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Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Basketball: A Love Story

ESPN's multi-part, 20 hour documentary "Basketball: A Love Story" is a compelling oral history of the sport. Dan Klores, who directed the film, previously received a Peabody Award for "Black Magic." Klores, along with Jackie MacMullan and Rafe Bartholomew, co-authored the film's companion book. The series aired on ESPN during the latter part of 2018 and is also available on the ESPN app, where you can watch dozens of individually cut segments in any order you want.

I watched the entire series on the app, so I decided which segments to view first, and I also decided to watch a few segments more than once. There is too much material to summarize the entire series in any kind of coherent fashion but after watching every segment there are certain people, statements, images and concepts that stood out, presented here in no particular order:

1) Ben Jobe, who passed away on March 10, 2017, won over 500 games as a collegiate head coach and he also served for a brief time as an assistant coach with the NBA's Denver Nuggets. Jobe was quoted in many different segments, and he always offered pithy pearls of wisdom but the segment that stood out the most for me is the one that discussed David Thompson's descent from elite player to drug addict. Jobe described trying to counsel Thompson to get help, only to be chided by management for interfering with Thompson's performance. Jobe's description of that meeting and his thoughts are poignant and chilling: as the Denver executive gave Jobe his marching orders, Jobe took out a piece of paper and started writing; the executive thought that Jobe was taking notes but Jobe was writing his resignation, which he delivered on the spot. Jobe looked into the camera and told the interviewer that the decision was simple for him, because if Thompson had suffered a broken leg or any other physical injury the team would get him treatment and Jobe felt that the team was obligated to get Thompson treatment because he was sick in his brain.

2) The L.A. Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1982 Finals in part because of their stingy 1-3-1 pressing defense, which Coach Pat Riley learned from Adolph Rupp during Riley's time playing for Rupp at the University of Kentucky. I remember watching that series and hearing Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham repeatedly screaming at the officials to call an illegal defense. The press itself was not illegal but under the rules at that time the Lakers' zone defense--which involved sagging into the paint to prevent Julius Erving from driving while daring anyone else to beat the Lakers from the outside--was often illegal. Many teams played a form of illegal defense for a few possessions here and there but the problem for the 76ers was that the Lakers not only did this a lot but they were also a lot better at it than other teams!

3) The segment titled "Joy or Relief" explored whether players and coaches feel more joy or more relief after winning a championship. Riley broke down in tears as he described leading the Lakers to a championship over the Boston Celtics in 1985. He said that he knew his job was on the line if the Lakers did not win and that after the Lakers clinched the title the main person he looked for was his wife. That championship was about relief not just for Riley but also for his family and all the people close to him.

4) The segment about the Portland team that beat Philadelphia in the 1977 Finals made a big deal about the contrast between Portland's team-centric approach and Philadelphia's star-driven approach but a more apropos comparison would be between Gene Shue and Pat Riley. Shue, who coached Philadelphia in 1977, held back his team's best player--Julius Erving--in order to make sure that the team's other two All-Stars, George McGinnis and Doug Collins, got a similar amount of touches. Erving compared his role to being a race horse who has a bit in his mouth and is being held back. In contrast, a few years later when Riley coached the Lakers he had a "greyhound" philosophy that when your team has talent you don't hold it back but you let that talent run up and down the court in full expression.

Although the segment did not discuss what happened after the 76ers fired Shue six games into the 1977-78 season, it is worth noting that Shue's replacement Billy Cunningham declared that the 76ers "had too many chiefs and not enough Indians." Cunningham made it clear that the offense would run through Erving, who led the 76ers to three Eastern Conference Finals and two NBA Finals during the next four seasons. I remember Cunningham explaining years later that during Erving's ABA years the New York Nets made Erving the focus of their attack "and all they did was win championships." The acquisition of Moses Malone prior to the 1982-83 season filled the gap at center that had plagued the 76ers for years and they romped to the title that year, setting an NBA postseason record by going 12-1 (the 2001 Lakers later went 15-1 in the playoffs to break that record during an era when the NBA added an extra playoff round).

Although Phil Jackson used the Triangle Offense to create structure and make sure that the entire team was involved with the offense, he also gave his top stars--first Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls, later Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the L.A. Lakers--a lot of space to utilize their individual talents. It would have been interesting to see Erving spend a larger portion of his NBA career playing under that kind of philosophy, though perhaps Erving did not have quite the thirst to score that Jordan, O'Neal and Bryant did. By the time that Cunningham had the roster that he wanted and was able to really implement his approach, Erving was already a nine year veteran past the age of 30 who now had to battle younger stars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird for NBA supremacy (not to mention the ageless Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was on the same team with Magic).

5) Bobby Knight received a lot of coverage, which is understandable because he is a compelling, successful and deeply flawed person. Knight coached for decades, won three NCAA titles and there was never a whiff of scandal around him in terms of recruiting violations, academics or issues of that sort--but Knight was a bully and that led to his downfall. That is the tragic paradox; he preached doing things the right way but he often did not live up to his own standard and he never developed the self-awareness to either realize that or seek help.

Billy Packer told a great story about when Knight coached the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. After Knight first saw Jordan, he told Packer that Jordan worked hard but he did not see how he could keep a shooting guard who could not shoot. Then, after a few practices, Knight reconsidered and concluded that Jordan was so competitive and so effective in other areas that it did not matter that Jordan could not shoot. Not long after that, Knight watched Jordan dominate experienced NBA veterans in exhibition games and he told Packer that Jordan was the greatest player he had ever coached!

Knight was not good at self-reflection but he had a flexible and keen mentality about basketball.

6) The Detroit Pistons marketed themselves as the "Bad Boys," so perhaps it is fitting that they are considered the exemplars of a certain brand of physical play, but in fact the Pistons learned that style by watching and competing against the Boston Celtics. The Celtics were not averse to undercutting a player in midair (see M.L. Carr versus Julius Erving in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals, a dirty play that sparked an Erving scoring eruption) and clotheslining a driving opponent (the infamous Kevin McHale foul on Kurt Rambis during the 1984 NBA Finals). The 76ers and Lakers during that era rarely if ever stooped to such conduct but the Celtics did it a lot, even if that has been largely forgotten/whitewashed. The Celtics thought that kind of play was a wonderful way to slow down the fastbreaking 76ers and Lakers--who did not respond in kind but who had to learn to rise above such tactics--but the Celtics did not very much enjoy it when the Pistons met force with force and ultimately put an end to the Celtics' dynasty by beating Boston in the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals.

7) Hakeem Olajuwon performed so marvelously during 1994 and 1995 while leading the Houston Rockets to back to back titles that it is easy to forget his lack of leadership and, at times, lack of composure during the first stage of his career. Olajuwon deserves credit for his remarkable transformation from, as his teammate Kenny Smith put it during one segment, "selfish" to "honorable." Smith also noted that championships are won before the games even start, based on the collective mentality that each team brings to the court.

8) It was cool to see footage of the young, gangly Dirk Nowitzki, a player who had good agility and instincts but no skill set "tool box." Holger Geschwinder approached young Nowitzki and offered to supply those tools. Nowitzki accepted and the rest is history, as Geschwinder's unorthodox methods helped mold Nowitzki into an MVP and a champion. Nowitzki said simply that Geshwinder taught him everything that he knows about basketball.

9) The segment about LeBron James' tone-deaf handling of the "Decision" includes an interesting interview with David Stern, who states that he begged several people at ESPN to not turn James' announcement into a TV show. Stern could not conceal his complete and utter disdain for the entire process that culminated in what what observer described as a broadcast that looked like a hostage crisis being filmed on the set of Howdy Doody (referring to how uncomfortable James looked and the fact that he was surrounded by a captive audience of children who had to sit there as ESPN dragged the show on and on before getting to the point).

James, asked when he realized that the idea was a mistake, claims that he did not realize the impact until the season started and he was treated like a villain in every road arena. If James really did not understand how badly that fiasco went until months later then he is even more tone deaf about the whole situation than I had thought.

10) James had been part of another fiasco a few years earlier, as Team USA got humiliated in the 2004 Olympics and finished with the bronze medal. David Stern noted that since the NBA would be blamed for everything that went wrong with Team USA, it was time to step in and make sure that USA Basketball was operated better. Stern asked Jerry Colangelo to take over and Colangelo agreed provided that two terms were met: (1) He wanted complete autonomy to select coaches and players and (2) he wanted no budgetary restrictions. Stern laughingly says that he remembers the negotiation a little differently but he credits Colangelo for getting the program back on track. Colangelo convened a panel of 30 basketball experts--including Michael Jordan and Dean Smith--to analyze what had gone wrong and to brainstorm about possible solutions.

The main thing that Colangelo did was restore structure/organization and pride to USA Basketball.
Colangelo did a masterful job and, with Kobe Bryant leading the way during the 2008 Olympics, Team USA reclaimed its rightful spot as the best team in the world.

Colangelo's basketball career is remarkable, from his long tenure with the Phoenix Suns to his success with rebuilding USA Basketball to keeping his pledge to make sure that the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame would recognize worthy players who had "slipped through the cracks."

11) A lot of footage deals with the San Antonio Spurs' remarkable run of success that dates back for more than two decades. Coach Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan were the two mainstays of that success but one of the few glitches happened late in game six of the 2013 NBA Finals versus the Miami Heat. The Spurs had seemingly wrapped up the title and the arena support staff was preparing to encircle the court with yellow tape to keep fans out during the ensuing celebration/trophy ceremony--but there was still time left and still coaching decisions to be made. Popovich took Duncan out of the game on two different possessions in order to match up with Miami's small lineup and both times the Heat burned the Spurs by getting offensive rebounds. The Heat tied the game on Ray Allen's three pointer after one of those offensive rebounds and then the Heat won the game in overtime. Pat Riley commented that Pete Newell once told him that as a coach you should never outsmart yourself, particularly at the end of the game. Riley said that in the moment he was happy that the Spurs were taking their best winner and best rebounder off of the court. Popovich simply called it "a great game" and Duncan noted that the Spurs had been subbing him out at the end of games all season long (which does not mean that this is the correct strategy in general, let alone that it is the correct strategy in the closing seconds of game six with the championship on the line).

Popovich, in response to an asinine question about how he would get his team ready for game seven, went into full sarcasm mode, detailing how the team would leave the hotel, get on the bus, ride to the arena and get off of the bus. The question was stupid, but perhaps a little humility was in order after making two questionable substitutions that might have cost the Spurs another championship.

The Spurs lost in game seven but they were on a mission during the 2014 season and they put on a clinic against the Heat during the 2014 Finals, perfecting ball movement and player movement in a way that perhaps has never been seen before or since.

A dour Shaquille O'Neal, who battled the Spurs in the playoffs over a decade earlier as a Laker, noted that he likes to watch flashy individual plays and he deemed the Spurs' style "boring," which says a lot more about O'Neal than it does about the Spurs.

Meanwhile, Phil Jackson insists that Spurs are not a dynasty because dynasties are, by definition, “successive. You can use another word" to describe San Antonio's five championships won from 1999-2014 but Jackson claims that you have to win at least two titles in a row to be a "dynasty." Most of the people interviewed in the film disagreed with Jackson but I see his point. In a purely literal sense, the Spurs are not a dynasty , but they are a team that has sustained a high degree of success for a long period of time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM

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