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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Gary Smith on Jerry West and Prometheus

Great writing is hard to find and should always be cherished. Gary Smith's October 24, 2011 Sports Illustrated article about Jerry West--titled "Basketball was the Easy Part"--is a must-read for anyone who is a fan of great writing. I cannot find a link to the article online and I can hardly blame SI for that--no doubt they want to use Smith's piece as a hook to entice readers to buy a hard copy of the magazine, which I strongly urge you to do. It is not fair to SI or Smith to quote large chunks from the article but I will whet your appetite by sharing Smith'e opening lines with you:

Here's the trouble with the gods: They don't come clean. Not even to fellow gods. So maybe it wouldn't work.

Maybe Jerry West couldn't do what he would love to do: gather them in a room--Michael and Kobe and Magic and Larry and Tiger and Ali--and begin digging to the bottom of what separated them from the mortals.

"But they don't talk about these things," he says. Maybe they don't know, or want to know, what's at the bottom. Maybe they're afraid knowing might diminish their power. Maybe they've not stared down there as many nights as he has, waiting for light to find its way to his window.

The opening sentence reminds literate readers of John Updike's famous declaration about Ted Williams--"Gods do not answer letters"--but then Smith takes the metaphor in a different direction, comparing West to Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humankind; Zeus chained Prometheus to a boulder and sent an eagle to devour the helpless Prometheus' liver. In Smith's eyes, West is a basketball god, a Prometheus who consumed his own innards with a toxic combination of anger, doubt, anxiety and depression.

Smith recounts West's prodigious achievements--including a 27.0 ppg regular season scoring average that ranks fourth among retired players (topped by only Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor) and a 29.1 ppg playoff scoring average bested only by Jordan--and declares that West authored "perhaps the most statistically stunning game the NBA has ever seen: 44 points on 16-for-17 shooting from the field and 12 for 12 from the foul line, 12 rebounds, 12 assists and 10 unofficially counted blocked shots." West won an Olympic gold medal and an NBA title as a player before helping to build four more championship teams as a general manager. West could have basked in the glory of those accomplishments but, Smith writes, "Instead he anguished for more than three years co-writing a book with Jonathan Coleman--West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life--that's choking with the truth about the fire that made him a god."

West says that he fueled himself with anger: "Just hoping someone on the other team would say something, anything, even something small and stupid, to (tick) you off. You'd want to embarrass that person. You'd turn from a player who was competing to a person who was a monster. That anger was like having mental steroids. Driven to the point of being crazy. I'm not sure I loved the game. I loved the competition. I'd think, I've got to get it out, but how can I take this out on someone who's an equal, someone of equal size, so it's fair?"

When West first laid eyes on Kobe Bryant he recognized a kindred spirit--at least in terms of competitive mindset. In his book, West writes about watching Bryant work out against Michael Cooper, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year: "Even though Kobe was only 17, it was clear that he was a once-in-a-lifetime player. His fierce competitive drive was innate. You need more than a little nastiness to play basketball at the highest level, and Kobe had that in abundance. You need the coldbloodedness of an assassin, and he possessed it."

Run, don't walk, to the nearest store that stocks SI and pick up a copy of the October 24, 2011 issue. You won't regret it.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM


Monday, October 17, 2011

NBA 2K12 Brings to Life Both the Old School and the New School NBA

As soon as I installed my review copy of NBA 2K12 on my PC--thank you, Clint Kaminska and 2K Sports--I immediately went to the Greatest Player mode and selected Julius Erving, my all-time favorite player; the Greatest Player mode enables the user to choose one of 15 all-time greats and then simulate a game between that player's team from a particular season and one of his team's top rivals. If the user wins the game then he "unlocks" at least one other team featuring that player. The game with Erving pits his 1984-85 Philadelphia 76ers versus the Milwaukee Bucks and the "telecast"--ably hosted by play by play man Kevin Harlan alongside color commentators Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr--has the look, sound and feel of a mid-1980s NBA game (a really cool thing about NBA2K12 is that the Greatest Player modes for 1960s icons like Bill Russell and Jerry West look, sound and feel like 1960s TV telecasts, with black and white visuals and old school time/score graphics).

While calling the action, Kellogg and Kerr also provide historical context. Kellogg calls Erving a "stat sheet stuffer" whose all-around prowess is sometimes overlooked because of his high-flying acrobatics; Kellogg notes that Erving averaged 8.5 rpg and nearly two steals and two blocked shots per game (2.0 spg and 1.7 bpg to be precise) in his 16 year professional career--and I am thrilled that 2KSports did the right thing by counting ABA stats, thereby giving Erving full credit for his ABA championships, MVPs and statistical accomplishments. Kerr, emphasizing the defensive numbers that Kellogg mentioned, adds that Erving was "a fantastic defender." Far too many fans--and even some commentators who should know better--don't realize or have forgotten that Erving's Philadelphia teams were among the best defensive squads in the NBA in the late 1970s and early 1980s; the 76ers ranked second in defensive field goal percentage in 1978-79 and led the league in that category in both 1979-80 and 1980-81, with Erving playing a major role in that success (Erving ranked in the top ten in both steals and blocked shots in 1979-80--a rare accomplishment for most players but one that Erving pulled off a record six times during his ABA/NBA career--and, as Kellogg noted, Erving consistently put up excellent numbers in both categories).

Even though the 76ers-Bucks game emanates from Julius Erving's Greatest Player segment, Kellogg and Kerr also talk about other stars, including Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Sidney Moncrief and Terry Cummings. Fans who only know Don Nelson for coaching gimmicky, undersized offensive machines in recent years might be astonished to hear Kerr say that the 1985 Bucks--coached by a younger, fish-tie wearing Nelson--were "arguably the best defensive team" in the NBA; indeed, the Bucks led the league in both points allowed and defensive field goal percentage that season.

The downside of including so many statistics and so many factual nuggets is that some inaccuracies will almost inevitably creep in if there is not a rigorous editing process; for instance, Kellogg and Kerr rightly praise Erving's tremendous college career--mentioning that Erving is one of just five Division I players who averaged more than 20 ppg and more than 20 rpg for an entire varsity career--but Kerr incorrectly says that Erving averaged 32 ppg for the University of Massachusetts; Erving averaged 26.3 ppg in his 52 game varsity career with UMass. I hate to nitpick when NBA2K12 evinces such an obvious appreciation for even some relatively obscure aspects of basketball history but, on the other hand, I have to be consistent with the message that I have always delivered here: there is no excuse for journalists and/or media companies to get the basic facts wrong. The folks at NBA2K12 clearly put in a lot of effort to make the game an authentic experience, so hopefully the few errors in the current edition will be corrected in subsequent versions of the product.

The 15 players available in the Greatest Player mode--listed in the order NBA2K12 provides their names in the downloadable User Manual--are Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Isiah Thomas, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton and Karl Malone. Those are not necessarily the 15 greatest players of all-time but they are certainly 15 of the greatest players; I don't have a major problem with who was selected or who was left out mainly because I think that NBA2K12's goal was to represent the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s as opposed to definitively ranking the 15 greatest retired players. However, I am somewhat puzzled by some of the teams/seasons chosen to represent these players. For instance, why is Erving represented by the 1977 76ers and the 1985 76ers? The 1977 team ultimately inspired the infamous marketing slogan "We Owe You One" after blowing a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals; the 1985 team was the last excellent Philadelphia team of the Erving era, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the fifth time in six years but proving to be no match for the defending champion Boston Celtics. It seems obvious that Erving should be represented by the 1983 76ers--a championship team that went 12-1 in the postseason--or even the 1976 New York Nets squad that won the last ABA championship.

The other strange thing about the inclusion of the 1985 76ers is that the NBA 2K12 roster for that team does not accurately reflect that squad's actual rotation; Andrew Toney started 65 games at shooting guard and ranked third on the team in scoring (17.8 ppg) but he does not appear at all in NBA2K12 (reserve Clint Richardson starts for the Sixers in NBA2K12). Bobby Jones only started eight games for the 1985 76ers but he is the starter in NBA2K12, replacing rookie Charles Barkley (Barkley started 60 games as a rookie but is not even on the NBA2K12 roster, a stunning omission considering not only Barkley's greatness as a player but the fact that he is still highly visible now due to his TNT duties). Perhaps the inclusion/exclusion of certain players has to do with licensing issues. The game is very enjoyable the way it is but for true students of the sport's history it would be even more enjoyable if it were completely accurate.

NBA 2K12 has an almost overwhelming number of options, features and modes. A user can create his own player and, if the user is skilled enough, develop that player into an NBA superstar by elevating his status with good results in the Rookie Showcase, effective interviews with team officials and strong performances in actual (simulated) NBA games. A user can also simulate games between current NBA teams, go to Training Camp to hone his NBA2K12 skills with tutorials from NBA legends and compete with other users online; the tutorials are not only useful for anyone who wants to become better at NBA2K12 but it is fun to watch a virtual Michael Jordan teach moves to a virtual Kobe Bryant--the simulations of both players are quite impressive.

Although NBA2K12 works just fine in the PC format with keyboard controls (the only way that I can play the game since I do not have a game console), I am sure that it is easier to play the game with a joystick instead of furiously hitting various keys. I am a novice gamer at best, so my skill set (or lack thereof) undoubtedly does not enable me to fully appreciate all of the various features and modes but I think that anyone who loves the game--past and present--has to appreciate NBA2K12's craftsmanship: the visuals are stunning, the music is cool (hearing Kurtis Blow's anthem "Basketball" took me back to my junior high school days) and, despite the few quibbles noted above, NBA2K12 is remarkably authentic both in terms of historical awareness and in terms of the way that the players perform, eerily capturing the trademark, distinctive mannerisms of a wide variety of players from the past five decades.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:33 PM