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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Oscar Robertson Black Heritage Celebration Interview

Getting a triple-double in a game demonstrates a player’s versatility. Oscar Robertson is the only NBA player to average a triple-double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg in 1961-62). In fact, Robertson averaged a triple-double overall during his first six seasons in the NBA (30.4 ppg, 10.7 apg, 10.0 rpg). More than three decades after his retirement, many people still believe that the “Big O” is the greatest all-around basketball player ever. Robertson won two Indiana high school championships, made two Final Four appearances, captured an Olympic gold medal in 1960 and helped lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the 1971 NBA title. He is a Hall of Famer and was selected as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players.

The Cleveland Cavaliers will hold four signature nights as part of their 2006 Black Heritage Celebration. The first of these events, Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Night, took place at Quicken Loans Arena during halftime of Tuesday night’s game versus the Indiana Pacers and recognized the achievements of the Black Sports Legends of Ohio. Robertson, Olympic medalists Edwin Moses and Harrison Dillard, Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Willis and Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith were honored during the ceremony. Thanks to Cavaliers’ Public Relations Coordinator Garin Narain, I was able to speak with Robertson by phone on Tuesday evening.

Friedman: “Tell me about tonight’s Black Heritage Celebration at the Cavs’ game and your participation in the ceremony.”

Robertson: “We’re heading into Black History Month in February and I think that this is a tremendous time for people to make themselves aware of what’s going on. There are so many things that blacks have done, especially in the game of basketball. I, (Bill) Willis and (Edwin) Moses are Ohioans who were notables in our respective sports, so we’ve come out to try to help the Cavaliers get a win tonight.”

Friedman: “Do you get the sense that the current players understand the magnitude of the struggle for the most basic human rights that took place less than 40 years ago?”

Robertson: “No. How can they? It’s not taught in schools and their parents don’t talk about it. How can they talk about the struggles unless they’ve been involved in the struggles? What Jewish families do is make sure that you know about what’s going on in Israel and what happened in the Holocaust. Black families don’t do that—some people don’t even know that there was slavery in America. They don’t know the struggles that took place with Dr. King and before Dr. King and after Dr. King even up to now. They are totally unaware of these things altogether.”

Friedman: “In terms of the NBA, do you think that the older players or the league should make today’s players more aware of that history since those events have so directly impacted them and enabled them to make such a tremendous living from playing basketball?”

Robertson: “You can never mandate such things from the league’s standpoint but I think that individuals who want to be knowledgeable about history should know.”

Friedman: “Switching to on the court matters, what are your thoughts about Kobe Bryant scoring 81 points a couple nights ago?”

Robertson: “Well, it was good for Kobe. I’m glad he got it and it really put the basketball world on edge. The only thing that I am really disappointed in is that I saw someone on television—I don’t know what the guy’s name was, but he happened to be a black person—trying to demean Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game because ‘nobody got to see it, but we got to see Kobe.’ Well, there are a lot of things you don’t see in life but they are still historical. But he went on TV and said that he didn’t get to see Wilt score 100 points, but he saw this; that just goes to show you the depth of some people in America.”

Friedman: “Do you think that Kobe has a shot to break Wilt’s record?”

Robertson: “It all depends; he’s not going to do that against Detroit. Maybe against Toronto, which just goes to show you what kind of team Toronto is. When I saw some of the clips today, the Toronto players seemed to be happy that he was scoring 81 points. How can you be happy that someone scores 81 points against you if you are competitive? But maybe they are not competitive.”

Friedman: “What do you think of LeBron James as a player at this stage of his career? Also, if you were a general manager and had the opportunity to take either one, would you take LeBron or Kobe at this stage?”

Robertson: “I think LeBron is better dribbling the ball in traffic than Kobe Bryant. But as far as shooting and overall play, I would take Kobe because he is more experienced. But give LeBron a couple more years—he’s only been here a couple years. He’s going to grow, get smarter, he’s going to learn about his own players as well as learn about the opposing players, so he’s going to get much better. I don’t think that you can go wrong with either one, to be honest. I consider LeBron a forward and Kobe a shooting guard. Now you see the effect that Shaq had on Kobe’s game; when Shaq was there Kobe was not able to put up these kinds of numbers.”

Friedman: “In terms of individual scoring, it could hurt a perimeter player to have a dominant big man, because he clogs up the driving lanes, although of course that pairing of talents might be better for team success. Didn’t you go through a similar thing when you played with Kareem toward the end of your career? Your individual stats went down, but the opportunity to win a championship was greater.”

Robertson: “Well, Oscar Robertson was different. When I played with Milwaukee, stats meant nothing to me. I had earned my way in the game. The problem with Kobe now is: Can he do this every night? The next thing is, can you win 60, 70 games by doing this? The stats are great, I’m happy for Kobe, but, in the long run, where are the other guys on the team? Are they anywhere at all? I know that there are guys on the team making several million dollars. They should be embarrassed.”

Friedman: “You are very involved with the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). Talk a little bit about that and how important it is for the retired players to have one body that speaks for them as a group.”

Robertson: “It is a resource point for the retired players to get together and talk about things. We are trying to overcome some things and get some things going in a way that all players will benefit, not just in a financial way but also health wise and travel wise—primarily health wise, but also travel wise, so that players will be able to go out and speak to schools and so forth. That is what it is really all about.”

Friedman: “Great players love challenges. Imagine that you are 25 years old and at the peak of your game--which one or two current players would you really like to play against?”

Robertson: “I don’t measure myself against anyone. Everyone talks about Jordan. Jordan was a great player. But, you know, if he would have played in the Sixties, would he have had the same numbers? No, he wouldn’t have. This is what happens in basketball today: I think that the advent of television has made some people (seem to be) a lot greater than they really are. When I played, it was never a personal challenge for me to go against anybody because I knew that for us to win we had to play as a team. We couldn’t go out and try to overcome anyone individually.”

Friedman: “How much do you think that the rules changes—particularly eliminating the hand check against perimeter players—are leading to the increasing number of 40 and 50 point games by individual players that we are seeing this year?”

Robertson: “I think that it is a different culture. I don’t think that the guys today—well, I’m sure that they could make the adjustment, but they wouldn’t like the hand checking and the elbow on your back and whatnot. I’ll never forget playing against Gus Johnson—man, he’d put his hand on you and you could hardly move. He’d stick you with his fingers when you tried to move and it would knock you back. Once you got used to it you made an adjustment. But I think that the game today is a farce. For instance, if I touch you outside (as a perimeter defender), they’ll call a foul—even if I just put my hand on you. But then on the inside, guys are bumping and backing in and running over people and they don’t call anything at all. Then they put a line in to determine what is charging or blocking. I think that’s the end. When I saw that--any referee that needs a line on the floor to tell whether it is a charge or not is not a good referee.”


posted by David Friedman @ 1:58 PM


The Ron Artest Saga

Yes, our long national nightmare is over--the Indiana Pacers have traded Ron Artest to the Sacramento Kings for Peja Stojakovic, enabling Artest to return to action after spending much of the season on the Pacers' inactive list. For a brief 24 hour period it seemed that Artest was intent on not merely scuttling the Pacers' season but also the Kings' season as well by attempting to derail the Stojakovic trade after it had already been announced on Tuesday; the Pacers and Kings each lost on Tuesday night and I wondered which NBA team would be the next to place its season in limbo by offering one of its top players for Artest only to have to welcome that player back into the fold after Artest decided he didn't like the deal. Remember the neuralyzer from Men in Black? Couldn't you just see Kings' Coach Rick Adelman starring in a sequel, whipping out a neuralyzer in the locker room and restoring team chemistry in a flash by making everyone forget the proposed trade? Sadly, that option was not available, so the Kings' players must have been thrilled to go out and face the 76ers on Tuesday with Peja sitting in a hotel room and Artest playing Hamlet, musing to himself, "To be or not to be?"

The whole Artest saga is surreal. This season's installment began after the Pacers' brass did not like Artest's public criticisms of Coach Rick Carlisle and "punished" Artest by deactivating him with pay; in other lines of work this is known as "paid vacation." How long will it be until disgruntled players on lottery bound teams decide that they too would like to be "punished" like Artest and take an early, paid vacation in Tahiti instead of enduring 20-point blowouts in half-empty arenas? This is not meant to suggest that this is part of some grand plan by Artest; he seems to act first and think later, if at all. According to a report on ESPN, he and his agent spoke with the Maloof brothers--the Kings' owners--in a restaurant and specifically asked them to make a deal for Artest. Wouldn't you have loved to see the looks on the Maloofs' faces when the ink was barely dry on the deal and Artest did his Lee Corso "Not so fast my friend" imitation? Talk about the ultimate "Candid Camera" moment (or "Punk'd" moment, depending on how old you are).

I get a kick out of listening to the various TV analysts trying to decipher which team came out ahead, the Pacers or the Kings. Those who favor the Kings preface their comments with phrases like "Assuming Artest stays out of trouble..." Is this really a reasonable assumption to make? If Artest would have stayed out of trouble we never would have gotten to this point in the first place and the Pacers would still be viable championship contenders. Eveyone knows that he is an All-Star caliber player but no one knows if he is mentally/psychologically stable enough to play top level basketball for an extended period without incident. More to the point is the observation that the Maloofs own a casino and like to take risks; for risk junkies/thrill seekers, bringing Artest into the fold is like hitting the jackpot--and it's not like the Maloofs are breaking up a juggernaut here.

Those who believe that the Pacers came out ahead say that if Peja's body does not completely break down then he can really help Indiana because he is a proven shooter. Thank you, Captain Obvious. The question about Peja that no one is talking about is how will he perform in clutch moments in the playoffs (if the Pacers are fortunate enough to reach such moments this season). Some of Peja's three pointers down the stretch in playoff games have been more off target than Vanderjagt's kick against the Steelers.

How do I think this deal will turn out? Unless someone can read Artest's psychiatric report, look at the MRI scans of Peja's balky back and peer into Peja's psyche to see if he is going to welcome pressure shots the way Reggie Miller used to, there is no way to know right now who is going to come out ahead. Really, that isn't even the point; this deal had to be done because both teams were running out of options. The Pacers could not just go through the whole season short a player--particularly one with Artest's skill level--and the Kings had to get something for Peja before he became a free agent and left them empty-handed. For two teams with such rapidly dwindling options, this deal is probably about as good as it gets. With any luck, it could turn out to be one of those cliched "trades that benefit both teams."

As for the comparison of Ron Artest and Terrell Owens, I don't get it. The last straw with Owens supposedly was that interview in which he agreed with a statement that the Eagles would have won more games with a healthy Brett Favre than an injured Donovan McNabb. It would have been more prudent if he had not said that, particularly in light of some of the previous tension between Owens and McNabb, but read those words on the printed page and try to consider their plain meaning. Isn't it logical to assume that the Eagles would have done better with a healthy Favre? I think they also would have done better with a healthy McNabb instead of an injured one. Michael Irvin offered the perfect analyis of the Eagles' (over) reaction when he said sometimes you lose your butt to save your face. Does anybody honestly believe that the team was really better off without Owens? Couldn't the Eagles have resolved the whole thing by fining Owens for the proverbial "conduct detrimental to the team" and putting the whole matter behind them? The real underlying issue of the whole TO situation is that the Eagles did not redo his contract to his liking after the man played on a broken ankle in the Super Bowl. I may be the only one who thinks this, but after Owens risked his whole career to get on the field and produce in that game I think that the Eagles should have reworked his deal and that if they had done so then their relationship with Owens would never have gotten this bad. Despite everything, until they kicked him off the team he was still making plays and he was ranked among the NFL's receiving leaders for several weeks after being deactivated. While Owens is getting blasted in every corner of the media, has anyone noticed that few Eagles' players publicly sided with McNabb?

In contrast, many Pacer players have been vocal about the damaging effect that Artest has had on the team. Despite the team's numerous efforts to support him, he clearly wore out his welcome. The only similarity with the Owens' situation is that both players were deactivated by their teams. I'd much rather have Owens than Artest because I know that Owens is going to be productive, even if his off field statements/actions are not to everyone's liking; Artest is so volatile that there is no way to know what he is going to do next and whether or not he is going to show up. Artest may think that he has the world by the you-know-what, but that is only going to last for as long as people believe that he is an All-Star caliber player. Just ask Latrell Sprewell, who felt that he couldn't feed his family on $7 million a year and has found out that once you are no longer a top level player teams will not cater to your whims and eccentricities.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:42 AM


Monday, January 23, 2006

81! Kobe Bryant Overshadows Championship Sunday

How do you push the AFC and NFC Championship Games off of the sports headlines? Simple--you author the second best single game scoring performance in NBA history. Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in the L.A. Lakers' 122-104 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Sunday night. Only Wilt Chamberlain's legendary 100 point game ranks ahead of this astounding total--and don't let the final score deceive you into believing that Kobe simply padded his point total in a lopsided contest (as if that would somehow make 81 points unimpressive!), because the Lakers trailed 63-49 at halftime and 71-53 just three minutes into the second half; Bryant had 26 points in the first half and 55 points after intermission to carry the Lakers to the win. Kobe shot 28-46 from the field, including 7-13 from three point range; he made 18 of his 20 free throws, extending his Lakers record streak of consecutive free throws made to 62 by sinking his first five before missing one. Kobe is averaging 45.5 ppg in the ten games since his two game suspension for elbowing Memphis' Mike Miller.

Bryant's 81 points--besides looking like a typographical error--eclipses Elgin Baylor's franchise record of 71 and David Thompson's "non-Wilt record" of 73. Bryant's second half explosion is topped only by Wilt's 59 point half in the 100 point game. This was the fifth time that Kobe has scored 50-plus points in the first three quarters of a game; just last month Kobe outscored the Mavericks 62-61 in the first three quarters before sitting out the entire fourth period. Kobe joins Chamberlain and Michael Jordan as the only players to have multiple 60-plus point games in the same season.

Lakers owner Jerry Buss was as awestruck as anyone: "You're sitting and watching, and it's like a miracle unfolding in front of your eyes and you can't accept it. Somehow, the brain won't work. The easiest way to look at it is everybody remembers every 50-point game they ever saw. He had 55 in the second half."

As I wrote less than two weeks ago after Kobe had just scored 45-plus points in four straight games, "Kobe's exploits made me think of Shaquille O'Neal, Wilt Chamberlain--and a great book by William Goldman and Mike Lupica." Here is the link to that post, which looked at a thought provoking chapter from Goldman and Lupica's Wait Till Next Year and the perspective it lends to Kobe's string of jaw-dropping performances:


posted by David Friedman @ 12:09 AM


Sunday, January 22, 2006

Iverson Outshines KG Down the Stretch

The Philadelphia 76ers came back from a 19 point deficit in the third quarter to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves 86-84 today. Even when the Timberwolves enjoyed their biggest lead and it seemed that the Sixers could do nothing right, ABC analyst Steve Jones kept repeating that Minnesota is a jump shooting team that does not does not get to the free throw line and has a tendency to let teams come back. Sure enough, the 76ers rallied behind Allen Iverson's 26 second half points (he finished with 39 points, led the Sixers with five assists and tied for the team lead with nine rebounds) and eventually won on Andre Iguodala's shot at the buzzer. ABC's Bill Walton made a very interesting comment during a timeout with nine seconds to play and the score tied at 84: "This game really accentuates the differences between Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett--Iverson, he knows it's his world. Kevin Garnett would just as soon it be somebody else's. Until that changes, Minnesota is not going to be able to win these tough games." Although Jones had already identified that Minnesota is basically soft (by calling them a jump shooting team), which is surely an indictment of the team's best player, Kevin Garnett, he replied to Walton, "Garnett knows it's his world, but he's a big man. (He) doesn't handle the ball like Allen Iverson."

It is true that this was just one game and that neither Iverson's 76ers nor Garnett's Timberwolves figure to make much noise in the 2006 playoffs, but watching "the Answer" and KG perform down the stretch of this contest certainly gives one an idea why Iverson has carried a team to the NBA Finals and KG generally struggles to get his teams out of the first round--and before you say something about "supporting casts," consider that the '01 Sixers that Iverson led to the Finals included Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, George Lynch and Eric Snow, with the second best player being late season addition Dikembe Mutombo; that same year KG lost in the first round with Terrell Brandon, Wally Sczerbiak, Anthony Peeler, LaPhonso Ellis and Chauncey Billups.

Walton's point echoes Scottie Pippen's criticism of Garnett in an interview that was published in the Chicago Tribune on December 9, as I discussed in my NBA Midterm Report Card, Pt. II:


Pippen said about Garnett, "He really set the tone for self-destruction. He's very productive but unproductive. He gets you all the stats you want, but at the end of the day his points don't have an impact on [winning] the game. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, but in the last five minutes of the game he ain't the same player as in the first five."

posted by David Friedman @ 11:32 PM