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Saturday, February 04, 2012

Greatest Sports Legends: Julius Erving

Before ESPN and before the internet, sports fans had simpler--yet, in many ways, just as fulfilling--ways to learn more about their favorite players. The syndicated program Greatest Sports Legends--created by Berl Rotfeld and later produced by his son Steve Rotfeld--profiled over 200 athletes from 1973 to 1993. I enjoyed all of those shows but regular visitors to this site will not be surprised that my favorite episode featured Julius "Dr. J" Erving:

This episode includes a clip of Grover Washington's "Let it Flow," a classic song that Washington composed as a tribute to Erving's incomparable playing style.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:12 PM


Friday, February 03, 2012

Echoes from Laettner's Shot Still Reverberate 20 Years Later

Gene Wojciechowski's new book The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball meticulously details the circumstances and aftermath of Christian Laettner's game-winning shot against Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA East Regional Final. Wojciechowski begins with the most strategically surprising aspect of that play--Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino did not deploy a defender to contest Grant Hill's inbounds pass--before providing tremendous historical context about a great game that culminated with one of the most indelible moments in sports history.

After hooking the reader with a brief account of the astonishment that basketball observers--including Dick Vitale, Jalen Rose and P.J. Carlesimo--felt about Pitino's defensive strategy on the final play of the game, Wojciechowski circles back in time to describe how Pitino and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski first arrived at their respective schools and how they both rebuilt programs that had fallen on hard times.

Krzyzewski recently set the all-time NCAA record for career wins (breaking the mark held by Bobby Knight, who coached Krzyzewski at West Point), a feat that seemed unimaginable in the early 1980s when Duke alumni and fans demanded that Athletic Director Tom Butters fire Krzyzewski. The Krzyzewski era at Duke hardly got off to a rousing start; in his first three years, the Blue Devils failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and set the school's single season loss record. Krzyzewski's 1-6 head to head record against Tobacco Road rival North Carolina during this period exasperated Duke partisans.

Duke started out 8-0 in 1984 and posted a 15-1 overall mark before losing four straight ACC games. Butters arranged a meeting with Krzyzewski and said, "Mike, we've got a problem. The problem is we've got a public that doesn't know how good you are. We've got a press that's too damn dumb to tell them how good you are. But my greatest problem is that I've got a coach who I'm not sure knows how good he is." Butters then offered Krzyzewski a five year contract extension. The Blue Devils earned their first NCAA Tournament berth of the Krzyzewski era with a 24-10 record and two years later they advanced to the NCAA Championship Game. It is easy to focus on the "lead actor" when telling the story of a famous person's life but without the encouragement of a "supporting actor" like Butters the world may never have had the opportunity to see Krzyzewski's greatness fully blossom.

Pitino arrived at Kentucky right after the program narrowly avoided the so-called death penalty in the wake of 18 violations committed during the Eddie Sutton regime (Sutton was not directly implicated, though it is difficult to believe that he had no idea what was going on under his watch, including the fact that his assistant Dwane Casey--who is now the coach of the Toronto Raptors--sent $1000 to the father of recruit Chris Mills). Pitino, after a quick rise through the collegiate ranks, had recently turned the New York Knicks into a legitimate contender but he was locked in a power struggle with General Manager Al Bianchi. At first Pitino was not sure if he wanted to relocate his family from New York to Kentucky and Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton turned his attention to P.J. Carlesimo, who had just led Seton Hall to an NCAA Championship Game loss to Michigan. It seemed like Kentucky was on the verge of hiring Carlesimo when a funny thing happened: someone decided that Carlesimo's beard was weird and that it would not work to have a bearded Northerner helming the Wildcats. Suddenly, Carlesimo stated that he never really had been interested in leaving Seton Hall and the Wildcats were back to square one. Pitino had turned down the job the first time Newton offered it but upon further consideration Pitino accepted the offer and boldly promised to lead the disgraced program to a national title.

Krzyzewski coached Duke to runner-up finishes in the NCAA Tournament in 1986 and 1990 before capturing his first NCAA title in 1991. Pitino's first Kentucky squad went 14-14 in 1990 but his 1991 team improved to 22-6. Both teams entered the 1992 season with legitimate championship aspirations and those aspirations collided on March 29, 1992 in the NCAA East Regional Final as the teams battled to earn a Final Four berth.

Duke was led by Christian Laettner, who was perceived as a sneering rich kid who played with an edge, the kind of player who you hated if he was on the other team and might have still found irritating at times even if he was on your own team. Laettner actually did not come from a wealthy family and the first time he made it to the Final Four with Duke his parents skipped that month's mortgage payment in order to travel to Seattle to watch him play in person. Although Laettner was wrongly viewed by some as a kid who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the perception of his edginess was quite correct; Laettner grew up playing against older and bigger opponents, so he quickly learned how to take (and give) blows and he would not back down from anyone. Jamal Mashburn, a dynamic offensive player who could both score in the paint and nail the three point shot, led Kentucky. Both Laettner and Mashburn would later make the NBA All-Star team; several other players from both teams eventually played in the NBA, including Duke's Grant Hill, who made the All-Star team seven times and has recovered from a serious ankle injury to still be a productive player in 2012 at the age of 39.

Duke entered the 1992 East Regional Final as a solid favorite against Kentucky but Pitino thought that his team had a good chance to pull off the upset based on three factors: (1) Even though Duke had the more talented team, Pitino believed that Mashburn would prove to be the single best player on the court; (2) Kentucky's unique style--based on applying intense defensive pressure and shooting a lot of three pointers--would pose problems for Duke; (3) Duke had not played in many close games, so if Kentucky stayed in contact and gained confidence then the Wildcats could go on a game-winning run in the closing minutes. Pitino felt that if he employed the pressure defense too early in the game then Duke's starters would have enough energy to fight through it--thus gaining confidence while also deflating Kentucky's confidence--but if Kentucky could keep the score close without the pressure defense and then apply pressure in the final 10 minutes the Blue Devils might get rattled and/or fatigued.

The game unfolded according to Pitino's plan. Kentucky took an early 20-12 lead and only trailed 50-45 at halftime. Duke pulled ahead 67-55 by the 11:08 mark of the second half and at that point Pitino called a timeout in order to instruct his players to apply the pressure defense the rest of the way. Kentucky sliced Duke's lead to 67-63 in a little over a minute. Two minutes later, momentum could have--and should have--swung Kentucky's way after Laettner stepped on fallen Kentucky player Aminu Timberlake, an action that was worthy of ejection; however, the game officials elected to simply hit Laettner with a technical foul. Kentucky's players neither appreciated that ruling nor the fact that Laettner seemed to have singled out the one player--a skinny, well-mannered freshman--who would not respond confrontationally (that is the kind of move that Kevin Garnett and Kenyon Martin later became well known for in the NBA, taking a verbal and/or physical shot at a younger, smaller opponent while studiously avoiding confrontations with tough guys who would not tolerate such conduct).

The game was tightly contested the rest of the way and the outcome would not be decided until the final 2.1 seconds of overtime. If you are a true basketball fan then you have already seen Grant Hill's full court pass followed by Christian Laettner's game-winning shot many times but Wojciechowski's The Last Great Game does an excellent job of not only recreating one of the seminal moments in college basketball but also giving the reader an understanding of the thoughts, emotions and motivations of the participants from both sides of this dramatic contest.

Although Laettner's shot ended the game, it did not end that season and does not end the book; the Blue Devils still needed to win two more games to complete their run of back to back titles and Duke accomplished this by knocking off Indiana and the upstart, Fab Five-led Michigan Wolverines. Wojciechowski takes the reader behind the scenes of both of those games as well.

Should Pitino have put a defender on Hill to contest that fateful inbounds pass? Wojciechowski exaggerates a bit when he deems this "the eternal basketball question" but he is right this question is not easy to answer. Pitino's thinking at the time was that if he put a defender on Hill then Hill might run the baseline and Duke could employ an old strategy of Dean Smith's, placing a screener in the defender's path to try to draw a foul. Pitino considered the long pass to be a low percentage play whether or not it was contested and thus preferred to sandwich Laettner with two defenders; unfortunately for Kentucky, those defenders--concerned about being called for a foul--played very tentatively and gave Laettner plenty of room to catch the ball, take a rhythm dribble and launch a very controlled shot.

Pitino, who led Kentucky to a National Championship in 1996, casually dismisses the strategic question: "People make too much of it."


1) On page 61, the text states that Christian Laettner "made his official Duke playing debut November 19, 1998, at the Tipoff Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts." Laettner's freshman year began in 1988, not 1998.

2) There are multiple references to a 1988-89 Duke senior named "Smith" but his first name is not directly mentioned in the text (it is indirectly referred to in a quote) nor is he listed in the book's Index (John Smith is the full name of the player in question).

3) On page 114, the 6-8 Billy Owens is referred to as a guard. While Owens did handle the ball like a guard, he played forward at Syracuse and should thus have been described as a forward (in the NBA, Owens played both forward and guard but the book is referring to his college career).

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

McDonald's Selects 35th Anniversary All American Team

In honor of the upcoming 35th anniversary of the McDonald's All American High School Boys Basketball Game, the McDonald's All American Games Selection Committee created a list of the 35 greatest McDonald's All Americans. More than 800 players have been honored as McDonald's All Americans, so the 35 players on this list are the elite of the elite. According to the press release from the Selection Committee, each player was chosen "based on his high school career and performance in the McDonald’s All American Games, success at the collegiate and professional level, and post-career accomplishments." The press release adds that each of the 35 players listed below "will receive a custom-designed basketball, produced by Anaconda Sports® The Rock®":

Earvin "Magic" Johnson (McDonald’s All American class of 1977)
Clark Kellogg (1979)
Ralph Sampson (1979)
Isiah Thomas (1979)
Dominique Wilkins (1979)
James Worthy (1979)
Sam Perkins (1980)
Glenn "Doc" Rivers (1980)
Patrick Ewing (1981)
Michael Jordan (1981)
Chris Mullin (1981)
Kenny Smith (1983)
Danny Manning (1984)
Larry Johnson (1987)
Christian Laettner (1988)
Alonzo Mourning (1988)
Bobby Hurley (1989)
Shaquille O’Neal (1989)
Grant Hill (1990)
Glenn Robinson (1991)
Jason Kidd (1992)
Jerry Stackhouse (1993)
Vince Carter (1995)
Kevin Garnett (1995)
Paul Pierce (1995)
Kobe Bryant (1996)
Jay Williams (1999)
Carmelo Anthony (2002)
Amare Stoudemire (2002)
LeBron James (2003)
Chris Paul (2003)
Dwight Howard (2004)
Tyler Hansbrough (2005)
Kevin Durant (2006)
Derrick Rose (2007)

The list includes numerous current and future Hall of Famers, NBA MVPs, NBA Rookies of the Year and NBA scoring champions. It is interesting to note that three of the players on the list who attended Duke had their NBA careers either ended or curtailed by serious leg injuries: Bobby Hurley (who almost died in a car accident), Jay Williams (whose promising NBA career was ended by a motorcycle accident) and Grant Hill, an All-NBA First Team performer whose career was altered by a severe ankle injury that required multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation. Two of the regular members of TNT's NBA studio show are on the list: Kenny Smith and Shaquille O'Neal.

The 1979 class leads the way with five honorees, three of whom are Hall of Famers (Isiah Thomas, James Worthy and Dominique Wilkins) and two of whom are included on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List (Thomas and Worthy). One memory that stands out for me from McDonald's All American history is a two handed dunk thrown down in the 1979 game not by renowned high flyers Wilkins or Worthy but by 6-2 John Paxson, who played his high school ball in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio before starring at Notre Dame and winning three championships with the 1991-93 Chicago Bulls teams headlined by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Steve Kerr succeeded Paxson in the role as Chicago's designated sharpshooter and won three rings during the second Jordan-Pippen "three-peat." Casual fans may assume that Paxson and Kerr were similar players cut from the same stereotypical mold: non-athletic white guys who can really shoot. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Kerr told me a few years ago when I interviewed him for an article about how to define athletic ability and I mentioned Paxson's McDonald's dunk; Kerr replied that Paxson had a lot of "junk" (i.e., explosiveness) in his game, a marked contrast to the ground bound Kerr (Kerr was one of the few NBA players of his era who could not dunk and possibly the only one in that small group who is a legit 6-3). I did not include Kerr's comment about Paxson in my athleticism article (it did not really fit with the overall theme of the piece) but seeing the 1979 alumni dominate the McDonald's list reminded me about the time that a player from my home town had a highlight moment long before his clutch fourth quarter shooting in the clinching game of the 1991 NBA Finals helped Michael Jordan to capture the first of his six NBA titles.

Here is a special video featuring the members of the 35th Anniversary McDonald's All-American team:

Kobe Bryant is now the elder statesman among the NBA's elite players but 16 years ago he was a high school phenomenon:

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:05 AM


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Post Lockout NBA Basketball...It's Not Fantastic

Numbers often lie--particularly when they are taken out of context--but more than one fourth of the way through the truncated yet overstuffed 2011-12 NBA schedule the numbers confirm what the "eyeball test" says: post lockout NBA basketball is not fantastic.

The following chart shows selected statistics for this season compared to the previous five seasons plus those same statistics for the 50 game 1999 post lockout season and the two seasons sandwiched around that miniature campaign. The pattern is very clear: both in 1999 and in this season scoring and shooting efficiency dropped across the board. Turnovers are up significantly this season as well, though that was not the case in 1999 vis a vis the preceding and following seasons:

2011-12: 94.4 ppg, .442 FG%, .340 3FG%, .746 FT%, 15.2 TO/g
(Teams have played an average of 19 out of 66 scheduled games thus far; all other seasonal statistics are for standard 82 game seasons, except for the 50 game 1999 campaign)

2010-11: 99.6 ppg, .459 FG%, .358 3FG%, .763 FT%, 14.3 TO/g
2009-10: 100.4 ppg, .461 FG%, .355 3FG%, .759 FT%, 14.2 TO/g
2008-09: 100.0 ppg, .459 FG%, .367 3FG% .771 FT%, 14.0 TO/g
2007-08: 99.9 ppg, .457 FG%, .362 3FG%, .755 FT%, 14.1 TO/g
2006-07: 98.7 ppg, .458 FG%, .358 3FG%, .752 FT%, 15.1 TO/g

1999-00: 97.5 ppg, .449 FG%, .353 3FG%, .750 FT%, 15.5 TO/g
1999: 91.6 ppg, .437 FG%, .339 3FG%, .728 FT%, 15.3 TO/g
1997-98: 95.6 ppg, .450 FG%, .346 3FG%, .737 FT%, 15.5 TO/g

These numbers only tell part of the story, though. The lack of a proper training camp and preseason combined with the hectic regular season schedule have resulted not just in bad basketball but also high variance basketball: players and teams may look great one night but then have nothing in the tank the next night. Dirk Nowitzki outperformed Miami's trio of All-Stars a few months ago in the 2011 NBA Finals but he got off to a horrible start this season and now is sitting out a few games just to get his body (and perhaps his mind) in sufficient shape to perform at an elite level. Many other stars--young and old--are battling through injuries and/or inconsistency.

Instead of trying to squeeze every last ticket dollar and every last bit of television revenue out of this season, the NBA should have had a real training camp and preseason followed by a shorter but more meaningful regular season (the NBA could have scheduled 50 games just like in 1999, but spread those games out at a normal rate since the 2011 lockout ended earlier than the 1999 lockout did). Phil Jackson once quipped that the San Antonio Spurs' 1999 championship should be marked by an asterisk and that sentiment will likely be even more applicable to the team that emerges victorious in the 2012 NBA Finals; the playoffs figure to be characterized by wacky seeds, funky matchups and, perhaps, key injuries dictating the ultimate outcome in a way rarely if ever seen before. The 2012 NBA champion will be fully worthy, as the 1999 Spurs and all other champions are, but from a historical standpoint it will be difficult to properly place the 1999 and 2012 champions into the larger context of NBA championship teams that triumphed after playing a conventional regular season.


posted by David Friedman @ 2:10 AM