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Friday, February 15, 2008

Learning About the French Quarter

All-Star Weekend is well underway. Here is the link to my first report for HoopsHype.com (10/7/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

This is the fourth time that I have covered NBA All-Star Weekend and each time represented the first time that I had visited the host city. In Denver (2005) I immediately noticed the fresh air and beautiful mountain skyline. Houston (2006) made an instant impression by virtue of its sheer physical size. Las Vegas (2007) has the glitz and the glamour, the landscape dotted with gaudy hotels/casinos. The first sensation I experienced in New Orleans was a wonderful aroma of food in the airport; I'm not sure what was being cooked but whatever it was smelled great.

The newest flavors that have been added to the city are huge posters/billboards promoting All-Star Weekend. One of them features Kevin Garnett and the tagline, "Basketball is a brotherhood."

During the shuttle ride to the Marriott we did not see many signs of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought upon this city, partially because of the rebuilding efforts that have taken place since then and partially because we did not travel through the most afflicted areas. We passed by some of New Orleans' famous cemeteries and our driver Derek explained why the tombs are above ground: the whole area is below sea level, so the ground is saturated with water and people do not want to bury their loved ones in those muddy conditions.

After arriving at the Marriott and picking up my credential, I had several hours of free time before the day's NBA activities formally began. I decided to explore the French Quarter on foot. Louisiana has a rich basketball legacy that includes the likes of Bob Pettit, Pistol Pete Maravich and Karl Malone but it has an even older chess legacy that dates back to New Orleans-born Paul Morphy, whose career eerily foreshadowed Bobby Fischer's: both earned recognition as the best chess player in the world before abandoning the game and spending their latter years struggling with mental illness. The current king of chess in New Orleans is chess master Jude Acers, who has held court in the French Quarter for decades, taking on all comers. I hoped to challenge him to a game but alas I apparently just missed him on this day, arriving at the Gazebo restaurant on Decatur Street just moments after he packed up his board and left. I hung around for a while because some of the locals thought that he might return; at the Gazebo I enjoyed one of the juiciest, best tasting hamburgers I have ever eaten but Acers did not come back and I soon resumed my explorations.

The French Quarter was not directly hit by Hurricane Katrina but of course its impact was heavily felt there because people who worked and shopped there were displaced--including Acers and many others. You can learn a lot about what New Orleans' citizens are thinking by reading the slogans on various t-shirts that are being sold in the French Quarter. My favorite reads simply "Recover, Rebuild, Re-New Orleans." Some of the slogans are funny, if slightly politically incorrect ("Beer…Helping White Men Dance Since 1842"). Malapropisms prompted by drunkenness are a frequent theme (for example, "Officer, I swear to drunk I am not God"). Many of the slogans are definitely not safe for work (or this site), but I can clean one of them up enough to convey its flavor: "Fema Evacuation Plan: Run (expletive deleted) run."

Although I did not meet Acers, I encountered a very talented artist of a different kind: William Warren, who is a proud member of the Jackson Square Artist Colony. Warren explained that the roots of the colony date back as far as the Civil War era, "probably making it the oldest outdoor art colony in the United States." Warren studied at the Rhode Island School of Design but 10 years ago he relocated to New Orleans for two reasons: the existence of the vibrant art colony and the opportunity to do more outdoor painting due to the more temperate nature of the city's climate. Members of the colony must purchase licenses from the city of New Orleans. The cost is not high but one of the provisions of the agreement between the colony and the city is that the artists will only produce original, handmade work--no machine made or mass produced items. Warren describes the colony's mission: "Promoting and preserving the art of painting and drawing." He says that a hand painted image is different than the mechanical image produced by a camera because it is organic and vibrant and conveys emotion instead of being a precise, by the numbers depiction.

While Warren spoke with me he continued to paint one of a series of works that he is doing about the city's lamp posts. He does not like the fluorescent bulbs that the city sometimes places in these old fixtures, so his paintings depict a burning flame shining brightly, an example not only of the triumph of the organic (fire) over the mechanical (a light bulb) but also symbolizing his hopes for the city's revival. Watching him work, I commented that it seems to me that the artist differs from the average person in both his heightened visual perception and his ability to use his fine motor skills to accurately portray what he sees. Warren agreed with this observation and added, "The hand is being lost to the computer." He is disappointed that a greater emphasis is not placed on art in the schools.

New Orleans is a very compact city where it is much easier to get around on foot or via public transportation than by car and this is even more true now with so many people arriving in town this weekend. The Marriott literally sits on the border of the French Quarter and it is a brief walk away from the massive Ernest M. Morial Convention Center, host of NBA All-Star Jam Session. If you are able to make it to New Orleans during All-Star Weekend but cannot score tickets to the big game or the side events then Jam Session is a wonderful alternative. Current and former players are available for demonstrations and autograph sessions and there are numerous opportunities for fans young and old alike to participate in various interactive basketball activities. The Jam Session site also hosts events like the NBA/National Wheelchair Basketball Association All-Star Wheelchair Classic and the Legends Shootout.

I wrote about the Wheelchair Classic last year and was so impressed by what I saw that this has become a can't miss event for me. The participants are selected by the NWBA and comprise the top players from its teams; this year, Christina Ripp became the first woman to qualify for the game. The West All-Stars defeated the East All-Stars 64-57, with Bobby Nickleberry--who makes Wes Unseld-like outlet passes--winning East MVP honors and the sharpshooting Chuck Gill winning West MVP honors. I had the good fortune of watching most of the game while sitting next to Susan Katz, the communication coordinator of the Lakeshore Foundation. Katz played wheelchair basketball for the University of Illinois and won a Paralympics gold medal as a member of Team USA in 2004; her insights and patient explanations greatly increased my understanding of the strategic aspects of wheelchair basketball. Most of the rules of the game are the same; two differences are that offensive players are allowed to stay in the lane for four seconds and the ballhandler is allowed two "pushes" of his chair for each time he dribbles the basketball.

The obvious limitation that wheelchair athletes face is not being able to jump but Katz mentioned to me that the lack of lateral mobility is a key element in wheelchair basketball strategy. Players have to spin and/or travel in an arc to move from one side to the other, so the back pick is a devastating weapon in wheelchair basketball and if it is properly executed it always leads to a wide open shot. She noted that at the highest levels of the game the players have such great chair skills and speed that this advantage is minimized somewhat, much like how the opening to get a shot off in the NBA is very small.

The legs are the most important part of the shot for a jump shooter. Obviously, wheelchair athletes have to rely on different sources of power. During halftime of the game, Jeff Griffin and Trooper Johnson set official Guinness World Records for most free throws made in one minute by a wheelchair athlete (25 each), as certified by Stuart Claxton, a Guinness World records representative who was present on site. Katz graciously arranged for me to speak with both athletes. I asked them if they had played basketball prior to their injuries. Johnson told me, "I played mostly football before my accident but I've been playing sports all of my life so once I had my car accident the transition back into sports and athletics was natural."

How did they make the adjustment to shooting without using leg power? Johnson answered, "It's something that you just get used to. You start understanding that all of the power has to be generated by your arms and once you get used to the form from sitting in the wheelchair it's just repetition, like anything else; the more you do it, the better you get at it and the stronger you get at it." Players must deal with both muscular and cardiovascular fatigue during games. Johnson noted, "If you don't maintain your hydration level then you will get cramps. You also have to work on your cardio so that you don't get winded on the court."

Like Johnson, Griffin was a football player prior to his injury, playing wide receiver at the junior college level. "Like Trooper said, I got hurt but my competitive drive continued. Being able to compete in a wheelchair against other guys who are in similar situations is just a great opportunity to keep that drive going." Griffin dismissed my question about the difficulty of learning how to shoot from a wheelchair by saying simply, "When you are competitive you find a way. You find a way to adapt." Echoing Katz' observation about back picks, Griffin told me that even though he had played some competitive basketball prior to his injury that he never fully understood the pick and roll play--and how it can help you get a shot off against a player who is more athletic--until he started playing wheelchair basketball. Johnson added that able-bodied players can grab jerseys and fight their way through picks but, as Katz suggested, when a wheelchair athlete is picked then he stays picked for several seconds.

This year's Legends Shootout featured George Gervin, Detlef Schrempf, Jo Jo White and defending champion David Thompson. The contest consisted of shooting from racks located on each baseline and at the top of the key. The players could shoot 20 foot jumpers but Schrempf elected to shoot legit NBA threes. He and Gervin advanced to the Finals, where Gervin won after Schrempf missed a "money ball" that could have potentially tied the score.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:25 PM



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