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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

T-Mac Says He's Not Like Kobe

Tracy McGrady became the NBA’s Scoring Champ in ’02-’03.
He was named to the All NBA First Team in ’01-’02 and ’02-’03 seasons, plus T-Mac is a five-time NBA All Star.
He spent much of a very frustrating season last year on the sideline with an injured back. However, he has found health in the offseason and regained his hunger for basketball. In August and early September, he made a four-country whirlwind tour of Asia for Adidas, to promote his new, individually numbered all-white Limited-Edition T-Mac Ones, of which there are only 1,650 pairs available. He is the first athlete to sign a lifetime contract with Adidas.
He phoned Roland Lazenby from Hong Kong during the final days of his tour to talk about his life and the upcoming season.

Q: You have experienced some special things in Asia. What has that been like?

McGrady: Coming over here and experiencing the passion that these people have for the game of basketball is unbelievable. You wouldn’t know it until you come over here to Asia. Just to see the fans that I have in the different countries, to see the love, the respect, that they show, it’s really crazy. It makes me feel like a rock star.

Q: Has touring Asia changed your life in some way?
McGrady: It has. It changes your perspective to see all of the fans in Asia. It makes you realize that you can’t take things for granted. It makes you realize just how many people do know what you do and respect what you do and love what you do. It makes you realize that you’re an inspiration to a lot of people you really didn’t know about. I’m now starting to realize that, that I’m really an icon. A lot of these kids over here in Asia really look up to me and watch my every move. They can tell me stories of things I’ve done, and I don’t even remember it. But it is true. Those things really happened. I just didn’t remember them. So this response was a lot more than I expected. So that’s a great feeling, for them to really be following my every move.

Q: Was there any one stop in Asia that brought an unusual experience?
McGrady: It really wasn’t one stop in Asia, it was literally every single place I went. From the time I got off the airplane, as I walked through the airports, to meeting all the people. It was just a hell of an experience, man. I would do it all over again. It was just that much fun. I really got a kick out of it, just the way they treated me, from the hotels, all the hospitality, to the actual events that adidas set up, it was pretty much the funnest thing that I’ve done in my career.

Q: Will a trip like this have an impact on the season ahead?
McGrady: It does have an impact on the upcoming season. It really does. With Yao being Asian, we’re on TV a lot over here. There are millions of people tuning in to watch us play. I didn’t realize just how many fans I have over here. To know that now has me really excited. They know I’m healthy now. After having gone through the injuries that I had last year, it’s just motivating to me to get back on the court and really do well. They’re really expecting a lot out of myself and Yao. It’s just that time. Last year was a frustrating season and we couldn’t get it done. But I think this season will be different.

Q: Speaking of the upcoming season, what do you think of the moves made by the Rockets?
McGrady: I think we made an important move with the addition of Shane Battier. This is a guy who’s a very smart, competitive basketball player. His presence is going to be important, with all the extra attention, all the double-teams, that Yao and I receive. We’re confident in his ability to knock down open jumpers. Also on the defensive end, Shane can hold his own with a variety of types of players. There are a lot of good players in the Western Conference at the 4 position, and Shane can match up with those guys. His versatility is amazing. He can play multiple positions and fit in a lot of places where we need him. We have to play Dallas four times a year in our division. Shane’s the kind of guy who can match up with Dirk Nowitzki at the 4 position, even though Dirk’s a seven-footer. Shane doesn’t do everything great. But he’s the kind of guy who does a lot of things well.

Q: The Rockets also picked up a couple of young guys in the draft. What are your thoughts there?
McGrady: We have a rookie Steve Novak who can really knock down the outside shot. I haven’t seen him play, but our coaches tell me he can really shoot the ball. I asked to compare him to somebody in the NBA, and they said he’s a lot like a Pat Garrity in terms of shooting the ball. In Orlando, I played well with Pat Garrity. He was one of our equalizers, standing out there shooting the ball. A guy like Novak can do that for us. He can open the court up for when I try to penetrate. And he can open things up for Yao as well.
And we got a guy from Greece, Vanoulis Spanoulis. I was just watching him play in the WBC. He looks like a point guard who really likes to push the ball. I think that he could help us if the coaches let us get out and run.

Q: Do you think their presence will help open up Houston’s offense?
McGrady: (laughs) I sure hope the offense opens up some this year. Down in Orlando we opened it up some and that was a lot of fun.
In Houston, we’re going to be a great defensive team, because that’s what Jeff (Van Gundy) likes to do as a coach. That’s what he brings. He’s a genius at defensive execution. So if we can open up our offense this year, we’ll definitely have the best of both worlds.

Q: Last year was pretty much a nightmare with your and Yao’s injuries. Injuries put a mental strain on athlete’s too. How’s your health now?
McGrady: I had never really been injured in my career before. It really set me back. I missed 35 games, played in 47. It was one of the most frustrating seasons in my career. A back injury can really play on your mind. But now I’m healthy, so my back isn’t really on my mind this season. I’m excited about playing again, and I can’t wait to get out there.

Q: There was a huge change in the NBA last season. New rules interpretation meant that defenders were no longer allowed to touch guards on the perimeter, which meant that a guy like Dwyane Wade could drive to the basket again and again during the playoffs. Are you eager to play under the new rules interpretation?
McGrady: In my nine years in the NBA, the rules have constantly changed. And I’ve had to change with them. They’ve added zones and other changes. I know how to make adjustments, so the new rules interpretations won’t bother me. I’ll make the adjustment. I’m excited to get back to competing. The rules changes don’t motivate me. I’m motivated by the opportunity to play with my team. I’m motivated just by the thought of getting out on the floor again. I’m in the best shape of my career, so rules changes really don’t bother me.

Q: There have been reports that your conditioning is now exceptional. How have you been able to do that with such a busy summer?
McGrady: Being away and on the road has made it kind of hard (to keep up with conditioning). I’ve just had to push myself to get it done on the road no matter how tired I am. I’ve just had to push myself to be very dedicated. Seeing all the fans in Asia has certainly helped motivate me. Right now I am ready to go and begin the season.

Q: Are you ready to make another run at a scoring title? How about a run at Kobe’s single game scoring record?
McGrady: I’m not in Orlando. I HAD to score when I was in Orlando. Kobe has to score in L.A. in order for those guys to win. His team needs him. I don’t take that many shots in Houston. That’s not needed for us to win. Maybe one of these nights I’ll try to make a run maybe sometime at my career high of 62 points, but that’s not my focus.

Q: Have you been amazed to learn how much Asian fans love shoes?
McGrady: It really is amazing. My shoes sales are crazy. Asian crowds are really into shoes. We have video clips of guys lining up a couple of hours early just to get my shoes. That’s a great sight.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words Of Those Who Lived It, released earlier this year by McGraw-Hill. Lazenby also edits Lindy's Pro Basketball Annual, just out on news stands this month.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Revolution Wasn't Televised

From Lindy's Pro Basketball Annual, available in stores now.

By Roland Lazenby

The upcoming NBA season marks the 50th anniversary of the Boston Celtics’ first title, won by an amazing mix of rookies and grizzled veterans.
A look back reveals how times have changed. Changed financially. Changed racially. Changed in virtually every way.
For example, the Celtics won 11 NBA championships between 1957 and 1969 (seven of those victories came at the expense of the Lakers). Yet throughout that great run, the Celtics seldom sold out Boston Garden. Year in, year out, they drew average crowds in the range 8,000, leaving more than 5,000 empty seats most nights. Those numbers seem to confirm the notion that sometimes legends aren't a very big deal while they're being made. It's only with the passage of time that they become larger than life.
That's certainly the case with the Celtics of Red Auerbach and Bill Russell. The ensuing decades have done nothing but confirm the magnitude of their accomplishments. Between 1959 and 1966, Auerbach's Celtics won eight straight titles, a run unequalled by any professional team in any major sport. Yet each fall after winning a championship, the Celtics never had a sell-out for their home opener. They didn't achieve a full house for their first game until November 1966, the season their streak ended.
"We were real fortunate from '57 on in winning championships," Auerbach once told me. "People in this area never realized what we did in those days. They would sort of say, 'Big deal.' Where if we were in any other area of the country, the accolades would have been tremendous. I'm talking about New York or New Jersey or Washington, wherever, Chicago, anyplace."
Over time, the Celtics mystique would become oppressive in dank, smelly Boston Garden, with the championship banners hanging in the rafters above the chipped and aged parquet floor. But back then, the Celtics were just another struggling team in a struggling league. The setting was the quirky fifties, when modern American society was in its pimply stage. Eisenhower had just offered the nation a balanced budget and won his second term in the White House. The civil rights fight had yet to turn nasty down South. And the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and revealed it was also testing ICBMs. With his first LP and movie ("Love Me Tender"), Elvis Presley was steering the Baby Boom toward puberty. Ford was cranking Edsels off the assembly line. Zenith introduced its first 21" TV screen, but viewers still saw the world in black and white. The airwaves offered “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Honeymooners” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” The cost of a first-class stamp ran four cents, and the average family of four needed about $60 a week to pay the bills.
But most of these developments mattered little to Auerbach as he neared his 40th birthday. He was almost wholly consumed with winning basketball games, so much so that he left his wife and two daughters in Washington, D.C., eight months out of each year and lived in an efficiency apartment in Boston while he coached the Celtics.
"He was flamboyant, gutsy, on top of everything. And fiery. I mean really fiery, " legendary Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most once told me of the young Auerbach in his early years in Boston. "But the important thing about him was that he knew the rules better than the officials. And he pulled the rule book on the officials all the time because he knew them. And he had the bite of intimidation. Like when his team was not playing well or playing lethargically, he'd go out there and start to scream at the fans or the referee and get them on him."
The National Basketball Association was a league of eight to 10 teams in the 1950s and hardly national. With franchises in Minneapolis, Fort Wayne, Rochester, and Syracuse, the focus was the Northeast and Great Lakes. It was a life of long train rides, chilly, dimly lit gyms, lop-sided balls, fickle fans and fight-marred games. It was so rough that around the league, opponents disliked anyone doing any flashy leaping, Slater Martin, who played for the Hawks and Lakers, once said. "In those days, you couldn't leave your feet. They'd just knock you into a wall."
Auerbach believed deeply in the running game as a strategy for out-distancing the madness. That was perfect, because he had Bob Cousy, the Houdini of the Hardwood, running the point on that first great team.
"He was the greatest innovator of the game," Most said of Cousy. "He had such a fabulous imagination. I think the greatest passer who ever lived. He could throw any kind of pass. The minute he touched the ball his head was up and he was looking down court looking for the open man. It was his philosophy to do it with the pass rather than the dribble. But if he had to dribble, if they forced the dribble, he could make you look like a fool. He really could. He had all the moves of a Globetrotter. And he never was lacking in confidence."
In 1954-55, the NBA adopted its 24-second shot clock, and to Auerbach's liking, the game became much speedier. Yet the new tempo made the Celtics' weaknesses even more glaring. Boston had the greyhound guards in Cousy and Bill Sharman to run other teams off the floor, but they didn't have a powerful rebounding center who could pull the ball off the defensive boards and throw the outlet pass to start the fast break.
Auerbach had begun looking for that special inside player, when his old college coach at George Washington, Bill Reinhart, told him of Bill Russell, then a sophomore center for the University of San Francisco. College basketball received little publicity in those days. There was no national television, no basketball poop sheets, no cable connection, no Dick Vitale touting the stars. Because he competed on the West Coast, Russell was largely unknown to the Eastern basketball establishment. Plus he was an unusual package. He was 6'9" and exceptionally athletic (he could run the 440 in 49 seconds). His sense of timing made him an excellent rebounder and shotblocker. Yet his offensive skills were unrefined to the point that much of his scoring came from guiding his teammate's missed shots into the basket. His knack for this "guiding" led to the development of offensive goal tending rules in college basketball.
Russell's reputation improved in 1955 as he and guard K.C. Jones led San Francisco to the first of consecutive NCAA championships. Still, his lack of offensive polish left most pro teams skeptical of his potential. Auerbach, however, knew Russell was just the player he was looking for.
"I had to have somebody who could get me the ball," Auerbach recalled. "I'd been tipped off about Russell by my college coach, Bill Reinhart. Bill said Russell was the greatest defensive player and greatest rebounder he'd ever seen."
The Minneapolis Lakers (run behind the scenes by a young sportswriter named Sid Hartman) also had their eye on Russell and almost had him, Hartman says. But, with more than a bit of maneuvering, the Celtics managed to snatch Russell in the 1956 draft, thus shifting the balance of power between two teams that would define NBA competition in the 1960s.
The only hitch for the Celtics was that Russell had made clear his intentions to play with the U.S. Olympic team in the Summer games in Australia. He wouldn't join Boston until late December, and because of Olympic rules in effect then, he wouldn't be able to sign a contract until after the games were over. The Celtics, however, weren't exactly shorthanded. A year earlier, they had drafted Jungle Jim Loscutoff, a muscled, 6'5" forward out of Oregon. And Frank Ramsey, a 6'3" forward drafted out of Kentucky in 1954, was returning from a year in the service.
In addition, Auerbach had picked up two other jewels in the 1956 draft: Tom Heinsohn, a 6'7" forward out of Holy Cross, and K.C. Jones, Russell's teammate at San Francisco. Jones, a third-round pick, would do a stint in the Army and try pro football before joining the Celtics in 1958. But Heinsohn would become an immediate factor, and all three from that 1956 draft would eventually wind up in the Hall of Fame.
With Loscutoff and Heinsohn working the defensive boards, the Celtics got the ball out on the fast break that fall of 1956 and ran their way to a 16-8 record, three games ahead of the NBA's defending champions, the Philadelphia Warriors. Then that December 22, after having helped the U.S. win the Olympic gold, Russell joined the Celtics. (The young center had been offered $35,000 by the Globetrotters but turned that down to accept a $20,000 contract with Boston.) After getting stuck in his first Boston traffic jam and arriving late for the game, Russell scored only six points but pulled down 16 rebounds to help Boston beat St. Louis. Maybe it wasn't obvious that first night, but the NBA would never be the same.
The impact on the Celtics was almost immediate. Russell struggled a bit the first few games, but his presence unshackled the rest of the team. The rookie center was such an awesome defensive rebounder that Heinsohn's and Loscutoff's roles shifted from battling on the boards. The forwards merely boxed out their men, then released quickly for the fast break while Russell was snaring the rebound and whipping the outlet pass to Cousy.
Sharman and Cousy, meanwhile, were ecstatic with this development, after having spent the previous seasons frustrated by the team's lack of inside power. Plus Russell's intimidating presence at center allowed them to gamble on defense. If they made a mistake, more often than not, Russell's intimidating presence covered for them.
But the most pleased was Auerbach, who considered Russell's shot-blocking to be one of the major innovations in the evolution of pro basketball. The young center exuded a confidence that bordered on arrogance. But as he later revealed in his book, “Second Wind,” Russell was far more insecure about his offensive skills than he let on. He was aware of his detractors. Across pro basketball, the coaches, the players, the writers all believed that the ideal big man was an offensive force.
But when Russell arrived, Auerbach called him in and told him not to worry about offense, that his primary responsibilities were rebounding and defense. The coach also promised that statistics, particularly scoring averages, would never be a part of contract discussions. Auerbach's understanding of Russell's unique skills was the single important element in the genesis of this dynasty.
Like Auerbach, Russell really cared only about winning. Player and coach didn't have to spend much time together to sense this in each other. "He was the ultimate team player," Cousy said of Russell. "Without him there would have been no dynasty, no Celtic mystique."
Beginning in his college days (he received little playing time until his senior year in high school) Russell had made shot-blocking a science. By the time he reached the pros, he possessed a very special skill. He never swatted the ball so that it went out of bounds. Instead he brushed it, or caught it, or knocked it away, so that most times it remained in play and became a turnover, sparking the Celtics' fastbreak the other way. Such a defensive presence sent shock waves across the league.
"Nobody had ever blocked shots on the pros before Russell came along," Auerbach said. "He upset everybody."
The often-cited example is that of Neil Johnston, the Philadelphia center who dominated NBA scoring with his rather flat hook shot. Russell was so effective in blocking Johnston's shot that the three-time NBA scoring champion became ineffective and tentative on offense. Because he was basically a one-dimensional player, Johnston was unable to adjust. It was said that Russell's presence drove Johnston from the league, a claim that the Philadelphia center vehemently denied. Yet after the 1956-57 season, Johnston ceased to be a dominant offensive power.
Two weeks after Russell began play, Philadelphia owner Eddie Gottlieb protested that Boston's center was playing a one-man zone and goaltending. Other coaches and owners around the league joined the chorus. But Auerbach fended them off. "When we made the deal for Russell nobody thought he was going to be good," the Boston coach told reporters. "He has far exceeded everybody's expectations. None of his blocks of shots have been on the downward flight. He has marvelous timing. He catches the ball on the upward flight."
When the league supervisor of officials said Russell's play was clearly within the rules, Gottlieb dropped his beef. The age of a new athleticism had dawned, and everywhere coaches looked for a way to counter it. Mostly, other teams tried to muscle and bang Russell. But as tough and proud as he was, Boston's new weapon wasn't about to back down.
In other ways, Russell was not an average NBA rookie. A Celtics' tradition called for first-year players to haul the bag of practice balls from game to game. Heinsohn had been doing this chore and hoped he could pass it over to Russell when the center joined the team. But Russell's fierce frown made his teammates think better of asking. So Heinsohn carried on.
The Celtics finished the regular season 44-28, six games ahead of Syracuse in the Eastern Division, as Russell averaged 19.6 rebounds. Cousy led the league in assists and was voted the NBA's MVP. As the playoffs began, Heinsohn was selected the Rookie of the Year. In the lockerroom before the first playoff game, he opened the envelope containing the $250 rookie prize. Always a needler, Russell eyed the money and said that half of it should be his.
Boston pushed Syracuse out of the way rather easily in the first round of the playoffs, but St. Louis, the Western Division champions with only a 34-38 regular season record, made the 1957 NBA finals a series to remember. With Bob Pettit at forward, Macauley at center and Jack McMahon and Slater Martin at guards, the Hawks were talented and ready to play. Sharman scored 36 for the Celtics in the first game at the Garden, but Pettit scored 37 and the Hawks won the opener on a last second shot by Jack Coleman. Boston took the second game to tie the series at one. Then the Hawks won on their floor for a 2-1 lead. Boston came right back to win the fourth game, in St. Louis, to tie the series again. Then the Celts zipped St. Louis 124-109 in game five for a 3-2 Boston lead. The series returned to St. Louis, where the Hawks tied it at 3-3 with another last-second victory.
Game 7 was a classic, except for the performance of the Boston backcourt. Cousy shot 2 for 20 and Sharman 3 for 20. Combined they made only 12.5 percent of their field goals. The championship load fell on the rookies, Russell (19 points and 32 rebounds) and Heinsohn (37 points and 23 rebounds).
With the Celtics leading 103-101, Pettit sank two free throws in the closing seconds to send the game into overtime. As the first extra period ended, Boston again held a lead, 113-111, but Coleman, who had won game one for St. Louis, hit another clutch jumper for another overtime. With just seconds to go in the second extra period, Loscutoff hit two free throws for a 125-123 Boston lead. With just seconds on the clock, the Hawks had to inbounds the ball with a full-court pass to Pettit. Player-coach Alex Hannum planned to bank the pass off the backboard and hope that Pettit could tip it in. Incredibly, Hannum banked the pass off the board to Pettit, but the final shot rolled off the rim.
The Celtics celebrated by shaving Russell's beard in the locker room, downing a few cold ones and going out to dinner. It was the first of 11 titles for Boston. Cousy remembers it as the most satisfying of all.
About the only thing undermining the glorious beginning of Boston's dynasty was the undercurrent of race. The NBA and the Celtics were integrating ahead of society. There were few, if any, problems on the team. But Boston was a racially troubled town, as was all of America. A couple of sportswriters in Boston made little effort to mask their contempt for Russell. And road games were sometimes rough, particularly in St. Louis where the fans weren't averse to shouting racial epithets. As with the rough play on the court, Russell wasn't about to back down. "Russ has always been extremely militant, and he is to this day," Cousy said. "He came into Boston with the proverbial chip on his shoulder. His militancy had been honed before he arrived. Of course, there were good reasons for the way he reacted, and I've said many times I would have been far more radical than he was. He couldn't play golf at the local courses. At one point, vandals broke into his house and defecated in his bed."
Russell's anger was justified, Johnny Most agreed. "I knew where he was coming from deep down. And for a lot of it, I didn't blame him. He faced a lot of irritating, irritating prejudice."
But his private manner with his teammates was as playful as his public face was scowling. In Auerbach's system, winning was the only priority. For that system, the coach sought players who wanted to win as badly as he did. They weren't about to let racial differences interfere with that. Russell has said many times that above all, he knew he could trust his coach not to be petty. That's not to say there weren't problems. The white press had no sophisticated knowledge of basketball in those early years, and the reporters fawned over Cousy, the local hero, while virtually ignoring Russell's brilliance. Auerbach, however, sensed these injustices and constantly raved about Russell and other unrecognized players to reporters.
It was in this spirit that Frank Ramsey, the first of the Celtics' sixth men, grew in the public mind. Auerbach didn't invent the idea of the sixth man, but he tirelessly touted and promoted it to the writers covering Boston's games. In so doing, the coach wrapped his athletes in the ever increasing aura of team. After a time, it would become nearly impenetrable.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Who's Not On Tex's All-Winter Team For The NBA's 60th Anniversary

Lindy's Pro Basketball Annual (which I have edited for the past 14 years) hits the newstands this week, and once again it features the All-Winter team, selected by none other than Tex Winter himself.
This year's edition has a special feature in that it also includes an NBA 60th anniversary team. The 60 years of the NBA almost perfectly coincides with Tex's own coaching career, in college and the pros. So I talked him into selecting the All-Time All-Winter team. It's not made up of the "game's greatest players."
Instead I encouraged him to select the great players that he would like to coach.
It's worth noting that Winter left former Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal off his list. Winter said he did so because O'Neal was not someone he would care to coach.
Many Lakers fans are aware that the 84-year-old Winter has long coached superstars and high-salaried NBA players without coddling them. A younger assistant coach, with less stature, might have never considered fussing at Michael Jordan about throwing correct chest passes, but Winter has always been rather fearless in his coaching.
Unfortunately, he and O'Neal never got off to a good start in Los Angeles, where Winter played a major role in organizing coach Phil Jackson and the triangle offense the Lakers used to win three straight championships.
Winter tried to correct O'Neal on certain facets of the game, but the supersensitive center always seemed to recoil from those efforts.
The serious breech between the assistant coach and Shaq didn't come until the 2004 season when O'Neal out of nowhere told Winter to "shut the f*** up" during a team film session.
A stunned Winter said that never in lengthy coaching career had a player been so extremely disrespectful. In fact, Winter has long been known for earning the respect and allegiance of an array of players, from the most difficult (Dennis Rodman) to the most hard-headed (Kobe Bryant).
O'Neal's behavior in the 2004 incident is noteworthy for several reasons. First, O'Neal always describes himself as someone who respects his elders. That's pretty much a self-promoting crock.
Second, Phil Jackson wrote a supposed "inside" book on the season, which was really a document aimed at cementing Jackson's political position with the team. Strange that Jackson devoted so much ink to his allegation that Kobe Bryant was "uncoachable," yet somehow he managed to avoid telling his readers the details of the major incident involving O'Neal. Yes, Jackson discussed the incident in "The Last Season," but you have to wonder about his emphasizing far and wide that Bryant was "uncoachable" while giving Shaq a veritable free pass on the issue.
Winter said Jackson did visit with his center about apologizing for his shocking behavior. And the next day at practice, O'Neal dutifully gave Winter a half-hearted hug and apology.
It's a shame Jackson didn't attempt to present a fair and balanced picture of the team when he wrote his book.
Winter has enjoyed affiliations with some of the game's greatest stars. Others, he has admired from afar. His choices created some interest in a recent post when I pointed out that Tex had included Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
Winter said Wade was selected because of his amazing efficiency as a scorer.
"I love Dwyane Wade," Winter told me. "All-around, he's probably the best guard in the league. Individually, he's not as good as Kobe, as far as quickness and skills, etc. But I've never seen a player score the way he does, with such efficiency."
Winter went on to point out that players such as Wade and Bryant have a distinct advantage under the NBA's new rules interpretations that have officials whistling touch fouls on the perimeter.

Winter's criticism prompted me to write another article for LIndy's called "The Death of Defense?"

Here's the intro to that story, which involves a discussion of the new way officials are now calling the game.


It remains one of the enduring images of NBA lore—Joe Dumars guarding a determined young Michael Jordan in the 1990 Eastern Conference playoffs.
Dumars of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons, the league’s two-time defending champs, looked like a gaucho corralling the ultimate toro, his feet moving furiously (maybe the best defensive slide in the history of the game), one forearm firmly barred into Jordan to keep contact, the other bent arm thrust into the air, giving Dumars his only hope of keeping his balance while trying to ride the Jordan whirlwind.
Jerry West watched the performance and remarked privately that most people considered Isiah Thomas the Pistons’ superstar, but West pointed out that it was Dumars who was the supreme talent.
Well, West said, both Thomas and Dumars could push the envelope offensively, “but Joe’s defense sets him apart.”
Just how good was that defense?
It left a supremely disappointed Jordan sobbing at the back of the team bus when the series was over (it’s also probably the only NBA defense ever to spawn a best-selling book: Sam Smith’s ‘The Jordan Rules’).
Indeed, it was a formative moment in pro basketball history because it brought Jordan the ultimate challenge and propelled him toward a greatness that fascinated a global audience. Whether they liked pro basketball or not, people felt compelled to watch “His Airness” grow up against the Pistons’ physical challenge.
“I think that ‘Jordan Rules’ defense, as much as anything else, played a part in the making of Michael Jordan,” said Tex Winter, who was an assistant coach for that Chicago team. The 1990 loss forced Jordan and the Bulls to find an answer to Detroit’s muscle.
“Those Jordan Rules were murder,” Winter explained. “The fact that we could win the next year even though they were playing that defense says everything about Jordan as a competitor. Any lesser player would have folded his tent.”
Jordan had to dig deeper to respond to the Pistons, and his effort pushed his Bulls to six championships over the next eight seasons.
The unfortunate footnote to this legacy is that under an interpretation of the rules adopted by the NBA last season, if Dumars were playing today he would not be allowed to guard Jordan so physically, or perhaps even guard him at all.
Today Dumars is the chief basketball executive of the team he once led as a player. He’s an honest man, which means he chooses his words carefully.
Asked in July if he could defend Jordan under today’s interpretation of the rules, Dumars first laughed, then offered a long pause before replying, “It would have been virtually impossible to defend Michael Jordan based on the way the game’s being called right now.”

If you're so inclined, pick up a copy of Lindy's and join the debate over the NBA's decision to change its foul rules interpretations. That decision made a dramatic impact on the game and perhaps even decided the league championship last June.
"I think it hurts the game," Winter said of the changes. "It's pretty hard to guard someone on the outside — especially a player with a lot of quickness — if you can't even touch them."

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, an oral history of the Los Angeles Lakers published by McGraw-Hill.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Another Bloody Nose In International Play

I had hustled all week to work out an interview with Tracy McGrady, who has been touring Asia to promote his adidas shoes. He finally called early Thursday from Hong Kong, and one of the topics of our discussion was the new rookie headed to McGrady’s Houston Rockets, Greek guard Vassilis Spanoulis.
McGrady had made a point of tuning in and watching Spanoulis in the world championships in Japan. What he saw made McGrady smile.
“I really like how he pushes the ball,” McGrady said. “He’s going to help us right away.”
Now that Spanoulis has scored 22 points and led Greece to an astounding 101-95 win over Team USA in the FIBA world championships in Japan, the rest of the NBA has an idea of what McGrady is talking about.
Spanoulis is no fluke. Neither is Mihalis Kakiouzis, who scored 15 for the Greeks against the Americans, or 6-foot-10 Sofoklis Schortsianitis --"Baby Shaq" – who made 6 of 7 shots from the field and finished with 14.
The veteran Greek team played hard and smart, and they executed extremely well. After it was over, they got nothing but praise from Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his players.
"The Greek team is a great team," Elton Brand said. "Not just in this tournament, if they played in the NBA or whatever, they'd be a good team. They have shooters, they have guys who can defend, they have guys who can do decent things in the paint. They should be proud of themselves. We take our hats off to them."
Which is how it should have been. The were no ugly Americans this time in international competition. They lost with class, despite being devastated by the sight of the Greeks dancing in celebration afterward at mid court.
The Greeks will go on to meet the Spanish team, without Pau Gasol (who broke his foot, a development with severe consequences for Jerry West's Memphis Grizzlies), for the gold medal Sunday. Behind Dwyane Wade, the Americans dispatched a dominant, veteran Argentinian team Saturday that had lost by a point to Spain.
The immediate questions facing the Americans, meanwhile, are why and how did they lose to the Greeks?
The quick answer is that the Americans got forced into too many bad 3-pointers, missed too many free throws (they shot 32 percent from 3-point range and 59 percent from the foul line) and couldn’t seem to play any solid defense down the stretch.
The Greeks executed well on offense, used the screen and roll expertly and relied on their tough-and-tested defense when it mattered most.
The Americans continued to be plagued by chemistry problems, not brought on by any particular selfishness or ego problems, but by the nature of their hastily assembled team. This time around, the Americans took more effort with the process and worked harder, but the outcome revealed that they were trying to make too much happen too soon.
They need more time.
"This is the biggest thing we've ever done," former Greek star Panayiotis Fasoulas said. "The Americans are the most talented players but we have a better team. Right now we're the best in the world. ... Beating the U.S. is more important than the final."
"I don't think people understand how good these teams are," Dwyane Wade told reporters.
As the head of Team USA, Jerry Colangelo, pointed out, the American players were hurting after the outcome. It’s the third straight failure in international competition for the Americans, dating back through the 2002 World Championships.
But that’s also where the consolation comes in for the Americans. They put this team together with the idea that the players would form a nucleus that would work over the next two years to prepare for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
As much as this loss hurts and embarrasses a U.S. team that once dominated international basketball, it may actually serve a greater purpose — to remind the American stars how much they must work to build team chemistry and to reinforce the idea that there will be no more cakewalks for American teams in international competition.
The Dream Team is just that, a distant dream in the rearview mirror of American basketball.
Now, every major international competition will be a dogfight. The Greeks, Argentines and Spaniards all showed that they are all quite capable of running with the USA’s best athletes.
It may also spur Team USA to drag out even bigger guns for the fight in Beijing. The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and the Phoenix Suns' Amare Stoudemire, both coming off knee surgery and unable to compete, come to mind immediately. But so do the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan. And certainly Gilbert Arenas has a beef. Maybe the American coaches did need to take a longer look at what he had to offer.
Colangelo, however, predicts few changes to Team USA other than adding Bryant, Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups, who had previous commitments and could not play in the World Championships. "Of course they'll all be together next summer," Colangelo told reporters. "If there's a change or two, that's all I see. We're not throwing the baby out with the bath water. We love all our guys. They played hard. Nobody quit. We just lost."
Spanoulis, meanwhile, has shown that he has bright prospects for an NBA career. McGrady and Yao Ming have top flight help on the way for Houston (Spanoulis has reportedly signed a three-year deal with the Rockets).
The rest of the NBA is now officially on notice, too. The Europeans keep getting better and better, not to mention tougher and tougher. Ignorance of that is no excuse.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, an oral history of the Los Angeles Lakers recently published by McGraw-Hill.