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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Eulogies Are Nice, But Red Was Far From Loved And He Liked It That Way

I still have the cigar that Red Auerbach gave me in 1988. I had gone to his office in Washington, D.C., to do an interview about his coaching days.
“That is something you’ll want to keep,” I told myself at the time.
Saturday night upon the news of his death, I went to the drawer where I kept the cigar and got it out. It looked ageless, pretty much like Auerbach himself.
This past spring marked the 40th anniversary of his retirement from coaching. During those four decades he remained a giant on the NBA landscape, testy enough to engage in a bit of serious verbal jousting with Phil Jackson when the Laker coach won his ninth NBA title in 2002, which tied Auerbach for the most titles won by an NBA coach.
As Jackson and other opponents around the league will attest, Auerbach remained a pretty fiery guy his entire life.
I recall the closing seconds of Boston's Game 6 defeat in the 1988 Eastern Conference finals. The scene had the makings of a real Celtic nightmare. The Pontiac Silverdome was packed to the rafters with 38,900 Pistons fans eager for a loud, rowdy, finger-shakin' victory celebration, the kind that would blow off Detroit's blues at not having reached the NBA finals in more than three decades. The situation presented what might have been perceived as a slight void in the Celtic leadership, with K.C. Jones having announced his retirement from coaching at the season's end and the season's end obviously imminent here in this least traditional of basketball places.
But as the clock ran down and Boston's fortunes seemed lowest,Auerbach moved from his seat in the stands and made his way down to the bench to lead his Celtics through the crowd back to the locker room. There was nothing downcast, or even hurried, in his stride. He moved with a purpose, past the celebrants and the cameras. It was obvious that he was not about to let this defeat diminish his, or his team's, Celtic Pride.
It was a deft move, perhaps second-nature, the kind Auerbach had become known for over the years. The subtle statement. The situation hadn't called for a puff from his trademark victory cigar, but he knew just the right touch all the same. He provided a silent, strong presence at a difficult moment. It seemed that whatever the Celtics needed over the decades— moxie, savvy, street smarts, even a tad of humility now and then—Auerbach found a way to provide it.
As he aged, some things did change for the redhead. For one thing, he suffered dumb questions from writers a little better than he used to.
During that 1988 interview I asked him if he missed coaching.
"Oh sure," he said, "you miss it a lot. You can't do something for 20 years at a professional level and not miss it."
Auerbach retired following the 1965-66 season, after his team had won its eighth straight (and ninth overall) NBA Championship. The Celtics went on to win two more championships over the next three seasons after Auerbach named Bill Russell as player/coach. Auerbach said he had no regrets about stepping down when he did.
"I had to make a choice," he explained. "Either I got into management then, when it had to be done, or wait four or five years and then look around and see. Everything is a matter of timing."
The timing in this case concerned the club's general managership. Long-time team owner Walter Brown had died in 1964, leaving Auerbach to fill the dual role of coach and general manager for two seasons. That task left him exhausted. He once explained to good friend Lefty Driesell that the mere act of putting on his sneakers to go to practice had become drudgery. At the end of the 1965 season, he knew he either had to find a coach or a general manager.
Having gotten his fill of the bench, Auerbach decided to coach one more season while he looked around for a successor. Once that was done, he would become a full-time general manager.
Without tremendous fanfare, Auerbach ended one of the most successful coaching career in the history of professional sports. In his 20 seasons of coaching, he won a league-record 938 regular-season games. It was a record that would eventually be broken, he predicted at the time. And it eventually was by Lenny Wilkens.
"It will be broken in time if guys can last that long mentally," Auerbach said. "Because I did it in 20 years; I don't know whether a lot of guys will do it in 20 years."
An immensely proud man, Auerbach said he took the most pride in the consistency of winning that the record represents. He was also immensely prideful that the Celtics accomplished their championships with meager team resources. Walter Brown, after all, had funded the team out of his own pocket for years, which meant that the entire Celtics organization consisted of four people. Auerbach had no assistant coaches. He did his own scouting and managed the team's business affairs, right down to booking plane flights and hotel rooms.
"We had no money to speak of," he said. "We were still in the process of selling the game to the Boston area."
Slowly New England fans took to the Celtics winning ways, but that still didn't translate into overwhelming cash flow. Whereas a wealthy team like the New York Knicks could afford to buy players, Auerbach spent his time shopping for bargains, either unheralded rookies or supposedly washed-up has-beens.
"We kept winning with mirrors, adding a player here, a player there," he said. "We did a lot of developing and teaching."
Auerbach also did a lot of motivating. The team's competitiveness was often driven by his temper. There is no better example of this than Game Three of the 1957 NBA Finals against the St. Louis Hawks, as the Celtics were on their way to their first championship. The St. Louis crowd in Kiel Auditorium had its rough edges, which included a reputation for racial and ant-Semitic epithets. Auerbach stirred this cauldron during pre-game warmups when he complained that one of the goals was too low. "I knew it was too low when Sharman and Cousy told me they could touch the rim," he explained. Auerbach took his complaint to the officials, who agreed to check the height. They found no problem. Hawks owner Ben Kerner, though, had become overheated by the delay and stalked out onto the floor to scream that Auerbach was embarrassing him in front of the home fans.
Auerbach promptly ended the tirade with a shot to Kerner's mouth. "I was talking to the refs," Auerbach later explained, "and he interrupted me."
So Auerbach later threw the punch.
The officials chose not to throw him out, he said, because the incident occurred before the game. The blow brought blood but no permanent damage to Kerner, who remained Red's friend long after the incident.
"When I retired he gave me wonderful gifts," Auerbach recalled.
I later talked to Kerner and he acknowledged his good friendship with Auerbach, although I don’t think Kerner had fond memories of getting punched just before tip-off of the league’s signature event.


After beating the Minneapolis Lakers 4-0 in 1959 for their second title, Auerbach’s Celtics emerged full-blown in the early 1960s. Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn were in their prime. Sam Jones moved in as a starter and a scorer to replace guard Bill Sharman, who retired in 1962. And while the careers of Bob Cousy and Frank Ramsey were winding down, Auerbach always seemed to have the right answer to keep the transition of talent flowing smoothly.
K.C. Jones was gaining experience as a backup to Cousy, and in 1962, the Celtics drafted John Havlicek, a good athlete but no superstar, out of Ohio State. Who could have seen that he would evolve into such a player? In retrospect, the development of the Boston dynasty was something to behold.
The Celtics beat the Hawks for the championship in 1960 and '61, and then defeated the new Los Angeles Lakers in 1962 to bring their title count to four straight. Still, many observers figured their day was over.
"The Boston Celtics are an old team," Sports Illustrated declared in March of 1963. "Tired blood courses through their varicose veins."
The Celtics, of course, would win their sixth title that spring and five more over the next six seasons. But SI's underestimation of Boston's strength still had some basis in fact. It seemed that each February of his career Cousy had blasted the NBA for seasons that were too long. Finally weary, Cousy announced that he would retire after the 1962-63 season. Observers saw his leaving as a major loss to the Celtics. And they didn't see the wheels of Auerbach's cunning turning.
The reason for this was Havlicek. Auerbach had never seen Havlicek play when he drafted him in 1962. Then in camp that summer he got his first look. "I remember I was stunned," Auerbach later told reporters. "All I could think of was, 'Ohh. Have I got something here? Are they going to think I'm smart.'"
But Havlicek was just one of several changing faces in the team's evolution. Later Auerbach would get Don Nelson and Bailey Howell and several more key pieces to the puzzle. Plus, Cousy's leaving meant the Jones duo of K.C. and Sam would become a larger factor. Most important, though, the Celtics had Bill Russell, whom former Lakers coach Fred Schaus called "the most dominant individual who ever played a team sport."
Built around this incredible player, the team's changes were made without problem. The coach and center had come to lord over the NBA, and it didn't make them popular. "At first I didn't like Red Auerbach," a rival NBA coach once said. "But in time I grew to hate him."
Those emotions have lasted for decades.
"Red was hated around the league," former NBA player and Hawks coach Paul Seymour told me in 1990. "He wasn't a very well-liked guy. He always had the talent. He was always shooting his mouth off. If you walked up to him in the old days, he was more than likely to tell you to get lost."
Having a great player like Russell made Auerbach a coach, former Syracuse coach Al Cervi told me. "He's the biggest phony who ever walked the streets of America."
Auerbach was an early master at working the refs. His foot-stomping tirades, usually punctuated by a lit cigar at the end of the game, had begun to wear on his opponents by the mid-1960s. Plus, the NBA was getting more television exposure, and his antics weren't always pleasant to view.
"Red was a very astute judge of talent," Schaus, whose Laker teams battled Auerbach's Celtics four times in the Finals, explained for me once. "When you have a lot of stars, you have to keep them happy and playing as a team. Red did that. I didn't like some of the things he did and said when I competed against him. Some of the things he said would bother me. But the guy who wore No. 6 out there bothered us more. You had to change your game completely because of Russell."
But for Lakers star Jerry West, Auerbach on the sidelines was more entertainment than irritation. "Red was outspoken," West told me. "His sideline antics were funny. I happened to like him very much. When you talk to his ex-players, they all have great respect for him. I don't know how many players feel that way about their former coaches."
Some coaches didn't have Auerbach's success because they didn't have his timing. They tried to intimidate the officials throughout the game, Auerbach explained. "You work the refs only when you feel you're right. You had to pick your spots. Sure I was active. You had to be active. But it wasn't all the time."
As for the enmity from other coaches that still burned decades later, Auerbach said, "Any time you're winning, you get criticism. Nothing instigates jealousy like winning. When you're winning, they find a thousand reasons to take potshots. You don't pay attention. You just keep doing what you're doing."
This debate over Auerbach flared regularly over the winter and spring of 1963. His relationship with official Sid Borgia carried a particular spite. The Boston press took to calling Borgia "Big Poison."
"I'm convinced," Auerbach said after one game, "that it would be the highlight of his career if he refereed the game in which we lost the championship. He doesn't like me, he doesn't like Cousy and he doesn't like the Celtics."
Whether he really wanted it or not, Borgia would never get that opportunity. Boston just didn’t lose in the championship round. The aged Celtics beat the Lakers in 1963 for their sixth title. "Please," Auerbach crowed to the press, "tell me some of these stories about Los Angeles being the basketball capital of the world."
"It's nice to be playing with the old pros," Russell said. "The old, old pros."
There was no champagne or beer in the Boston locker room. Why celebrate? replied Heinsohn when asked about it. "We've won five in a row."
The 1963-64 season brought Auerbach another series of crafty personnel moves to crow about—the addition of veteran center Clyde Lovellette and 6'6" Willie Naulls in the frontcourt. Naulls would provide double-figure scoring as a key substitute for three important years, and Lovellette gave them some good games, too. Auerbach also added Larry Siegfried, Havlicek's teammate out of Ohio State who would mature into a double-figures scorer in a few seasons.
The big change for 1963-64 came with the league's balance of power. Maurice Podoloff had retired as commissioner and was replaced by Walter Kennedy. In an even bigger move, the Warriors had left Philadelphia to move to San Francisco, where they took charge in the Western Conference with what appeared to be one of the most powerful teams in NBA history.
But that was on paper, Auerbach pointed out. "I've seen a lot of great teams, at least on paper, that won nothing."
Warriors coach Alex Hannum called it his "muscle and hustle team."
Wilt Chamberlain was the chief muscle. But there was plenty more. There was 6'11", 230-pound Nate Thurmond, a rookie out of Bowling Green who had yet to develop offensively. Then there were 6'8" Wayne Hightower, a fine shooter, and 6'6", 215-pound Tom Meschery, who helped in the muscle department. The crafty backcourt included Al Attles, Guy Rodgers and Gary Phillips.
It was a lineup brimming with future Hall of Famers.
"That was a powerful, physical team," Auerbach said. "Chamberlain and Thurmond were two of the best centers in the game."
But the Warriors were no match for Boston in the big show. Frank Ramsey, all of 6'3", psyched out Thurmond on defense, and the Celtics waltzed. Chamberlain was a power, but Russell forced him into taking a fallaway jumper. In one sequence in Game 1, a 108-96 Boston win, Russell blocked Wilt's shot, only to see Thurmond get the loose ball and take it back up. Russell blocked that one, too.
"He never stops throwing you something new," an impressed Rodgers said of Russell afterward.
The Celtics took the series, 4-1, for their sixth consecutive championship. "A lot of teams have come and gone since we first beat St. Louis in '57," Ramsey told reporters.
Auerbach had won seven championships and had never been named coach of the year. Still, he pushed on with his singular style.
During the 1964 season, he had fined several players for a transgression of team rules. They asked him to reconsider. "Get lost," he replied, "if you don't know by now that the Celtics are a dictatorship. I am a dictator and it's about time you found out."
Asked about his style, he told reporters: "Look, I don't worry about handling them. I worry about how they handle me. I'm not here as a doormat. Let them adjust to me. Anybody who comes to this team better take a little time to figure out what I'm like and learn to please me."
Despite his gruffness, he had a real flair for sales, and even represented several products on the side. "Selling keeps me alert during the season," he explained. "I meet clients when I'm on the road."
With this seventh title, it began to appear as if Boston might never lose. Auerbach projected that much. "The thrill never goes from winning," he said. "But maybe the reasons change. First, it was just trying to win a title. Now it is a question of going down as the greatest team of all time. That stimulates you."
The closing of the '64 season brought the retirement of Jim Loscutoff and Ramsey. Loscutoff had once sworn that as soon as he turned in his uniform he was going to belt Auerbach. Using the psychology he was known for, the coach had determined that he couldn't criticize Cousy, Ramsey or Russell. They just couldn't or wouldn't take it. So he had used Heinsohn or Loscutoff to tongue-lash when he needed to communicate displeasure with the team's play.
Loscutoff's plan was never realized. Like the rest of the Celtics, he said he loved Auerbach more than he hated him. The coach had an ability to be close and detached at the same time.
"His whole theory behind basketball is never get too close to the players' wives," Loscutoff once explained.
He couldn't make good coaching decisions if he knew a player's family well, Auerbach confided. "You can't be emotionally involved and impartial at the same time."


Walter Brown died in August 1964, leaving Auerbach alone to guide the Celtics on to greatness. Brown's passing and the fact that a new group of young officials had come into the league convinced the Boston coach to tone down his act somewhat.
He still prowled the sidelines while clutching a tightly rolled game program. And he still picked his spots. He just didn't pick them as often or as loudly. It some ways it didn't matter. Every time he stirred from the bench during a road game, the boos followed him.
In the spring of 1965, he appeared on a television talk show and seemed startled when the audience clapped politely. "How come they applauded?" Auerbach asked the host. "It makes me feel uneasy."
Still, he conceded his image had changed. Going into the 1965 playoffs, he had been fined less than $1,000 by the league, an unusually low figure for him. By no means was he squeaky clean, though.
"If you get obnoxious, you get incentive," he told his players.
He regularly offered young coaches tips on how to get ahead—place the scorer's and timer's table near your bench at home, and when you're on the road, wait until the other team has taken the floor for warm-ups to request their basket. Anything that disconcerted the opponent was viewed as an asset.
While he talked these precepts, he employed them less and less as he neared the end of his coaching career. Red had mellowed, the writers covering the Celtics concluded.
Still, there were some things in his act that he refused to tone down. League officials had sent him notes saying that it didn't look good for him to light cigars on the bench.
Auerbach told the league he would stop his cigars when other coaches stopped their cigarettes, a response that angered some of his colleagues in the profession. A few coaches complained that Auerbach had an endorsement with Blackstone, a cigar company, and that he was putting on "an act."
"If this was an act, I'd be an actor," he replied. "I wouldn't be a coach."
Boy, could he coach. The Celtics broke their own record for regular-season wins in 1964-65 with 62. And Auerbach finally got his coach-of-the-year award.
"He's getting the maximum out of me," Russell told reporters.
They added their eighth championship that year, but things in the Eastern Division became complicated at mid-season when San Francisco traded Chamberlain back to the new Philadelphia 76ers (the old Syracuse Nationals). Boston had finished well atop the standings but had to fight Philly in the playoffs through another seven-game series. Chamberlain's team wasn't vanquished until Havlicek stole an in-bounds pass under Philadelphia's basket with five seconds remaining, which, of course, led to Johnny Most's famous line, "Havlicek stole the ball!!!"
For the record, Havlicek deflected the ball to Sam Jones, who raced downcourt to celebrate.
With the momentum from that drama, the Celtics went on to meet the Lakers in the Finals once again. Los Angeles, though, had lost Elgin Baylor to a knee injury and fell yet again to Auerbach’s army.
After the playoffs, Auerbach announced that he would coach one more season, then retire to the front office. He explained privately that coaching had become a burden. Perhaps more than any NBA coach ever, he loved winning, but success had taken its toll. He was nearing 50 and feeling 70. With Walter Brown's death, the administrative load was heavier. Auerbach could no longer do both jobs.
Reporters asked Auerbach what the highlights of his coaching days had been. "After 1,500 games, who could remember?" he replied. "What you remember is how hard it was to get each individual win."
The wins got even harder in that final season of 1965-66. The Eastern Division was a dogfight. Chamberlain and the 76ers took some of the starch out of the Boston dynasty. Heinsohn had retired at the end of the previous season, and Havlicek became a starter. Don Nelson, acquired after Los Angeles released him, inherited the role of sixth man. For the first time in a decade, the Celtics didn't win the Eastern Division title. The 76ers won 55 games and Boston 54. But Boston regrouped in the playoffs. Philly had received a first-round bye, while Boston fended off Cincinnati in a preliminary round. The layoff hurt Chamberlain and the Sixers. They were caught flat in the Eastern finals as Boston won, 4-1. Boston had lost six of 10 games to Philadelphia during the season, but again it was Russell's team that went on to play for the title.
The 1966 championship series quickly turned into another Celtics/Lakers scrap. Baylor had returned from knee injury, and Los Angeles had regained its potency. The Celtics had a 38-20 lead in Game One in the Garden, but the Lakers fought back to tie it late. With the score even in the final minute, Russell blocked a Baylor shot and was called for goaltending. Sam Jones scored for Boston to send it to overtime, where Baylor and West propelled the Lakers to a win, 133-129, for a 1-0 lead. Baylor had scored 36, West 41. But instead of the glory and the psychological edge falling to the Lakers, the attention abruptly shifted to Boston. Auerbach picked the postgame interview session to announce that Russell would be his replacement as head coach. For months the speculation had been that Cousy, then the coach at Boston College, would get the job. Working as a player-coach, Boston's center would become the first black head coach in a major American sport. Auerbach had talked briefly with Cousy and Heinsohn about taking the job, but both men agreed no one could better motivate Russell than Russell himself.
The announcement made headlines the next morning, while the Lakers' major victory was almost obscured, a fact that leaves Auerbach gleeful to this day.
With the future of the team settled, the Celtics bore down on the Lakers, winning the second game in the Garden, 129-109, then adding two more victories in Los Angeles for a 3-1 lead.
Game 7 in the Garden was another classic. The Celtics took a big lead, as Baylor and West were a combined 3 for 18 from the floor in the first half. But as usual, the Lakers came back, cutting the Boston lead to six with 20 seconds left. Still, it seemed time for Red to light another victory cigar. The Lakers took fire with that, cutting the lead to two, 95-93, with four seconds left. Just as they had for years, the fans rushed the floor to celebrate a Boston championship. But the '66 celebration was premature and out-of-hand. Russell, who had played with a broken bone in his foot and had still gotten 32 rebounds, was knocked down. Orange juice containers on the Boston bench were spilled across the floor, and Celtic Satch Sanders lost his shirt to the crowd. Somehow, K.C. Jones got the inbounds pass to Havlicek, who dribbled out the clock for championship number nine, 95-93.
Schaus said later that he would have loved to have been able to shove the victory cigar down Auerbach's throat. "We came awfully close to putting that damn thing out," the Lakers coach told me years later.
At Auerbach's retirement dinner, Russell addressed the gathering: "When I took this job, somebody said, 'What did you take it for? You have nothing to gain. You got to follow Red Auerbach.'
"I don't think I'm going to be another Red Auerbach," Russell continued, then turned to his former coach. "Personally, I think you're the greatest basketball coach that ever lived. You know, over the years... I heard a lot of coaches and writers say the only thing that made you a great coach was Bill Russell. It helped. But that's not what did it.
"Now this is kind of embarrassing, but I'll go so far, Red, as to say this: I like you. And I'll admit there aren't very many men that I like. But you I do. For a number of reasons. First of all, I've always been able to respect you. I don't think you're a genius, just an extraordinarily intelligent man. We'll be friends until one of us dies. And I don't want too many friends, Red."
I agree with Russell. That’s why I saved the cigar.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Full Text Of 'The Death of Defense' Article

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?
A key part of the Pistons' physical team 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.”


Just how is the game being called these days?
New Jersey Nets executive Rod Thorn, a longtime expert on NBA rules, acknowledges that last season the league adopted a dramatic shift in how it interpreted the rules of the game.
No longer would a defensive player on the perimeter be allowed to use his hand, a barred arm or any sort of physical contact to impede or block the movement of either a cutter or a ball handler.
In a recent interview, Thorn said that the NBA had changed the rule to give an advantage to the offensive player.
“It’s more difficult now to guard the quick wing player who can handle the ball,” Thorn said of the change. “I think it helps skilled players over someone who just has strength or toughness. What the NBA is trying to do is promote unimpeded movement for dribblers or cutters.”
Thorn said the change was made because muscular defensive players had gotten the upper hand.
“My opinion is that the game had gone too much toward favoring strong players over skilled players,” Thorn said.
“The NBA felt there was too much body, too much hand-checking, being used by defenders to the detriment of the game. There was a feeling that there was too much advantage for a defensive player who could merely use his strength to control the offensive player.”
The new rules interpretations have attempted to address that issue, Thorn said. “If the refs perceive that a defender is bumping the cutter, or bumping a ball-handler, then they’ll blow their whistles.”
Blow their whistles is exactly what officials began doing in both the NBA and its Development League (where many nights officials were whistling a whopping 60 to 70 fouls a game).
This new way of calling became increasingly apparent with each regular-season game last year, and it really made an impression during the playoffs. Free from the physical challenge of defenders, offensive players found many more opportunities to attack the basket — and draw fouls.
As a result, the new rules interpretation helped promote the emergence last season of a new generation of super stars, from Kobe Bryant scoring his 81 points during a regular season game, to LeBron James, Vince Carter, Gilbert Arenas and Dwyane Wade making big splashes in the playoffs.
“The good wing players — LeBron, Kobe, Arenas, Wade, Carter—shot a lot of free throws with the way the game is now called,” Thorn admitted.
The change became quite apparent during the NBA Finals in June as fans saw time and again Miami’s Wade attacking the basket against seemingly helpless Dallas defenders.
When they did try to stop Wade, those Dallas defenders often drew foul calls, which sent Wade to the line to shoot free throws.
The new approach even played a role in determining the NBA champion, as Wade played majestically in leading Miami from a two-game deficit to a four-games-to-two victory for the title.


The results were immediate and pleasing to the league’s front office.
Offensive players were freed as never before and fans were thrilled by high-scoring games. Television ratings jumped with the excitement, and reporters began filing stories signaling an NBA revival not seen since the days when Jordan played for the Bulls.
The league had made an obvious move to try to pick up scoring averages that had been in decline since the late 1980s. And it seems to have worked.
But not everyone is enthused about the changes.
Tex Winter, now 84 and the veteran of more than a half century of coaching, has serious misgivings about what the league has done.
Winter acknowledges the outgrowth of the new rules interpretation is the rise of the super dominant offensive player, led by Wade’s performance in the NBA Finals and Bryant’s string of 40-, 50, even 60-point games during the regular season.
“It’s brought all these 40-point scorers,” Winter said. “They can’t score 40 points unless they get 15-20 free throws.”
And that’s exactly what they were getting on their big nights.
“They should be protected, but not that much,” Winter said of the current generation of talented offensive players. “I don’t think that just touching a player should be a foul.”
Yet there were key foul calls in the playoffs last year that came down to touch calls, which in turn sent the offensive player to the line for bonus points that ultimately decided games.
Ironically, this attempt to pick up scoring also slowed the pace of NBA games last year because numerous foul calls mean a parade of free throws on many game nights, Winter said. “The fans are not going to like that whistle blowing all the time. It’s slowed down the pace of the game.”
Winter’s other complaint with the new officiating is that the game now allows the same old physical play in the post while turning the perimeter and wing into a no-touch zone.
“That doesn’t make sense to me,” Winter said. “If you can do all that tough stuff inside, why can’t you do it outside?”
“Defense has basically stayed the same in the low post. Out on the court there’s no doubt that the interpretation has changed,” Thorn conceded.


Dumars put together a Pistons team that won an NBA championship in 2004 and made a return to the Finals in 2005. That team would have a harder time playing its defensive style in today’s game, Dumars said. “We could still compete, but it would be a lot tougher.”
As one of the top executives in the league, Dumars is hesitant to criticize the changes. He articulates his misgivings cautiously, but he makes it clear that the new rules may not allow for much diversity of play.
“I think the game is best played when everyone is allowed to play to their strengths,” he said. “I don’t think any one style should be elevated over another style.”
He said the league was at its best back in the late 80s and early 90s. “There were different styles. The Lakers had their Showtime style, getting out and running. We had our physical style as the Pistons. The Celtics had their style, as did the Bulls.
“There wasn’t anyone pushing for one style of play. That made it entertaining. When we played the Lakers, it was a battle of styles, their running against our physical game.”
Dumars said that clash of styles made for great basketball, great entertainment for the fans.
His comments beg the question: Has the league eliminated a defensive style with its new format?


Hall of Famer Rick Barry, a keen observer of the game, said he would love to see players of the past getting to attack the basket under the new officiating.
“They’d score a LOT more,” he said.
Barry called the new rules interpretation “on overreaction by the league to the low scoring teams that have arisen over the last 15 years.”
Actually the league was perhaps trying to remedy the wrong problem, Barry said.
The problem of low scoring is that coaches with less talented teams, beginning with Mike Fratello back in the 80s, put “an emphasis on ball control, on keeping down the number of possessions. That was the way Fratello kept his teams in ball games. It was the smart thing to do to win.”
Soon other coaches, who needed to win to avoid getting fired, began copying Fratello’s approach.
With that slower style also came the rise of muscular — some say illegal — defenses, such as Dumars’ “Bad Boy” Pistons and Pat Riley’s New York Knicks.
The combination of a slower tempo and the muscular defense turned the NBA’s running game into a half-court battle.
Rather than calling touch fouls, the NBA really should have considered shortening the shot clock to 20 or even 18 seconds, Barry said. “That would speed the game up.”
Still, Barry, a prodigious scorer, admits to being angered by hand-checking defenses back in the 70s. And the modern game had become dominated by hand-checking and other physical ploys.
“With the way the game was being played, how much skill does it take to hold and push and shove and grab excessively?” Barry asked. “Now, with the new rules, the athletic players are much more exciting for the fans to watch.”


Rod Thorn concedes that the increased foul calls were a negative last season because a parade of free throws ultimately slows the tempo of a game and subtracts from the quality of basketball.
“Once the players get used to it, they’ll adjust,” he said.
The changes will not bring the end of defense as we know it, Thorn said. “The good defensive teams are still good. It’s just more difficult to cover those wing players, there’s no doubt about it.”
It does, however, raise questions about the style of defense. Teams that like ball pressure are already rethinking their approach.
Both Tex Winter and Joe Dumars agree that there will be adjustments, just as they agree that now that the NBA has found some new offensive life, there will be no turning back to the old ways.
So the upcoming season becomes a matter of how teams, coaches and players adjust to a new game.
Dumars, always a stoic as a player, takes the same approach as an executive.
“Everybody is going to have to adjust to how the game is being called,” he said. “There’s no sense in complaining about it because it’s not going to change. That’s been the history of the league. The game changes and you have to make adjustments.”
Teams will have to adjust their personnel, coaches will have to adjust their strategies and tactics, and players will have to adjust their play, Dumars said.
There will be adjustments before the season, before games, even during games, he added.
Winter, though, thinks adjustments should not be made just by players and coaches.
He thinks officials still need to adjust how they call the game. They can’t make it a sport of touch fouls.
“It’s pretty hard to play defense against these quicker guards without touching them a little bit,” Winter said. “I think the officials are going to have to make an adjustment too. They can’t call all those touch fouls.”
A big issue for Winter’s Lakers is how the guards will play defensively. Traditionally, Phil Jackson’s teams have featured lots of ball pressure. That means the Lakers’ pressure style has to shift.
“I think you have to play more of a containing defense,” explained Winter. “You can still put some pressure on the offense. You can contain them and slow the ball up.”
But the new guidelines “change how you force turnovers,” Winter explained. “You can’t be as aggressive as you’d like to be with your hands. You can’t be ‘into’ the guy as much.”
As a result, defense now becomes a matter of waiting for the offensive player to make a mistake, rather than forcing a turnover, Winter said.
The Lakers would like to exert the kind of ball pressure they used to deploy when Derek Fisher wore the Forum Blue and Gold.
But the new guidelines are still murky, Winter said.
Before games, officials have visited with teams to explain the new approach, Winter said. “They come in and tell us all this stuff. Then the first four or five plays of the game, you see them doing just the opposite from what they said. You don’t know what they’re going to call. So you have to adjust accordingly, depending what’s going on from game to game, even half to half.”
Barry agreed immediately, citing several incidents in the playoffs where veteran officials made questionable touch calls that had substantial impact on the outcome of a series.
Still, all in all, Barry says he likes the direction the league is taking toward eliminating hooliganism. Hockey finally did that, which now allows fans to see the brilliance of the world’s fastest, most athletic, skaters, Barry said.
As for Dumars, he’s already begun his adjustments. He signed Flip Murray in the offseason, primarily because he’s a young guard who knows how to move his feet and stay in front of an opponent with a killer crossover and lightning moves.
Dumars knows he’s got to find defenders who know that they can move their feet and look the opponent in the eye. They just can’t touch.

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

'Jackson Will Do A Better Job This Season' And Other Tex Observations

Phil Jackson will be a better coach this NBA season.
That’s the opinion of Tex Winter, Jackson’s longtime assistant and mentor.
“He’ll have more enthusiasm and energy,” Winter confided recently. “It’s not that he’s done a bad job. But he coached in real pain through all of last year.”
Jackson’s recent hip replacement surgery has helped ease his pain, although the Laker coach could require surgery at some point after the season on his other hip.
“The operation has done him a LOT of good,” Winter said. “He’s walking much straighter now. He’s using a cane, but it doesn’t appear he really needs the cane. His mood seems to have lifted now that his hip is better.”
The coach’s improved condition is one of the reasons Winter — who revealed the extent of Jackson’s troubles during a summer interview — now believes the Lakers have a chance to show substantial improvement this NBA season.
Winter wasn’t so optimistic a few months back. After watching tape of the Lakers’ summer league team, the veteran coach expressed concern about the organization’s talent level.
Three weeks into the preseason, Winter still sees problems, but he also sees a lot more promise.
As he nears his 85th birthday, the spry Winter still reserves the right to disagree with and debate Jackson. For example, Winter would like to see Kobe Bryant play the small forward spot more often. Jackson hasn’t been as enthused publicly with that shift. “I’m not sure of Phil’s feelings on that,” Winter said. “He hasn’t said.”
Winter also adds a reserve clause to Jackson’s preseason comments that Bryant will have to take fewer shots to allow his teammates more opportunities.
Winter cautions that the number of Bryant’s shots should not be the focus. “The important thing is the quality of Kobe’s shots, not the quantity,” Winter said. “If he has a high percentage shot, the shot should be taken.”
Focusing on the number of Bryant’s shots could be a false indicator, the coach said.
The Lakers welcome such debate. There was a time that GM Mitch Kupchak said Winter was the only person in the organization who could really stand up to Jackson’s strong personality.
However, Winter points out that assistant coach Kurt Rambis has shown an ability to challenge Jackson in a positive way.
Rambis, who is running the team while Jackson recuperates (and observes practices), has a good job of organizing things and teaching, along with assistants Frank Hamblen, Jimmy Cleamons, and Brian Shaw.
The organization realizes that Jackson is also a better coach with Winter around. The Lakers have asked Winter to spend all the time he possibly can with the team.
This season, Winter’s involvement should be greater due to the improvement in the health of Winter’s wife, Nancy.
So his job is to help Jackson figure out how to bring about a change of pace. “We’re trying to run more,” Winter explained. “That’s Phil’s decision, and I agree with it. Phil from day one has said we’re putting emphasis on defense and running with the basketball.”
Such a shift raises new and old questions for the Lakers. For example, where to play budding star Lamar Odom? One, two, three or four?
“Where is Odom going to be the most effective?” Winter said.
Last year, Jackson began by talking of Odom as a player with skills that mirrored former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen. There was talk of Odom playing Pippen to Bryant’s Jordanesque presence.
“Phil likes that big guard, that Pippen type, at the one or two position.”
Last year, Odom was just learning the triangle offense, so he wasn’t able to approximate Pippen’s performances within the offense.
“We’re hoping he’s closer to Pippen this year,” Winter said.
Defensively, it’s virtually impossible to copy Pippen’s effectiveness as a help defender who could recover and patrol the lane like a hydra.
Odom’s simply not that type of player. Perhaps no one is.
“Defensively, Odom’s not a Scottie Pippen,” Winter said. “But Odom has his own defensive strengths. One of those is his ability off the defensive boards, to pull down the ball and power out on the break. That’s a big factor for our team.”
Actually the player who has most impressed Winter in the preseason is Luke Walton, another versatile player who can work the boards with Odom.
“He can run this offense,” Winter said of Walton. “He’s the best playmaker we have.”
Walton can even bring the ball up against pressure, Winter said. “He can advance the ball in the backcourt. We trust him to do that. Plus he can rebound the ball and power out like Odom. He finds the open people and can really be a factor in our running game.”
Where Odom will play and whether Walton will play sixth man may ultimately depend on what happens at other positions.
The question marks for the Lakers remain big — about seven feet tall, to be exact. “We’ve got a chance to be a better team,” Winter said, “but an awful lot depends on our big people. The post position is ultimately the determining factor on how good we can be.”
The team is keeping a close eye on how Chris Mihm returns from an injury that first sidelined him last season against Charlotte.
Mihm is the team’s only true offensive threat at center. But his recovery has dragged on leaving huge questions.
The other posts — Kwame Brown and teen-ager Andrew Bynum — have both improved. “Brown and Bynum have got a long way to go,” Winter said. “They’re working hard, and Brown is a good strong defender, a strong rebounder. Bynum has improved and has turned in some good play recently.
“But neither one of them can score the ball. They both want to score and try to score, but they don’t. So we lose the post scoring option out of the triangle.”
That sort of flattens the offensive geometry into a beeline for Bryant.
What’s worse, with Brown and Bynum pressing so hard to score “they’re really not the feeders out of the post we want them to be. Seeing and feeding the cutters is important for the post in the triangle. They realize it, and they’re trying to do the right thing. Both of them are pretty good passers. So they’re supposed to be feeders first. But right now they’re looking to score and struggling to score as opposed to being feeders first. If help is needed for this team, it’s there. We really don’t know when Mihm could help us. Or what’s going to happen there.”
The other critical area for the team is guard play, specifically getting help for Bryant in the backcourt. And Winter says both Smush Parker and Sasha Vujacic have shown strong improvement and good play. “Smush has had a very good camp, and Sasha has too. He's shooting better,” Winter said. “We’ve got a lot of guys vying for those guard spots. Some good looking players — (J.R.) Pinnock and (Shammond) Williams — but they’re still learning what we’re doing.
“I think Mo (newcomer Maurice) Evans is gonna help us. I like what I see in him. We’ve been playing him at the two and three. I’m not sure where he’ll end up playing. The problem is, he’s really a three, with his work on the boards and along the baseline. He’s very effective crashing the boards, and he’s a great jumper. We’re looking at him as a two, but the guard spot takes him away from what he does best.”
A big issue for the Lakers is how the guards will play defensively. Traditionally, Jackson’s teams have featured lots of ball pressure. But the league last season began a new policy of calling touch fouls on the perimeter to help free up offensive players. Thus, Miami’s Dwyane Wade’s big performance in the NBA Finals last June.
That means the Lakers’ pressure style has to shift.
“I think you have to play more of a containing defense,” explained Winter, a critic of the NBA’s new guidelines for officiating the game. “You can still put some pressure on the offense. You can contain them and slow the ball up.”
But the new guidelines “change how you force turnovers,” Winter explained. “You can’t be as aggressive as you’d like to be with your hands. You can’t be ‘into’ the guy as much.”
As a result, defense now becomes a matter of waiting for the offensive player to make a mistake, rather than forcing a turnover, Winter said.
The Lakers would like to exert the kind of ball pressure they used to deploy when Derek Fisher wore the Forum Blue and Gold.
But the new guidelines are still murky, Winter said.
Before games, officials have visited with teams to explain the new approach, Winter said. “They come in and tell us all this stuff. Then the first four or five plays of the game, you see them doing just the opposite from what they said. You don’t know what they’re going to call. So you have to adjust accordingly, depending what’s going on from game to game, even half to half.”
As for the league’s new ball, the old school coach says, “My personal opinion, from what I’ve seen of it, I don’t like it. Maybe the players will get used to it. I don’t know. It’s got a funny feel to it.”

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 by McGraw-Hill.