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Monday, May 18, 2020

The 1997-98 Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance"

"We could have won seven." Michael Jordan, with the last word on the Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance"

A major reason that Michael Jordan came back to the NBA in 2001 is that, as he later put it, he still had an "itch to scratch." That itch, that burr in Jordan's saddle, developed because the Chicago Bulls' dynasty did not reach its natural conclusion--the Bulls were not dethroned, nor did the principal figures who created that dynasty collectively agree to leave the game; the dynasty screeched to a halt because Jerry Krause's oversized ego convinced him that it made more sense to run off the game's greatest player, the game's best coach and the game's best second option in order to build a team from the bottom up and install his fishing buddy Tim Floyd as the team's coach. It should be emphasized that while Krause is most often mentioned as the villain in this drama, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf--Krause's boss--could have stepped in and stopped Krause, so Krause should not receive all of the blame.

After winning six championships in an eight season stretch, Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen earned the right to dictate their terms of departure--and they each would rather have either kept the run going until someone beat them, or win some more rings before riding off into the sunset. That is how the movie is supposed to end; the gunslinger hero either wins that last battle or he dies a noble death.

When Rick Telander asked Jordan why he would come back and risk ruining the "perfect ending" he forged by hitting the game-winning shot in the 1998 Finals, Jordan snarled, "What perfect ending? Who said it was a perfect ending? If you listened properly for that whole year, I said if Phil Jackson would be there, I would keep playing."

ESPN's much-anticipated 10 part series titled "The Last Dance"--which is what Phil Jackson labeled the upcoming 1997-98 season after Krause made public his team demolition plans--provided context, background, and behind the scenes footage from not only the Bulls' sixth championship run, but also the events that led up to that season. In the final episode, Jordan reiterated the point that he had made to Telander: Jordan did not feel happy about leaving at his peak, and in fact he would have signed a one year deal to go for his seventh championship.

I have addressed the breakup of the Bulls in depth twice, and that history is worth reviewing before turning our attention to "The Last Dance."

My December 14, 2015 article titled Terri-Bull: Premature Breakup of the Jordan-Pippen Bulls Demonstrated Why Tanking Does Not Work analyzed how difficult it is to build a championship team from scratch--which is one reason why a championship team should not be prematurely dismantled--and corrected some of the revisionist history that had been asserted about how Krause broke up the Bulls:
In November 2004 Colangelo was the chairman and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, who went into Chicago and drilled Krause's hapless Bulls 94-74. Colangelo said, "The concept of taking your championship run and then going all the way back and starting over again? There's no guarantees. You gotta be lucky. You can't afford any mistakes, bad drafts. Your picks don't turn out to be big time-players? You've got a problem. So, in my opinion, you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible. If you back up the truck, you never know. Look, in my almost four decades in sport, I never had the pleasure of having that (Jordan-style) dynasty. Knowing me as I do? I couldn't break it up."

Becoming really bad in order to become really good is not just counterintuitive; it does not work. Colangelo is right: in any endeavor, "you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible." Krause's demolition of the Bulls' dynasty is a cautionary tale that should be taught in business schools and should be mandatory homework for anyone who becomes a sports executive.

It is easy to refute the revisionist history--propagated by none other than Krause and Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf--that Krause had to do something because Jackson, Jordan and Pippen did not intend to stay around. In a July 24, 1998 Chicago Sun-Times article by Jim O'Donnell titled "Phil's agent has fill of Reinsdorf tactics," Phil Jackson's agent Todd Musburger reminded the world who broke up the Bulls and how he did it:

"Phil's not coming back. That has long been clearly understood. It's been understood since last July, when Jerry Krause told Phil, 'You can go 82-and-bleeping-0 and you're not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls."

Think about that. I have heard of an owner or a GM threatening to fire a coach if he does not win a certain number of games but who tells a coach that he will be fired even if the coach wins every game? Krause was so eager to prove that he was the brains behind the Bulls' championships that he ripped apart a dynasty in order to build a championship team from scratch in his own image--and the aftermath of that foolish decision was so disastrous that it lent a lot of credence to the speculation that instead of being a brilliant talent evaluator he was a solid GM who lucked into having Michael Jordan and then put some good pieces around Jordan.

What prompted Musburger to speak out to O'Donnell on that particular day? During the Bulls' televised press conference announcing the hiring of Tim Floyd as director of basketball operations, Reinsdorf said that the path was still open for Jackson to return as coach and that Floyd would only be the coach if Jackson decided not to return. In other words, one year after telling Jackson he was fired no matter how well the team did in the next season, Reinsdorf and Krause tried to act like the hatchet job never happened.

Musburger declared, "That's why what I heard on the TV Thursday from Reinsdorf was incredible. And what really made my blood boil was that, if nothing else, Phil left in dignity. After all he went through in his final 12 months around that team, all he did was win one last championship, and then fulfilling the expressly stated wishes of Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf, he left. No final cheap shots, no besmirching of any reputations, nothing. Simple, quiet dignity. And now they were going to dredge his good name back up to rewrite history once again and drag him through this."

Musburger called it "obscene" that Reinsdorf hijacked a day that should have belonged to Floyd and concluded, "I guess as the work day ended, the thing I was most happy about is that the more dimensional members of the media no longer need a road map when it comes to any of the convoluted paths chairman Reinsdorf and his associates may lead them down. The chairman's ways and means are too well-known by now. But why he couldn't allow Tim Floyd to have his moment without having once again flail at Phil's wonderful legacy with the Bulls remains beyond my comprehension. Thursday simply should have belonged to Tim Floyd."

In his July 24, 1998 Chicago Tribune column titled "Jackson should've called their bluff," Bernie Lincicome wrote that the press conference announcing Floyd's hiring "is so hollow it echoes." Lincicome urged Jackson, "Hey, Phil, you should have called their bluff. Asked for $12 million and demanded they exile Tim Floyd to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. for the duration. I have a map. And a floor plan."

Lincicome continued, "Is this any way to kill a dynasty? There never is a good way, but I'll take the end of the Celtics over this. Larry Bird lying on the floor in a back plaster. Kevin McHale hobbling on one foot. Robert Parish rooted like a lamp post. How is this ending? With lies and dares, and, to use Reinsdorf's own words, 'fairy tales.'"
In Jerry Krause Built (and broke up) the Bulls' Dynasty, I eulogized the man who helped build the Bulls' dynasty before he inexplicably destroyed it:
"Few GMs have enjoyed the success that Jerry Krause did. 6 rings says it all. To me, his track record is absolutely Hoophall worthy."--Scottie Pippen, after learning of Jerry Krause's death

"He's been around a long time and won championships. They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop."--Charles Oakley, speaking of Krause in 2002, when the post-dynasty Chicago Bulls went a league-worst 21-61

Two quotes by two players who knew firsthand what it felt like to be signed--and shipped off--by Jerry Krause serve as fitting epigraphs for Krause's life and career. Krause, who passed away at the age of 77 on Tuesday, deserves more credit than he often receives for building the Chicago Bulls' 1990s dynasty; he assembled all of the pieces around Michael Jordan for the first three-peat (including a marvelous coaching staff) and then when Jordan came back from his baseball hiatus Krause built an entirely new supporting cast (other than Pippen) for the second three-peat.

Sadly, Krause also deserves the blame (along with owner Jerry Reinsdorf) for breaking up the Bulls' dynasty. I have heard of coaches being told "Win (x amount of games) this year or you are fired" but, until Krause, I had never heard of an executive telling his coach that even if the team went 82-0 and won the championship he was gone--but that is exactly the message that Krause delivered to Phil Jackson prior to the Bulls' "Last Dance" championship in 1998.

Krause relished the challenge of proving that he could win without Jordan but that was foolish pride; the Bulls deserved the opportunity to, as the saying goes, come back "with their shields or on them" in 1999, as opposed to Jordan, Pippen and Jackson being exiled from the city that they had placed on the basketball map. Jackson would go on to win five more championships as a coach, Jordan came out of retirement to be an All-Star during the season that he turned 40 and Pippen recovered sufficiently from back surgery to be a key member of a Portland team that came within one bad fourth quarter in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals of perhaps derailing Jackson's budding Lakers' dynasty before the Lakers won three titles in a row.
ESPN's "The Last Dance" pulled back the curtain to provide a fascinating look at what life was like for the Bulls at the top of the mountain when they simultaneously basked in the success of winning two titles in a row (and five in seven years for Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen) while also chasing a sixth title amidst the turmoil of realizing that their run would end even if they won the championship. "The Last Dance" not only covered the 1997-98 season, but it also examined the background and history of the Chicago Bulls franchise, as well as the background and history of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson.

The first two episodes of the series traced Michael Jordan's development from a lanky 5-10 player cut from his high school varsity team to the North Carolina freshman who hit the game-winning shot in the NCAA Championship game to the NBA Rookie of the Year to a championship-winning iconic figure. One constant with Jordan was his work ethic; at every stage of his life, at every stage of his development as a player, he outworked his teammates, and he outworked his competitors.

Jordan's resentment toward Krause and the Bulls' front office began during Jordan's second season. Jordan had suffered a broken foot that caused him to miss most of the 1985-86 campaign. By the time he felt ready to return, the organization was content to sit him out the rest of the way, miss the playoffs, and collect a Draft Lottery pick. Jordan wanted to play. He had vowed to reach the playoffs every season, and he aimed to fulfill that vow. The organization applied a strict minutes restriction on Jordan down the stretch, the Bulls barely qualified for the playoffs, and then the organization lifted the minutes restriction. Jordan responded by hitting the soon-to-be NBA champion Boston Celtics with a 49 point outing and then a playoff record 63 point game. The Celtics won the series 3-0, but Jordan had staked his claim as the best player in the league. The musical selection of L.L. Cool J's "I'm Bad" to be the soundtrack for Jordan's 63 point masterpiece was quite fitting; when the song begins with the voiceover saying "Calling all cars" you can picture Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, and Bill Walton expressing a similar sentiment while facing the daunting task of guarding the player who Bird referred to as "God disguised as Michael Jordan." The media may have been slow to concede the point that Jordan was the NBA's best player, but--as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird made clear during "The Last Dance"--the players who shared the court with Jordan understood exactly how great he was.

Keep in mind that if Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause had gotten their way, fans would have been robbed of Jordan's 63 point playoff game the same way that Reinsdorf and Krause robbed fans of seeing whether or not the Bulls could have won the 1999 championship.

It is very instructive to watch how Jordan scored in the 63 point game, or in any of the vintage highlights for that matter. Jordan attacked the hoop from all angles, his footwork was impeccable, he had a deadly jump shot out to about 20 feet, and he was a very good free throw shooter. Jordan did not need a "Eurostep"/travel move to get open, he did not hook his arm around the defender's arm to try to trick referees, and he rarely shot three pointers--yet he was as efficient as he was unguardable. Seeing Jordan score like that in a more physical era and at a time when the court was not spread out with three point shooters is a vivid reminder of how unstoppable Jordan would be in today's softer era with little defensive paint presence and the court spread out with three point shooters. A team shooting 20-60 from three point range may be more mathematically efficient than a team shooting 29-60 from two point range but the latter is more fun to watch, and is more likely to be part of an overall championship equation (which includes not only shooting efficiency but also floor balance, defense, team chemistry, and other elements that are not valued by many "stat gurus").

All of that being said, it is important to remember that Jordan posted a 1-9 record in playoff games without Scottie Pippen. "The Last Dance" details how Pippen emerged from humble beginnings in Hamburg, Arkansas to become one of the greatest players in NBA history. Viewers who are too young to remember the 1990s may be surprised to see and hear just how important Pippen was. That point was reinforced at the start of the 1997-98 season when Pippen was out of action as he recovered from foot surgery. In the previous season with a healthy Pippen, the Bulls started out 34-5, finished 69-13, and won their second title in a row; the Bulls sans Pippen for the first portion of the 1997-98 season started out 6-5, and they were 24-11 when he returned to action. The Bulls went 36-8 the rest of the way with Pippen in the starting lineup (they went 2-1 in games that he missed), and they won their sixth title before Krause accomplished his goal of dismantling the team of the 90s. Pippen was not as great as Jordan, but Jordan would not have become who he became without having Pippen by his side. Jordan is the first to admit that, even if Pippen's critics are reluctant to give Pippen his due.

"The Last Dance" provided a great reminder that these players are not just numbers on a stat sheet or a salary cap spreadsheet; they are immensely skilled, sensitive human beings who gave their blood, sweat, and tears to the pursuit of excellence. Any executive and/or "stat guru" who thinks that there is a formula that can enable one to move around players like chess pieces or poker chips and thus achieve championship success misunderstands not just sports but life. Maybe the Bulls saved some money in the short term by not renegotiating Scottie Pippen's contract when he was the second best player in the league but not even one of the top 100 paid players in the NBA. The Bulls organization won that battle. How many championships has that Bulls organization won since getting rid of Jordan, Pippen, and crew? How many free agents are eager to play for a franchise that disrespected the players who built such a wonderful championship legacy?

Episode three focused on Dennis Rodman, who won two titles with the Detroit Pistons--beating Jordan's Bulls in the playoffs along the way--before playing a vital role for the Bulls' 1996-98 championship teams. Rodman was an introverted student of the game who wanted everyone to think that he was an extroverted person who just ran around the court like a crazed fool. Jackson termed Rodman a "heyoka"--a Native American term for a "backward walking" person who is a kind of jester or contrarian--and the two bonded as fellow maverick non-comformists. It is beautiful to see the way that Jackson provided structure for Rodman while also giving Rodman a lot of freedom and leeway. Jackson understands that all people have value, and that not everyone can or should be expected to fit in with the so-called "normal" way of doing things.

Jordan said, "Dennis is one of the smartest guys I played with. He understood defensive strategy with all the rotations and he had no limits in terms of what he does." In Rebounding tips from Dennis Rodman, Larry Miller and Ollie Taylor, I described Rodman as "a Phi Beta Kappa student of basketball who seemingly wants everyone to believe that he is the class clown." Rodman does not like to publicly talk about his rebounding techniques, and his autobiography I Should Be Dead By Now devotes little space to that subject, other than noting that Rodman applied judo concepts to rebounding: as I paraphrased Rodman's explanation in the aforementioned article, Rodman "would interlock his arms and legs with his opponents until he could determine where the ball was going to go and then he would use his quickness and agility to untangle himself and get to the ball." During a one on one interview many years ago, Steve Kerr confirmed to me that Rodman spent a lot of time studying game film/video, but that Rodman did not want the public to know about this.

"The Last Dance" provided a well-balanced portrayal of the Chicago Bulls-Detroit Pistons rivalry. Most reports about the Pistons' infamous 1991 "walkoff" after being swept by the Bulls neglect to point out that the Boston Celtics did the same thing after losing to the Pistons in 1988; you may be familiar with the oft-shown footage of Kevin McHale slapping hands with Isiah Thomas, but it was Thomas who approached McHale while the Celtics--including Larry Bird and Robert Parish--fled to the locker room before the game ended without congratulating the Pistons. "The Last Dance" noted that the Bulls had shaken hands with the Pistons after losing to the Pistons in 1989 and 1990, but there is a weird double standard applied against the Pistons for their 1991 "walkoff" because the Celtics are never criticized for poor sportsmanship regarding their 1988 "walkoff" after the Pistons dethroned them. The double standard goes much deeper than just the two "walkoffs," though. As I mentioned in The Celtics Were the First Bad Boys, the Pistons built their roster and formed their attitude in order to overcome a very physical Boston team:
The Pistons were not the NBA's first "Bad Boys" or even the baddest of the bad. The Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics were a brutally physical team--think back to McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals and M.L. Carr undercutting Julius Erving in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals and the way that their whole frontcourt mauled the Philadelphia 76ers' frontcourt in game seven of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals while the officials swallowed their whistles. Erving was one of the classiest players in pro basketball history, someone who rarely received technical fouls and never got into fights--but during a November 1984 regular season game he took a swing at Bird after getting frustrated by Bird's roughhousing tactics (and verbal taunting, something that Erving never did on the many occasions that he outplayed Bird and other players). James Worthy put it best during "Bad Boys": "We knew that they (the Pistons) were a good team, a very physical team, but 'Bad Boys' was something that, nah, they didn't get much respect from us. Playing against the Celtics--it didn't get any tougher, no one got any badder. You could call the Celtics 'Bad Boys' back in the early '80s."

Erving's 76ers overcame the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980 and 1982 despite the Celtics' rough tactics and then in 1983 the 76ers brought in Moses Malone as the final piece to their championship puzzle; although the 76ers had proven that they could circumvent the Celtics' physical tactics without changing their own style, they needed Malone to match up with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Pistons followed a similar path in the mid to late 1980s, adding Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Dennis Rodman in order to match up with the size, strength and physicality of the Celtics' frontcourt--but the idea that the Pistons did something fundamentally different from what the Celtics had been doing for years is nonsense. The Celtics taught the Pistons how to use physicality to gain an edge and win championships but then the Celtics got mad and lost their composure when they received a dose of their own medicine.
This narrative does not fit the narrative that the NBA and many media members portray, but it is nevertheless the truth. As a fan, I prefer the way that the 76ers and the Bulls played to the way that the Celtics and the Pistons played, but I understand why Isiah Thomas and other Pistons still feel disrespected more than 30 years later. Thomas is a vastly underrated player who was the central figure as the Pistons rose from being a 21-61 doormat in 1980-81 (the season before he joined the team) to being back to back champions in 1989-90, and Thomas' teams beat the Celtics, the Bulls, and the Lakers in the playoffs during that era. You do not have to like the Pistons, but the Pistons deserve respect as a championship team built from the ground up that more than held their own against some of the greatest teams in NBA history.

After the Bulls dethroned the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, they beat Magic Johnson and the L.A. Lakers to win the NBA title. The Lakers won game one on a Sam Perkins three pointer, but then the Bulls took four straight victories. Pippen's smothering defense against Johnson was a major factor, foreshadowing the significant role that Pippen's defense would play throughout the Bulls' subsequent title runs.

Episode four focused on Jackson, who was the perfect coach for this group of talented individuals. He knew how to push Jordan without alienating Jordan, and he knew how to get the most out of everyone else, from a Top 50 player like Pippen to an eccentric Hall of Famer like Rodman to role players who he prepared mentally, emotionally, and physically to provide support to the team's superstars at key moments. Great players want to be coached, and they respect coaches who push them to new heights. The respect and loyalty that Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman feel toward Jackson stems from the way that Jackson treated them. As Red Auerbach once said after being asked about how to handle certain players, "You handle animals, but you deal with people."

Episodes five and six explored several topics, starting with some glimpses of the beginning of the Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant friendship, a friendship whose extent the general public did not know about or understand until Jordan gave a powerful eulogy for Bryant at the public memorial service for Bryant. Jordan and Bryant faced off in the 1998 All-Star Game, with Jordan winning the MVP, and giving Bryant an open invitation to reach out to him if he ever needed advice or help; as Jordan memorably recounted during his eulogy for Bryant, Bryant accepted Jordan's offer, and often sought out Jordan for advice not just on basketball but on other matters as well. Bryant was interviewed for "The Last Dance," and he explained that he dislikes the comparisons that are often made about him and Jordan. Bryant said, "What you get from me is from him. I don't get five championships here without him, because he guided me so much and gave me so much great advice."

"The Last Dance" examined Jordan's role on the 1992 Dream Team. It has often been reported that Jordan refused to join the team if Isiah Thomas was on the roster. Jordan denies issuing that ultimatum, but he also makes it clear that he and other players would not have felt comfortable with Thomas being included. It is unfortunate that Thomas was denied an opportunity that he had earned based on his performance; as Thomas has often said, "I fit the criteria": at the time the Dream Team was selected, Thomas had led the Detroit Pistons to two championships, trailing only Magic Johnson (five titles) and Larry Bird (three titles) among his active peers. Jordan had won one title, and he won his second title just prior to the 1992 Olympics.

During the Dream Team's intense practices, Jordan showed that even among alpha males he was the "alpha alpha male," leaving no doubt that he had supplanted Johnson and Bird as the sport's top player.

Jordan and Pippen resented that during the early 1990s Krause was pursuing young Croatian player Toni Kukoc. As Jordan put it, Krause was placing Kukoc "ahead of his own kids," meaning the Bulls players who had performed at such a high level, eventually winning three straight NBA titles. Pippen shut Kukoc down during Team USA's first game versus Croatia. Kukoc performed better in the gold medal game against Team USA, but Team USA still dominated, and Jordan and Pippen had more than made their point. Kukoc was interviewed for "The Last Dance," and he said that prior to the 1992 Olympics he had no idea that Jordan and Pippen felt such resentment toward Krause about him. After Kukoc joined the Bulls in 1993 and proved his worth, Pippen and Jordan (after he returned from his first NBA retirement) welcomed him as a valuable contributor.

Winning an NBA championship in 1991 forever silenced any talk that Jordan was a high scoring individual talent who could not lead a team to ultimate success. Jordan relished prevailing in the head to head Finals battle against Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers. After the 1991 season, Jordan's carefully crafted public image took a hit because of the publication of Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules. The book painted a picture of Jordan as someone who could at times be selfish, be a bully toward his teammates, and be an intimidating presence to both teammates and foes. In "The Last Dance," Jordan insisted that a disgruntled Horace Grant was Sam Smith's source for information from inside the locker room, but Grant denied this. As B.J. Armstrong said, there was likely more than one single source. Further, it has already been established that Phil Jackson was a primary source.

The Bulls won a second championship in 1992, as Jordan took his Finals matchup with Portland's Clyde Drexler very personally; Jordan aimed to obliterate the notion that Drexler might be ranked on par with Jordan. Back to back titles put Jordan in the conversation with Johnson and Bird, but Jordan wanted to lift himself above them, and the best way to do that would be to win a third consecutive title. Up to that time, only George Mikan's Lakers and Bill Russell's Celtics had won at least three NBA championships in a row.

During the 1990s, the Bulls often had to get past a very physical New York team in the East before advancing the Finals. The Knicks were similar to the "Bad Boys" Pistons in terms of the mental and physical challenges that they posed for the Bulls, but the Knicks did not capture the public's imagination the way that the Pistons did, probably because the Knicks did not win a title during that era.

The 1993 championship drive wore Jordan down mentally and physically. He was criticized for going to Atlantic City to gamble the night before the Bulls lost a playoff game to the Knicks. Information about some of the seedy characters who Jordan had been gambling with--and losing money to--over the years became public knowledge, most notably when Jordan had to testify in court to explain a $57,000 check he wrote to Slim Bouler to pay off a gambling debt. Bouler was later sentenced to nine years in prison on unrelated money laundering and conspiracy charges. Jordan claimed that he had a "competition" problem, not a gambling problem, and he admitted that, in retrospect, he should have been more careful about associating with certain people. Jordan was offended by what he felt to be the media's attempt to bring him down, and for a time he refused to speak to the media at all.

None of this had any visible impact on Jordan's level of play. The Bulls won four straight playoff games versus the Knicks after falling into an 0-2 hole in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, and the Bulls then defeated Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the NBA Finals. Jordan, indignant that Barkley had been voted the regular season MVP by the media, made a point of asserting his individual superiority over Barkley, much as Jordan had done in the 1992 Finals versus Drexler.

B.J. Armstrong declared, "Michael Jordan didn't even really play basketball anymore. He just figured out how to win the game. He knew how to steer momentum. He knew how to get guys going. Not only was he that good on the offensive end, he was that good on the defensive end. He was just playing a different game than the rest of us. He let us play, but he was there to win the game."

Episodes seven and eight covered some of the most emotionally gripping and wrenching territory, including the murder of Jordan's father James, and Jordan's strong feelings about why his harsh, confrontational leadership style was necessary.

Jordan was already considering retirement prior to his father's July 1993 murder. After the murder, Jordan decided that he not only had nothing left to prove, but also that he wanted to be sure that his father saw his last basketball game. Jordan's father had encouraged him to play baseball, and after Jordan retired from the NBA he pursued that childhood dream, signing a contract to play minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox system. Reinsdorf owned both the Bulls and the White Sox, and during the documentary he stated that he paid Jordan's NBA salary during Jordan's retirement because Jordan had been underpaid in previous seasons.

Jordan is understandably displeased with the media coverage of his father's murder, his first retirement, and his minor league baseball career. Without any evidence or factual basis, many media members speculated that the murder of Jordan's father might somehow be connected with Jordan's gambling. Also, without any evidence or factual basis, many media members speculated that Jordan had not retired but rather had been secretly suspended by the NBA as punishment for his gambling. Many media members also mocked Jordan's baseball career by suggesting that he was somehow embarrassing the sport. In fact, Jordan's Birmingham Barons teammates, manager, and coaches said that Jordan had an incredible work ethic, and that he possessed sufficient talent to reach the major leagues provided that he had enough practice.

Basketball fans can be thankful that Major League Baseball was foolish enough to have a work stoppage that canceled the 1994 World Series, and extended into the 1995 season; Jordan refused to cross the picket line, started working out for basketball again, and officially rejoined the Bulls on March 18, 1995 by sending out this press release: "I'm back."

Without Jordan, the Bulls had lost to the New York Knicks in the seventh game of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals before losing Horace Grant to free agency, and Bill Cartwright and John Paxson to retirement. Pippen had an MVP-caliber season in 1993-94, but Pippen was also heavily criticized for sitting out the final 1.8 seconds of game three versus the Knicks after Phil Jackson designed the final play for Toni Kukoc. Kuckoc hit the game-winning shot, Pippen's teammates accepted Pippen's apology, and Pippen dominated in a game four win--25 points, eight rebounds, six assists--as the Bulls surprised the basketball world by remaining a contender without Jordan. The substance of Pippen's career adds up to much more than "1.8," but just as Jordan never won a title without Pippen it was evident that it would be challenging for Pippen to win a title without Jordan.

The Bulls had been gathering momentum prior to Jordan's return--winning eight of their previous 10 games--and they went 13-4 down the stretch after Jordan came back. Jordan had some great moments--including the famous "double nickel" game at Madison Square Garden--but all you need to know about the difference between playing pro basketball and playing pro baseball is that Jordan got out of shape playing pro baseball. Yes, there are different muscle groups involved in each sport, and he had to retrain his body, but it is also clear that basketball requires a greater and broader overall level of fitness than baseball does. As a result, Jordan could not sustain the highest level of energy over a 48 minute game, or over the duration of a playoff series. He was still an elite player, but he was not the best player in the league; a good case could be made that he was not even the best player on the team, and at that time Jordan was quick to acknowledge that he needed to catch up with Pippen.

The Bulls won their first round series versus Charlotte--with Jordan deriving some inspiration to lift his game after ex-teammate B.J. Armstrong hit the game-winning shot in game two--but Jordan came up short in several clutch moments as the Orlando Magic eliminated the Bulls 4-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Jordan with Pippen had not been able to advance any further in 1995 than Pippen had advanced without Jordan in 1994.

Jordan rebuilt his body during the summer of 1995, playing pickup games on the set of the movie "Space Jam." Jordan not only fine-tuned his game but also made mental notes about the NBA players who participated in the games. TNT's Kenny Smith once said, half-jokingly, that the NBA players made a mistake helping Jordan get back in shape.

Even with Jordan back to his full powers, the Bulls still needed someone to fill Horace Grant's old role, and they needed the supporting cast--an entirely different group from the 1993 team--to provide enough help for Jordan and Pippen, who would be the only two players who played for all six Bulls championship teams.

"The Last Dance" showed many examples of Jordan's famous competitive fire, and the way that he manufactured motivation out of slights real and imagined; one gets the sense that many of the slights were imagined, and that Jordan--much like the comic book hero The Incredible Hulk--was driven by rage. There should be no doubt, though, that Jordan loved the game, and that he loved winning. He sought to perfect his craft, and he pushed his teammates to perfect their craft.

Jordan explained during one of "The Last Dance" interviews, "My mentality was to go out and win at any cost. If you don't want to live that regimented mentality, then you don't need to be alongside of me because I'm going to ridicule you until you get on the same level with me. And if you don't get on the same level, then it's going to be hell for you." Jordan added, "Winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn't want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn't want to be challenged. And I earned that right because [other] teammates came after me. They didn't endure all the things that I endured. Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn't going to take anything less."

During "The Last Dance," Jordan showed the greatest amount of emotion when discussing two situations: (1) the murder of his father, and (2) explaining why he pushed his teammates so hard. Jordan's love of the game fueled his competitive anger, and Jordan did whatever he had to do to make sure that his teammates would do everything possible to win championships. Jordan declared during one of "The Last Dance" interviews that he never asked a teammate to do something that he did not do.

It is an interesting quirk of media coverage that the competitive fire that is considered such an admirable aspect of Jordan's legacy has been so often criticized as a detriment to Kobe Bryant's legacy. If anything, Jordan's verbal taunts and physically aggressive behavior toward his teammates seems worse than any known behavior that Bryant displayed toward his teammates. It should also be noted that Bryant carried the Lakers to two titles and three straight Finals appearances in the second act of his career with a lot less talent around him than Jordan had during any of his championship runs. Other great players have won multiple titles without being as overtly demanding of their teammates as Jordan and Bryant were, but no great player has won multiple titles without setting a standard of excellence for himself and then demanding--in one way or another--that his teammates match his work ethic, focus, and toughness even if they cannot match his skill level.

The final two episodes of "The Last Dance" began by focusing in general on the Chicago Bulls' rivalry with the Indiana Pacers, and specifically on Michael Jordan's rivalry with Reggie Miller. Miller noted that he did not fear Jordan the way that many NBA players did--Miller respected Jordan, but he did not fear him. Jordan and Miller came to blows in a 1993 regular season game, and Jordan conceded that--other than the Detroit Pistons--Miller's Pacers posed the biggest challenge that he faced. Jordan played in just two game sevens during the Bulls' six championship runs: a 110-81 win versus the New York Knicks in 1992, and an 88-83 win versus the Pacers in 1998. Jordan shot just 9-25 from the field in game seven against the Pacers, but he chased down five offensive rebounds as the Bulls grabbed 22 offensive rebounds and outrebounded the Pacers 50-34. Jordan--like Kobe Bryant after him--understood what so many of today's players--and so many "stat gurus"--do not: championship basketball is about not just numbers, but about heart, and about doing what needs to be done when it most needs to be done. If you are not shooting well, then play defense, and grab rebounds. Those who rely on analytics will never believe or understand it, but I would take Jordan's performance in that game seven over a gaudy, but empty stat line resulting from a player chasing numbers that make him look good as opposed to focusing on doing whatever needed to be done to win the game.

It is also worth noting that in a high stakes game during which rebounds mattered the most, Scottie Pippen had the most rebounds (12), and the most offensive rebounds (six). Jordan and Pippen each had more offensive rebounds than Indiana's entire team (four). If you understand how special Jordan and Pippen were in that game, then you also understand Kobe Bryant's value in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals, when Bryant grabbed 15 rebounds--five more than any Boston Celtic--to lead his Lakers to an 83-79 win.

The last two episodes also revisited one the the core themes running throughout the series: Jordan's motivational fire was stoked by slights real and imagined. Objective reality took a back seat in Jordan's mind to framing situations in ways that enabled Jordan to develop anger, and then direct that anger at his opponents while he dominated them. Jordan said that one time during his first retirement Utah's Bryon Russell made a comment to Jordan that Jordan retired because he knew that Russell could shut him down. Maybe this was an offhand or lighthearted comment, maybe Russell never even said it; what Russell actually said is secondary in this context to what Jordan heard: he felt disrespected by Russell, and after that Russell was "on my list," as Jordan put it. Jordan made sure that Russell will forever be known as the futile defender flailing at Jordan's final shot as a Chicago Bull, the shot that clinched Chicago's sixth title.

Jordan understandably felt slighted when the media gave the 1997 regular season MVP to Karl Malone. Jordan won the MVP while leading the 1996 Bulls to a then-record 72 wins, and yet the media did not select Jordan as the MVP when he led the Bulls to 69 wins--equaling the previous record--the next season. Selecting Malone as MVP over four-time--and eventual six-time--champion Jordan made no sense. Malone is a consummate playoff choker who never won a title and who shot .463 from the field in the playoffs compared to his .516 regular season field goal percentage. Yes, we are talking about a regular season award and not a playoff award, but how "valuable" is a player like Malone who cannot be relied upon when the games matter most?

As was usually the case, Jordan got the last word with Russell, Malone, and the media. Jordan's Bulls beat Malone's Jazz in the Finals in 1997 and 1998. In the clinching game six of the 1998 Finals, Pippen suffered a serious back injury that ultimately required offseason surgery. He had ruptured two disks in his back. During "The Last Dance," Bulls' trainer Chip Schaeffer explained, "He was in such pain. So disabled. He had continued loss of function. He was losing mobility and his pain was increasing. It was spiraling." That kind of severe back injury not only causes excruciating back pain, but it leads to radiculopathy--pain down one or both legs as a result of the disk material pressing on a nerve. At first, Pippen did not think that he could return to the game, but ultimately he came back and--despite modest box score statistics--he made an impact, posting a game-high +16 plus/minus number. Jordan's plus/minus number was +2, but of course he shared many of his minutes with Pippen; during the 22 minutes that Pippen did not play, the Bulls struggled mightily. Phil Jackson recalled of game six, "When Scottie left, we were just kind of holding on."

The Bulls may have been a good team without Pippen, but they were not a great team without him--as we saw during the first part of the 1998 season when Pippen was out of action while recovering from offseason foot surgery. Pippen later told me with pride about his game six contribution, "I was productive. I could have been more productive, could have done a lot more if I had been healthy." Schaeffer declared, "Anybody that would have a notion that Scottie Pippen was a soft player, that is patently absurd. He is as tough a player and as tested of a competitor as anybody I've ever worked with. What he did in game six was extraordinary. I know so many players who would have tapped out without hesitation. He was just going to throw it out there and finish no matter what."

Jordan deserves a lot of credit for scoring 45 points on 15-35 field goal shooting in that 87-86 series-clinching win, but no one should forget Pippen's contributions not only throughout the series and throughout the season, but especially in that last game.

During the locker room celebration, Jordan said, "Now, you all say whatever you want, they can't win until we quit."

Sadly, the Bulls organization had made the decision before the season to quit. They broke up this team for the ages. In Blood on the Horns--perhaps the definitive book-length examination of the Bulls' 1998 season--Roland Lazenby concluded with these words:
Did Krause actually think that he could go back and start all over again? Conjure up all this magic again?

The answer to that lay in a simple, hubris-filled comment the GM made after Jordan hit the shot in Salt Lake City to win the sixth championship. "Jerry and I have done it six times now," Krause told Phil Rosenthal of the Sun-Times.

It was one final sour note on his theme from October. Organizations do win championships.

He was wrong, of course. These were and are Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Always have been. Always will be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:13 AM


Monday, May 11, 2020

Remember 25-8-6 About Scottie Pippen, Not 1.8

"The Last Dance" is a compelling and fascinating 10-part series. After it concludes, I will post a lengthy, detailed examination of the documentary, and of the Bulls' 1998 championship season.

This article will focus on Scottie Pippen. As some commentators have noted, Pippen has not said much--if anything--publicly since the debut of "The Last Dance." Pippen's former teammate Dennis Rodman believes that Pippen is not being portrayed fairly, and is not receiving enough credit for his indispensable role on six championship teams. Although Michael Jordan has complimented Pippen at times, the series has also focused more attention on certain negative aspects of Pippen's career than it has on his many accomplishments.

I have extensively documented Pippen's sustained greatness, so it is not necessary to recap his entire career, but it is worth placing the infamous "1.8" number in historical context.

In 1993-94, Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (22.0 ppg), assists (5.6 apg), and steals (2.9 spg) while ranking second in rebounding (8.7 rpg) and blocked shots (.8 bpg). He finished third in regular season MVP voting behind Hall of Fame centers Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. The defending champion Chicago Bulls, who replaced the retired Michael Jordan with Pete Myers, and who added raw but promising rookie Toni Kukoc, went 55-27, just two wins less than their total from the previous season with Jordan as the leader. The Bulls went 4-6 in games that Pippen missed after an early season injury, or else they would have likely surpassed their 1992-93 record. Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong each earned their first and only All-Star selections in 1994. Pippen was not a screamer like Jordan, nor was Pippen a fourth-quarter scoring machine like Jordan, but Pippen was a tremendous all-around player who led by example and who always kept his teammates involved in the offense.

During the 1994 playoffs, Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (22.8 ppg,), rebounding (8.3 rpg), assists (4.6 apg), and steals (2.4 spg) while ranking third in blocked shots (.7 bpg). "The Last Dance" recaps the final 1.8 seconds of game three of the Eastern Conference semifinals versus the New York Knicks when Pippen sat out the final play and Kukoc drained a game-winning jumper, but Pippen immediately apologized to his teammates and they accepted his apology. They knew that what Pippen had done was an aberration for him, and they liked and respected him as a leader and teammate.

I remember a media member asking Pippen where the Bulls would go after game three--as if the whole team would crumble--and Pippen, presaging a now-famous Bill Belichick retort, replied simply, "Game four." Pippen let his game do his talking in game four, leading the Bulls with 25 points, eight rebounds, and six assists as the Bulls won 95-83 to tie the series at 2-2. The way that Pippen redeemed himself and brought the Bulls back into the series speaks volumes about his character and leadership.

Simply put, 25-8-6 adds up to a lot more than 1.8.

The home team won every game in that tightly contested series--culminating with New York's game seven triumph--but a terrible Hue Hollins blown call in game five cost the Bulls a road win, and a chance to close out the series in game six at home.

"The Last Dance" gives the impression that the Bulls fell apart in 1994-95, but the reality is a bit more nuanced. The Bulls lost free agent Horace Grant to the Orlando Magic, and they lost veterans Bill Cartwright and John Paxson to retirement. While Cartwright and Paxson were not major statistical contributors in 1993-94, they provided depth and leadership. In 1994-95, Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (21.4 ppg), rebounding (8.1 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), steals (2.9 spg) and blocked shots (1.1 bpg), becoming just the third player to lead his team in all five of those statistical categories in the same season (Dave Cowens and Julius Erving were the first two players to accomplish this feat; Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James later joined this exclusive club). The Bulls overcame a slow start to the season to win eight of the 10 games they played before Jordan came back from retirement.

With Jordan, the Bulls lost in six games in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals, after reaching game seven in that round without him in 1994. Jordan dedicated himself to getting back in basketball shape during the summer of 1995, and he teamed up with Pippen to win three more titles. Jordan and Pippen are the only players who were members of all six Chicago Bulls championship teams.

An objective examination of the record shows that the Bulls would not have won a single title without Pippen. Michael Jordan won one playoff game--not one playoffs series, but one playoff game--without Pippen. Pippen was an MVP-level player for the 1994 Bulls team that lost in game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and he was the leader of the 2000 Trail Blazers team that lost in game seven of the Western Conference Finals. Pippen's defense against Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA Finals, and against Mark Jackson in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals played a major role in Chicago's victories in those series. Pippen was a rare player who could dominate a game without taking a shot.

During Jordan's first retirement, Pippen emerged as an All-NBA First Team/MVP-caliber player, and he remained an All-NBA First Team/MVP-caliber player for several years, until age and back surgery slowed him down in 1999. Pippen is without question one of the top 25 basketball players of all-time--not a Pantheon-level player, but securely in the next category of greatness.

Michael Jordan is an iconic historical figure whose impact transcended the NBA, and he is understandably the focus of "The Last Dance." His viewpoint dominates the narrative not only because he is the central figure, but also because the footage would have never been seen by the public without his approval. All of that being said and acknowledged, it must also be said and acknowledged that Pippen was not some minor character in this epic-length drama; Pippen was Jordan's co-star during those title runs, and the story would not exist--the Bulls would not have been a dynasty--without Pippen.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:20 AM


Saturday, May 09, 2020

Mike Storen Helped to Build the Indiana Pacers and the ABA

Mike Storen, who assembled the Indiana Pacers' first championship team in the ABA before serving as the league's Commissioner, passed away on Thursday at the age of 84. Younger sports fans may know more about his daughter, accomplished broadcaster Hannah Storm, than they do about him, but Storen had an impact not just on the ABA but also on several other sports. During his long career as a sports executive, he was affiliated with the Houston Astros (MLB), the World Football League, and the CBA (serving as Commissioner in 1987-88).

The Pacers were known as the Boston Celtics of the ABA after becoming the league's only three-time champions while appearing in the ABA Finals five times during the ABA's nine year run. Storen acquired Hall of Famers Mel Daniels and Roger Brown, he hired Hall of Fame Coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard, he helped choose the Pacers name, he designed the team's first logo, and he selected blue and gold as the team's colors. The Pacers won their first title in 1970 while Storen served as their General Manager, and the foundation pieces that he put in place were essential for the Pacers' title runs in 1972 and 1973. Storen briefly worked in the front office of the Kentucky Colonels before becoming the ABA's Commissioner in 1973. Storen then joined Isaac Hayes in the ownership group of the ABA's Memphis Sounds. The Sounds were sold after the 1974-75 season. Storen became the President and General Manager of the Atlanta Hawks in 1977.

Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown, who was a three-time ABA All-Star (1968-70) and a three-time ABA Coach of the Year (1973, 1975-76), made a statement after Storen passed away: "For me and so many other guys that might not have had a chance to continue playing, his influence on the ABA just gave countless kids and coaches [an opportunity] to do something they love. And at the end of the day, when you consider the contributions some of those kids and coaches made in the NBA after the ABA was finished, its just remarkable. He just cared about the game and cared about the players in the league."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:53 PM


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

"Tanking to the Top" is Not What the 76ers Have Done

I have never written a book review without reading the book I am reviewing, but this article is more of a review of a book review than a review of the book. Fred Barnes' The Wall Street Journal review of Yaron Weitzman's Tanking to the Top is as misguided as the title of the book itself. Weitzman's book is about the Philadelphia 76ers, who did indeed tank, but most assuredly have not reached the top.

I have previously discussed Why Tanking Does Not Work, but you do not have to take my word for it. In the April 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson analyzed the history of tanking:
Nearly 30 years of data tell a crystal-clear story: a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft. The last team to draft No. 1 and then win a championship (at any point thereafter) was the San Antonio Spurs, which lucked into the pick (Tim Duncan) back in 1997 when the team’s star center, David Robinson, missed all but six games the previous season because of injuries. The teams with the top three picks in any given draft are almost twice as likely to never make the playoffs within four years—the term of an NBA rookie contract, before the player reaches free agency—as they are to make it past the second round.

Why are teams and their fans drawn to a strategy that reliably leads to even deeper failure? The gospel of tanking is born from three big assumptions: that mediocrity is a trap; that scouting is a science; and that bad organizations are one savior away from being great. All three assumptions are common, not only to sports, but also to business and to life. And all three assumptions are typically wrong.
Since Thompson wrote that article, two teams have won an NBA title subsequent to using a number one overall draft pick, but neither team triumphed by tanking. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 championship with two number one overall draft picks that they selected (LeBron James, 2003; Kyrie Irving, 2011), but tanking was not the basis for that team's success; James had left Cleveland, won two titles in Miami, and then returned to Cleveland as a free agent, while Irving has not had much team success before or after playing alongside James. The Cavaliers traded 2014 number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins for All-Star Kevin Love, who was a vital contributor for the 2016 championship team. Also, the 2019 Raptors won a title after having a number one overall draft pick in 2006, Andrea Bargnani; through a series of transactions, the Raptors ended up with a 2016 first round draft pick for Bargnani, and they traded the player that they drafted with that pick (Jakob Poltl) as part of a package to acquire 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, but it would be foolish to suggest that tanking contributed in any meaningful way to Toronto's title.

In contrast, under the misguided leadership of Sam Hinkie, the Philadelphia 76ers went 19-63, 18-64 and 1-21 before firing Hinkie. Hinkie took over a 34-48 team, and he promptly turned it into perhaps the worst team in NBA history. In the full seasons since Hinkie departed, the 76ers went 28-54, 52-30, and 51-31; they are 39-26 in the suspended 2019-20 season. Prior to hiring Hinkie, the 76ers lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2012. Nearly a decade later, they have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs, and their regular season winning percentage has declined two years in a row. There is as much reason to believe that the 76ers have gone as far as they can with Joel Embiid--the poster boy draft pick of Hinkie's so-called "Process"--as there is to believe that the injury-prone Embiid will lead the 76ers to a title.

If the 76ers ever win another championship, it will be despite Hinkie's "Process," not because of it.

Tanking stands in marked contrast to Michael Jordan's approach to the game. Jordan would never accept tanking, and he would never consider second round playoff losses to be "the top."

As "The Last Dance" has reminded those who may have forgotten, or who may be too young to remember, Jordan battled against the Chicago Bulls' attempt to tank when he was injured during his second season, and he bristled at their eagerness to blow up a six-time champion at the end of his career. "The Cubs have been rebuilding for 42 years," Jordan fumed in response to the Bulls' plan to run off him, Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman to start from scratch.

The Bulls won six titles in the 1990s. They have won five playoff series since chasing away Jordan and crew. "They had a dynasty. Now they have a coffee shop," was Charles Oakley's take on the Chicago Bulls in 2002. I doubt that too many people in Chicago are buying the "Tanking to the Top" premise in 1998, in 2002, in 2020, or in any other year.

Jordan's singular focus was to win as many championships as possible. He divided people into two categories: those who could help him win championships, and those who could not help him win championships. Jordan had no interest in wasting time with anyone who fit into the second category. Jordan tested any player who joined the Chicago Bulls during his tenure. Players who passed the test stayed on the team; players who failed the test did not stay on the team.

Kobe Bryant had the same mentality, though he lacked Jordan's media-savvy ability to convince the public that this mentality is a virtue. Jordan punched a teammate in practice, and regularly berated his teammates, but Jordan remains a hero; Bryant reasonably stated a preference for Shaquille O'Neal to get in shape, and he pushed his teammates to levels that they never reached before or since, and Bryant was portrayed as a horrible teammate.

Jordan and Bryant would scoff at the notion that anything less than a championship is satisfactory. They did not play to win division titles or conference titles, or lose in the second round of the playoffs. Bryant explained the mentality that he and Jordan shared:
All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That's all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine. If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out. Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: "You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship." Going into the 2010 series, I said, "Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked." That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, "Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative." And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now...

It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them?...Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
Weitzman's book endorses Hinkie's tanking, and Barnes raves, "By the time he joined the Sixers, Mr. Hinkie knew some core truths about the modern game...The author's analysis is convincing and his reporting thorough. Tanking to the Top is the best basketball book in years."

If you want to know "core truths about the modern game," read Derek Thompson's analysis cited above, or read Phil Jackson's Eleven Rings. There are many basketball books from the past few years that I would select over a misguided attempt to justify losing on purpose: in addition to Jackson's book, some other fine choices include Wooden: A Coach's Life, and The Mamba Mentality.

In the same review article, Barnes also praises The Victory Machine, by Ethan Sherwood Strauss, who is perhaps best known for annoying Kevin Durant at a press conference by asking the same question (in slightly different forms) repeatedly about why Durant had not been talking to the media recently, until Durant became frustrated. Durant labeled Strauss as "a dude...who come in here and give his whole opinion on stuff and make it seem like it's coming from me. He walk around here, don't talk to nobody, just walk in here, survey and write something like that." It takes no particular skill to ask the same unimaginative question over and over, but Strauss achieved his real goal: he obtained publicity for himself, and promptly announced that he was writing a book about the Warriors (the book that Barnes just reviewed). When you watch a sporting event and you know the names of the referees, that typically means that the referees are not doing their jobs: the sport is not supposed to be about them, but about the athletes. Similarly, if after a press conference you know the name of a reporter, it typically means that reporter was not doing his job: the press conference is not supposed to be about reporters, but about the athletes. No one tuned into that press conference to hear Strauss keep asking Durant why Durant had not talked to the media. I observed all kinds of press conference nonsense firsthand when I covered the NBA.

I don't know if those two books were assigned to Barnes, or if he picked them himself, but if those are the two best basketball books being released now--and if Barnes is the most qualified person to review those books--then that is just sad.

This is not the first instance of questionable sports analysis by The Wall Street Journal. In 2010, David Biderman contacted me regarding my research showing that Chris Paul's assist totals are inflated, but his subsequent article in The Wall Street Journal did not mention my findings. Biderman later informed me that he did not have enough room in his rather lengthy piece to do justice to my analysis. So, instead of telling the story accurately and completely, he included misleading and/or inaccurate sound bite quotes from other people regarding the use of statistics in basketball. It is enlightening to get an inside view of how the media works; the one and only goal for most media outlets is to generate content that is likely to produce advertising revenue: the truth is not even a casualty of the process, but rather it is irrelevant.

The Wall Street Journal has fared even worse when it turned its attention to chess, as I documented in Why Does Chess Not Receive Intelligent Mainstream Media Coverage?, Wall Street Journal Publishes Another Sloppily Rendered Chess Article , and Wall Street Journal Attempts to Correct Faulty Chess Article. In 2009, former Women's World Chess Champion Alexandria Kosteniuk was so outraged by one of the The Wall Street Journal articles cited above that she wrote the following on her website:
What's upsetting is that the Wall Street journalist, Barbara Jepson, tricked me by telling me that the article she was writing was about "Women's Chess", which made me very happy, as I supposed she would be writing something to support women's chess (not destroy it), that's why I took great care to answer in a positive and honest way (as I always do).

She asked me several questions including if I thought special women's titles should be eliminated. In my answer to her, I wrote very clearly with my reasoning that "Women's titles and tournaments should exist". And then she changed the title of her piece to "Abolish Women's Chess Titles", and used my name in it (I guess to add some authority to it, as if to boast she consulted with the women's world champion about it), only quoting some insignificant point I made to another question about sponsoring, without stating I was against that idea of abolishing women's titles, so that most people thought I agreed with the idea of abolishing women's titles since I was featured in her article and said nothing about the lead question of abolishing titles.

This apparently caused on purpose misunderstanding led me to get several emails from people asking me why I supported abolishing women's titles. This lie started to be posted all over the web and can still be seen on several web sites. I had to immediately respond on my blog and set things right.

Now you, dear reader, please judge for yourself what kind of article that Wall Street Journal was? 
It was about the same kind of article that would assert (1) that Sam Hinkie understands deep truths about the NBA and (2) that a book praising tanking as a good strategy is the best basketball book of the past several years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:32 PM


Sunday, April 19, 2020

Lessons from the Zen Master: A Review of Phil Jackson's "Eleven Rings"

Phil Jackson and Bill Russell are the only two men on Earth who have more NBA championship rings than fingers; the cover of Jackson's book Eleven Rings (co-written with Hugh Delehanty, and published by Penguin Press in 2013) is adorned with each of the championship rings that he earned as a coach. Jackson writes that those rings symbolize "circle of love" that bonded those teams together and enabled them to reach the sport's highest level.

Jackson compares a basketball team to a tribe. Citing Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, Jackson describes fives stages of tribe building that correspond with five stages of team building. The lowest stage is characterized by "despair, hostility, and the collective belief that 'life sucks.'" This is the mentality that binds together members of street gangs. The highest stage is "a rare stage characterized by a sense of innocent wonder and the strong belief that life is great." Jackson describes how he tried to imbue his teams with the higher stage mentality grounded in unity based on love and brotherhood. I believe that this is a valid, if idealized, explanation of the philosophical foundation of Jackson's coaching success, but if you study Jackson's personal and professional history closely then you know that he is not above engaging in manipulation, deception, and other tactics that have little to do with love or brotherhood. For instance, he was the main inside source for Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules, but Roland Lazenby documents in his book Blood on the Horns (pp. 61-62) that Jackson told Chicago Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf that assistant coach Johnny Bach was the inside source, which led to Bach being fired. Bach had been a loyal assistant to Jackson for many years. Jackson also engaged in a lot of psychological warfare with Kobe Bryant during Jackson's first stint with the Lakers; it is to Bryant's credit that he recognized how much value Jackson provided overall, and thus he forgave Jackson and welcomed Jackson back to the team, paving the way for the Lakers to win two more titles. Jackson has a rare ability to connect with people, and to bring them together as a team, but he is not above using some dark tactics in service of his goals.

Two of Jackson's greatest strengths as a coach/leader are (1) he is not afraid to challenge his best players, and (2) he empowers all of his players to feel free to make critical decisions in the biggest moments. Jackson did not shy away from challenging Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O'Neal, or Kobe Bryant--but he usually challenged them in ways that made them better, not in ways that created a power struggle. Thus, those players understood that Jackson sought not to embarrass or control them, but rather to help them become the best version of themselves as players. That created trust. Jackson admittedly struggled to connect with Bryant more so than he did with any of his other Hall of Fame players, but ultimately he did reach Bryant. Jackson, like most if not all great coaches, did his coaching in practice. During games, he did not overload his players with instructions, nor did he hastily call timeouts if things were not going well. Great coaches understand that games are won and lost during practice; if the proper physical conditioning and mental habits are developed during practice, then timeouts and sideline histrionics are not needed during games.

It is well known that Red Holzman, Jackson's coach during his playing days with the New York Knicks, was a huge influence on Jackson's coaching style. A serious back injury forced Jackson to sit out the 1969-70 season, so during that campaign he became a de facto assistant coach. Jackson writes of this experience, "I began to see basketball as a dynamic game of chess in which all the pieces were in motion. It was exhilarating" (p. 37).

Both of Jackson's parents were Christian ministers, but their religious beliefs did not fully resonate with him, so as he grew older he learned about and explored various religious and spiritual paths. Early on, Jackson found great value in meditation, which helped him to calm and focus his racing mind. Jackson learned the importance of living in the moment. He quotes Thich Nhat Hanh on that subject: "Life can only be found in the present moment. The past is gone, and the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life" (p. 53).

Jackson sees "a strong connection between music and basketball" (p. 66), and he taught his players to coordinate their movement in 4/4 time, instructing them that the player with the ball should pass, shoot, or start to dribble before the third beat. "When everyone is keeping time, it makes it easier to harmonize with one another, beat by beat" (p. 67). I agree that there is a connection between basketball and music/dance, a topic that I explored in my short story "Basketball and Ballet."

Jackson's perspective on the Triangle Offense is fascinating. He disputes the popular notions that the offense is difficult to learn, and that it only works if you have a talented player like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant as the main option. Jackson's idea when he implemented the Triangle Offense early during his tenure as the Chicago Bulls' head coach was to find a middle path between Tex Winter's devotion to the offense--Winter, after all, had essentially invented the Triangle Offense, based on concepts he learned from his USC coach Sam Barry--and Jordan's desire to give his creativity free reign. Jackson urged Jordan to have the patience to play within the Triangle for three quarters in order to get everyone else involved, and then take over in the fourth quarter if necessary. I will never forget the oft-replayed clip of Jackson, in his raspy voice, imploring the Bulls during a timeout, "Don't leave Michael alone here. It's not time yet." That little sound bite is very telling. Jackson expected the Bulls to "leave Michael" at some point, but he also expected them to at least wait until the final stanza to do so; the wisdom of involving all of the players early in the game can be seen by the way that this enabled guys like John Paxson and Steve Kerr to be ready to hit late-game shots when the opponent double-teamed Jordan down the stretch. From Jackson's standpoint, a great example of this is the three point shot that Paxson hit to clinch the 1993 NBA championship; Jackson focuses not on Paxson's shot, but on the series of passes that created the shot, a series of passes that demonstrated that the team had embraced Jackson's messages about teamwork and the Triangle Offense such that they could calmly execute at the highest level when the stakes were the highest.

Jackson's practice of giving a book to each player on his team has often been discussed. Jackson explains, "Some players read every book I gave them; others dumped them in the trash. But I never expected everyone's 100 percent engagement. The message I wanted to convey was that I cared enough about them as individuals to spend time searching for a book that might have special meaning for them. Or at least make them laugh" (p. 126).

Jackson had been planning for sports psychologist and meditation teacher George Mumford to speak to the Bulls prior to Michael Jordan's first retirement in 1993, and Jordan's absence heightened the relevance of Mumford's message about the two aspects of every crisis: danger and opportunity. Mumford emphasized the importance of mindfulness, a concept that Jackson believes is misunderstood. Jackson quotes Thich Nhat Hanh: "Mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment" (p. 137). The point is to stay in touch with what is happening right now, without regretting the past or worrying about the future.

The Bulls went 55-27 in 1993-94 despite Jordan's sudden retirement to play baseball, and they surprised many observers by remaining a championship contender as Pippen emerged as perhaps the NBA's best all-around player.

Jackson believes that mindfulness helped him and the Bulls overcome perhaps the most infamous moment of their 1994 playoff campaign, when Pippen refused to inbound the ball to Toni Kukoc and instead took a seat on the bench for the final play of game three versus the New York Knicks. Kukoc hit the game-winning shot, and after the contest the media fired at Pippen with both barrels. Jackson explains that throughout the crisis he stayed in the moment: when Pippen declined to inbound the ball, Jackson tapped Pete Myers for the task; afterward, instead of berating Pippen or punishing Pippen in a way that would have harmed the team, Jackson took a step back and let the players police themselves. Ultimately, Pippen apologized to the team, and the incident made the group's collective bond stronger, not weaker. Chicago came within a horrible Hue Hollins foul call of beating the Knicks and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Jordan returned to the Bulls late in the 1994-95 season, but he was rusty--at least by his lofty standards--and the Bulls lost to the Shaquille O'Neal-Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic in the second round of the playoffs.

Jackson says that it would be easy to explain the Bulls' 72-10 championship season in 1995-96 by referring to the talents of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and newly-acquired Dennis Rodman, but he believes that the team thrived because of how thoroughly it embraced the highest level of tribe building. The Bulls played for "the joy of the game itself" (p. 150). As a fan who watched every single Bulls game that season, I can say with confidence that that team brought a high level of competitiveness and basketball joy every game (perhaps a late season blowout loss to New York was the only exception, but most NBA teams have several games like that per season instead of just one). I remember thinking to myself from the start of the season, "These guys are trying to go 82-0. They have unmatched pride and togetherness." The 1996 Bulls carved out a special place for themselves in sports history.

Rodman filled the team's needs for a rebounder, and a defender in the paint. Jordan made significant changes to his leadership style. Jackson quotes Mumford explaining how he helped Jordan to adapt to his new teammates (only Pippen remained from the Bulls' first three championship teams): "It's all about being present and taking responsibility for how you relate to yourself and others. And that means being willing to adjust so that you can meet people where they are. Instead of expecting them to be somewhere else and getting angry and trying to will them to that place, you try to meet them where they are and lead the where you want them to go" (p. 156).

Attentive readers may recognize that this is the advice that Jordan later gave to Kobe Bryant, and that Bryant said similar things publicly regarding LeBron James during the 2018 NBA Finals:
All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That's all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine. If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out. Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: "You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship." Going into the 2010 series, I said, "Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked." That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, "Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative." And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now...

It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them?...Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
The 1996-98 Bulls won three championships, but each season posed different challenges. Jackson quotes Suzuki-roshi from the book Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen: "That things change is why you suffer in this world and become discouraged. [But] when you change your understanding and way of living, then you can completely enjoy your new life in each moment. The evanescence of things is the reason you enjoy you life."

Prior to the start of the 1997-98 season, Jackson dubbed the campaign "The Last Dance." Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause had publicly announced that Jackson would not return even if the team went 82-0. Jackson offers an introspective analysis of his relationship with Krause:
Looking back, I think my struggle with Jerry taught me things about myself that I couldn't have learned any other way. The Dalai Lama calls it "the enemy's gift." From a Buddhist perspective, battling with enemies can help you develop greater compassion for and tolerance of others. "In order to practice sincerely and develop patience," he says, "you need someone who willfully hurts you. Thus, these people give us real opportunities to practice these things. They are testing our inner strength in a way that even our guru cannot."

I wouldn't exactly call Jerry my "enemy." But our conflict certainly tested my inner strength. 
Pippen missed the first part of the "Last Dance" season while recovering from foot surgery, but after he returned Jackson declares "the team transformed overnight. It was like watching a great conductor return after a leave of absence. All of a sudden, everyone knew what notes to play and how to harmonize. From that point on, we went on a 38-9 run and tied the Utah Jazz for the best record in the league, 62-20" (p. 191). The Bulls defeated the Jazz 4-2 in the NBA Finals, and the organization kept its word about breaking up the team. The Bulls have not come close to winning a championship since that time.

Jackson summarizes his feelings about the "Last Dance" by quoting Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron's words about letting go (pp. 200-201):
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
Jackson could not stay away from coaching basketball for long--and why should someone stay away from the thing that he does best, and that gives him so much joy? After one season away from the NBA, Jackson joined the L.A. Lakers to help Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant on the same kind of journey that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had taken together.

Although Jackson had enjoyed great success using the Triangle Offense without having a dominant center, the offense is designed to feature a great post player (Jordan filled that role for the Bulls). O'Neal was thus the perfect player to be the focal point of the Lakers' attack. The Triangle Offense not only brought out the best in O'Neal but--much like what happened with the Bulls--it provided a structure that enabled O'Neal's less talented teammates to thrive. Bryant filled a unique role, both scoring like Jordan once did while also serving as the primary playmaker a la Pippen.

After hiring Jackson, Lakers' owner Jerry Buss told him that he wanted to win one more title to add to his collection of five championships from the 1980s. Jackson replied that the Lakers could win three or four titles.

Jackson often felt frustrated by the young Kobe Bryant (pp. 216-217): "Kobe was also a stubborn, hardheaded learner. He was so confident in his ability that you couldn't simply point out his mistakes and expect him to alter his behavior. He would have to experience failure directly before his resistance would start to break down. It was often an excruciating process for him and everyone else involved. Then suddenly he would have an aha moment and figure out a way to change."

During Jackson's first season with the Lakers, the team reached a crossroads moment, trailing by 15 points versus Portland in game seven of the Western Conference Finals. Jackson's Chicago point forward Pippen was now Portland's leader, and Pippen's "free-ranging attack," as Jackson described it, had carried the Trail Blazers from a 3-1 deficit to the brink of the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance since 1977. During a timeout, Jackson told the Lakers, "Forget about Shaq. There are four guys around him. Shoot the shot, just shoot it." Bryant scored 25 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, dished for seven assists, and blocked four shots--leading the Lakers in each of those categories--as the Lakers pulled off the improbable comeback.

The Lakers took a 2-1 lead over the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals, but the Pacers had an opportunity to tie the series after O'Neal fouled out in overtime in game four. Instead, Bryant--despite being hobbled by an ankle injury that forced him to sit out the Lakers' game three loss--took over by scoring eight of the Lakers' 16 overtime points. Jackson recalls, "I was impressed with Kobe. That was the first time I saw how impervious he was to excruciating pain. He wasn't going to let anything stop him. That night he reminded me of Michael Jordan" (p. 227).

The Lakers won the 2000 NBA title. Jackson notes, "The year after winning a championship is always the hardest. That's when everybody's ego rears its head and the uncanny chemistry the team felt just a few months earlier suddenly dissolves into thin air" (p. 231).

Jackson admits that he rode Bryant harder than he rode O'Neal: "Kobe had all kinds of weapons. He could pass; he could shoot; he could attack off the dribble. But if he didn't learn to use Shaq the right way and take advantage of his enormous power, the team would be lost" (p. 240).

Jackson also admits that his public assertion that Bryant had sabotaged games in high school so that he could lead a comeback and be a hero was "an irresponsible, off-the-cuff remark" that "turned out to be untrue." Jackson says that he apologized to Bryant in person and in front of the whole team, but he notes that his breach of trust caused a rift with Bryant that took years to fully heal.

Although the Lakers got off to a bumpy start to their title defense in 2000-01, they closed out that season with a record-setting 15-1 playoff run.

Jackson notes that a recurring challenge for the Lakers was that each season O'Neal would come into camp out of shape. Which problem would you rather have, a young star who is brash and confident but always works hard, or a more experienced star who lacks the discipline or pride to stay in shape?

The Lakers won their third title under Jackson in 2002, enabling him to tie Red Auerbach's record of most NBA championships won by a coach (nine).

Jackson writes little about the 2002-03 season, when O'Neal again arrived in camp out of shape. That season, the Lakers were not able to pull everything together during the postseason, and they lost to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.

Jackson reveals that his daughter Brooke was the victim of a sexual assault when she was in college. Even though Jackson concedes that he does not believe that Bryant was capable of sexual assault, and that the evidence against Bryant "seemed superficial at best" (the criminal charges against Bryant were eventually dismissed), the shocking announcement in the summer of 2003 that Bryant had been accused of sexual assault unleashed within Jackson an anger toward Bryant that "kept smoldering in the background." That anger could perhaps explain some of the negative comments about Bryant as a player that Jackson made at that time, and that Jackson later repudiated.

Jackson writes in depth about his anger, and how he learned to manage it (p. 269):
No question, anger focuses the mind. It's an advance warning system alerting us to threats to our well-being. When viewed this way, anger can be a powerful force for bringing about positive change. But it takes practice--and no small amount of courage--to be present with such uncomfortable feelings and yet not be swept away by them.

My practice when anger arises is to sit with it in meditation. I simply observe it come and go. Slowly, incrementally, over time I've learned that if I can stay with anger, which often manifests itself as anxiety, and resist my conditioned response to suppress it, the intensity of the feeling dissipates and I'm able to hear the wisdom it has to impart.
The Lakers lost 4-1 to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals. Then, the team let Jackson go, and traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat. Jackson was not gone from the game for very long. After the Lakers struggled through a disappointing 2004-05 campaign, they brought Jackson back as the coach.

Jackson offers some interesting takes on the players he inherited at that time. He writes that he had hoped that Lamar Odom could perform the Pippen role next to Bryant in the Jordan role, but "Lamar had trouble learning the intricacies of the system and his game often fell apart when we needed him the most" (p. 282). Jackson observes that starting point guard Smush Parker could at times be the most energetic player on the floor, but "when the pressure mounted he had a hard time holding himself together. He was a time bomb waiting to explode" (p. 283).

Clearly, Bryant did not have anything approaching a championship-level supporting cast, though that did not stop the media from blaming him for the Lakers not winning another championship from 2005-08. Jackson spends about two pages comparing Bryant to Jordan. It should be noted that Bryant is one of the few players in NBA history who can even be compared to Jordan at all. Jackson praises both for their willingness and ability to play through injury and pain. Jackson notes that Jordan relied more on power and strength on offense, while Bryant utilized finesse. Jackson rates Jordan as a better shooter overall, but says that Bryant's hot streaks tended to last longer. Jackson declares Jordan to be a "tougher, more intimidating defender." Jackson considers the biggest difference to be Jordan's superiority as a leader.

Anyone who thinks that Bryant quit during the second half of game seven versus Phoenix in the 2006 playoffs should note that Jackson praises Bryant for following the game plan, and calls out Odom and Kwame Brown for being "missing in action...despite endless opportunities."

Still, the Lakers made progress during the 2006-08 period, and they had one of the best records in the league during the first part of the 2007-08 season before acquiring Pau Gasol. Finally, Bryant had a worthy second option, and the inconsistent Odom could be placed in the more suitable role as third option. The Lakers advanced to the 2008 NBA Finals, but were outmatched physically by the Boston Celtics.

The Lakers displayed great focus in the 2008-09 season. They made it back to the Finals, and they beat the Orlando Magic. The last great highlight of Jackson's coaching career came in 2010, when the Lakers beat the Celtics in a seven game rematch of the 2008 Finals. Jackson had his 11th ring, and Bryant had earned his fifth ring.


1) As noted above, Jackson's self-serving account of Johnny Bach's dismissal firing by the Bulls varies from accounts previously provided publicly by both Sam Smith (who, as the author of The Jordan Rules, presumably knows who his sources were) and Roland Lazenby (in Blood on the Horns and in Mindgames, where Lazenby bluntly calls Jackson's version of events "a prevarication."). Jackson, not Bach, was Smith's confidential source, but Jackson led Jerry Krause to believe that Bach was the source, and this contributed to Krause's decision to fire Bach. Lazenby wrote that when Krause learned the truth he apologized to Bach. Lazenby also quoted Bach as saying that he and Jackson had a conversation about the matter, but that the contents of that conversation would remain private. 

2) Utah Jazz player Bryon Russell is repeatedly referred to as Byron Russell. This error even takes place in the book's index.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:23 PM


Thursday, April 16, 2020

Seth Davis Writes the Definitive John Wooden Biography

Seth Davis nailed it. In Wooden: A Coach's Life, Davis finds an excellent balance between praising John Wooden for his NCAA championships (10, six more than anyone else--a record that will likely never be approached) and for the sage advice that Wooden gave to the young men who he mentored, while also acknowledging the darker side of Wooden's story: Wooden was a brilliant coach, but behind his first-rate tactics lurked the shadowy figure of Sam Gilbert luring the most talented athletes to UCLA--and, as former UCLA player Lucius Allen put it, "UCLA wouldn't have won any championships without athletes. And without Sam Gilbert, they wouldn't have had the athletes." As the hagiography around Wooden grew, Gilbert's name receded into the footnotes of history, but Davis claims that the NCAA did not name its basketball championship trophy after Wooden because the organization did not want to "dredge up too many stories about Gilbert. Better to leave that carcass buried" (p. 472).

Davis' book was published in hardcover in 2014, the same year that I entered law school and that my daughter Rachel was born, and during the subsequent years I never found the time to write a review that would do full justice to Davis' extensive research and excellent writing. Perhaps one of the few positives of the ongoing global pandemic is that now I have the opportunity to finish projects such as this one.

Davis tells Wooden's life story in four parts, each named for one of the calendar seasons. Wooden was born 110 years ago, so even long-time and/or knowledgeable basketball fans may not be very familiar with Wooden's "Spring" years, during which Wooden grew up in modest circumstances in Indiana and became an excellent basketball player. Wooden is so famous as a coach that many fans may not be aware that he was the first person to be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame both as a player and as a coach (Bill Sharman, Lenny Wilkens, and Tommy Heinsohn subsequently accomplished this). Wooden led Martinsville High School to three consecutive Indiana High School championship game appearances (1926-28), and one title (1927).

During his high school years, Wooden met Nell Riley, who he claimed to be the only girl he ever dated. Wooden was very shy, while Nell was outgoing, but they soon became an item, and they married after Wooden finished college.

Even though Wooden was a star basketball player, he chose his college based on academics, not athletics, selecting Purdue because of its outstanding civil engineering program. However, after Wooden enrolled at Purdue he discovered that the civil engineering program required attendance at a special camp during the summers, something that Wooden could not do because his family needed the money that he earned from summer jobs. Wooden switched his major from civil engineering to English.

During Wooden's playing career at Purdue, the NCAA Tournament did not exist, and no official national champion was selected, but four years after he graduated the Helms Athletic Foundation retroactively named national champions dating back to 1901. Purdue went 17-1 in 1931-32 (Wooden's senior season) as Wooden set the Big Ten single season scoring record with 154 points, and the Helms Athletic Foundation determined that the Boilermakers were the national champions for that season. Wooden was chosen as one of the five top players in the country for the 1931-32 season, and in 1943 the Helms Athletic Foundation honored Wooden by selecting him to its all-time All-Star team for the first 50 years of basketball, calling him "probably the greatest all-around guard of them all."

After graduating from Purdue, Wooden became the athletic director/basketball coach at a high school in Dayton, Kentucky. He spent a couple years there before accepting the athletic director position at South Bend's Central High School in Indiana. Wooden filled many roles in both of his early jobs, but at Central he was not initially the head basketball coach; that position was already filled, so he served as the assistant coach, but it did not take long before he became the head coach.

The attention to detail, the focus on fundamentals, and the firm belief in the value of the running game--principles that Wooden internalized during his high school and college playing career--characterized Wooden's coaching even during his early years toiling in relative obscurity.

During the first few years that Wooden coached high school basketball, he also played professional basketball. Pro basketball was in its early days. The NBA had not been formed, and the professional ranks consisted of barnstorming teams, plus a few loosely organized leagues. Wooden was the leading scorer in one of those leagues--the Midwest Basketball Conference--during the 1934-35 season. He also made 134 consecutive free throws during that season. The Midwest Basketball Conference became the National Basketball League, which later merged with the Basketball Association of America to become the National Basketball Association, but Wooden retired as a player many years before the NBA existed.

After serving in the Navy for two and a half years without leaving the country during World War II, Wooden returned to Indiana and resumed coaching at Central High School. Soon, though, he accepted an offer to be the head basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College.

Even fans who know a lot about Wooden's NCAA Tournament success at UCLA may not realize that he coached NCAA basketball for 17 years before winning his first championship at that level. Wooden's Indiana State teams posted a 44-15 record during his two seasons there, including a second place finish in the 1948 National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB, the forerunner of the NAIA) Championship.

The "Spring" section of the book concludes with Indiana State's 82-70 loss to Louisville in the 1948 NAIB Championship, and Wooden accepting an offer to become UCLA's head coach. Davis retells the story of how Wooden ended up at UCLA: on the fateful evening when Wooden would decide whether to coach at the University of Minnesota or UCLA, a storm temporarily took down phone service in Minnesota. UCLA called Wooden at the appointed time, Wooden accepted their offer--having not heard anything from the University of Minnesota--and Wooden did not change his mind after the representative from the University of Minnesota called late. The University of Minnesota would have been Wooden's first choice, but after he agreed to go to UCLA he did not look back. What Davis classifies as Wooden's "Summer" begins in sunny California in 1948.

When Wooden arrived at UCLA, the school's only basketball tradition was losing. UCLA had posted just two winning seasons in the previous 17 years, and at one point the Bruins had lost 39 consecutive games to crosstown rival USC. UCLA finished with a 22-7 record in 1948-49, Wooden's first season at the school. During Wooden's first 15 years at UCLA, the Bruins never had a losing season, and only twice did they finish lower than second in their conference--but Wooden's UCLA squads did not post a single official win in the NCAA Tournament (not including victories in consolation round games) until 1962.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Wooden was not even the most successful college coach on the West Coast, let alone a candidate to be considered one of the greatest coaches of all-time. Pete Newell led the University of California, Berkley to the 1959 NCAA Championship and an appearance in the 1960 NCAA Championship Game. Newell had previously won an NIT title with the University of San Francisco, and then in 1960 he coached the gold-medal winning Team USA squad in the Olympics, becoming the first coach to win an NIT title, an NCAA title, and an Olympic gold medal; to this day, only Bobby Knight and Dean Smith have matched that coaching triple crown. Newell's Cal Berkley teams regularly beat Wooden's UCLA teams during the 1950s.

Although Wooden was a very successful coach by many measures during the first portion of his college coaching career, there was little indication that during the 12 season period spanning 1964-75 he would lead the Bruins to an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships. The dramatic change to Wooden's career arc can be attributed to many factors, including his adoption of the 2-2-1 full court press as a defensive strategy for the entire game as opposed to being a special tactic utilized only when the Bruins were trailing. Wooden gladly took (and received) most of the credit for developing the 2-2-1 full court press, but Davis writes that Jerry Norman--a player under Wooden at UCLA, who then became a UCLA assistant coach--is the one who worked out the details, and who convinced Wooden to implement the plan. Davis states that it bothered Norman that Wooden did not publicly acknowledge the important role that Norman played in UCLA's success.

As is often the case in sports, perhaps the most important factor was talent: Wooden's 1964 squad that went 30-0 and won the NCAA title featured a pair of future NBA guards: Walt Hazzard (a 10 year pro who made the NBA All-Star team in 1968) and Gail Goodrich (a five-time All-Star, an NBA champion in 1972, and a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 1996).

The "Autumn" section of Davis' book begins with the Bruins defending their NCAA crown. UCLA's 1965 squad went 28-2 and became the fifth school to win back to back NCAA titles, joining Cincinnati (1961-62), San Francisco (1955-56), Kentucky (1948-49), and Oklahoma A&M (1945-46). The Bruins fell short in 1966, but then won an unprecedented seven consecutive NCAA titles from 1967-73. Wooden retired after leading the Bruins to the 1975 championship. Since then, only three Division I teams have won back to back NCAA titles: Duke (1991-92), Florida (2006-07), and Villanova (2018-19).

The start of that run of seven straight championships coincided with, not coincidentally, the sophomore season of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor. During that era, freshmen were not eligible to play for the varsity. Alcindor (I will retain Davis' practice of referring to him during his UCLA years by the name he used at that time) made his UCLA debut on November 27, 1965, when he led the UCLA freshman team versus the UCLA varsity team, an annually held contest that was different on this occasion for two reasons: it was broadcast on local television for the first time, and it was the opening night for UCLA's new, 13,000 seat arena named Pauley Pavilion. Alcindor's team beat the varsity--the two-time defending national champions, and the consensus number one ranked team in the country--75-60.

Alcindor averaged 33.1 ppg and 21.5 rpg while leading the 1965-66 UCLA freshman team to a 21-0 record. During his three varsity seasons, Alcindor averaged 26.4 ppg and 15.5 rpg while shooting .639 from the field. UCLA won three straight NCAA titles and lost just two games during those years. A strong argument can be made that he is the greatest college basketball player of all-time; a strong argument could be made that he is the greatest basketball player of all-time, period, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

Despite all of the team success and personal accolades that Alcindor achieved during his time at UCLA, he was often not happy at the school. He was born and raised in New York City, so living in California was a bit of a culture shock. Alcindor also faced a lot of racism and scrutiny, plus he did not always enjoy playing under Wooden, and he was aware that other schools would provide illegal benefits that UCLA did not provide at that time. Davis notes that after UCLA went 30-0 and won the 1967 NCAA championship, Alcindor and guard Lucius Allen seriously considered transferring to another school. The players confided in former UCLA star Willie Naulls, who was sympathetic but who also did not want them to leave UCLA. Naulls introduced Alcindor and Allen to Sam Gilbert, and thus opened the most sordid chapter in Wooden's career.

Gilbert was a hard-driving real estate developer who had made millions of dollars in California's post-World War II building boom. He knew that many of UCLA's players felt undervalued and underappreciated. Wooden was a great coach, but he was often distant from his players, and he rarely took a personal interest in them (after he retired, a softer side of Wooden emerged, and that is the image of Wooden that the general public has). Gilbert showered the players with attention--and he also showered them with money, either directly or indirectly, such as taking them to a store owned by a friend who would let the players pick out whatever merchandise they wanted free of charge. Gilbert's actions violated NCAA rules, but for many years the NCAA was not interested in closely examining the inner workings of college basketball's most successful team; why kill the goose that hatches the golden egg, even if that egg is a bit tarnished upon closer examination?

Jerry Tarkanian, who eventually received a $2.5 million settlement from the NCAA after battling the organization in court for decades regarding the due process violations inherent in its selective enforcement practices, once said, "Recently, the NCAA got so mad at Kentucky, they put Cleveland State on probation for another two years." You could replace UCLA for Kentucky in that sentence to get an accurate depiction of the NCAA's enforcement practices at the height of Wooden's career.

There is no doubt that Wooden was a well organized and well disciplined coach. He enjoyed success at the highest level before Gilbert arrived on the scene, winning three NCAA titles, a mark equaled at that time by only Adolph Rupp--but if Gilbert had not intervened to keep Alcindor and Allen in the UCLA fold, it is doubtful that Wooden would have finished his career with 10 NCAA titles. Davis quotes this telling passage from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's autobiography (Alcindor had changed his name by the time he wrote the book): "Sam steered clear of John Wooden, and Mr. Wooden gave him the same wide berth. Both helped the school greatly. Once the money thing got worked out, I never gave another thought to leaving UCLA."

Davis extensively covers both of the famous 1968 UCLA-Houston showdowns. Houston won 71-69 in the "Game of the Century" at the Houston Astrodome when Elvin Hayes dominated Alcindor, who was limited by an eye injury that he suffered not long before that contest. UCLA gained revenge in the NCAA Tournament, winning 101-69 en route to the second of Alcindor's three consecutive NCAA titles.

After Alcindor graduated and joined the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, the Bruins still had a stacked lineup featuring several future pros, including Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, and Henry Bibby. UCLA went 28-2 in 1969-70, and 29-1 in 1970-71 en route to two more NCAA titles.

Wooden's next Hall of Fame center joined the freshman team for the 1970-71 season before leading UCLA's varsity to NCAA titles in 1972 and 1973. Bill Walton was an injury-prone player dating back to high school, but when he was healthy he performed at an elite level. By nature and by skill set, Walton was not as dominant of a scorer as Alcindor, but Walton matched Alcindor as a rebounder and defender while being a superior passer. Walton grew up in California, and since an early age he had dreamed of playing for UCLA. Walton reached his peak as a college player in the 1973 NCAA Championship game versus Memphis State, when he scored 44 points on 21-22 field goal shooting in UCLA's 87-66 win.

Davis documents Gilbert's increasing influence on UCLA's basketball program during the dynasty years, and Davis notes that there is no doubt that Gilbert provided illegal benefits. Davis writes, "To call all of this an open secret would not do it justice. It wasn't even a secret. Gilbert's relationships with UCLA basketball players made him one of the most well-known people in Los Angeles" (p. 369). It is true that other schools also provided illegal benefits and/or had boosters who provided illegal benefits, but--as Tarkanian noted--even if it could be argued that (almost) everyone was doing it, it could also be argued that the NCAA selectively enforced its rules, which created an uneven playing field that carved out a distinct advantage for the schools whose violations the NCAA ignored.

UCLA "slumped" to 26-4 in 1973-74, losing more games that season than the team had lost in the previous four seasons combined. North Carolina State, led by the fantastic future Hall of Famer David Thompson, defeated UCLA 80-77 in double overtime in the Final Four. North Carolina State then beat Marquette 76-64 to win the championship.

Wooden had been considering retirement for several years, but he did not relish the notion of leaving the game for good on a down note after so many championship seasons. He decided to return for one last campaign, but he only revealed his intentions to a few people, each of whom he swore to secrecy. Even after the departure of Hall of Famers Walton and Keith Wilkes (later known as Jamaal Wilkes), UCLA still had a strong roster, led by AP All-America selection Dave Meyers and Marques Johnson, who became a five-time NBA All-Star. The Bruins went 28-3, closing out the Wooden era with a 92-85 win versus Kentucky in the 1975 NCAA Championship game.

"Winter" begins with Gene Bartow succeeding Wooden as UCLA's coach. Asked about UCLA's chances in 1976, Wooden replied, "I don't think I left the cupboard bare." Davis writes, "Wooden did Bartow no favors with that remark. With one turn of a phrase, Wooden solidified the perception that if UCLA won another championship, it would be because he stocked the program with great talent. If if it didn't, well, it must be because the Bruins were not well coached" (p. 447). Wooden did not stop there. During the 1976 season, Wooden said, "I'm going to answer honestly and I don't want this to seem in any way critical. I think the program was slowed by the coaching change. It took the new coach time to get acquainted with his players and it took the players time to get acquainted with him" (p. 449). Wooden concluded that before he retired he thought "this year's team would be the strongest I ever had, and that next year's would be even stronger" (p. 449). Wooden did not just throw Bartow under the bus: he trampled him. One might wonder (1) How Wooden could say with a straight face that the 1976 team was stronger than the teams led by Alcindor or Walton and (2) why Wooden retired if he thought that the best was yet to come for the program.

Wooden left behind more than talented players, and high expectations. He also left behind booster Sam Gilbert--the main reason the proverbial cupboard had not been bare for quite some time. Davis repeats assertions by several different people that they believed that Gilbert had connections to the mafia. Davis wavers between suggesting that UCLA's administration and the coaching staff tolerated Gilbert because he was integral to the basketball program's success, and suggesting that UCLA personnel were too afraid to demand that Gilbert stop providing illegal benefits. It is evident that, regardless of UCLA's position about Gilbert, the NCAA did not have nearly as much interest in investigating the Bruins as it did in pursuing a vendetta against Tarkanian.

However, Gilbert's conduct became increasingly brazen, and players who believed or hoped that he was providing benefits to them out of the kindness of his heart often learned the hard way that this was not the case when the bill landed in their mailboxes. Davis reports that after they became NBA players, several former UCLA players received letters from Gilbert demanding that they pay him back for the help that he had provided during their college years. Davis writes that at least one player just wrote a check to Gilbert to be done with the matter. Bill Walton took a different approach, authorizing Jack Scott to include a letter from Gilbert in a book titled Bill Walton: On the Road With the Portland Trail Blazers. Scott quoted Walton in the book as well: "It's hard for me to have a proper perspective on financial matters, since I've always had whatever I wanted since I enrolled at UCLA. I hate to say anything that might hurt UCLA, but I can't be quiet when I see what the NCAA is doing to Jerry Tarkanian only because he has a reputation for giving a second chance to many black athletes other coaches have branded as troublemakers. The NCAA is working day and night trying to get Jerry, but no one from the NCAA ever questioned me during my four years at UCLA" (this quote appears on p. 468 of Davis' book without a direct page citation to Scott's book).

The NCAA could no longer ignore Gilbert's illegal connections with UCLA. Ultimately, the NCAA did not look as far back as Wooden's tenure, but the NCAA identified a variety of improper actions that took place in the post-Wooden era. The NCAA also found other violations involving UCLA that led to the dreaded conclusion that there had been a "loss of institutional control." UCLA was forced to vacate its 1980 NCAA Tournament appearance (which had included a loss in the championship game), forbidden to participate in postseason play in 1982, and placed on probation for two years. Gilbert was not directly named in the report, but everyone understood which person was meant when the NCAA ordered UCLA to "disassociate one representative of its athletic interests from participating in any recruiting activities on behalf of the university in the future."

Wooden's public take on the matter was to express relief, but not surprise, that no violations had been found dating back to his tenure as coach. It is hard to believe that anyone as smart as Wooden could really be that clueless about had happened during his program's glory years. The Los Angeles Times conducted its own investigation, and shattered any illusions about the Wooden era when it published a two part story on January 31, 1982 and February 1, 1982. Davis summarizes the newspaper's findings: "Headlined 'Sam Gilbert and UCLA,' the stories laid out in devastating detail a wide range of violations and suspicious activity that dated back to the 1960s. After interviewing more than forty-five people, many of whom were Wooden's former players, the Times concluded that 'the nine infractions the NCAA listed were insignificant when compared with many others dating back to the Lew Alcindor-led-championship teams of the mid-1960s" (pp. 470-471).

In 1987, Gilbert was indicted by a federal grand jury on racketeering and money laundering charges related to a marijuana smuggling operation that dated back to the 1970s, but Gilbert was terminally ill by that time and he passed away before he could be put on trial. Gilbert's son Michael was convicted, and he served over five years in federal prison.

Davis writes that the 1994 film "Blue Chips" was a not so subtle shot at UCLA's cheating, inspired in part by Wooden's old rival Pete Newell, a consultant for the movie. In "Blue Chips," the fictional "Western University"--sporting UCLA's blue and gold colors--had a coach whose integrity was being threatened by the actions of a rogue booster. Unlike in real life, though, the coach (played by Nick Nolte) lost his job after confronting the booster at a press conference.

Davis gives the last word on the subject to Mike Littwin and Alan Greenberg, the Times' writers whose reporting uncovered violations by Gilbert and UCLA that the NCAA could not--or did not want to--find: "Wooden knew about Gilbert. He knew the players were close to Gilbert. He knew they looked to Gilbert for advice. Maybe he knew more. He should have known much more. If he didn't, it was only because he apparently chose not to look" (p. 474).

As time passed, Gilbert's name receded into the mists of history, while Wooden became more popular and respected than he had been even at the height of his coaching career. He gave well-received speeches during which he talked about his now-legendary Pyramid of Success. Wooden delivered a good and necessary message about hard work, focus, and dedication; there is no doubt that those values played a crucial role in his success, and that they helped his players not only at UCLA, but also later in life as well.

Wooden's legacy is complex and layered. He was without doubt both a great player and a great coach. He had already won several championships before Sam Gilbert appeared on the scene--but Wooden did not become the "Wizard of Westwood," elevated above all other college basketball coaches, until his program was able to recruit and retain an incredibly talented group of players, including two of the greatest and most dominant centers of all-time.

It is fascinating to compare and contrast John Wooden with Bobby Knight, who won three NCAA titles during his Hall of Fame coaching career. Although Wooden was not quite so kind and gentle as his reputation suggests--as Davis documents--even at his most aggressive moments Wooden's demeanor was not much like Knight's. Knight displayed what can best be described as sociopathic, bullying, and narcissistic behaviors toward friend and foe alike, and those negative traits brought an end to his coaching career at Indiana. Yet, there is no evidence that Knight ever cheated to recruit a player, or to keep a player academically eligible. Knight ran a clean--if dictatorial--ship, and he steered that ship to great success in an era when most of his competitors, including the sainted Wooden, benefited greatly from bending, if not breaking, NCAA rules. Both Wooden and Knight have a host of former players who praise them for the positive influence they exerted. In the end, if we are honest then we are forced to see both legendary coaches not as superhuman icons but as people who achieved greatness yet also displayed flaws and weaknesses.

Davis ends the book on a personal note, describing the three times that he interviewed Wooden. The reader can tell that Davis feels a clear-eyed affection and admiration for Wooden; Davis did enough research to know about both Wooden's greatness and Wooden's flaws, and Davis appreciated Wooden as, in the words of Marques Johnson, "a great coach, a great person, but not a god."

Regardless of how you feel about Wooden, the NCAA, or college basketball, Davis' book provides a detailed and balanced narrative spanning nearly the entire breadth of the 20th century.


1) On page 240, the 1965 UCLA team is referred to as the "fourth repeat champion in the twenty-six year history of the NCAA Tournament." As noted above, the Bruins were the fifth repeat champion at that time.

2) On page 396, Davis refers to Memphis State's Larry Kenon as "Dr. K." That nickname never really stuck--for the obvious reason that Julius Erving was already widely known as "Dr. J." Kenon later told Sports Illustrated, "Call me Mr. K or Special K or any kind of K, but not Dr. K. There's not but one Doctor." Erving and Kenon won the 1974 ABA championship as teammates with the New York Nets before Kenon was traded to the San Antonio Spurs.

3) On page 437, Davis refers to Kentucky player Rick Robey as "Rick Roby."

4) On page 438, Davis states that UCLA defeated Kentucky 82-75, but the correct score is 92-85.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:17 PM