20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

When Donaghy Starts Singing Will 20 NBA Referees be Sent Dancing?

This may turn out to be a bombshell, a dud or something in between but the New York Daily News reports that former NBA referee Tim Donaghy--who has pleaded guilty to two felony charges relating to illegal betting on NBA games--will be providing prosecutors with the names of as many as 20 NBA referees who have some level of involvement in gambling. It is not clear at this point the exact nature of the gambling activity that Donaghy will be allegedly describing. The best case scenario for the NBA is that Donaghy will be talking about a few referees who made some golf wagers. The medium case scenario for the NBA is that Donaghy will say that he knows of referees who are gambling in casinos. The worst case scenario for the NBA is--well, you can probably figure that one out for yourself.

I said a few days ago that we are approaching "the moment of truth for the NBA" but that "the 'moment' will be dragged out over a period of time." When Donaghy pleaded guilty on Wednesday and no other referees were implicated in betting on games the NBA could breathe a sigh of relief in that regard--but there is still unfinished business concerning what specific information Donaghy provided to his accomplices, how he did so without being detected, which games were involved and if Donaghy intentionally made bad calls in those games. When information about any or all of those things comes out, the NBA will face some more "moments of truth."

Meanwhile, anything that Donaghy says about the gambling habits of other referees could also prove to be very damaging to the NBA's credibility. Referees are expressly forbidden from doing any kind of wagering other than betting on horse races at the track during the offseason. That means, at least in theory, the NBA could fire any referee that Donaghy fingers, assuming that there is some kind of corroborating evidence. If 20 referees are involved then the NBA could be looking at replacing roughly a third of its referees. Perhaps most of the referees did not do anything that went beyond the kind of "friendly" wagers that are technically illegal but that many people engage in from time to time. The NBA could respond to something like that with a slap on the wrist fine and a warning letter placed in each referee's personnel file--but what if Donaghy reveals that there is a widespread culture of casino gambling among NBA referees? If that is the case, the NBA's credibility would take another hit, even if no illegal conduct is alleged or can be proven. No league wants its fans thinking that a substantial number of its officials have a tangible connection to gambling, which can quickly lead to being in debt, being blackmailed and then fixing games.

The problem for Commissioner David Stern, above and beyond whatever damaging information may come out, is that he is not in control of this process at all. Each of the other crises that he managed successfully--the drug problems in the 1980s, Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. Carlesimo, the brawl at Auburn Hills being three famous examples--were situations where he was completely in charge: he put a drug policy in place and he issued suspensions to players who conducted themselves improperly. Now he is dealing with a situation where he not only does not even know the full extent of the damage that has been done but he does not know when he will know; he is receiving information at the mercy of the FBI and the court system, something that he made painfully clear during his first press conference after the Donaghy story became public knowledge. Conspiracy lovers may assert that Stern knows more than he is letting on but I don't believe it. If Stern knew more and had the full power to act then he would have fired Donaghy on the spot instead of waiting for his resignation. Stern would have followed that up by explaining exactly what Donaghy did and did not do and then Stern would have outlined specifically how the NBA will prevent this from happening again. Say what you will about him, but Commissioner Stern knows how to get in front of a story and frame it in the most positive light possible--which suggests to me that the reason he has yet to do that regarding Donaghy is because he does not have enough information to take the kind of bold and decisive action that is his trademark.

If the Donaghy situation drags out into next season, as it almost certainly will, it will be interesting to see if it affects ticket sales and TV ratings. It is pretty apparent that for at least a decade many of Major League Baseball's biggest stars have been cheating by using illegal performance enhancing drugs but this has not negatively affected MLB's attendances figures. Will the misdeeds of one rogue referee lead to a bigger fan backlash than the actions of numerous cheating baseball players, many of whom have been caught in the act or admitted their misconduct?

posted by David Friedman @ 6:40 AM

0 comments

links to this post

Friday, August 17, 2007

Team USA Roster Taking Shape One Week Before FIBA Americas Tournament

The FIBA Americas tournament begins next week in Las Vegas, featuring ten teams fighting for two spots in the 2008 Olympics; the third, fourth and fifth place finishers will earn one last opportunity to qualify for the Olympics in the 12 team FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which will be held in July 2008. Team USA is in Group B with Brazil, Canada, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Venezuela, while the Group A teams are Argentina, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico and Uruguay. Team USA will play Venezuela on August 22, the U.S. Virgin Islands on August 23, Canada on August 25 and Brazil on August 26. All of Team USA's games will be televised. The remainder of the tournament's schedule will be determined after group play concludes.

The United States has gone 26-0 in its last three FIBA Americas tournament appearances, winning gold medals in 1992, 1999 and 2003 (the United States qualified for the 1996 Olympics as the host country and thus did not play in the 1995 FIBA Americas tournament).

Brazil's team includes four current NBA players--Rafael Araujo, Leandro Barbosa, Nene and Anderson Varejao. Argentina has Carlos Delfino and Luis Scola but Manu Ginobili will not be participating, while Puerto Rico has Carlos Arroyo and Jose Juan Barea; you may recall that Puerto Rico defeated Team USA (which had a much different roster than it will this time around) 92-73 in the 2004 Olympics. Of course, all of these countries have set national teams, whose rosters only change due to injuries or retirements. Team USA has 32 players, from whom a final roster of 12 is selected before a given event. Team USA will not have the same team in Las Vegas that it did in the 2006 FIBA World Championship and probably will have a slightly different squad for the 2008 Olympics (assuming that Team USA qualifies, which should not be a big problem).

On July 17 I predicted who the final 12 players on Team USA's roster would be, suggesting that "Kobe, LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Amare, Battier, Howard, Hinrich, Kidd and Williams seem to be mortal locks to make the team." I added that Kevin Durant and J.J. Redick had no chance to make the team and that Tyson Chandler and Mike Miller would probably be left out as well, which would leave Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and Michael Redd fighting for the last two spots. Since then, a lot has happened; Battier and Hinrich withdrew from consideration for personal reasons and Bosh will not be able to play due to plantar fasciitis. Nick Collison has been added to the group that is currently training in Las Vegas but there is little chance that he will be on the 12 man roster.

A big key for Team USA this time around--and hopefully in the 2008 Olympics as well--will be the presence of Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd in the backcourt; this should result in much improved perimeter defense and an offense that runs more smoothly in the halfcourt set. As I wrote several times last year, including this post after Greece beat Team USA, there are three keys for a Team USA victory in FIBA competition: (1) Defending the three point shot; (2) containing dribble penetration; (3) being able to score not only in transition but also in the halfcourt set. Team USA's losses in various FIBA competitions in the past few years have stemmed from shortcomings in one or more of those areas. If Team USA does well enough in the first two areas then it should have so many open court scoring opportunities that halfcourt execution will not be quite as vital. In other words, while many people clamor for Team USA to add shooters to the squad, I would focus on adding guys who can defend against shooters. Team USA does not need to make a lot of three pointers to win but its opponents do--and its opponents also use the threat of the three point shot (which in FIBA play is a 20'6" shot, not a 23'9" shot like it is in the NBA) to open up driving lanes.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 AM

0 comments

links to this post

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Joe Caldwell: Banned from Basketball

Joe Caldwell starred at Arizona State University and has been inducted in both the ASU Hall of Fame and the PAC-10 Hall of Fame. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1964 and became an All-Star in the NBA and the ABA before his pro career abruptly ended. Three decades later, he still seeks the money and respect that he believes he is owed. Here is a link to my HoopsHype.com article about the player whose amazing jumping ability earned him the nickname "Pogo Joe":

Joe Caldwell: Banned from Basketball

Joe Caldwell's story is fascinating on many levels; he had an excellent college career, he treasures his Olympic experiences above all of his basketball accomplishments, he starred in two leagues and, last but not least, he has been engaged in various legal battles with the ABA and the NBA for well over 30 years. He won some--unlike many players who jumped leagues, Caldwell did not have to sit out a season--and lost others. I touch on some of those legal battles in my article but it really would take a book to do them justice. For those who are interested to read Joe Caldwell’s entire story in his own words, his autobiography, titled Banned from Basketball, can be ordered here. Caldwell levels some pretty serious charges, both in conversations that I have had with him and in his book. I don't necessarily agree with everything that he says but other people have taken advantage of opportunities to express themselves about Caldwell over the years so he certainly has the right to give his version of events--and he deserves to be remembered as an outstanding player.

Returning to the more pleasant subject of Caldwell's on-court achievements, here are some "DVD extras" to accompany the HoopsHype.com article:

Caldwell has special memories of his matchups with Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. "Jerry West was an excellent player. He was right handed; everybody knew from jump street that he was going to the right," Caldwell says. "But Jerry West's ace in the hole, because he was an excellent offensive player, his shot was (taken) going back to the left. He would take two steps back to the left and shoot the jumper. That's why he was so awesome. Then if you guarded him wrong, he would go all the way (to the hoop) with the left hand. Oscar Robertson was a physical guy. I would pick Oscar up (in the backcourt) and make him throw it to someone else to bring it up. He and Wes Unseld had the wide body. I called them big butt guys back in those days. They could use those hips to knock you around. Oscar was round--had big hips, big thighs--but he could move. He'd throw those hips at you, you stumble, and that was all he needed--that one step you take backward. He'd step back and shoot that little one handed jumper. He was good at it."

Caldwell played against Roger Brown in the ABA but actually first met him when they were both in high school. "I met Roger Brown and Connie Hawkins back in the late 50s at a high school All-American game in New York," Caldwell says. "I always thought that Roger Brown could have been one of the greatest forwards of all-time if he had not been delayed from playing pro basketball. Roger was about 6-5, extremely fast and had a good jump shot. I kind of missed part of his career because I was in the NBA at that time. The ABA has fond memories of all the good guys who came through—Moses Malone, Dr. J, we had an entourage of great players who ended up in the NBA."

I've spoken to many ABA players and to a man they talk about the special bond that exists between them. Caldwell is no exception to that: "Back in those days, when I went over there people were saying that it was not a real basketball league. When you insult great players like Dr. J and George McGinnis that automatically brings the players closer together. When I got there I got involved with a lot of the guys and became head of the union and got to know them pretty well. We had an understanding amongst each other and we hung out together and we talked. We had some of that kind of stuff when I was in the NBA, but more so in the ABA. So it’s a good family unit."

The first time that I spoke with Caldwell we discussed the jump and switch defense that Coach Larry Brown has been using throughout his career. I used those quotes in my article titled The Art and Science of NBA Defense.

For more information about the evolution of defensive theory in pro basketball and the history of the jump and switch defense, check out my Hank Egan interview.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:47 AM

0 comments

links to this post

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Donaghy Pleads Guilty to Two Felonies, Faces Up to 25 Years in Prison

The New York Daily News reports that former NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to "conspiracy to engage in wire fraud as well as transmitting bets and wagers in a scam that has devastated the league." He is now free on a $250,000 bond but faces up to 25 years in prison. Details of the exact charges are now publicly available.

More information is sure to come out in the coming days and weeks but a few things immediately caught my eye:

1) As of yet, there is no direct indication that Donaghy actively did anything to affect the outcome of games in terms of how he officiated. The government simply alleges that "Donaghy also compromised his objectivity as a referee because of his personal financial interest in the outcome of NBA games."

This would of course explain why the NBA was not able to detect what he was doing--he may not if fact have been intentionally making bad calls. It is possible that the extent of Donaghy's illegal involvement consisted of providing what could be called "insider information"--which referees would work specific games, which players are injured, etc.--to various parties. That is certainly serious but not nearly as serious as a referee actively fixing a point spread and/or the outcome of a game.

Of course, it is also possible that Donaghy was in fact fixing games, something that might be difficult to prove--in a legal sense--without some kind of "smoking gun"; there is obviously a strong trail of evidence regarding betting on the involved games but there may not be enough evidence to convict Donaghy of actively fixing games.

Either way, this is an excellent example of why I have consistently said that before "heads roll" in the NBA offices we must know the details of exactly what happened. If Donaghy was simply improperly conveying information to other parties then there is no way that the NBA could have discovered this activity by watching tapes of his games. Perhaps the league needs to more closely monitor how its referees communicate with the outside world but I'm not sure how it could do that without violating their rights to privacy.

2) The government alleges that Donaghy had been betting on games for four years prior to the time he started giving out information to other parties.

The government's case essentially is that Donaghy had a gambling problem and that he has been betting on NBA games for quite some time. The government alleges a person--who is unidentified in the court documents--informed Donaghy that he was aware that Donaghy was betting on NBA games. This person offered to pay Donaghy each time that Donaghy provided information that led to the placing of winning bets; Donaghy was only paid if the bets won. Donaghy began doing this in December 2006. This suggests that Donaghy was coerced into this activity either by being blackmailed or by virtue of being in debt. Of course, this is why the NBA forbids its referees from doing any kind of gambling (except for betting on horse racing during the NBA offseason; that is just one example of the bizarre compromises that can happen when every single detail between a league and its employees is collectively bargained), because a referee who has a gambling problem--legal or illegal--is susceptible to just the kind of pressure to which Donaghy apparently submitted.

3) It does not appear that any other NBA employee was involved with what Donaghy was doing.

Obviously, that would be the best news that the NBA has received since news of the Donaghy case became public.

At this point, it seems that Commissioner David Stern was correct when he said that Donaghy was just one isolated "rogue." If it turns out that Donaghy's primary or sole offense was providing "inside information," then this case will not be nearly as damaging to the NBA as it would have been if Donaghy had actively fixed games. It seems like the NBA will either need to tighten its grip on certain information regarding officiating assignments, player injuries and so forth or perhaps make more of that information publicly available so that such knowledge does not give anyone a gambling edge.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:54 PM

0 comments

links to this post

The Other Shoe Set to Drop in Donaghy Case

According to the Philadelphia Daily News, "Disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy and two Delaware County men who have been linked to him in a gambling probe are expected to turn themselves in Wednesday morning at federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y." Donaghy is expected to plead guilty to betting on NBA games that he officiated; he may also admit to other related charges. The Daily News reports that the other two men are James "Baa Baa" Battista and Tommy Martino. Donaghy, Battista and Martino all attended the same high school in the early 1980s. Battista and five other people were prosecuted in 1998 for criminal conspiracy and bookmaking.

This is the moment of truth for the NBA--or at least it is the beginning of the moment of truth, since the likelihood is that the "moment" will be dragged out over a period of time. Once Donaghy officially enters his plea more information will come out regarding what exactly he did and how he managed to evade detection by the NBA; after all, published reports indicate that his misconduct was discovered by the FBI as a result of wire taps that they used to investigate the Gambino crime family--it does not appear that the NBA had any idea that Donagy was doing something wrong when he officiated games. All of the gory details will not be revealed at once but at a minimum we will start to get at least a rough outline of what specifically Donaghy did. It will be interesting to see how the NBA reacts to these developments, both from a public relations standpoint and from the standpoint of taking action to minimize the chance that something like this ever happens again.

There also is still a possibility that the NBA's nightmare scenario will unfold and that Donaghy will implicate other NBA employees. Hopefully, Commissioner David Stern is right when he suggests that Donaghy was a "rogue criminal" acting alone. Once Donaghy has his day in court, the NBA must do the best that it can to completely inform the public exactly what happened, how it happened and what will be done so that it never happens again. There can no longer be any rhetoric about how great the NBA's referees are--even though they are better than their counterparts in the NFL and MLB--nor can the NBA simply brush this off as the actions of one lone offender; even if that is the case, the NBA must prove that it is taking vigorous steps to prevent other "rogues" from trying to do the same thing. We have seen many examples of how people and organizations are often brought down not so much by their misconduct as by their inept attempts to cover things up afterwards. Once David Stern knows which games were involved, he needs to have another press conference and lay everything out there, make whatever apologies are necessary to the teams/fans involved (if the outcomes of games were altered) and pledge to clean this mess up. Under no circumstances can he do the equivalent of sticking his hands in his pockets and making the face that Bud Selig made when Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron's home run record.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:35 AM

6 comments

links to this post

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Life of Riley

Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley issued a statement on Monday reaffirming his intention to stay with the team until his current contract expires in three years. Riley wanted to silence speculation that he will leave his post prior to that time. As he put it, "I don't want to be a 'one and done' guy every year. In conversations that I've had with (Heat owner) Micky Arison, I have three years left on my contract and I will coach those out. I will try to coach those out unless someone else makes a decision on me. That's a commitment that I want to make to the organization."

Hip and knee surgeries caused Riley to miss 22 games during the 2006-07 season and the Heat's dismal title defense certainly made it seem possible that he might call it a career. Although he is still going to be around for a while, now is as good a time as any to take a brief look at one of the most exceptional coaching resumes in NBA history. Riley spent most of his nine year playing career with the L.A. Lakers and he was a member of the 1972 championship team that won a then-record 69 games. After he retired, he spent a couple seasons as a Lakers broadcaster before a quirk of fate landed him on the bench as an assistant coach; Lakers' Coach Jack McKinney was seriously injured in a bicycle accident during the 1979-80 season and he was replaced by his assistant Paul Westhead, who then tapped Riley to be his assistant. Early in the 1981-82 season, Lakers star Magic Johnson made it clear that he was not happy playing for Westhead, so owner Jerry Buss fired Westhead. Buss wanted Jerry West to be the new coach but West had gotten his fill of coaching during a three year run on the Lakers' bench during the late 1970s, so Riley took over instead. The Lakers had started 7-4 and they went 50-21 the rest of the way under Riley. They really hit their stride late in the season and that carried over into the playoffs, where they swept Phoenix and San Antonio before facing Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers. The Lakers stole home court advantage by winning game one in Philadelphia and eventually captured the championship in six games. Riley had gone from journeyman player to broadcaster to assistant coach to head coach of the world champions in six years.

Riley led the Lakers to three more titles in the 1980s, including back to back triumphs in 1987 and 1988, the first time that feat had been accomplished since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics did it to close out the 1960s. Ironically, Riley did not win his first Coach of the Year award until 1990, a season when the Lakers did not win the title. That was also his last year with the team. Riley became an NBA commentator for NBC for one season before becoming the coach of the New York Knicks. Riley's Lakers teams were known for playing a "Showtime" brand of basketball that was masterfully choreographed by point guard Magic Johnson. The Knicks did not have the right kind of personnel to play that way, so Riley preached a slow down, physical brand of basketball that received a lot of criticism in various quarters. In 1993, Riley won his second Coach of the Year award and the next season he led the Knicks to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1973. Houston won that series in seven games. The Knicks also lost in seven games in the 1995 playoffs, this time to Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Riley resigned after that season and almost immediately took over the Miami Heat. In 1995-96, the Heat tied the franchise record for wins (42) before losing to the powerful Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Riley's Heat obliterated that mark in 1996-97 by winning 61 games, earning Riley a record third Coach of the Year award (Don Nelson has also won three). Riley guided Miami past his old New York team and all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before again falling to Chicago. However, the Knicks got their revenge by knocking Miami out of the playoffs in each of the next three seasons. After Riley suffered the first two losing seasons of his coaching career in 2002 and 2003 he stepped down as head coach to focus on being the team's general manager.

Riley successfully rebuilt the Heat's roster and in December 2005 he reappointed himself the team's coach, guiding the team to a 41-20 record down the stretch. Like some of Riley's previous teams, the Heat hit their stride in the playoffs, eventually overcoming a 2-0 deficit to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals to claim the franchise's first NBA title. Miami went just 44-38 last year and got swept in the first round of the playoffs by Chicago, one of the least successful seasons of Riley's coaching career. However, he is optimistic that he can turn things around. "We hope that over the next three years ... that we're going to be a contender," Riley said when he announced his intention to stay on as coach for the duration of his contract.

Whether or not Riley wins another championship, he has to be considered one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. Riley's five NBA titles as a head coach trail only the nine won by Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson. Riley, Jackson and Alex Hannum are the only coaches to lead two different franchises to NBA titles. Riley is the only coach to twice take over a team in mid-season and win that year's championship. His 1195 regular season wins are third on the all-time list behind Lenny Wilkens (1332) and Don Nelson (1232) but his .647 winning percentage is much better than Wilkens' .536 and Nelson's .572, ranking sixth all-time behind Jackson, Billy Cunningham, Gregg Popovich, K.C. Jones and Auerbach.

Riley's critics try to diminish his accomplishments by mentioning that he inherited excellent teams on a couple occasions, a point that is also often made about Jackson--but there have been a lot of very talented NBA teams that never won anything. A talented roster is certainly a prerequisite to winning a championship but it hardly guarantees it; every championship team needs a great leader who provides strategy, direction and motivation. Also, while Riley walked into good situations in L.A. and New York he was the architect of the Miami team that won the 2006 championship. In addition, it is particularly noteworthy that Riley won Coach of the Year with three different franchises and that he led each of those franchises to at least one NBA Finals appearance. He initially was successful with a fastbreak style in L.A. but in New York and Miami he proved that he could also win by employing a slow down, grind it out style; the latter approach was not aesthetically pleasing or particularly popular outside of his team's fans but few other coaches have displayed such flexibility in their thinking. Riley's arrivals and departures from various teams have been messy at times but no one can argue with the results once he is on the bench: a Riley-coached team plays hard, plays smart and usually wins a lot of games.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:37 AM

3 comments

links to this post

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Don't Call it a Comeback: 10 NBA Players Who Returned

Long before Li'l Penny was a gleam in Penny Hardaway's eyes and decades before L.L. Cool J announced his own comeback by rapping, "Don't call it a comeback," NBA players returned to action after absences lasting at least a season. The trend can be traced at least as far back as George Mikan--the NBA's first superstar--and several other members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List have decided, with varying degrees of success, that they had unfinished business on the court. Here are the stories behind 10 comebacks by NBA All-Stars, listed in chronological order, with scoring averages from their first return season listed in parentheses:

1) George Mikan, Minneapolis Lakers (1955-56; 10.5 ppg in 37 games)

Mikan retired prior to the 1954-55 season, the first year that the NBA used the 24 second shot clock. He had just led the Lakers to three straight championships and five titles in a six year period. After sitting out one year, he decided to return. Mikan was only 31 years old but he was not able to recapture his former glory, posting career lows in scoring, rebounding and assists.

2) Cliff Hagan, Dallas Chaparrals (1967-68; 18.2 ppg in 56 games)

Hagan spent the first ten seasons of his career with the St. Louis Hawks, helping them to an NBA Finals victory over Bill Russell's Boston Celtics in 1958. He retired in 1966 but the Dallas Chaparrals of the upstart ABA lured him out of retirement with an offer to be player-coach. He performed well in both capacities, making the All-Star team in 1968 while coaching Dallas to a 46-32 record and a berth in the Western Division Finals. His success did not prove to be long-lived, though, and in the 1970 season he averaged just 5.7 ppg in three games as a player and was replaced as coach in January after Dallas started the season 22-21.

3) Richie Guerin, Atlanta Hawks (1968-69; 5.6 ppg in 27 games)

Guerin served as the Hawks' coach for the last three seasons of his playing career, 1965-67. He retired prior to the 1967-68 campaign but after a year off--during which he won the Coach of the Year award as the Hawks went 56-26--he came back in 1968-69. His regular season numbers the next two seasons were not great but he did average 16.5 ppg in two playoff games as a 38 year old in 1970.

4) Bill Walton, San Diego Clippers (1982-83, 14.1 ppg in 33 games)

Walton's injury history has been well documented, including the fact that he missed far more games than he played in during his career. Walton sat out the entire 1978-79 season due to injury, played in only 14 games in 1979-80 and then missed every game of the next two seasons. It seemed like his career was over but, with his minutes closely monitored, Walton was a productive player in 33 games in 1982-83. He then played in 55, 67 and 80 games in the next three seasons, culminating in a Sixth Man Award as a member of the Boston Celtics' 1986 championship team.

5) Dave Cowens, Milwaukee Bucks (1982-83, 8.1 ppg in 40 games)

Cowens once took a hiatus at the height of his career, so he did not seem to be a prime contender to come back after he retired in 1980--but in 1982 he decided to play for his old teammate Don Nelson, then the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. His comeback was brief and not particularly impressive but the Celtics managed to pry backup guard Quinn Buckner from Milwaukee in exchange for Cowens' rights, which they still owned.

6) Bernard King, New York Knicks (1986-87, 22.7 ppg in six games)

The miracles of modern surgery have enabled players to routinely return from ACL tears but this used to be a dreaded, career-ending injury. The gritty, determined King vowed to beat the odds and he did so in remarkable fashion. He had been at the absolute height of his powers in 1984-85, cruising to the scoring title with a career-high 32.9 ppg average when he blew out his knee. He missed the rest of that season, all of the 1985-86 season and most of the 1986-87 season. I still remember watching a CBS halftime feature about King's strenuous rehabilitation process; it included footage of him shooting jumpers from each elbow and culminated with him throwing down a driving dunk but no one could have imagined at that time how much NBA basketball he would still play. King returned for a cameo with the Knicks late in 1986-87 and showed that he could still be a big-time scorer. His game was noticeably less explosive but he had added a face-up jumper and could still will his way to the hoop at times. The Knicks declined to keep him, so he signed with the Washington Bullets as a free agent. His scoring average increased from 17.2 ppg in 1986-87 to 20.7 ppg, 22.4 ppg and 28.4 ppg. The latter figure ranked third in the NBA in 1990-91, trailing only Michael Jordan and Karl Malone; Jordan was a rookie when King first got hurt and Malone was still in college. In 1991 King became the first player with a reconstructed ACL to play in the All-Star Game. Injuries forced him to miss the 1992 season but he came back again in 1992-93, averaging 7.0 ppg in 32 games with the New Jersey Nets before calling it a career.

7) Sidney Moncrief, Atlanta Hawks (1990-91, 4.7 ppg in 72 games)

Few people seem to remember how great Moncrief was during his 10-year career with the Milwaukee Bucks, when he won consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards (1983 and 1984) and made the All-NBA First or Second Team five times. Chronic injuries dogged him during his final three seasons and he retired in 1989. After a year off, he felt well enough to return to the court. Moncrief's 72 games played in 1990-91 were his most since he appeared in 73 contests in 1985-86 but he put up career-lows across the board and called it quits for good.

8) Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls (1994-95, 26.9 ppg in 17 games)

King's comeback is probably still the most remarkable and inspiring but Jordan's comeback proved to be the most successful. After leading the Bulls to three straight titles in 1991-93, Jordan retired to play minor league baseball. The Major League Baseball work stoppage blocked his path to the big leagues--Jordan vowed never to cross a picket line--so he turned his attention back to the court, rejoining the Bulls near the end of the 1994-95 season. The Bulls had gotten off to a slow start due to injuries but were just starting to put things together when Jordan returned. They went 13-4 down the stretch and won a first round playoff series versus the Charlotte Hornets before losing to the Shaquille O'Neal/Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic. Jordan went through a fierce conditioning program that summer, the Bulls shored up the power forward position by signing Dennis Rodman and Chicago made history in 1995-96 by winning a record 72 games. Chicago won the championship and followed that up by capturing the next two titles as well. Jordan led the NBA in scoring all three seasons, winning two MVPs and three Finals MVPs. He hit the game-winning shot in the 1998 Finals and seemed to ride off into the sunset...until 2001 (see below).

9) Magic Johnson, L.A. Lakers (1995-96, 14.6 ppg in 32 games)

After he announced in 1991 that he had "attained" the HIV virus, Magic Johnson immediately retired. He was voted into the 1992 All-Star Game anyway and won the MVP. That summer he played for the Dream Team in the Olympics but Magic did not play in a regulation NBA game for the next four NBA seasons, although he did have a brief 5-11 stint as Lakers coach in 1993-94. By 1995, fears about playing against an HIV positive player had dissipated and the league had rules in place pertaining to bleeding players and blood on uniforms (which is why Steve Nash had to sit out against the Spurs in this year's playoffs when his nose was gushing blood all over the place). Age and various medical treatments had added a lot of weight to Magic's once lean frame but he decided to come back to end his career on his terms. He was not the player that he had been in his prime but he still had the ability to find the open man, rebound and provide timely scoring.

10) Michael Jordan, Washington Wizards (2001-2002, 22.9 ppg in 60 games)

Not content with two storybook endings to his career--first in the 1993 Finals and then in the 1998 Finals--Jordan tempted fate by returning to the court again in 2001, this time as a 38 year old Washington Wizard. Closing team practices to the public so no one would see how he had to drag his weary, battered old knees up and down the court, Jordan gritted his way through 60 games. He made the All-Star team and showed flashes of his old greatness but he also showed uncharacteristic fatigue at times, often starting strongly in games only to fade down the stretch. Jordan had rushed back without properly preparing his aging body and he paid the price. The next season, Jordan was in much better condition and his shooting percentages and rebounding went up, though his scoring and assists dipped a bit. He played in all 82 games and logged 3031 minutes, remarkable feats for a player who turned 40 during that season. Jordan made the All-Star team again but, unlike his previous comeback with the Bulls, he was no longer an MVP or even an All-NBA level player. He was simply a very good player, which still was quite an achievement at his age. Jordan was unable to lead the Wizards to the playoffs in his two season return and was very disappointed to be fired as an executive when he retired for the final time; he had assumed that he would simply step back into his front office position with the team.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 PM

12 comments

links to this post