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Saturday, September 13, 2008

"1, 2, 3, Cancun": The Real Story Behind Nick Van Exel's Famous Chant

In the course of researching a post about funny NBA quotes, I stumbled upon an interesting story pertaining to Utah's sweep of the L.A. Lakers in the 1998 Western Conference Finals. At the end of a Lakers' practice during that series, the team gathered together for the usual "1,2,3, team" chant--but Nick Van Exel ad-libbed "1,2,3, Cancun," in reference to the team's impending summer vacation. That quip has often been cited as evidence that Van Exel quit on the team, an impression reinforced by the fact that the Lakers soon traded him to Denver. However, prior to Van Exel's first game as a Nugget against the Lakers, he insisted that his famous line was a joke, not a surrender: "I say things all the time as far as, 'Well, this is my last game with you guys. See you again when I come in here with 40,' just to keep guys loose and laughing. It’s just when things are going wrong, somebody says something wrong, especially me, it seems to be blown out of proportion and people get to finger-pointing. Everyone who was in that locker room with me knows I’d never give up on the team. But finger-pointing happens. I never meant anything wrong."

Van Exel voluntarily gave up his starting spot to Derek Fisher late in the 1998 season, a move that was also interpreted in some quarters as a sign that Van Exel was quitting, a charge that Van Exel emphatically rejected: "Well, I’m sure they’re going to look at it as far as trying to get me out of there, blame it on me as excuse. Derek, throughout the season, his confidence was going up and down, up and down. So I figured if he was starting, his confidence would be up...I’m always going to have confidence. I guess they didn’t see it that way. I guess they felt I was giving up."

Van Exel did not come close to scoring 40 points in his first game against the Lakers; he had nine points and 10 assists in a 103-98 Denver loss. Less than two weeks later, he had 16 points and 13 assists in a 117-113 Denver win. Van Exel dropped 41 points, nine assists and eight rebounds on the Lakers in the third meeting of the season between the teams but Denver lost 117-104.

Van Exel ranked in the top ten in the NBA in assists each of the first three seasons after the trade but the Lakers also performed well, winning three straight championships from 2000-02; of course, before they accomplished that they made another change, hiring Phil Jackson as head coach.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 PM


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kobe Bryant and the Most Famous Pinkie Finger This Side of Dr. Evil

As you probably have heard by now, Kobe Bryant has chosen not to have surgery to repair the torn ligament/avulsion fracture in his right pinkie finger. Here is the explanation posted on Bryant's official website:

After seeking numerous opinions from hand specialists, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has decided to forgo surgery on his right pinkie. Fresh off his Olympic Gold Medal performance in Beijing, Bryant expressed that he did not want to miss any time on the court when Lakers training camp opens later this month.

"I have always felt that I can still focus and play at a high level even through various injuries. That's really just part of the game. When the doctors told me recovery from a procedure could be 12 weeks, I just decided now was not the time to have surgery. What it really came down to for me is that I just didn't want to miss any time 'punching the clock' for the Lakers, given all we are trying to accomplish as a team this NBA season. I am just really excited and looking forward to being there with the guys when camp opens in a few weeks. That is a real bonding process and if I can avoid being on the sidelines for that, God willing, I will," said Bryant.

That "punching the clock" reference could certainly be interpreted to be a not very thinly veiled swipe at the work ethic of Bryant's former teammate, Shaquille O'Neal, who famously did not have offseason toe surgery in the summer of 2002 because he got hurt--in his words--on "company time." O'Neal missed the first 12 games of the 2002-03 season and the three-time defending champion Lakers got off to a slow start, ultimately slipping to the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs; the Spurs eliminated them in the second round and went on to win the title. Bryant finished third in MVP voting that season while also making the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team and if not for his efforts--including an incredible February in which he averaged 40.6 ppg as the Lakers went 11-3--the Lakers could very well have missed the playoffs entirely. Despite all of the various nonsense that has been spewed about the reasons for the tension between O'Neal and Bryant, that season is when the conflict really boiled over publicly and this was all a result of O'Neal's delayed surgery: when O'Neal came back out of shape he wanted the Lakers (i.e., Bryant) to slow the ball down and feed him in the post but Bryant's reply was that O'Neal needed to get in shape, whereupon O'Neal retorted that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won't guard the house (play defense in the paint). Nothing made the contrast between Bryant and O'Neal's priorities and perspectives more obvious than their statements and actions that season.

This brief trip down memory lane is relevant because it surely has a lot to do with Bryant's current decision--not that he is trying to revive some played out "feud" or even prove some point. No, Bryant is simply practicing what he has always preached and lived by: his primary focus is to make sure that he is in shape and on the court during the basketball season. That is why he has played through a variety of injuries during his career, only sitting out when it was simply impossible to get on the court, in marked contrast to O'Neal's annual extended in-season vacations. Keep in mind that LeBron James missed five regular season games last year with a much more minor finger injury than the one Bryant suffered in February (Bryant did not miss any games and, other than the game immediately following the injury, his level of performance did not decline). Paul Pierce left an NBA Finals game in a wheelchair only to miraculously reappear moments later. In contrast, it is no exaggeration to say that you would literally have to drag Bryant off of the court to keep him from playing. In a January 12, 2004 game versus Cleveland, Bryant sprained his right shoulder (which had been surgically repaired the previous summer) but he convinced Coach Phil Jackson to put him back in the game; Bryant tried to play with just one arm before Jackson finally took him out of the game. Just months earlier, Bryant played the final 10 playoff games of 2003 with torn tissue in his right shoulder socket (Bryant averaged 32.1 ppg in 12 playoff games after averaging 30.0 ppg in the regular season; both numbers were career-highs for him at that time).

There have been some stupid--yet very predictable--responses to Bryant's announcement. Let's play "Myths and Facts":

1) Myth: The fact that Bryant is not having surgery proves that this is a minor injury.

Fact: Bryant has a completely torn ligament in his pinkie finger, plus an avulsion fracture. In layman's terms, that means that the ligament tore so violently that it ripped away pieces of bone from the finger. The reason for the tape job that Bryant wears when he plays is that without something to take up the slack for the ligament his finger would simply droop to the side. During All-Star Weekend--shortly after Bryant initially injured the finger--I spoke with Bryant about the extent of the damage:

I asked Bryant if his doctors have discussed with him the possibility that he may permanently damage the finger if he elects to forgo surgery and play out the rest of the season. He replied, “No, I’ll just be the cool grandfather who can stretch his pinkie all the way out to here (gestures to the side). There is no ligament there holding it in. I got lucky. This knuckle right here (points to the base of the finger) was down here (points midway down his hand) but I didn’t hurt this one (points to the middle of his pinkie finger). So I’m not going to have any damage or any fingers that look like Larry Bird’s.” He added that the most painful part of the injury happened when trainer Gary Vitti pulled it back into place, a moment of agony that was captured on national television. “After that, it felt like the finger just wasn’t there. It felt like a spaghetti noodle,” Bryant concluded.

2) Myth: Bryant is using/has used/will use this injury as an "excuse" for his performance.

Fact: I defy anyone to find an example of Bryant publicly mentioning his finger injury other than in a direct response to someone's question about it.

As explained above, Bryant was diagnosed with a torn ligament and an avulsion fracture months ago; it is ridiculous for anyone to act as if Bryant is faking or trying to make some excuse for his performance. The injury is not painful on a constant basis but whenever the finger is struck Bryant gets that numb "spaghetti noodle" feeling for a few minutes. Bryant could have gotten the finger fixed this summer but then he would have missed playing in the Olympics. My guess is that if he makes it through this season and the playoffs unscathed then he will have surgery on the finger as soon as the Lakers are finished playing next summer. If you consider Bryant's injury minor, then I suggest you whack yourself on your right hand hard enough to cause a torn ligament with an avulsion fracture and then see how well you are able to go about your day to day activities for a period of months without having surgery. Obviously, this is not equivalent to blowing out an ACL--an injury that has to be surgically repaired to resume playing competitive sports--but Bryant's willingness and ability to play through this injury--and to do so at a high level--is commendable.

3) Myth: Bryant timed his announcement to draw attention away from Andrew Bynum's return to health.

Fact: The L.A. Times reported about Bynum's status on September 6. Bryant made his announcement about forgoing surgery three days later. When exactly would have been the "right" time for Bryant to make his announcement? Anyone who thinks that Bryant did anything other than consult with various doctors, make a decision and then announce it is simply looking for reasons to criticize him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM


Hall of Fame Pictures, Part II

Courtesy of Michelle Royce Williams, here are two more images from Saturday's Hall of Fame Induction Celebration, hosted by the Mohegan Sun. The first picture shows a contemplative Pat Riley, while in the second picture six of the seven members of the 2008 Basketball Hall of Fame class show off their new rings (William Davidson is not pictured); left to right are John Doleva (president of the Basketball Hall of Fame), Adrian Dantley, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dick Vitale, Cathy Rush and Pat Riley.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:04 AM


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hall of Fame Pictures

These images from Saturday's Hall of Fame Induction Celebration, hosted by the Mohegan Sun, are provided courtesy of Michelle Royce Williams. The first picture features Dick Vitale and his wife Lorraine, while the second picture features Patrick Ewing and his son Patrick Ewing, Jr. A crowd of nearly 1500 people in the Uncas Ballroom saw the entire 2008 Hall of Fame class receive their Hall of Fame rings. Each new Hall of Famer also brought a loved one on stage to share some stories with the audience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:30 AM


Monday, September 08, 2008

William Davidson Should Have Said More About Isiah Thomas--Or Less

Shortly before William Davidson was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Mitch Albom conducted a lengthy interview with the only owner who has won championships in three professional sports leagues (three NBA titles with the Pistons, two WNBA titles with the Shock and one NHL title with the Lightning). Davidson offered interesting, intelligent and insightful takes on a wide range of subjects but his comments about Isiah Thomas made me wish that he had either said a lot more--or a little less:

"I was very, very close to Isiah, and there were times he was almost like a son. But, because of his background, um...I told him he had to change--you know, coming from where he came from. I said, 'You've got it made now. Don't keep doing those things that you've been doing.' I won't tell you what they are. But he couldn't change...We just come from different backgrounds. He had to fight his way up, and I didn't have the problems he had growing up. There's a lot of good things about Isiah, but when we had our parting, it was over something pretty substantial."

The "parting" Davidson mentioned refers to the fact that after Thomas retired as a player Davidson did not offer him the position in the Pistons' front office that Thomas seemed destined to occupy; of course, that job has been very capably filled by Joe Dumars. Later in the interview, Davidson told Albom that he had reached out to Thomas about five years ago to clear the air, concluding, "We're the best of friends today." That may be true, but Davidson really did a disservice to Thomas by leveling an accusation that is at once serious-sounding but also very vague. Was Davidson referring to something as relatively innocuous as Thomas' communication style or was he talking about something darker and more sinister? Since Davidson offered no specifics, that void is sure to be filled by careless, rampant speculation. This reminds me of when the Cleveland Cavaliers traded Ron Harper for Danny Ferry because of rumors and speculation about the company Harper was keeping. Harper never got in trouble and ended up playing on six championship teams during his 15 year NBA career. Sometimes, an employer has quite valid concerns about a person's character, conduct and/or associates but it is a mistake to take drastic action based just on rumors. The questions about Harper turned out to be unfounded and trading him away proved to be a big mistake that may have cost the Cavs a chance to win a championship.

The general public does not have a very high opinion of Thomas at the moment, so the reaction to Davidson's comments by Detroit fans may be either "So what?" or "Good riddance" but that still does not make it right for Davidson to put Thomas' name in a negative light without making a specific allegation that Thomas could refute if he so desired. Davidson could have either simply said, "I had planned to hire Isiah after he retired but then I decided to go in a different direction" or he could have offered up a more precise explanation of what made him reconsider his plans. Whatever you may think of Thomas as a person or as an NBA executive, put yourself in his shoes for a moment: if you gave your heart and soul to your employer for more than a decade and twice helped your employer reach the pinnacle of the profession--in this case, a pair of NBA championships--regardless of whatever your flaws may be wouldn't you be hurt and disappointed if that employer not only reneged on a previous understanding to give you a bigger role in the organization but then publicly cast aspersions on your character?

William Davidson is a great man who has done a lot of wonderful things for Detroit, the NBA and with his numerous philanthropic endeavors but in this instance his words about Isiah Thomas could have been more carefully and thoughtfully chosen.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 AM