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Friday, February 22, 2013

Dr. J is 63 Years Old

Much has been made of Michael Jordan's 50th birthday but another all-time great midsize player also has a February birthday: Julius Erving turns 63 today. This is not a "milestone" birthday for Dr. J but it is still a good time to reflect on his remarkable journey from Roosevelt High School to the literal (four MVPs, three championships) and figurative (1976 ABA Slam Dunk title, countless memorable aerial displays) top of the basketball world.

Erving averaged 26.3 ppg and 20.2 rpg for UMass in the now-defunct Yankee Conference but he was not viewed as an elite pro prospect until after he was the MVP of the 1970 U.S. Olympic Development Tour. In Quotes from Legends Roundtable Featuring Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, Bill Russell and Bill Walton, Erving explained how that experience changed his mindset::

Erving received an invitation to the Olympic Development camp in 1970 but did not make the cut as one of the 40 best players; Erving said that this shook his confidence and that he returned home to coach at the local recreation center during the summer. However, Erving had been selected as one of four alternates, so when a player went down because of injury Erving was invited back to Colorado Springs to join the Olympic Development tour. Erving recalled that the other players on the tour--including future All-Star/current Sacramento Coach Paul Westphal--openly spoke about becoming pro basketball players, something that Erving had never seriously considered at that time. Erving proved to be the best player on the tour and that is when he first realized that playing professionally was not a distant dream but rather a likely possibility. That story is a powerful reminder that even the most talented people need the right opportunities in order to build their confidence and reach their full potential. "I didn't even have the mentality of thinking that I was going to be a pro, period, or a Hall of Famer," Erving remembered, "until after that camp, because once we got out (there) and we started playing and I performed as well or better than all the other guys there I said, 'If they're going to make it, I've got a pretty good chance of making it.'"

Footage from that Olympic Development Tour is hard to find but 90 Years of Estonian Basketball provides a glimpse of Erving playing for the United States against Estonia (fast forward to the 22 minute mark to see Erving; hat tip to Greg from DrJStuff for providing this link). Erving did not participate in the fateful 1972 Olympics--when Team USA lost for the first time, falling to the Soviet Union in a still-controversial gold medal game--because he jumped to the ABA after his junior season at UMass. In his five ABA seasons, Erving won three regular season MVPs, three scoring titles, two championships and two Playoff MVPs;  Erving led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) as his New York Nets defeated the Denver Nuggets in the 1976 ABA Finals, prompting Newsweek's Pete Axthelm to offer high praise to the sport's highest flyer: "No one has ever controlled and conquered the air above pro basketball like Julius Erving, the incomparable Dr. J of the New York Nets. The Doctor not only leaps higher and stays aloft longer than most players dream possible, but he uses his air time to transform his sport into graceful ballet, breathtaking drama or science fiction fantasy--depending upon his mood of the moment and the needs of his team. At 26, Erving has established himself as the most exciting offensive player in basketball. And last week as he led the Nets to their second American Basketball Association title in three years, the Doctor persuaded many people that he may be the greatest player of all time."

After the ABA-NBA merger, Erving landed in Philadelphia with tremendous hype and very lofty expectations. He performed at an elite level, leading the 76ers to three NBA Finals in his first six seasons with the team and becoming the first non-center to win the NBA regular season MVP since Oscar Robertson, but the NBA championship eluded Erving's grasp as the 76ers repeatedly fell to teams featuring Hall of Fame centers. That frustration ended in 1982-83 after the 76ers acquired Moses Malone: Malone and Erving, along with All-Star backcourt duo Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney plus sixth man extraordinaire Bobby Jones, led the 76ers to a 65-17 record and a glorious 12-1 playoff run capped by a 4-0 sweep of the defending champion L.A. Lakers. The 76ers were too old to create a dynasty but that 1983 squad is as good as any single season team in pro basketball history.

Erving smoothly shifted to an elder statesman role but he could still play: he made the All-NBA Second Team in 1983-84 as a 34 year old and he earned a spot on the All-Star team in each of his 16 professional seasons. It is unfortunate that the NBA refuses to officially acknowledge ABA statistics, because Erving's name should be mentioned and his accomplishments should be celebrated when current players join the 25,000 point club or reach other milestones that have only been surpassed by a select group of all-time greats.

Further Reading:

Happy 60th Birthday, Dr. J! 

Happy 62nd Birthday, Julius Erving!

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part I: Yes, Virginia, There is a Man Who Can Fly 

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part II: Two Championships in Three Years with the Nets

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:23 AM

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jerry Buss: Championship or Bust

"Championship or bust." That is how Kobe Bryant describes the mindset of Jerry Buss, who owned the L.A. Lakers for more than 30 years before passing away Monday morning. One could make a strong case that Buss is the most successful team owner in sports history; under his direction the Lakers won 10 championships (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88, 2000-02, 2009-10)--more than any other NBA owner has won--and the organization blossomed into an empire worth more than $1 billion: that combination of on-court success and financial success is rare, if not unprecedented.

As usual, Kevin Ding provides an informed take:

Buss' 10 NBA championships--while missing the playoffs only twice in 33 seasons--are patently absurd. He blended Hollywood glamour with great basketball, which is why he could be given a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in 2006 for television advancements and be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010 as a contributor to the sport.

With savvy decisions that played out both inside and outside of the arena, Buss seemed always the smartest and most daring guy in the room.

That includes the high-stakes poker room, his most recent passion that challenged him to match wits with the best professional poker players in the world. Buss' intelligence was applicable in a variety of realms: He started out a graduate of the University of Wyoming with a degree in chemistry, believing education would be his springboard to whatever else he could imagine.

The L.A. Times' Bill Dwyre eloquently describes a side of Jerry Buss that most people did not see:

We live in an era of soulless corporations and heartless management. People are laid off by email or by discovering the lock changed on their office door.

In Buss' corporation, there was always heart and soul. 

(P.R. consultant Bob) Steiner's daughter, Cathy, is developmentally disabled. She is also a huge Lakers fan, of course, and used to sit in Buss' box with her dad at games and keep score. She used the game program to do so.

But somewhere along the line, an order had come to the ushers that the game programs need not be distributed in the boss' box until he arrived. Invariably, Buss would be delayed by pregame duties, and one time, he didn't make it into his box until near halftime. When he arrived, Cathy let him know that she would have no more of these delays, that she needed her program before the game started. 

To which Jerry Buss replied meekly: "I will take care of it, Cathy."

And he did. 

"Jerry was sensational with her," Steiner says. 

He was the same with thousands of other people.

Various people affiliated with the NBA expressed their love and admiration for Dr. Buss:
  1. Magic Johnson: "This is a great loss for the Laker Nation--1st the legendary Chick Hearn and now my 2nd dad, the beloved Dr. Jerry Buss. I LOVE you Dr. Buss! All Dr. Buss ever wanted to do was win and he did. Dr. Buss won 10 Championships--5 with me as a player and 5 with me as his partner."
  2. Derek Fisher: "He forever changed my life. May he rest in peace and my prayers are with his family that he loved so much."
  3. NBA Commissioner David Stern described Dr. Buss as a "visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come."
  4. Shaquille O'Neal, who did not always see eye to eye with Dr. Buss, issued this statement: "I'm deeply saddened over the loss of the great Dr. Jerry Buss. He was a dear friend, keen mentor and brilliant businessman. He'll always be remembered for his dedication in bringing the best to the purple and gold and I'm proud to have been part of his honorable legacy. My heart and prayers go out to the Buss family and friends. Dr. Buss will be deeply missed by this big man."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:28 AM

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Remembering Warren Jabali

"It's absolutely the most meaningful moment of my career, to be able to get up here and make this presentation."--Pete Vecsey, introducing the 2013 NBA Legends Brunch "In Memoriam" tribute to basketball legends who passed away in 2012

Warren Jabali averaged 17.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 5.3 apg during a seven season ABA career. He won the 1969 Rookie of the Year award and then he captured the 1969 Playoff MVP by producing 28.8 ppg and 12.9 rpg while leading the Oakland Oaks to the ABA title. Jabali earned the 1973 ABA All-Star MVP--while competing against a team that featured future Hall of Famers Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel--and he made the 1973 All-ABA First Team. Those statistics and honors are impressive but they only scratch the surface in terms of Jabali's playing abilities--and they provide no insight whatsoever about the qualities that made him a special person.

Jabali passed away on July 13, 2012 at the age of 65; as far as I know, ESPN, NBA.com, TNT and other major media outlets that cover pro basketball offered no tribute to Jabali, nor did media outlets in the Bay Area--where Jabali was the best player on a championship team--mention Jabali's death. As soon as I saw Jabali's name and picture during the Legends Brunch telecast I knew that I had the responsibility to raise awareness about Jabali's life.

Jabali--who was originally known as Warren Armstrong before adopting the name Jabali, which is Swahili for a large, conspicuous rock--was an eloquent speaker and writer. His essay "Greatest High School Athlete: A Reprise"--which can be found in its entirety here--is a thoughtful examination not just of Jabali's life but of issues such as racism and the responsibility to use one's talents for the greater good of society. Jabali writes, "The key to greatness in my opinion is the ability to freely express one's gift. One's talent must flow as a direct and uninhibited stream which seeks and finds its own level. Things which inhibit the free flow of talent are not being coachable, not maintaining optimum conditioning, a lack of leadership skills and selfishness." Later in the essay, he expresses heartfelt concern about a lack of progress in his own community:

It is paradoxical that in spite of the spectacular achievements of African Americans, the race as a whole is actually worse off than it was 34 years ago when I left Kansas City. For example, in 1964, a significant percentage of the African American population lived below the poverty line, were unemployed, under-educated and segregated. In 1998, there are still significant percentages of impoverished, unemployed, under-educated and segregated African Americans. 1998 is worse than 1964 because in 1964 we had more stable neighborhoods, we had a movement and we had hope. We had an agreed upon enemy, which we identified as racism and we had clear purpose in mind. In 1998 we have an expanding underclass, drug and crime infested neighborhoods, mounting numbers of out of wedlock children being born to teenagers, an appalling lack of interest in education in light of the monumental struggles and disillusionment in the ranks of upwardly mobile African Americans. In 1964, the music, always an accurate reflection of culture, promoted unity and struggle. Curtis Mayfield sang "Keep On Pushing" and "We're a Winner." James Brown sang "I'm Black and I'm Proud." In 1998, Ice Cube represents by singing "Today Was a Good Day, I Didn't Even Have To Use My AK."

Jabali's 2004 essay "Those Who Carried Us Away Captive, Required of Us a Song…Those Who Wasted Us Required of Us Mirth" is a brilliant examination of the racial dynamics and tensions that existed in the 1960s--and still exist today, albeit in less blatant forms. Here is a brief quote from that piece: "I did not maintain a belief that white people possessed any attributes or capacities which were inferior to mine. I did and do maintain that white people exhibited behaviors toward black people which were despicable and disgraceful. Since it was impossible for me to know whether a white person was harboring such attitudes and behaviors, I chose to cast a wary eye toward all. As far as I am concerned, given my knowledge and background, this was the prudent thing to have done. Conversely, the socially acceptable thing to do, according to some, was for me to continue in the vein of proving to white people that we were their equal. I saw that as placing blind faith in the hands of strangers. A passage from the Bible illustrates the dilemma faced by those of us who began the process of integrating the professions: 'Those who carried us away captive, required of us a song; those who wasted us, required of us mirth.'"

Stop reading this tribute for a minute and click on that link to read the complete essay. Seriously--stop right here, go back and read Jabali's essay. You may have heard Jabali described in derogatory terms by certain writers: compare those descriptions with the man's own words and form your own judgment instead of enslaving your mind by letting others do your thinking for you.

Jabali spent the latter part of his life working in the Miami area as an elementary school teacher and youth counselor; he did not pursue high school coaching opportunities because he felt he could have the most impact by interacting with younger, more impressionable students. It should be clear from reading his words that Jabali had a very thoughtful and mature outlook that could help guide a young person down the right path.

*********************************************

I have covered six NBA All-Star Weekends but nothing has topped--or ever will top--the first one when I had the joy and privilege of not just reporting from the official NBA events but also writing about the ABA Reunion; ABA players Rick Darnell, Mike Davis, Willie Davis, Joe Hamilton, Eugene "Goo" Kennedy, Warren Jabali and James Silas--none of whom I had ever met before--instantly treated me like a trusted friend and enthusiastically shared with me stories about their playing careers. Jabali was known as an intimidating player but we developed a good rapport, which led to the opportunity to do a phone interview with him after All-Star Weekend. That wide-ranging interview not only formed the basis for the article Warren Jabali in His Own Words but it also provided excellent quotes that I used in other articles, including Classic Confrontation: Wilt Versus Shaq and Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part I: Yes, Virginia, There is a Man Who Can Fly. Jabali impressed me not just with his intelligence but also with the way that he completely took responsibility for his actions in the infamous Jim Jarvis incident: "That was an example that I offer no defense for; I mean that is something that I shouldn't have done." Jabali did not offer a lame excuse for attacking Jarvis or say that he was sorry if anyone was offended; Jabali flat out said that he was wrong and there was "no defense" for what he did. That kind of accountability is a rare character trait.

Although I have used various quotes from my Jabali interview, most of the interview has never been published--until now. Here is my April 16, 2005 conversation with Warren Jabali, lightly edited for clarity and published in this form for the first time as an enduring tribute to a life well-lived:

Friedman: "What stands out in your mind most from your ABA career?"

Jabali: "The thing that probably stands out the most for me is the recognition and realization that I could play. That happened in the first training camp. (Coach) Alex Hannum already knew pretty much who he wanted to start. He would split Rick (Barry) and I up--I would be on one squad and Rick would be on the other squad. We would win our share of the scrimmages. Then he would put all of us together--Larry (Brown), Doug (Moe), Rick and I on the same squad--and of course we would dominate. What began to become clear was that there was nobody in the practice, save Rick, who was performing any better than I was at that point. Subsequently, going through the beginning of the season--after going through the cycle once and seeing everybody--it became clear that I could actually play the game. That was a high point."

Friedman: "When you talk about this realization that you could play, was that something that you doubted coming to camp, or do you mean more that other people now realized that you could play at that level?"

Jabali: "No, I'm talking about my own perception. It wasn't so much that I doubted it--it was the fact that I had never really even thought about it. If you talk to players who are my age--58, 60 years old--and up, a lot of us didn't come out of environments where next year or five years from now was something that you thought of and planned about. My upbringing was one in which my expectation was to graduate from high school and get a job in one of the factories around Kansas City and get out of the house. I was the oldest of 11 children. College came as--not a surprise--but it wasn't part of any plan that I had. I played four years of college ball without the expectation or plan to go into professional basketball. Professional basketball to me was exemplified by people like Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. I didn't think that I could compete with those kinds of people. I didn't perceive professional basketball to be (about) the sixth, seventh and eighth men and I didn't compare myself to them. Had I made some kind of comparison with them maybe I would have figured, 'Yeah, I can play the game.' But I didn't take them into consideration. I only took people like Oscar and those kinds of players into consideration, so therefore that was my apprehension--playing against people like that."

Friedman: "That's so interesting because today--and for the past 10, 15, 20, 25 years--so many young people from a very early age are focused on the idea of becoming either a professional basketball player or just a professional athlete in general, to the exclusion of other goals or other thought processes. You are someone who achieved that goal but you are saying that it's not something that you really set out to do far in advance of achieving it; it's something that just developed--you played in high school, which enabled you to play in college, then you played well in college and then that gave you an opportunity to go to a professional camp. You went to the camp and did well and the situation just kind of evolved. It wasn't a situation where you sat down as a child or as a young person and said, 'I'm going to be a pro basketball player,' like so many people do today or try to do today."

Jabali: "Well, I'm not certain at all that that's really that uncommon, if you ask people my age. Certainly, the players I mentioned who end up being very, very good, like Oscar Robertson or Jerry West or Walt Frazier, those kind of people probably knew very early on (that they would play pro basketball). I'm probably a mid-level professional basketball player; I'm certainly not a great basketball player like those people were, so their greatness probably was so obvious to everyone that conversations with them revolved around college and professional play. People who are my age who were just playing the game--I don't think that most of them had the aspiration or the specific goal to enter into the NBA. I don't think that that was part of the scheme back then. But of course now you have a different situation. The information is the key. If we were to go backwards we would see that college basketball was not as big in the 1960s as it is now and of course professional basketball has gone worldwide. People began to have expectations to go to college; I didn't even have the expectation to go to college. So today parents are telling their kids these things. Parents are preparing their kids and parents are putting these young people in AAU leagues and into tennis and into golf. Therefore, expectations are coming not so much from the mind of the child as they are from the mind of the parent."

Friedman: "The point that you brought up that you don't consider yourself a great player but what you call a mid-level player is interesting, because it leads straight into my second question or one aspect of that question: looking at your career from a statistical standpoint, in various seasons you ranked in the top ten in the ABA in scoring, assists, free throws made, three point field goals, minutes, three point percentage--a wide range of categories. You had a very diverse game in terms of where you ranked among the top players in individual seasons. In researching some things that you wrote, I found a quote that I want to read back to you and then ask you some questions about. In a letter that you wrote to the Kansas City Star you said, 'My own opinion on the subject is that I became a good player and not a great player. Factors for not being better were injuries to my knees and back. Another factor was that I never considered sports as a higher priority than the struggle of African-American people to gain standing in the human community.' I have several questions about this issue of greatness and your perception of professional basketball. First, do you believe that you ever reached greatness as a player at some point in time but because of the injuries and these other factors you were not able to sustain it or do you not feel that you truly reached a level of greatness as a player?"

Jabali: "The only thing that I would add to the quote by way of explanation would simply be that no that I did not reach greatness. Again, the people that are great are the ones that I talked about--Oscar, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor. It is possible that had I grown up in a different situation maybe I could have competed to the point that I would have penetrated the upper level of these rankings. I was talking to Connie Hawkins and Spencer Haywood about this at the All-Star Game. We were sitting around the bar and talking and telling lies (Jabali chuckles). Then it gets serious. I said that I think that it's a matter of growing up in New York or, as Spencer did, growing up in Detroit, where there are just hundreds of really outstanding basketball players who never made it. They grew up playing against these people. Because what happened is that I just basically had a straightforward power game as a guard, which was the thing that made me outstanding. I could do things that people my height simply could not do. But it didn't get expressive and it wasn't creative. The reason why it wasn't expressive and creative was because it didn't have to be. The people who I played against in Kansas City I was able to dominate with just A, B and C. I didn't have to go to X, Y and Z. When I started playing in the ABA, I remember a play--and I talked to Spencer about it--when my teammate was shooting a free throw. That put the opposition, which was Spencer, who was playing for Denver, under the basket. I was in the middle and then there was another Denver player next to me. My teammate shot the free throw and it came high over Spencer's head. I went up and grabbed the rebound. We were both on the floor. I'm jumping and getting ready to try to dunk the ball into the basket, but as I looked for the basket it was blocked out. All I could see was Spencer's belt buckle. The whole basket and the backboard--everything was gone and I couldn't see anything. So I moved the ball to my left hand, reached around Spencer's waist and spun the ball off the backboard and into the basket. I never would have thought to do anything like that. But because I had to do something other than just come down with the ball and get called for traveling or just throw the ball up and have Spencer smack the ball into the stands, I was forced to become creative and do something that I otherwise would not have done. So competition can hone greatness and develop great people. If you're not playing against great people then I don't see how you really can become great. You can become great at one particular thing. Bill Bradley grew up in Crystal City, Missouri and became a great jump shooter. That's basically all he did--ran off of screens and shot jumpers. If you want to become a great shooter, you can do that by yourself. Then again, his father owned a bank or was a bank president, so he probably went around the country and went to clinics and camps. I really don't know. But the point is that I did not have the kind of environment to grow up and become a great pro--Lucius Allen and I were from Kansas City and we played on the schoolyards together once. He was from one side of the bridge and I was from the other side of the bridge. And even that time, we played with each other. So there was not the kind of competition that just compelled you to keep working on your game and adding new things to it. So I think that the environment that I grew up in is really a part of why I never entered into the upper echelons."

Friedman: "You mentioned the names of some great players--Spencer Haywood, Connie Hawkins--and then some of the NBA players from the 1960s, Wilt and Oscar Robertson. Who do you consider to be the greatest players that you played against or who were your teammates?"

Jabali: "Oscar is certainly the greatest player who ever played. They want to give that to Jordan, but Jordan really did not have to play against the same type of players. If somebody were to really study it--and I'm talking off the top of my head, so maybe statistically people can refute this--when Magic left, who were the great players? I think Karl Malone was the greatest player still circulating around when Jordan was doing all those things. Who was Jordan playing against?"

Friedman: "I would say that the player who excelled the most during the year and a half that Jordan retired (to play baseball) was Hakeem Olajuwon. He won an MVP and two championships."

Jabali: "Who was playing besides Olajuwon and Karl Malone?"

Friedman: "David Robinson also won an MVP during that period."

Jabali: "David Robinson really wasn't--to me--a great player. He had great potential, but he didn't want to hurt anybody (Jabali laughs)."

Friedman: "I agree with you, but you were asking who the other players were at that time--"

Jabali: "He wasn't great to me."

Friedman: "No, I understand what you're saying and I think that when Olajuwon torched him in the playoff series the year that Robinson won the MVP it kind of proved the point that you're making. I agree with you. I see your point (about the players Jordan played against). The other player who won an MVP during the Jordan era--other than Jordan--was Charles Barkley."

Jabali: "You do not compare Barkley to Chamberlain, to Nate Thurmond, to Gus Johnson. I mean you've got some people who Oscar was playing against who were just tremendous. There were not a lot of great teams, but you had some teams that were nip and tuck in terms of every year you knew that they were going to be in competition, like the Lakers and Jerry West, Chamberlain and wherever he happened to be, Oscar Robertson and wherever he happened to be. If you go back you can probably put together some serious, serious teams that Oscar had to play against. Add to that the fact that Oscar's management--the Cincinnati ownership and management--were not really putting together the squad in the way that they should have been. I think that one year they had a real good squad with Jerry Lucas and Wayne Embry. They had what they needed to have and they just didn't win it because they were up against the Celtics."

Friedman: "Sure. They also had to deal with the tragedy that happened to Maurice Stokes."

Jabali: "Anyway, what I'm saying is that Michael Jordan is a great player, but I always look at it from the point of view of impact on the game. If you look at impact on the game and you have someone who is capable of averaging a triple double for the entire year, then you have a tremendous, great player. Michael Jordan was great because he was clutch. Jerry West also has that reputation. Michael Jordan happened to be in those situations. I don't think that anybody will ever be able to be compared to Michael Jordan unless they happen to be in those situations. I think LeBron James is going to be unable--the way that it looks now--to actually be compared to Michael Jordan because (the question is) what do you do in championship situations? Michael Jordan was in so many championship situations and came through, that, unless you are doing that, how can you compare? It's just like what we are talking about in terms of comparing Oscar Robertson to Michael Jordan. You have to use the standard that most people use--how many championships did he win? Well, I wouldn't do it like that. The person who is right behind Oscar as far as I am concerned is Walt Frazier. Walt Frazier had an equal impact on the game offensively and defensively. Nobody did that. Walt Frazier is the one who made me realize that I was never in condition to play the game. This man would play just as hard on the defensive end as he would play on the offensive end and would beat you either way."

Friedman: "When you're saying that Walt Frazier is right behind Oscar Robertson are you saying that you would place him ahead of Michael Jordan?"

Jabali: "In terms of what I'm talking about. I mean, in terms of excitement and being a clutch player, you have to rate Michael Jordan as the best. But if we are talking about impact on the actual game, Michael had a team built around him where he was able to delegate. He came up with a good term, 'step up'--'You're going to have to step up.' So his boys stepped up and made critical shots when they were supposed to. They would get rebounds--Rodman. They would make passes when they were supposed to because of his urging. Then when push came to shove and crunch time came, he would make the basket. But what if he had to do what Oscar had to do? Oscar had to make the shot, Oscar had to make the pass, Oscar had to get the rebound, Oscar had to play defense--Oscar had to do all of these things himself. So, if you look at it from the point of view of impact on the game, I'm saying that I would take those two people before Jordan."

Friedman: "So where would you place Jordan? Would you place Jordan third by the criteria that you are using?"

Jabali: "Yeah, because he had tremendous impact on the game. He didn't deal with it from the point of view of defense, even though they gave him defensive all-star status--beating people up was what he was really doing. Like on that last shot in Utah--he pushed the boy off and then he shot. But he still made the shot. So what can you say? You gave him the shot and he put it in. It was still a pressure packed shot. I'm not trying to degrade Michael Jordan at all. I'm just looking at it from my point of view: if you are talking about basketball, and you talk about somebody playing the game, are you talking about how many championships they won and how many games they won or are you talking about what they actually accomplished on the floor?"

Friedman: "I understand what you are saying, absolutely."

Jabali: "The same thing goes on with Chamberlain and Russell. Because Russell won all the championships he is supposed to be the greatest player. Well, he's not the greatest player. Chamberlain was the greatest player. You take that team away from Russell and let Russell play with some mediocre players, what is Russell going to do? If you put Chamberlain and Russell with the same mediocre players, Chamberlain's team would win more games. So if you use winning games and championships as the measure, I don't think that you get an accurate picture of what true greatness is."

Friedman: "Since you brought up Chamberlain and you mentioned Robertson, if you had to pick one player, if you were building a team and could take either player in his prime, who would you pick? Would you take Robertson over Chamberlain because of his versatility?"

Jabali: "No, because I think what you have to realize is that at the end of the game you need to be close to the basket. I think that size has proven time and time again to be the thing that wins championships. At the end of the game players get tired. Anyway, that's my point of view. It might be a little biased because of the time that I came up in. I think that there are two different things; Rick Barry used to argue that in All-Star Games there should be a Most Valuable Player and there should be a Most Outstanding Player. I think that Michael Jordan is the most outstanding player that has ever played, but that Oscar Robertson in his prime was the best basketball player."

Friedman: "In terms of those two categories, where would Wilt fit? I follow what you are saying with Jordan and Robertson, but in terms of 'valuable' or 'outstanding,' where does Wilt fit in to that? Or are you saying that Wilt is the 'most dominant'?"

Jabali: "Yeah, you could add another one (category). If you think in terms of the skills that are required to play the game of basketball--that's the best way for me to break it down--Oscar had mastery over all of the skills. I don't know of any skill that Oscar didn't have."

Friedman: "He was basically flawless as a player--he had no weaknesses. He could shoot, rebound, defend, everything."

Jabali: "Even though I said that he is the best player, you are asking why I would take Chamberlain first. The reason that I said that I would take Chamberlain first is because you have to start in the middle. If that's a contradiction, then I would say Chamberlain, Oscar, Frazier and then Jordan."

Friedman: "I don't think that it's a contradiction. I'm just trying to clarify and understand what you are saying. I have a couple follow up questions. One, a comparison that interests me is between Wilt Chamberlain in his prime and Shaquille O'Neal. I have a feeling that I know which way you will go, but I am interested to hear your reasoning."

Jabali: "There's no comparison. Chamberlain is head and shoulders above Shaquille O'Neal. Who I like to compare Shaquille O'Neal with is Darryl Dawkins. See what happens with Shaquille O'Neal is he is able to push people out of the way, step on them and dunk the ball. If Darryl Dawkins had been able to do what Shaquille O'Neal is able to do on the low post, Darryl Dawkins would have been unstoppable. Not only could he dunk as hard and forcefully as Shaquille O'Neal can, he had a 15 foot jump shot to go with all of that. He probably fouled out more than anybody in the history of the NBA. They did not allow Darryl Dawkins to play basketball. They controlled his game so much that when he went out on the court it was like he was walking on egg shells."

Friedman: "That's a very good observation because Dawkins always led the league in fouls and disqualifications. You're right, whether it's the game that is now being officiated differently or just those two players, it's a very different situation."

Jabali: "In order for us to even include Shaquille O'Neal in the conversation (about Wilt), you would have to imagine Shaquille O'Neal not being able to just knock people down and dunk the basketball. That means that he would have to have the ability to consistently make a five or ten foot jump shot or hook. If that was what he had to do, then he would not be as dominant as he has been being able to play the other way. So he could not compare to Chamberlain because Chamberlain had the strength to play that way but he didn't do it that way. He had a little fade away 10 foot jump shot, finger rolls and all that kind of stuff."

Friedman: "Chamberlain had a great finesse game and of course he was a track star, so he had some abilities and some dimensions to his game that would not be seen in Shaquille's game."

Jabali: "Yeah. I am not a real Shaquille O'Neal fan. I'm not opposed to him, but I don't like the fact that he is being set up to be one of the greatest centers of all time. Because they allow him to do things that other people are not allowed to do. I mean, if you see guards running down to the low post to post up their man, they are not allowed to do what Shaquille O'Neal is allowed to do. They don't even try to do that. Why is he allowed to do this? He is allowed to do this because the NBA has made a decision that that's what the fans want to see. If you ever get one of those current referees to be honest about it, they'll tell you that they have meetings in which they watch films on what they are doing and where they determine how aggressive they are going to allow Shaquille O'Neal to be. That's OK. But then those people who talk about and write about these things should take that into consideration."

Friedman: "I want to ask you about a particular aspect of greatness and this goes back to a conversation that we had in the car when we were riding around in Denver. You talked about court vision and the nature of it and which players have it and which ones don't. I was struck by the fact that you had a very low opinion of Allen Iverson's court vision. I would like you to expound a little bit on what you mean by court vision--what does it mean to have that and how is that developed. Also, Iverson has had some games with 14 or 16 assists--at least on the surface he appears to be capable of distributing the ball. I'm interested in your observations about court vision in general and then expound a little bit about whether you see it in Iverson's game or if he lacks it in some way."

Jabali: "Actually, he has it. He has court vision but what he does is not use it all the time. I remember when he was playing at Georgetown and played with Victor Page and he did not utilize him at all. Page would be standing wide open sometimes and Iverson would take the ball to the hoop with some kind of degree of difficulty shot. I'm sure that he saw Page standing there but he decided that he would do it another way. Therefore it is not that he does not have court vision, but he does not use it all the time in a constructive way because he feels that he must do it himself. I think that Jordan probably had the same problem when he first started but eventually Jordan figured out that he was not going to win a championship until he had some people who could accomplish certain things. Maybe if Allen Iverson had the kind of team built around him that could produce in certain situations then he would use them more. I think they made mention that he has confidence in the young guy who shoots three pointers (Kyle Korver) and that he looks for him. He looks for Webber now but he doesn't have confidence in Webber."

Friedman: "Webber doesn't seem to have confidence in Webber sometimes, maybe because of the injuries."

Jabali: "The point that I am making is that Iverson would probably keep the ball even though he sees Webber, so that's what I'm talking about. In the past Iverson has not distributed the ball--not because he doesn't see his teammates, but because he thinks that it would be better for him to keep the ball."

Friedman: "Is court vision a skill that can be developed?"

Jabali: "I don't think so. I really don't think so. I think that it's something that you either have or you don't have. My grandson has it. But another young boy that I coach doesn't have it, doesn't even think about where the open person might be. It's a mindset that you come to the game with. If you don't have it you are not going to develop it because you are going to be a split second too late; you will be looking for it rather than already seeing it. "

Friedman: "That's a very eloquent way to put it. In other words, if you don't have that skill and you are trying to do it, it still won't work. When you try to do it you have already missed the moment--the moment passed and the guy is no longer open."

Jabali: "Yeah."

Friedman: "Who do you think in today's game would be the best example of having that kind of court vision, having the instinct for finding the open man?"

Jabali: "Obviously it's LeBron right now. He sees everything--and Carmelo doesn't."

Friedman: "They're classic opposites. Carmelo's a scorer. The only thing he sees is the hoop."

Jabali: "Right. But he has dribbling skills, he has passing skills--he has all of the skills. His ball handling skills are sufficient. It's just the mindset (that is lacking).

Friedman: "I'll throw a couple other names out there--Jason Kidd and Steve Nash."

Jabali: "Yeah, both of them have it."

Friedman: "We've talked a lot about greatness in general, which is a fascinating subject to me, but now I want to talk about some specific moments from your career. In the 1969 ABA Finals you averaged over 33 ppg playing against the Pacers, who became the most storied ABA franchise and won the most ABA championships. What are your memories of that series?"

Jabali: "I remember it as a great basketball series. During that series I realized and understood that Indianapolis was the best town that the ABA had to offer. The fans were knowledgeable about the game. Going to Indianapolis was like going to Madison Square Garden in New York in the NBA. You put on your best game. They always had a good team, so they were always ready for most teams. Playing against Roger Brown and Freddie Lewis was extremely difficult. They had scoring coming from everywhere. But to be perfectly honest, I was unconscious. (Coach) Alex Hannum obviously knew what buttons to push. During the regular year I did not get the ball as much as I got it during the championship series. I was the second or third option. When Rick (Barry) was there, I was getting my scoring from offensive rebounds, fast breaks and steals."

Friedman: "Why did that change in the Finals?"

Jabali: "Rick was gone (due to injury)."

Friedman: "I know that, but you said that you went from third or fourth or whatever to the clear number one, averaging over 30 ppg."

Jabali: "I was the best player. Rick was a player who could handle and distribute. Rick could score but Rick could also handle and distribute the basketball. Doug Moe could not handle and distribute the basketball. Doug Moe was a scorer and he would not get other people involved. So Hannum clearly recognized that I needed to have the ball because not only could I score I would get other people involved."

Friedman: "A couple years later you spent a season with the Pacers. You played against them in the Finals and beat them and then later on you spent one season with the team. What are your memories of that season, specifically your memories of being coached by Slick Leonard and then your memories of playing with Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Freddie Lewis?

Jabali: "That was a wasted year. First of all, what Slick did was keep his nucleus together and then just add different flavors on top of it. The year that I was there I was supposed to have been in Kentucky to become part of the machine that Mike Storen put together down there. I was supposed to help out Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel and (Louie) Dampier, because he was not a real point guard, he was a "2." He was a scorer actually; he got a lot of assists because he had the ball all the time. Anyway, I had some difficulty with the coach down there and before the season started they shipped me off to Indianapolis. We had four guards--Freddie (Lewis), me and Billy Keller, who should have been playing--but then you had Rick Mount, who had to play. All of our time was reduced by the fact that Rick Mount had to get some time, which he didn't deserve."

Friedman: "Did he have to play because he was a local hero?"

Jabali: "Yeah--but he couldn't play. He shouldn't have gotten any time, but Slick couldn't just sit him down because he would cry. Sometimes he wouldn't even come to the game--big baby. Anyway, that year ended up with me playing much more limited time than I was used to or should have been playing and I really felt underutilized. I was underutilized and didn't enjoy that year. I enjoyed being around Mel and Roger and Freddie and I loved Indianapolis but as far as playing was concerned it was just a wasted year."

Friedman: "I noticed that your scoring and your minutes and all of your stats were down that year and I wasn't sure if there was a minutes crunch or if that was when some of your injuries came into play--"

Jabali: "No, that was because he had three guards who could play--Billy Keller could play and of course Freddie Lewis could play and then I could play--but then you had to deal with that political thing with Rick Mount and all of our minutes got impacted. Anyway, Freddie was his (Slick's) man; Freddie was going to be in during crunch time. I was usually the person who did that for whatever team I was on and (in Indiana) that role was taken. I considered that year to be time not well spent."

Friedman: "The way that you're describing the situation reminds me a little bit of the team that Portland had a few years back, the deep team that made the run to the Western Conference Finals; in a sense that team almost had too much talent. You're talking about how you were usually the guy who had the ball at the end of the game but he already had Freddie Lewis to do that. It seemed like Portland had that same kind of team about four or five years ago when they lost to the Lakers. They had so many guys who could all do the same things that you couldn't put them all on the court at the same time; they had excess talent instead of having talent that did different, complementary things. Obviously, you can't have two clutch guards on the court at the same time handling the ball because there is only one ball. So one is going to play and one is not."

Jabali: "That is not exactly synonymous because there was no animosity among the three that could play. The animosity was there because you had one guy who couldn't. In Portland, you're describing that they had people who could play so the time was not available and the animosity may have come from that."

Friedman: "I was thinking specifically of the example you cited involving you and Freddie Lewis--both players who do similar things in clutch time. That particular situation reminds me of Portland. Portland had a bunch of guys in the 6-6, 6-7 range--(Scottie) Pippen, Bonzi Wells, Steve Smith--and then you had a bunch of power forwards--Rasheed (Wallace), Jermaine O'Neal, Brian Grant, who at that time was nearly an All-Star caliber player--and you couldn't put them all on the court at the same time. You had three power forwards who could play and you had three shooting guards/small forwards who could play and they couldn't all be out there at the same time. That seemed a little similar to the situation with you and Freddie Lewis."

Jabali: "It is a little similar, except that I was just describing how I felt about it. I didn't have any problem with it. I recognized that Freddie was the man. He and Slick communicated very well. Freddie was the guard for Indiana."

Friedman: "He had already been there for a while."

Jabali: "Yeah."

Friedman: "Later on in his career when he ended up with the Spirits of St. Louis they had a great playoff run, upsetting the defending champion New York Nets. They looked like they had a chance at a championship until he got hurt in the playoffs and they ended up losing to Kentucky. I know that he has a reputation as a great clutch player."

Jabali: "Yeah. I didn't have a problem with that. I had a problem with Rick Mount. That's where the problem was."

Friedman: "The next season you were with the Floridians and in the playoffs you played against a rookie for the Virginia Squires, Julius Erving, who had a tremendous playoff run that year in which he averaged over 33 points, 20 rebounds and over six assists. He had his all-time playoff single game scoring high that year as a rookie, 53 points against the Floridians. What are your recollections of playing against the young Julius Erving? That is a Julius Erving that 99% of basketball fans never saw. He wasn't on TV. I don't know what the attendance was like but most fans, even ones who feel they are very familiar with him, never saw the Julius that was getting 33, 20 and 6 and put up a 53 point playoff game as a rookie. What do you remember of the experience of seeing him burst on to the scene in the ABA?"

Jabali: "Well, it was complete frustration. We had a squad where Mack Calvin, Larry Jones and I were starting. I would play the point guard, Larry Jones would play the small forward and then on defense Larry would go back out and pick up a guard, Mack would move to the point guard and I would defend the small forward. So I had to match up with Julius Erving. The person who he put all those numbers up against was me! (Jabali laughs) I'm out there trying to guard this boy and he'd go to the hoop and when I tried to stop him he would do like I told you I did to Spencer--he'd just reach around and spin the ball up on the backboard and it would bounce around and go in. Or he'd stop and pull up and shoot over my head. It was just sheer frustration. There was nothing that you could do--other than hitting him upside his head and knocking him down--to stop him."

Friedman: "I want to go back--I know we're jumping around a little bit--to the quote that you had about greatness or not achieving greatness. You mentioned that the struggle of African-American people was very important to you at that time, as I'm sure it is today as well. In another article that I read you mentioned that music is a touchstone for what is happening in a given era. You talked about that when you were coming up you had James Brown singing 'I'm black and I'm proud' and now you have songs with lyrics like 'It was a good day-- I didn't have to use my AK.' Looking at the past 30 or 40 years of race relations in this country, what is your perspective about what has happened with some of those issues? Obviously, some of the overt discrimination that was going on when you were coming up--sitting in the back of the bus and so forth--is not prevalent today."

Jabali: "Well, the effects of the discrimination have changed. When I was coming up you had blatant racism that you had to deal with. Today you don't have blatant discrimination. Little black kids, although they're still growing up in segregated situations, they don't connect that to race at all. Most of the white people that they see, most of the white people that young black men see, those white people are trying to be like them. Young black men are the cultural model for a large segment of the whole entire society. So you don't have the same racism going on. What's going on now that is still a result of racism in America is a deterioration of black communities and black families based on the fact that black people have had their leadership destroyed over the generations. Therefore no serious national dialogue has taken place as far as who is responsible for the black underclass. Therefore, nobody ends up being responsible for it. White people feel no responsibility and middle class black people feel no responsibility for this underclass that just keeps on growing and expanding. So, different than before--when there was poverty because of blatant racism--that same type of poverty exists today but nobody can point a finger to say what the source of it is, what the cause of it is or what the remedy for it is. Because Martin Luther King didn't stay around long enough to talk about it, Malcolm X didn't stay around long enough to talk about it. People like Paul Robeson were disenfranchised and called 'communist,' so therefore nobody black had the nerve to even listen to what he said; W.E.B. DuBois, who changed his mind about the NAACP--which is the organization that he started--and its role in the black community. He changed his mind about it but nobody knew that or asked why. All of the leaders that we've had, nobody can tell you anything about them and what they thought, what they believed or what they'd have you do."

Friedman: "Why do you think that there is a leadership void of that kind and what should be done about it? Specifically, you're talking about the leadership that existed in the black community and you listed a number of great names--Martin Luther King, Malcom X, W.E.B. Dubois. Why do you think that people of that status have not emerged to lead the community?"

Jabali: "Well the reason why nobody of that status has emerged is that the problem does not appear to be that great. Think about Jesse Jackson, for example. If black people were still being lynched and murdered in the South and if black people were still being denied privileges to ride on public transportation, if you had some kind of parallel to that still going on today, then Jesse Jackson would be in the forefront fighting that. Because we have a situation where there is no blatant racism, Jesse Jackson is involved in building black corporate America. He's still in the struggle, so to speak, but he's in the struggle to build black wealth. Therefore, the problem is not being addressed by anybody and it's not a major enough social and media event for anybody to address it."

Friedman: "Have you ever discussed these issues or worked with Jim Brown? I don't know him personally, but from what I've read and seen I understand that he is very interested and passionate about some of the same issues that you are talking about."

Jabali: "No, I've never met Jim Brown, but I have tremendous respect for what he has done over the years. I don't think that anybody like Jim Brown or any other leader is going to remedy what we are talking about. The only thing that can remedy what we are talking about is for there to be a change in direction by the African-American church. During the 1950s there was a meeting of the National Baptist Convention--that is the black Baptist organization, or one of them. At that meeting there was a vote led by a preacher from New York for the National Baptist Convention to get involved in the political and economic life of African-American people. Martin Luther King supported that point of view. When the vote was taken, it was voted down. The African-American church voted against getting involved in economics and politics. Since then they've just been involved in 'saving souls.' At the same time, the political condition and the economic condition of black people just continues to deteriorate. If the African-American church got involved all over this country in economic development--you can take for example housing in low income areas--if they worked with the federal government and states' initiatives and set up community development corporations to build houses, they could then control the attitudes of the people who come into the houses. They could say, 'If you want to live here, any drugs or any domestic violence--all of that stuff has to go' and they could sign covenants to that effect. If you get involved in drugs or domestic violence, you automatically terminate your lease. After a while, people who come into those houses would start acting like they have some sense. All the little store fronts in black areas that are owned by Palestinians and Arabs where black men hang around drinking beer--churches could buy them. You don't want anybody there, buy out the property and let people who want to buy bread and milk come into the store. All those other people who want to buy alcohol let them go somewhere else to buy it. But they don't do that kind of stuff. They do it in some places, but they're not doing it en masse. Until that stuff starts happening en masse, we won't see any improvement in the population of African-Americans in this country."

Friedman: "The problem is that in the 1960s there were some entrenched things that were laws that were wrong and people could march and protest and organize against it and get those laws changed and it was a direct process. It wasn't easy to do, but it was clear what the goal was and there was a direction that could be taken and that was achieved. Now what you are talking about are systematic socio-economic problems that cannot be solved by just passing a law that makes everything OK. It's a more difficult, subtle problem to address."

Jabali: "We're talking about the minds of the people. The NAACP has done an excellent job of making sure that the United States follows its Constitution. They did that. Now, is that all that they can do, just become a watchdog for Constitutional violations? I think that's basically all that they do because that's all that they were set up to do. So that's not a real criticism of them but we have these problems, these pathologies that exist that the NAACP was never set up to deal with. Who is supposed to deal with that? That goes back to the original point. Are white people supposed to deal with that? Are black people supposed to deal with that? Who is supposed to deal with that?"

Friedman: "So it doesn't get addressed because it is not clear who is supposed to address it or how to address it."

Jabali: "Socially and culturally, right."

Friedman: "We talked (during the 2005 All-Star Weekend) about the book Loose Balls and we talked about how you and other players feel very strongly that there are misrepresentations in the book or things in the book that are not true. I want to ask you about three situations that were described in the book and then you can tell me what did or did not happen in those situations. I am just going to list the bare bones description that is in there and then you can tell me what really transpired. The first one that is mentioned is an incident that occurred with you and a player named Jim Jarvis. What is your recollection or perception of what happened in that situation?"

Jabali: "That one was probably pretty accurate. What went on with Jim Jarvis was, 'How do you handle anger when you are not able to articulate it?' That was my problem then. I was watching what was going on in the ABA. Let me clarify that--I'm not saying that whatever he wrote was not accurate in that regard. But I was watching what was going on in the ABA. Rick Barry shot anywhere from 10-15 tree throws a game and then he would make 10-12 baskets and, voila, he's got 35 points a game. The reason why he was getting all of these 35 point games is because he was shooting 15 free throws and making 12 or 13 or all of them some nights because he shot real well. So, I began to realize that I was getting beat up and I needed to shoot some free throws. It got to the point that Alex Hannum made a comment that was published somewhere in which he said that what he liked about Warren Armstrong was that Warren Armstrong was able to go to the basket, take a blow and still make the basket. But there wasn't a foul being called--I was just taking the blow (Jabali laughs). The thing about guys like Jim Jarvis is that they had to scrap and hustle and do everything that they could in order to stay in the league because they really couldn't play. He was harassing me and hacking me and trying to steal the ball. One time he did get the ball, but he had almost taken half of my arm with it. I turned around and looked at the ref and the ref just turned his head. So I turned back around and impulsively swung and knocked Jim Jarvis down and went over and stomped him. So that part was accurate. But he didn't give an explanation for it--he just categorized it as 'thug' stuff and tried to take the high road. That's what always kills me--we don't know whether he's a pedophile or what his story is, but he can act like he's somebody who can take the high road and everybody else is on the low road. That's what bothers me about it."

Friedman: "You're saying that the facts of the situation were explained accurately, but that he was trying to psychoanalyze you or have other people psychoanalyze you."

Jabali: "He's got this 'thug' thing thrown all throughout the book. That was an example that I offer no defense for; I mean that is something that I shouldn't have done. But for him to now start categorizing it as a result of the 'thug' life--it wasn't a result of the 'thug' life. I wasn't a 'thug.' It was a result of political thoughts. The thing that had me thinking the way that I was thinking was not being a 'thug' and robbing or stealing or anything like that. It was that these people who were in control of the league were messing me around. Why is it that I don't get a foul called when there is a foul? And here's a person who is trying to take advantage of the fact that he knows that they won't call a foul on me. So he's going to come and assault me because he knows that he can get away with it."

Friedman: "The next situation that was described in the book--and, as you said, there is this characterization of you and John Brisker as the tough guys in the league, or, as you said, the 'thugs'--involved Neil Johnson, who played for the Virginia Squires. There was some incident in which he punched you or knocked you down. What is your recollection of that situation?"

Jabali: "What he had is a quote from some little brand x person like Jarvis who just kind of hung around--Dave Twardzik."

Friedman: "Yep. Dave Twardzik."

Jabali: "He had some quote from him, I don't know if it was an accurate quote or not, but he put it in the book like it was an accurate quote. But if Twardzik said it, then it was a lie. Anyway, what happened is that this dude Johnson--I was guarding somebody around the 10 second line and the referee blew the whistle for me guarding him too closely. Just as the referee blew the whistle, Johnson set a screen. He had his back turned and he was setting a screen to block me. The whistle had blown, so I felt that he should have relaxed and moved out of the way, but he didn't move out of the way. So I put my hand on the back of his head and pushed him, just pushed him. I didn't hit him. So the referee ran over and got in my face. Neil Johnson snuck around behind me and while the referee was talking to me, he hit me in the back of my head and knocked me down. Twardzik said that this dude walked up in front of me and knocked me down. How is somebody going to walk up in front of me and I'm going to let him hit me? You've got to be kidding."

Friedman: "Obviously, there's a big difference between facing someone and hitting him and hitting him in the back of the head."

Jabali: "There is a night and day difference."

Friedman: "What was the end result of that situation? I've talked to Mel Daniels and he told me that there were a lot of fights back then because they didn't suspend players and the fines were very small. If a guy did that today, walked up behind a player today and hit him in the back of the head, I don't know how many games he would be out. What was the actual end result of that situation?"

Jabali: "Nothing (other than) we were both put out of the game."

Friedman: "That was it? You were ejected and then you played in the next game?"

Jabali: "Yep. That was it for us. See, what happened is that I didn't talk to anybody because all I wanted to talk about was the struggle. That goes back to the original question about why I thought the struggle for African-American people was more important (than basketball). I didn't talk about how to be a better player. I didn't talk about how to be a better team. Those were not things that I was interested in. When I hit the court I played hard and I played to win, but basketball was not a topic of conversation with me. I remember that it was a topic of conversation for Larry Brown and Doug Moe. They would get with Alex Hannum after the game, go to the bar and they would talk basketball all night."

Friedman: "The third situation described in the book--and you've mentioned Alex Hannum several times--happened in the middle of the 1973-74 season. Obviously, you were having a good year, you were playing very well--and he cut you. You had played for him for a number of years for different teams. What exactly happened in that situation?"

Jabali: "What happened was that I was not able to do what he expected me to do. We had been expected to challenge Indiana and Utah in the West. Ralph Simpson and I were the guards. We had a pretty good squad but we didn't really have the squad to challenge those people because we weaker up front. Byron Beck was going to get some rebounds, but they weren't going to be tough rebounds. Our frontline of Dave Robisch, Byron Beck and Julius Keye could not compete with (Indiana's Bob) Netolicky, Mel Daniels and Roger Brown or (Utah's) Willie Wise, Zelmo Beaty and whoever else they had. So we were weak on the frontline. That's why I was saying earlier you've got to have that size--Chamberlain, I would have to put him out there (ahead of Oscar Robertson and the other great all-around players). Anyway, we were playing and he realized that we were not going to get over the hump. What I think happened is that I became the scapegoat for him. He probably was telling the owners that I was the reason that the team was not excelling and also that it had nothing to do with decisions that he had made and his coaching. It was easier for him to transfer responsibility over to me for us not succeeding the way that he thought that we should. That's what I think it was. Plus, I was getting a tendency to get hurt and I had missed a playoff game because my back was out. He remembered that I had had a back operation, so I think that I had lost a lot of value as a player. That was the only relationship that we had--coach and player. I mean, he wasn't a friend of mine and I wasn't a friend of his. So I think that's what it was. He decided to sacrifice me for the lack of success that the team was having."

Friedman: "When that happened did that take you by surprise? I know you say that your relationship with him was purely as player and coach, but was this an out of the blue thing that this would happen after you had played for him or did you kind of see it coming?"

Jabali: "No, I really didn't see it coming. I just made a suggestion. We were at an All-Star Game in Virginia. All of the coaches and the general managers and the owners were housed in this high rise part of the hotel. All of the players and their wives were in this two-story part where they changed the sheets every half hour because they had prostitutes running in and out of the building. We felt that this was an insult, that we shouldn't to have to have our wives--if it had just been us players we probably would have been (ticked) off, but why do we have to take our wives into this environment? Why do we have to do this? So when we were in our Players Association meeting everybody was (ticked) off and complaining, so I figured that we could show our dissatisfaction by not going to the luncheon tomorrow. So they voted on it and they voted not to go to the luncheon. So they didn't show up for the luncheon except for Julius, who went to the luncheon even after he said he wasn't going to go to the luncheon, and Larry Kenon went to the luncheon and Artis Gilmore went to the luncheon. But all the rest of the black players did not go to the luncheon. Jim Eakins said that he was going to the luncheon, so he was left out of it. So when everything finalized, the players didn't go to the luncheon, the All-Star Game is over, some kind of way I am totally responsible for the voting decision that was made by grown men. So that was an impetus; it had nothing to do with the relationship between Hannum and me. It had to do with Hannum, I think, using me as a scapegoat for his lack of success coaching and as a general manager of that team."

Friedman: "I have one more question. I appreciate the time that you have taken. This kind of wraps up the whole thing about Loose Balls and some of the things about being a 'thug' or tough guy. Rightly or wrongly, you were perceived or had a reputation or were described as being a 'tough guy.' At that time as a player you must have been aware that people perceived you that way or were talking about you that way. At that time in some way did you relish that or did you think that it gave you an advantage because people were wary of you? Even if you weren't really that way, people thought that you were and kind of kept a step back from you or were a little leery of you or intimidated by you. Did you relish that at the time? Also, looking back on it now, how do you feel about being perceived that way as a player?"

Jabali: "Yeah, I was aware of it and of course it doesn't hurt for a person to have a reputation that is going to cause someone else to pause. I didn't seek it. I played tough because that's the way Alex Hannum taught me to play. Remember, he was my first coach in Oakland. He said that KC Jones would start out the game with his fingertips on a player and by the end of the game he was grabbing the player. So you get the referees used to seeing it a certain way and by the end of the game you are able to slide and get away with stuff that you normally wouldn't be able to get away with. So I started trying to control the movement of smaller players by holding them with my hand and, obviously, they didn't like that, but referees let me get away with it. So I kept doing it and over the years it kind of became my trademark. They felt that I was trying to be tough because I really didn't communicate with the players about the game and the kinds of things that they were talking about. I don't know what they were talking to each other about, but I didn't have any line of communication with any of the other players. When you don't know something you tend to fear it. Yeah, I was aware that I had this reputation and I think that I tried to use it to my advantage. I really do not have any regrets today about being perceived that way because, after all, the game was about winning; we were not at a social tea or something."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:27 AM

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Chris Paul's Dazzling Shooting and Passing Cap off the 2013 All-Star Weekend

Kevin Durant scored 19 first half points en route to a game-high 30 but Chris Paul initially showcased his passing skills (nine first half assists) before dropping in nine fourth quarter points to earn his first NBA All-Star MVP award as the West defeated the East 143-138. Paul finished with 20 points and a game-high 15 assists, just the third 20 point-15 assist performance in All-Star Game history; Isiah Thomas (21-15 in 1984) and Magic Johnson (21-15 in 1985) are the other two players who accomplished this feat. Paul now owns the best apg average (12.4) in All-Star history. While Paul deserved the All-Star MVP, Durant would also have been a solid choice. In a brief period of time, Durant is assembling one of the best All-Star resumes ever; last year, Durant poured in 36 points to win his first All-Star Game MVP and he already holds several All-Star records: career scoring average (28.8 ppg), most points scored in a player's first four All-Star Games (115, cruising past the 97 scored by LeBron James and the 96 apiece scored by Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson) and most consecutive All-Star Games with at least 30 points (three).

The West led for most of the game but never by more than 11 points. Paul's L.A. Clipper teammate Blake Griffin contributed 19 points, while James Harden had 15 points and six rebounds in his All-Star debut. Kobe Bryant scored just nine points but he distributed eight assists--second behind only Paul--and he guarded LeBron James for most of the fourth quarter, holding the league's best player to just one point (and 0-4 field goal shooting) in a competitive final stanza. Bryant blocked two of James' shots. James had a quiet game by his lofty standards: 19 points on 7-18 field goal shooting, five assists, three rebounds; James snapped his record streak of scoring at least 20 points in seven straight All-Star Games. Carmelo Anthony led the East in both points (26) and rebounds (12), while Dwyane Wade had 21 points and a team-high seven assists.  Paul George (17 points and four assists in 20:03) and Kyrie Irving (15 points and four assists in 24:46) performed very well in their first All-Star Game.

Only Kevin Garnett--who started for the East and went 0-2 from the field in 6:26--and LaMarcus Aldridge--who went 0-2 from the field in 11:27 as a West reserve--failed to score. Chris Bosh provided unintentional comic relief--and a bunch of clips for future Shaqtin' A Fool segments--with two first quarter airballs and the two times that he allowed guards to dribble between his legs (first Chris Paul, then Tony Parker), plus a few examples of Blue Bayou defense (as in, "Man, he blew by you"). An in-game interview with Dwight Howard revealed that Howard and Tim Duncan had some kind of side wager about who would make a three pointer first; Duncan missed his lone attempt, while Howard converted his only three point attempt and promptly celebrated with an imitation of Russell Westbrook's post-shot routine.

During a halftime commercial, Julius Erving--who always knew not just how to dunk but also when to dunk--provided succinct advice when asked to list the three qualities of a great dunker: "Don't miss" is the one and only quality that matters in Erving's book. That would have been the quote of the day, but Bill Russell topped it when he explained to Chris Webber why he considers himself to be the greatest player of all-time: Russell declared that he was a winner who did not "distort" his team's offense or his team's defense. That is a profound statement--whether or not you agree with Russell's conclusion--because most great players accumulate their statistics and/or gain their accolades by focusing attention on themselves, while Russell played in a way that focused attention on his team's success; Michael Jordan proved that, contrary to what his early critics said, a scoring champion could lead his team to a championship--but Bill Russell was never interested in proving anything of that nature: he was just interested in winning, regardless of his individual statistics. In that same interview with Webber, Russell also shrewdly noted that it is difficult to rank players from different eras because that is like "playing against ghosts"; a player can only compete against--and can only be compared with--the players he faced in his own era. Russell is smart enough to understand that you cannot really compare him to Jordan (or vice versa) but he also has enough pride (and basketball IQ) to explain why he has to at the very least be on the short list for the mythical title of greatest player of all-time.

The NBA All-Star Game does not showcase 48 minutes of intense defense and finely tuned shot selection but the players are not just goofing around and the intensity level definitely increased in the fourth quarter; the NBA All-Star Game more closely resembles a regular season game--while still providing room for the players to excite the fans with highlight plays--than the All-Star games in the other major sports. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the exhibition that tips off All-Star Weekend; watching the Rising Stars Game is like gorging on junk food: it may feel good in the moment but the satisfaction does not last. The young players are marvelously talented but watching two guys go one on one while eight guys stand around in a 20 point blowout is not really that entertaining, nor is it entertaining when a slam dunk contest breaks out at the end of the game; hard fought competition at both ends of the court is entertaining. Believe it or not, All-Star games--in all sports, not just pro basketball--used to be much more competitive than they are now. I am not suggesting that players do the equivalent of Pete Rose sliding hard into Ray Fosse but it is disrespectful to the game--and to oneself--to not compete.

The All-Star Saturday events were solid but not spectacular this year. The Shooting Stars is a decent way to simultaneously involve NBA players, WNBA players and NBA legends in one event but this contest has yet to produce a signature, memorable moment--nor is the format likely to enable that to happen. I would rather see some pure form of H-O-R-S-E. For the record, Team Bosh (consisting of Chris Bosh, Swin Cash and Dominique Wilkins) won. I like the Skills competition because it emphasizes the fundamentals of dribbling, passing and shooting but also enables players to provide glimpses of their speed and their leaping ability (if they choose to dunk the ball instead of laying it up); rookie Damian Lillard beat Jrue Holiday to win a trophy to place next to the Rookie of the Year trophy that he will receive in a few months. The Three Point competition has emerged as the most reliably entertaining All-Star Saturday event. Kyrie Irving is not known as a pure shooter but he stole the show and beat Matt Bonner in the final round.

The Slam Dunk Contest used to be the centerpiece of All-Star Saturday but it is not a good sign when the comedic stylings of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith are more entertaining than the event that they are covering. Terrence Ross joined the increasingly large list of forgettable Slam Dunk champions. There are several problems with the Slam Dunk Contest as it is currently constructed:

1) The game's great players do not participate; Julius Erving, David Thompson, George Gervin, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins are just a few of the Hall of Famers who participated in at least one ABA or NBA Slam Dunk Contest but today's superstars either do not want to be bothered and/or are concerned that failing to win the contest could somehow hurt their marketability.
2) In the old school Slam Dunk Contests there were not any do-overs, so there was great pressure not only to come up with something unique enough to garner a high score but also not to mess up. As a Julius Erving fan I did not like it that one missed dunk cost Erving the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest (Larry Nance had a big lead after that miss and thus played it very safe on his final attempt in the last round) but the all or nothing scenario is preferable to watching a guy try the same dunk over and over and over and over and over...and over and over and over--you get the point. The do-overs have to go or, failing that, points must be deducted from the final score for each missed dunk: it should not be possible to miss several dunks and still get a perfect 50.
3) After three decades of Slam Dunk Contests--and in an era of extreme sports, CGI special effects and outlandish video games--it is difficult to shock and amaze people. The dunks on Saturday night were not really that bad; if someone had taken off from just inside the foul line and dunked with two hands 20 years ago the way that James White did then that person would have become an instant legend: when Julius Erving did his one handed foul line dunk in 1976 it seemed like an almost superhuman feat but now even minor league ball players can do that, much like Roger Bannister's first four minute mile broke a barrier but now one does not have to be a track legend to run a mile in under four minutes. The reason that contestants are pulling out props and creating gimmicks is that they know that the audience is somewhat jaded and very hard to impress. I am not sure if there is a solution to this particular problem; we have lost our sense of wonder and that is a hard thing to recapture.

It may not be possible to recreate the magic of Julius Erving facing David Thompson or Michael Jordan challenging Dominique Wilkins but the Slam Dunk Contest could regain some of its lost prestige if today's superstars would participate and if the rules did not permit do-overs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:31 AM

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Michael Jordan Always Attacked the Citadels

Michael Jordan's upcoming 50th birthday has inspired much commentary and reflection about his legacy and impact. While Jerry West transitioned from being "Mr. Clutch" on the court to being one of pro basketball's great executives, it does not seem likely that Jordan's career as an NBA owner/executive is going to add much to his legacy; now is as good a time as ever to place Jordan's career in proper context without resorting either to hagiography or to the kind of nitpicking critiques that are applied to most great players but have not often been leveled at Jordan since he led the Chicago Bulls to a second "three-peat."

Jordan entered the NBA in 1984 as a highly regarded performer--an NCAA and Olympic champion who had just been the consensus NCAA Player of the Year as a junior--but no one predicted or expected just how great he would be on the court, let alone the culture-shifting impact he would have off of the court as an iconic figure who transcended not just his sport but sport in general. Rod Thorn was an assistant coach for the New York Nets when Julius Erving dominated the ABA and Thorn drafted Michael Jordan third overall for the Bulls, so Thorn has a unique perspective on Jordan's greatness and on Jordan's place in pro basketball history: "Up to this point, I think that the best all-around player has been Michael Jordan. When you compare Michael to Julius, Julius was a better rebounder. As defenders, both of them were top flight. Michael was a better shooter. Athletically, they were both in the top one percent. But I just think that because of everything that he did in the NBA and the way that his career went, I think that Jordan, to me, is the best player."

Kevin Loughery is the only person who served as both Erving's head coach (from 1973-76 in the ABA, when Erving won three regular season MVPs, two championships and two playoff MVPs) and Jordan's head coach (1984-85, when Jordan led the Bulls in scoring, rebounding and assists en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award). Here is Loughery's take on Erving versus Jordan: "There are a lot of similarities between the Doctor and Michael. I think the ability to handle the ball probably puts Michael a tad ahead of the Doctor." Loughery offered this caveat: "In the last year of the ABA, Dr. J. probably played as good a season as anyone who ever played...The Doc put on some show every day." This is Loughery's final verdict: "As it turned out, Michael did become the greatest ever. But when you talk about greatness, it was pretty close between Doc and Michael. You can never leave out Bill Russell, either, because he won 11 championships with the Celtics."

NBA lifer Johnny Bach served as an assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls from 1986-94 and thus had a front row seat as Jordan evolved from a great individual talent into a great champion. Bach marveled about how the young Jordan would  "attack the citadels," Bach's colorful way of saying that Jordan fearlessly drove to the hoop and would not be deterred by bigger players who tried to block his shot and/or deliver hard fouls. Jordan's entire approach to the game involved attacking the citadels; he never backed down from any challenge, even in the last days of his career as a Wizard when he dragged one gimpy leg up and down the court, simultaneously defying the aging process, the younger players who dared to challenge him and the critics who carped that he had overstayed his welcome. One of the most indelible images of Jordan's career--an image that epitomizes who Jordan is at the core of his being--is of old Wizard Jordan chasing down the much younger Ron Mercer, pinning Mercer's shot to the backboard with two hands and then barking defiantly at Mercer; you can catch a glimpse of that play at the 4:10 mark of the "What is Love?" video in the first link after the end of this article. "Love is playing every game as if it's your last," Jordan declares in that video, and he lived up to that motto throughout his career; the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are the most amazing and captivating team I have ever seen in any sport because--thanks to the leadership of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Coach Phil Jackson--they seemed to be trying to go 82-0 (the 16-0 New England Patriots displayed similar resolve in 2007 but, unlike the 1996 Bulls, they failed to win the championship).

Jordan is unquestionably a member of pro basketball's Pantheon and many people reflexively call him the greatest player of all-time. When I wrote my Pantheon series I refused to single out one player from that group of 10 (Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving, listed in the order that they finished in a 1999 AP vote for the best players of the 20th century) and I still believe that a case could be made for any of those players to be the greatest player of all-time, depending on the criteria used--a stronger case could be made for some of those players than for others but the point is that a case could be made for any of them. Since this article is about Jordan, I will explain how one could make the case for Jordan; there are statistical, technical, aesthetic and iconographic reasons to rank Jordan first.

Statistically, Jordan displayed dominance in a variety of ways; he won a record 10 scoring titles, capturing the crown in every full season of his career except for his rookie season and his two seasons as a Wizard. He shot .500 or better from the field in six of his 13 full seasons and he shot .482 or better in an additional four seasons--Jordan displayed a very rare combination of productivity and efficiency. Jordan's 30.1 ppg regular season scoring average ranks first all-time (just ahead of Wilt Chamberlain, who almost "passed" Jordan when Jordan played for the Wizards), his 33.5 ppg playoff scoring average is the best ever and his 33.6 ppg Finals scoring average trails only Rick Barry's 36.3 ppg scoring average (but Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals, while Barry went 1-1 and barely played enough games to qualify for all-time leadership). Jordan led the league in minutes played three times and he led the league in steals three times. He averaged 30.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 5.3 apg in the regular season, pushing those numbers to 33.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 5.7 apg in the playoffs. LeBron James has had an amazing run of high scoring, high efficiency games recently but in the 1988-89 season Jordan racked up 10 triple doubles in an 11 game stretch after Coach Doug Collins shifted Jordan to point guard; Jordan averaged 32.5 ppg (first in the league), 8.0 apg (eighth in the league) and 8.0 rpg that season. While Oscar Robertson is justly praised for putting together the only season-long triple double in pro basketball history (30.8 ppg, 11.4 apg and 12.5 rpg in 1963-64), Jordan's 1989 campaign is the only 32-8-8 season in pro basketball history.

Jordan's five regular season MVPs rank second (tied with Bill Russell) behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's six. His six Finals MVPs lap the field (Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan rank second with three each, though Bill Russell would surely be on this list if the award had existed prior to 1969, Russell's final season). Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only players to win the MVP and the Defensive Player of the Year in the same season; David Robinson won both awards but not in the same season (this is another category in which Russell's presence would have been felt, but the Defensive Player of the Year award did not exist until 1983). Jordan is tied with three other players (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Gary Payton) for first all-time with nine All-Defensive First Team selections (this honor was created in 1969 and Russell earned a First Team nod in the final season of his career).

While Jordan's numbers are staggering and his resume bulges with awards, his attention to detail made him a nearly flawless player technically. Jordan was a well-coached player who relentlessly honed his craft; he had impeccable footwork at both ends of the court and his game was so fundamentally sound that he would have been an excellent player even if he had not possessed all of his athletic gifts--but his combination of elite athletic ability with sound fundamentals elevated him (literally and figuratively) above his peers.

Aesthetically, Jordan picked up the torch previously carried by elegant high flyers Elgin Baylor, Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving. The ability to soar through the air will always fascinate and captivate young and old people alike because most of the human race cannot defy gravity for even a fraction of a second. Jordan was not only tremendously effective but his style of play was exquisitely beautiful to watch.

Jordan's appeal goes beyond the statistics, the technical mastery of the sport's fundamentals and the aesthetics; all of those elements synergistically combined with the explosion of cable/satellite TV and other media coverage to transform Jordan from a great player into an icon who transcended sport. Jordan left pro basketball for nearly two years to play minor league baseball and he then returned to the NBA to reassert nearly the same level of individual dominance and an even greater level of team dominance (capped off by that unprecedented 72-10 regular season in 1995-96). His teams went six for six in the NBA Finals and he won the Finals MVP each time; other players won more titles and/or made more Finals appearances but Jordan is the one great player who seemingly has a "perfect" Finals resume in terms of won/loss record combined with individual dominance. Those accomplishments created a mystique around Jordan, an iconography that will be difficult for any player to match; no matter how many championships Kobe Bryant or LeBron James win, both players will always have multiple Finals losses on their resumes. Aesthetic and iconographic reasons carry the least weight objectively but they are embedded very deeply in the hearts of most fans (and many commentators as well)--and if you consider cultural impact beyond the world of sports to be part of the equation defining athletic greatness then only a few names can be mentioned alongside Jordan: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali.

It must be stressed again that, depending on what criteria are used and how those criteria are weighted, good cases could also be made for each of the other Pantheon members to be lauded as the greatest basketball player of all-time--but the case for Jordan is compelling and for the foreseeable future he will be on the short list of players who must be mentioned in any such discussion.

Further Reading:

What is Love? The Greatest NBA Commercial of All-Time

Michael Jordan Views Hall of Fame Induction as Sign of Mortality

Michael Jordan: Feels Like Another One

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 AM

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