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Friday, March 06, 2009

LeBron's Long Range Accuracy

LeBron James has shot 12-19 (.632) from three point range in his last three games, increasing his three point percentage for the season to .342, which is nearly a career-high. My newest article for CavsNews.com takes a closer look at LeBron James' perimeter shooting this season compared to the first five years of his career:

LeBron’s Long Range Accuracy

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:51 PM

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Good Deal for Spurs

The Spurs bolstered their frontcourt with the addition of free agent 6-10 forward/center Drew Gooden, whose rights were recently renounced by the Sacramento Kings shortly after they acquired him in a trade with the Chicago Bulls. Even better for the Spurs, they did not have to give up a rotation player to sign him and, presumably, his salary will not seriously impact their salary cap situation (consistent with usual team policy, the Spurs did not announce the terms of Gooden's contract).

Gooden is averaging 13.1 ppg and 8.7 rpg this season while shooting .460 from the field, numbers that are right in line with his career norms (12.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg, .470 field goal percentage). He can make the faceup jumper or hit a nice turnaround shot from the post. He rebounds well and, even though his assist numbers don't necessarily show it, he is a decent passer when so inclined. Gooden is not a great individual defender but he started in Cleveland for Mike Brown--a Gregg Popovich disciple--on a team that made it to the 2007 NBA Finals, so it should not be hard for Gooden to quickly learn San Antonio's defensive system.

Popovich likes to pair Tim Duncan with another seven footer to wall off the paint on defense but this season he has yet to really find a fully satisfactory frontcourt rotation. Matt Bonner is a lights out shooter but he gives up a lot defensively. Kurt Thomas is solid defensively but is a limited minutes player at this stage of his career. Fabricio Oberto played an important role on the 2007 championship team but seems to have fallen out of favor. This means that if Gooden picks up the system quickly and stays healthy then it would not be surprising to see him get significant minutes and maybe even join the starting lineup.

Although the Gooden signing is good for the Spurs--and could even be interpreted as being good for the league in terms of potentially making the playoffs more competitive--it has to be frustrating for fans of "have not" teams to watch the "haves" get good players on the cheap while their teams seem to be doing nothing more than cutting costs and praying that they hit the Draft Lottery jackpot.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:49 AM

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

"The Formula That Killed Wall Street": A Cautionary Tale for Anyone Who Places Too Much Value on Basketball Statistical Analysis

I have written several articles that are critical of the methods used in basketball statistical analysis, including a post titled Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis. Some of the most prominent proponents of basketball statistical analysis are economists by trade and they apply the methodologies and techniques used in that field to try to quantify what happens on the basketball court. Let me make it quite clear that I am entirely in favor of trying to better quantify and measure the effectiveness of basketball players and teams; what I object to is the haughty contentions by some people in this field that they have already succeeded in accurately making such measurements. Basketball statistical analysis provides some interesting tools that can assist anyone who is trying to compare players and teams but there are limitations to what the numbers alone can accurately depict.

Basketball statistical analysis and new video technology have already made for a good marriage in terms of helping teams to more easily produce accurate scouting reports depicting the tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of players and teams. It is now possible to quickly break down game film (or, to be precise, game DVD) and catalog what happened on every pick and roll play, every out of bounds play, every postup and so forth. Most if not all teams are already applying some form of statistical analysis to the tendencies that emerge from game footage and this obviously represents a quantum leap forward in terms of game planning. Cavaliers assistant coach Hank Egan called this "corporate knowledge" when I interviewed him more than three years ago and he said that technological improvements have helped to increase the sophistication of defensive play in the NBA.

The problem is when some people invent certain formulas in which they add up some numbers, multiply other numbers by certain factors, subtract some other numbers and then produce a final number that supposedly "rates" a player's overall performance. It should be obvious that this "rating" is limited by several factors: the accuracy of the original boxscore data, whether or not the additions, multiplications and subtractions correctly value what a player does and, perhaps most importantly of all, the fact that not everything that a player does on the court is captured numerically. I have yet to see any of these stat gurus say that Player X is rated 33.4 with a margin of error of +/- 2.5 points; the stat gurus don't even mention a margin of error because they could not begin to calculate one: they are not performing scientific measurements like a biologist or an astrophysicist--they are massaging basketball statistics in a way that they find appealing and that they believe to be correct (or that will produce conclusions that fit in with their own preconceptions and will be easy to market to book publishers or in other forms of media).

It is interesting that, until fairly recently, economists believed that they had created a formula that--as Wired author Felix Salmon writes in Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street--"allowed hugely complex risks to be modeled with more ease and accuracy than ever before." Salmon explains that David X. Li's "Gaussian copula function" formula "made it possible for traders to sell vast quantities of new securities, expanding financial markets to unimaginable levels. His method was adopted by everybody from bond investors and Wall Street banks to ratings agencies and regulators. And it became so deeply entrenched—and was making people so much money—that warnings about its limitations were largely ignored." Li's formula provided "a brilliant simplification of an intractable problem," enabling financial analysts to plug in some data and derive "one clean, simple, all-sufficient figure that sums up everything." The problem is that "people used the Gaussian copula model to convince themselves they didn't have any risk at all, when in fact they just didn't have any risk 99 percent of the time. The other 1 percent of the time they blew up. Those explosions may have been rare, but they could destroy all previous gains, and then some." The economic mess that we are all struggling through now is one of those "1 percent explosions."

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, who I quoted in my Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis post, told Salmons, "People got very excited about the Gaussian copula because of its mathematical elegance, but the thing never worked. Co-association between securities is not measurable using correlation. Anything that relies on correlation is charlatanism."

Salmon concludes, "In the world of finance, too many quants (quantitative analysts) see only the numbers before them and forget about the concrete reality the figures are supposed to represent. They think they can model just a few years' worth of data and come up with probabilities for things that may happen only once every 10,000 years. Then people invest on the basis of those probabilities, without stopping to wonder whether the numbers make any sense at all."

This is very analogous to the current situation with basketball statistical analysis; too many of its practitioners "see only the numbers before them and forget about the concrete reality the figures are supposed to represent." They do not have the wisdom or humility to admit that their simple, pretty formulas represent just one, limited interpretation of raw data.

A Wired article titled Road Map for Financial Recovery: Radical Transparency Now! contains a parable that very aptly describes the flaws in the methods used by some basketball statistical analysts:

As (Christopher) Cox sees it, that massive computational power has primarily been used by financial engineers, who create abstract models of how the market should operate and make bets based on those models. "You know Borges, the writer?" Cox asks. "He wrote those fantastical short stories. He has one called On Exactitude in Science." The parable tells of a kingdom obsessed with creating a perfect map of itself—an essentially useless quest that leads them to draw a map that is the same size as the territory it is supposed to represent. Cox sees the story as a metaphor for the modern financial industry, which is so obsessed with modeling the market that it has lost sight of the data beneath those models.

Basketball statistical analysts do not yet have all of the necessary data to completely "model" the sport, nor do they fully understand how to use the data that they have. Trying to produce such a model is certainly a worthy task--but I just wish that the people who are working toward this goal would stop declaring "Mission Accomplished!" when the reality is that they are in the beginning or intermediate stages of that mission.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:07 AM

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA

During Tuesday night's edition of NBA Coast to Coast, Tim Legler and Jalen Rose did an on court demonstration of the defensive adjustment that the Cleveland Cavaliers used to hold Dwyane Wade to 2-8 fourth quarter shooting in Cleveland's 107-100 win on Monday. Wade still finished with 41 points on 16-30 shooting and he also had nine assists, seven rebounds and seven steals, but he made a bid for an odd (and unprecedented) quintuple double with his eight turnovers. LeBron James scored 42 points on 13-21 shooting--including 6-7 from three point range--and he contributed eight rebounds and four assists, though he also had a high number of turnovers (six).

James figured prominently in Cleveland's fourth quarter defense against Wade: as Legler and Rose explained, early in the game the Cavs simply "showed" hard with a big man when the Heat ran screen/roll plays for Wade but Wade used his quickness to blow by whichever Cleveland big man trapped him and get into the paint. So, Cleveland countered in the final stanza by sending James to trap Wade before the screen could even be set. This forced Wade to dribble away from James, kept Wade out of the paint and helped the Cavs to outscore Miami 31-18 in the fourth quarter en route to a come from behind road win.

Rose made a very important point while demonstrating/talking about James trapping Wade: James stands 6-8, while Wade is listed at 6-4, so Wade cannot see over or around James to even try to make a pass. If the situation were reversed and Wade trapped James, then James could just pass right over his head, as Rose showed with Legler "guarding" him (Rose and Legler are roughly the same heights as James and Wade respectively).

I've consistently maintained since last season that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the two best players in the NBA but some people think that Wade and Chris Paul should be in that discussion. Wade and Paul are both great players but one disadvantage that they have versus Bryant and James is height: James is 6-8 and Bryant is 6-6, while Wade is 6-4 and Paul is just 6-0. I've stood next to all four players and can honestly say that, if anything, James and Bryant seem taller (and bigger) than their listed sizes, while Wade and Paul certainly are not taller than they are listed and may be slightly smaller (I'm not convinced that Wade is a legit 6-4, unless I've grown since the last time I was measured, which seems highly doubtful). Obviously, height alone does not matter unless you can actually play but at an elite level even the slightest advantage makes a difference. James is so big--the same size as Karl Malone was during his prime--that he can legitimately play power forward, while Bryant is big enough to play small forward; as Rose and Legler indicated, it is much tougher to trap a bigger player because he can simply see right over the help defender.

From my perspective, Wade is a mini-James: they have similar skill set strengths (explosiveness, court vision, finishing in the paint) and share the same major weakness (outside shooting). However, I'd take Bryant or James over Wade unless or until Wade's skill set is markedly better than theirs, because Wade's height is a disadvantage.

As for Chris Paul, in the history of the NBA the only time that someone who is roughly Paul's size has been the best player on a championship team was when Isiah Thomas led the Bad Boys Pistons in 1989 and 1990. Paul is the best point guard in the league and should make the All-NBA First Team but I don't see how anyone could take him over Bryant or James. Thomas admitted that during his playing days he never worried about his diminutive stature but that one time he was at a banquet with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (who are each 6-9) and he thought to himself "Damn, they're big" and he wondered how he really had managed to compete with them at a championship level; Chuck Daly, Detroit's Coach during the Bad Boys era, said that if Thomas had been 6-6 then he might have been the greatest player ever. However, Thomas is not 6-6 and, as great as he was, he was not a better or more dominant player than Bird, Magic or Michael Jordan (who is 6-6)--and the same thing is true today of Paul vis a vis Bryant and James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM

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Forward Thinking: Position Switch Boosts Durant's Game

Literally from day one, I insisted that Kevin Durant should be used at small forward, not shooting guard. It did not surprise me that the first move Scott Brooks made after replacing P.J. Carlesimo as Oklahoma City's Coach was to switch Durant from shooting guard back to his natural position--and it definitely has not surprised me that Durant's game took off as soon as he was placed back in his comfort zone.

Here is an examination of what Durant's career arc tells us not only about him but also about the NBA game in general:


Kevin Durant is having an excellent second season, averaging 26.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 2.9 apg while shooting .487 from the field and ranking 10th in the NBA with a .436 three-point field goal percentage. He looks like a completely different player than he did during his rookie season.

There are two reasons why he has improved so much: (1) Scott Brooks replaced P.J. Carlesimo as Oklahoma City's coach early in the season and Brooks' first move was to immediately switch Durant back to his natural small forward position instead of deploying Durant at shooting guard; (2) Durant did not listen to all of the overheated praise showered on him before he even played one regular season game but instead he put in the necessary work during last offseason to address his skill set weaknesses relative to playing at the NBA level.

In his one and only collegiate season at the University of Texas, Durant averaged 25.8 ppg and 11.1 rpg, earning recognition as the consensus Player of the Year. Although he had a slender build and a nice outside shooting touch, Durant had never played guard, but after Durant was drafted by Seattle, Carlesimo switched him to shooting guard. Adjusting to the NBA is tough enough for a rookie anyway--let alone a 19-year old--so it made no sense to take Durant out of his comfort zone, as I wrote at that time:

Maybe some people have visions of Durant being the 21st century version of George Gervin, a slender forward who moved to guard early in his pro career and won four scoring titles -- but there are some important differences to consider between Gervin and Durant. Gervin started his career at his natural position of forward and proved that he could rebound, draw fouls and even block shots, averaging 8.4 rpg, 6.3 FTA/g and 1.6 bpg in his first full ABA season (Gervin played just 30 games as a rookie after the Virginia Squires discovered him in the middle of the season while he was playing in the minor league Eastern Basketball Association).

San Antonio Spurs Coach Bob Bass moved Gervin to guard late in Gervin's third season, after Gervin had already established himself as an All-Star forward...Durant clearly needs to put on some weight but that will be true regardless of which position he plays. I think that he and Seattle would be better served if he takes his lumps at his natural small forward position where he will at least be in the comfort zone of playing in areas of the court that are familiar to him.

Bill Simmons, Rick Kamla and others breathlessly raved about Durant before he had even played in one regular season game, projecting that he would be an instant star, but after watching Durant struggle during the 2007 summer league I cautioned, "He may very well score 20-plus ppg out of necessity because Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are gone but he will likely have to do it on a high volume of shots with a low degree of accuracy." I also wrote, "If all Durant hears is how great he is going to be then what incentive is he going to have to work on his game?"

I suggested that Durant needed to work on his rebounding, passing, ballhandling and three-point shooting and that he would be much better suited to playing his natural position of forward as opposed to switching to guard.

Durant's rookie-year performance as a shooting guard confirmed that my initial assessments had been correct: he averaged 20.3 ppg while shooting .430 from the field and just .288 from three point range. He did not rebound or pass particularly well--averaging 4.4 rpg and 2.4 apg--and he really struggled on defense.

Durant scored fewer than 20 points in six of his first 13 games this season. He shot .429 or worse from the field in seven of those 13 games. Then, Oklahoma City fired Carlesimo and replaced him with Brooks, who immediately shifted Durant back to forward.

In his first 12 games after returning to his natural position, Durant averaged 24.7 ppg and 6.3 rpg while shooting .466 from the field and .511 from three point range, a marked across the board improvement from his rookie numbers. Durant scored fewer than 20 points in only three of those games and only shot worse than .429 from the field four times.

He also had 10 or more rebounds in a game three times in those 12 games after reaching that level only once in his rookie season. Durant averaged 25.1 ppg and 7.7 rpg in December, 27.8 ppg and 8.8 rpg in January and 30.6 ppg and 6.3 rpg in February. His field-goal percentage in those months climbed from .472 to .494 to .538 and his three point field goal percentage went from .419 to .396 to .514.

I spoke with Durant just prior to his second game at small forward and he told me, "I hadn't played guard until my rookie year; that is the only year I played guard in my entire life...Playing against the smaller guys, guarding them on defense, and then having little guys who could reach up under me and guard me--it was an adjustment. It was something I had to go through but I'm glad I'm at my natural position now."

I also asked Durant what parts of his game he had worked on during the offseason and he replied, "Just everything--getting stronger, my post-up game, my ballhandling. Everything. I think that I did a good job on working on that and I just have to continue to work to become better."

I concluded that article with these hopeful words:

Durant is an earnest, soft spoken and likable person and I can honestly say that I hope he does succeed in becoming a great player--but with his body type and skill set I think that he has his work cut out for him to become as great as some people projected. Jeff Van Gundy recently called Durant a disappointment but in my opinion that says more about overheated expectations than it does about what should realistically have been expected of Durant by this stage. Moving Durant to small forward is a big step in the right direction that I predict will pay noticeable dividends, possibly as soon as the end of this season.

Durant's brief career arc instructively illustrates some important things to understand about the NBA game:

* Contrary to what some talking/screaming heads insist, few players are truly "superstars" or "phenomenons" right after they enter the league.

* Durant's path toward becoming an excellent NBA player was not something that was preordained or destined; he made it happen by continuing to work on the very skill set weaknesses that most commentators ignored during the 2007 summer league.

* In order for any player to reach his full potential, he needs to have the right coach and the right teammates around him; if Carlesimo were still coaching Oklahoma City and playing Durant at shooting guard then most likely Van Gundy--and many others--would be continuing to express "disappointment" about Durant's game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:28 AM

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Bill Tosheff: NBA Co-Rookie of the Year and Tireless Advocate for the "Pre-1965ers" (Part II)

Bill Tosheff's life story reads like an improbable movie script: four sport star in high school, member of a B-17 bomber crew in World War II, baseball and basketball teammate of future baseball Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn while both did military service in Alaska, captain of Indiana University's 19-3 basketball team in 1951, member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, NBA co-Rookie of the Year in 1951-52 and minor league baseball pitcher who rubbed shoulders with Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway. Those accomplishments and experiences are special but for the past two decades Tosheff has been involved in a project that is even more meaningful because it has enabled him to increase the quality of life of many of the players who laid the foundation for the modern NBA: Tosheff has been a relentless advocate fighting for the pension rights of retired NBA players, particularly the players who were arbitrarily excluded from the league's pension program because their careers ended prior to 1965. Tosheff has spent more than $150,000 of his own money and devoted countless hours to writing letters, making calls and testifying before Congress in order to cajole, shame and persuade the NBA to do what it should have done in the first place of its own volition: set aside a comparatively small amount of money to help out the pioneers who literally created the league and made it possible for today's commissioner, league executives, coaches and players to become fabulously wealthy. Tosheff never minced words or backed down and he repeatedly has said that the NBA delayed dealing with this issue for a simple, ghoulish reason: "Death cures a lot of things." Tosheff was originally fighting for the rights of about 85 players; more than half of the members of that group are now deceased. In 2007, Tosheff's efforts paid off when the NBA finally expanded its pension program to include the "Pre-1965ers."

Tosheff is currently battling to get official recognition for the NBA's first five Rookies of the Year (Paul Hoffman in 1948, Howie Shannon in 1949, Alex Groza in 1950, Paul Arizin in 1951 and Bill Tosheff/Mel Hutchins in 1952). The league stubbornly insists that the Rookie of the Year award was not formally "sanctioned" until 1953, but Tosheff has documentation proving that he and the other early Rookie of the Year winners were recognized as such during that time and should be included in the Official NBA Guide.

This year, the NBA made a gesture of reconciliation toward Tosheff by inviting him and several guests (including family members and some of the other "Pre-1965ers") to an expenses-paid trip to All-Star Weekend in Phoenix. The league provided a suite at U.S. Airways Center for Tosheff and his group to watch the All-Star Game. I met Tosheff for the first time at this year's
Legends Brunch and he invited me to watch the game with him from his suite. We talked a bit about his playing career and his long battle for the rights of the "Pre-1965ers" and I told him that I wanted to arrange an interview so that we could discuss these subjects at greater length. I spoke with Tosheff recently and learned more about his life, his multi-sport career and his advocacy for the "Pre-1965ers."

Part I focused on the "Pre-1965ers," Tosheff's World War II experiences and his Indiana University basketball career; Part II discusses Tosheff's ongoing fight to gain official recognition for the NBA's early Rookies of the Year, his minor league baseball experiences in Cuba with Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro and what Tosheff thinks of the modern NBA game:


1951-52 NBA Co-Rookie of the Year

Friedman: "You were the 1951-52 NBA co-Rookie of the Year. Nowadays the voting is done by the media. Who selected the Rookie of the Year when you won? Was the voting done by the media or by the players? Also, why doesn't the NBA 'officially' acknowledge the Rookie of the Year winners prior to 1953, when Don Meineke won the award?"

Tosheff: "If you go back and look at the second edition of the NBA Encyclopedia, you will find that all of us (pre-1953 Rookie of the Year award winners) are in there. That is a very unusual thing. I am talking right now to Joel Litvin, the attorney for the NBA, about this very situation. I kind of had let it lie for a while. The (Rookie of the Year) voting had been done by the newspaper guys back East. After the 1951-52 NBA season was over, we had a big party and (Indianapolis Olympians) Coach Herm Schaefer presented me with a ring and said that I had been selected as the co-Rookie of the Year, with Mel Hutchins. Then I went on to baseball spring training, because I was playing both sports--six months NBA, six months pro baseball.

What happened was, when the National Basketball League was formed in 1937 it lasted for nine years (before) the BAA (Basketball Association of America) came in with Maurice Podoloff as the commissioner (in 1946). He wanted to fill the dark hockey arenas back East with basketball. That is how the BAA started, so now you had a rivalry between the BAA and the NBL, raiding each other for players until they merged in 1949, becoming the NBA. Well, the first Rookie of the Year was not in 1946 but in 1947-48, Paul Hoffman. Then came a guy named Howie Shannon (1948-49, Providence Steamrollers). Then there was Alex Groza (1949-50, Indianapolis Olympians), in the first year that the NBA was formed. Paul Arizin (1950-51, Philadelphia Warriors) won it the next year and then (in 1951-52) Mel Hutchins (Milwaukee Hawks) and I were the first co-Rookies of the Year. So, all of us were put in the 1994-95 Official NBA Guide (Note: I own a copy of that book and a copy of each of the subsequent editions and I can confirm that what Tosheff says is true; the 1948-52 RoYs were listed in the 1995 edition and then were not listed after that). The next year, that listing disappeared and I wondered what the hell was going on. So I called up this guy named Jan Hubbard and he said that those awards weren't 'sanctioned.' I asked him what kind of 'sanction' he wanted.

I maintain that we deserve to be in there and that is what I am working on right now. They brought Meineke in from 1953 (as the first 'official' Rookie of the Year) and he always teases me about that. But, I've got documentation in the form of a letter from Alex Sachare, who was the VP of history for the NBA. He sent me a personal letter that indicated that according to his research all of us were Rookies of the Year. I called him about this and asked him to jump in because he is the one whose research proved that we are all 'official,' but he did not want to get involved because he is doing part time work for the NBA and does not want to upset the apple cart. I just sent a long letter to Joel Litvin about this."

(Here is part of the text of Tosheff's letter to Litvin, as narrated to me by Tosheff:

"I have a running issue for years with the historical department of the NBA regarding the Rookies of the Year. Alex Sachare wrote me a letter dated July 26, 1994. He was then Vice President/Editorial for the NBA. This is what he wrote:

'Dear Mr. Tosheff, I just want to let you know that you and Mel Hutchins will be listed as co-winners of the NBA's Rookie of the Year award for the 1951-52 season in two upcoming publications: the 1995 Official NBA Guide to be published by the Sporting News in October and the second edition of the Official NBA Basketball Encyclopedia to be published by Villard Books in November. Following your letter and phone calls, I had a historical researcher verify early award winners and he verified not only that you shared the award in 1951-52 but also the winners for the four years prior to that as well: Paul Hoffman (1947-48), Howie Shannon (1948-49), Alex Groza (1949-50), Paul Arizin (1950-51). This information will be included in both books so our list will extend back five years further than before. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I am glad that we are able to restore another piece of NBA history. Sincerely, Alex Sachare, VP.'

I wrote Alex back and thanked him for his work. The next thing I saw was that in the following year all of our names were omitted from the NBA Media Guide. I immediately called Jan Hubbard and discussed our status. He confirmed that he would once again reinsert our names. I asked that he message me by letter stating that he would do so but he declined to write me the letter of confirmation and simply let things lay. I have all of the facts relative to this situation--letters included--and I ask if you will review something that should have remained...I will not rest at age 82 until proper credit is given to those who are deserving."
)

Friedman: "I don't understand why the NBA does some of the things that they do. A whole other issue that does not affect you is why don't they count ABA statistics?"

Tosheff: "That's true. Let me tell you about another one: What about the ABL (statistics)? A lot of the guys who played in the NBA played in the ABL. It is because it (the ABL) was a controversial thing that started way back (in 1961) with Abe Saperstein. The NBA didn't like that because he departed from the norm.

Jan Hubbard, who is no longer employed by the NBA, made 46 mistakes a couple years ago and they fired him. That tells you a little bit."

Friedman: "He made 46 mistakes in the NBA Encyclopedia?"

Tosheff: "Yeah, with historical stuff. That's what I heard."

Friedman: "The NBA should list the names of those Rookie of the Year winners. Even if they feel like they have to accompany the list with some explanation about 'official' versus 'unofficial'--I'm not sure if you would like that or not--but there is no reason not to list the names."

Tosheff: "That's true. The Indianapolis Times wrote--before this all happened (with the players being listed in the 1995 NBA Guide and then removed the next year)--that if Bill Tosheff is not the co-Rookie of the Year then that title has lost its meaning. A lot of writers have said that--New York writers and so forth--because they know I was pretty damn good my rookie year."

Friedman: "When I first met you, you showed me a ring. Was that your Rookie of the Year ring?"

Tosheff: "Yes, it was. It was given to me by (Indianapolis Olympians Coach) Herm Schaefer that night at the (end of the season) party when I was told that I was Rookie of the Year. It was not given by the NBA but it was given by our team owners. The interesting thing is that after I woke up the next day after our party my ring was missing. I didn't know what the hell had happened to the ring, because we had been drinking a little bit. So I just let it go. Thirty seven years later, I got a letter in the mail with a little box. It said, 'Tosh, sit down you are not going to believe what you are going to read.' It was written by a little gal named Sandy. It said that her Mom had died, her Dad had died, her dog had died and so she and her husband were redoing their house. I had rented a room there on the second floor (decades ago). When they took the vents off in the basement to redo the furnace setup, they heard a clank on the floor. A worker picked up the ring and gave it to her. She cleaned it up and on one side it said 'William Tosheff Indianapolis Olympians' and on the other side it said 'Rookie of the Year 1952.' That ring sat down there for 37 years."

Friedman: "Your Rookie of the Year ring was missing for 37 years?"

Tosheff: "Yep. Thirty seven years. She took it to a jeweler who refaced it and added the NBA logo that came into effect in 1975, which was Jerry West."

Friedman: "That's amazing, that your ring turned up after such a long time."

Tosheff: "Yeah, she was 11 years old at that time."

Friedman: "You ranked first or second on your team in assists in each of your three NBA seasons and you twice ranked in the top ten in the NBA in free throw percentage. Why did you only play in the NBA for three seasons?"

Tosheff: "Very simple--I played for a guy who I didn't like. Indianapolis folded after the point shaving scandal (regarding the actions of Ralph Beard and Alex Groza when they had played at the University of Kentucky) because we lost our stars Beard and Groza; if we had had those guys we would have won the NBA championship, because we had been kicking everyone's butt in the exhibition season. After our team disbanded, Milwaukee picked me up. The Milwaukee Hawks (who later became the St. Louis Hawks and are currently known as the Atlanta Hawks) were owned by Ben Kerner, who had 19 different coaches during his career as an owner in the NBA. To me, he was a real snake and very tough to work with. After the 1953-54 season (Tosheff's first year with the Hawks), when I came in to sign my contract after playing summer baseball he tried to cut (my salary) so I said, 'Give me your pen' and I signed it and then I said 'Put me on the voluntarily retired list.' Why? I'd already been in the military, I'd already received my college degree and I'd already played at a top level in the NBA. How was I going to get out of my chair at 50 years old? And for this kind of money? It's not worth it; I made that decision. He said, 'You need me,' but three days later I was in South America playing winter baseball in Cartagena, Colombia. For three months, I almost cried every day because I missed it (playing in the NBA) but I knew that I had made a good move. I'm 82 years old and if you look at the older guys (who had long NBA careers), they are all beat up."

Encountering Hemingway, Castro While Playing Minor League Baseball

Friedman: "I understand that when you played in the Florida International League you met Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Casto."

Tosheff: "That's right. When I signed to play Triple A baseball with the Indianapolis Indians in 1952, my roommate was Herb Score. We lived together in an apartment. I played for them for one year and I opened up something like a little Dairy Queen store in Indianapolis to have a little fun. Then I got a call from (the) Milwaukee (Braves); they wanted me to go to Florida because they needed a pitcher for their Tampa team. I asked which teams were playing down there and they said Miami, Miami Beach, Jacksonville, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Havana, Cuba. I said, 'Cuba?' and they said 'Yes' and I said, 'I coming.' I gave my (Dairy Queen-like) business to my next door neighbor and told him to take care of it, jumped in my convertible with my dog and drove to Tampa.

We went to Cuba four or five times. I met Castro, who was studying to become a lawyer. He was a good baseball player. We played catch. He used to be at all of the games. We'd go down there for a four game series. By happenstance, I walked by the old plaza in Havana and there was a bar there called The Crystal Bar. I saw this white haired guy with a bunch of prostitutes hanging around him, calling him 'Papa.' He looked familiar. So I walked in and asked if he wanted a couple tickets to the baseball game that night. He kind of gruffly said, 'Ahh, sit down and have a taste with me.' He bought me a vodka; that is what he was drinking. I had a little taste of vodka. That was Hemingway."

Friedman: "Did you have a lengthy interaction with him or a conversation with him?"

Tosheff: "We talked a little bit and he came to the game that night. He loved the bull fights."

Friedman: "Was he really interested in baseball as well?"

Tosheff: "He was really interested in sports. I don't know if he was sober or not. I think that he worked all night long and drank all day."

Friedman: "Was Castro playing in the baseball league or he was just in the area?"

Tosheff: "No, no, he was just one of the guys who came to watch the games, a spectator who came there and we all kind of palled around together. There were four Cuban teams. We came in from the Florida International League to play these different teams."

An Expenses Paid Trip to All-Star Weekend, Comparing the NBA Then and Now

The NBA provided Tosheff, his family and several other guests an expenses-paid trip to All-Star Weekend and the opportunity to watch the game from a suite in U.S. Airways Arena. That does not make up for snubbing the "Pre-1965 Players" for so long but it still was a nice gesture by the league. I finished the interview by asking Tosheff about his 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend experience and the differences between the NBA today compared to when he played.

Friedman: "I know that the NBA paid to bring you and your whole family to All-Star Weekend. Had you been to All-Star Weekend before, particularly in recent years when it became such an extravaganza? Also, what was the whole experience like for you? I know that you were introduced at the Legends Brunch and made some other appearances, so what did you take away from the whole experience?"

Tosheff: "I was at the Vegas All-Star Weekend (2007). That is when they announced our pension, at the Legends Brunch that year.

What it (going to the 2009 All-Star Weekend in Phoenix) did for me is like putting the ice cream on top of the pie or the frosting on the cake. It was a lot of work; I have so many files and I have to go through them and get rid of some of them.

But, I used to email Mark Cuban a lot and one of his comments to me one time was, 'Well, if you are fighting for the three and four year guys what about the one and two year guys?' I said, 'What about them? In baseball if you go up to bat one time you are vested in the pension.' I used to have dialogue with him and he did not even know what my group was about. He never knew a damn thing about it. A lot of guys don't."

Friedman: "So, when he said that he was not encouraging you to fight for those one and two year guys; he was saying if the NBA includes the three and four year guys then where does it end? He was being critical of you."

Tosheff: "Yeah, I think so."

Friedman: "You played in the NBA and you obviously still follow the league to some extent. How has the NBA changed from when you were a player to what you see today and what do you think of today's game in general? Are there certain players or teams that you particularly like?"

Tosheff: "I respect greatly today's players. They are awesome athletes. They are very quick and the advent of the slam dunk has led to a lot of hype. I still champion the old school guys, the 'short pants guys' as I call them.

I just don't like to see the section in the sports pages called sports in the courts. Someone is always getting in trouble. I mean, Barkley's going to jail. That's crazy. We never had that kind of problem, except for the (college) point shaving scandal (in 1951). That was a bad deal.

I really appreciate watching today's players but everything is basically pick and roll and we started that a long time ago."

Friedman: "Is there a certain player or a certain team who you like to follow now?"

Tosheff: "I think LeBron James is awesome. I love Chris Paul. I'm a little guy and Chris Paul is pretty awesome with what he can do. There are a lot of good little guys out there. They're all good players but look at what they do now: they can carry the ball, while we had to have our hand on top of the ball. That makes a big difference. We never dribbled between our legs. Once in a while we'd pass behind our back. There was no slam dunk and we didn't have the 24 second clock."

Friedman: "I know that the dunk was banned for a period of time in college but the NBA never banned dunking; in your era wasn't dunking considered to be showing up your opponent and if you dunked then you would be undercut?"

Tosheff: "That was the mindset. In college ball, even in practice or warmups it was considered a technical foul if you slam dunked the ball."

Friedman: "I've seen this old tape of the Minneapolis Lakers--maybe it was just a promotional film or something--and most of the guys could dunk. I know that some people are under the mistaken impression that players from your era could not dunk."

Tosheff: "I could dunk. I could get two hands over the rim (at 6-1)."

Friedman: "People have this mistaken perception that players back in the day could not dunk."

Tosheff: "Most of the big guys, like Chamberlain or Lovellette, would finger roll the ball over the rim."

Friedman: "At some point, things changed. I know that Chamberlain had the finger roll but at some point he was dunking with regularity. My understanding is that things changed with him. Prior to Chamberlain, dunking in games was considered taboo or showboating but then Chamberlain started to do it and no one was really going to undercut him or mess with him."

(Terry Pluto's book Tall Tales has several interesting anecdotes about dunking in the NBA in the 1950s and 1960s. On page 16, Pluto wrote:

"As for dunking in games, if you were of sane mind you just didn't do it. 'Not unless you wanted to risk having someone tear your head off and hand it to you on the next play. Today it's showtime. Back then, it was showing a guy up,' said Alex Hannum, who started his long pro career in 1948."

Slater Martin told Pluto (p. 128), "(Bill) Russell was the first player to dunk regularly; he did it off lob passes from Cousy and he did it with little flamboyance. He just caught the ball and dunked it, no big deal, and we accepted that because it was Bill's shot. There was no finger pointing or talking like you see today. We didn't consider the dunk a skilled shot. If you could jump high, then you could throw the ball through the rim. So what?"

Oscar Robertson said to Pluto (p. 193), "I could dunk, dribble around my back and all that flashy stuff. I dunked once in high school and my coach got all over me, so I never did it again. Dunking is overrated, a showboat play. All the stars in my era could dunk, but we saw no reason to do it. We had too much respect for each other to try and dunk in each other's face."

In a later era, Julius Erving turned the dunk into an art form but he never finger pointed or showed anyone up and he always valued substance over style; he explained many times that to some people the dunk may seem like a flashy shot but he simply considered it to be a very high percentage shot and one that was not difficult for him because of his big hands and superior jumping ability. As Dick DeVenzio wrote about Erving on page 120 of his book Stuff Good Players Should Know, "He makes a lot of great plays. But his value, even more important to his team than all those spectacular dunks, is that he doesn't miss many dunks. He is consistent. On the plays where a spectacular dunk has a good chance of missing, Dr. J 'happens' not to try it at all. 'AH,' say the fans, 'he should've dunked that one.' But he doesn't dunk every chance he gets. He dunks the ones he can dunk and he doesn't attempt the ones he can not."

Red Auerbach called the dunk "the highest percentage shot in basketball" in this classic video, during which Erving emphasized that he always focused on "result first, then the effect is secondary.")

Tosheff: "If you research a little further back, you'll find out that one guy who really hyped the idea of the slam dunk and the 12 foot basket was Phog Allen. We played one game with a 12 foot basket in Minneapolis against Minneapolis during the 1953-54 season."

Friedman: "What did you think of that experiment? Dwight Howard just dunked on a 12 foot basket."

Tosheff: "I was sore in my chest and shoulders the next day. George Mikan missed his first 12 shots."

Friedman: "People have talked about raising the rim. Do you think that would be good for the game?"

Tosheff: "I think that people would get hurt. I think that with the way that they blow in there and dunk, all they'd have to do is step on somebody and that ankle is gone. What I'd really like to see is for one night in the league no one is allowed to slam dunk. See what happens."

Friedman: "I think that John Wooden has said that he would make the dunk worth one point instead of two."

Tosheff: "Good idea."

Friedman: "I don't think that will ever happen but it would be interesting to see."

Tosheff: "I think that we are getting closer to the international rules with the 19 foot lane. After all, it was because of Wilt Chamberlain that they widened the lane in the first place; in the early days, the lane was just six feet wide."

Further reading about Bill Tosheff and the "Pre-1965 Players":


Transcript of 1998 Congressional Hearing About Pension Fairness for NBA Pioneers

The Plight of the Pre-Pension Players

For years, about 85 elderly ex-players have been fighting to get NBA pensions. The response from the league and the union: Drop dead. Half of them have (June 28, 2005 Salon.com article by King Kaufman)

Give This Man an Assist (July 20, 2005 Boston Globe article by Peter May)

XNBA (official website for the "Pre-1965 Players")

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:20 AM

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Suns Eclipse Lakers Despite Bryant's 49 Points

Shaquille O'Neal seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in the Arizona desert. He followed up his 45 point performance in a 133-113 Phoenix win over Toronto on Friday with 33 points on 13-18 field goal shooting in a 118-111 victory over the league-leading L.A. Lakers. That is the most points that O'Neal has scored against his former team and the two game total of 78 points is his best output since he and Kobe Bryant were teammates; Bryant countered with 49 points on 18-38 field goal shooting while also grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds. Matt Barnes (26 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists), Leandro Barbosa (22 points, seven assists) and Grant Hill (17 points, six rebounds) provided O'Neal with plenty of help but the only Laker besides Bryant who made a significant contribution was Pau Gasol, who had 30 points on 12-18 field goal shooting; the other Lakers combined to shoot 12-38 from the field, including 2-9 by reserve guards Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar.

The Lakers lost their previous game 90-79 in Denver on Friday but they still own the best record in the NBA (48-12) and are eight games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs in the race for the number one seed in the Western Conference, so it is not like the sky is falling for them. This is only the third time this season that the Lakers have lost two games in a row and they have not lost three games in a row since January 23-27, 2008.

Still, it should be noted that even though commentators often lavish praise on the Lakers' depth, the struggles of their bench players are not a new development. I wrote about this on December 21 after the Lakers lost back to back games in Miami and Orlando; even at that relatively early stage of the season, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was already shifting his rotations and increasing Bryant's minutes because the Lakers' bench players simply were not productive enough.

Vujacic averaged 8.8 ppg while shooting .454 from the field and .437 from three point range last year; this year, those numbers have dropped to 5.6 ppg, .372 and .349. Farmar averaged 9.1 ppg while shooting .461 from the field and .371 from three point range last year; this year, he is averaging 7.3 ppg with shooting percentages of .418 and .350 respectively.

On Thursday, Coach Jackson said, "I haven't been happy with our younger guys out there. I don't think they're really feeding the system the way they have got to feed the system for everybody to stay happy. We really have to get that group stabilized."

The Lakers play two sub-.500 teams at home (Memphis and Minnesota) before a three game road trip takes them to Portland, Houston and San Antonio. Then the Lakers play three more home games before their last big road trip of the season, seven games in nine days to close out March and begin April. It would take a total collapse for them not to secure the top seed in the West but the Lakers' stated goal this season was to obtain homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, so every upcoming game is huge because the Lakers, Cavs and Celtics are only separated by 1.5 games in the standings.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:26 AM

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Rejuvenated Pistons Beat Celtics

Detroit's 105-95 victory at Boston was rich in subplots. The Celtics were without the services of Kevin Garnett for the fourth game in a row and the seventh time this season; this is the first time that they lost sans "The Big Ticket" in 2008-09 and they were 9-2 without him last season: the fact that they have gone 15-3 without Garnett during the past two seasons indicates just how talented the Celtics really are and how committed they are to playing solid defense even without their best defensive player.

The Pistons were also playing without a former league MVP: Allen Iverson missed his second consecutive game and the once floundering Pistons have now won two in a row on the road against two of the three best teams in the East (they beat Orlando on Friday). This season has been heaven on Earth for anyone who dislikes Iverson and/or wants to "prove" that Iverson is overrated. The Pistons have been in disarray all season long, so the simple minded look at the trade that sent Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess and conclude that Detroit's problems are all because of Iverson. Part of the problem is that these people do not even describe the trade correctly, let alone understand its impact; note that Iverson was swapped not straight up for Billups but also for McDyess. The Nuggets released McDyess but by league rule the Pistons had to wait a month to re-sign him and they went 9-8 while McDyess--their leading rebounder last season and again this season--was out of action.

In 2007-08, the Pistons went 59-23 using nine different starting lineups--but their main starting lineup (which included McDyess) went 46-17; this season, the Pistons have already used 12 different starting lineups, with no single grouping playing together for more than 13 games. The Pistons also fired Coach Flip Saunders in the offseason and replaced him with Michael Curry, who had never been a head coach in the NBA.

Any objective person with a reasonable amount of intelligence can look at the information in the preceding two paragraphs and understand that there are a variety of reasons that the Pistons are not as good as they were last year--but that has not stopped less objective/intelligent people from declaring that Iverson is the main villain in the Detroit drama.

Early in the game, ABC's Hubie Brown, perhaps the best NBA color commentator, offered this trenchant analysis of the Pistons' season, completely refuting the people who foolishly try to blame Iverson alone for all of the Pistons' woes:

Everything in basketball comes down to chemistry. This team--whether you say it's the lack of Chauncey Billups to take the big shots at the end of games and make the big free throws and three point plays--whatever the problem is, it is a team problem. It's not just Allen Iverson and it's not just Rip Hamilton. Let's look at the lack of production by the frontcourt people. They tried the young players here and it didn't work out. Now they have McDyess back in the lineup. But let's look at Rasheed Wallace; his numbers are down. Whatever the problem is, the offensive creativity by the coaching staff is not there. You can't be one of the best (point) differential teams in this league and win 59 games and then all of a sudden this year you're 29th in scoring and you have a minus (point) differential. There is more to this than just one player.

Also, during the Lakers-Suns telecast, Jeff Van Gundy completely rejected the notion that Iverson is solely to blame for Detroit's poor record and he sounded a cautionary note about the supposed culture change in Denver:

There have been a lot of changes there (in Detroit). There have been coaching changes and changes in rotations. Who is to blame for putting Rip Hamilton on the bench if he's better as a starter? That's not Allen Iverson's decision. That's a coaching decision.

Let's wait to coronate the Nuggets until they do something in the playoffs. They've had good seasons in the past and they've lost in the first round. To me, this idea of bashing Allen Iverson is way out of bounds, as if he is singularly the reason that the Pistons have struggled.


Shifting our focus to players who actually played in the game, Richard Hamilton was the best player on the court. As Van Gundy mentioned, Coach Curry had recently turned Hamiliton into a sixth man and the Pistons only went 4-12 with Hamilton coming off of the bench. Curry is apparently determined to keep starting Rodney Stuckey no matter how badly Stuckey plays--he was solid against Boston but played poorly in the 16 game slide--but with Iverson out of action Hamilton returned to the starting lineup and produced 25 points, a game-high nine assists and six rebounds. All five Detroit starters scored in double figures. Paul Pierce led Boston with 26 points on 11-20 shooting but Ray Allen (10 points on 2-10 shooting) and Rajon Rondo (eight points on 2-7 shooting) were MIA.

Stephon Marbury made his second appearance in a Boston uniform, finishing with 0 points on 0-3 shooting, three assists, two turnovers and four personal fouls in 12 minutes. He had a plus/minus number of +6 after posting a -7 plus/minus number in 13 minutes in Boston's 104-99 win over Indiana on Friday night. Let's take a closer look at Marbury's performance versus Detroit:

Marbury first entered the game at the start of the second quarter, with Boston leading 22-20. On his first possession, Hamilton shot a jumper right in Marbury's eye. The Celtics inbounded the ball to Marbury, but Will Bynum picked his pocket and cruised in for a layup. On the next possession, Marbury got an assist by feeding a cutting Pierce for a layup.

Marbury got his first foul trying to chase Hamilton around a screen. Then, less than two minutes after Bynum stripped Marbury one on one in the backcourt, Bynum stole the ball from him again. This time, Marbury fouled him and Bynum split a pair of free throws.

Marbury fed Powe for a layup/three point play to tie the score at 29. Later, Marbury took a low percentage, fadeaway jumper with plenty of time on the shot clock but Powe bailed him out by rebounding the miss and converting the putback.

Marbury struggled on defense no matter who he was assigned to guard, leading to open shots for a variety of Pistons and a high foul total for such limited minutes. The Pistons repeatedly isolated seldom used reserve Walter Herrmann on Marbury, leading to two easy baskets plus a foul by Mikki Moore when Moore came over to double team Herrmann. Herrmann made both of the resulting free throws, so when Marbury went back to the bench the Celtics trailed 39-37. He had made a couple decent passes but they were both plays that other guards on the roster could also have converted; meanwhile, Marbury missed both of his field goal attempts, committed two backcourt turnovers that led to three easy points and he was a defensive sieve. All of that added up to a -4 plus/minus number for Marbury in the first half. The Pistons expanded their lead to 55-47 by halftime.

The Celtics used suffocating defense to open the third quarter with a 12-0 run but the Pistons battled back to take a 77-70 lead by the time Marbury checked back in with just :25.7 remaining in the third quarter. The final possession of the quarter was an isolation play for Pierce, who was not able to score.

Marbury stayed in the game to start the fourth quarter but the Celtics made a significant adjustment; Eddie House handled the ball instead of Marbury, who simply spotted up in the corner. While that -4 plus/minus number is a pretty accurate indicator of Marbury's second quarter "contributions," his +6 plus/minus number in the fourth quarter is very deceptive. Marbury was involved in many plays in the second quarter and most of them were negative: as noted above, he lost the ball twice, took a bad shot and was ineffective defensively. On the other hand, he was largely an on court bystander when the Celtics rallied early in the fourth quarter. House not only took care of the ballhandling responsibilities but he drained two big three pointers as the Celtics used an 11-2 run to take an 81-79 lead. The Celtics were up 87-84 when Marbury went back to the bench for good with 6:03 remaining; in the fourth quarter he shot 0-1, had one assist and committed two fouls. Pierce and House did most of the heavy lifting, while Marbury was not involved in the offensive action and continued to struggle to keep up defensively.

I understand that Marbury may be rusty after having so much time off--but there is a good reason why he has been inactive all season: he has proven on many occasions to be such a bad teammate that the Knicks decided that they were better off paying him not to play even though he is a more talented athlete than any of their point guards. That says a lot. The Marbury-House backcourt pairing is odd; both are shoot first players but House is a much better shooter, someone who should be paired with a player who is willing and able to distribute the ball. If the Celtics are simply going to have House or Pierce handle the ball when Marbury is in the game--as they did in the fourth quarter--then what is the point of having Marbury out there at all when he is clearly a defensive liability? The Celtics are shorthanded for the moment because Garnett and reserve guard Tony Allen are sidelined but whose minutes is Marbury going to take when the Celtics are once again at full strength? Marbury's offensive contributions will probably increase as he gets acclimated to his new team but he is highly unlikely to improve much defensively. Since he is in a contract year, Marbury may very well exercise enough good judgment to not be a negative presence in the locker room--but that does not mean that he will actually make a positive on court contribution.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:51 AM

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Bill Tosheff: NBA Co-Rookie of the Year and Tireless Advocate for the "Pre-1965ers" (Part I)

Bill Tosheff's life story reads like an improbable movie script: four sport star in high school, member of a B-17 bomber crew in World War II, baseball and basketball teammate of future baseball Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn while both did military service in Alaska, captain of Indiana University's 19-3 basketball team in 1951, member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, NBA co-Rookie of the Year in 1951-52 and minor league baseball pitcher who rubbed shoulders with Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway. Those accomplishments and experiences are special but for the past two decades Tosheff has been involved in a project that is even more meaningful because it has enabled him to increase the quality of life of many of the players who laid the foundation for the modern NBA: Tosheff has been a relentless advocate fighting for the pension rights of retired NBA players, particularly the players who were arbitrarily excluded from the league's pension program because their careers ended prior to 1965. Tosheff has spent more than $150,000 of his own money and devoted countless hours to writing letters, making calls and testifying before Congress in order to cajole, shame and persuade the NBA to do what it should have done in the first place of its own volition: set aside a comparatively small amount of money to help out the pioneers who literally created the league and made it possible for today's commissioner, league executives, coaches and players to become fabulously wealthy. Tosheff never minced words or backed down and he repeatedly has said that the NBA delayed dealing with this issue for a simple, ghoulish reason: "Death cures a lot of things." Tosheff was originally fighting for the rights of about 85 players; more than half of the members of that group are now deceased. In 2007, Tosheff's efforts paid off when the NBA finally expanded its pension program to include the "Pre-1965ers."

Tosheff is currently battling to get official recognition for the NBA's first five Rookies of the Year (Paul Hoffman in 1948, Howie Shannon in 1949, Alex Groza in 1950, Paul Arizin in 1951 and Bill Tosheff/Mel Hutchins in 1952). The league stubbornly insists that the Rookie of the Year award was not formally "sanctioned" until 1953, but Tosheff has documentation proving that he and the other early Rookie of the Year winners were recognized as such during that time and should be included in the Official NBA Guide.

This year, the NBA made a gesture of reconciliation toward Tosheff by inviting him and several guests (including family members and some of the other "Pre-1965ers") to an expenses-paid trip to All-Star Weekend in Phoenix. The league provided a suite at U.S. Airways Center for Tosheff and his group to watch the All-Star Game. I met Tosheff for the first time at this year's
Legends Brunch and he invited me to watch the game with him from his suite. We talked a bit about his playing career and his long battle for the rights of the "Pre-1965ers" and I told him that I wanted to arrange an interview so that we could discuss these subjects at greater length. I spoke with Tosheff recently and learned more about his life, his multi-sport career and his advocacy for the "Pre-1965ers":

Fighting for the Rights of the "Pre-1965ers"

Friedman: "Since 1988, you have worked tirelessly and at great personal expense to help out the NBA players who retired prior to 1965, so that they can get the pension benefits that they deserve. Describe how you became involved in that project and what has happened in the past 20-21 years that you have been engaged in this fight; where did you start, what exactly have you obtained from the NBA as a result of your efforts and what more would you still like to see the NBA do?"

Tosheff: "In 1987, I found out that there was an organization called the NBA Old Timers Association, headed up by Gene Conley, Bob Cousy, Red Holzman, Paul Arizin, George Senesky and Paul Hoffman. These guys were urging David Stern, who was in his fourth year as NBA Commissioner, to provide a pension (for players who retired prior to the inception of the NBA pension plan in 1965). In early 1988, David Stern told those guys not to go to the media for moral support and to put a moratorium on what they were doing. They agreed; they never let anybody throughout the rest of the country know what they were doing but if you look at the rest of the guys (in that original group)--which I have, 106 of them--there are 11 Hall of Famers in there. Around March (1988), they wrote a letter to Stern--Paul Hoffman sent the letter--saying that they had honored his request to put a moratorium on their efforts. Russ Granik responded to that letter and said that the NBA was working on something and that something would happen. Sure enough, in September 1988, 106 players were brought into the pension plan but what they (the NBA Old Timers Association) asked for--and I've got this documented--was $100 per month for every year that they played based on a minimum of five years of playing time. The NBA pension plan that started in 1965 only required three years of playing time to qualify, so by going up to five years they knocked out the three and four year guys and I objected to that. When I found out what happened, I put myself on a mission to see if I could straighten it out.

I did a couple things since then. One, I researched and found 10 retired players who never even knew that they qualified for an NBA pension under the five year rule. That totaled up to about $850,000 and I asked myself why neither the NBA nor the Players Association had looked into this before. One thing led to another after that. Then I started contacting the three and four year veterans and I gained the specific power of attorney to represent them and try to get them included in the NBA pension plan; I had about 85 members in my group. As the years went on, I had a Congressional hearing in 1998, the media has been good to me--I've been on every major television show, including Good Morning America, World News Tonight, CNN, Catherine Crier, Fox, ESPN, you name it--so I kept pushing and pushing and pushing, like a one man gang. I formed a 501c3 non-profit called 'The Pre-1965 NBA Players Association.' There were three others involved with this: Don Barksdale, Frank 'Apples' Kudelka and Kevin O'Shea. Kevin and I used to meet together in San Francisco, talk about what we could do and try to contact people like Bill Bradley, etc. Finally, those three people died and I was left running the whole show. I put together a board of directors and I started making more moves, writing more articles and doing more interviews.

Finally, in the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement the NBA and the Players Association agreed to bring our guys in. So, now you have three groups of players who are vested in the pension plan: the first group is the original post-1965 players; their money was raised from $385 per month for every year played to $500 per month for every year played. The second group is the pre-1965 guys who called themselves the NBA Old Timers, the Bob Cousy-Gene Conley group (i.e., the players who played at least five years in the NBA and retired before 1965). They started with $100 per month for each year played, then they got $200 per month for each year played and now they get another $100 to make it $300 per month for each year played. I was able to come in now with my group, the three and four year players, who are now getting $300 per month for each year played. I played three years, so I get $900 per month in my case. Four year guys are getting $1200 per month. There was a 24 month gap between 2005 until the first checks were issued in 2007, so the NBA paid what they called a 'catch up check' to my three and four year guys. The three year guys got a check for around $21,400, while the four year guys got a check for around $29,500. So, that was a good boost.

I still feel that my guys should be retroactively paid all the way back to 1988, when the NBA brought in the Bob Cousy-Gene Conley Old Timers group. That's basically it."

Friedman: "So, you've gotten benefits for the three and four year players going forward but what you would now like to see is for the NBA to compensate those players for that gap from 1988 until 2005, when the five year retirees were receiving pensions but the three and four year players were not."

Tosheff: "That's right, but they're not going to respond very much to that. Let me tell you something. You have to understand that from the original 85 guys I had (in 1988) to the time the first checks were issued 45 died. Today, I've got about 29 or 30 left, so nature alone is solving the problem for the NBA and the Players Association: guys are dying. Now, one of the things I was able to do was if a player from my group died after 1988 but his wife is still living the wife gets 50% of what the player's pension would have been, so they are getting some money."

Friedman: "So at this point you don't think that you are going to get anything more from the NBA but at least you have gotten the pension money for those players going forward."

Tosheff: "That's correct but if you can bring up the issue about making retroactive payments to 1988 then maybe someone will jump on that."

Friedman: "When I interviewed Len Elmore several years ago, I said something to him that I later found out you had been saying as well, namely that if the NBA and the Players Association would equally contribute to a pool of money totaling, say, $5 million, then they could solve this whole thing easily and that money would be a drop in the bucket compared to the league's total revenue; with a tiny percentage of their total revenue they could take care of all of these veteran ballplayers without even blinking an eye. I wrote that article a few years ago but even with the economy the way it is now, the NBA and the Players Association could put together $5 million--if the whole league and the whole Players Association pledged that money collectively, they would not be seriously hurting afterward--and it would make such a huge difference to these retired players who are 70 or 80 years old" (Note: due to the ravages of natural attrition in the years since I spoke with Elmore, now it would not even take $5 million to provide assistance to the retired players who need/deserve better pension benefits and/or more medical care).

Tosheff: "You mentioned Len Elmore. I never saw any evidence that the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) tried to help us, with the exception of a couple letters written by Oscar Robertson--who was in our corner--and maybe Mel Davis, who got aced out as the executive director and was replaced by Elmore. Elmore keeps saying that they helped us to get our pensions. No they didn't. I don't know what their role was in getting our pensions; I really don't."

Friedman: "You mentioned to me when we spoke in Phoenix that you don't think that Len Elmore helped you guys at all."

Tosheff: "I don't think so. Well, he doesn't even have a job anymore (with the NBRPA), so what does that tell you?"

Friedman: "Well, if he was helping before I guess he can't help now is what that says."

Tosheff: "That's right."

Four Sport Star Focuses on Basketball, Baseball

Long before Tosheff's commendable battle to help out the "Pre-1965ers," he had many interesting experiences as a multi-sport star who also served in World War II aboard a B-17 bomber.

Friedman: "You were a four sport star in high school (baseball, basketball, football, track & field). Which sport did you most enjoy playing and which sport were you the best at?"

Tosheff: "I think I was pretty good at football, playing quarterback and left halfback. In Gary, Indiana--a steel town--we played every sport known to man and that kept us active. In the summer time, some of us got jobs in steel mills. We were just big sports guys."

Friedman: "Did you have one particular sport that was your favorite at that time?"

Tosheff: "I liked football."

Friedman: "What memory stands out the most for you about playing for (University of Indiana basketball coach) Branch McCracken?"

Tosheff: "First of all, Bill Garrett was the first black player to be introduced into the Big Ten. He was my roommate on the road. That was not publicized that much at all and we did not have any problems with racial situations with the exception of one time in St. Louis and then one time when TCU came up and played us and we killed them by 25 points; they were a little bit mouthy. In my senior year (1951) we were 19-3 and the tallest guy on the ball club was a guy who was 6-4 who never played much. We pressed for 40 minutes a ball game man to man and we shot 125 times a game, shot about 25-26% from the field and still scored anywhere from 65 to 85 points. We were good free throw shooters. I happened to set many free throw percentage records in the Big Ten, so when it came down to the line and I got the ball and was fouled I put some points on the board."

Friedman: "You mentioned something about field goal percentage, so I am going to jump ahead to a question that I was going to save for later. When I look at the stats from the early 1950s--particularly in the NBA--I notice that the field goal percentages were much lower but the free throw percentages were pretty good; your career free throw percentage in the NBA was close to .800. Why were the field goal percentages so much lower during that era?"

Tosheff: "As an outside shooter from anywhere from 25 to 35 feet out, if I hit one out of three I was doing my job basically in that scoring aspect but my main job was to get the ball to the big guys. So, the outside shot was basically a threat and if you hit one, fine. I would go on runs of four or five in a row, so it all depends on how the cookie crumbled at that time. My free throws were always good. I ranked in the top ten in the NBA in my first two years, at over .800. I even topped Bob Cousy (in free throw percentage in the 1951-52 season). Try that one! I used to shoot 400 every day. I practiced free throws like crazy."

Friedman: "I noticed that even the inside players in that era had relatively low field goal percentages. Not until Wilt Chamberlain came along did a player make even half of his shots."

Tosheff: "That's true but you have to remember that there was no slam dunking (in games) during that era. Slam dunking picks up your shooting percentages. Today, they are slam dunking all over the place. If we could drive to the basket or run fast breaks, that was one way of scoring, of course, but the game was slower--much slower. We didn't have a 24 second shot clock, so you could milk the (game) clock all that you wanted. It was a much slower game and I think that is one of the reasons that the shooting percentages were lower."

Note: Just to be clear, the NBA never banned the dunk, unlike the NCAA, which outlawed dunking from 1967-76. However, in the NBA's early days, dunking was considered to be a move that showed up the opponent and, in those rough and tumble days, leaving your feet was an invitation to be undercut. As we discussed later in this interview, most of the players during that era were capable of dunking and did so in practices but dunking did not become a common sight in NBA games until Chamberlain entered the NBA in 1959-60.

Friedman: "I understand that you served on a B-17 bomber during World War II. How long were you in the military and where did you do your service?"

Tosheff: "When I was 16 and a half, I went to Chicago and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force--unbeknownst to my parents. The reason why everybody was going to Canada from the United States was we were in the war with Japan but not with Germany. A lot of guys were going to Canada (and then going to Europe) to fly with the British. So, I passed my physical in Chicago, lied a little bit about my age and passed the mental exam but about a month later the FBI came to my home and told my parents that I couldn't go because the law had changed and you had to be a bona fide resident of Canada for 10 years before you could join the Canadian Air Force. So, that knocked that out, so then at 17 I joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and had to go to Chicago every Tuesday and Thursday for drills and all of that stuff. I was able to graduate high school in 1944 and then I went right into the military and went into basic training down in Biloxi, Mississippi. We all went through the regular rudiments of a ground force guy--how to shoot a carbine, (how to use) all of the different types of equipment, bivouacking, marching and all of that kind of stuff. The military had a glut of pilots at that time, so they sent me to gunnery school in Arizona. They put me on a B-17 and I was the upper tier, top tier gunner. Later on, I attained a status called OLT--on the line training. I could start doing some flying in different types of aircraft. I finally got to jump in the seat of a B-17 but I got over to Germany very near the end of the war and did not see much action but at least I got over there. I spent about one and a half months over there and then came back, so I had a year left.

I had the choice of going to the South Pacific or Alaska. I picked Alaska, so I traded my mosquito netting for a parka and boots. That turned out to be a good deal for me. I was in the Aleutian Islands, a place called Omnak way down near the end, and they found out that I could play a little ball so I came back to Anchorage and played baseball. My catcher in baseball was a guy who became a Hall of Famer for the Phillies, Richie Ashburn (who switched to outfielder in the Major Leagues to reduce the strain on his knees). We were both on the same basketball team. We won about 100 games and we never lost; he was a pretty good basketball player. After I got discharged in 1946, I came back to Indiana and had a chance to sign with the Cubs for $1500 but I didn't do that. I was wooed by Wisconsin to play basketball and baseball but I didn't do that."

Friedman: "Wait, why didn't you sign with the Cubs?"

Tosheff: "I just wasn't ready to get into it. I wanted my education. Pappy Waldorf had just become the coach at California and wanted me to play quarterback for him. I met him in Chicago and we talked but I decided not to do that. So I hopped a train, went to Indiana (University) as an unknown and from that point on things fell in place."

Friedman: "Wasn't $1500 a pretty substantial amount of money at that time?"

Tosheff: "Yeah, it wasn't bad but it really wasn't about the money. I didn't care about the money."

Friedman: "When your parents found out that you had tried to join the Royal Canadian Air Force when you were only 16, what did they say about that? What was their reaction to you running off to join the Air Force and go to war?"

Tosheff: "My dad came from Europe, along with my mother. My real mother died when I was 13. He remarried a Yugoslavian lady who was very, very good to me. He was shocked: 'Why the hell do you want to go over there and get killed?' That was just the way that I felt. See, I already knew how to fly. I used to work at a little airport in Gary, a little grass airstrip where I flew Piper J-3 Cubs. One time I went there at about six in the morning, fired one up and took off and taught myself how to take off and land. I did it two or three times and put it back in place. The guy showed up to open the business and never knew that I did it. So I taught myself how to fly."

Part II will look at Tosheff's ongoing fight to gain official recognition for the NBA's early Rookies of the Year, his minor league baseball experiences in Cuba with Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro and what Tosheff thinks of the modern NBA game.

Further reading about Bill Tosheff and the "Pre-1965 Players":

Transcript of 1998 Congressional Hearing About Pension Fairness for NBA Pioneers

The Plight of the Pre-Pension Players

For years, about 85 elderly ex-players have been fighting to get NBA pensions. The response from the league and the union: Drop dead. Half of them have (June 28, 2005 Salon.com article by King Kaufman)

Give This Man an Assist (July 20, 2005 Boston Globe article by Peter May)

XNBA (official website for the "Pre-1965 Players")

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:25 AM

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