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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Hall of Fame Words of Wisdom, Part II

How do you summarize a lifetime of work, struggle and sacrifice in just a few short minutes? Each of the 2008 Basketball Hall of Fame inductees faced that challenge on Friday night. Here are some words of wisdom by--and about--people who reached the pinnacle of success (Part I can be found here.)

Hakeem Olajuwon

"Known as 'The Dream,' Hakeem Olajuwon redefined the pivot with supple moves and an iron will," Mike Breen said. "His signature was the 'Dream Shake' and during the '94 and '95 Rocket title runs it was a nightmare for opponents." When you watched Olajuwon annihilate David Robinson in the 1995 playoffs you just knew that this footage would be in Olajuwon's Hall of Fame video and, sure enough, there was Olajuwon putting Robinson into the torture chamber once again. "That's just innate talent," Robinson marveled. "I mean when you can just shake and go to the hook or the fadeaway jump shot...He was playing out of his mind. I felt really bad until the next series when they went and swept the Orlando Magic."

Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who played with and against Olajuwon, simply called him, "A really unbelievable package of pure talent."

With all due respect to Robinson and Barkley, while it is undeniable that Olajuwon had superb athletic gifts, what really set him apart was the tremendous effort he devoted to honing those gifts. Former Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, "He worked very hard to become a great player. He had legendary matchups with Moses Malone in a recreational center called Fonde." Tomjanovich declared of Olajuwon, "I think he's the best all-around center to have ever played the game."

Olajuwon said that growing up in Nigeria he did not know much about basketball but that sports are very big in his native country and that by playing table tennis, team handball and soccer--the most popular sport in Nigeria--he unwittingly laid a foundation for his later basketball career by developing hand-eye coordination and other fundamentals.

Olajuwon noted that the first day that he played basketball was "unbelievable" and that his first coach in Nigeria pulled him aside, provided him with individual attention and while assistant coaches worked with the rest of the team he gave Olajuwon the "job description" for a center: "Stand in the middle of the paint and block everything that comes in. Then, if they miss the shot, grab every rebound. He gave me this concept of the paint--this paint is your area and you should rule it. So, I was imagining this domination of what a center can do in basketball."

Olajuwon explained that his focus was not to be an All-Star or a Hall of Famer but simply to win: "My role for my team was to hold the middle. If you can control the middle and help your team win, the credit will come later."

He relived the experience of battling against Malone at Fonde: "Moses was the best big man in the pros at the time. Playing against Moses in the summer gave me a huge advantage in confidence as a freshman: How can any big guy in college be as physical or better than Moses Malone? So I got that introduction in the summer. That is not something that is common; if you look at my career, a lot of things that have happened are like a dream."

Like William Davidson, Olajuwon praised David Stern for his "global vision" and the way that he has helped the NBA to grow so tremendously. He called his college coach Guy Lewis his "mentor" and said that Lewis "set a high standard for me to keep striving to be the best I can be." Olajuwon said that Bill Fitch, his first NBA coach, made him forget about "the pressure from the outside because (of) the pressure from the coach. He demanded the best, so he really gave me the platform to come into the league and compete at that level."

Olajuwon praised Tomjanovich for "giving me the freedom and the confidence that he believes in my decisions. He gave me the green light that I could freelance in the structure of the team. For a coach to have that kind of confidence in his player was a huge responsibility for him not to be disappointed in my decisions, so that made me much more conscious of my decisions--not to take a bad shot, to make good decisions." That is a really fascinating point, because so many coaches go in the opposite direction: they try to turn their players into programmed robots instead of intelligent, capable people who can read and react to situations on the fly. That type of coaching can make players hesitant and it also removes responsibilty from their shoulders, because if the team loses they can just blame the coach's rigid game plan that they followed to the letter. Think about how many championship winning coaches stressed discipline and preparation in practice, yet took a step back during games to let their players' talent and understanding take over: Red Auerbach, John Wooden and Phil Jackson definitely fit that mold and it is no coincidence that they are three of the greatest coaches ever.

Olajuwon made another great observation when he said, "I did not have this great dream. It was just step by step, the next game. When I was in college, I wasn't thinking about the pros. I was just having fun." While it is important to have dreams and goals, thinking big alone does not get it done: day by day, step by step, you have to put in the work and you have to be focused on the task at hand. Remember Yoda's admonition to Luke Skywalker that Skywalker thought too much about adventure and the future instead of thinking about where he was and what he was doing? Put it another way: you can't make it to the Hall of Fame without first mastering your post moves, your footwork and other fundamentals.

Dick Vitale

Vitale is not being inducted as a coach or a player but rather as a "contributor" and there is no doubt that he has made a tremendous contribution to promoting the game of basketball by broadcasting games with, as Breen put it, "boundless enthusiasm and an endless array of catch phrases." Can you imagine the past 29 years of college basketball without Vitale? He is part of the very fabric of our experience of the sport.

Hall of Fame Coach Bobby Knight declared, "I don't think that there is any single person that has been more important in the development of the popularity of college basketball than Dick Vitale."

Not surprisingly, Vitale gave the longest and most free wheeling speech, starting with his humorous recollections of trying to recruit Magic Johnson for the University of Detroit. Vitale's passion for the game and his genuine reverence for its great players shines through. You just have to smile when you listen to him talk. When he called out the names of Hall of Fame players and coaches and said, "This room is so special to me," you know that this is a sincere sentiment.

Most people can probably identify with Vitale's early, struggling years as a coach, when his wife asked him, "When are you going to get a job and make some money like my girlfriends' husbands? All you are doing is chasing these guys playing basketball and making no cash." At that time, he was making $12,000 a year and when he got the chance to be an assistant coach at Rutgers he was so excited to take the job he did not even ask what the salary was. When his wife suggested he find out, Vitale called the head coach, who asked him what he was making now. Vitale told him and the coach said, "That's fantastic. You are only going to take a $1000 cut, baby!" Vitale said that he got down on his knees and implored his wife, "Pride! Patience! Patience!" Vitale went from being a sixth grade teacher in 1970 to an NBA coach in 1978 when Davidson hired him to helm the Pistons. Of course, Vitale "got the Ziggy"--Davidson fired him. Vitale said of Davidson, "You can't find a better human being for the way he treats people and what you've done for people...I told you I'm so sorry, because if there is one emptiness on my resume it is the fact that I let you down, I let the people of Detroit down. I never did what I wanted to do in my heart and what I really planned to do when I was named the coach of the Detroit Pistons."

After Davidson fired him, Vitale found out the difference between, as his wife put it, "friends" and "associates." What Vitale did not realize is that years earlier, while giving a speech to his University of Detroit team, he made an impression on a television producer who wrote down his name. Just as the door to NBA coaching closed, a door to the world of broadcasting opened. Vitale was reluctant at first, because he wanted to go back to coaching college basketball but he took the plunge on TV and the rest, as they say, is history. Vitale followed the advice of his mother, who told him, "Don't ever, ever believe in 'can't.' Chase your dreams."

Patrick Ewing

Breen spoke of Ewing's evolution from being known for "intimidating defense" to being "one of the best shooting centers this game has ever seen."

Ewing's family emigrated to the United States from Jamaica when Ewing was 12. Ewing's gym teacher decided to find an activity for Ewing to participate in so that he could make friends: basketball. Mike Jarvis, who coached Ewing in high school, said that at that first Ewing was "tall and skinny and awkward and clumsy."

Ewing's game developed quickly. Hall of Fame Coach John Thompson first saw Ewing at a high school game at the Boston Garden. Thompson was scouting a different player but he turned to one of his assistant coaches and said, "You get me him (Ewing), I'll win the national championship." Of course, Ewing and Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas did just that in 1984, beating a Houston team led by Olajuwon.

The first part of Ewing's speech was very straightforward and heartfelt, as he thanked all of the coaches, teammates and others who helped him along the way. Then he mentioned his "brothers in arms," fellow Georgetown centers Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. During the Ewing tribute video, Mutombo mentioned how much Ewing had helped him but Ewing quipped, "From the first day that I met this man I could not understand a word that he was saying." Ewing thanked every one of his New York Knick coaches by name, except for Don Nelson: Hubie Brown, Bob Hill, Rick Pitino, Stu Jackson, John MacLeod, Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy.

Ewing admitted that when he was playing if someone would have asked him about becoming a coach he would have said, "Hell no." However, after Michael Jordan gave Ewing an opportunity to be an assistant with the Wizards, Ewing discovered that he enjoys coaching. Currently he is an assistant to Stan Van Gundy in Orlando. As Ewing said, "The Van Gundys must love me" (he was previously an assistant for Jeff Van Gundy in Houston).

Pat Riley

Breen said, "Throughout his long career on the sidelines, Pat Riley was seen as one of the most glamorous head coaches but he always proved that there was plenty of substance to go along with that style." Riley is the third winningest coach in NBA history. His "Showtime" Lakers won four championships in the 1980s and he capped off his career by guiding the Miami Heat to the 2006 title.

Hall of Famer Magic Johnson explained the cold, hard logic behind the glitz of Riley's "Showtime" teams: "His whole thing was to wear the other team down. It doesn't matter what happens in the first quarter. It doesn't matter what happen in the second quarter. But by the third quarter that team is going to be getting tired because we are going to be running and running and running."

When Riley went to New York he proved that he could be successful coaching a team that had a lot more plowhorses than gazelles, turning the Knicks into perennial contenders who fell just short of winning a title.

By the time Riley came to the podium, the ceremony had already lasted more than two hours and 40 minutes. "You all have had enough, haven't you?" he said with a twinkle in his eye. "Well, you'll have to wait." Riley said that he received the Hall of Fame call the day after Chris Paul threw nine lobs to Tyson Chandler for dunks as New Orleans handed Riley's Heat one of their many losses last season. Riley's first thoughts were of his father, who passed away 38 years ago. Riley thanked Jerry West for believing in him and giving him the opportunity to coach the Lakers at a time when Riley was not sure that he was the right man for the job.

Riley called Magic Johnson, "The greatest leader I've ever coached. He's a kindred spirit to me--we're fused at the hip and have been ever since we met." He also expressed special, heartfelt sentiments for Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, his franchise players in New York and Miami respectively.

Perhaps the most interesting name that did not receive heavy mention in Riley's speech is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the 1985 Finals MVP who was the starting center on four of Riley's five championship teams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:51 AM


Hall of Fame Words of Wisdom, Part I

How do you summarize a lifetime of work, struggle and sacrifice in just a few short minutes? Each of the 2008 Basketball Hall of Fame inductees faced that challenge on Friday night. Here are some words of wisdom by--and about--people who reached the pinnacle of success:

Adrian Dantley

During the video recap of Dantley's career, Morgan Wootten--Dantley's high school coach and a Hall of Famer in his own right--praised Dantley's work ethic, noting that Dantley "began the weight (lifting) program at DeMatha High School...I knew he was really special when on Christmas Day there was a knock on my front door and it was Adrian. He said, 'Coach, I need the key to the gym. I got to work out.'"

Hall of Famer Chuck Daly, who coached Dantley in Detroit, noted that Dantley's ability to draw fouls enabled the Pistons to slow the game down and set up their stifling half court defense. Of course, a player who draws fouls also creates foul trouble for the opponents and provides scoring opportunities for his teammates by getting the opponent into the penalty situation.

Hall of Famer Joe Dumars, Dantley's teammate on the Detroit Pistons from 1986-89, spoke in almost reverential terms about Dantley: "I think he was the most disciplined player I've ever been around in my life--did not deviate from his rituals, from his preparation, from what he ate, from what he drank, from what time he went to bed...I was a young, young guy in the league. He was truly a teacher for me personally. I was as close to him as I have been with any teammate I ever had."

The Pistons traded Dantley midway through what turned out to be the first of back to back championship seasons but Dumars insists that Dantley played a vital role in Detroit's success: "I think that every guy you would talk to from those teams back then would tell you that he helped prepare us to be World Champions with his focus, with his preparation, with his professionalism, with his discipline. Those are all things that you need to become a World Champion and he embodied all of those things. He was around us, he showed those things day in and day out and other guys picked up on it. By the time we went on to win a World Championship he had ingrained those things into our team."

Dantley began his speech by noting that he and fellow inductee Cathy Rush have something in common: "We waited and waited and waited" to receive the Hall of Fame call. He then said, "My entire basketball career has been based on my coach, Morgan Wootten. He taught me the fundamentals of the game, respect for the game and the right way to play the game."

Dantley identified some early influences on his game: "I patterned my first step after my idol, Elgin Baylor. I copied Chet Walker's head and pump fakes and everybody always went for them; I scored a lot of points on that move. I remember as a ninth grader meeting Red Auerbach. He said, 'John Havlicek weighs 205. You should weigh 210.' My best years as a player (were) when I weighed 210 pounds."

Dantley concluded, "The road to the Hall of Fame has not been easy or smooth. I had to remain focused through the changes and the trades while constantly proving that I belong in this game. But I believed in myself...Throughout my playing career, the critics said that I was too short, too fat and too slow. After being named the MVP at the prestigious Dapper Dan (Roundball Classic), I was told that I was too short and that meant that short players get short money--and this was said by someone 5-2. It was even said that I was a 'bastard' size--b-a-s-t-a-r-d--because I wasn't quick enough to play in the backcourt and not big enough to play in the frontcourt. But what they forgot to mention is that I had a b-r-a-i-n, a brain--and a heart and a work ethic and a will to win. These values served me on the basketball court and in the game of life...This is a day that I will always cherish."

Cathy Rush

Host Mike Breen noted, "Cathy Rush turned a small school named Immaculata into a national powerhouse." Rush compiled a 149-15 (.908) record at Immaculata, winning three straight AIAW national championships (1972-74). Immaculata barely had an enrollment of 500 students and yet prevailed against the biggest powers in women's basketball. Hall of Fame Coach Geno Auriemma compared this to "your local community college beating the Lakers."

Rush also ran summer camps that were the place to be for young female basketball players during that era. Rush's Immaculata players coached at the camps, spreading Rush's knowledge to the next generation. Theresa Grentz, an Immaculata player who became the all-time winningest coach at Illinois, said, "The (Immaculata) players were able to go to the summer camps and teach what we learned all year. Doing that, we became better players and I think that is one of the reasons that so many of us went into coaching afterwards."

Rush opened her remarks by joking, "Adrian, you wrecked the beginning of my speech," adding that Dantley made it in on the seventh try as a finalist while she made it in on the sixth try. She said, "I haven't coached for 31 years. Sometimes, when my sons aren't around, I don't admit to being that old--31 years and yet all of these wonderful people are bringing back memories from those wonderful years, and they were wonderful. So my line, before Adrian stole it, was, 'In so many ways we are the same and yet in so many ways we are so different.'"

When Rush started coaching at Immaculata, the school had no home gym, the players had one set of uniforms that they wore all year and they were responsible for finding their own transportation to the games--which of course were all played on the road. In 1972, Immaculata did not have enough money to send the entire team to the national tournament, so three of the 11 players did not make the trip. Rush recalled, "The team we beat in the national tournament had beaten us the week before by 42 points. People asked, 'How did you win that game?' Coaching." Rush paused for a beat before continuing with a smile, "They didn't ask how we lost the first one by 42 points."

Rush said, "I accept this honor, really, for all of the women who coached and played so many years ago and have been forgotten, whose scores and skill have never been brought to the fore but they played for the love of the game."

William Davidson

Davidson is the first pro sports owner to win championships in three different leagues--NBA (Pistons), WNBA (Shock) and NHL (Lightning)-- but Breen declared, "His impact can be measured not just by championship banners but by the contributions he's made to his sport and the admiration he's earned throughout the basketball world."

NBA Commissioner David Stern said, "Bill Davidson has been a successful owner because he believes in hiring the right people and then having them do the job that they were hired to do."

Pistons CEO Tom Wilson made a very interesting observation: "A lot of people say that you are great if you give your employees an opportunity to succeed but more importantly he gives you the ability to fail without second guessing because he knows that if you are the right person--they person he's picked out for the job--then you will learn from this and be better for it."

Stern added, "The Palace at Auburn Hills was really a pioneer. It said that you can have this great building, you can have plenty of suites, you can have great seating and it's a worthy investment. Really, it began a 25 year run that is going to have resulted in every (NBA) building being rebuilt or remodeled."

Daly said, "Ultimately he made all the changes necessary to win championships. I won two and Larry Brown won one. That's pretty good."

Dumars said, "When someone is a trail blazer, an innovator, a risk taker, that person should be recognized. If any owner deserves to be in there, it's this guy here, Bill Davidson."

Davidson came on to the stage in a wheelchair but he spoke without notes and with a strong, clear voice: "I want to first thank the Hall for this great honor and what it means to me. It is one of the things that kind of captivates my life. When I listened to Senator McCain's speech last night, one of the things that stood out was the fact that he started out as a brash young man and then realized when he had his experience in Vietnam that he had to have people help him. As you grow older, your ego doesn't disappear but it retreats and what you really want as you begin to hit your 60s and 70s is to help other people."

Davidson recalled that when he bought the Pistons in 1974 the leadership of the NBA was too passive and that he felt that a stronger, more aggressive stance was necessary in order for the league to grow. This did not take place until Stern became the league's legal counsel and then its commissioner. Now, Davidson, said with pride, the NBA is an internationally known brand name in a way that very few organizations can truly claim to be.

Part II will discuss Hakeem Olajuwon, Dick Vitale, Patrick Ewing and Pat Riley.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:17 AM


Friday, September 05, 2008

Adrian Dantley: The Mystery Man

With Adrian Dantley there are always more questions than answers. How did a 6-5 player consistently score in the paint against bigger, stronger and taller defenders? Why did several teams trade Dantley even though he was very productive? Why did a player who averaged 24.3 ppg on .540 field goal shooting during a 15 year NBA career have to wait more than a decade to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame?

Adrian Dantley is the mystery man: his game wasn't flashy and he didn't do anything to attract undue attention to himself. All he did, year after year, is score. A lot of guys talk about "getting buckets" but few players in pro basketball history have been as mind-numbingly consistent at "getting buckets" as Dantley was during his prime. This line from an old Zander Hollander Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball (if you've never heard of this yearly classic, look for some old copies on eBay) summed it up best: "The sun rises in the East and Adrian Dantley averages 30 ppg." Here are Dantley's scoring averages from 1981-1984: 30.7, 30.3, 30.7 (played only 22 games due to injury), 30.6. In 1980, he averaged 28.0 ppg and in 1985 he "slumped" to 26.6 ppg before bouncing back to 29.8 ppg in 1986. Thus, from 1980-86, Dantley scored 13,635 points in 461 games for a 29.6 ppg average. During that remarkable run, he captured two scoring titles (1981, 1984), led the league in minutes played per game in 1981 (42.7 mpg) and never shot worse than .531 from the field; in six of those seasons he shot at least .558 from the field. Dantley was also outstanding at drawing fouls and he took advantage of that skill by shooting .818 from the free throw line during his career. He led the NBA in free throws made five times, including four times from 1980-86. Dantley played for Utah during those seven seasons but prior to that he played for three teams in his first three seasons in the NBA and after his stint with the Jazz he played for three teams in his final five seasons.

There were two constants throughout Dantley's career, no matter the locale or the competition: he was always an undersized inside player and he could always score. Although Dantley never played on an NBA championship team it would be foolish to characterize him as anything other than a winner. Under the tutelage of the legendary Morgan Wootten, Dantley led DeMatha High School to a 57-2 record and earned High School All-America honors. During Dantley's three years at Notre Dame (1974-76), he averaged 25.8 ppg and 9.8 rpg while shooting .562 from the field as the Fighting Irish went 26-3, 19-10 and 23-6. In 1974, Dantley and Notre Dame ended UCLA's record 88 game winning streak. In 1974 and 1975, Dantley made the NCAA Tournament All-Regional teams and he received First Team All-America recognition in 1975 and 1976. The U.S. Basketball Writers Association voted him the National Player of the Year in 1976 after he ranked fourth in the NCAA in scoring (28.6 ppg) while shooting .588 from the field and averaging 10.1 rpg. Dantley led Team USA to an Olympic gold medal in 1976, ranking first on the squad in scoring (19.3 ppg).

Dantley decided to forgo his senior season at Notre Dame to enter the NBA Draft but he completed his degree requirements by 1978. The Buffalo Braves chose Dantley with the sixth overall selection in the 1976 NBA Draft and he won the Rookie of the Year award after averaging 20.3 ppg and 7.6 rpg while shooting .520 from the field. After the season, the Braves--who would soon become the San Diego Clippers and are currently known as the L.A. Clippers--traded Dantley and Mike Bantom to the Indiana Pacers for Billy Knight, who ranked second in the ABA in scoring during that league's final season (28.1 ppg in 1975-76) and then ranked second in the NBA in scoring in the first season after the leagues merged (26.6 ppg in 1976-77). Dantley averaged 26.5 ppg in his first 23 games with the Pacers in 1977-78 before they shipped him and Dave Robisch to the Lakers for James Edwards, Earl Tatum and cash considerations. Dantley averaged 19.4 ppg in his 56 games as a Laker that season, finishing 1977-78 with averages of 21.5 ppg and 7.8 rpg while shooting .512 from the field. In 1978-79, Dantley only played in 60 games and his numbers declined to 17.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg and .510 field goal shooting. The Lakers had a balanced offensive attack that ranked eighth in the league in scoring (112.9 ppg) with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (23.8 ppg), Jamaal Wilkes (18.6 ppg), Dantley and Norm Nixon (17.1 ppg) each scoring at least 17 ppg but the Lakers got killed on the boards even though Abdul-Jabbar ranked third in the league in rebounding (12.8 rpg); Dantley and Wilkes were both natural small forwards, so even though they were both All-Star caliber players their games were not complementary. Therefore, just prior to the 1979-80 season the Lakers traded Dantley to the Utah Jazz for Spencer Haywood, whose landmark court case paved the way for players to "go hardship" and leave school early, a process now called "early entry." Haywood was an elite player in the early to mid 1970s but by the time the Lakers acquired him he had a serious drug problem; the Lakers won the championship in 1980 but they suspended Haywood during the playoffs before officially releasing him that summer.

Meanwhile, Dantley blossomed into one of the league's top forwards, ranking third in the league in scoring in 1979-80 (28.0 ppg) while shooting .576 from the field (fourth in the league) and averaging 7.6 rpg. Dantley earned the first of his six All-Star selections. He rarely dunked or shot three pointers, so his game would be unrecognizable--if not unimaginable--to contemporary players and fans. In Hoops!, a 1987 book by Giorgio Gandolfi and Gerald Secor Couzens, Dantley explained the finer points behind some of the fundamental moves and weapons in his offensive repertoire. One of his favorite techniques was "the shot fake and jump shot." This is how Dantley described it:

Many times you will encounter situations in a game when you have already picked up your dribble and your defensive man is standing right in front of you preventing you from getting off a shot or passing the ball. It is just for cases like this that you need to have some dead-ball moves in your repertoire. Naturally, you can use these moves away from the basket, but they are most effective when you make them not far from the hoop, either in or close to the lane.

To make the shot fake and jump shot move, start with a one-count stop. Bring the ball up toward your head to give the defensive man the impression that you are going to take a jump shot. He will lunge toward you at this moment. As he moves in, crouch down with your legs to gather your strength and then go up for the jump shot just as your defensive man moves into you. Go up strong and bump him a little with your shoulder or forearm to keep him from blocking your shot. Often your man will foul you and you can get a three-point play out of the move.

That "bump" maneuver led to a lot of free throws for Dantley; in fact, he shares the single game record for free throws made with Wilt Chamberlain, who shot 28-32 from the free throw line in his 100 point game. Later in Hoops! Dantley talked about "Life Underneath":

The real reason for my success down low comes from my high school coach. I had to play center for my high school team and therefore needed to learn how to pivot off both feet, plant myself, then make a power move to the hoop without traveling. My coach drilled me on these moves every day until I could finally do them right.

I'm surprised to see that most big men in the league today can't make effective moves underneath. I guess the reason for this is that they simply never were taught them. Or they never worked hard enough on them. Or if they did work on them, they learned the moves later on in their careers and haven't really been able to master them.

When I'm down low, I move by instinct. I feel my man on my hip and when I can tell he's leaning or pushing more on one part of my body than the other, I'll keep low and try to go in the direction away from where he's leaning.

Even when I'm closely guarded I'm often able to turn, face up and either shoot my jump shot or else go for a power drive. However, there are some players who play me very tight, so I can't get my jumper off so easily. What I have to do against them is shoot right after I turn around to the basket. If I delay or don't get the shot off quickly enough, either the shot will be blocked or else I'll be tied up and forced to pass out.

Playing underneath is tough, no question about it. You have to be willing to get fouled and take a beating. I prepare myself for this in the summer by playing with friends, working especially on my moves under the basket. We'll often play half-court for four or five baskets, and allow grabbing and holding when a player goes to the basket. Other times we'll decide to play the entire game without calling fouls. By playing like this, I'm able to concentrate on making my offensive move and following through with my shot even though I'm being pushed and shoved while I'm doing it. It often gets like that or even rougher when you play underneath in the NBA.

Although Dantley was highly productive in Utah, he and Coach Frank Layden did not always see eye to eye. Prior to the 1986-87 season, Utah traded Dantley plus two draft picks to the Detroit Pistons for Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson. The Pistons had evolved from being a high scoring team to being a defensive minded unit but even though they had a physical squad they did not have a bona fide inside scorer; center Bill Laimbeer was a spot up shooter, while Rick Mahorn and young forwards Dennis Rodman and John Salley were not big time scoring options. Dantley provided just what the Pistons needed, leading them in scoring (21.5 ppg) and helping them make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost 117-114 in game seven to the defending champion Boston Celtics. If Larry Bird had not stolen Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass near the end of game five in one of the most famous plays in NBA history, the Pistons may very well have won that series. In 1988, the Pistons defeated the Celtics in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Dantley then put on a clinic in game one of the Finals versus the defending champion Lakers, scoring 34 points on 14-16 field goal shooting as the Pistons seized home court advantage with a 105-93 victory. Dantley scored 22 second half points, including 12 straight during a critical fourth quarter stretch. The Pistons led the series 3-2 when disaster struck in game six: Isiah Thomas, Detroit's heart and soul, suffered a severe ankle sprain late in the third quarter while in the midst of a remarkable scoring outburst; Thomas shot 11-13 from the field in that quarter, scoring a Finals record 25 points en route to 43 points overall, but the Pistons squandered a three point lead in the final minute of the game as the Lakers escaped with a 103-102 victory. In the seventh game, Thomas gutted out 10 first half points but his ankle stiffened up at halftime and he did not score in the second half. The Lakers held Dantley to 16 points and won 108-105, becoming the first team to capture back to back titles since Bill Russell's 1969 Boston Celtics. Dantley averaged a team-high 21.3 ppg on .573 field goal shooting during the Finals.

Although Dantley was a potent scorer, his game did not necessarily mesh completely well with Detroit's three guard offense; Dantley scored in the paint, but he was not a post-up player per se: he caught the ball on the wing, maneuvered into the paint and then scored. This did not always create great spacing for the other players, so midway through the 1988-89 season Detroit General Manager Jack McCloskey made a bold move, trading Dantley and a first round draft pick to Dallas for Mark Aguirre. Aguirre was a little bigger than Dantley but--more importantly--he could play in the post with his back to the basket and either score or else draw a double team and make the correct pass leading either to an open shot or else one more ball reversal that resulted in an open shot on the weak side (Aguirre delivered a lot of what would now be termed "hockey assists"). The Pistons went 31-6 after the trade, defeated the Lakers in the 1989 Finals and defended their crown by knocking off Portland in the 1990 Finals.

Of course, this was a devastating turn of events for Dantley, who had played very well for Detroit and certainly felt that the Pistons could have enjoyed similar success without trading him; if not for Thomas' injury in the 1988 Finals, Dantley and the Pistons probably would already have won a ring. "I think one of my assets was the ability to stay focused and stay mentally tough," Dantley later said. "When you get traded, it affects a lot of players, and they struggle. You get down when you get traded and you have to stay focused." After averaging 18.4 ppg in 42 games with Detroit in 1988-89, he increased his production to 20.3 ppg in 31 games with Dallas, though his field goal percentage declined. Dantley only played in 45 games for Dallas in 1989-90 and after a brief 10 game run with Milwaukee in 1990-91 he played one season in the Italian League before retiring. He is currently an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets.

Dantley ranks 23rd in career NBA/ABA scoring (23,177 points) and 17th in scoring average (24.3 ppg). He is also sixth all-time in free throws made (6832). Dantley's career field goal percentage of .540 ranks 20th all-time and every player listed above him--other than Charles Barkley--is significantly taller. He was a Hall of Fame finalist six times (2001-03, 2005-07) before being inducted this time around.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:46 AM


Thursday, September 04, 2008

Patrick Ewing: Fifth Member of "Dream Team" to be Inducted in Basketball Hall of Fame

When Patrick Ewing is officially enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame tomorrow, he will be the fifth member of the legendary Dream Team to earn that honor, following in the footsteps of Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler and Magic Johnson. It is possible that all 12 Dream Teamers will eventually be enshrined; the only players about whom there could be the slightest question are Chris Mullin and Christian Laettner but Mullin has already been a Hall of Fame finalist twice, while Laettner's great college career may be enough to convince voters of his worthiness (keep in mind that the Hall of Fame honors all levels of the sport, not just--or even primarily--the NBA).

Speaking of great college careers, Ewing led Georgetown to the NCAA Championship Game three times in four seasons, winning the 1984 title after an 84-75 victory over Houston and fellow 2008 Hall of Fame inductee Hakeem Olajuwon. Ewing earned the 1984 NCAA Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player Award. He also made the AP All-America First Team three straight years and won the 1985 AP NCAA Player of the Year Award. Not surprisingly, the New York Knicks chose Ewing with the first overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft. Although Ewing won the 1986 Rookie of the Year Award, he only played 50 games that season and 63 games in his second season, raising questions about whether or not his balky knees would enable him to enjoy a long career. Hall of Famer Hubie Brown--Ewing's first NBA coach--explained to me how Ewing's role changed when he made the transition from college to the NBA: "The thing that we immediately saw as a coaching staff was that he could score. He was a better scorer than he was a rebounder and shot blocker. He came out of college as a rebounder and shot blocker. Well, for NBA standards he was below average in both of those categories but he was a prime-time scorer."

Although Ewing ranked ninth in the NBA in blocked shots as a rookie, he was not yet a complete defender. Brown recalls, "The blocked shots never came when he was playing his man. The blocked shots would only come in the back of the zone traps when he was moving from one side of the lane to the other. So, that was kind of interesting. What had to happen was that the weight programs designed by the training staff had to build up his lower body strength and his upper body strength for the rebounding and the shot blocking on his man, not in the rotating of the defense--that had to improve. If you go back and check his stats, you will see that. You will see how the stats progressively got better. That came with (A) knowing the league and (B) building his body and changing his physique. He was a scorer from the first day of practice."

Ewing averaged at least 20 ppg in each of his first 13 seasons but he did not average 10 rpg until his fifth year in the NBA; after that, though, he averaged at least 10 rpg for nine straight years. Ewing never led the NBA in blocked shots but he averaged at least 3 bpg for five straight seasons and he ranked in the top ten in blocked shots each of his first 12 seasons (and 13 times overall). Ewing's 2894 career blocked shots rank sixth in NBA/ABA history (that statistic has only been tracked since 1973-74 in the NBA and 1972-73 in the ABA). Reinforcing Brown's comments about the differences between Ewing's game as a collegian and as a pro, Ewing never made the All-Defensive First Team and he only earned three All-Defensive Second Team nods. However, Ewing ranked in the top ten in scoring for eight straight years, peaking at 28.6 ppg (third in the league) in 1989-90.

Ewing averaged 21.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg and 2.4 bpg during his 17 year career, earning 11 All-Star selections, one All-NBA First Team selection and six All-NBA Second Team selections; All-NBA honors were hard to attain for centers during that era: Ewing's career overlapped with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Robert Parish, Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal. Ewing never won an MVP, but he finished in the top five in the balloting six times (1989-90, 1992-95). The only real blank space on his resume is that he never won an NBA championship; he led the Knicks to the 1994 Finals, but Olajuwon avenged his 1984 NCAA Championship Game loss to Ewing by leading the Houston Rockets to a seven game. Ewing's Knicks also made it to the 1999 Finals but he injured his Achilles tendon during the playoffs and was not able to play in the Finals.

For those who don't know about Ewing's game or those who forgot, here is a video featuring 13 of his greatest NBA plays:

Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls presented the main roadblock for Ewing's Knicks; the Bulls eliminated the Knicks from the playoffs in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1996. The only time Ewing beat the Bulls in the playoffs was 1994, when Jordan was playing minor league baseball, and even then the Knicks needed help from a bogus Hue Hollins foul call against Scottie Pippen in the pivotal fifth game. Ewing became somewhat notorious for his annual guarantees that the Knicks would win the championship but when he was later asked about this he sensibly replied that he could not very well pick his team to lose. While that is certainly a valid point, Ewing probably would have been better served to find a way to express confidence in his team's chances without making guarantees that became punchlines after the Knicks were eliminated.

Ewing had a feathery soft shooting touch but he was never quite the same after suffering a devastating injury on December 20, 1997 when Milwaukee Buck Andrew Lang fouled Ewing as the Knick center tried to catch a lob pass from Charlie Ward. Ewing landed awkwardly on his right (shooting) wrist, suffering a dislocation that was so severe that one of the bones almost poked through the skin. Ewing missed the rest of that season and never regained full range of motion in his wrist; it took a strenuous rehabilitation program just to make it back in the league at all but Ewing persevered to play four more seasons. "It definitely affected me," Ewing told me several years later. "My shot wasn’t as pretty, wasn’t as pure as it had been."

After finishing his playing career in Orlando, Ewing accepted an offer from Michael Jordan to become an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards. Ewing later became an assistant coach in Houston, where he served as a mentor for Yao Ming, and Ewing is now an assistant coach in Orlando, where Dwight Howard is his current pupil; it is hard to imagine two centers who are more different than Yao and Howard. With Yao, the challenge was to get him to play more aggressively and be more of a physical presence. While Ewing worked in Houston, he told me that his message to Yao was all about mentality: "First of all, you have to be confident. You have to believe in yourself. That is one thing that I tell Yao: 'No matter what happens, believe in yourself and never doubt yourself.' I think that Yao is going to be a great player. He has great offensive skills and he just has to believe in himself and dominate." While Yao needed to work on his mindset, Howard still needs to work on his skill set in terms of developing back to the basket post moves and any kind of reliable shot outside of the paint. Yao showed marked improvement during Ewing's brief time in Houston and it will be interesting to watch Howard's development over the next few years.

During his playing career Ewing did not expect to become a coach but now he hopes to become an NBA head coach one day: "Why do something if you are not striving to be the best at it?"

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:50 AM


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Hakeem Olajuwon's Journey From Nigeria to the Basketball Hall of Fame

This Friday, the Basketball Hall of Fame will enshrine seven new members: Adrian Dantley, William Davidson, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Pat Riley, Cathy Rush and Dick Vitale. Each of these inductees has an interesting life story but Olajuwon's is certainly the most remarkable and unlikely: the Nigerian native did not even play basketball until he was 17. Prior to that, he played soccer and handball, sports that helped him to hone the agility and fluidity that later characterized the unique way that he performed on the hardwood.

Nowadays, top high school basketball players become nationally known figures and young overseas prospects like Ricky Rubio are household names--at least in households that follow basketball. The basketball world was a lot different in 1980, when Olajuwon arrived in Houston with no fanfare and took a taxi cab from the airport to his meeting with University of Houston Coach Guy Lewis. Olajuwon was a raw prospect who redshirted his freshman season (1980-81) but he also was a marvelously talented athlete with a tremendous work ethic.

Olajuwon averaged 8.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 2.5 bpg for Houston in 1981-82. He shot .607 from the field but just .563 from the free throw line and although he was already an intimidating defensive presence he had more personal fouls than blocked shots, averaging nearly three fouls a game despite barely playing 18 mpg. Still, Olajuwon helped the Cougars to make it to the Final Four, where they lost to the eventual champions, a North Carolina team led by James Worthy and Michael Jordan. During the summer, Olajuwon became a regular at the top notch pickup games at the legendary Fonde Recreation Center, where future Hall of Fame center Moses Malone held court and helped Olajuwon to refine and hone his skills.

That hard work enabled Olajuwon to improve his statistics across the board in 1982-83 (13.9 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 5.2 bpg, .611 field goal percentage, .595 free throw percentage) while reducing his fouls per minute by 25%. He helped lead the Cougars to the NCAA Championship Game, where they lost to Jim Valvano's Cinderella North Carolina State squad. Olajuwon won the NCAA Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player Award despite Houston's loss; he is the last player to receive that honor without playing on the championship team.

In his senior season, Olajuwon again improved markedly in four categories (16.8 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 5.6 bpg, .675 field goal percentage) while slashing his fouls per minute rate by more than 20%. Olajuwon led the NCAA in rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage and his Cougars returned to the NCAA Championship Game but this time they fell to Patrick Ewing's Georgetown squad, a loss that Olajuwon later avenged in the NBA by beating Ewing's Knicks in the 1994 Finals; Olajuwon never won a college title but Ewing never won an NBA title, proving that even a Hall of Famer cannot win a championship without help from his supporting cast.

The Houston Rockets made Olajuwon the number one overall selection in the 1984 NBA Draft and even though Michael Jordan was the third pick no one can really say that Houston made a mistake by choosing Olajuwon; his lengthy NBA resume includes two championships, one regular season MVP (1994), two Finals MVPs (1994, 1995), two Defensive Player of the Year Awards (1993, 1994), six All-NBA First Team selections, five All-Defensive First Team selections and 12 All-Star selections. Olajuwon also won a pair of rebounding titles (1989-90), led the league in blocked shots three times (1990-91, 93) and is the career leader in that category with 3830 rejections, though it must be noted that the NBA has only tracked that statistic since 1973-74, several years after Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell retired. Remarkably, Olajuwon ranked in the top ten in steals four different times (1988-90, 1995). Olajuwon had at least 100 steals and 100 blocked shots in 12 seasons, tying a record set by Julius Erving; in 11 of those seasons, Olajuwon had at least 200 blocked shots, easily making him the career leader in "100/200" seasons. Olajuwon averaged 21.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg and 3.1 bpg during his 18 year NBA career, shooting .512 from the field and .712 from the free throw line; in the playoffs he improved those numbers to 25.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 3.2 bpg, .528 field goal percentage and .719 free throw percentage. The numbers are nice--actually, they are fantastic--but numbers are just numbers. To borrow a line from one of my favorite Julius Erving stories--John Papanek's May 4, 1987 Sports Illustrated tribute to Erving (which would have been included in my post about Julius Erving Stories if I had been able to find the link in time), "You had to see the man and hear the music." So, without further ado, look and listen to what Olajuwon at his absolute peak did to fellow all-time great David Robinson right after Robinson won the 1995 regular season MVP:

That video contains several examples of Olajuwon's patented "Dream Shake," plus assorted other devastating moves in his offensive repertoire; Olajuwon combined amazing balance, dexterity and grace with stunning quickness and power. Defenders had to respect his outside shot, which made it even more difficult to stop him from getting into the paint. That performance against Robinson, coming on the heels of winning the 1994 championship and en route to winning the 1995 championship, is the defining moment of Olajuwon's career. The 1995 championship was sweet redemption for Olajuwon and his Houston Cougars teammate Clyde Drexler, who joined the Rockets in the middle of the season; Olajuwon and Drexler did not win an NCAA title but together they brought the NBA championship to Houston. They remain just the fourth set of teammates to each score 40 points in an NBA playoff game.

Mario Elie was Olajuwon's teammate on those teams in Houston and in 1999 Elie won a championship playing alongside Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio. Sometimes when you ask a player about the great players he has played with you get a politically correct answer but when I asked Elie about Olajuwon, Elie told me without hesitation, "I played with a lot of great players but he was number one. He made my game better--having two or three guys on him all night enabled me to get open shots. He was putting so much pressure on the defense. He would say, ‘Mario, don’t worry about getting beat. I will be there to have your back.’ That meant so much. Being a defensive guy, I would pressure guys and sometimes they would get by me, but the ‘Dream’ was always back there to have my back." Later, Elie added, "I love Tim (Duncan). I think he may be the second best player I played with but ‘Dream,’ just his performance in pressure situations--when David Robinson got the ’95 MVP, ‘Dream’ told me, ‘Mario, he’s borrowing my trophy.’ When I heard that I said, ‘Somebody’s in trouble tonight.’ That guy put on a performance--under that pressure against the MVP and we have no home court advantage--and ‘Dream’ just dominated that position. It reminded me of when Jordan dominated Clyde when they were comparing the two guards. They were comparing two centers and ‘Dream’ just totally--I don’t want to say embarrassed--but he really embarrassed him, he dominated him--(series averages of) 35 (points), 13 (rebounds), 5 assists, 4 blocks. Those are amazing numbers for a center."

It is easy to look at Olajuwon's career and come away with the impression that everything went smoothly; that same fallacy also applies to Michael Jordan, who has been elevated to god-like status in some people's eyes even though early in his career Bill Cartwright--a former All-Star center who was then Jordan's teammate--lamented (as reported in Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules), "He's the greatest athlete I've ever seen. Maybe the greatest athlete ever to play any sport. He can do whatever he wants. It all comes so easy to him. He's just not a basketball player." That quote may seem bizarre now but in the mid to late 1980s many people openly questioned if Jordan could lead a team to an NBA championship; there were similar questions about Olajuwon prior to 1994. Although Olajuwon led Houston to the NBA Finals in just his second season (1985-86), the Rockets did not win a playoff series from 1988-92. In 1991-92, Olajuwon did not make the All-NBA or All-Defensive Teams as Houston struggled to a 42-40 record, missing the playoffs for the first time in his career. Olajuwon engaged in a bitter contract dispute with the team's management and that situation seemed to affect his play, though his numbers were still very good. The usually durable Olajuwon missed 26 games in 1990-91 and 12 games in 1991-92, leading Houston General Manager Steve Patterson to assert that Olajuwon was malingering in order to pressure the team into agreeing to his financial demands, a charge that Olajuwon denied. The Rockets tried to trade their frustrated superstar during the summer of 1992 but eventually they agreed to a four year contract extension. Just imagine how much different NBA history--and Olajuwon's legacy--might be if the Rockets had traded Olajuwon just two years before he led Houston to the NBA championship. That is a cautionary tale that owners, team executives, writers and fans should keep in mind before passing judgment on some of today's star players. Just look at last year's NBA Finalists: in one season Kobe Bryant went from being a maligned, disgruntled scoring champion to being the league MVP, while Kevin Garnett emerged from a three year playoff drought to claim his first title.

Did Jordan, Olajuwon, Bryant and Garnett change, as the media airbrushers assert, or did the environment/supporting cast surrounding them--ownership, coaches, teammates--improve? All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis likes to say "The same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry"; the traits that led to fierce criticism of those players when their teams fell short of winning titles are the same traits that propelled them to later greatness. The only thing that changed was the media spin.

Olajuwon's legacy is quite secure now and it has long been apparent that he would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as soon as he became eligible. It is fitting that he and longtime rival Ewing are members of the same Hall of Fame class, because they will always be inextricably linked together due to their showdowns in championship level competition at both the NCAA and NBA levels.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:26 AM