for a moment, let's focus on the battle in the paint. Tyson Chandler against Andrew Bynum seems like an almost criminally unfair matchup. Chandler averages about 60% of his normal production when facing the Lakers. Dirk Nowitzki against Pau Gasol is always an intriguing battle, even if Pau didn't look himself against the Hornets, but Dirk clearly has the advantage there. He'll be looking to disprove everyone who has made emphatic declarations about his "un-clutchness" in the past, and of course, he can score at will. In spite of that, L.A. has too much size, too much length, and too much physicality inside for the Mavs to handle, especially with Caron Butler out for the series. They should clean up on the glass, which might prove a sizable advantage. Dallas holds the edge in the Jason Kidd/Derek Fisher matchup at PG, but Ron Artest should give Shawn Marion, and anyone else Phil Jackson chooses to put him on defensively, fits. Look for him to spend a little time trying to slow Dirk down, as well. I still feel like Dallas has a slight edge on the bench, but that's not insurmountable. In the end, the series boils down to how lackadaisical the Lakers are feeling from game to game. If they get complacent, Dirk and co. will make them pay. Of course, L.A. also has that Kobe Bryant fellow, whom I understand is pretty good at basketball. If he's dialed in and doesn't go overboard with the do-it-all-myself approach, L.A. moves on to the Western Finals. Lakers in 6.

Memphis Grizzlies/Oklahoma City Thunder. Remember those old Warner Bros. cartoons where Wile E. Coyote would hatch some hair-brained scheme that involved strapping himself to a huge rocket and lighting the fuse? That's what watching this series should be like. I hope. (I had predicted similar fireworks for the OKC/Denver series and the darn thing fizzled, so I'm treading a little more lightly with the definitive statements this time around.) We can throw out the regular season head-to-heads as weather vanes here. Both teams are not what they were back then, literally and psychologically. OKC's new Perkins/Ibaka back court is certainly more daunting defensively than previous incarnations, but against Marc Gasol and the irrepressible Zach Randolph, the Thunder are going to lose the battle around the rim, mostly because Z-Bo and Gasol can actually generate potent offense inside. Memphis' Mike Conley actually fairs pretty well against wiz-kid PG Russell Westbrook, but when Russ is on his game, playing smart team basketball, and not suffering from the rare genetic disorder that makes him confuse himself intermittently with Michael Jordan, he's pretty much unstoppable. Thabo Sefolosha and Sam Young are a wash at the 2 offensively, as both are defensive guards at heart. Allen is a physical, savvy defender, but of course offensively he's no match for Kevin Durant. Speaking of KD, he's the wild card, or more accurately, how Lionel Hollins chooses to defend him is. Hollins will likely dial up some rotations in which bot Allen and Shane Battier are on the floor handling Durant and Westbrook, as both make smart switches on pick-and-rolls and fight through screens well, in addition to their one-on-one defensive skills. The benches here are pretty much even; OKC with a more set second unit, Memphis with a more disparate but more talented group. In the end, Durant and Westbrook are forces of nature for which the Griz don't have a real answer. Thunder in 7.

Bouncing Into Graceland.

Today, the Mississippi delta is, indeed, shining like a National guitar. When the final buzzer sounded last night, the crowd at FedEx Forum erupted, showering wave upon wave of love upon their heretofore beleaguered Memphis Grizzlies.

Years of mediocre play, Pau Gasol trade jokes, and ignoble playoff humiliations were washed away like so much delta mud last night by the inexorable flow of Tony Allen's unstoppable motor, Shane Battier's veteran grit, Marc Gasol's paint-banging acumen, and, of course, Zach Randolph. The man called Z-Bo, who had been bounced around the league like a pinball before landing in Memphis in 2009, has found himself a home. You could see it on his face after the game; a huge, punch-drunk grin soaking up the adoration of a fan base who couldn't care less about his past issues. He's here now, and he's one of their own. Last night, he had every reason to be smiling, and to believe that a large quotient of those cheers were reserved for him alone. Despite the pressure of the moment, he was absolutely relentless, tallying 11 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, and a monstrous 31 points.

After opening an early 14-point lead, Memphis held serve fro most of the game. Every time San Antonio looked to be generating momentum, the Griz found somebody to stifle it. The struggling Greivis Vasquez kicked in 11 points off the bench, and Darrel Arthur had one huge block and a thunderous alley-oop jam that sent the place into near-hysterics. But the veteran Spurs weren't going gentle in to the humid Memphis night. Their championship-laden core trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan combined for 51 points and nine assists, and they got additional help from Antonio McDyess (10) and their young reserves, who gave them 30 points off the bench. Despite getting killed 43-32 on the glass, The Spurs just kept hanging around, and Ginobili's past-half-court heave at the third quarter buzzer looked like one more improbable shot by the Argentinian that might spark
one more equally-improbable comeback.

99% of the fourth quarter belonged to Z-Bo, who put up 17 points in the final frame. Shifting into fifth gear, he unleashed a hailstorm of floaters, put-backs, jumpers, and hooks in the paint that left San Antonio dizzy. Even when the Spurs managed to claw their way to an 80-79 lead midway through the period, they looked beaten. Like a boxer who refuses to stop the fight, they were going to reel their way to the end, a proud and dignified team not about to concede the inevitable. (I'm not going to burn space on a eulogy for the San Antonio dynasty here, as plenty of people are already performing the media's version of last rites. Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich don't want to talk about those kinds of implications yet, and we ought to respect their wishes, no matter what our eyes are telling us.)

As I said: the 4th was 99% Randolph's. The other 1%: Tony Allen exemplifying the kind of attitude and grit we love to see in the playoffs. Allen caught an errant outlet pass at half-court, and the Spurs' Matt Bonner, rushing over to defend, knocked him into the scorer's table. As teammates and sideline personnel came over to help him up, Allen waved everybody off, his gestures and his face saying plainly: "I don't need help. We don't need help. I'm getting up, and we're going to put these guys away." It was a great moment, the perfect encapsulation of Memphis' blue-collar mentality and spirit. In the end, that spirit glared brightly out from the scoreboard: a 99-91 victory and a ticket to round two.

It was a historic first round for Memphis. The team chalked up its first playoff victory, its first postseason series victory, and in the process became just the second 8th-seeded squad to advance since the first round went to a best-of-seven format. The Grizzlies now face the unenviable task of battling the Oklahoma City Thunder in round two, whose youthful legs present a completely different challenge. Given the tenor of these playoffs thus far, we can likely expect another epic series. Right now, the Griz are probably all business and preparation. Their minds are already on and in OKC, but after last night, I'd bet their feet are still ten feet off of Beale.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Draft Day Story Time.

Happy Draft Day! With the black cloud of CBA negotiations hanging over the NFL's biggest off season event, how's about a little story time with Uncle Trav?

If it registered on your radar at all, it's been long since relegated to the backwoods of memory. On March 10, 2003, the Dixie Chicks were opening their "Top Of The World" tour in England, when singer Natalie Maines, speaking about the then-nascent Iraq war, told the crowd:

"Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." (Where the band hails from.)

The backlash from country music, whose listenership is largely Republican and pro-war, was instantaneous. The immensely popular band was blacklisted by country radio across the nation, and disavowed by many of their own fans. Nashville essentially severed all ties. At the time, the firestorm of reaction struck me not only as absurdly disproportionate and ill-reasoned, but also as an incredibly poor business decision by the country music industry.

Most of the nation regards country as backwoods, backwards, and above all, deeply uncool. Outside of the Midwest and the Bible Belt, its fans are scarce. The Dixie Chicks were a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the genre to expand its fan base on a grand scale. Three attractive, hyper-talented women who sing catchy tunes and actually play their own instruments (a rarity in country.) A marketing department couldn't have cooked up a better formula in a lab. And the Chicks were already bridging the gap. Their songs were getting pop radio rotation, and charting not just in Billboard Magazine's Country category, but on the Top 40 list as well. They were pulling down Grammys left and right, and their assertive, feminist anthems were successfully battling for the affections of fourteen-year old girls normally obsessed with N'Sync. And of course, guys thought they were sassy and smokin' hot. It was a rare chance for country to use a group to pull more listeners in and turn them on to its other top artists, to make itself relevant and big-time, as it had done (kind of) with Garth Brooks a generation earlier. (That's exactly what happened with me. I used to hate contemporary country, until a friend got me the Dixie Chicks' first album as a gag gift one Christmas. I got hooked.)

Everything was fine and dandy, both the band and the industry were breaching the normally unassailable walls of Pop Music, until Mrs. Maines decided to voice her thoughts about the war and the President who was spearheading it. The reaction of the country industry and its fans broke the irony scale. See, more than any other music, patriotism plays a conscious and important role in country's ideology. (You know that song "God Bless The USA"? Country tune.) Yet here were legions of people crucifying their own, simply because they exercised their basic, Constitutional right of free speech and opinion. Instead of non-country fans using the Dixie Chicks as a bridge to discover more of Nashville's offerings, they embraced the Chicks but shunned the musical community that denounced them so vehemently. Because of a misguided moral high ground, country alienated many of the very people it could have used the band to reach, and insured that the Dixie Chicks would never align themselves again with the Nashville royalty they were once so close with. It was hypocritical, nonsensical behavior, and it cost the industry who knows how many new fans and how much revenue down the line. In denying the patriotic values so often espoused in its music, country put what should have been a genre-crossing cash cow out to pasture. To belabor the barnyard metaphor, Nashville loaded both barrels, took aim, and blew the golden goose to smithereens. "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free!" apparently did not include the First Amendment as pertains to unpopular (to your fans) political views.

Did that parable remind you of anything? Like, say ... an equally hypocritical and irrational group of NFL owners during a lockout?

When judge Susan Nelson lifted the lockout two days ago, many players attempted to show up for work. However, on arrival at their teams' practice facilities, they found that the owners had, in lieu of a legal lockout, adopted a literal one. No weight rooms or treadmills for you, guys. Access denied. It was the latest and most petty transgression by the owners, but hardly the biggest one.

This whole unfortunate train wreck has been a parade of ego, greed, and false premises. After a season of bluster and rhetoric from the league regarding CTE and concussions, the inanity of owners pushing for an 18-game season is staggering. How can you hand out fines and suspensions for illegal hits, all in the name of player safety, and then coldly suggest that your athletes subject themselves to more punishment because more games mean more TV revenue and ticket sales? The owners counter the question by arguing that they'll accommodate the additional games by shortening the preseason, but there are two things wrong with that. First, coaching staffs need those four full preseason games. Rosters and depth charts have to be sussed out and solidified. Playbooks and packages need that crucial period of experimentation before the team can find its identity. Halve the learning process, and inferior play will be the result. Second, I've watched considerably fewer preseason games than I have regular ones, but the sample size is large enough to tell you this: the disparity in intensity levels is substantial. The punishment and injury risks elevate when the win column starts counting and everyone is going flat-out on every down, so claiming that the players won't be exposed to more potential damage by reducing the preseason in favor of two more actual games is bunk.

Despite revenue streams that have grown every year, the owners claim they're losing money, and that they need a $1 billion-augmented slice of the NFL pie in order to stay afloat. This statement has sparked widespread incredulity, but since the players and most fans aren't accounting majors, I'd be willing to believe that such is the case ... if we had any proof. Yet the owners are obstinately refusing to open their books and demonstrate where the losses are coming from. I'm not saying the NFLPA is blameless here. Certainly, the CBA needs to be restructured to prevent unproven rookies from banking $50 million contracts, and if the league as a whole can benefit from the players taking a little less, they ought to concede it. (Also, shame on them for attempting to dissuade the incoming draft class from actually attending tonight's draft. I understand the need to demonstrate player solidarity, but these young men shouldn't be deprived of their moment in the sun, a confirmation and realization of their dreams.) I believe the players need to give a little ground too, but as long as the owners refuse to provide evidence of their supposed fiscal difficulties, they majority of the blame lays at their feet.

Finally, the owners are shooting themselves in the foot as regards the draft. Without the benefit of the normal free agency period to fill holes in their rosters, teams will be playing a higher-stakes game of roulette with their picks than usual, drafting without knowing what current players they might acquire later. It's not an insurmountable challenge for front offices, but it could potentially harm a number of franchises. It's already a gambling scenario, and the owners are doing nothing more than hurting themselves by hampering their teams' ability to draft as wisely as possible.

Ultimately, I think the CBA will be hammered out, and we'll have a season to enjoy next year, albiet a possibly shortened one. Compromises will be reached, and at least quasi-satisfaction will be had by both parties. The question is: how much fan backlash will be incurred along the way? Like country music, football is too popular to die, but by behaving so foolishly, the NFL owners are putting that old golden goose in harm's way.

Wait For It ... And, There It Is

Before the playoffs tipped off, my roommate asked me how I thought my beloved Hawks might fair this postseason. Having watched them play choppy, undisciplined basketball for much of the season, and knowing full well that Larry Drew has pretty much made a mockery of the term "head coach", I replied with a less-than-glowing assessment. In fact, my words were downright dripping with an unsubtle mixture of vitriol and melancholy. After all, we were going up against Orlando again. The team that swept us by a cumulative 101 points in round 2 last year. "Aw, come on," my buddy said. "Have a little faith, man!"

And for four games, I tried, I really did. When Jamal Crawford suddenly turned into Steve Kerr off the bench, and we allowed Dwight Howard to impose his will but were STILL winning games, I started getting some zany ideas. The Magic couldn't shoot, and we couldn't miss. In a blink, we were up three-one. We could do this, right?

And then, last night, the other shoe dropped with a momentum-swinging, confidence-killing thud.

The NBA: Where "Crap, I knew it!" Happens.

As evidenced by its having been relegated to NBA TV, this has been an ugly mess of a series, the antithesis of a marquee matchup. Sadly, the Hawks redefined "ugly mess" in game five. Josh Smith and Al Horford were at least respectable in defeat, combining for 31 points and 25 boards, but the rest of Atlanta's roster was a wasteland of production on both ends of the floor. We knew Jamal Crawford, our bench rock star and life support in games 1-4, was probably regressing to the mean at some point, but "to the mean" would have been a lot better than the 8 points and 1 rebound he put up last night. When Marvin Williams is your second-highest scorer in a game (12 pts.), it bodes ill for your chances. Depressing stat of the night: the only Hawks with a +/- on the good side of nil all played 8 or less minutes. Everyone else: abysmal.

The defining play of the game didn't seem like much when it happened, but in retrospect, it was an encapsulation of the Hawks' myriad problems. The Magic already had a commanding lead, on their way to an eventual 101-76 rout, when reserve J.J. Redick checked in. He's been ice-cold all series. A glacier of uselessness. You know how he snapped out of the Ice Age? He drove the lane. J.J. Redick, the one-dimensional licensed sniper, barreled into the paint, blew by everyone, and banked in a reverse layup. J.J. REDICK!!!! Nobody on the Hawks collapsed the interior on the play, no help defense came over. He took it to the hoop unmolested and nailed the shot, kick-starting Orlando's thus-far silent bench and finding his own stroke in the process. How did Atlanta let it happen? Because they'd already quit. Sure, they were in a hole, but there was plenty of clock left. The shoreline was still in sight, but they chose to drown rather than keep swimming for it. That moment was indicative of what we've seen all year from this team. Let's be honest, when J.J. Redick makes that play on you, you've lost any and all claim to complimentary adjectives regarding your pluckiness or ability to handle adversity.

If this were a different team, or I were a less rational fan, the loss would be easier to shake off. "One game at a time" and such. But the heart of the matter, as exemplified by the Redick play, was voiced succinctly last night by the opposition. In a post-game interview, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, referring to the Magic's perimeter shooters finally getting it going after four games of near-total ineffectiveness, said "this isn't an aberration. We've been doing this for four years. The first four games were the aberration." I'm inclined to agree with him, and not just vis-a-vis Orlando's gunning acumen. The Hawks played above themselves for the past four games; last night was closer to reality. After a hopeful respite, the lack of identity and the rudderless coaching we've witnessed all season surfaced with a vengeance. Too much glorified pick-up play, too little coherence. Yes, Orlando shot 11 of 26 from deep, and there's nothing the Hawks, who don't close well on outside shooters, could have done about that. And yes, Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford will probably play better tomorrow at Phillips Arena (I hope), but the fundamental problems that were so glaringly evident last night aren't going away.

It's true that the Hawks could still win this series. Even with the tectonic momentum shift Orlando perpetrated last night, Atlanta just needs to pull out one more win to advance. But if we can't muster any fight against J.J. Redick, what happens if we're trailing the Bulls with the tornado that is Derrick Rose on the floor in round 2? Nothing good, that's what. Game 5 was, unfortunately, "Hawks basketball" in its most recently prevalent incarnation. Their only shot is to jettison that indifference and carelessness before it's too late. Problem: this ain't that kind of team, Larry Drew ain't that kind of coach, and the whole thing looks pretty futile right now. Sigh, at least we can watch incredible basketball somewhere for the next two months, even if it's nowhere near the ATL.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Forget What You Know

Tonight was one of those all-too rare occasions where I was reminded why I love sports this much. It's easy to grow cynical when things like the on-going NFL lockout demonstrate just how selfish and petulant people can be when squabbling over amounts of money that would make Scrooge McDuck blush. Or when something as callous and ill-conceived as "The Decision" happens. Or when already-talented baseball players defile the game by taking PEDs. So I'd like to thank Brandon Roy for this evening's display of "Holy #&$^%!" basketball.

I've actually been waiting for something like this since the playoffs started. I've been salivating over them since the matchups were set, and for the most part, they've been every bit as stellar as I'd dared to hope. It's been one jaw-dropping performance after another. Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, LeBron James, the list goes on. That said, we officially got our first transcendent "I will remember watching this for the rest of my life because it was bigger than the game" moment of the 2011 postseason tonight.

There's an old saying that in order to truly learn, you have to forget what you know. Well, Brandon Roy forgot everything. He forgot his mistake of publicly complaining about a lack of minutes a few days ago. He forgot that what was once destined to be a brilliant career has been considerably dulled in its luster by repeated injuries. Most importantly, he forgot that NBA players with two surgically repaired knees aren't supposed to turn into surgeons themselves. After a truly abysmal start to the game, Portland trailed the Dallas Mavericks 67-44 in the third quarter when Roy started asserting his will and taking a scalpel to the Mavs. Hitting improbable jumpers, driving the lane with abandon, and ignoring what was probably a dire strain on his knees, the man simply refused to quit. When he got rolling, you could feel the momentum shift through the TV. It didn't matter that he couldn't elevate as he once did on shots, or that his first step was diminished, Roy just started burying buckets. A whole heaping bunch of them. Really, it was kind of like watching Jordan in the '98 finals again. He hit shot after shot after shot, including a beautiful step-back jumper to narrow the gap to 77-70 and a killer finish at the rim to make it 80-74. He dished out savvy assists to teammates and traded dueling baskets with Dallas' Shawn Marion. He was flat-out unstoppable. And then the real magic began.

With 1:06 on the game clock, it already felt like his game, but Roy's 4-point play here was a certifiable "goosebump" moment. Foot on the gas, game on the line, he drained a three and drew a foul on the shot. The ensuing free throw tied the game at 82 all. The Portland crowd, already at a fever pitch, absolutely came unhinged. I'd guess decibel levels in the building were something like what you'd experience standing directly in front of a jet engine. After a dubious decision by the refs to overturn an out-of-bounds call in Portland's favor, the Blazers came back up the floor, and everyone watching knew exactly where the ball was going, in whose hands the fate of the game rested ...

And Brandon Roy nailed it. Old-school Tim Duncan-esque banker off the glass, cool as you please. The final basket to cap an epic night of work. 84-82 Portland lead. Jason Kidd missed a 3 for Dallas, and then Jason Terry did the same as the clock ran out. Final: 84-82 Blazers. Roy's teammate Gerald Wallace after the game: "When people ask me what did I do in the fourth quarter, I'll tell them I stood in the corner and watched The Brandon Roy Show." Truth.

There's an episode of the short-lived TV show "Sports Night" in which a character utters the line, "There's nothing like seeing a guy realize he's not quite done yet." Well, there really, really isn't. Tonight Brandon Roy, he of the unfair injuries and the uncertain career, proved pretty clearly that he's not quite done yet. He may spend the balance of his career playing bench minutes, he may never be the player he could have been. But for this evening, he chose to forget those things, and generate some historical, incredible fireworks instead. I'll never forget watching it happen. Thanks, Brandon.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Bonds Of Verity.

In a recent USA Today column, writer Christine Brennan made the case that Bud Selig needed to take the action of stripping Barry Bonds of the all-time homer mark and return it to Hammerin' Hank Aaron, and strip Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa of their "records" that shattered Roger Maris' single-season homerun total of 61. While some of Brennan's rhetoric came across as a bit extreme, she did bring up the entirely valid point that when Olympic events are found to have been compromised by PED's, the IOC simply strips the offender of the record and the medal. She said nothing about Hall-Of-Fame implications, or about what should or should not be done with other players either convicted or suspected of steroid use. Mainly she was calling out the Commish on the premise that milestones like the ones in question ought to be in the history books under their untainted (and in her eyes rightful) owners.

It's amazing that this angle of the Steroid Era hasn't gotten more play. While I recall a mild quotient of public outcry when the records were actually broken, it seems like much of the ensuing press and op-ed coverage has revolved around protecting the sanctity of Cooperstown, as opposed to the records themselves. I'd like to salute Christine Brennan for her suggestions, and humbly add that she didn't go quite far enough in offering an all-encompassing solution to MLB's struggle with the historical placement of its most inglorious period.

Of the primary four North-American sports, baseball is the one where records matter the most. In the NFL, NHL, and NBA, the record setters are heavily dependent on their teammates to reach their lofty historical aeries. John Stockton's prolific assist totals probably don't happen without Karl Malone to feed the rock to inside. Joe Montana's greatness probably looks a little less great if the 49ers had never drafted Jerry Rice. But in baseball, especially with hitting and pitching records, it's up to individuals to define themselves. There's no such thing as an "assist" on a homerun, no offensive linemen opening a seam for the fastball to reach the plate. And because of this uniqueness, despite being a "team game", baseball's records are the most well-known and recognized in sports, even by casual or non-fans. Allow me to demonstrate.

Remember when Brett Farve broke the record for consecutive NFL starts? Me neither. I honestly only know he holds that record because the media brought it up every time we had another will he/won't he come back scenario. How about Ray Allen breaking Reggie Miller's all-time three-point record? I do remember that, mostly because a) I'm a basketball junkie, b) it just happened this season, and c) I live in Boston where things like that swarm all local media and dominate barroom talk for about a week after they happen for a Beantown player. But unless you're a hoops fan, you probably barely registered it. (Some of my closest sports-addicted friends just shrugged. "Meh. Big deal.") By contrast, the media went psychotic when it was hyping and chronicling the McGwire/Sosa race to break Maris' record, and Bonds' chase of Aaron's. They did the same thing when Cal Ripken, Jr. finally broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive starts streak. It wasn't just ESPN and SI, either. The weeks leading up to those events were covered by every news organization in the western world, from CNN to CBS and everything in between. Put it this way: my mom isn't what you'd call a "student of the game" (though she is a fan), but when those various milestones were in jeopardy, she knew exactly what was going on, and how monumental it was.

Baseball's individual records resonate like nothing else. It's a phenomenon unique to that game and that game only. Despite what TV ratings and revenue numbers will tell you about the NFL having usurped the "National Pastime" throne, every sports fan over the age of fifteen could instantly identify the numbers 61 (Maris' single-season homer record), 755 (Hank Aaron's career homer total), and 56 (Joe DiMaggio's consecutive-game hit streak). Honestly, I don't even know what the final numbers were for Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa, and I don't care. As for the "legitimate" records, I didn't have to look any of those up. They're too indelibly ingrained in my fan-psyche. But I'd have to go to Google to tell you how many career TD's Jerry Rice caught, or how many Brett Favre threw, or how many goals Wayne Gretzky scored in the NHL, even though I know that those people are the all-time leaders in those categories. (I don't have to look up Kareem's all-time NBA point total of 38,387, but again: I'm an NBA junkie.) The point is, the great records of baseball, the ultimate hallmarks of individual dedication and skill in sports, continue to hold sway over the public imagination. They are symbols of what we can achieve at our best, when the confluence of talent, focus, and sheer force of will reaches its apex. They absolutely do not belong in the hands of charlatans and cheaters, no matter how brilliant their careers have shined. So here's what needs to happen:

First, Bud Selig and MLB need to adopt Christine Brennan's suggestion, and re-award the single-season and all-time long ball records to Maris and Aaron, respectively. In addition, Andy Pettitte's post-season victory record (19) needs to be rescinded and officially given to John Smoltz, who holds the second-highest mark at 15 playoff wins, since Pettitte has admitted to past steroid use. History owes these men their due, and they ought not be deprived because some already-great ballplayers decided they needed to improve themselves through dubious means a generation or three later.

And second: we need to let all of the cheaters, liars, and scoundrels into the Hall Of Fame. (Yes, this article has partially been a convoluted excuse to get to this point, but hopefully I've made some other salient arguments along the way.) Isn't Cooperstown supposed to be an evolving museum, a malleable shrine to the history of baseball? And we're going to leave most of a generation of players out of it because they cheated, despite impacting the game in hugely important ways?

Picture the following scenario: sometime in the next 10-15 years, I get married and have a kid. When he or she is old enough to have been imbued with a deep and abiding love of sports, and to exhibit the first vestiges of a legitimate attention span, we make our first trip to Cooperstown. We pass an enjoyable few days meandering about the place, soaking in all the moments, personalities, teams, and historical significance The good and the great. And the bad. (I'm looking at you, Ty Cobb.) We marvel at Jackie Robinson's courage, Nolan Ryan's dominance, and Lou Gehrig's spirit. We linger over old pictures of Murderer's Row and grainy video of Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard 'Round The World." We gaze in awe at Albert Pujols' career numbers, and admire accounts of the '04 Red Sox incredible breaking of an 86-year curse. And, of course, we reverently peruse the history of the Braves' 14 consecutive division titles. (I'm from Atlanta, deal with it.) On our way back to the car, I notice my child has an odd look. Face scrunched, deep in thought.

HK (Hypothetical Kid): Daddy, was baseball not very good when you were little?

Me: Um, it was actually great. I collected tons of baseball cards, which you're unfamiliar with, but trust me they were cool once. I went to games and cheered my heroes. I got a game ball from Roger Clemens one time.

HK: Who's Roger Clemens?

Me: He was one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.

HK: He wasn't in there.

Me (sighing): I know.

HK: Well, I was looking around. There's almost no one from when you were growing up. I just thought maybe the players were bad then, that's all.

Me: Well ... they weren't bad ballplayers, but a lot of them were bad men. (Insert long, rambling explanation of the Steroid Era here.)

If the current mentality regarding this issue holds, what you just read is a highly probable scenario. Presumably, real estate in Cooperstown is not so prohibitively expensive that MLB can't buy a little more. They ought to build a new wing on the Hall Of Fame for the Steroids Era. Explain exactly what happened, and why everything that transpired is suspect; but have the great players in there. And while we're embroiled in my imaginary scenario, let's put Pete Rose in too. His plaque can read like so: "One of the great competitors of the game, holder of the all-time hits record. Bet on games as a manager and disgraced himself and the sport." How hard is this?

And when all the exhibits are up in the new "Steroids" wing, just so I don't have to explain this whole mess to my future HK, here's one thing we make damn sure of: The career numbers of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Pettitte, A-Rod, and everyone else confirmed or highly suspected of cheating, are marked with huge, 159-point font that reads: INVALID. Roger Maris and Hammerin' Hank deserve nothing less.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Freight Train Comin'

If this were any other season in recent memory, I'd be opening an NBA playoffs preview with a line that read something like this: "Now that the interminable slog through the regular season is over, we can watch some relevant, exciting basketball for once." Not this year. The 2010-2011 NBA has been so entertaining, so galvanizing, that the season has been a delight to imbibe. We've born witness to the ascension of Derrick Rose, Coach Thibs, and the Bulls. We've had the most significant/insane trade deadline ever, which made Knicks basketball relevant again, imbued the Nets with a solid core (provided D-Will stays), and altered much of what we thought we knew about the Western Conference beforehand. It's been a year's worth of highlight-packaged rim destruction from Blake Griffin, and an insane double-double streak from Kevin Love. Oh yeah, and we all got to change our minds 43,268 times on how good the Heat actually are. It's been the best appetizer in years, and the main course is going to be electric, unpredictable, and delicious. Hold on folks, freight train a'comin'...

Round One: East

Bulls/Pacers. I'm glad Indiana finally got back to the playoffs, but let's be realistic here; they're going to get crushed. D-Rose, Boozer, and Noah are going to rip through this series with nary a hiccup. In fact, the Bulls can rest pretty much anyone with even a slight injury and ensure a fully healthy squad for round 2, and still steamroll Indy. Sorry, Pacers fans. Bulls in 4.

Heat/Sixers. We need a new award just so we can give one to Doug Collins for this season. He didn't quite deserve COY honors with Thibs, Pop, George Karl, Nate McMillan, et al. in the mix, but driving a mediocre, disjointed Philly squad to a .500 season and a 7th seed needs to be lauded somehow. The Shaka Smart "How The Hell Did You Do That?" Memorial Trophy, maybe? I actually think the Sixers match up pretty well with the Heat. Iggy will put up some gritty resistance on the perimeter, and Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand are going to hang against a weak Heat interior, with Thaddeus Young providing heart. However, LBJ and D-Wade are just too much firepower to cope with, especially if Bosh is operating at a high level and giving them a third option. The Heat will shorten their weak rotation and simply overwhelm Philly. Miami in 5.

Celtics/Knicks. This won't be the most fun match up to watch, but it might be the most intriguing. Melo and Amare are capable of unleashing havoc at any time, and Chauncey Billups has playoff cred dripping from his pores. Unfortunately for NYC, I think the Celtics are going to shake off their post-Perkins lethargy and dial in for the postseason. Rondo, Ray Allen, and The Truth have been through this before, and they'll be ready to roll now that the stakes are real. And don't think for a second that KG won't be in "destroyer" mode. It's going to be a dirty, up-and-down series, but Boston's demonstrable superiority on the defensive end will be the difference. C's in 6.

Magic/Hawks. In the tradition of analysts everywhere, it's trendy to pick one monumental first-round upset. Sadly, my beloved Hawks are not that team. Sure, they were 3-1 against Orlando this year, and Jason Collins is one of the few players in the league capable of legitimately disrupting Dwight Howard's game. Ideally, this should be a vengeance rematch to erase the cumulative 100-point humiliation of last year, but the Hawks ... they're listless, despondent, and utterly devoid of any spark whatsoever. If Orlando's perimeter shooting is even semi-functional, this is going to be short and ugly. Magic in 5.

Round One: West.

Spurs/Grizzlies. Memphis inexplicably tanked the end of the season to avoid the Lakers under the mistaken belief that they could beat San Antonio. A veteran team like the Spurs doesn't really need bulletin-board material to motivate them, but you can bet they're filing this away nonetheless. Pop is far to savvy a postseason coach, and even if Manu is hurt and Duncan isn't what he once was, I don't think the 0-for-playoff-lifetime Griz stand a chance, despite a decently challenging roster. Spurs in 5.

Lakers/Hornets. I really do feel bad for Chris Paul. If New Orleans had a healthy David West, they might make a good case for an upset here, but they don't. Regardless of Andrew Bynum's knees, Kobe, Pau, and co. have more than enough game to trounce an undermanned Hornets team. Lakers in 4.

Mavericks/Blazers. Everyone keeps picking this as a first round "upset." Question: at what point does universal opinion remove that tag from a deeper, better Blazers team. Brandon Roy is still capable of putting 20-ish good minutes on the floor every night, and LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, Marcus Camby, Wes Matthews, Andre Miller, Rudy Ferna ... well, that was going to be a proper sentence with a verb and everything, but look at that list of Portland players capable of contributing in big ways in crunch time. Who is Dallas throwing up against these guys? Jason Kidd? Jason Terry? Tyson Chandler? Yes, Dirk is still an incredible force, but he's got to be tired of carrying this team to 50-win seasons and getting bounced in round 1 every year. And he's going to be watching that movie again this year, poor guy. Blazers in 6.

Thunder/Nuggets. If you're not irrationally excited for this, you don't care about hoops. Hypothetical missives sent out after the trade deadline:

"Dear Mr. Ainge, thanks so much for gift wrapping a fortified interior and freeing up Serge Ibaka to play the 4. Perk is working out very nicely here. How are you doing with Jeff Green? Sincerely, Sam Presti."

"Dear Carmelo, thank you for being a waffling, NYC-or-nothing diva for most of the season. You drove up your asking price and got me a whole bunch of effort-giving, team-first, non-ball-stopping kids who play their hearts out every night and have been thrashing everybody since the All Star break. It's the team I always wanted. Hope you're enjoying New York. Sincerely, George Karl."

Even with the last two regular-season meetings pointing heavily towards OKC, this Denver team has come together in a remarkable way, and I don't think they're going down easy. This will be run-and-gun, high intensity basketball every single game. The difference here is that in the playoffs, you really do need "the guy" in crunch time, and Denver's by-committee approach to last-shot situations is simply not going to cut it against Durant and Westbrook. Thunder in 7.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Nature Of The Beast

I wanted to take some time and properly digest everything before I started banging on my keyboard in outrage. There are an awful lot of angles in play, and I didn't want to inadvertently gloss over any of them. In case you live under a rock, here's the situation:

During last night's NBA game against the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant was whistled for a technical foul by referee Bennie Adams. On returning to the Lakers' bench, Bryant appeared to shout a homophobic slur at Adams, which the TV cameras picked up, as TNT announcer Steve Kerr urged the cameras to move off of Bryant. I have a list a mile long of problems with many of the various reactions and viewpoints that have been voiced since the incident hit Sports Center last night, and just so you're forewarned and forearmed, a rant is forthcoming ...

On Scott Van Pelt's radio show this afternoon, he said that he didn't agree with or condone Kobe's using the slur, but that he believes that athletes in the arena, on the field, or wherever, when the game is in progress, should get a little leniency with their behavior. "The heat of battle," or some such. Now, to an extent, I agree with Van Pelt here. When the competitive juices are in full motion, and tensions are running high, it's a natural part of the game that athletes may be prone to uttering certain things that aren't generally heard in polite society. That's understandable, if a little unsavory. Here's where Van Pelt missed the mark, and missed it by a mile: there is a big, cavernous difference between dropping a profanity and what Kobe did. Frankly, if Kobe had called the ref a "sh*t head", or something along those lines, I wouldn't have a problem with it. That's the game, whether we like it or not. This brings me to my first problem.

The Human Rights Campaign on Bryant's slur: "Hopefully Mr. Bryant will recognize that as a person with such fame and influence, the use of such language not only offends millions of LGBT people around the world, but also perpetuates a culture of discrimination and hate that all of us, most notably Mr. Bryant, should be working to eradicate."

Why does it matter that he was on camera during a nationally televised sporting event? Or that he's a prominent public figure who is idolized and revered by millions? Does that make what he said more damning or shameful than if Joe Everyguy said it in a pickup game? It shouldn't. If you haven't learned that athletes aren't the most dependable or ideal role models for kids or society in general yet, you need an IV drip of common sense, stat. The level of exposure isn't the point. What happened is deeper and far more insidious than anything having to do with being a "role model." It's endemic of a fundamental problem with our society. The fact that anyone, anywhere, no matter how provoked or agitated, still thinks it's OK to toss out slurs like that, shows how far we still have to go. It's particularly a problem in the realm of male sports, where one displays dominance and machismo not just through playing the game, but via talking smack. Sadly, it's still common to demean an opponent's skills by uttering despicable slurs used to denigrate women and homosexuals. Most players would claim that they have no problems with females, gays, or other minorities, and if they call someone a "f****t" or a "little b****", that it's all part of the game, they didn't mean anything by it.

Bryant said as much in a statement issued today: "What I said last night should not be taken literally ... my actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period. The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone."

Really, Kobe? REALLY? We shouldn't "take it literally"?!?!?!?! So if a white player got T'd up and fired the N-word at a black ref, it'd be OK, then? After all, it was "out of frustration during the heat of the game." If he didn't mean it "literally," no harm, no foul, right?

Everywhere from a Sports Center interview with NBA analyst Ric Bucher to today's episodes of Around The Horn and PTI, much of the conversation has revolved around how the Lakers organization or the NBA should deal with what happened. I've heard people yammer on about protecting the league's image, about Bryant knowing better, about the possible consequences. As in "what, if any, punishment should the Lakers or the NBA impose on Bryant?" About everything, in short, but the heart of the matter. PR spin, apologies, and fines that won't actually matter at all to Kobe's checkbook are absolutely meaningless here. As a society, we need to start ensuring that American youth don't utilize this kind of language anymore, anywhere, ever. Slurs such as the one used last night need to be removed from the lexicon, and the meanness behind them needs to be removed from our minds and hearts. That's a steep uphill battle, to be sure, but we have to start somewhere, and last night is a good a place as any. It doesn't matter that it was Kobe Bryant who said it, or that it was caught on television. It should never have been said at all. Period. When Bryant, the Lakers, or the NBA make THAT statement, we'll be making progress.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Defense Doesn't Rest, Your Honor.

NASCAR. PBA Bowling. The World Billiards Trick Shot Championship. The World Series of Poker. Yes, even The National Beer Pong Championships. All of these events have received coverage of one sort or another by ESPN or Sports Illustrated. (Granted, the Beer Pong was in one humorous and quasi-satirical article for ESPN's Page 2, but still.) I don't inherently have a problem with any of this. ESPN's vast family of TV networks, online content, and a monthly magazine, ans SI's need to consistently fill their monthly publication, means that inevitably some features are going to filter through that broaden or loosen the definition of "sports." Which, really, is all well and good. But what continues to baffle me is the lack of any coverage, anywhere, of Ultimate Frisbee, which is certainly more athletically demanding than anything listed above. If we can find air time and print space for other such esoteric pursuits, why sports-oriented enterprises can't devote a little of it to a phenomenally demanding sport like Ultimate is beyond me.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am writing this from a bit of a privileged, biased perspective. See, I attended a tiny school you've probably never heard of: Carleton College in Northfield, MN. If this were the SATs, the answer would go thus: Carleton is to Ultimate Frisbee as Duke is to College Basketball. Yearly, the college fields four competitive teams, two mens' and two womens', something like Varsity and JV squads, if you will, all of which are routinely among the best in the nation. Even in the many intramural leagues, they take their "Bee" seriously at Carleton. Most people I know think it's a "hippie game", their only exposure having come from watching dreadlocked stoners toss the bee around in laid-back pickup games or from watching the "game" in PCU. But at it's highest level of competitive play, the sport is anything but lazy.
Some things to know about my favorite completely-underrated sport:

1. The Players are serious athletes with well-defined, highly specialized skill sets. If you were to watch the Ultimate Frisbee National or World Championships, you would be watching a group of athletes as finely tuned as any on earth. My freshmen year at Carleton, I went out for GOP (Gods Of Plastic), the "JV" squad. I've rarely been more exhausted than I was after that week. Just like the NFL Combine, they put us through a regimen of drills to evaluate skills, conditioning, and game instincts.

The requisite skills:

Passing: With variations, there are at least 15 ways to throw a frisbee, and doing so accurately with a defender (or sometimes two) on you is incredibly hard. It's like a cross between being a quarterback and a pitcher. Not only must the player accurately hit moving receivers, they must be capable of throwing forehand or backhand, and of releasing those throws from various heights (think of overhand vs. sidearm vs. submarine pitching delivery, and being able to do all three with equal accuracy). More over, to thread the needle on a pass, good players don't just throw on a straight line, they "bend" those throws when necessary to arc either inside-out or outside-in, like breaking balls. In addition to forehand/backhand, you must be able to execute the "hammer" (you basically imitate throwing a baseball, and the frisbee flies inverted to its target), the "airbounce" (throwing in such a way that the disc shoots downwards, sneaking under a defender, then bounces back up to the receiver without touching the ground), and several other useful options. Some players can actually do all of this with either hand. Yeesh. Try mastering any of these throws sometime. It's a challenge. Then picture trying to hit a moving target with a defender in your face and multiple defenders down-field.

Receiving: While not as refined an art as throwing, catching a frisbee that is moving towards you very, very fast and at any number of odd angles is not as easy as you might think. The "fundamentally sound" way of doing this is basically imitating a Florida fan doing the Gator Chomp, ensuring that both hands clap around this disc to prevent a defender knocking it away, but or course you have to be able to make one-handed catches with either hand as well, "flourishing" after the catch if required to secure possession, or to manipulate the bee into proper hand position for a rapid successive pass. Doing this on the run or in the air is a tough ask.

Athleticism: Excepting whomever is currently holding the frisbee, every other player on the field must be constantly moving, so you'd better be in shape and prepared to run. A lot. (When I went out for GOP, we ran "suicides" and cone drills in the gym, then went outside for a mile's worth of laps on the football field. In Minnesota, in January. You try running a mile in the freezing cold through three feet of snow sometime.) Just as in basketball, height and leaping ability are a plus, since many passes over the course of a game resemble alley-oops, and you need hops to clear the defender and make the catch. (Most of the elite players in the world have NBA-caliber verticals.) As in soccer, play in Ultimate rarely stops, so you're essentially sprinting around constantly. Tell me this ain't a sport.

The Game: I won't run you through the extensive list of rules, offensive and defensive strategies that govern Ultimate. (You can find a good general summary here: A few salient points: there's a "pull", with a coin toss like an NFL kickoff, that occurs to start the game, and after every point scored. As with a kickoff, the objective is to throw the frisbee as high and far as possible, giving the opposing team the worst possible field position and allowing the defense to get down field and set up. Once play begins, both teams employ a number of offensive plays and systems, and defensive counterparts. Just like hoops or football, defenses are either "man", "zone", or hybrid coverages, complete with strategies for double teams and traps (it's called cupping) to stifle the player with the disc, cutting off passing angles or forcing a throw to one side. Teams constantly communicate on the field, shifting strategies and adapting to the situation and the opponent.

One of my favorite things about Ultimate is the fact that there are no refs, and more importantly, no coaches. We talk about certain athletes being "students of the game", or having a "high IQ" in their respective sports. Well, in Ultimate, everyone is a student of the game, and everyone has to have a high frisbee IQ, because the team is, by committee, its own head coach, offensive and defensive coordinator, and GM. Fouls and violations are called by the players on the field, and there is a heavy emphasis on the spirit of the game, sportsmanship, and fair play. Really, the whole mechanism is ideal.

High-caliber athletes, game-specific skills, game plans, playbooks; sounds like a sport, right? It is. I'm not saying we can't have NASCAR or bowling events on sports channels or in magazines, but if we do, is it too much to ask to get a small camera and production crew out to the Nationals or Worlds for Ultimate Frisbee, which is decidedly more sporting? Heck, give me a call, I'd be happy to do the play-by-play.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Kind Of Hoops: Miles Davis as an NBA GM.

An acquaintance of mine asked me recently why I love basketball so much. The question wasn't derisive or anything, he just wondered how a kid from Atlanta, where SEC football and the Braves hold dominion, had come to revere hoops above all other sports. I thought about it for a moment, then vaulted into a litany of nostalgia: how, at the age of five, I had fallen in love watching the last great Lakers/Celtics NBA Finals of the Bird and Magic era in 1987, and watching Dominique Wilkins, on my beloved Hawks, ignite arenas and demoralize opponents with his thunderous jams. How that love had intensified watching Stockton and Malone refine the pick'n'roll to the point of mathematical certainty, and watching Jordan and Pippen play at a level otherwise reserved for gods in 1996. I yammered on about Steve Nash's passing bending the laws of geometry with the Suns, and Lebron dropping the "48 Special" in the playoffs. After a while, I started feeling a little lost, and more than a little dopey. I was doing a bang-up job of describing my personal connection to basketball, but failing to properly convey the grace and beauty inherent in the game itself. (When you're a serious fan of something, a band, an author, whatever, your impulse is not to explain why you like it, but why the object itself is worthy of attention, so that others will enjoy it as well.) Then it hit me: like me, this guy was a musician, and I could explain the whole thing in one easy sentence. Watching truly great basketball is the visual equivalent of listening to truly great jazz. (Of course, the converse of that statement is true as well, which is why we should burn all game footage of the '09 Nets and all Kenny G albums.)

As long as we're talking basketball and jazz, allow me a brief aside: can we please, for the love of all that's holy, give the team moniker "Jazz" back to New Orleans, where that music was born? I can't think of a less-jazzy place on earth than Utah. Also, the word "jazz" is derived from the old slang term "jass", a euphemism for sex. Should we really have a team name with that etymology in Mormon country, I ask you? Let's fix this. OK, moving on ...

Just like a great bebop group, an ideal basketball team is built on the foundation of controlled spontaneity. Every player knows their role, supports their band/team-mates, and adds to the collective endeavor by contributing in the most efficacious manner while adapting to constant changes. The players must operate within a set structure, the song form or the playbook, but be ready to adapt instantaneously to their teammates' movements and the flow and pace of the situation. For either art form to achieve its apex, egos must be subsumed and energies channeled in the fullest, most intelligent way possible. Players must know each others' tendencies, and how best to counterpoint them. The greats will do these things instinctively, without prompting, but of course there is the problem that not everyone is great, and so the challenge for the band leader, or the NBA GM, is to assemble not necessarily the best talent, but the most complimentary team.

And that's why Miles Davis, had he been a basketball man, would have been one of the greatest NBA general managers in history.

Throughout a career in which he influenced and innovated jazz more than any other figure in the history of the music, through all of his often-revolutionary changes in style and focus, Miles had one constant: not only were his bands always great, they were always perfectly tailored to his current musical needs. On reflection, each of those groups bares a resemblance, some more striking than others, to a different great team from basketball's history, their unique rosters coming together to make music in a way that others could only aspire to. Three of his most innovative records display the parallels most concretely. In chronological order:

The Birth Of The Cool, 1957. (*while the official studio release date is technically '57, the band involved and the live recordings on the complete reissue predate it by roughly a decade.) This was Miles' equivalent of the 77-78 Portland Trailblazers. Tired of being a sideman in Charlie Parker's legendary band, and frustrated with the smaller-group format that predominated jazz at the time, in 1947 Miles sought to create something on a grander scale; a larger ensemble featuring more intricate arrangements. He began assembling a loose group of musicians in what would later solidify into a nine-piece ensemble, under the composing and arranging guidance of Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan (the Dr. Jack Ramsay(s) in this analogy.) Like the Blazers, the group performed and peaked for a one-and-a-half year stretch of performances, then disbanded, but they did record one monumental live set for posterity at the Royal Roost in New York. And like Portland, the band was driven by two diametrically opposed forces with Miles as the mellow, counter-cultural Bill Walton, and firey drummer Max Roach as Maurice Lucas. Miles, through force of will, had assembled an atypical but effective cast (featuring instruments not usually seen in jazz ensembles, tuba and french horn being the most notable), luring them away from the prevailing bebop style long enough to create one of the most influential groups of all time. When the nonet finally reconvened the Columbia Records studios after a 10-year hiatus to pursue other projects, they sparked the entire stylistic movement that came to be known as West Coast Jazz. Like the Blazers ousting Dr. J's 76ers in the finals, the band didn't necessarily look like champions on paper (lots of notable names if you really know jazz, but few true "all-stars"). Nonetheless, their brief peak was among the most memorable in jazz history, and they are now remembered as a remarkable and unique assembly of musicians.

Kind Of Blue, 1958. Widely regarded as the finest jazz album of all time, Davis' masterpiece is Jordan's Bulls, '80-'82 "Showtime", Bird's Celtics, and the early-aughts Shaq/Kobe Lakeshow all rolled into one. (Miles as Jordan/Kareem/Bird/Shaq, and young legend-in-the-making John Coltrane as Pippen/young Magic/McHale/young Kobe.) Kind Of Blue personifies the thrust of this article perfectly. Miles was a musical deity by this point, and had he so chosen, could have assembled the finest group of musicians available to make the record. Instead, he opted for slightly lesser (though still very good) talents, instinctively knowing that the mood and compositions required a delicate balance and a certain stylistic bent in order to fully flourish. Hence, we have the transcendent pairing of Miles and 'Trane surrounded by five great-but-not-hyper-legendary role players: pianists Wynton Kelly (Ron Harper/Jamaal Wilkes/Danny Ainge/A.C. Green) and Bill Evans (Dennis Rodman/Bob McAdoo/Robert Parish/Derek Fisher). Evans gets those nods because he had such a key hand in the conception and atmosphere of the album. He's the third in Blue's hypothetical "Big Three." Alto saxophonist and blues specialist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley was the unquestionable Steve Kerr/Michael Cooper/Bill Walton/Robert Horry, the superb complimentary player who knew and excelled in his role. The rhythm section of Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers rounded out the roster as the glue guys, the pulse that allowed the horn players and piano to strut their stuff while grooving along beneath them, shining brilliantly in brief but crucial moments. Again, Miles made this most superior album with a cast that was worse on paper than what might have been because he knew he didn't need a Tony Williams or Herbie Hancock (arguably the best drummer and keyboardist ever, respectively), and that their presence might actually detract from his goal. Now that's a potential, hypothetical GM for you. (Are you listening, Miami?)

Nefertiti, 1968. The '92 Dream Team of jazz quintets. Miles, tenor sax wizard Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams on drums, Herbie Hancock on keys, and Ron Carter on bass. As I just mentioned, Williams and Hancock are at the front of the "greatest ever" discussion on their instruments, and Carter is right up their for upright bass as well. Shorter probably loses out on the "best tenor player of all time" debate only because John Coltrane once breathed through a horn, but it's still a debate. You could really take your pick as regards who was who in terms of a basketball analogy, but any way you put it, this was a holy terror of an outfit. (My personal take: Miles/Jordan, Williams/Magic, Hancock/Bird-if-he'd-been-fully-healthy, Shorter/Malone, and Carter/Pippen). The quintet needed every inch of their considerable skills for this crazy endeavor of an album. This was, essentially, the calm before the storm when Miles fired the loudest-ever shot across the bow of traditional jazz with In A Silent Way, but it's generally regarded as the beginning of his aesthetic shift in that direction. What we have here is a collection of tunes that are alternately dark and heavy, mellow and brooding, and driving like a freight train. Caught somewhere between bop, hard bop, post-bop, and the uncharted waters into which Miles was inexorably sailing, the album careens along like a roller coaster. Fortunately, like the Dream Team, this supremely talented group was capable of handling the diverse styles and tempos that the music required, darting through sharp turns and intensive changes with ease and aplomb. In hoops parlance, they could have played for Don Nelson, Red Auerbach, or Pat Riley without blinking. Especially notable here is the title track, on which the horns repeat the meldoy line ad nauseum without any solo breaks, while the rhythm section improvises beneath the theme. This was a completely unheard of role reversal of the various instruments' traditional functions in jazz, or any other music for that matter. I doubt any other ensemble could have pulled it off half as well. There's never been an album or a group like it since, and there never will be again.

To sum up, Miles Davis put the musical pieces together only as they were needed to ensure the greatest success of his projects. He was the ultimate facilitator, the consummate talent hound who sought out those who could best coexist in the improvisational either of jazz, and then exhorted them to previously unreached heights and untapped reserves of unified creativity. He understood the importance of "team" better than anyone. If Miles had been as tirelessly devoted to basketball as he was to music, not only would he have made Stu Inman, Jerry West, Sam Presti, and their ilk proud, he might have surpassed them all.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Suggestion Box

With NFL owners and players already embroiled in heated negotiations over a new CBA, and the NBA headed in the same direction as soon as the season ends, a terrifying thought looms on the horizon: What will we do with ourselves if neither sport has a season next year, or if those seasons are significantly delayed while everybody hashes it all out? Of the two leagues, I'm a lot less worried about the NFL. Football has replaced baseball as "America's Game", at least from the standpoint of television ratings and revenue, and I don't think anyone involved is crazy enough to kill the golden goose by actually allowing the lockout to continue past the projected start of the season. Nothing incites acrimony between fans and a sport like people who make more in a year than most of us will in a lifetime squabbling over how to divide a multi-billion dollar pie. The NBA is a different story. With salaries, contract lengths and the like on the table, there's a good possibility that The Association might not resume play until after the new year, if at all. But what if both sports actually DO wind up absent from our televisions in the coming seasons? How are we to spend our time after the World Series ends? (And how will the TV and radio networks fill theirs?) Borrowing the "High Fidelity" premise, here are my Top 5 (mostly sports-related) ideas to ponder in the event of a void, in no particular order:

1. Pick another sport to follow. If you're feeling uncreative, you could simply ratchet down one level and become an expert on college football and/or basketball. Believe me, there's more than enough there to keep you busy, and at least one college football conference is discussing the possibility of rescheduling some games to air on Sundays to fill the NFL gap. (And in terms of hoops, you'd be much better prepared to fill out a bracket next year, right?) Barring those options, you could choose to immerse yourself in the NHL, if you're not doing that already. But simply following the college analogues to the pro sports you'll be missing seems like an out for the unadventurous. May I suggest that you become an expert on some wacky, less-heralded sport instead? Strong cases can be made for cricket, curling, rugby (the closest you'll get to a football fix), or EPL soccer. Heck, why not go all the way off the map and get really into water polo or volleyball or something? Just saying, you have many, many options to shift your focus towards if the worst should happen.

2. Take the unwelcome free time and turn it into a positive by reading every relevant sports book ever written. Seriously, if you've never read "The Breaks Of The Game", "Ball Four", or any of the great biographies available on Vince Lombardi, what better way to satisfy your sporting jones than catching up on the literary offerings of athletics? Or distance yourself from your despair completely and tackle some true classics. Trust me, your brain won't even be capable of lamenting the loss of an NFL or NBA season if you occupy it by trying to process Nabokov or James Joyce.

3. Get a new hobby. If you need it to be sports-related, take up a game you've never played before. (I was talking about this with my buddy Paul yesterday, and we decided we were going to start going curling, which apparently you can do recreationally in Boston, if we have nothing else to do next fall. We might do that anyway, lockouts or no.) You could join a rec-league hoops team, or take up ultimate frisbee. (Yes, it's a real sport. No, it's not just for hippies. I'm writing a huge article/rant on this soon.) You could become the best darts or pool player in your local bar, or spend more time spoiling good walks on a golf course. Or get really, really good at bowling. You don't have to be in shape, you can drink beer while you're doing it, what more do you want?

4. Road Trip! Map out a convenient route/itinerary, and go visit the Hall(s) of Fame for every sport. Seriously, the economies of Canton, OH and Springfield, MA could use your help. I recommend you start with the furthest north (the NHL Hall Of Fame in Toronto) and move southwards to avoid meteorological unpleasantness as fall turns to winter, but that's up to you. While you're at it, you could maintain the essential sports/beer connection on two stops, visiting the Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown (Ty Cobb would be proud if you showed up to the HOF hammered), and the Sam Adams brewery in Boston (only a few hours from Springfield). You could even diversify your trip by hitting the Rock'N'Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland, which is just over an hour from Canton by car. (Don't ask me why the Rock'N'Roll Hall Of Fame is in Cleveland. As someone who has spent a lifetime immersed in playing and studying music, I personally think it should be in Memphis. Don't get me started on this.) Anyway, visiting the HOF's would be a great distraction from the fact that you can't actually watch any sports.

5. Do something entirely different. Backpack across Europe, take up fly fishing, learn to speak Hindi, whatever. There's no substitute for expanding your horizons, and no better time than when your usual obsessions are on hiatus. Better yet, make a positive impact by volunteering at a soup kitchen or something along those lines. (That came out far more preachy than I intended, but you get the idea.)

And there you go. Five perfectly serviceable ways to spend your time if the NFL, the NBA, or both, are locked out next year. Let's just hope you never need to use them.

Final Four Preview

Well, we're here. As March Madness keeps a residual torch burning into the first few days of April, four teams are still standing in the NCAA Tournament. (Kudos to whoever scheduled this year's Final Four in Houston, by the way. You're giving the citizenry a little something to distract them from Opening Day, which by now must be an annually depressing beginning to another awful season for Astros fans.) In the zaniest tourney I can remember, we've seen an inordinate amount of upsets, "holy crap!" finishes, and bracket destruction that has far exceeded even its usual level of chaos. The big bad powerhouses of college hoops have mostly been sent home, with 3-seed UCONN the highest-ranked team still afloat. Before the madness resumes tomorrow, here's a preview of our Final Four match-ups:

#11 VCU vs. # 8 Butler. 6:09 PM. Cinderella story VCU knocked off #1-seed Kansas to get here by briefly morphing into the '06 Phoenix Suns offensively. The aptly-named Shaka Smart took a look at the pounding they were getting early down low, and decided to take it out of the equation. The Rams went small ball, running a heady, blistering transition game, and pushing the pace to take the Jayhawks completely out of their rhythmic comfort zone. They hustled and trapped like crazy on defense, and when they were forced into the half-court, they moved the ball and ran off screens until they got open looks for their formidable cast of perimeter shooters. Basically, they completely neutralized Kansas' deeper team and sizable advantage in the paint. In addition to their on-court strengths, VCU is also playing the chip-on-the-shoulder, nobody-believed-in-us card as well as any team I've ever seen, no matter what "happy to be here/one game at a time" platitudes they're dishing out to the media. Here's the problem: Butler isn't Kansas. Brad Stevens is an awfully smart coach, and you can bet he'll have the Bulldogs well prepared to deal with the tempo and style the Rams played in their last game. Butler's Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are one of the better inside/outside combos in the NCAA, and are more than capable of running at VCU's pace. Moreover, as dangerous as Jamie Skeen, Bradford Burgess, and Brandon Rozzell are from beyond the arc, (all of them are shooting over 40% from downtown), I just don't think we can expect them to replicate the lights-out shooting clinic they needed to get past the Jayhawks. Butler's D is good at closing out on shooters, and that should be in evidence tomorrow. It's been an incredible run for the Rams, but I think we're going to see the Bulldogs make a return to the championship game this year.

Prediction: Butler 74, VCU 69.

#4 Kentucky vs. # 3 U-Conn. 8:49 PM. I actually think Kentucky has the deeper, more versatile squad in this match up. Brandon Knight is having himself a banner year, averaging 17 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds per game. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb are playing at a very high level, and Darius Miller is shooting a dizzying 45% from deep. Also, if I had to start a college program from scratch tomorrow, I'd take John Calipari over Jim Calhoun any day. The Wildcats are capable of playing multiple styles and they get good production on both ends of the floor from their bench. That being said, have you seen anything since the start of the Big East Tournament that would make you bet against Kemba Walker at this point? Anything at all? The guy is a threat from either guard position, and Calhoun has wisely used him in a variety of offensive looks. If the Huskies can get decent-to-good games from their secondary offensive support network of Alex Oriakhi, Shabazz Napier, and Jeremy Lamb, Kentucky is in for a long night, and if it's a tight game in the closing minutes, Walker will likely do what he's done against every other team that's tired to stand in UCONN's way this season: bring the arena roof down on their heads. I anticipate this game being a hotly-contested slugfest, but in the end, UCONN will be standing when the smoke clears.

Prediction: UCONN 78, Kentucky 75.