Walt "Big Bells" Bellamy Rang Up Some Impressive Numbers
Walt Bellamy, who passed away on November 2 at the age of 74, averaged 20.1 ppg and 13.7 rpg during his 14 year NBA career but the Basketball Hall of Fame did not induct him until nearly two decades after he retired; there is a general sense that, as great as Bellamy was, he could have/should have been even more productive--but is that really a fair assessment?
Bellamy averaged at least 22.8 ppg and at least 14.6 rpg in each of his first five NBA seasons. Only Wilt Chamberlain (10), Bob Pettit (nine) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) had more such seasons in their entire careers--and Chamberlain is the only player other than Bellamy to begin his career with at least five such seasons in a row (Abdul-Jabbar easily met the scoring requirement and he had a pair of 14.5 rpg seasons in his first five campaigns, so he came pretty close to matching this feat). Just seven players other than Bellamy have had multiple 22.8 ppg/14.6 rpg seasons and only 18 players in NBA/ABA history accomplished this feat even once.
Bellamy ranked second in scoring and third in rebounding during his
rookie season (league rankings were determined by totals, not averages,
until the 1969-70 season). Bellamy set his career-highs in both
categories (31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg) as a
rookie in 1961-62, when he also led the league in field goal percentage
(.519). Despite his great productivity, Bellamy never made the All-NBA
First or Second Teams, thanks to the
prodigious numbers posted during that era by perennial All-NBA Team
members Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
After those sensational first five seasons, Bellamy's statistics dropped
significantly; he played for four different teams, never averaging more
than 19.0 ppg or 13.5 rpg. Bellamy's declining scoring and rebounding
numbers may seem odd but it is not unusual for a player to put up his
best scoring and rebounding numbers early in his career, as I noted in Pro Basketball's 1000 Rebound Club: The Meek Need Not Apply for Membership.
If Bellamy's career had been shortened by injury or early retirement, those initial seasons would have been enough to earn him a Gale Sayers-type of reputation--but Bellamy kept playing, though not at nearly the same level, and that is what makes it challenging to determine his rightful place in basketball history. Bellamy averaged a double double in six of his final nine seasons and he contributed a solid 13.1 ppg and 9.6 rpg for the 1973-74 Atlanta Hawks as a 34 year old in his second to last season. Bellamy was a very efficient scorer; he shot .516 from the field during his career, an excellent percentage in any era and particularly notable considering how rare it was for a player to shoot better than .500 from the field during the 1960s. He ranked in the top ten in field goal percentage 10 times and he also drew a lot of fouls, finishing
in the top ten in free throw attempts eight times.
The gulf between Bellamy's production in the early and late phases of his career is more extreme than is usually seen among Hall of Famers whose careers have not been significantly impacted by injuries but his exceptional first five years combined with more than a decade of at least solid productivity overall are enough to make him a worthy Hall of Famer. He does not belong in the same class with Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar and he does not quite measure up with Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal but Bellamy--who finished his career with 20,941 points and 14,241 rebounds--does not have to take a back seat to many other centers in pro basketball history.
Labels: Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Bellamy, Wilt Chamberlain
posted by David Friedman @ 10:53 AM
Charley Rosen Explains Why Statistics Can be Very Misleading
The title of Charley Rosen's article about the limitations of basketball statistics says it all: The Numbers Game is Fraudulent
. The two part series deserves to be read in its entirety but here are some choice excerpts to whet your appetite (the passages are not numbered in the original piece):
1) Yet even as Sabermetrics has become the latest craze in the NBA (as per the recent hiring of the stat-crunching John Hollinger by Memphis) there are many fallacies in this way of evaluating
basketball players. The primary one being that most statistics tally what happens when a player either has the ball in his possession or is in close proximity to the ball. Since there are 10 players on the court, 80-90 percent of the game is ignored.
Consider assists: Used to be that a pass-catch-shoot-and-make was the only sequence that led to an assist. Nowadays, an assist can be awarded when the pass-recipient takes one dribble and two steps before his make.
2) Points scored is another misleading number. Points racked up by players on bad teams are relatively meaningless. It’s when a player scores that really counts, plus the circumstances. Amassing stats on how many fourth quarter points somebody scores, or how many times he scores in the last two minutes of a close game, etc. are also limited evaluations. Did a player score because a defender missed an assigned rotation? Or the player grabbed a teammate’s airball and wound up with an uncontested layup? Or was it a breakaway dunker created by a teammate’s steal, offensive rebound, and or perfect outlet pass?
3) Let’s examine minutes and games played. In NBA.com, minutes are given in whole numbers. This means a guy who plays one second and one who plays eighty-nine seconds are both credited with one game and one minute played. This eighty-eight second difference could conceivably include at least four possessions, and could therefore be the difference between a totally insignificant appearance and a critical one.
4) Now we come to my favorite group of people...According to Ed Rush, the one-time supervisor of NBA officials, the calls made by the league’s refs are correct 92 percent of the time. But that means that eight percent of fouls and infractions called are erroneous – even with late-game access to tape replays. Plus, Rush offered no approximation of how many times the refs err by not tooting their whistles...
If the refs have a distorted view of the game, then statistics such as free-throws attempted, fouls, turnovers, and even wins and losses are anything but objective.
So what are we left with?
Free-throw shooting. Three-point accuracy.
To truly judge the effectiveness of any given player, disregard the numbers and disregard the ball. Instead watch what he does when he doesn’t have possession or isn’t even in the neighborhood of the ball. Does he set weakside picks? Make cuts that open up space for a teammate? Make the pass that leads to an assist pass? Box out? Make appropriate defensive rotations? Get back on defense? And so on.
After all, in no circumstances can numbers ever measure the human spirit.
Rosen's point about assists is particularly relevant and also easy to verify; Chris Paul is indisputably a great passer but I have repeatedly documented that his assist totals are inflated.
I don't know if the NBA has unofficially broadened the definition of an assist to the extent that the statistic is rendered almost meaningless or if certain scorekeepers favor home players and/or star players but it should be obvious that if the raw box score statistics are not trustworthy then the so-called "advanced basketball statistics" must be taken with a heavy grain of salt.
Many "stat gurus" are all too willing to ignore the problematic nature of box score statistics while at the same time insisting that their proprietary "advanced" numbers are infallible but Dean Oliver is one researcher who consistently communicates in a very measured tone about the limitations of "advanced basketball statistics." Oliver's recent ESPN.com article
is a welcome departure from the haughty tone and wildly outrageous claims that far too often characterize the writing produced by proponents of "advanced basketball statistics." Oliver has high hopes for the future of "advanced basketball statistics" but he also candidly admits, "The problem with player value metrics is that there is little to
validate them, meaning that no metric has established itself as clearly
the best. Metrics couldn't even be fairly compared. As each new metric
has been developed, it has served mostly to complement traditional
scouting, a way to reality check when subjective opinions formed by
watching and hearing about players were going too far astray." Oliver believes that, for now, "advanced basketball statistics" are more valuable in terms of evaluating a team's effectiveness and best lineup combinations as opposed to producing allegedly definitive individual player evaluations.
Labels: "advanced basketball statistics", assists, Charley Rosen, Chris Paul, Dean Oliver
posted by David Friedman @ 2:29 AM
The Amazing Allen Iverson
On October 30, Allen Iverson officially retired as an NBA player.
Iverson previously had a short-lived 2009 retirement
before playing 28 games in the 2009-10 season but this retirement has an air of finality to it: he has not played in the league for three years and it is unlikely that there is much of a market for a 38 year old, 6-0 shooting guard even if Iverson decided that he did want to come back. I discussed Iverson's legacy
right after his first retirement but it is worth reiterating--and updating--his incredible career numbers and his high ranking on the NBA/ABA regular season lists in several important categories, including fourth in mpg (41.1), sixth in ppg (26.7), ninth in spg (2.17), 12th in free throws made (6375) and 24th in points (24,368). Iverson also left a firm imprint on the NBA/ABA career playoff leaderboard, ranking second in ppg (29.7), third in mpg (45.1) and seventh in spg (2.07).
Allen Iverson is the most amazing athlete who I have seen in person--he is not the greatest
athlete who I have seen or even just the greatest basketball player who I have seen but he is the most amazing athlete because of what he accomplished over a long period of time despite being just 6-0 tall (if that) and weighing less than 180 pounds. Iverson is a normal-sized man who could do abnormal things on a basketball court, things that few if any people his size could do.
One firsthand impression of Iverson particularly stands out; on December 15, 2001, I sat in the stands at Gund Arena and watched Iverson drop 40 points on 18-29 field goal shooting in 46 minutes as his Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 94-91. Iverson also had nine assists, six rebounds and three steals. He survived what I would call the "bump and run" defense of the rugged and savvy Andre Miller; despite being grabbed, held and pushed by the bigger and stronger Miller, Iverson raced around the court, scoring at will. Iverson played with that same relentless attitude--and endured a similar pounding--for 914 regular season games plus 71 playoff games. He led the league in mpg an astonishing seven times (trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, who topped the NBA in that category nine times) and he averaged at least 40 mpg in 11 of his 14 seasons. Iverson's durability and his insatiable competitive desire are two underrated aspects of his greatness.
The "stat gurus" will never like Iverson's game and many fans will always resent Iverson's style, appearance and attitude--but the man deserves to be respected for his toughness, his determination, and the way that he established himself as arguably the greatest 6-0 and under player in the history of professional basketball. Few "little" men have been the best player on a legitimate championship contender but in 2001 Iverson won the regular season MVP before carrying the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals. Iverson averaged a series-high 35.6 ppg while playing a series-high 47.4 mpg in the 2001 NBA Finals but even his brilliant play could only net one victory for the 76ers--though it is worth emphasizing that this was one more victory than the rest of the playoff field combined achieved against a dominant L.A. Lakers squad led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, two superstars who are much bigger and stronger than Iverson.
So many people have said and written so many things about Iverson, so the man deserves the last word. Here is a portion of the retirement speech that he gave on October 30:
You know, I thought once this day came it would be basically a tragic
day. I never imagined the day coming, but I knew it would come. I feel
proud and happy to say that I’m happy with my decision and I feel great.
I’m in a great mindset making a decision...
I always had the physical talent, I always had the physical ability, I
could run with the best of them, I could jump with the best of them, but
I just didn’t know the game. Earlier in my career, I didn’t take
criticism the right way. But it was always constructive criticism coming
from coach (Larry) Brown, it was always love that he had for me and I had to
mature and understand that he was there, trying to [help me] become the
player I ultimately ended up being. Once I took hold to everything he
had to share with me, as far as the mental aspect of the game, that’s
when it took me from here to here [raises hand] and took me to MVP
I gave everything I had to basketball and the passion is still there,
the desire to play is just not. I just feel good that I’m happy with the
decision I’m making. It was a great ride.
Labels: Allen Iverson, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies, Philadelphia 76ers
posted by David Friedman @ 2:08 PM
LeBron James Posts 500th Consecutive Double Figure Scoring Game
LeBron James scored a season-high 35 points on 13-20 field goal shooting in the Miami Heat's 104-95 win over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night. James has now scored at least 10 points in 500 consecutive regular season games, the sixth best such streak in NBA history--a feat exceeded only by Michael Jordan (866 games), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (787), Karl Malone (575), Moses Malone (526) and Abdul-Jabbar (508). The players ahead of James on that list are all elite scorers: Abdul-Jabbar is the all-time ABA/NBA career regular season scoring leader (38,387 points), Karl Malone ranks second (36,928 points), Jordan ranks third (32,292 points) and Moses Malone ranks seventh (29,580 points). James has scored in double figures in every game he played in seven of
his 10 full seasons; only Abdul-Jabbar (15 seasons), Jordan (12 seasons)
and Karl Malone/Kevin Garnett (nine seasons each) had more seasons in
which they scored in double figures in every single game that they
It is often asserted that James' greatest skill set strength is his passing ability
but the reality is that--even though James is a great passer/playmaker--James is one of the most prolific scorers in pro basketball history. James asserts himself as a scorer early and often; during his 500 game streak he has scored at least 10 points in the first quarter 162 times and during his career he has authored nine 50 point games while failing to score at least 10 points just eight times. When James is at his best, he is neither waiting for his teammates to get going nor is he deferring to them for any significant portion of the game; he pours in points in the first quarter and continues doing so for the rest of the game.
Labels: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone
posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 PM
Remembering Bill Sharman, Star Player and Coaching Innovator
Bill Sharman, who is one of only three people elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach
(the others are John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens), passed away on Friday October 25 at the age of 87. Sharman led the Washington Capitols in scoring (12.2 ppg) as a rookie in 1950-51 before spending the rest of his 11 season NBA playing career with the Boston Celtics. He annually ranked among the league's elite in a host of categories, including scoring (seven top 10 finishes), free throw percentage (10 top 10 finishes, with a record seven times as the league leader), field goal percentage (six top 10 finishes) and assists (three top 10 finishes). An eight-time All-Star, Sharman played a key role on four Boston championship teams (1957, 1959-61). He was selected to the NBA's Silver Anniversary Team (10 retired players honored in 1971) and the in 1996 he was recognized as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players.
After retiring as an NBA player, Sharman became one of the sport's greatest coaches, starting out in 1961 as a player-coach with the L.A. Jets in the short-lived American Basketball League (ABL). The Jets went out of business in the middle of the season and Sharman ended his playing career, joining the ABL's Cleveland Pipers strictly as a coach. Sharman led the Pipers to the 1962 ABL title, much to the delight of an owner who would later become very used to capturing championships--George Steinbrenner. Sharman then coached for a couple seasons at Cal State L.A. before being hired as the coach of the NBA's San Francisco Warriors in 1967. During his two season stint in the Bay Area, Sharman developed a concept that is now ubiquitous in the league: the morning shootaround. In a 2004 ESPN.com article, Charley Rosen explained how Sharman refined this idea:
Sharman pinpoints the origin of the shootaround to the beginning of the
1955-56 NBA season. "I was always very nervous the day of a game," he
says. "I'd just walk around the house until it was time to go to the
arena. There was a high school gym in the neighborhood, so one morning
at about 10 o'clock, I decided to go over there just to dribble around
and take a few shots. That night, I felt much looser and quicker than I
normally did, and I had a much better shooting touch, too. So I went
back to the gym the next time we played. After a while, I developed a
routine for myself. I'd take the kinds of shots that I'd normally take
during a game, and I kept shooting until I made five in a row from each
spot. After a while, some of the other Celtics started coming to the gym
Sharman reports that during his first five seasons in the NBA, he was an
86 percent free-throw shooter. In the five seasons after instituting
his morning "shoot," his marksmanship increased to 92 percent.
After his playing days were history, Sharman became the coach of the Los
Angeles Jets in the American Basketball League and established the
shootaround as part of the club's game-day routine. "Everybody said I
was crazy," Sharman remembers. "They especially objected to having a
shootaround after playing the night before. They thought the players
would be too stiff and too tired and liable to hurt themselves. But what
actually happened was that the players were forced to get out of bed
and break a sweat, which avoided that logy feeling that they often
started a game with. They also developed the visual image and the
positive reinforcement of the ball going through the hoop."
In 1968, Sharman returned to L.A., this time as the coach of the L.A. Stars in the newly founded American Basketball Association (ABA). The Stars moved to Utah for the 1970-71 season and Sharman led the franchise to its first--and only--title.
Sharman jumped back to the NBA for the 1971-72 season, taking over a talent-rich L.A. Lakers team featuring arguably the greatest center, greatest forward and greatest guard in the sport's history (Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West respectively). Degenerating knees forced Baylor to retire after just nine games but the insertion of Jim McMillian into the starting lineup in Baylor's place proved to be the final piece to the championship puzzle: the Lakers roared to a 33 game winning streak--setting a record that still stands--en route to posting a 69-13 record that was not surpassed until the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 72-10 (the Bulls also went 69-13 in 1996-97). The Lakers romped through the playoffs, winning 12 of 15 games to capture Chamberlain's second title and West's lone championship.
The 46 year old Sharman seemed to have a glorious coaching future in front of him but in fact his career on the bench was already almost over; he developed some problems with his vocal cords in 1972 and a series of treatments only provided temporary relief before his speaking voice was reduced to a high pitched squeak that made it impossible for him to shout instructions from the sidelines. Sharman retired as the Lakers' coach in 1976, moving into a front office position with the team. If Sharman had been able to stay on the bench then he may very well have been the coach of the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s instead of Pat Riley.
Great players sometimes struggle as coaches because it is difficult for them to relate to players who do not possess superior talent and relentless drive but Sharman excelled as a coaching communicator and innovator. West once said of Sharman, "There's a right coach for the right team and the right personnel. And Bill was certainly the right coach for us."
Perhaps Wooden put it best in his letter of recommendation to the Basketball Hall of Fame: "If Bill Sharman isn't in the Hall of Fame as a coach, no one should be."
Labels: ABA, Basketball Hall of Fame, Bill Sharman, Boston Celtics, L.A. Lakers, L.A. Stars, NBA
posted by David Friedman @ 11:29 AM
Charting Chris Paul's Assists Versus the Golden State Warriors
On several occasions, I have charted the assists that have officially been credited to various players
in order to determine how accurate the NBA's "official" assist totals are. Last night, Chris Paul authored a spectacular performance as his L.A. Clippers defeated the Golden State Warriors 126-115: Paul scored 42 points, dished off 15 assists and swiped six steals, becoming the first player to post 40-15-5 in those categories since the NBA began officially recording steals in the 1973-74 season--but did all of Paul's assists fit the strict rulebook requirements for an assist? It is no secret that NBA scorekeepers often employ a very liberal definition of an assist; here is the official description of an assist, as posted at NBA.com in 2002 (the rule has not changed since that time):
An assist is a pass that directly leads to a basket. This can be a pass to the low post that leads to a direct score, a long pass for a layup, a fast break pass to a teammate for a layup, and/or a pass that results in an open perimeter shot for a teammate. In basketball, an assist is awarded only if, in the judgement
of the statistician, the last player's pass contributed directly to a made basket. An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player's pass led to the field goal being made.
The last sentence brings some subjectivity into the matter but old school scorekeepers would not award an assist on a play in which the recipient of the pass clearly did the bulk of the work to get open.
Here is my take on Chris Paul's 15 assists versus the Warriors:
1: Blake Griffin dribble drive, 11:02 1st Q: Correct, but borderline; Paul passed to Griffin, who received the ball at the free throw line, made a slight fake, took one dribble and scored. Griffin made an immediate attempt to score after catching the ball--so the assist has some validity--but the play could also be interpreted as a one on one move, not an assisted basket.
2: J.J. Redick fastbreak layup, 7:40 1st Q: Correct; Paul passed to Redick, who scored an uncontested fastbreak layup.
3: Blake Griffin drive, 6:07 1st Q: Incorrect
; Paul passed to Griffin on the right wing and Griffin made a fake, took four dribbles and made another fake before scoring a layup. Giving Paul an assist on this kind of play is such ridiculously bad scorekeeping that it makes one question the validity of the assist statistic, because Paul had nothing whatsoever to do with Griffin scoring on the play. Griffin created the shot entirely for himself.
4: DeAndre Jordan dunk, 5:48 1st Q: Correct; Paul lobbed the ball to Jordan for the dunk.
5: Jared Dudley jumper, 5:13 1st Q: Correct; Paul fed Dudley for a catch and shoot jumper.
6: Blake Griffin jumper, 4:28 1st Q: Correct; Paul inbounded to Griffin, who held the ball briefly before nailing a jumper. A very strict scorekeeper might not award an assist because Griffin did not make an immediate attempt to score after receiving the pass.
7: Jared Dudley three pointer, 4:19 2nd Q: Correct; Paul passed to Dudley, who immediately fired away from long distance.
8: Jared Dudley fastbreak layup, 3:19 2nd Q: Correct; Paul fed Dudley, whose layup attempt was goaltended by Andre Iguodala.
9: J.J. Redick jumper, 1:44 2nd Q: Incorrect
; Paul swung the ball to Redick, who used a pick and took two escape dribbles before nailing a tough, contested shot. Redick created the shot opportunity for himself, as opposed to the shot being created by Paul's pass.
10: Blake Griffin fastbreak dunk, 5:03 3rd Q: Correct; Paul lobbed the ball to Griffin for the dunk.
11: Blake Griffin fastbreak dunk, 4:47 3rd Q: Correct; Paul lobbed the ball to Griffin for the dunk.
12: Blake Griffin fastbreak dunk, 4:31 3rd Q: Correct; Paul lobbed the ball to Griffin for the dunk.
13: Jamal Crawford three pointer, 9:44 4th Q: Correct; Paul passed to Crawford for a catch and shoot jumper.
14: Jamal Crawford layup, 8:10 4th Q: Correct; Paul inbounded to Crawford for an uncontested layup.
15: J.J. Redick three pointer, 3:11 4th Q: Correct; Paul dished to Redick for a catch and shoot jumper.
Two of Paul's assists were incorrectly scored, one was a borderline case and the remaining 12 were clearly legitimate. This is the seventh time that I have charted Chris Paul's assists; in those games, he has been officially credited with 87 assists but only 70 of those assists comply with the rulebook definition--and that includes several borderline plays. Why does this matter? Assist totals are used by some commentators as a way to evaluate who are the league's best passers--and "stat gurus" use raw assist totals as part of their "advanced basketball statistics." Thus, if the raw assist totals are inflated/inaccurate, it is not appropriate to rank passers based on assist numbers and the "advanced basketball statistics" have to be taken with a grain of salt because the basic, raw statistics used to create the "advanced" numbers may not be correct.
Labels: assists, Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers
posted by David Friedman @ 4:38 PM
First Impressions of the 2013-14 Season
The NBA season is a long grind and it would be foolish to draw definitive conclusions just two days into the process but every team has played at least one game and we have seen some interesting things so far:
- Mike Brown will once again transform the Cavaliers into a top notch defensive team; in their home debut, they held the Brooklyn Nets to .402 field goal shooting while also winning the rebounding battle 48-37. Cleveland's 98-94 victory over a team that most people expect to be an Eastern Conference contender is surprising only to those who do not understand that Brown is one of the league's best coaches.
- The L.A. Lakers added some three point shooters and they will have a chance to win on the nights when their long range bombs hit their targets--but they are terrible defensively, they are soft mentally and physically and they will only make the playoffs if Kobe Bryant not only returns to action but if he is able to score 28-30 ppg.
- Derrick Rose looked OK physically in his regular season debut but he is very rusty; he scored just 12 points on 4-15 field goal shooting as his Chicago Bulls fell 107-95 to the Miami Heat. He also had four assists and five turnovers. If the Bulls are going to beat the Heat in a playoff series Rose must produce at least 23-25 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field.
- There is no question that LeBron James is an excellent passer, rebounder and defender--but, despite what anyone (including James himself) says, his greatest skill is scoring: he ranks third in NBA/ABA regular season history with a 27.5 ppg scoring average (trailing only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain) and he ranks fifth in NBA/ABA playoff history with a 28.1 ppg scoring average (trailing only Jordan, Allen Iverson, Jerry West and Kevin Durant). James led the NBA in playoff scoring in 2009 (35.3 ppg) and 2012 (30.3 ppg) and he has averaged at least 25.1 ppg in seven of his eight postseason campaigns. James' signature playoff performances during his two championship seasons have all included outstanding scoring numbers, including 37 points on 12-23 field goal shooting in game seven of the 2013 NBA Finals, 32 points on 8-17 field goal shooting in game seven of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, 26 points on 9-19 field goal shooting in the clinching game five of the 2012 NBA Finals, 31 points on 9-21 field goal shooting in game seven of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals and 45 points on 19-26 field goal shooting in game six of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. With Dwyane Wade declining and Chris Bosh relegated to a glorified Horace Grant-jump shooting role, the Miami Heat need for James to continue to score prolifically and efficiently.
- The Memphis Grizzlies miss Rudy Gay's scoring and Lionel Hollins' coaching; they shot just .419 from the field in their 101-94 season-opening loss to the San Antonio Spurs, failing to capitalize on an injury that limited Tim Duncan to three points in just 17 minutes.
- Gay scored a team-high 19 points on 8-18 field goal shooting as his Toronto Raptors beat the Boston Celtics 93-87 in the first game of the season for both teams.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder will need for Kevin Durant to be in Kobe Bryant 2006 mode just to tread water until Russell Westbrook returns from his knee injury; Durant scored 42 points on 9-24 field goal shooting as the Thunder barely held off the rebuilding Utah Jazz, 101-98.
Labels: Cleveland Cavaliers, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers, LeBron James, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Mike Brown, Oklahoma City Thunder, Rudy Gay, Toronto Raptors
posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 PM
Kobe Bryant Ponders His Basketball Mortality
It happens in the blink of an eye: one minute you are young, naive, raw, eager, wide-eyed and the next minute you are old, world-weary, seasoned, clear-eyed--and you are wondering how the years flew by so quickly.
Was it only yesterday that Kobe Bryant waved off a Karl Malone screen in an All-Star Game? Remember when Bryant shot three air balls at the end of a playoff game versus Utah? Or when he saved the Lakers in the pivotal fourth game of the 2000 NBA Finals after Shaquille O'Neal fouled out, lifting the Lakers to a 3-1 series lead despite being limited by a sprained ankle? Actually, many young NBA fans do not remember any of those things because they were not even born when those things happened.
Bryant's youth is ancient history and the signs of his basketball mortality are popping up with increasing frequency: his right knee is balky, his left Achilles ruptured late last season under the pressure of carrying a poorly coached team filled with indifferent players
and now the critics are out in full force, with one survey ranking Bryant as the 25th best NBA player and even the league's general managers demoting Bryant to the NBA's second best shooting guard. Bryant ranked second in minutes (38.6 mpg), third in scoring (27.3 ppg) and third in free throws made (525) last season, so he clearly was a lot better than 25th in the NBA before he got hurt--but his age (35) and especially the Achilles injury cause people to wonder how long Bryant can maintain his lofty status.
Bryant's greatest trait may be his unfailing belief in himself, an incredible self-confidence that once led him to quip to this writer
, "For better or worse, I'm very optimistic. I'm glad that I don't have a gambling vice." That optimism does not blind Bryant to reality, though; he gets it: he knows that his career is almost over and that it may not end the way that he wants it to end but he is also trying very hard to leave the game on his terms. Here are some quotes from Lee Jenkins' October 21, 2013 Sports Illustrated
article about how Bryant is coping with the denouement of one of pro basketball's greatest careers:
"I have self-doubt. I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I'm like, 'My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don't have it. I just want to chill.' We all have self-doubt. You don't deny it, but you also don't capitulate to it. You embrace it. You rise above it...I don't know how I'm going to come back from this injury. I don't know. Maybe I'll be horse----. Then again, maybe I won't, because no matter what, my belief is that I'm going to figure it out. Maybe not this year or even next year, but I'm going to stay with it until I figure it out."
Bryant is confident but he has no illusions and he has already labeled this phase of his career The Last Chapter
: "The book is going to close. I just haven't determined how many pages are left. I'm reflective only in the sense that I learn to move forward. I reflect with a purpose."
Bryant does not apologize for how hard he pushes himself and how hard he pushes his teammates: "I can't relate to lazy people. We don't speak the same language. I don't understand you. I don't want to understand you. Go over there. If I drive somebody too hard, and he feels like he's overcommitting to the game and cracks because of it, I don't want to go to battle with him in the seventh game anyway...Some guys don't want this. It's too much. It's too uncomfortable.
If that's the case, then we can't play together. It won't work. I believe you need a confrontational crew. If I have to resort to this [shaking his head] instead of telling you that you're being lazy and f------ up, then we'll never resolve anything."
How will Bryant's body respond after Achilles surgery/rehabilitation? Bryant does not pretend to know for sure, but he has a plan: "Maybe I won't have as much explosion. Maybe I'll be slower. Maybe I'll lose quickness. But I have other options. It's like Floyd Mayweather in the ring. There's a reason he's still at the top after all these years. He's the most fundamentally sound boxer of all time. He can fight myriad styles at myriad tempos. He can throw fast punches or off-speed punches, and he can throw them from odd angles."
Labels: Floyd Mayweather, Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
posted by David Friedman @ 4:24 AM
2013-14 Western Conference Preview
The San Antonio Spurs are the NBA's 21st century version of Rasputin: just when you think that they are dead and gone, they prove that they still have a lot of life left. Coach Gregg Popovich rested his key players during the regular season--earning a $250,000 fine from the NBA
--but still led the team to the second best record in the Western Conference (58-24) in the 2012-13 season, two games behind the 2012 Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder. When the Thunder lost All-NBA guard Russell Westbrook to a knee injury, that opened a path for the Spurs to advance to the NBA Finals and the Spurs pushed the defending champion Miami Heat to seven games.
Westbrook is expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the regular season and his absence will probably cost the Thunder the top seed in the conference; the Spurs' Big Three (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili)--supplemented by young players Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green--are well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity and seize homecourt advantage throughout the 2014 Western Conference playoffs.
Houston is the most intriguing Western Conference team; if newly acquired Dwight Howard is completely healthy physically and fully engaged mentally then the Rockets could be a championship contender but it is not clear if the Rockets possess the necessary collective mental and physical toughness to make a deep playoff run.
Coaching matters in the NBA
and the 2013-14 season should provide at least two vivid examples of this: the Memphis Grizzlies will be markedly worse off without Lionel Hollins, while the L.A. Clippers should be better off thanks to the addition of Doc Rivers. Hollins transformed the Memphis Grizzlies into a physically imposing, mentally disciplined team but the Rudy Gay trade
and the subsequent departure of Hollins mean that the Grizzlies are no longer an elite level squad.Vinny Del Negro is not as bad of a coach as some of his critics suggest but Rivers is one of the league's best coaches; Rivers will transform the Clippers into a defensive-minded team that not only can win 50-plus regular season games but can also be a more serious postseason threat.
This preview has the same format as the Eastern Conference Preview
that I posted yesterday; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals and not necessarily in
the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships).
1) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope
: The Big Three are still productive and efficient--though Manu Ginobili is clearly declining--while Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green are being groomed to fill larger roles.
Reasons to mope:
The Spurs are not as athletic as some of the other top contenders; this hurt them in key stretches against the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals and it could be a problem again in the 2014 playoffs, depending on the matchups.
The Westbrook injury may very well clinch the West's best record for the Spurs; the Spurs will be able to rest key players and still stay just ahead of the pack, something that would have been much more difficult to do if the Thunder were able to post 60-plus wins. If Leonard can replace Ginobili as a full fledged member of the Big Three then the Spurs could win the championship.
2) Oklahoma City Thunder: Reasons for hope:
Kevin Durant will keep the Thunder afloat until Westbrook makes his healthy return. The Thunder are an excellently coached team with a well-balanced roster; they ranked first in blocked shots, second in defensive field goal percentage, third in field goal percentage and sixth in rebounding. Many critics boldly declared that the Thunder would not be the same without James Harden but Harden is not an elite player
and the Thunder did not miss a beat after his departure, posting the best record in the Western Conference and the franchise's best single season winning percentage since 1997-98. If Westbrook had not been injured then the Thunder likely would have advanced to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row.
Reasons to mope:
The Thunder were the second best team in the NBA with Westbrook and they won their first two playoff games with him in the lineup but after his injury they struggled to get by Houston in the first round before losing 4-1 to Memphis. Oklahoma City went 62-20 (regular season and playoffs combined) with Westbrook but just 3-6 without him. The Thunder are not an elite team without Westbrook. Their whole season will be made or broken by how quickly he makes a fully healthy return to action.
A 2014 Western Conference Finals matchup between San Antonio and Oklahoma City could become one of the NBA's instant classic series. The Spurs will probably enjoy homecourt advantage--thanks to Westbrook's injury--but the Thunder beat the Spurs 4-2 in the 2012 Western Conference semifinals despite not having homecourt advantage.
3) L.A. Clippers: Reasons for hope:
Doc Rivers will transform the Clippers from "Lob City" into a defensive-minded team that attacks the paint offensively instead of settling for jump shots. Chris Paul is an elite point guard and Blake Griffin has the potential to be an elite power forward.
Reasons to mope:
TNT's Charles Barkley has quipped that you cannot win a championship if your toughest player is a six foot point guard and there is a large degree of truth to that offhand comment; Rivers' biggest challenge with this team is not making a specific strategic adjustment but rather changing the players' mindset about how to compete aggressively against elite level teams without committing foolish fouls and/or losing track of the game plan.
The Clippers will be better with Rivers at the helm but they still are not quite good enough to beat the Spurs or Thunder in a seven game series.
4) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope
A healthy, motivated Dwight Howard is the best center in the league; his presence in the paint will immensely improve the Rockets at both ends of the court, assuming that he is mentally and physically at full strength.
Reasons to mope:
Howard is the only defensive-minded player in the seven or eight man rotation. James Harden put up big scoring numbers during the regular season but he shot just .438 from the field and he is a limited offensive player who has no midrange game; he either shoots three pointers or else flings his body into defenders, hoping to draw fouls: if his outside shot is off and defenders are savvy enough to avoid contact then he has no backup plan, as demonstrated during the playoffs when he shot just .391 from the field and committed 4.5 turnovers per game.
Elite teams will guard Howard one on one in the post and crowd Harden at the three point line but not foul him during his forays into the paint. Howard will greatly improve Houston's defense but the Rockets still will not be a top notch defensive team. The Rockets will win more than 50 regular season games but they will not reach the Western Conference Finals.
5) Golden State Warriors: Reasons for hope
: Stephen Curry averaged a career-high 22.9 ppg (seventh best in the NBA) last season while ranking first in the league in three pointers made (272) and attempted (600). He ranked third in three point field goal percentage for the third season in a row. Curry also ranked seventh in the league in mpg (38.7), a very encouraging statistic for a player who has been plagued by nagging ankle injuries. Coach Mark Jackson has changed the franchise's basketball culture, transforming a run and gun team into a staunch defensive outfit that ranked third in rebounding and fourth in defensive field goal percentage.
Reasons to mope:
Despite their significant improvement, the Warriors were not mentally or physically up to the challenge of facing the tough and wily Spurs in the playoffs. The Warriors are a very good team but they have at least one more step to go before they are a championship-contending team--and that step has more to do with a continued evolution of their collective mindset than it has to do with talent. That said, Jackson has laid out the blueprint for championship-level success and the Warriors are on the right track, even though they might not be quite ready to challenge the conference's top four teams this season.
The addition of Andre Iguodala markedly strengthens the team's overall defense and if Curry, David Lee and Andrew Bogut can stay healthy then the Warriors could perhaps take the next step and fight for a berth in the Western Conference Finals.
6) Memphis Grizzlies: Reasons for hope
: The big man duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol can cause headaches for any team. Tony Allen is a terrific wing defender and Mike Conley has emerged as an first rate point guard.
Reasons to mope:
Lionel Hollins is an excellent coach with a championship pedigree as a player; his replacement Dave Joerger has yet to coach a single NBA game. The Grizzlies missed Rudy Gay's shot creation abilities during the playoffs and they will miss him even more over the course of the 2013-14 regular season.
The Gay trade and Hollins' departure are major setbacks for the Grizzlies, who now look like first round playoff fodder.
7) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope
The roster lacks a bona fide All-Star but is stacked with a large number of very good players. George Karl annually led the Nuggets to the playoffs but was usually unable to guide them past the first round. New Coach Brian Shaw won championships as a player and as an assistant coach.
Reasons to mope:
While Karl can perhaps be faulted for some of the first round losses that his teams suffered over the years (going all the way back to his days in Seattle), this Denver team is simply not good enough to win a playoff series in the tough Western Conference. The idea of trying to win a title with 10 good players but no superstars is intriguing but perhaps not very realistic.
Some commentators are predicting that the Nuggets will miss the playoffs but I see no reason to think that they will slide that much. Andre Iguodala's departure will hurt Denver at both ends of the court--they will obviously miss his defensive prowess but his playmaking skills (he averaged 5.4 apg for the Nuggets last season) are also valuable--but the Nuggets are not going to drop all the way from the third seed to the Draft Lottery unless they suffer a wave of injuries to key players.
8) Minnesota Timberwolves: Reasons for hope
The Timberwolves were a .500 club with Kevin Love (9-9) and a .344 club without him (22-42). In the 2011-12 season, the Timberwolves went 24-31 with Love (.436) and 2-9 without him (.182). If Love stays reasonably healthy for the entire season, there is just enough talent around him for Minnesota to snag the West's final playoff spot.
Reasons to mope:
Most playoff teams are defined by something that they do very well but the Timberwolves have yet to establish such an identity; last season they ranked 24th in both field goal percentage and defensive field goal percentage.
The eighth seed in the West will probably win between 43 and 46 games. The acquisition of Kevin Martin should add some punch to the offense and if Love stays healthy then the Timberwolves should be able to stay just ahead of a pack of several Western teams that will be fighting down to the wire for the opportunity to lose to San Antonio in the first round.
Mark Cuban blew up a championship team because he thought that he could sweet talk a superstar into signing with Dallas to play alongside Dirk Nowitzki; that gamble failed and now the Mavericks have been reduced to a generic team struggling to stay above .500. If Nowitzki is healthy for the entire season then Dallas could seize the eighth spot or maybe even move up to seventh but this team does not have enough talent or toughness to make much more noise than that.
Anthony Davis is no Bill Russell--I am not even convinced that he is Dikembe Mutombo--but the New Orleans Pelicans added some top flight backcourt talent (All-Star Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans) and they are a dark horse contender for the West's final playoff spot.
The L.A. Lakers replaced the league's best center with Chris Kaman and made no other notable moves. Kobe Bryant may return from his Achilles injury in time for the first regular season game but it remains to be seen if he can still play at an All-NBA First Team level. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are well past their primes. The Lakers barely squeaked into the playoffs with Dwight Howard on the court and Bryant having 2006 flashbacks in the second half of the campaign, so it is foolish to expect a playoff appearance from the Lakers sans Howard and with Bryant at less than 100%. Perhaps the Lakers can hang around .500 for most of the season and then make a late run for the eighth seed if Bryant is able to average 35 ppg for the final month of the season but the most likely scenario is that the Lakers miss the playoffs and face some serious decisions next summer.
The Portland Trail Blazers were contending for a playoff spot before losing their final 13 games. They have enough talent to finish in the top eight but that spring swoon gives one pause. Portland ranked 24th in rebounding and 29th in defensive field goal percentage, numbers that do not inspire confidence about their 2014 postseason prospects.
Tyreke Evans' production steadily declined after an excellent rookie season and the Sacramento Kings finally gave up on him, shipping him out to acquire Greivis Vasquez. The Kings are hoping that Demarcus Cousins matures on and off of the court. This team is not talented enough or disciplined enough to make the playoffs.
The name "Jazz" does not really fit in Utah so how about "Tanks"? I am not saying that the Jazz are giving up on the 2013-14 season but it certainly does not seem like they are very interested in contending for a 2014 playoff spot. The 2011-12 Jazz made the playoffs with a young roster (each of the six players who logged at least 1100 minutes was 28 or younger) but four of those players are no longer on the team. Last summer, the Jazz lost their top two scorers (Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap) but made no effort to acquire a veteran who can put the ball in the hoop. Gordon Hayward (14.1 ppg) is the leading returning scorer--and that statement screams "Draft Lottery here we come!"
As for the Suns, I will repeat what I wrote in last season's Western Conference Preview: "I am still waiting for anyone to coherently explain Phoenix' plan to me."
I correctly picked six of the eight 2013 Western Conference playoff teams
. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2006-2012 Total: 51/64 (.797)
Labels: Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, L.A. Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs
posted by David Friedman @ 10:40 PM
2013-14 Eastern Conference Preview
During LeBron James' first two seasons in Miami, the Heat's regular season winning percentage hovered around the .700 mark--not bad, but not even as good as the record posted by the Cavaliers during James' final two seasons in Cleveland (127-37, .774). In 2012-13, the Heat became dominant, winning 27 straight games--the second best such streak of all-time, trailing only the 33 game run enjoyed by the 1971-72 Lakers--en route to posting a league-best 66-16 record.
Life proved to be more difficult during the playoffs, as both Indiana and San Antonio extended the Heat to seven games, but the Heat won both of those series and successfully defended their 2012 championship. James may never fulfill his vow to lead the Heat to six or seven championships but he has already more than matched reasonable expectations, winning two titles in three Finals appearances since he left Cleveland.
James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are now seeking their third straight championship; only George Mikan's Lakers, Bill Russell's Celtics, the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls and the Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers won at least three NBA titles in a row.
The Heat face two key questions:
1) Is Dwyane Wade a declining player or was his postseason swoon purely a result of an injury that could be completely healed/rehabilitated during the 2013 offseason?
2) Will it be possible to continue to overcome the lack of a dominant post presence?
Several Eastern teams have improved on paper but the Heat are still clearly the best team in the conference. Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the
Eastern Conference playoffs; as usual, I have ranked the teams based on
the likelihood that they will make it to the NBA Finals (as opposed to
how they will be seeded in the playoffs, which is affected by which
teams win division titles).
1) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope
: LeBron James is in the prime of one of the greatest careers in pro basketball history. He has eliminated virtually all of his skill set weaknesses, including the most prominent one: his odd tendency to be passive in clutch situations against elite teams during the playoffs (most notably against Boston in the 2010 playoffs
and against Dallas in the 2011 Finals
). Chris Bosh is an underrated, versatile performer whose agility and length are invaluable defensively and whose shooting touch spreads the floor. Bosh should have a bigger role in Miami's half court offense but even as a glorified Horace Grant-style jump shooter he still has an impact. When Dwyane Wade is even close to being healthy he and James wreak havoc at both ends of the court thanks to their speed and explosiveness.
Reasons to mope
: Wade's body seems to be breaking down and it is not likely that he can play at an All-NBA level for an entire regular season plus an extended playoff run. Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra may have to consider resting Wade San Antonio Spurs-style in an attempt to reduce the wear and tear on Wade's balky knees.
The Heat have no post presence defensively and their only post presence offensively is provided by James (Bosh can play in the post but the Heat's offensive system primarily relegates him to a jump shooting role). They survived tough playoff challenges by big Indiana and San Antonio teams mainly because of James' all-around greatness but it will not be easy to win a third straight title if the Heat do not get some productive minutes out of their traditional centers. Perhaps Greg Oden can provide some solid post defense during the playoffs, enabling Bosh to shift back to his natural power forward position.
: The Heat's strengths and weaknesses have not changed much in the past several years; they have made it to three straight Finals, they have won back to back championships and, barring injury, they have to be considered the favorites to win the East.
2) Indiana Pacers: Reasons for hope
: The Pacers have a nice mixture of youth and experience and size and speed. Paul George is emerging as a star and Frank Vogel has established himself as an excellent coach. The Pacers pushed the Heat to seven games and if Danny Granger can get healthy perhaps the Pacers can end Miami's run.
Reasons to mope
: George is an All-Star but he is not an All-NBA First Team caliber player--at least not yet. Most championship teams have at least one such player, someone who can take over the game in clutch situations.
: The Pacers have the necessary size and tenacity to pose a formidable challenge to the Heat. It will be interesting to see if the Pacers rest on their laurels or if they take the next step and advance to the NBA Finals.
3) Chicago Bulls: Reasons for hope
: Derrick Rose's return will provide a huge lift for one of the league's most anemic offenses. Coach Tom Thibodeau is a defensive mastermind (the Bulls have ranked first, second and ninth in defensive field goal percentage during his three seasons in Chicago) and the boost that Rose provides offensively will enable the Bulls to set up their half court defense after made field goals as opposed to having to defend so often in transition after missed shots (the Bulls ranked 25th in field goal percentage last season after ranking 13th in that category during the 2010-11 campaign, Rose's last healthy season).
Reasons to mope:
The Bulls are a gritty, defensive-minded team with enough frontcourt size and versatility to match up with any team in the league but Rose is the team's only All-NBA caliber player. It is not clear if the Bulls' discipline and physicality will be enough to overcome Miami's talent during a seven game series.
: If Rose stays healthy the Bulls will challenge for the best record in the East but they have yet to prove that they can beat an elite team in a seven game series.
4) Brooklyn Nets: Reasons for hope
: The Nets added Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to a roster that went 49-33 last season. They are stacked with talent at every position: a three-time All-Star point guard (Deron Williams), a six-time All-Star shooting guard (Joe Johnson), a 10-time All-Star small forward (Pierce), a 15-time All-Star power forward (Garnett) and one of the top young centers in the league (2013 All-Star Brook Lopez).
Reasons to mope
: Garnett, Pierce and Terry are well past their primes. Williams has performed sporadically since joining the Nets. Johnson has not averaged 20 ppg or shot better than .450 from the field since the 2009-10 season. Coach Jason Kidd, who replaced P.J. Carlesimo, has an incredibly high basketball IQ but he will inevitably suffer some growing pains in his first season as the bench boss.
: Miami's Big Three joined forces in their respective primes and LeBron James is clearly the best player in the league but the Heat still did not win the title in their first year together; the Nets' star-studded lineup does not include a player who is even close to James' level and it is questionable how good this aging team will be defensively. On paper--or five years ago on the court--this looks like a championship team but on the court in 2013-14 the Nets are not better than Miami, Indiana or Chicago.
5) New York Knicks: Reasons for hope
: The Knicks jumped out to a 20-7 start last season before finishing with a 54-28 record, second best in the East and New York's first 50 win season since 1999-00. Carmelo Anthony finished third in MVP voting, J.R. Smith won the Sixth Man award and Coach Mike Woodson did a remarkable job with a roster not known for having disciplined players: the Knicks led the league in fewest turnovers committed and they ranked seventh in points allowed.
Reasons to mope
: Despite having homecourt advantage, the Knicks fell apart against Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals. During most of the regular season, veteran point guard Jason Kidd served as a steadying influence, counterbalancing the team's significant knucklehead factor, but Kidd slowed down physically in the second half of the season, forcing Woodson to reduce his role. Kidd retired and is now the Nets' coach; the Knicks will greatly miss Kidd's veteran savvy.
: The Knicks have a roster that Phil Jackson called "clumsy"
. Many members of the national media hype up the team's potential and overrate the impact of the one-dimensional Anthony but the Knicks will once again fail to advance past the second round of the playoffs.
6) Atlanta Hawks: Reasons for hope
: After annually making the playoffs but not being quite good enough to fight for the brass ring, the Hawks have a new look. The Hawks finished sixth in the East last season but General Manager
Danny Ferry hit the reset button and almost completely remade the
roster; Ferry knew that the team's old nucleus had maximized its potential and would never reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Reasons to mope
: In order to challenge the Miami Heat and fight for the Eastern Conference title, a team must have a defensive mindset, a post presence at both ends of the court and, ideally, at least one elite level player. New coach Mike Budenholzer, a Gregg Popovich disciple, will try to instill that defensive mindset, but the Hawks do not have enough size or talent to be a serious contender this season.
: The Hawks are not a championship level team but the foundation is in place to build in that direction if Ferry is able to acquire a star player and if Budenholzer can instill the San Antonio philosophy that he learned while serving under Popovich.
7) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope
: The Cavaliers foolishly fired Coach Mike Brown
during the summer of 2010 at the height of the LeBron James Decision fiasco
but they have rectified that mistake, bringing Brown back to mentor a young, talented roster that needs to learn the defensive mindset that Brown consistently emphasizes.
Reasons to mope
: The Cavaliers are relying heavily on several injury-prone players, most notably Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Andrew Bynum. If one of those players misses significant playing time then the Cavaliers could once again be headed for the Draft Lottery.
: Mike Brown is one of the top coaches in the NBA, Irving has the talent to be an All-NBA player and this team will be markedly improved defensively. Much depends on the health of players who have yet to prove that they can avoid injury but Cleveland's long post-Decision nightmare appears to be over.
8) Washington Wizards: Reasons for hope
: If they can both stay healthy, John Wall and Bradley Beal could emerge as one of the league's most dynamic backcourts. The Wizards went 6-4 when both Wall and Beal were in the starting lineup, an outstanding record--albeit in a very small sample size--for a team that went 29-53 overall. The Wizards ranked fifth in defensive field goal percentage; in recent years the team has gotten rid of several young knuckleheads and is heading in the right direction.
Reasons to mope
: The Wizards have not made the playoffs since the 2007-08 season and have been one of the league's most dysfunctional franchises for quite some time. It remains to be seen if the team's young nucleus can stay healthy and be consistent enough to lift the team out of Lottery land.
: I am tapping the Wizards for the eighth playoff spot partially because I believe in their young backcourt and partially because I have little faith that any of the remaining East teams will scrape together 40 wins.
The Eastern Conference is still weak and a record in the vicinity of .500 will probably be good enough to grab the final two playoff spots. While I expect Cleveland and Washington to barely emerge from the pack, several Eastern bottom feeders could potentially get hot at the end of the season and sneak into the playoffs. The Toronto Raptors showed some signs of life after trading for Rudy Gay and they closed the season by winning seven of their last eight games, though those results have to be taken with a grain of salt because not all of their opponents were at full strength in those contests; new General Manager Masai Ujiri did a great job rebuilding the post-Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets and it will not be long before he turns Toronto into a playoff team, though it probably will not happen in 2013-14. The Charlotte Bobcats finally have a legitimate low post scoring threat (Al Jefferson) but even a 10 win improvement will still leave them short of qualifying for postseason play. The Orlando Magic have some nice young pieces--including Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo and rookie Victor Oladipo--and could be a dark horse contender for the eighth seed but it is more likely that they need to add some more talent before returning to postseason play. O.J. Mayo figures to be Milwaukee's leading scorer this season--and the Bucks figure to win fewer than 35 games. The Detroit Pistons have won between 25 and 30 games in each of the past four seasons. Joe Dumars' bizarre and inexplicable belief in Rodney Stuckey stalled the Pistons
and bringing back an aging Chauncey Billups will hardly be enough to restore the franchise's faded glory. The Boston Celtics's Big Three plus Rajon Rondo now solely consists of Rondo; rookie Coach Brad Stevens will probably have a rough adjustment to pro basketball and the Celtics do not look like a playoff team even in the watered down East. Last season, the 76ers traded an All-Star caliber wing (Andre Iguodala) to acquire a center who did not play a single game for them (Andrew Bynum) before heading to Cleveland as a free agent; this season the 76ers traded an All-Star point guard (Jrue Holiday) for rookie center Nerlens Noel, who is still recovering from an ACL injury. It is safe to assume that Philadelphia will not be printing any 2014 playoff tickets.
I correctly picked seven of the eight 2012-13 Eastern Conference playoff teams
. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2006-2013 Total: 50/64 (.781)
Labels: Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Washington Wizards
posted by David Friedman @ 8:23 PM
An "Advanced Basketball Statistic" That Makes Sense
It should be obvious that neither field goal percentage nor an "advanced basketball statistic" like true shooting percentage provide a complete description of a player's shooting ability and/or scoring prowess; a player who posts gaudy numbers in one or both of those categories may be a limited offensive contributor who can only score effectively in a very specific role (i.e., a big man who can only convert from point blank range or a slow-footed perimeter player who can only make spot up jumpers). A player's offensive efficiency can only be accurately determined by examining his ability to create shots for himself and his teammates, his ability to score from a variety of areas on the court and his ability to draw double teams that can break down the opposing defense. Such evaluations can only be made by an informed observer who watches the sport with an objective eye. While baseball is a game that consists of a series of discrete actions that can be isolated and analyzed individually
, basketball is a much more complex game in which every action by one player affects and is affected by the actions of several other players.
A player who shoots .600 from the field but cannot make a shot outside of the paint and is easily defended one on one is not nearly as valuable as a player who shoots .450 from the field but can score from anywhere on the court and must be double-teamed. Is there a way to reasonably compare two players who have such divergent skill sets? Kirk Goldsberry's solution to this problem is a new statistic that he and fellow Michigan State professor Ashton Shortridge devised: ShotScore
ranks every NBA player's shooting prowess based on the relative difficulty of each shot that he took; Goldsberry and Shortridge determined the average NBA field goal percentage from every spot on the floor, compared the average percentages to each player's percentages from those spots on the floor and then expressed the results in terms of actual points scored versus expected points. For example, based on the location of LeBron James' field goal attempts last season he would have scored 1397 points if he had shot an average percentage but he scored 1628 points, giving him a league-best +231 ShotScore. Kevin Durant ranked second (+204) and Stephen Curry placed third (+164).
There is little doubt that ShotScore is a more precise measurement of a player's shooting efficiency than scoring average and/or field goal percentage. The usefulness of ShotScore and the measured tone of Goldsberry's writing are a welcome contribution to basketball theory--and a marked contrast to the way that far too many "stat gurus" make arrogant and bold declarations that are unsupported by facts/objective observations. However, there are some potential drawbacks to ShotScore: (1) it relies heavily on the completeness and accuracy of play by play data regarding shot locations and (2) a person must have access to a tremendous amount of data in order to calculate a player's ShotScore. ShotScore could be very useful for general managers and coaches but it will be difficult for it to become a mainstream statistic unless/until the accuracy of the play by play data can be objectively proven and unless/until it becomes easier to compute each player's ShotScore; during a game, an informed observer can note the areas in which a player is effective and can instantly calculate his field goal percentage to get a "quick and dirty" estimate of his overall efficiency but there is no way that such an observer can instantly compute a ShotScore unless/until the NBA provides such data in real time (which could perhaps happen at some point).
Labels: "advanced basketball statistics", Ashton Shortridge, field goal percentage, Kevin Durant, Kirk Goldsberry, LeBron James, Stephen Curry
posted by David Friedman @ 4:52 PM
Julius Erving as Viewed by his Contemporaries
When LeBron James recently listed Julius Erving as one of the three greatest basketball players of all-time
, some commentators questioned if Erving deserves to be mentioned alongside Michael Jordan and Larry Bird (James' other two top three choices) and ahead of so many other legendary performers. Virtually every outstanding sports figure faces a battle "to the death"
(to borrow William Goldman's wonderfully evocative phrase) to preserve his reputation in the eyes of future generations who do not have first hand knowledge of his exploits. It is interesting to examine what one's contemporaries have to say in this regard; although a contemporary observer does not have the contextual benefit of knowing how a player's entire career turned out, a contemporary observer can offer a first hand account of how the player was perceived when the player was at the height of his powers.
Pro Basketball's Super Scorers
(published in 1976) by Larry Felser profiles Julius Erving, Rick Barry, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, George McGinnis, Jerry West and Bob McAdoo. Felser noted that the young Erving had already distinguished himself as a great late game performer:
Some players may score more than Erving. A few, but only a few, may be more spectacular. But what makes 6 foot, 7-inch Julius distinctive is his ability to score the big basket when it is needed the most.
A decade later, Pete Axthelm, in a Newsweek
article about Larry Bird, made a similar observation about Erving's propensity to excel in the clutch:
"Bird...probably makes as many crucial shots as any recent star except Julius Erving." Today, casual fans may not be old enough to remember and/or savvy enough to know that Erving developed--and deserved--a reputation for making big shots in clutch situations.
Felser described Erving's performance in a March 16, 1974 game when Erving's New York Nets faced the powerful Kentucky Colonels in Kentucky with homecourt advantage in the playoffs potentially on the line as the two squads battled for the Eastern Division title. The Nets had possession of the ball with the score tied and 13 seconds remaining in overtime when Erving received the inbounds pass, drove and lofted a long shot over the outstretched hands of 7-2 shot-blocker Artis Gilmore:
It was a perfect shot, arching high and with just enough power to travel a full 18 feet from the point at which Erving shot it. When it dropped through the net, just one second remained on the scoreboard clock. The Nets had won!
Up in the stands among the spectators, Adolph Rupp, one of the most famous basketball coaches in history when he won championship after championship at the University of Kentucky, watched Erving's game-winning heroics with admiration.
"I've coached a lot of great players and seen a lot of great ones," said Rupp, "but not all of them wanted to take that last shot, the one which would decide the game. Erving wants to take the shot because he knows he can make it."
Doctor J scored 41 points that night. All but five of them came when the game was at its most hectic stage--in the second half of regulation time and in the overtime period.
The Nets finished 55-29, two games ahead of the Colonels--but if the
Colonels had won that encounter, then both teams would have been 54-28
and Kentucky would have won the Eastern Division based on having a
better head to head record.
Felser quoted Kevin Loughery, who coached Erving with the Nets for three years, during which time Erving earned three ABA MVPs (one shared with George McGinnis) and led the Nets to two ABA titles:
"I think Julius is the best basketball player I've ever seen," says Loughery. "There is a certain uniqueness to him. He does things on a basketball court that no other player can do. When you watch him every night, you see different things. During the last few weeks of his first season with us, when we had to win every game, he was tremendous. There are very few players in the game of basketball I would pay to see. He is one of them."
Many longtime observers of pro basketball compare Erving to Elgin Baylor, the great forward for the Los Angeles Lakers who retired several years ago.
"Doctor J is a better all-around player than Baylor ever was," answers Loughery. "He can do everything Baylor could do on offense, and then some. He also plays much better defense."
Felser noted that Kentucky Coach Babe McCarthy agreed with Loughery. After Erving hit another last second shot to beat the Colonels--this time in game three of the 1974 Eastern Division Finals--McCarthy declared, "Unbelievable. More ability than any player I've ever seen. Erving is the best."
A few quotes and anecdotes from the mid-1970s do not conclusively prove anything but they do give an indication about how Erving was perceived as his career unfolded. Erving at his peak was certainly in the greatest player of all-time conversation; that does not mean that he definitively was/is the greatest player of all-time or that other players are not in that conversation, nor does it preclude the possibility that subsequent players exceeded Erving's accomplishments--but the way that Erving was viewed by his contemporaries is worth remembering/considering when the subject of greatest basketball player of all-time is discussed.
Labels: ABA. Kentucky Colonels, Adolph Rupp, Artis Gilmore, Babe McCarthy, Julius Erving, Kevin Loughery, LeBron James, New York Nets
posted by David Friedman @ 2:08 AM
Wayback Machine, Part IX: The 1983 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
The front cover photo of the 1983 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
showcased new school versus old school: the Lakers' Magic Johnson dribbled the ball in the open court with the 76ers' Julius Erving in hot pursuit. Fourth year pro Johnson had already won two NBA titles and two NBA Finals MVPs, while 12 year veteran Erving owned four regular season MVPs (three in the ABA, one in the NBA), two ABA championships and two ABA Finals MVPs. The two superstars had just squared off in the 1982 Finals, with Johnson's squad prevailing four games to two.
The 1983 CHPB
contained 350 pages, making it the largest edition of the series yet. It included 23 team profiles, lists of the 1982 NBA statistical leaders, the complete 1982-83 schedule, a list of all 225 players selected in the 1982 NBA Draft and a "TV/Radio roundup." The 1983 CHPB
had five feature stories: Pete Alfano contributed "What Next for Dr. J?" and "Dave DeBusschere's Rescue Mission," Bill Libby described "The Magical Mystery Tour," Willie Schatz wrote "TV's Dick Stockton: A View From Courtside" and Bob Ryan added "Robert Parish Pivots to Celtic Glory."
Hershey and George White co-wrote the "Inside the NBA" article, predicting that the Milwaukee Bucks would beat the L.A. Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals. The Bucks posted the third best record in the Eastern Conference and swept the second seeded Boston Celtics before falling 4-1 to the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. No other team won a game against the 76ers in the 1983 playoffs and the 76ers owned the record for best single season playoff winning percentage (12-1, .923) until the 2001 Lakers went 15-1 (.938) in an expanded postseason format. The 1983 Lakers' quest for a repeat ended when the 76ers swept them 4-0.
In addition to their prognostications, Hershey and White also editorialized about the overall state of the NBA: "As long as the owners cling to the antiquated policy of no revenue sharing, the financially-strapped teams have no hope. A year ago, 17 of the 23 teams lost money and, with a disappointing contract and escalating salaries--the average now is $214,500--there is no reason for optimism in the future."
Here are some interesting notes, quotes and quips from the 1983 CHPB
1) Alfano, a New York Times
' writer, had covered Erving since the Doctor arrived in New York for the 1973-74 season, so he had a front row seat as Erving led the New York Nets to a pair of ABA championships. "What Next for Dr. J?" examined the entire arc of Erving's career, focusing on his quest to win an NBA championship. The NBA title eluded Erving during the first six seasons of his Philadelphia 76ers career and after the 76ers lost to the Lakers in the 1982 Finals it seemed fair to wonder if Erving would ever complete the one blank space on his professional resume--and if he would do so as a top level performer, as opposed to being along for the ride. Erving's frustration was palpable right after the 1982 Finals ended: "Never has the walk [back to the locker room] been tougher to take. I've never been more hurt than right now. If you don't win, you're always second-best, bridesmaids, but there is nothing embarrassing about this. I'm just discouraged and hurt."
Still, Erving maintained an upbeat attitude: "There will always be tomorrow. My only regret would have been if I were quitting, and I'm not. I'm just going to keep banging and playing this game I love so much. I'll be back next year and running around like a rookie. Let's face it, I've been through a lot in my career and most of it was good. This should be the worst thing that happens in my life."
Erving concluded, "I feel there is a plan for us. You have a will of your own and you are given choices. Your destiny is affected by your will. People don't understand that destiny is broad. Many times I have to battle my will. Certain times I have great strength, other times great weaknesses."
Prior to the 1982-83 season, the 76ers acquired Moses Malone to match up with
the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Boston Celtics' Robert Parish and
the other All-Star/All-NBA/future Hall of Fame centers who had
repeatedly thwarted Philadelphia's championship dreams in the late 1970s
and early 1980s. Malone and Erving proved to be a well-matched duo, complemented by All-Stars Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones. In the 1982-83 season, Erving was no longer the best player in the NBA--or even on his own team--but he made the All-NBA First Team and he finished fifth in MVP voting, so he was still an elite performer who played a crucial role for arguably the greatest single season squad in pro basketball history
2) Alfano's DeBusschere profile described the Hall of Fame forward's smooth transition from being a great player to being a general manager--for Erving's ABA champion Nets in 1973-74--to being the ABA Commissioner. DeBusschere's newest challenge was serving as executive vice president/director of basketball operations for his old team, the New York Knicks, and trying to revive their slumping fortunes. DeBusschere enjoyed a remarkably diverse and successful athletic career. At just 24, he became the youngest coach in NBA history, serving as player/coach for the Detroit Pistons. He also played Major League Baseball, posting a 3.09 ERA in spot duty for the Chicago White Sox during the 1963 season. DeBusschere made the All-Star team three times as a Piston but he became a two-time champion--and a legend--after being traded to the Knicks. He was the final piece in their championship puzzle, providing rugged defense, dependable rebounding and solid scoring. DeBusschere had some classic confrontations with fellow Hall of Famer Gus Johnson
DeBusschere built some solid Knick teams and he drafted Patrick Ewing but DeBusschere was not able to restore the franchise's former glory. He died of a heart attack in 2003.
3) Bill Libby called Magic Johnson "arguably the best player in pro basketball," noting that Johnson won the 1980 Finals MVP after scoring 42 points on 23 field goal attempts in the clinching contest and then he earned the 1982 Finals MVP after scoring 13 points on just three field goal attempts. Johnson did whatever it took for his team to win, proving to be a triple threat as a scorer, rebounder and passer. The media members who voted for the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards favored Larry Bird over Johnson until the late 1980s but Libby's comment was right on target: while Malone was the league's most dominant force in the early 1980s, Johnson was the league's best all-around player (a similar distinction could have been made several years ago between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant or in recent years between a healthy Dwight Howard and LeBron James).
Johnson became embroiled in controversy when his publicly critical comments about Coach Paul Westhead seemed to directly result in Westhead's 1981 dismissal but Johnson established himself as the player of the decade by leading the Lakers to five championships, including the league's first back to back titles (1987-88) since the curtain closed on the Bill Russell era in 1969.
4) Dick Stockton is a class act on and off of the air. For many years he was the leading national NBA play by play announcer, developing great chemistry with several different analysts, including Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn and Hubie Brown.
When I approached Stockton face to face--without prior notice--at a Cleveland Cavaliers game and asked him if he could take a few moments to answer some questions for my upcoming Andrew Toney article
, he could have politely--or impolitely--declined: he was a big-time national TV star who had no idea who I was. Instead, Stockton warmly agreed to my request and he enthusiastically answered my questions. I bumped into him on a few subsequent occasions at other games and he always gave me a friendly greeting. I can assure you that this is not
typical behavior in this business.
Schatz' feature described how Stockton became captivated by sports journalism after attending the 1953 NBA Finals as a kid and watching Leonard Koppett file his game report from press row. Stockton graduated from Syracuse and steadily worked his way up the broadcasting totem pole until he earned the plum assignment as CBS' lead play by play announcer on NBA games. In the article, the then-39 year old Stockton said, "The test is longevity"; he is still working NBA and NFL games three decades later--and he has been honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame--so Stockton has passed that test with flying colors.
5) Casual fans may think of Robert Parish as the Boston Big Three's version of Ringo Starr but The Chief finished fourth in MVP voting in 1982 and his performance that season convinced many people that he was the best all-around center--if not the best player, period--in the NBA. Ryan's article quoted Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham stating that Parish deserved to win the MVP, while New York forward Maurice Lucas said, "There wasn't a better center in the league this year." Ryan cited Parish's impressive statistics (including a career-high 19.9 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 2.4 bpg) but hastened to add that Parish's impact could not be quantified purely by using numbers; Ryan noted that Parish's shooting range distorted opposing defenses and Parish's ability to run the floor gave the Celtics more options on the fast break. It is important to remember that for most of NBA history--until the emergence of the back to back champion Pistons in the late 1980s, followed by the dominance of the Jordan-Pippen Bulls in the 1990s--it was very rare for a team to win an NBA title without having an All-Star caliber center; such a center might very well be the most valuable player on his team--or even in the entire league--even if there was a forward or a guard who was a more versatile all-around performer. Oscar Robertson and Jerry West are two of the greatest all-around players in pro basketball history but each player won his lone NBA title only after teaming up with a Hall of Fame center. Larry Bird likely would not have won a single championship without the production Parish provided at both ends of the court.
6) Bird shot just .427 from the field in the 1982 playoffs, including .412 in Boston's seven game loss to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals. His CHPB
profile included some criticism of his postseason play: "Do we see a chink in the armor?...Perhaps the best all-around player in the league, but he had a problem in the playoffs...Made only 41 percent of his shots (54-131) in Eastern Conference Finals...Took only five shots in the second half of Game Seven, when team desperately needed points...Kept saying that his team didn't need him to score, that he could contribute in other ways..."
7) Parish's profile began with this bold declaration: "The Celtics' Most Valuable Player." The author explained, "Took over leadership when Larry Bird and Tiny Archibald were hurt and triggered 18-game winning streak."
8) The CHPB
combined perceptive analysis with sharp one-liners; M.L. Carr's profile deftly deconstructed how he had become more of a towel-waver than a contributor: "Words speak louder than action...This part of the Carr never stops running...Self-appointed locker room spokesman...Displays a great defensive stance, then lets most guards in the league drive around him."
9) Former All-Star Larry Kenon had not yet celebrated his 30th birthday but he was already on the downside of his career (he would play his final NBA game in 1983): "Envious of Dr. J, he started calling himself Dr. K, then settled for Mr. K during his 20-ppg days in San Antonio. Now it's plain old K, as in struck out."
10) Mark Aguirre's profile included high praise from Erving: "He makes his teammates better, and that's usually the sign of a great player." Aguirre averaged 18.7 ppg as a rookie but a broken foot limited him to 51 games. He was often mocked for his round physique but he actually had one of the lowest body fat percentages (9.7) on Dallas' team.
11) Kelly Tripucka, son of star Notre Dame quarterback Frank Tripucka, had a great rookie season, averaging 21.6 ppg, earning an All-Star selection and finishing tied for 11th (with Dan Roundfield) in MVP voting: "Julius Erving and Larry Bird were the only forwards in the East to outscore him...Led all rookies in scoring...Was fourth in the league in minutes played...Highest scoring rookie since Bernard King (24.2 ppg) in 1977-78."
12) Tripucka's Detroit teammate Isiah Thomas became just the fourth rookie to start in the All-Star Game: "An instant leader who helped this team increase victory total from 21 to 39...Has that rare quality of making his teammates better players." Although I am not a big fan of the shorthand phrase "making his teammates better,"
I agree with the CHPB
's assessment that both Thomas and Aguirre--who later teamed up to win back to back titles (1989-90) with the Detroit Pistons--made their respective teams significantly better.
13) Before he went to New York and solidified his status as a future Hall of Famer, Bernard King's career and life were on the brink: "Came back from edge of utter abjection of only a couple of years ago to reestablish himself as one of basketball's most unstoppable offensive forces...Legal problem and entanglement with drugs and alcohol had threatened to obliterate his career with Utah but, given a second chance by Al Attles, he has played the best basketball of his life." King averaged 23.2 ppg in 79 games for Golden State in 1981-82.
14) Kobe Bryant's father Joe played for Philadelphia and San Diego before landing in Houston for the 1981-82 season: "Believed San Diego was an extended scene from Animal House...Parttime clown, parttime basketball player. Can't seem to keep the two apart...When he isn't on stage with the funny stuff, he possesses a fair amount of professional talent...Can get inside occasionally for some muscle baskets, handles the ball well enough to play guard in an emergency and has also filled in at center."
15) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar often received unwarranted criticism during his career but the 1983 CHPB
praised his contributions to the Lakers' 1982 championship team: "Absolutely no respect for the rocking chair...Put another outstanding season (23.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg) in the record books at age 35. Opposing centers will be unhappy to hear the opinion of noted sports physician Dr. Robert Kerlan: 'With his body, he could easily play until he's 40.'...Still the most imposing defensive player in the league (third in blocked shots with a 2.72 average) and still the game's best passing center."
16) Defense is perhaps the most underrated qualitiy about Julius Erving individually and about his Philadelphia teams collectively. Erving annually ranked among the league leaders in steals and blocked shots, Maurice Cheeks was a top notch defensive point guard, Lionel Hollins was a tenacious defender as a point guard or a shooting guard, Bobby Jones was the best defensive forward in the league for several years and Caldwell Jones was an undersized but very solid defensive center. The Philadelphia team profile in the 1983 CHPB
gave Erving and his teammates the credit that they deserved:
You don't get to the Finals three times in six years without playing defense. Stop and think how all those dunks and fast breaks originate. Steals and blocked shots is the answer. The 76ers may not look like they're playing defense in the classic sense, but they do more to disrupt what other teams want to do than almost anybody.
Cheeks may be the most underrated defensive guard in the league. He had more steals (209) than anyone. Caldwell Jones and Erving were ninth and 10th in blocked shots, averaging 1.80 and 1.74 respectively, and there's your transition game. For straight-up defense, Hollins is excellent and everybody knows about Bobby Jones, a six-time selection to the All-Defensive Team. All in all, playing defense is this team's best quality.
17) Erving's profile reflected both his individual greatness and the urgency of his quest to become an NBA champion: "Frustrated once more...Another magnificent effort was wasted...The only thing left to conquer for this incomparable talent is an NBA championship ring and time is running out...Averaged 25 ppg in Finals against the Lakers, almost singlehandedly taking over segments of games, but it still wasn't enough...Scored 20 points in the second half of the stunning upset of the Celtics in Game Seven of Eastern Conference Finals...Also accounted for 18 of his 23 points in the second half of do-or-die Game Five victory over Lakers." The profile concluded with these words: "As classy off the court as he is on...Patient and personable to everyone...Very popular with opposing players...And the best of all--he shows no signs of slowing down."
18) Second year guard Andrew Toney emerged as a big-time player and the 76ers' second leading scorer behind Erving: "Has a great jumper and can stop on a dime...Difficult to defend because he has no favorite spot and unlimited range...A vastly underrated passer, too...His 52.2 shooting percentage was third in league among guards...Has ability to score in bunches."
19) George Gervin averaged 32.3 ppg en route to winning his fourth scoring title, second in ABA/NBA history behind only Wilt Chamberlain's seven at that time. Gervin's profile noted that he began his career playing alongside another future Hall of Famer in the ABA: "'I went to the School of Dr. J and I'm proud to say it,' Gervin says of his old Virginia Squires' teammate. 'He schooled me, not in basketball, but in life.'"
Wayback Machine, Part I looked at the 1975 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
Wayback Machine, Part II looked at the 1976 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
Wayback Machine, Part III looked at the 1977 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
Wayback Machine, Part IV looked at the 1978 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
Wayback Machine, Part V looked at the 1979 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
Wayback Machine, Part VI looked at the 1980 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
Wayback Machine, Part VII looked at the 1981 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
Wayback Machine, Part VIII looked at the 1982 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
Labels: Bob Ryan, Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, Dave DeBusschere, Dick Stockton, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Robert Parish, Zander Hollander
posted by David Friedman @ 3:02 PM
Interview With Edward Hershey
Edward Hershey has enjoyed a fascinating life journey. He covered sports for several New York newspapers while he was still a student in high school. After graduating from college he worked for the Suffolk Sun
before being hired by Newsday
at the age of 24. Hershey's bio
details the variety of interesting jobs that Hershey has held, including sports writer, general assignment writer, New York city Assistant Commissioner of Correction for Public Affairs, college lecturer at Baruch College and LIU, founder of the consulting firm Edward Hershey & Associates and Communications Director of (Oregon) Local 503 of the Service Employees International Union.
I collect classic/out of print/hard to find books about basketball, chess and many other subjects. Many years ago, I tracked down several volumes of Random House's Pro Basketball Library; volume three is a 1969 book titled Great Rookies of Pro Basketball
. Hershey wrote the chapter about Rick Barry, who developed into one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players
and is the only person who won a scoring title in the NCAA, ABA and NBA. Hershey's piece, published early in Barry's career, notes that not everyone expected Barry to be so successful:
"Practically from the day he took his first shot at a playground basket in New Jersey, Barry wanted more than anything to be a professional. And, true to his personality, he didn't want to be an ordinary
professional basketball player. He wanted to be a star. During his senior season at Miami, Rick had heard himself described as a risky draft choice. There were respected pro scouts and officials who said they did not think Barry would ever make the grade in the National Basketball Association. They predicted that Rick's lean, 205-pound frame could not take the constant pounding of the pro game. They also said his temper, which had flared on the court when things hadn't gone Rick's way in high school and college games, would work against him in the high-pressure world of pro basketball. They said that, as a pro, he would never get the shots he had taken as a college player."
The legendary Zander Hollander
edited Great Rookies of Pro Basketball
; Hollander is perhaps best known to basketball fans as the editor of The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
. Hershey recalls, "Zander was a
sportswriter at the World-Telegram
when I was there as an intern and
then briefly as a sportswriter. Among his other beats was skiing--he
had a winter column called 'On Your Sitzmark.' That's where we met. He is an affable fellow who tried to involve lots of colleagues in those
compilation books and he was very patient with me."
Hershey's profile of tennis star Arthur Ashe was included in Best Sports Stories of 1969
and he wrote Cleon
with New York Mets outfielder Cleon Jones but he is particularly proud of a short piece titled Marilyn
Hershey contacted me in reference to some of my recent articles about Roger Brown
. I recently spoke with Hershey and our wide-ranging conversation started with basketball but extended out to a variety of subjects. Here is my interview with Hershey, edited for length and clarity:
Friedman: "What are your recollections of the high school game (the 1960 New York PSAL semifinals) between Roger Brown's team (Wingate) and Connie
Hawkins' team (Boys High)?"
Hershey: "It was no contest in terms of mano a mano. Brown had an insane day (39 points, 17-34 field goal shooting; Hawkins finished with 18 points and
13 rebounds). If you picture Kevin Durant on one of his better days, that is what Brown looked like that day. It seemed like everything he shot went in. It
was clear that Boys had the better team and probably were better coached as well--but certainly the better team, so Hawkins did not have to do as much as
Brown did. There was another unbelievable game in the first year or two of the new Garden. Michigan played Princeton in the ECAC Tournament. Bill Bradley outplayed Cazzie Russell but Bradley fouled out and Princeton lost despite having, I think, a 14 point lead. There is sort of a parallel, I would say."
Hershey's recollection of that December 1964 Michigan-Princeton game is 100% correct; Princeton led 77-63 when Bradley fouled out but Michigan rallied to post an 80-78 win. The Brown-Hawkins story is a bit different, because in that case the star who was being outplayed fouled out but his team--which was much deeper--won anyway. The New York Post's Pete Vecsey notes that Boys' Coach Howie Jones assigned Hawkins to guard Brown, with the idea that Hawkins' length would force Brown to alter the arc of his jump shots. Instead, Brown either shot over Hawkins or drove right around him and Hawkins fouled out just before the end of the third quarter.
Hershey: "Brown had an unbelievable game. The other thing that you have to remember about Brown is that, while Hawkins was long and lean and a great player and just smooth, Brown looked like an adult playing with kids. If you picture a schoolyard game in which someone's father is playing, Brown absolutely looked like a premature adult in some respects. Obviously, he kept improving. He wasn't like the player from Ohio State that the Blazers drafted."
Friedman: "Greg Oden."
Hershey: "Yeah, Oden. Oden looked like he was 30 when he was 16 and, unfortunately, he reached his physical maturity prematurely. I don't think that was the case with Roger but Roger just looked better than everybody else."
Friedman: "In what capacity did you attend the game?"
Hershey: "I was only 15 years old at the time. As a kid I knew that I wanted to be either a broadcaster or a writer and I was realistic enough to know that writing was probably going to be it. When I was 11 years old, I didn't make the Little League team but instead I agreed to be the league's official scorer. At the end of the year, they gave me a trophy as big as the MVP trophy; I did every game, without computers, and I printed out everybody's statistics to give to all of the coaches. So I knew that was what I wanted to do; I was not a player. When I was 14 I started covering sports for my high school paper, Lafayette High School. I sort of talked my way into where the other reporters were and met a couple of them and I became their correspondent. By the end of that year I was introduced to a guy at the Journal-American,
Morry Rokeach--there were seven newspapers in New York at that time and one of them was the Journal-American
--and I became his assistant. By the time of the Brown-Hawkins game, I was sort of a permanent hanger-on. I was the equivalent of a gym rat, except I was kind of a city room rat. One of the things that this fellow did was arrange was for me to be a spotter for the P.A. announcer and scorer: John Condon, the long-time voice of the Garden, and a guy named Jimmy Wergeles, who was from the boxing department. I sat next to John Condon and Jimmy Wergeles and did the spotting for the announcers. I was at the scorer's table for the whole game and for every other game in the tournament, so I was in heaven. For somebody that age, I was really tuned in. I worked at the newspaper and I was younger than some of the kids who were calling in the scores, though they didn't know it. Very little money--sometimes no money--but a great experience. Nowadays they call it being an intern. When I saw the movie Almost Famous
I kind of identified with it. It wasn't Rolling Stone
but it was the same idea."
Friedman: "You were keeping track of fouls and who was in the game and that kind of thing and then giving that information to the announcers?"
Hershey: "That's right. As hard as it may be to imagine in this day of computerization and technology, in those days everything was done with paper and pencil."
Friedman: "I understand. I remember the pre-digital era. It's interesting that when you deal with people who are younger than I am they often have no concept of how different things are now."
Hershey: "When you go to work in a small town or a university town, you can live out some of your fantasies. I was at Cornell for 11 and a half years and for 10 of them I was the P.A. announcer for men's and women's basketball. Somebody left, I volunteered for the job and they paid me nominally but I was doing it for fun, really. Condon was such a classy guy. Only in the slightest way did you know that the home team was getting an edge on the P.A. When you came into the Garden as an opposing player--especially if you were a great one--you were treated very well. Nowadays, when I go to the Blazers' games here (in Portland), I feel like it is so bush league. All of the NBA teams seem to do this; when a home team player scores, the announcer sounds like a ring master but when an opposing player scores, they sort of slur the name. I just think that is so bush league.
On the other hand, I remember something that happened not too long after I took the Cornell gig, when I was doing one of the women's games. Harvard was for many years the class of the Ivy League in women's basketball; that year (1998) they went on to beat Stanford in the NCAA Tournament, the only time that a 16th seed has beaten a number one seed. Allison Feaster had a big night against Cornell, so I gave her a curtain call when she came out of the game with about two minutes to go. The Cornell coaching staff looked at me like I was crazy but that was the kind of thing that Condon would do for opposing players. Dave Zinkoff was the first hometown announcer like that.”
Friedman: "The Zink."
Hershey: "The Zink. He was a character and Philadelphia wasn't New York, though that may sound like New York hubris even all these years later."
Friedman: "I was a big 76ers fan growing up and a big Julius Erving fan and I know that Zinkoff had very distinctive calls and a different catchphrase for each player. He was the one who came up with the elongated 'Julius the Doctor Errrrrrrrrving.'"
Hershey: "Nowadays, in my estimation, they go beyond the pale. The Celtics had one of the all-time homer radio announcers, Johnny Most."
Friedman: "Right. I know. I remember that during the 1980s when the Celtics had that rivalry with the Pistons he would be getting on Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. I think that he called one 'McFilthy' and the other 'McNasty.'"
Hershey: "He was most famous for 'Havlicek stole the ball!' That was probably the most important snippet of announcing in the history of the NBA."
Friedman: "No question. The Havlicek call was from before I was born but of course I have heard it and then he also had Henderson stealing the ball from Worthy in the 1984 NBA Finals. Getting back to your career, you started working at the Garden in this kind of intern capacity when you were still in high school."
Hershey: "It was an unbelievable experience. In those days in New York when you were in high school you got a GO card, which was a General Organization card. So even as a freshman I got to go to the games for 50 cents or 75 cents and if you got there early enough you could sit in the front row, which were the best seats in the house. But to suddenly be in this situation where I was kind of interning as a high school sports writer, that was a big thing."
Friedman: "So you were basically working at the Garden from the late 1950s until--"
Hershey: "I started in 1960 and I just stayed with it; when I went to college for two years I got a formal internship with the New York World Telegram & Sun
. For $25 a week you would take scores and compile statistics in the office for five days a week. People did that and if they did OK it was actually a route to get a job after you graduated. And I did in 1966 but that didn't last long. Three months later, three papers--the World Telegram
, the Journal
and the Herald-Tribune
--combined to form something called 'The Widget.' Without seniority, I was out on the street. The following fall, I got a job at a little paper called the Suffolk Sun
and then eventually I went to Newsday
, where I covered sports for a couple years and then covered general assignments for about a decade. In one capacity or another, from about 1960 until 1970 I went to the Garden."
Friedman: "So, you covered the early part of the era with Holzman, Frazier and Reed?"
Hershey: "My Knicks' teams had Howard Komives. I saw Frazier play for Southern Illinois. Bear in mind that I was at LIU. We actually went to Evansville two years in a row. I saw Phil Jackson play for North Dakota. Those trips were unbelievable. The second year I had graduated from LIU but I was teaching and I was sort of interning in the LIU P.R. department. I actually broadcast the game back to the LIU gym on a sort of closed circuit. That was the year that Earl Monroe beat us. We had a really great player named Barry Leibowitz; he ended up playing in the ABA before going to Israel. Barry turned his ankle in a game against Cheney State, so he was really in no shape to guard Earl Monroe."
Friedman: "I'm not sure if anyone was really in shape to guard Monroe at that time."
Hershey: "The first time down the court, Monroe made a move, left Leibowitz just standing there and put the ball off of the backboard. It would have been funny, if Leibowitz hadn't been hurt."
Friedman: "The Knicks won their first championship in 1969-70, which was at the end of your sports writing career. Did you have a chance to cover that team?"
Hershey: "I covered some of the training camp and I remember having an unbelievable conversation with Bill Bradley. I covered the first Knicks team from the bad days that finally made the playoffs (in 1967). I remember we went up to Boston. I was teaching then at a junior high in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I was in heaven: a 23 year old covering the playoffs. I covered that team. Bradley had been drafted and he went into the service (before joining the team in late 1967). I went to the locker room to talk to him, looking for a story, and I asked him some kind of sociological question about how a privileged kid, the son of a banker from Crystal City, Missouri who went to Princeton, made it to the NBA, alongside guys like Reed and Frazier. He looked at me and he said, 'Listen, if you want to talk politics, let's go have lunch sometime. In here, I only want to talk about basketball.' I just thought that was so cool. That must have happened in 1967 because in 1968 I was still writing about sports for Newsday
and a guy named Allard Lowenstein was running for Congress. A mutual friend introduced us and I became very friendly with him. He was a peace candidate. He had founded something called the 'Dump Johnson' movement, which was one of the things that convinced Lyndon Johnson to not run for reelection. A week after Bobby Kennedy was shot in California, only the die-hards came out for the primary and Lowenstein upset the establishment Democratic candidate. I became a little active in Lowenstein's campaign; I figured that as a sports writer I wasn't betraying my journalistic commitment. I actually sponsored something called 'A Sports Night for Lowenstein.' I contacted some of the politically hip athletes, including Bill Bradley and a guy who played in the ABA named Bobby Lloyd. He had been an All-American at Rutgers. Also, Jim Bouton, who was still with the Yankees. He hadn't written Ball Four
but would come down to Greenwich Village to hang out with the writers at a wonderful bar called the Lion's Head. We showed a movie called 'Goal,' which was a documentary about the 1966 World Cup.
So, if I covered that 1969-70 New York team it was probably only for a couple games. In the summer of 1969 I was away--I had joined the Reserves as a way of staying out of Vietnam--and then I came back in the fall and did the book with Cleon Jones. In the beginning of 1970 I left sports, so I really wasn't there (when the Knicks won the championship).”
Friedman: "Did you take Bill Bradley up on his offer to have that lunch conversation about politics?"
Hershey: "I invited him to speak at that rally for Allard Lowenstein and he was terrific. But, no, we never had that lunch conversation. Years later, Lowenstein was assassinated. He was killed in 1980 by kind of a crazy guy. It is a very complicated story but I am sure that it is on the internet. In the late 1970s, Lowenstein told me that he had met Bradley on a plane and they had a great conversation about what happened at the rally. Of course, Bradley became a big-time progressive and he ended up serving in the Senate and running for President. So, I can tease myself and say that I gave Bradley his political start."
Friedman: "You transitioned from covering sports to doing general assignment writing. In what way did covering sports prepare you for becoming a general assignment writer?"
Hershey: "I can tell you that I really had to adjust when I left sports. After 1968, there were so many things happening in the world and I got it in my head that there were more important things to do than cover sports. I thought that because I was a good writing stylist I could make the change but I didn't really have the discipline that I needed and that takes time. The very first story that I covered from the city room took place during the start of the school year. It must have been in the fall of 1970. A mother of a little girl in Hicksville had bought all of her school clothing and then after the girl showed up at school she discovered that all of the skirts were two inches too high. So none of the clothes could be worn at school. This might have been in the fall of 1969. In any event, she and the ACLU sued the school about the dress code. I went there and I covered this story like a blanket. I talked to the lawyers and the principal and the members of the school board and the mother. I came back to the office after spending a day doing this, I briefed the editor and he said, 'OK, Ed, six inches and make it sing.' I looked at him like he was crazy. He thought that this was just a funny, quirky story. I had been treating it like I was covering the Supreme Court. I was used to doing 700 words on a rained-out game; I would go into the locker room or the clubhouse and find something to write about because they had allotted 700 words in the sports section for my story whether or not it rained."
Friedman: "You had to fill that space."
Hershey: "Right. Here this guy is telling me to write six inches (of copy). The very first story I did was rewritten, because I just couldn't get what he was looking for. But I learned pretty quickly, I think--I hope. I won some awards and had a pretty good time covering everything from the Son of Sam case to Geraldine Ferraro's first campaign for Congress and a whole lot of other stuff. I covered the Attica prison riot, which was the turning point in my career."
Friedman: "The Attica prison riot was the turning point?"
Hershey: "Yes, in terms of being taken seriously. I did several stories of investigative journalism, too."
Friedman: "The Attica prison riot is pretty famous. How specifically did that story impact your career?"
Hershey: "I actually got there a few days after it was over. We spent about six weeks doing a post-mortem and it was really interesting. The thing that made it great for me was that I was put on a team with about four or five veteran reporters, so that was an invaluable education.
One of the things that I did that changed my career was I was very instrumental in starting a journalists union at Newsday
. It is one of the things that I am most proud of in my life but obviously it had an impact on how management viewed me. They weren't sending me off to London or even Washington, D.C."
Friedman: "You mean that they were viewing you negatively."
Hershey: "That's right. If you start a union, you have pretty good protection because they can't demote you but that doesn't mean that they are going to give you any good assignments, either. That's what happened."
Friedman: "Were your union organizing activities inspired in some way by Marvin Miller and what he did in Major League Baseball?"
Hershey: "No, that wasn't it at all. There were specific things that happened. It didn't start out being about money. It started out with some things that management was doing but that's a little too complex for this conversation. There were some things that happened that were disquieting to me and to others in terms of journalistic ethics. We didn't join the Newspaper Guild; we had some other issues with the guild at that time. We joined the Pressman's So it was a blue collar professional amalgamation from the start, in 1973, and it took a long process before we were finally recognized in 1975. But that is one of the reasons that I ended up doing what I did; in 1979, I received an offer to be the Assistant Commissioner of Correction for Public Affairs for New York City based on a lot of the journalism that I did covering the jails."
Friedman: "Yes, that was one of the questions I was going to ask you. You have had such a diverse career, from sports writing to general assignment writing to working in college administrations. What stands out from your six year tenure in the Koch administration as the Assistant Commissioner of Correction for Public Affairs?"
Hershey: "Some people leave journalism and they go into P.R. for the money. The salary I went to was precisely almost to the dollar the salary that I left. So that part was not an issue. The other thing is that working for the jail system is a difficult job. It is a very strong public policy job. The last thing that a politician wants to do is work with the jails because it doesn't resonate with voters. There are many things that voters are concerned about but prisons rank at the bottom. Street law enforcement is high up there, schools, even sanitation but not the jails--you lock them up and people don't want to know about it. Being in position to be the spokesperson for the city's jail system--which I called, tongue in cheek, 'the largest municipal jail system in the free world'--gave me the chance to put a good, positive public face on the system and campaign for resources and it also gave me the chance to bring in entertainment for the prisoners to humanize the environment.
Before I took that job, when I was a reporter I assumed that P.R. people had two missions: get into the paper stories that didn't belong there and keep out the stories that did. It took me a while to understand that not all reporters are angels and not all P.R. people are devils. Rupert Murdoch had bought the New York Post
only a year or two before and it was an interesting environment to be a P.R. guy in New York with that sort of Australian/British level of journalism. It was a different kind of tabloid journalism than we had ever seen before. So, on one level it was not a question of if you were a journalist or a P.R. guy but it was a question of how well you did your job. There were times that I knew that there was a story that, if it got out, could make us look bad. When you are a flack for the government you don't want to look bad, even if you should. You never lie but you don't volunteer these things. There were times when I was talking to a reporter and I was just waiting for that next question that would make me have to give the answer that I did not want to give. Sometimes, that question would never be asked. It reminded me of the old joke about mixed emotions: a guy watching his mother in law drive off a cliff in his Cadillac. On the one hand I was relieved but on the other hand I was just horrified for my profession that this lazy reporter did not ask the right question. I really felt that when I went to work every day that my heart was in the right place and that I tried to create a better system for everybody, including the inmates.
The other thing I did was call Lou Carnesecca, who I had known back in the day when he coached at St. John's. He also coached the Nets in the ABA for three years. Now he was back at St. John's and he had the number one team in the country, though that didn't last long. So I called him up and asked if he would bring the team to Rikers Island to the facility for the kids who are under 18--and there were plenty of them in the early 1980s. I asked him if the team could either practice or scrimmage there and the thing that I stressed to him was that he, like Joe Lapchick before him, tried to convince these young players to stay away from bad influences. There is nothing that can reinforce that point more than for them to come to the jail, hear those doors clank behind them and get a sense of where they are at. He agreed to do it. The amazing thing about that trip and about those St. John's kids scrimmaging and practicing in the Rikers Island jail for adolescents was that several of those St. John's kids knew some of the kids who were inmates. It was just fascinating to me."
Friedman: "I have a few more questions that are related to sports, though I am also interested in the other aspects of your career. I noticed that you covered pro football and that you wrote some articles about Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi. I am interested to hear your personal impressions of both coaches."
Hershey: "It was an amazing two weeks. I left the Suffolk Sun
to go to Newsday
. George Vecsey, the wonderful New York Times
columnist who left sports for a while to cover Appalachia and who wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter
which became a movie about the country singer (Loretta Lynn), leaned over to me in the pressbox and gave me a heads up that he was leaving Newsday
to go to the Times
. So I applied for the job. When I arrived at Newsday
they didn't know what to do with me, so one of the things that they did with me was send me to do two stories that to this day I think are among the best stories of my career.
First, I spent three or four days living in the dorm at Wilmington College covering the first season of the Cincinnati Bengals. Then I went to Green Bay and I covered the first year that Vince Lombardi was no longer the coach; Phil Bengtson was the coach and Lombardi was the general manager. I have one great anecdote about each of those experiences. It might take too long to write about but I will try to consolidate them for you.
I interviewed Paul Brown after being there for a few days. We were sitting in his office and at some point I said, 'During those years that you spent in California after you split with Art Modell and the Cleveland Browns, they wrote that the game had passed you by. They wrote that you were a great innovator but that you were unwilling or too prideful to adjust.' He looked at me--and I'm this 24 year old kid talking to a legend--and he said, 'You really know how to hurt a guy.' I'm thinking to myself, 'Oh my God, the interview is over. He's never going to talk to me.' Just then there was a knock on the door and it was a quarterback named John Stofa who had been hurt that day and was seeking permission to get an X-ray. So Brown spent a few minutes with him and then he came back and said, 'Where were we?' I said, 'I asked you a question and I think that you took umbrage at it. You have to understand that I would much rather ask you the hard questions here than not ask them and just write a story.' I took out an article that Bill Wallace from the New York Times
wrote. I told him, 'Bill Wallace was here and I'll bet he never asked you the question that I just did but look what he wrote.' My question was literally lifted word for word from the New York Times
' story. He looked at the story and he looked at me and he said, 'Ask any question you want.' We spent an hour talking and after it was over I went back to the dorm for dinner. At about 10 o'clock at night there was a knock on my door and it was Paul Brown. He said, 'There was another thing I didn't tell you' and then we continued the conversation. I did a four part series for Newsday
that was excerpted in Football Digest
and then I signed on to do a magazine piece. I met him again in December when they came to New York to play the Jets. That was the last time we met but I never forgot that and I just thought that he was a classy guy.
I'll shorten the story about Green Bay. I showed up on Sunday at a meeting for the coaches and the press at St. Norbert College, the facility where the Packers trained. I met an assistant coach earlier in the day; I had just gotten there and I didn't know where to go but he said to stop by at around five o'clock at such and such room and we'll all be there. So I get there and Lombardi is across the room and I can see him whispering to whoever is sitting next to him and I could tell that he was asking, 'Who is that guy?' Meaning me. It was like that scene at the end of Ocean's Eleven
where one guy whispers to the next guy, who whispers to the next guy. After four or five guys it finally reaches the coach who I talked with earlier in the day and so the whispering goes back down the line. So Lombardi looks over to me and says, 'I don’t believe that we've met.' I introduced myself. I wasn't able to stay on the St. Norbert campus like I did in Cincinnati because Lombardi did not allow the press there, but I got a hotel room in Green Bay and I arrived at St. Norbert's at seven in the morning to watch practice. So I got to know all of the players--including Bart Starr and Dave Robinson--and, again, it was just wonderful for a 24 year old kid. I was watching Lombardi every step of the way, because that was the main reason I was there. I knew that he didn't know who I was--he couldn't know who I was--but for three days I was watching him from afar and paying attention to him. The story wasn't about Phil Bengtson but it was about how Lombardi adjusted to not being the coach. So, now it's my last day and it's another one of those five o'clock meetings. The Mike Douglas show was on TV. I was planning on walking over to Lombardi at the end of the night, introducing myself again and telling him how much I appreciated how well I had been treated. George Hamilton, who was then dating President Johnson's daughter, was a guest on the Mike Douglas show. From across the room, I hear this booming voice say, 'That guy’s hair is almost as long as Ed Hershey's!' It was Lombardi. That was his way of saying that he knew who I was and just what I had been up to the whole time. I never forgot that.
I'm glad you asked me about Brown and Lombardi, because I have such distinctive memories of both of them. It was so great, at that age, to meet those guys and to write the book with Cleon Jones. One of the reasons I left sports with a clear conscience was that I felt I had done it all. When you achieve your life's dream and you are only in your mid-20s you are either going to be bored for the rest of your life or you are going to look for new dreams. I looked for new dreams."
Friedman: "That's great. I have two more questions. You worked during a very interesting time in sports journalism when there were so many newspapers. I know that most of them folded. I wondered, as you were talking about this, if you ever crossed paths with Dick Schaap."
Hershey: "I worked for Dick Schaap. Dick Schaap had something called Maddick Enterprises. He was a book packager. He did a bio of (Tom) Seaver. Cleon Jones' agent were Paul Goetz and Matt Merola and their lawyer was a guy named Charlie Simmons, a very well-placed lawyer who now mostly does high end tax work. Charlie is my first cousin. He called and said that they were looking for a guy to write a biography of Jones, who hit .340 and caught the last out in the World Series as the Mets won the championship. So I met with Cleon and eventually wrote the book for the publisher Coward McCann but the guy who put the whole deal together was Dick Schaap. I knew all about Schaap, who had been a widely-read columnist and then city editor at the Herald-Tribune
. When he went to graduate school at Columbia he talked to basketball scouts in New York about how they were recruiting players and they opened up to him. He didn't tell them that in addition to the research being his thesis project he was going to sell the story to Sports Illustrated
. It became a famous article called "Basketball's Underground Railroad."
The story focused on two guys in particular: Mike Tynberg, who recruited for North Carolina, and Howard Garfinkel--"
Friedman: "He later became famous for the Five Star camps."
Hershey: "Yes. He recruited for Everett Case at North Carolina State.
So, yes, I knew Schaap and I actually worked for him. Of course, I watched him on the Sports Reporters and he was wonderful. He died much too young. He went in for a hip replacement."
Friedman: "At Lenox Hill Hospital."
Hershey: "Very, very sad. His daughter was at Cornell just before I left there and I sent her a note saying how much I admired her father."
Friedman: "I followed his career very closely and he is one of my all-time favorite sports writers. Like you, he had a very diverse career and I think that he was the only person who voted for both the Heisman Trophy and the Tony awards. He just had a fascinating career and a great way with words."
Hershey: "Another person who I crossed paths with, who was a protégé of Dick Schaap's, was Tony Kornheiser. Tony and I were young colleagues at Newsday
. The year after Dick died, Tony came up to Cornell--Dick used to come up every year and speak at the fundraiser that the football team had. I took my stepson--well, he was not my stepson yet, he was my girlfriend's son--to the dinner and I think that I moved up about 17 notches in his eyes because Tony greeted me like a long lost friend, talking about when I started the union and saying that I was a great man. I loved Tony's radio show and I think that his TV show ("Pardon the Interruption") is one of the better shows on TV. It is not easy to do that five days a week. I admire those guys."
Friedman: "I was very young but I remember reading Kornheiser's articles in what was then a fledgling magazine created by Newsweek
called Inside Sports
, which does not exist anymore. I remember some of the long articles he wrote for them. I know that he wrote about Nolan Ryan when Ryan became the first million dollar baseball player. He wrote an article about Julius Erving when Erving was in the twilight of his career with the 76ers. I know that a lot of people don't even realize or remember that Kornheiser had such a long, distinguished career in journalism before he became a TV personality.
The last thing I wanted to ask you is, who is the greatest--or the most interesting, whichever direction you want to go with this--athlete you covered during your career, someone with whom you personally interacted?"
Hershey: "Of the people
who I covered or got to know, I like to say that there are three people who are heroes of mine who turned out to be even better in person than they were in my imagination: Pete Seeger, the folk singer; another is Murray Kempton, very liberal, a brilliant guy and a brilliant writer; the third is Gil Hodges. I think that it is such a crime that Hodges is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. What a great fielder he was. What a great clutch hitter he was, even though he did not have a great average. What a great clubhouse guy he was and then he turned around two teams (as a manager). He turned around the Senators before the Mets hired him. He died at such a young age. So, as a manager, as a player and as a human being it is really unbelievable that he is not in the Hall of Fame. I understand why he didn't make it the first time around, because the stats are not entirely there and it's a very stat-oriented vote, but the fact that the old-timers did not vote him in is just baffling to me. I remember sitting in the city room the day in spring training when it came over the wire that he had died. I sat there and cried. Tom Hanks said that there is no crying in baseball in A League of Their Own
but I just sat there and bawled. Hodges was an unbelievable person.
I guess that I must have covered that Knicks' championship team that you described earlier, because I remember Dave DeBusschere coming to the team from the Pistons. I think that is one of the deals that the NBA kind of put together because they thought that New York needed to have a strong team; it made no sense for Detroit to trade him and I think that he was dealt straight up for Komives."
Friedman: "Walt Bellamy was in the trade, too."
Hershey: "I remember going into the locker room after Knicks' games and seeing DeBusschere sitting there drinking these three 12 ounce cans of beer while he was being interviewed. Later, it turned out that he was an alcoholic. So, there are so many things that you look back on and you think about, little snippets that maybe did not even register so much at the time.
Another person is Arthur Ashe. I did a piece with him that was included in Best Sports Stories of 1969
. He won the first U.S. Open (of the Open Era). Of course I never forgot Ashe. I loved covering tennis because that was one place where you couldn't hide behind the team. I covered the U.S. Open when it was still at Forest Hills; I'm an old guy. I remember that Ashe was really classy. Pancho Gonzales was unbelievable. I did a story on him for Signature
magazine the year that he made a mini-run at the U.S. Open. There was usually a veteran guy that advanced a few more places in the draw than maybe he should and the fans really love it."
Friedman: "Like Connors in 1991."
Hershey: "Yes. Gene Scott was another guy like that (reaching the U.S. Open semifinals in 1967 at the age of 30). Pancho did that (reaching the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 1968 at the age of 40), I did a story on him and I loved it. The nicest part about that story is that the next spring I was still covering sports, I went back to the U.S. Open and Bud Collins said, 'Gee, that was a great story.' It was in Signature
magazine, which was a Diner's Club magazine, so it was not a famous magazine but it was very well-placed. Bud Collins found me and said that he really liked the story about Gonzales. I loved that."
Friedman: "Yeah, that is a great endorsement."
Hershey: "It was really wonderful. I've had some very good moments. Billie Jean King was another tennis player who was really unbelievable. She was really enthusiastic. By the time she did that stupid thing with Riggs I was already out of sports but I remember after a match at Forest Hills she was complaining even then that women were not treated as well as men and so forth. She also talked about how the American fans were not very hip and that the tennis players were not treated as well at Forest Hills as they were at Wimbledon. In those days, not a lot of sports writers from the U.S. went to Wimbledon and she said you could not understand the difference unless you have been to Wimbledon. I thought that she was amazing. I wasn't exactly a tennis writer but I covered those tournaments and those players stand out in my mind. There are a whole lot of moments and people who stand out, though--like the time I recently wrote about in the Times about encountering Red Holzman in Sunbury, Pennsylvania
when he was a scout in between coaching gigs. On the other hand, you get jaded pretty quickly, David. I remember sitting in the pressbox at Yankee Stadium doing crossword puzzles; I had the crossword puzzle on one side and my scorebook on the other side. At 25 I was getting jaded already, so (when I left sports writing) I felt this great sense of liberation.
In those days, Madison Square Garden had five wonderful indoor track meets every year. They were really big social events and they filled the Garden. There was a band that played and the announcers on the floor wore tuxedos. The one that was really the best one was the Millrose Games. It received a lot of attention every year. I remember going there the first year that I was not covering sports and buying tickets. Paying for them actually felt liberating.
Of course, the unbelievable thing now is how many sports events you can watch. By the end of September I have seen enough college football for the entire season. I watch all of these games, especially since I live on the West Coast now, and they start at 9:00 in the morning and they end around midnight."
Friedman: "It is such a change from when I was a kid. ESPN started in 1979 and we didn't have it at my house, so when I was a kid we had the three network channels and you could only see certain games. People who are younger than 25 or 30 cannot even understand the sports world that you grew up in or even the sports world that I grew up in a generation later. Everything has changed so much. Some of it is for the better and some of it is for the worse but you can't turn back the clock."
Hershey: "There was one pro football game a week."
Hershey: "The Atlantic Gas Company sponsored it."
Friedman: "You're talking about before 1970, when Monday Night Football began."
Hershey: "That's right. Thinking back, the changes that have happened since then are unbelievable. I used to love this half hour program that the NFL had. Jim Leaming was the announcer. It showed the highlights of the previous Sunday's games. That was golden! Nowadays I have channel 799, the Red Zone, that switches between all of the NFL games. This was like the 1960s version of Red Zone."
Friedman: "I remember when I was a kid the big thing was the halftime rundown that Howard Cosell would do on Monday Night Football. There was no ESPN, no cable TV, no satellite or internet, so if you wanted to see the highlights of the games that weren't shown in your area the only way you could really see that was to watch Howard Cosell's halftime rundown. I remember years later, I read about or heard about people complaining that Cosell showed more highlights of certain teams. Everyone was so dependent on that because there was no way to see the highlights of other teams; whatever region of the country you lived in, you saw that team's games and if you liked another team or were interested to see how another team did you had to wait until Monday night."
Hershey: "The other thing about sports is that I came up at a time when the younger sports writers were called Chipmunks. Sports writers were beginning to write about that sociology that Bill Bradley didn't want to talk to me about. People like Larry Merchant and a wonderful guy at the New York Post
who died too young named Leonard Shecter. There was a guy who I worked with at Newsday
who just died last year, Stan Isaacs. A guy named Stan Hochman in Philadelphia. These guys were doing good stuff, putting political tinges on things. They drank at the Lion's Head. The Village Voice
was two doors down. It was a wonderful bar for a kid reporter like me to meet these people. At the same time that this was going on, I was able to see and work alongside two of the legends in their final years, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon. I have one (special) memory of each of them. In the case of Cannon, he hated the idea that a radio guy would stick his microphone into a Q&A in the clubhouse and effectively expropriate questions and answers. So, there was this guy who was a stringer for a radio station and he puts his microphone out and Cannon leans into the microphone and says (a string of profanities)."
Friedman: "Right. I’ve heard about that story. That was Cannon's way of making sure that it was not going to be aired."
Hershey: "That’s right. I'm not sure that it was a such a good idea, but that's Cannon. He was a great writer. As for Smith, I remember that I was interning at the Herald-Tribune
on a Saturday afternoon covering high school sports--Sam Goldaper was the guy in charge of high school sports and he actually got me some nice assignments. The World Series was going on. The Yankees were playing and it may have been the Mazeroski Series (when Mazeroski hit the game-winning home run as the Pirates beat the Yankees in seven games in 1960). It was the game in which Andy Carey picked up a grounder and threw the ball to Moose Skowron and Skowron lost the ball in the whiteness in the stands. Instead of losing the ball in the sun, he lost it in his shirt. Everybody was wearing white, because it was a hot day in New York. I watched Smith write his column in the paper. The game was over at 3:00 or 3:30 and when I read the column the next morning, it said, 'The ball whizzed past Skowron's head like the A train at 135th Street.' I knew immediately that Smith had taken the A train from Yankee Stadium. Of course, there was an express stop at 145th and an express stop at 125th. So I knew immediately where that image came from. He had just gotten off of the subway. That is just one of those silly little things that you remember years later. I am so grateful to have been part of that (era) even in some small way. I am very honored that you are interested in any of this."
Friedman: "I am very interested. I know that, regarding the Jimmy Cannon story, in Flashing Before My Eyes--
Dick Schaap's autobiography, which was also made into a documentary by ESPN--Schaap talked a lot about Jimmy Cannon and how much Cannon influenced him and what a great writer Cannon was. I've heard the story about Cannon's interaction with the radio reporter and it probably was in Flashing Before My Eyes
. Dick Schaap described Cannon as someone who could be gruff but who was a wonderful writer."
Hershey: "Both Cannon and Smith were in that backdrop--I don't know what you call it--but at the start of the original Sports Reporters show there were visuals in the background and they were both pictured there."
Friedman: “You mentioned Sam Goldaper in connection with high school sports but I am familiar with him writing for the New York Times
and covering the NBA."
Hershey: "That was later."
Friedman: "Of course."
Hershey: “He was working for the Herald-Tribune
. His family had a sports trophy business. He was very nice to me. He gave me one assignment when I was very young, to cover Allie Sherman--who was the coach of the New York Giants--when he was doing a coaches' clinic for high school coaches. There were no bylines then but there it (my article) was in the paper and it showed me that it could happen, that I could write for the paper. In any event, I really appreciate your interest."
Friedman: "Thank you so much for being so generous with your time and with all of the stories that you told me."
Labels: Bill Bradley, Connie Hawkins, Dick Schaap, Edward Hershey, Gil Hodges, Madison Square Garden, New York Knicks, Paul Brown, Roger Brown, Tony Kornheiser, Vince Lombardi
posted by David Friedman @ 3:12 AM