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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

King James Reigns in Houston (2006 NBA All-Star Weekend)

Note: This article was originally published on February 20, 2006 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

I began the final day of All-Star Weekend by attending the NBA Legends Brunch, which brings together an impressive array of basketball talent representing several generations of excellence. The National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) held the seventh edition of this event on Sunday morning at the Hilton-Americas hotel. Emceed by TNT Studio host Ernie Johnson, this year's brunch recognized Cynthia Cooper, Marques Haynes, Calvin Murphy, Kenny Smith, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. There was a moment of silence in memory of the 14 NBRPA members who passed away in 2005 and the issuing of Commemorative Championship Awards to the 1993-94 and 1994-95 Houston Rockets teams.

NBA Commissioner David Stern began his remarks to the group by saying, "It's been a spectacular week" and he praised the retired players for demonstrating their "commitment to community" by their actions during the week, including hospital and school visits and charitable donations. Stern said, "Respect for the tradition of the game is so important" and concluded by noting, "If you forget where you came from you will never get where you are supposed to go."

When Cynthia Cooper received her award, she emphasized the perseverance that carried her from growing up in Watts to 10 years of playing pro basketball in Italy before winning four WNBA titles with the Houston Comets. Cooper told me that the brunch "is incredibly special. Just being one of the honorees and being a part of the NBRPA is incredible. I grew up watching a lot of the veteran talent in this room." I asked her who in particular she admired as a kid and she enthusiastically replied, "Norm Nixon, Magic and Jamaal Wilkes--all of the Lakers. I was an L.A. girl and grew up as a Lakers fan. Oscar Robertson is so incredible. I feel incredibly honored to be part of such a talented group."

She is pleased to be on the same list with Murphy: "Calvin is a great guy. What happened is unfortunate but it's good to see him bounce back. It's so wonderful for the NBA and NBRPA to honor Calvin for his contributions to the sport of basketball--not men's or women's but basketball in general." Some players struggle to adjust to retirement. Not Cooper. "The adjustment was easy for me because I have twins," Cooper said. "They keep me pretty busy. I have boy-girl twins and I've always put family first, so it wasn't hard for me to make the decision or the transition to go from being an active player to a retired player."

Haynes, who received the Humanitarian Award, paid tribute to the Rens, the Harlem Globetrotters and other pioneering black teams of the early 20th century. He reminded the audience that his 1948 Globetrotters defeated George Mikan and the world champion Minneapolis Lakers, debunking the idea that the Globetrotters were merely showmen. This achievement paved the way for the eventual desegregation of the NBA. Haynes said that there must be a dialogue established with the NBA to create a pension program for Globetrotters players who were denied the opportunity to play in the NBA. Haynes' fascinating stories exceeded his allotted time, leading to an awkward moment when Ernie Johnson came back to the podium while Haynes was still talking.

I spoke with Haynes after the brunch and he told me, "I tried to say as much as I possibly could. They wanted me to keep it to five minutes." But the pension issue is so important that Haynes had to bring it up in the hope that he could generate some movement on that front. "We've been around a long time. We call ourselves 'the survivors.' We were denied the opportunity to play pro ball for the same reason the Negro Leaguers were--the color of our skin. This is something that could be rectified by the NBA instituting a plan similar to if not identical to what Major League Baseball did for the Negro Leaguers."

During his acceptance speech, Kenny Smith described the feelings of anger and helplessness that swept over him when Hurricane Katrina cut its path of devastation through the Gulf Coast. He decided to do something immediate to help the storm's victims and within four days he organized a charity basketball game that was televised on TNT and raised significant funds to help the displaced people. Smith insisted that each NBA player who participated must donate at least $10,000 in goods, services or products and that the player must distribute those wares personally, not via his agents or handlers.

Calvin Murphy's remarks were tinged with great passion and emotion. He lost his job as a Rockets broadcaster in the wake of some allegations that proved to be baseless and Murphy noted how much he misses being on the air talking about basketball, a job he held for 13 years after his Hall of Fame playing career. Before he went on stage, I asked Murphy what this award means to him. He replied, "With what I've just been through in my life, this is perfect timing--to be honored by your peers--people who believe in you and want you to know that they believe in you; this is the first day of the rest of my life."

Julius Erving said that Clyde Drexler had the complete package as a player and that Drexler was part of the showmanship lineage that began with Bob Davies and Bob Cousy and continued with Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins. Erving praised Drexler's "special flair and elegance." Erving played against Drexler for several years but they did not have a chance to interact much until Drexler invited Erving, who was by then retired, to a ceremony in Portland honoring Drexler. At that time Erving found out how much Drexler had always admired Erving and a big brother-little brother bond formed between them. Erving suggested that just as he played second fiddle to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Drexler was the second-best player in the game behind Michael Jordan and that there is no shame in that. When Drexler spoke he dismissed the notion that Dr. J played second fiddle to anyone, observing that every kid wore Dr. J shoes and wanted to be like Dr. J.

Olajuwon was unable to attend the brunch, so Yao Ming accepted the award on his behalf, noting, "Houston has always had a tradition of great big men." Next, Shaquille O'Neal spoke about the achievements of George Mikan, who passed away in 2005, describing him as the first great NBA big man. O'Neal said that he paid for Mikan’s funeral because that is what a son should do for his father. Rudy Tomjanovich, who coached the Rockets to titles in 1993-94 and 1994-95, thanked the NBRPA for honoring those teams and called to the stage several members of those teams who came to the brunch: Carl Herrera, Kenny Smith, Mario Elie and Clyde Drexler. The brunch concluded with a hysterical standup routine by Chris Tucker, who did impressions of O’Neal as a police officer, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo and others.

Afterwards I spoke with more legends than I have space to quote here, but it is always special to hear from George Gervin. The Iceman was happy to see Murphy honored: "Murphy looked good. He has always been a strong individual. We all knew he would bounce back. It's so unfortunate that he had to go through things but that's what life is about: life is about recovery and he's doing that." With everything else that has gone on these past few days it is important to remember that All-Star Weekend does in fact culminate in the All-Star Game on Sunday night.

Some anticipated themes played out: the West players fed local hero Tracy McGrady the ball and for a while he was on pace to threaten Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game record 42-point outburst. As Fred Carter might say, when I was inquiring earlier in the week about the possibility of Kobe Bryant breaking that mark I was in the right church but the wrong pew; Bryant finished with eight points, although he did play a strong floor game with a team-high eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals. He also hit a spectacular fadeaway 20-foot jumper to tie the game at 120 with 32.3 seconds left.

East Coach Flip Saunders did put all four Pistons on the court at the same time on a couple occasions, with Paul Pierce in the role of "fifth Beatle." The West led by as many as 21 and McGrady seemed to have MVP honors sewn up, but the East, spearheaded by the Pistons/Pierce combination toward the end of the third quarter, made a spirited rally and eventually took the lead. Then, LeBron James took over, finishing with 29 points, defending McGrady's attempt to tie the game at the end and becoming the youngest All-Star Game MVP, surpassing Oscar Robertson.

In his postgame remarks to the media, James made a very candid statement about McGrady's shot: "On his way up, I got a piece of his arm and a piece of the ball, which made it short." Reflecting on winning the MVP trophy, James said that individual accolades are not as important to him as being on a successful team.

Starting the day talking with the legendary Marques Haynes and finishing the day watching a potential legend in the making in LeBron James is the perfect way to conclude an intense and wonderful basketball weekend.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:55 AM

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