Friday, June 27, 2008

A Brief Tribute

Today is Will Leitch's last day at Deadspin. If you don't know who Leitch is, he's not only a sheepish Midwesterner who shamelessly imposes his love of the St. Louis Cardinals on all of Blogfrica, but he also happens to be a pioneer and an articulate and gracious defender of my chosen medium. He is a thoughtful and genuinely humorous writer (two characteristics which are actually quite difficult to muster on a consistent basis), and will be missed. He is becoming a contributing editor at New York Magazine and I'll be interested to see how his unassuming style meshes with the kind of gossipy and occasionally insightful writing the magazine produces. If you haven't had an opportunity, read/listen to Bill Simmons' and Scott Van Pelt's messages to Will. Will has a rather bristly relationship with mainstream sports media, and it was both touching and absolutely hilarious to see Simmons and Van Pelt cross the proverbial aisle and make a gesture of good will. Leitch's style and sensibilities are very distinct from mine, but one cannot help but rally around the immediacy of why he writes about sports: the enduring belief that this should all be fun. Will wasn't the first sports blogger, but he changed the game, so to speak. I have never met Leitch, and my writing has never been linked on Deadspin, but as a young sportswriter I cannot help but look up to him. This has been really sentimental and in order to balance it out it would be a fitting tribute to insert a dick joke right about now, but its just not my style.

On an additionally sober note, I haven't been writing as often now that the season is over, and probably won't write daily again until the fall. It was really exciting to watch the draft and I have a lot to talk about now that so much new talent has been injected into the league, so hopefully this weekend I'll get an opportunity to write about what I think are some of the more intriguing post draft developments (expect reflections on the Bobcats, the T-Wolves/Griz trade, the Knicks, Trailblazers, and of course, the Spurs). I'll also be keeping up with the Olympic team, as well as publishing some longer pieces on class, race and, the NBA (prepare for pretentiousness). Its been a great season, and thank you to everyone who has been supportive of my efforts here. As I have a real job, which takes up a lot of my time, its hard to find the energy to write on a consistent basis, but a subtle combination of your enthusiasm and my ego has driven me to keep writing. Go Spurs.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pre-Draft Thoughts: D.J. Augustin

I watch a lot of college hoops so I feel reasonably familiar with this draft class, but having been raised in Austin I am a huge University of Texas fan and therefore am very familiar with D.J. Augustin. Maybe its just increased media coverage, or Eamonn Brennan's insistence that every team from slots 9 to 15 should pick D.J., but in general I feel that his draft stock has risen since the end of the season.

He didn't finish the season on a high note, as the Horns got handled by a Memphis Tigers team that just came off as considerably more athletic. But throughout the season, he showed poise and flashes of brilliance which could signal a promising pro career.

D.J. is a little small for an NBA point guard, listed at 5'11", 175, but as we all know those numbers are oftentimes untrustworthy. That being said, he has a muscular build and may just have the toughness to bang with guys bigger than he is (ahh, toughness, a favorite "intangible" of mine).

If a team is concerned about minimizing off-court troubles, Augustin is your man. He's a mama's boy and a straight A student, but has that dirty coast swagger that I think still gives him star potential. To me, his whole demeanor screams "heart of a champion."

His ball handling and decision making are his greatest strengths. He's not a pure passer (the man has a nice outside jumper), but his assist-to-turnover ratio is outstanding. I'm surprised more people don't compare him to Deron Williams, even though he's a good bit smaller. Both have a strong build and neither are wizards with the ball, but both make excellent decisions and primarily take long range shots from the top of the arc. Augustin also thrives offensively when driving off the pick, another D-Will characteristic.

Draft Express lists his weaknesses as:

• Size
• Defensive potential
• Streak shooter
• Finishing potential at next level?
• Ball-dominant at times
• Shot-selection mildly questionable

Size is obvious and unavoidable, but as small point guards go, I've already said I think he's strong enough to make up for his height. I think he actually has excellent defensive potential, but has shown that potential selectively. Texas played inconsistent defense all-season: at points their defense was lazy and porous, at other times it was focused and smothering. His personal defensive prowess waxed and wained with the whole squad.

"Streak Shooter" is accurate, as is "ball-dominant at times," but this season he was both UT's best offensive weapon (he can create more for himself that A.J. Abrams can), while also being its primary distributor. In fact, Barnes moved Augustin to the 2 frequently so D.J. could catch the ball on the wing or while cutting, a clear signal he was the 1st option all along. Either way, my point is that in a situation where he is not the 1st option but rather the 3rd or 4th, I think he won't be seen as "ball-dominant."

His shot-selection is questionable only in the sense that he is willing to take a long-range jumper with a hand in his face. He will put the ball up while in traffic, but has shown himself to be a reasonably creative finisher in the lane, which is also why I am a little surprised they questioned his ability to finish at the next level. Again I think its too simplistic to let his height dictate his potential.

As far as where he'll fall, he could sneak into the top 10 if the Bobcats decide he is more reliable/smarter than Russell Westbrook, but realistically I think he will drop to the Pacers at 11. I would be surprised if he dropped any farther than that, but I would love it if the Trailblazers could nab him at 13. He would be an excellent compliment to a squad with endless potential, and as a UT fan I would be excited for two former Horns to be apart of the team that many, including myself, feel will win a ring in the next five years.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Gray Lady and I Have Similar Thoughts

Today William Rhoden had a piece in the New York Times about Brandon Jennings, a top high school prospect out of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. It seems Jennings, who has signed a letter of intent with the University of Arizona, is considering playing in Europe for a year or two before coming to the NBA. As you probably know, the minimum age to play in the NBA is 19 and the player must be one year out of high school. Players have primarily reacted by spending the transitional year playing college hoops. Prominent players in this years draft to spend only one year in college include Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, and Kevin Love (the first three of which or widely expected to go 1-2-3 in the draft). Rhoden's topic is the perfect compliment to my piece last week on the decisions of Juan Carlos Navarro and Tiago Splitter to play in Europe over the NBA.

Jennings' stated intention is to merely earn money and develop as a player so he can return to the NBA in the near future, rather than waste a year in college not making any money and being hamstrung by the NCAA's vast personal restrictions. But what happens if a European team offers him a considerable amount more than the NBA's maximum rookie contract allows for? Is he going to take less money to play in America? It will be very interesting to see how many players follow in his footsteps and whether financial considerations cause any young prospects to stay in Europe.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Across the Pond

I am conflicted about a recent development in professional basketball: European players actually choosing to play in Europe over the United States. Although soft and floppy, foreign players bring a really dynamic element to the American game- they pleasantly combine classical form with an expansive vision of their position (for example, all the foreign combo guards, or all the European big men who can knock down an outside jumper). But recent events, such as Tiago Splitter's decision to stay with Tau Ceramica rather than join the Spurs or Juan Carlos Navarro's decision to move back to Spain after having played for the Grizzlies (why would you want to live in Spain when you could live in Tennessee?) point towards the emerging trend.

Part of my conflict is selfish. I have greater access to the NBA than I do the Euroleague and want to be able to see the top shelf talent out there on a consistent basis. Part of me is also frustrated because this trend obviously reflects the reality of the American economy as well as the Dollar's relationship to the Euro.

But really my intrigue derives from how this will affect the game itself. First and foremost, I am happy that the Euroleague is having the kind of success where it can offer talented players competitive contracts. I hold little nationalist sentiment, well, in general, but in particular when it comes to sports. I think it is beautiful that the game has had such global success. I am also a proponent of an increasingly cosmopolitan sense of the game on a professional level: if the Euroleague or the Chinese league were competitive enough that the NBA and other countries could organize the hoops equivalent to the Champions League, I would be a proponent. So this isn't coming from some type of quiet jingoism or nostalgia for American dominance.

But look at the players making the decision to move to Europe: Splitter, Navarro. Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili aren't going anywhere. The NBA isn't going to be robbed of any superstars, and to be honest I hate the superstar-centric culture of the NBA so I wouldn't even care that much if it was. But what they stand to lose are a plethora of talented role and bench players who really flesh out American franchises. If you could play 20 minutes a game for $500,000 a year in Cleveland, or 40 minutes a game for $2 million a year in Madrid, is that really even a choice? I'm concerned that an increased amount of openness on the part of NBA players to head across the pond will quietly rob teams of their solid second-tier guys and encourage the franchises to be even more top-heavy when it comes to personnel. I'll be interested to see who is the first American player to choose Europe over the NBA. Obviously Americans play in Europe, but most didn't have a legitimate shot at playing in the Association. It would be unprecedented for an American who had a real choice to choose an international league over the States.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


So YouTube completely bailed on me and I had to rewrite this post. If you want to see Garnett's psycho/reflective/inspiring post-game interviews go here and here. There are so many classic lines in both those clips I don't even know where to begin, so I'll just let KG's statements stand on their own. I will note that "Michelle, you look good tonight, girl" is a personal favorite.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Anything is Possible"

Wow. I'm blown away by the Celtics' performance this evening. I try my hardest to shy away from hyperbole, from epic ruminations on "champions", etc...

But what we witnessed this evening was beyond dominant, it was transcendent. It was a horrible basketball game. Lopsided and lacking any sense of drama. But it was simultaneously a gift. A chance for all those who aspire to something greater than themselves to look on and believe. I have never seen a team play with so much heart for 48 minutes the way I saw the Celtics play this evening. Never.

God bless Kevin Garnett. He is a warrior and an inspiration. As I watched him celebrate his first NBA championship, a title he has worked so long and hard to achieve, I could not help but be overcome with emotion. I did not cry, although I unashamedly will admit that my stoicism took some effort. But as I watched Garnett cry, as I watched him scream "anything is possible," I fell in love all over again. I never stopped loving basketball. But my fire had died. I had grown passive and cynical. Garnett's post-game reaction this evening changed me. He reminded me not merely why I love to watch the game, but why I love to play it. God bless Kevin Garnett.

I have so much to say about this evening. Paul Pierce. Ray Allen. Rajon Rondo. Eddie House. James Posey. Leon Powe. I have so much to say about this evening, but I must go to bed. What we witnessed tonight isn't over. The game may have ended but the myths are just beginning to take flight.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Notes from Across the Association

Rivers: So I love to hate on Doc Rivers, I really do. I think his in-game personnel and time management are mediocre at best (i.e. Sam Cassell), but I haven’t been being honest with myself. The Celtics always come out at half and play a great third quarter. Obviously part of this is just the general focus of the team, a fair amount of which independently emanates from the players (KG). But it’s unfair to not give Doc some credit for inspiring those guys in the locker room. Some very good coaches (Roy Williams) are not masters of the in-game adjustment but have just the right touch when it comes to motivation. I’m not hopping on the Doc Rivers train, but he’s currently outcoaching one of the greats and, well, you got to respect that.

The Celtics: Ok, so I spent a ton of time prior to the Finals detailing all the reasons I was going to root for the Lakers instead of the Celtics. But you want to know what? I was rooting for Boston last night. I’m not exactly sure why. Part of me just thought it would be hilarious if the most over-hyped finals ever ended in 5. I pretty much find anything funny if it pisses off Stern. But a good part of it was just a healthy sense of respect. This Celtics team is clearly the better squad and deserves to win this championship.

Paul Pierce: And for some reason I am starting to like Paul Pierce and it’s not just because he’s a bad-ass out there. I used to find him smug (my favorite pejorative for an NBA player), but I actually feel as if he has shown a lot of class and focus out there on the floor. Despite the seemingly alpha-male status of KG, Pierce remains the quiet leader of this squad. I still think his game is a bit slovenly, but my ire has receded.

Allen: A tip of the ole’ hat to Allen for deciding to show up this playoffs.

Race: Has anybody noticed (I’m sure you have) the odd racial dynamics of this NBA Finals? In the 80’s, the Celtics were the whitest team in the NBA while the Lakers had a decidedly black vibe. But now this LA team may be the whitest in the whole Association and the Celtics coach is giving speeches about African spiritualism and Apartheid. Did anybody notice when Jackson had Vujacic, Farmar, Mihm and Walton on the floor at once? I don’t think there have been that many white guys on the Lakers since they were in Minneapolis.

Bill Walton: He’s back? Damn it! I can just hear him now: “that was the greatest in-bounds pass during a second quarter I’ve ever witnessed in the Finals.”

There Can Only Be One: So obviously this most recent compilation “there can only be one” commercial is earth-shatteringly awesome. Every time they cut to Manu looking tortured on the sidelines I want to cry like a little girl. Good job, NBA. I had officially gotten off the bandwagon on those commercials, but you pulled them out of the gutter quite nicely.

Mark Jackson: His whole conception of “fake hustle” last night was actually pretty brilliant. Way to delineate between guys who make plays and guys who want to make sure they don’t get ripped on for not making plays.

McDonald’s Kids Soccer Commercial: I can’t tell whether I’m pumped McDonald’s used Os Mutantes’ “A Minha Menina” during their commercial or if I’m frustrated they may have corrupted a great song, but honestly, I’m leaning towards the former.

Obama: Obama’s going to put in a basketball court at the White House. Nice.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Worst Defensive Play in the History of the NBA Finals?

In one word: Yes.

Next Morning Update: But really, Sasha Vujacic’s defense on Ray Allen on the second to last possession was abysmal. I’m talking a defensive failure of world-historical importance. I understand the lack of help defense. The Celtics had been draining it from the corner and sensibly enough, Phil Jackson told everyone to stay home. But that means you’ve got to slather on that game face and buckle down for some one-on-one, Sasha. Lateral movement, damn it. Move your feet. And even if Ray Ray does cut past you, you at least continue to pursue, rather than just stand there like an idiot yelling for help that is inevitably going to come late. Allen is old and has no wheels, and you let him blow right by you. I wanted to make other comments about this game because I actually watched it very closely, but the shock of Vujacic’s defensive non-effort has left me with short term memory loss.

On a positive note, Ronny Turiaf did some tremendous sideline dancing during the first half while the Lakers were up big. I tell ya, that man has some wild moves.

The Archives

The Iceman and Pistol. Great Stuff. Gervin's style was so smooth, but I love/am not surprised that Maravich is the more inventive of the two. Why don't they still do this at the All-Star game? A game of horse between Chris Paul and Allen Iverson would be legendary.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Impurities in the Blood

At the risk of drowning in my own naiveté, I’ll admit the whole Tim Donaghy revelation really saddens me. Some of the more lucid thinkers out there would encourage me to just take a frank and honest look at the corruption that has infected nearly every facet of American society and deal with it. Others want to use this as a rallying cry, a potentially progressive moment in which we can break open the whisky barrels and collectively sober up. But I can’t help but feel a little lost amidst it all.

Obviously it’s completely unclear whether Donaghy’s claims are at all true. I’m very receptive to the notion that the NBA encourages referees to favor star players. Even many analysts at the worldwide leader, for all its ties to the corporate side of the Association, admit that superstars get a leg up (“Kobe would’ve gotten that call, but Barry isn’t gonna”). And the questions surrounding the refereeing in the 2002 Kings-Lakers series are well documented, so it’s not a huge leap in logic to assume he chose to mention those games for their tactical advantage rather than their truthfulness.

But we are in a wasteland of trust. How many times have you heard someone casually mention that the NBA will never let the Finals go less than six games? And last night, as the Lakers repeatedly got to the line in the 1st, the reality of that statement seemed all too clear. It’s not just conspirators and vengeful referees making these claims. Hell, Rasheed Wallace (not that he is a beacon of reason) compared the NBA to professional wrestling. I know the Kings got screwed in 2002. I know that Brent Barry got screwed in game 4 of the Western Conference Finals this year. I don’t know if these things are calculated or merely the product of poor officiating.

I am glad this is all rising to the top. Stern has always favored profit over principle. The details of this debate are less important than its tenor. For me this is less about the purity of the game (not to say that it isn’t) than it is about the NBA’s chickens coming home to roost. Whether or not the specifics of Donaghy’s accusation reveal themselves to be fact, we must ensure that Stern understands that the culture he has created was inevitably going to lead to this level of moral uncertainty.

Let's briefly transition from one bumbling reality to the next: The NBA Finals were awful before this whole refereeing bullshit arose. Obviously the poor officiating in game 2 has contributed to it, but in general the level of play has been underwhelming to say the least. Last night Pierce and Garnett played the worst games I've seen them play in a while and the Lakers still barely pulled it out. Gasol is a rag-doll in the paint. Odom is selfish, confused and unable to make a layup. Kobe played well last night, but he has yet to even come close to his full potential. The Celtics' frontcourt bench is making a mockery of the Lakers' frontcourt. Vladimir Radmonovic... I don't even know where to begin with that guy. LA consistently comes off as young and undisciplined. I understand that the Lakers can play better than this, but the Celtics laid a huge egg last night and that's what LA came up with? The Lakers are not playing championship caliber ball. I swear I'm only watching these games out of some perverted sense of obligation.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Quick Glance Around the Interwebs

There was a lot I wanted to talk about today, but I don't have the time, so I'll just leave you with the primary sources and let you do the leg work:

This piece by Kelly Dwyer is exactly how I feel about the Bulls hiring Vinny Del Negro.

This piece by Bethlehem Shoals is essential to my brief thoughts on defense that I posted below (as is the always stellar debate in the comments section. Its weird to write "stellar debate in the comments section" and mean it.) They get into a much more sophisticated back-and-forth than I had time for, but I'll be sure to look at the issue more deeply, maybe this weekend when I can really sit down and write.

Although not basketball related, this piece by Dave Zirin explores the shameful manner in which the NFL and the military have responded to the evidence surrounding Pat Tillman's death (for further reading, take a look at Zirin's interview with Tillman's heroic mother).

Britt Robson knows hoops. He is one of the best basketball writers out there today. I don't miss a word he writes, and neither should you.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Creative Destruction

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece questioning why the Celtics and Spurs, two teams who play extremely similar basketball, are oftentimes understood so drastically differently. The overriding narrative of the Celtics circulates around the lauded concepts of "hustle" and "unselfish play", while the Spurs are derided as "boring," which they aren't, and "old," which they may in fact be. During the Hawks-Celtics series, a brief glimmer of revolt erupted in the basketball world as the immediacy of explosiveness and swagger seemed to overwhelm the carefully crafted narrative of renaissance ball constructed around Boston. But alas, the Celtics survived and descended into an offensive wasteland, first against the prodding and unsophisticated Cavs, and later against the bored (distinct from boring) and unexplainably ineffective Pistons.

All the while, on the other side of the country, the Lakers seized our attention with their seemingly unstoppable fusion of style and skill. They seemed to have mastered a system which combined fluidity and effectiveness in a way that many people (read Suns fans) had only dreamed of. And in a stroke of economic luck for the NBA, both these highly praised franchises found themselves in the Finals.

Then something tragic happened. The fluidity seemed to collapse, the effectiveness crumble, and a Lakers team that rolled into the Finals having only lost 3 times in the post-season finds itself down 2-0. And how quickly the mobs turned on the beloved Celtics. They have become destroyers of grace, the sworn enemy of artfulness. The Celtics, through democratic defense and physical basketball, have taken a slick and sassy LA squad and reduced it to an ineffective collection of uncharismatic Europeans led by a foul-mouthed superstar.

I have repeatedly defended the aesthetic value of “physical” basketball. I always felt to act as if muscularity and grit don’t have a style all their own is to miss the beauty of contact sport. I would be lying if I said I thoroughly enjoyed Sunday night’s game, but mostly my disgust arose from the Lakers abysmal coverage of the pick and roll and their non-existent attempt to defend against the transition three-pointer.

But the specifics of game 2 aside, the Celtics-Lakers final has created an interesting aesthetic clash, characterized by those who value “creation” vs. those who value “destruction.” Historically, I have been in the latter camp, but, in these playoffs in particular, I have been struck by instances in which the two overlap. Could anyone argue that Tayshaun Prince’s oeuvre of defensive stops doesn’t transcend the simple negating purpose of the moves he is implementing? Or Josh Smith’s Icarian blocks? Even well executed help defense can seem to momentarily give birth, even if its only children are fear and confusion.

Defense doesn’t merely require trust and fundamentals, it requires pride and a sense of ownership. Or if electricity and showmanship is what you seek, then why ignore the finger-wags and ominous glances of defensive masterminds. There’s more to be said on this topic, but suffice it to say that to conceive of defense as merely a negative activity as opposed to an act of self-expression is to ignore prowess as it stares you straight in the eye.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Injury and Myth

Last night Paul Pierce collapsed to the floor at TD Banknorth Garden, writhing in pain from a collision he and Kendrick Perkins had under the basket. Pierce was gripping his knee and clinching his teeth, suggesting that he was in considerable pain. Eventually he was carried from the court by some teammates and assistants and wheeled into the locker-room.

I am not fond of Pierce but I never like to see a player get hurt nor was I particularly excited about the decreased level of competition the Finals would offer if Pierce were out for the rest of the series. Eventually Pierce returned to the floor, possibly playing on pure adrenaline, probably because he actually wasn’t that severely injured, and proceeded to play excellently for the remainder of the game.

Many people, including those present at the arena, seemed to view Pierce’s return as the emotional boost that allowed the Celtics to capture game 1. I personally felt the Lakers were unmoved by the whole affair and a more accurate description of the game would cite a combination of the Celtics superior rebounding and tenacious defense, and the Lakers uncommonly poor shooting as the reason why the Celtics struck first.

But the reality of the game aside, the mythmaking potential of Pierce’s injured play was immediately mined by last night’s announcers. The most obnoxiously overused injury related sports reference is to Willis Reed’s heroic participation in game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. The fact that the Knicks were playing the Lakers in the finals only makes the incorrect application of this analogy all the more likely.

Comparing Pierce’s play to Reed’s is hyperbolic and disingenuous, but not unexpected. Announcers are constantly looking to falsely heighten the drama of the moment, even when the high quality of the game going on should alone suffice, and as such a reference to Reed was not a question of if but when.

The more awkward and inappropriate analogy was Mark Jackson’s frequent invocation of Muhammad Ali. When Pierce initially returned to the court, accompanied by the thunderous applause of the crowd, Jackson said he was like “Ali.” Other than the facts that both men are black and at moments Ali also found himself standing before cheering crowds, I can’t think of a meaningful similarity between the two. Ali never famously carried on while injured, or at least no more injured than any other fighter gets over the course of a bout. He certainly never retired to the locker room to triumphantly reemerge, as boxing obviously doesn’t allow for such.

In the post-game coverage, Jackson focused his comparison, saying that Pierce specifically reminded him of Muhammad Ali when he fought against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. At first I thought he was just being lazy and uninventive, comparing one epic matchup to another for no other reason than both are “epic.” If you’re really looking to give Jackson credit, you could argue Pierce, by feigning injury, had “rope-a-doped” the Lakers, but that didn’t strike me as his intention. But as I listened I realized he didn’t seem to focus on Ali’s matchup with Foreman, but rather specifically mentioned Kinshasa.

Jackson’s mindless mythmaking is a trope frequently utilized by announcers, particularly announcers ill-equipped to give an honest assessment of the game (there’s a reason Jeff Van Gundy doesn’t make use of such rhetorical tactics). It’s not as if I don’t hear these types of comments often, but something about comparing Pierce to Ali struck me as uniquely absurd.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Praise the Basketball Gods

They have blessed us with that rarest of occurrences: There is actually basketball on tonight. I know, I also forgot the playoffs were still going on. I just figured the NBA and ESPN made a deal to suspend the Finals indefinitely so they could milk a seemingly endless stream of hype and just hoped nobody would notice.


I snapped. The gravity of the NBA Finals and the mythic rivalry it reanimated had infected the core of my being. I actually had a dream where I was sitting on the banks of the Ganges river in India with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird talking about which player in this series has the most to prove. I am being serious.

Then I read this excellent piece from Matt over at Hardwood Paroxysm and I realized "Graydon, you were born in 1984 you asshole. Your earliest basketball memories are of Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Michael Jordan." And the relief came in waves. The anxieties of allegiance and history have passed me by, and I look forward to watching the Finals in peace.

Also, check out this excellent interview with Chuck Klosterman by Goathair over at the Blowtorch. His description of Ray Allen as a "superstitious panda" blew my mind. This isn't the first time Klosterman has found his way onto 48 Minutes and it probably won't be the last. Every time his basketball writing crops up I find it to be a pleasure. For further reading, check out his March 2008 piece in the New York Times about the Celtics role players who made the transition from last years catastrophe to this years Eastern Conference Champs. There are some brilliant anecdotes about Brian Scalabrine in it. Enjoy the game tonight.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Embodies the Spirit

So I don't typically like to talk about politics on this blog. Or at least not partisan politics. I would argue that the intersections of sports and politics are more numerous than people acknowledge (in the off-season I plan to explore quite thoroughly the site at which aesthetics, politics and sports collide). But sometimes a moment comes a long that embodies the spirit of why you write about sports in the first place: the swagger, the style, the optimism. Ladies and gentlemen, last night I witnessed one of those moments. The man who may very likely be the next President of the United States and his wife gave each other a pound. If that's not the most FD move a politician's ever made, I don't know what is. Bounce to the sound of the changing of the guard.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Glass Ceiling

The celebrity of athletes is a unique phenomenon. Few other occupations that command notoriety do so on such a meritocratic basis. Actors need not be accomplished thespians in order to acquire the adoration of fans or the endless pursuit of paparazzi. Politicians can be unthoughtful, inarticulate and ineffective while receiving the votes of millions. Contemporary music often sounds like the moans of a dying sow and that has hardly stemmed the tides of fame. Athletes, on the other hand, are unquestionably very good at what they do. Even garbage time players are amongst the top 500 or so basketball players in the world. A variety of factors go into producing the celebrity-athlete, but it must begin with talent.

Posters of Tim Duncan hang on few walls outside of central Texas. However dominant he may be, his stoicism endears him to few. Alternately, as a boy growing up in Austin I had a Michael Jordan poster on my wall, even though I could care little about the Chicago Bulls. Jordan's aura was expansive and his public reputation, despite the reality of his private shortcomings, was well maintained. So clearly to act as if personality relates little to fame (or more accurately, to marketability) is disingenuous. But unlike other occupations prone to the limelight, great athletes assert their presence rather than rely on the dubious charity of opinion makers.

The celebrity of Kobe Bean Bryant, despite his meteoric skill, remains more elusive. Few who know basketball would argue that Kobe Bryant is not the best player in the world. His control over the game seems just shy of total. When the ball leaves the hands of many players I hungrily anticipate the flexion of the net as the ball slides through, but I don't assume it. When Kobe let's it fly, I am continually caught off guard if he doesn't score. I stop just shy of asking myself whether or not he chose to miss the shot on purpose- could he actually be crafting some hidden storyline that would allow his heroism to reveal itself all the more brilliantly?

But then again, Kobe is hardly a hero. It’s not even clear to me he is universally respected. Jordan is both, and Duncan, although hardly loved, is widely regarded as the best power forward in the history of the game. But Kobe, despite the countless times we have witnessed the imposition of his will on the opposing team, often lurks in the shadows of true adoration.

For years the most damning critique of Kobe lied at the crossroads of morality and basketball: He's arrogant and selfish and although he may score he makes his team worse. Many have seen this season as some great moral awakening for Kobe, as he has learned to "trust" his teammates and subsequently made progress not just as a player but as a human being. Others would argue, not wholly inaccurately, that a combination of successful PR and the addition of some competent teammates have made it possible for Kobe to pass the ball more often, creating the illusion he has made some socio-emotional leap forward when in actuality he’s just being savvy.

As Kobe approaches a possible fourth title, and seems poised to win others in the upcoming years, it strikes me as odd that such a prodigious talent remains such a partisan figure. But in order to be honest about his stilted celebrity, we have to be honest about the nature of his game: he is the most Jordan-esque player since Jordan.

It’s not merely that he is the first player since Jordan who has an opportunity to win the MVP award, an NBA Title, and an Olympic Gold Medal in the same year (although obviously that is worth noting). His floor style is as evocative of MJ as anyone’s has ever been. His combination of elasticity and control around the basket. The seemingly endless variety of ways he can create space to get an open mid-range look. His ability to muster unwavering focus and still actual casual. The man changed his number from 8 to 24, a gesture that has more than a little symbolic significance.

But maybe that was the curse of the “next Jordan.” Where Jordan’s shortcomings were whitewashed in pursuit of the ultimate advertising tool, Kobe’s every wrinkle has been excavated in an attempt to prove (or disprove) the authenticity of such a weighty prediction. Although, like Jordan, his off-the-court troubles have been easily forgotten. The fact that Kobe was on trial for rape seems a distant memory at this point. The fact that he is a notorious womanizer has received some traction recently, but that little blemish will fade even faster.

But, given the unique nature of athletic celebrity, he has been continuously interrogated for how he handles himself on the hardwood. It seems to me that comparisons to Jordan thrust him upward right into a glass ceiling. Prophesying his “next-ness” both centered our attention on him and put him in a position where his every shortcoming would be seen as a reason the comparison is illegitimate. Could you genuinely argue Jordan was any less selfish or any less arrogant? Could you argue Jordan’s off-court issues were any less problematic (to be fair, being accused of rape is more severe than having a gambling problem)?

The other dynamic to this whole comparison is the brand of Jordan. Kobe, partially driven by the events of Colorado, has made a much less memorable mark on the world of advertising. Although Jordan (or Peyton Manning or Tiger Woods) is seen as a little campy because of his whole-hearted embrace of the consumer-side of sports, the reservoir of positive PR he received because of his commercialization will never run dry. Whether it was Kobe himself or the corporate apparatus, somewhere along the way someone decided Bryant was unfit to tell us which razors to buy, which credit card to use, which sports drink to re-energize ourselves with. A deficit of smiling portraits of Kobe has cost him an immeasurable amount of credibility with middle-class America. The recent success of viral advertising featuring Kobe hardly makes up for an entire decade in which he could have been playing horse with Steve Nash for a Big Mac.

I don’t think Kobe has legitimately reached the level as a player where he can be compared to Jordan as an equal rather than as a potentiality. But one has to wonder what type of on-court theatrics it will take for Kobe to get there, or whether such theatrics even exist.

UPDATE: This post from the gentlemen at Antwonomous is rather relevant.

What are the odds?

(How likely is it that Garnett will murder someone to become a champion?)

Game 1: Lakers +2 ½; Celtics -2 ½

Derek Fisher hits a game winning shot: 10 to 1. Fisher’s a clutch shooter, and as fine a player as any to take a last second shot. But it will be hard for the Celtics to force the ball out of Kobe’s hands in close, late game situations, making this scenario a little less likely.

Ray Allen rediscovers his jumpshot: 2 to 1. Yes, Jesus Shuttlesworth shot well during the end of the Pistons series, but I’m unconvinced the prodigal stroke has returned.

Kobe scores 20 in a 4th quarter: 7 to 1. Kobe is likely to at least once revert back to pre “trusting” Kobe and try to control the game from the start of the 1st quarter. This will inevitably alienate his supporting cast and the Lakers will slip down by 17 or so. But that will create the perfect scenario for Kobe to go off in the 4th and march triumphantly into NBA Finals lore.

Doc Rivers outcoaches Phil Jackson: 15 to 1. George Karl, Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich. Mike Woodson, Mike Brown, Flip Saunders. In your opinion, which list of playoff victims is more prestigious? When the Lakers win, Rivers will have been the worst coach Jackson has outmaneuvered this post-season, not the best (I’m giving George Karl some credit here for rhetorical effect).

Paul Pierce throws up a gang sign: 10 to 1. I may absolutely despise Pierce for being moody and smug, but it is absurd to interpret every hand gesture a black man makes as being a “gang sign.”

Media interprets a Paul Pierce hand gesture as a gang sign: 2 to 1. What has this world come to that “thugs” are our sports heroes? What’s next, a black President!?

Lamar Odom has a big series: 2 to 1. Every time Kobe drives to the lane, the Celtics are going to go LeBron on him and collapse completely. Unlike the Cavs, Kobe can pass to a more than competent and furiously cutting Lamar Odom who will highlight the futility of the Celtics defense by laying down a sick dunk.

Sasha Vujacic hits a pointless last second shot when the Lakers are significantly ahead: 3 to 1. I just hope when this happens that there is not chance the Lakers reach triple digits, affirming his status us unsportsmanlike, rather than just a lover of tacos.

Ronny Turiaf takes a ride on the mothership: 1 to 1. The desired effect is what you get when you improve your interplanetary funksmanship

Kevin Garnett straight up murders somebody: 2 to 1. I'm talking homicide on the hardwood. I have this really clear image in my mind of Garnett muttering "Kali Ma Shakti De" and ripping Pau Gasol's heart out.