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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Reflections on the Passing of Tex Winter

Legendary basketball coach Tex Winter passed away yesterday at the age of 96. Winter played basketball at USC, where his Coach Sam Barry first developed what is now known as the Triangle Offense--but Winter refined and expanded that concept when he became a coach. Winter enjoyed an outstanding career as a collegiate head coach--most notably at Kansas State, a program that he twice led to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament--and he was inducted in the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

Winter's NBA coaching career began with a brief stint as Houston's head coach in the early 1970s but Elvin Hayes and company did not respond well to the Triangle. However, earlier in his career Winter had caught the eye of Jerry Krause, who vowed to hire Winter if he ever got the chance to do so.

That chance happened after Krause became the General Manager of the Chicago Bulls. Krause hired Winter to be an assistant coach under Doug Collins and the rest is history: Phil Jackson ascended to the head coaching position in 1989 and he promptly implemented the Triangle Offense under Winter's watchful eye. The Triangle Offense played a major role in Chicago's subsequent run of six championships during an eight year span in the 1990s and all of the key figures--including Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen--have said that they would not have won without Winter. Jackson brought Winter back to the bench when Jackson joined the L.A. Lakers and Winter was an assistant coach for four of the Lakers' next five championship teams (poor health forced Winter to retire prior to the Lakers winning the 2010 title).

Here is part of what I wrote about Winter after he was finally selected for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame :
"Every star that I've ever had on a team--except Scottie Pippen, basically--he had trouble with parts of their game," (Phil) Jackson said. Pippen embraced Winter's intricate Triangle and mastered all of its subtleties; when Michael Jordan took a hiatus from the NBA to play minor league baseball, many people wrongly assumed that Pippen would try to average 30 ppg and that the Bulls would be a mediocre team sans Jordan--but Pippen knew his strengths and limitations, so instead of trying to become a scoring champion he used his playmaking skills to enhance his teammates' performances, helping B.J. Armstrong and Horace Grant to each earn their first (and only) All-Star appearances as the Bulls surprised observers by going 55-27 and pushing the New York Knicks to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Winter's Triangle provided a structure and framework not so much for Jordan, Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant but rather for their less talented teammates...
Roland Lazenby was the Boswell to Winter's Johnson and Lazenby provided much insight for the general public regarding Winter's thought process. In 2007, Lazenby wrote an article that contained Winter's comparison of Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan and I quoted from that article in a 20 Second Timeout article:
Roland Lazenby, the fine editor of Lindy's Pro Basketball--for which I have written several articles during the past two years--recently posted an interview with Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter on the subject of the similarities between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. You can read the complete interview here. Winter concludes, "I tend to think how very much they're alike. They both display tremendous reaction, quickness and jumping ability. Both have a good shooting touch. Some people say Kobe is a better shooter, but Michael really developed as a shooter as he went along. I don't know if Kobe is a better shooter than Michael was at his best." He also dismisses the idea that Bryant took bad shots during his recent scoring binge: "We study the tapes. Actually, for the most part, he's not forcing up a lot of bad shots. When he gets hot, he does take shots that would be questionable for other players. But a lot of the shots he’s taken go in. He'll take shots that not many other players are going to be able to hit, and he hits them." These statements come from the person who invented the Triangle Offense and helped Phil Jackson implement it as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to six titles; then, Jackson utilized the same Triangle Offense to win three more titles in L.A. with Shaq and Kobe--and Winter says that Jordan and Bryant are "very much alike." The one caveat that Winter offers is that Jordan held his ground on the post better, while Bryant sometimes allows himself to get pushed off of the block and toward the three point line on offense.
Winter later told Lazenby that he doubted that Jordan would have fit in well with Shaquille O'Neal, who of course won three championships with the Lakers while playing alongside Bryant. As noted above, Winter's analysis of Bryant's shot selection differed from the superficial and biased mainstream media portrayals of Bryant.

O'Neal often clashed with Winter--though O'Neal was among the many who praised Winter in the wake of the news of Winter's passing--but Bryant and Winter bonded from the start. During the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend, Bryant told me, "I love Tex. If it weren't for Tex, I wouldn't look at the game or interpret the game the way that I do. The way that he teaches the game is different than any other coach that I've ever been around. He looks at the game in a different way. He actually teaches momentums--how to build momentums and how to break momentums. He looks at the total concept of the game and then plays it like chess. It's amazing to sit there and learn. When he teaches you something, you go out on the court and you apply that knowledge and it actually works. You start looking at him like he's Yoda. I'm telling you, it's just incredible."

After word of Winter's death was announced, Scottie Pippen tweeted, "Tex Winter was my biggest critic. He was also my biggest fan. A few words about the legendary coach who lived his 96 years as well as anyone could have..." Pippen later added, "Tex was tough on me early in my career. But he believed in me and gave me the confidence I needed to make the triangle work. He'd say, 'I'm not criticizing, I'm coaching'" and Pippen concluded, "Student of the game. Hall of Famer. 9 NBA championships as a coach. He taught me how to become a better offensive player. How to be patient on the floor. How to take criticism. How to win. Thank you, Tex. Rest In Peace."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:38 PM


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

House Call With Dr. J Podcast Featuring Isiah Thomas

Since February 2018, Julius Erving has been doing a podcast titled "House Call with Dr. J." Erving is a genial, well organized and engaging host. The podcasts sound much more like conversations than interviews. His guests have included many prominent people--including more than a few who are not basketball players--but in this article I will focus on Isiah Thomas.

Yesterday during my lunch break I listened to Erving's podcast with Thomas and the interaction between my favorite player of all-time and one of my favorite players from the 1980s brought back a lot of positive memories and great feelings. I remember seeing footage of Thomas and Magic Johnson talking at the 1987 NBA All-Star Weekend--Erving's last All-Star Weekend as an active player--about one of the times that Erving came to Michigan and appeared at a youth basketball camp. They took turns describing how Erving marched to one end of the court, ran to the free throw line, took off and hung in the air long enough to talk to the campers before he dunked the ball! The sheer joy on their faces as they gave their (perhaps slightly exaggerated) description of Erving made a lasting impression on me. I remember feeling jealous that Erving went to their camp and wishing that he had made an appearance at my basketball camp (one of my counselors wrote at the end of the summer that I was preparing daily to go one on one with Dr. J).

Erving was a tremendous player, a vastly underrated player, but he also has a touch of grace and class that enables him to influence generations of not only basketball players but people in general.

Thomas' respect for Erving shone through during the podcast and it was equally apparent that Erving respects Thomas. This was not some vapid mutual admiration society but rather two men who beat the odds in so many ways talking about what specifically they each did to be successful and how they are paying forward the good fortune that they have experienced.

Erving brought up how Thomas overcame a severely sprained ankle to score an NBA Finals record 25 points in the fourth quarter of Detroit's 103-102 game six loss to the L.A. Lakers in 1988. Erving was modest enough to not mention that in game one of the 1976 ABA Finals he scored 25 points in the fourth quarter and 37 points in the second half. Erving asked Thomas what he was thinking as he was scoring those points. I remember that a similar question from ESPN's Dan Patrick years ago elicited passionate tears from Thomas as he talked about how hard he and his teammates had fought to have this opportunity to win a title. Thomas did not cry this time and he provided some interesting insights. Thomas said that players of his generation, like players from Erving's generation, played for the moment and were focused on winning the title right at that time. In contrast, Thomas believes that today's players focus on their legacy or on a business plan to play for 15 years and make X amount of dollars. Erving and Thomas agreed that it is unlikely that a modern player would or could do what Thomas did in that game. Erving said, "I watched what you did in that game and it did not go unnoticed."

Erving and Thomas also talked about their interactions with legendary Hall of Fame basketball coach John McClendon. Thomas correctly noted that the up tempo style often credited to Mike D'Antoni can be traced back to McClendon. Thomas said that when predominantly black teams used that style it was not called "Seven Seconds or Less" but rather "alley ball." Thomas said that when he was young he attended a basketball camp where McClendon spoke and that McClendon opened his remarks by holding up a basketball and saying that this could be their ticket to travel the world and to meet kings and queens. Thomas recalled being mesmerized and inspired. Erving shared some nice memories of working with McClendon on a committee with the Basketball Hall of Fame. 

Thomas described his childhood in Chicago, a time marked by nationwide unrest that hit very close to home. Thomas said that after the riots that took place in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, there was a time when it felt like his neighborhood was under military occupation. Thomas said that his father likely suffered from what would now be diagnosed as depression, though nothing was diagnosed or treated at the time. It fell to Thomas' mother to run the household and set a good example for all of her children. Thomas also recalled the positive influence of several coaches, of the Harlem Globetrotters (who did camps in the city) and of Erving, a dignified and respected figure who was universally admired.

Without prompting from Erving (who is typically reluctant to speak about his accomplishments and his place in history), Thomas noted that the mainstream narrative has become that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the NBA. Thomas said, "I don't remember it that way." Thomas said that when he was growing up in the 1970s there was Dr. J, Kareem and then everyone else. Thomas acknowledged that there were other talented players but he insisted that Doc and Kareem set themselves apart not only on the court but also off of the court. Thomas remembered that whenever Doc or Kareem spoke, his parents and siblings told him to listen and to use them as role models.

One of Thomas' current business ventures is champagne distribution and Thomas said that he donates some of the profits to help the retired NBA players. Erving responded that some people talk but their actions don't back up their words and he was happy that Thomas is not just paying empty lip service to the pioneers who built pro basketball.

Early on, when both men talked about the influences in their life they mentioned their mothers. Thomas asked Erving why he has always been so gracious and helpful to so many people, including the generation of players that came into the NBA after Erving. Erving said that his mother taught him to treat everyone the way that you want to be treated--with respect. Erving said that he learned that even if you are poor you can share what you have and that when you share you ultimately find that everything you give is returned to you, while if you don't share that also is returned to you. As Erving's mother told him, "God don't like ugly."

The conversation lasts 42 minutes and I recommend that you subscribe to Erving's podcast (it's free!) so that you can listen to all of the previous episodes as well as keep up as new ones are posted. I am working my way through the archives--usually listening to one or two per day at lunch--and enjoying every minute. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM