10-POINTER: NBA Greats, Fates and Mistakes

February 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Blogs, The Basketball Samurai

10-POINTER
If my world was a basketball game I’d have 10-pointers. For a writer, three just isn’t enough. There are too many great things that come in tens, like fingers, taxi vouchers, the commandments or a hot girl’s phone number. As a writer, the 10-pointer is only good if it is launched from press row and whatever sports folly unravels is fair game. Some fact,iphone 5s reconditionné some opinion and quite possibly some totally useless information that may serve to discredit me in some future job I may have as a grumpy old postal worker. Not that much of what I’ve just said makes much sense – and my 10-pointer philosophy might make even less – but hitting nothing but net from press row ain’t a bad way to think of life if you’re an NBA writer trying to figure out a way to unload all the accumulated information, thoughts and theories that can sometimes back up our brains. He’s the flush…

1. WORST DRAFT BLUNDER EVER
The most widely held belief is that Michael Jordan being drafted 3rd in the1984 NBA draft behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie was the biggest draft blunder of all-time. That’s not the view from these seats. So while Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets went on to claim both championships during Jordan’s 18-month mid-90′s retirement Bowie went on to near nothingness, a Greg Oden like omen known more for being the guy drafted ahead of Jordan than anything he ever did on a basketball court. Seen. So you can’t hate on the Olajuwan pick too much but seeing as how Jordan and the brand he would become changed the entire business of sports it still counts as an epic fail.

So for my next point the real question may be how much does the amount of draft picks between the busts and the guy everybody should of picked matter?

I’m asking because I’ve got Kobe Bryant being drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in 1995 as bigger than the Jordan blunder. The high school thing had a lot to do with Bryant slipping in the lottery standings that year. He was at the beginning of that movement, a mystery kid who may or may not be. Looking back you wonder how the hell everybody didn’t know. The only person who has won a championship that was drafted ahead of Bryant in ‘95 is Ray Allen who was selected at number five by the Milwaukee Bucks. Still, Allen has just one to Bryant’s five over two totally different eras of Lakers basketball. Before it’s over he’ll probably be part of another. He remains one of the most popular figures in all of sport and in the Jordan mould he has built a strong brand that has been able to bounce back and even grow from serious public controversy. Bryant is good business on and of the court, a business 12 teams passed on. Since then only one, the Boston Celtics, have won a championship (after bringing Allen on board).

So again, does the difference in picks matter? Only two teams were dumb enough to pass on Jordan (only two teams had a chance to), a dozen passed on his successor. Kobe will probably never achieve as much personal accolades in terms of league MVP and scoring titles but he may end up with more championships than his Airness. He’s got five to Jordan’s six and is rounding into that sassy veteran stage of his career, where he’s rubber and you’re glue and whatever you try to defend bounces off him and sticks to you.

Forget the “Who’s Better?” debate. As long as Bryant is still balling it’s a pointless argument. I’m not sure if it will be any more sane when he actually retires. What this is over is their respective draft nights and it just seems obvious that never before had so many GM’s been so wrong about one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA.

2. BEST JERSEY STORY EVER
I’m giving this one up to the Chuckster who was in the final year of his tenure with the Philadelphia 76ers when he switched his jersey number from 34 to 32. Charles Barkley’s motives weren’t based around a marketing strategy, prophetic of his impending departure or a PR image job. Barkley, in a time when it was not the most popular thing to do – and when others players like Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone were doing the opposite – wore the number 32 in honour of Magic Johnson who had recently retired due to his contraction of the HIV virus, the precursor to AIDS. The number 32 was actually already retired in Philadelphia after the exploits of Billy Cunnigham were recognized. Cunningham gave permission for Barkley to bring the number out of retirement and wear it in support of his friend.

3. MOST IMPRESSIVE STREAK EVER
Well, he’s no A.C. Green, the player whose record 1192 straight games played spanned three different decades an four different teams and ended only with his retirement in 2001. Derek Fisher’s current reign as the NBA’s ironman came under less than ideal circumstances this season when Andre Millers 632 consecutive games streak was ended by a suspension after the point guard finally reacted to pushing from rookie Blake Griffin (who was not called for a foul in the game for his love tapping versus the Portland Trailblazers). Ugly way to bow out and Miller wasn’t quiet about it, calling the league and essentially chief disciplinarian Stu Jackson “soft” for dispensing the punishment. It was a gripe held by many who cited Miller’s clean track record with the league and a healthy enough consecutive games streak to consider.

Can’t say we agree with taking into account a player’s record book drives when doling out punishments but track record does matter and in a world of daily infractions of all extremes from NBA players Miller hasn’t made much of a peep his entire career. If you’re going to whistle tough guys for fouls that you would let pass on a more “gentlemanly’ player then it has to work the other way too, no? I supposed it’s more proof that the rules need to be a little less interpretive and that basketball must do away with star player treatment. Hard to do in a world where one player can change the fortunes of a franchise and where superstar absences can suck the air out of an arena like no other league.

Now Fisher’s measly 461 will have to do and it’s unlikely that he reaches Miller’s mark as his career winds down. Jarrett Jack stands at second with 358 followed by Boris Diaw at 310. The real surprise is the fourth spot that was held down by Emika Okafor – who apparently has never been as injury-prone as is commonly held – with 306. His streak ended last week after he suffered a strained left hip muscle. Like I said, not an A.C. Green in the bunch and his is one record that will never be broken until legalized medicines makes it so.

4. BIGGEST MARGIN OF VICTORY EVER
Largest margin of victory, game happened on December 17, 1991. That was when the Cleveland Cavaliers thumped the Miami Heat by 68 points in a 148-80 face-breaker. The great thing about this fact is that the Miami Heat actually have a realistic shot at revenge here after nearly 20 years. The Heat could easily flip the script and make this happen this season, I’m almost sure of it. In fact, I’m going to secretly will it to happen. That Cleveland already lost 129-95 to the Minnesota Timberwolves then awesomely 112-57 at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers this season only reinforces the possibility. They’ve already lost to the Heat three times in 2010-11 by an average of just over 20 points and I’m still looking forward to their final March 29th meeting. Here’s to hoping that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is sitting courtside with Delonte West at tip-off.

5. MOST TATTOOED PLAYER EVER
Part of me wants to say J.R. Smith and the other part wants to say Chris Anderson. About the only thing my two selves can agree on is that no matter who the most tatted man in the NBA is, we’re pretty sure he resides somewhere on the Nuggets roster. Collectively they’ve already snagged the most tatted team award, right? Since we’re not interested in exploring ALL the cracks, crevices and creaks of the human body (there are some things you just don’t ask in the locker room) we’re assuming a lot with this one. We’re are pretty sure who has the craziest though. That’d be Anderson’s rainbow-riffic neck tat, rivalled only by Dallas Mavericks guard DeShawn Stevenson’s Abe Lincoln tracheal piece. The worst set of tattoos belongs to Deron Williams of the Utah Jazz, hands frickin’ down. It’s as if he got all of his pieces out of the stencil catalogue that sits in every parlour. A panther? A “D-Will”? 10 bucks says he gets a tribal armband tat before the end of the decade.

I know, this point wasn’t even remotely validated. J.R. Swish is our best bet but a surprise return by Cherokee Parks could make this an easier choice. As a side note, Allen Iverson’s tattoos have begun to date him (and suddenly doesn’t seem to have that many), which means the rest of us better update our ink game.

6. THE BEST JERSEY NUMBER EVER
When all is said and done many people might point to the number 23 as the jersey number most worn by the greats strictly because of the dominance of Michael Jordan and the early career hype of LeBron James, who has since switched to the number 6. Validation could take a hit though because of James’ defection to the Miami Heat from the Cleveland Cavaliers this past summer so we’re passing. So does that make James’ number 6 the next candidate, a number worn by Boston Celtics icon Bill Russell and Philadelphia 76ers legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving? Close, as is the number 19 sported well by Lenny Wilkins, Don Nelson and Willis Reed. Number 21 has kept good company too with Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan all repping the digits. All good mentions, all fall short. In the end it all comes down to just three numbers, and God even saw fit to have them in succession:

#32 – Magic Johnson (Lakers), Karl Malone (Jazz), Kevin McHale (Celtics)

#33: – Hakeem Olajuwon (Rockets), Charles Barkley (76ers/Suns), Ray Allen (Bucks/Sonics), Paul Pierce (Celtics) Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers)

#34: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lakers), Larry Bird (Celtics), Patrick Ewing (Knicks), Alonzo Mourning (Heat), Scottie Pippen (Bulls)

If you are counting championships the number 34 wins out easily with 14 (The 32′s and 33′s have eight apiece) and arguably has more legendary status than the others. Where the 34’s are more iconic and the 33’s are damn near caricatures, the 32′s are a balance of the two. We’ll take straight up legendary any day, which means the 34′s get our nod for best jersey number ever. It isn’t just because of all the Hall-of-Famers and championships – the 33′s have that too – but there are rivalries within that group that don’t exist in the others. Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers defining the NBA in the 1980′s by waging war against Bird’s Celtics? Ewing’s Knicks and their bloody battles in the 90′s versus Mourning’s Heat soldiers? Pippen’s ultimate side-kick routine with the Bulls against the world including all of the above-mentioned? Yeah-er.

7. MOST PROLIFIC JOURNEYMAN EVER
The longest running journeyman in the NBA is now Joe Smith who joined his twelfth team this season when the New Jersey Nets traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a larger three-team deal. That ties him with retired vagabonds Chucky Brown (played from 1989-2002), Tony Massenburg (1990-2005) and Jimmy Jackson (1992-2006) and sets him up to become the most traveled NBAer ever. Like Massenburg Smith played for some teams more than once and had two separate tours with three different franchises (Cleveland, Minnesota and Philadelphia). Prediction? Smith wins a ring with the Lakers then joins the Clippers the following year where he breaks the record. He also gets credited for “Sam Mitchelling” Blake Griffin and flips it into a short stint as a bad NBA head coach before joining Avery Johnson’s coaching staff in New Jersey.

Worth mentioning here is Drew Gooden, second behind Smith on the NBA active list having played for nine different franchises in nine seasons. He’s followed closely by Matt Barnes with eight teams in eight seasons. Both have at spent at least two full seasons in one city just once in their careers.

8. HIGHEST PAID COACH EVER
One of the few answers that is as it should be simply because nobody else has done what Phil has done. In fact, based on that scale the next highest paid coach should be paid $259 a week plus per diem. Not only does Jackson own a record 11 championships between dynasties in Chicago and Los Angeles but he has guided arguably the last two best players of their generation and a cast of extreme personalities to great success. Jackson was ranked fourth on last years 25 top paid coaches in the world list leading a contingent of five NBA coaches, none near Jackson’s $10.3M salary. Last year when Doc Rivers was making half of that there was a large divide but since inking a new deal with the Boston Celtics to return Rivers is closer to the King in wages these days. Meanwhile the New York Knicks are paying Mike D’Antoni about $6M, putting him on par with San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and also making him the highest paid coach in the NBA without a ring.

9. LONGEST TENURED CURRENT PLAYER WITH ONE TEAM
In my business I hear hear at least one daily rant on how “the way things used to be”, always a hard to argue angle because everything changes. Some smart sonofagun came up with the saying “the more things change, the more things stay the same”. In fact, if it weren’t for that very gem I’d be meandering with this thought. Instead I’m segwaying the shit out of myself because in a world where we crucify the new age franchise player for not sticking with one club “like they used to” the statement rings true. Why? Because the belief that there was a time when athletes didn’t jump ship and franchise guys weren’t shuffled around is a myth. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Moses Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James… the list spans every generation of the NBA and they are only the tip of the iceberg. For all the romance about an era of loyalty and fan connection the truth is the relationship between players and fans and the city they share has always been tenuous and often, quite unnatural.

There are only six current players who have spent 10 years or more for the only team they have every played for. Michael Redd has put in 10 years with the Milwaukee Bucks even if he has actually only played in more like seven due to injury. Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce have each spent 12 seasons with the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics respectively while Tim Duncan has 13 campaigns under the San Antonio Spurs banner. The list leader here is Kobe Bryant who has also had the most interesting trajectory of the other stars in this category, a late lottery pick that took many years to be recognized as a franchise player and wasn’t given the keys to the team until much later in his career. With 14 years served as a Laker and five titles to show for it Bryant won’t be going anywhere soon. It isn’t an accident either that Bryant, Duncan and Pierce are still atop the championship hunt and clear-cut favorites in their separate divisions.

The Indiana Pacers may not falling into that perennial contender category but don’t tell Jeff Foster, who has a surprising fourth place standing on this list, extremely rare for a role player and rarer still for a guy who hasn’t always been a staple.

10. WORST NBA PLAYER EVER
This is a can’t-win debate because with 30 NBA cities on the map every fan base holds close a hometown player they despise. There are always players to blame for failure and always a face that reminds them of a dark age or a botched play. It is a face that forever rings through as the mask of frustration or even less, simple suckage. Then there is the opposite; the nice guy loser who everybody loves because his entry into garbage time signals a sure win. That would most famously be Hawthorne Wingo of the New Yorks Knicks circa 1973 who was so loved that he heard chants of “Wingo!” anytime the Knicks fans were sure of the W. Anger often skewers the picture as was the case this week when I received an ranting email calling out Chris Bosh as the worst player who ever donned a Toronto Raptors uniform. That would be perennial All-Star Bosh whose defection to the Miami Heat earned him the most hated sports guy in Toronto for the 2010-11 season, despite being one of the best Raptors ever. Other candidates, like former New Jersey Net centre Yinka Dare, are singled out for bizzaro statistics that highlight their ineptitude. Dare is probably most famous for not recording a single assists over the first two seasons of his career despite averaging around seven minutes a night over 59 contests. In 110 NBA games over four seasons playing at nine minutes a night he totalled just four dimes to go with 2.6 rebounds and 2.1 points per game. It was one of the more forgettable NBA careers of all-time but not the worst.

You have your Jack Haley’s of the world who turned a nice guy attitude and penchant for practising into a nine-year career he had no business owning. How many fringe ballers didn’t make the L because Haley was taking up space? Danny Manning’s father Ed Manning was clearly a better teacher than player. Utah back up guard Delaney Rudd was a plus/minus disaster and was so bad John Stockton couldn’t get off the floor for a breather in the early 1990′s. Current NBA coaches Rick Carlisle and John Kuester belong here too. New school nods Keith Closs, Leon Smith and Rafael Araujo cannot be forgotten either. Still, they’ve got nothing on my top choice.

LaRue Martin.

Some people think the Portland Trailblazer’s jinx on big men started with Sam Bowie but before him there was Martin. Martin was the first overall pick in the 1972 draft (one spot ahead of Hall-of-Famer Bob McAdoo) and was perhaps the worst player to ever suit up for an NBA team considering what was expected of him. He averaged 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in four pro seasons and was so bad that when the Blazers finally waived him nobody would touch the kid. That is unprecedented treatment for a former first overall pick, so uninspiring and deflating was Martin’s play. The only positive that ever came out of it for the Blazers was that Martin led the team to such awfulness that they found themselves with another first overall selection two years later, which they used on legend Bill Walton. A year after the 26 year-old was run from the league the Blazers won the NBA championship. Still, there is an interesting twist to Martin’s story that took away some of the sting almost 10 decades after the disgrace.

THE BASKETBALL SAMURAI: The Hated LeBron James

July 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Blogs, The Basketball Samurai

“You’re nobody ‘till somebody kills you” – Biggie Smalls

Last week during the unprecedented mega-media presentation of his free agent decision LeBron James said he didn’t want to make an emotional decision. If he had he might still be a Cleveland Cavalier today. Instead, James rocked the state of Ohio with his preference to join Dwyane Wade and newly acquired power forward Chris Bosh in Miami to play for the Miami Heat, completing what could possibly be the most talented summer-seasoned trio of in-their-prime stars the league has ever seen. However, in the process he scorned an entire city in the only state he has ever called home.

Ohio has been the site of every major James announcement and public push since he entered the league seven long years ago. It is where he has been crowned king a hundred times over from his accomplishments and feats as a high school phenomenon in Akron to becoming one of the most adored athletes in the world. It is where he has been loved to death by Cleveland fans whose longing for a professional sports championship has been built up over 46 years. That’s how long ago Jim Brown led that city’s NFL Browns to a championship and James was expected to end the famous curse that began the day after that triumph.

James once said he would not leave Cleveland without winning a championship first and fans, even the organization, believed it whole-heartedly and now it seems, to a damning fault.

“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” James finally said Thursday night from Greenwich, Connecticut no less.

Those words ripped out those once whole now broken hearts in an incomparable nationally televised dumping of a city wary, but nonetheless blindsided by the decision of their favorite son. Shortly after the initial carnage Cleveland fans reacted with venom. James was shown live footage of his number 23 Cavaliers jersey being burned in the streets of a city where the very thought of doing such a thing before then would have been blasphemy.

From Cleveland – blue collared C.L.E. – LeBron, with all his talent and media savvy and “destined-to-be” write ups, was still the underdog. Even with his superstar status LeBron remained a man of the people and despite his greatness was still identified with the hard working people of that place. He carried the franchise on his back accordingly, through some unlikely playoff runs and some devastating exits as well. LeBron was Cleveland. Cleveland was LeBron. Maybe it still is in some covert ways but it will never be the same.

James, perhaps the most unselfish player in the NBA, for the first time in his career made a decision that was all about him. He made that point several times during his television special, that this one wasn’t going to be for Ohio or his hometown of Akron. It was about happiness. It was about winning. It was about legacy. Based on his decision James didn’t see enough of either in Cleveland.

And with that very public shunning of the place he calls home James has become something he has never been – hated. In reality it is perhaps the truest mark of being a superstar in the vein that James himself is a student of. The hate motivates, polarizes and in some cases creates rivalries. Rivalries have much to do with building the kind of legacy James has always talked about. The hate is almost required for a player of James’ ilk. Natural and quite possibly exactly what he has been missing.

As loved as Michael Jordan became, it wasn’t always the case. Jordan steadily gained intergalactic love but on the court and within NBA player circles and in opposing cities there was hate. The source of it came mostly from his feats on the court against teams like the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Utah Jazz and perhaps most ironically versus James’ old Cavaliers. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson carried on a rivalry throughout their careers and the divide amongst fans, between Boston and Los Angeles, was more than geographical. It was in the soul. Under the skin. There was “sport hate” for each of those icons.

Up until Thursday night James was universally loved, cheered in opposing arenas like only Jordan was. And now James is hated for very different reasons than Jordan, Magic and Bird ever were. None of those guys ever left the city that drafted them while in their prime and when Jordan did it – the only one of them to ever leave his original team – it was when he came out of retirement and well past his best days. Chicago didn’t even want to see him as that tainted version of “his Airness”.

Kobe Bryant earned his “sport hate” in a variety of ways, first as a cocky youngster waving off Karl Malone picks in All-Star games and then as a sulking star playing in Shaquille O’Neal’s shadow during the early millennium Lakers dynasty era. Of course his sexual indiscretions in Eagle, Colorado and following rape charge (eventually dropped) gave him a whole new legion of haters both in and out of the game. A brilliant public relations effort rebuilt his image – including the changing of his jersey number from 8 to 24 – but it is doubtful it would have stuck as well if he wasn’t already champion and if he hadn’t since put more rings in the bank. Bryant gets booed the loudest in Philadelphia, his hometown. After capturing the Most Valuable Player award in the 2002 All Star game played in Philly there was Bryant shaking his head as he made his way off the court and staring wide-eyed at then SLAM scribe Scoop Jackson, bewildered at the abhorrent reception. Bryant may be James’ closest comparison, the only one he can relate to on this level. After all, it was LBJ who announced he would be switching his uniform number from 23 to 6 for the 2010-11 season. Another sign of the impending “decision”? His own Bryant inspired pre-emptive strike against the backlash? If James can follow in Bryant’s improbable footsteps, one that led him back to the top of the basketball world, then it would be as great a feat as creating that elusive and career-defining dynasty and legacy. Alas, there are few who doubt that Bryant is a Laker for life.

Like Bryant, for James this all goes beyond “sport hate”. Rivalry hate. Fake hate. This is as real as it gets for a player who promised to stick it out and did not. Yet, everything about the young man told you it was always going to be about business and the business of winning. In the end LeBron James was just too damn big for Cleveland and maybe even too damn humble to know that was precisely the cause of the itch he was feeling, pulling him to Miami.

It was not supposed to be emotional. It was a cold hard business delivery and no doubt Cavs fans will be sure to return the same whenever the Heat will make their way up to the house that ‘Bron was building. By then they might be a shell of the team James left behind, left alone in the darkness once again, this time by one of their own in a public execution no less.

The seething hate is real and there are many fans, media (and players) who feel like James and others disrespected the process of free agency, tugging strings – both heart and purse alike – into the wee hours towards a date with destiny.

We should have known. We should have trusted him. Then maybe he wouldn’t seem so “Benedict” to so many today. Then maybe Cleveland isn’t reeling in real pain over his departure. You think that city wasn’t just kicked in the stomach? Another blue collar dunking?

James is only the second reigning MVP in NBA history to leave his team after winning the award and in his case it was after winning two straight. If Boston got picked to instantly win the eastern conference when they put their big three of paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett together with similar questions about supporting cast, it is reasonable to expect the same of the Heat. One would even be justified in going a step further and predicting a championship. You do not put a team like this together unless you plan on competing for a title for the next 10 years. Unless you are banking on a dynasty. Anything less and leaving Cleveland will have been a mistake.

It is hard to fault James’ decision with the recent turnover in ownership, coaching and roster in Cleveland. The view from here is that the Cavs were never going to have quite enough to allow any Cavaliers team to consistently be on par with the Celtics, Bulls, Knicks, Lakers and Magic (Thunder?) in the foreseeable future. The South Beach union was a cry for help.

Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cavaliers and the man directly responsible for allowing James to own his castle, ripped into his former star in a letter to Cavaliers fans just hours after the big exodus, essentially calling out James as a coward, quitter and someone deserving of fan venom reserved for enemies of the state. Here are some key points he made in the release:

“As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier. This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his “decision” unlike anything ever “witnessed” in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.

“The good news is that the ownership team and the rest of the hard-working, loyal, and driven staff over here at your hometown Cavaliers have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you. You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal.”

“… I want to make one statement to you tonight: I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE”

And that spewing of viciousness will set the tone in Cleveland for years to come. Gilbert didn’t count to ten before responding publicly to a phone call he received just moments before the decision. A phone call James didn’t even bother to make himself. He let fly with his barrage and went so far as to call James’ departure “the antidote to the so-called ‘curse’ on Cleveland” and punctuated it with a promise to capture a title before the Heat. If he sticks to his words and gives it the gusto, it is a great thing for Cleveland and the NBA (and poor Antawn Jamison). That Gilbert hate is a mere qualifier for the big picture. There is potential for the most intense rivalry since Lakers/Celtics, no doubt, but only if Gilbert continues to spend on a team currently without a superstar. How likely is that in Cleveland?

Now James isn’t so unlike Wade who is wanted in Dallas on multiple charges of stealing the 2007 championship. The anger in Toronto towards Bosh, who like James has spent his entire career in one city, is fully charged too – a twitter instigated disdain for Bosh’s showmanship tactics during a courting period that saw him practically sever all ties with the franchise that drafted him. And now LeBron has crossed Cleveland.

The hate can be a right of passage, and only a player as universally loved as LeBron would have to crush his own city to earn the privilege. He’s a little more human now, a little less of a king without his kingdom. But despite the weighty, prophetic moniker James was always more ironworker than privileged royalty. That’s a compliment. He’s Rocky Balboa, the people’s favorite, the basketball Obama… but not in Cleveland. Not anymore.

“The road to history starts now!” James tweeted under his new account in the wee hours of the AM following the decision.

That road will be rocky and more distempered than many believe. Talk of the pressure being less for James in Miami with so much star power in assistance is foolish. With this decision James has hurled himself into the space of the casual fan and the diehards alike, that rare space where the two cultures breath the same air and follow the same amazing stories.

Despite all the concessions of cash, stats and marquee space he has and will need to make for this plan to work, he’s also on the way to becoming even bigger than anybody ever thought, including the good people of Cleveland, Ohio.

“The self-declared former “King” will be taking the “curse” with him down south,” wrote Gilbert, who has since been fined by the NBA for his address to Cavaliers fans. “And until he does “right” by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma.

“Just watch.”

And so the world shall, lovers, haters and the undecided alike.

The most interesting question of all is one that likely will not be answered for many years. How many of the disenfranchised will James be able to get back? If history has anything to do with it, it will all depend on how many titles he is able to capture before his legacy is sealed for good. After all, everybody loves a winner.

THE BASKETBALL SAMURAI: The Business of Bosh

May 25, 2010 by  
Filed under Blogs, The Basketball Samurai

The public business end of Chris Bosh’s free agency saga, spit in large part through his twitter account, took another turn this week when word of a “top five” list of preferred destinations was supposedly submitted to the Toronto Raptors, an issue many outlets reported they confirmed with, management, specifically general manager Bryan Colangelo. Bosh’s agent Henry Thomas refuted the act in an interview Bosh linked through his twitterage.

The submission of a list would seem to fly against the intent of Bosh’s social media assault following a regular season-long polite silence on impending free agency matters. Various “top five” and “waiting on LeBron” reports have recently followed a series of online statements from Bosh indicating (cryptically suggesting?) that perhaps he may not be long for Toronto. While the official start of the free agency season has yet to come the usual warm up and speculation that has been media blitzed over the last few years seems ratcheted up another level this year; media drenched and in some cases, media made. Players have gotten in on the fun. Bosh’s use of the new mediums to join the fray is good business, which is where our points converge. There will be as many as 12 NBA teams with legitimate and green light interest in the 26 year-old power forward. Bosh is reportedly set to wait out similar free agent decisions faced by his bigger fish draft mates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Bosh has said he will keep any and all options open regarding the end game. So why then, a list?

The “top five” supposedly includes the Raptors, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. That would exclude all three of his home state of Texas teams – the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets. The Mavericks are likely facing the reality of their own franchise power forward Dirk Nowitzki opting into the free agency pool and the big D is where Bosh began his rise to stardom as a high school phenomenon. However, the most interesting of the exclusions is the Rockets who have already made it known that Bosh will be a prime target come open season. At the very least the Rockets represent a team that is already prepared to tighten any bidding war, which will not be about dollars but rather lifestyle and opportunity. Bosh will most likely get the maximum allowable deal either by resigning with the Raptors for six years and $120M or getting just as much via sign-and-trade to another team in exchange for returning talent. In that scenario the theory is that everybody wins, and despite Thomas’ insistence that the sign and trade route has not been prioritized in the top slot should Bosh decide to leave, his player agent code requires him to pursue just that should the situation demand. That time is officially weeks away, but it has to be on the table from the outset of any talks.

Thomas has shown over the last few days that a good agent is still required to soothe the waters of discontent and popular image despite the social media evolution. And yet the two are now inextricably intertwined in the world of sports and perhaps in no league more than the NBA. Bosh went from having a gentlemanly, old school, behind closed-doors, keep-it-in-the-locker-room reputation to a toying and pre-emptive striker angling for the best situation he can ever hope to create. Nothing wrong with that, but the impression left with the about-face can rub people the wrong way…or not. Bosh’s twitter followership has increased rapidly since his barrage of communication blurbs hit the fan last month and in the world of big brand marketing Bosh is one of the more in tune-with-the-times athletes (he was the first to have an iphone application), if not the most talented or marketable. He sure knows how to squeeze the stone though.

And it has now carried itself into the world of conflicting information and border-blurring media lines. Removing “team captain” from his profile, changing his location listing from Toronto to “everywhere” to now killing rumors of a list and proposed happy endings. That is the floodgate Bosh was determined to keep closed during the regular season but now seems all too eager to kick down, but who said his timing was off? Isn’t he the same dude who came out guns a blazing with a self-promoting all-star campaign through viral video? Should we not have expected the same with $120M at play?

Wasn’t it Paul Pierce’s social networking dribble that demanded brooms in anticipated of a sweep over the Orlando Magic in the eastern conference finals series after just a 2-0 lead? Then suddenly it wasn’t Pierce, rather a alleged mastermind hacker who broke into Pierce’s account to sabotage the poor all-star and quickly absolve the Truth of any premature celebrations, in case the Magic, you know, decided to show up. They did for at least one night to make it a 3-1 series so… thank god for “hackers”. As athletes become more intent on using social tooling as a propaganda barricade their statements delivered through the new “bridge” mediums with be held to more traditional media accountability. Until then, deniability is just a “hack” away.

Not that Bosh has denied or confirmed much at all. The betting here is that the five-time all-star is in new digs by the time summer fizzles away and the process could be a long one for Raptors fans if he is indeed waiting for dominos like James, Wade, Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki to fall. All will demand maximum contracts so it really does become more about what hey are surrounded with. Bosh had the least amount of team support among the star free agents and was the only one to miss the postseason. As the big dog he couldn’t help to mend a fractured locker room enough to hold onto to an eighth seed in the eastern conference. He wasn’t given a trade to aid the process. With much of his support signed to long-term deals they aren’t living up to does Bosh have enough confidence in Colangelo, whose team has missed the playoffs the last two seasons after extensive makeovers in each of the past two summers, to make it right? Or is he more trusting that the GM will be able to deliver a max contract and a trip to a new team?

Whether you hear the news here first or through Bosh’s own new school release, the impact of his answer to that question will be substantial. Without another All-Star at the ready in Toronto his departure could rock the franchise like no other exit in club history, no doubt a concern for both player and the optically obsessed brass. Will the team recover should he wind up elsewhere? Of course, and it could just as easily happen quickly as it could slowly, depending on what the capable Colangelo can mine from any S & T should it be necessary. The truth is that Bosh is a great player who has done well individually but has been unable to take his teams along for the ride, for many reasons and some outside of his own. That is neither slight nor condemnation, simply history.

The simpler truth is that there are only a few teams Bosh would even consider that have an opening for a franchise player and Toronto is one of them. If superstar free agents shun New York the Knicks club will be another. His apparent willingness to play for the Lakers, Heat and Bulls – all with clearly entrenched franchise players – may be his own acknowledgment that he needs a Batman, not a Robin.

In the meantime expect the tweets to fly, the media to run and the fans to have their hearts pulled and tugged at while cash swirls around it all like the tornado free agency can often be. Its all fair game – has been for years – and regardless of the outcome Bosh should be treated no differently as the eye of the storm.

THE BASKETBALL SAMURAI: Back to Basics for Arenas

February 2, 2010 by  
Filed under The Basketball Samurai

It is estimated that Gilbert Arenas will lose in the neighborhood of $150 large for every game he is suspended indefinitely by the NBA. Meanwhile teammate Jarvis Crittenton has been asked to stay away from the team with pay. It’s the clearest example of how the money and status holds us all to a higher standard, and Arenas has become the face of the reckless nature of today’s young athletes, though that collection is small in comparison to the large majority of NBAers that don’t cross the line.

That grey line.

That blurred line.

Let the irony not be lost on the Arenas situation; a player who gleefully and blatantly used and perused media and all its devices to hype up his “Agent Zero” and “Hibachi” alter-egos and seemed to cut them off just as easily. Those same devices have been used in recent weeks to vilify and condemn him, all while Arenas seemed more and more determined to make statements through them.

The initial snuff-off of his deeds in a locker room scrum.

The finger guns blazing during a pre-game introduction.

The twisted metal of communication, lost loyalties and backbiting.

Ugly stuff. The “WTF? gun salute” was enough to make NBA commissioner David Stern invoke the suspension after initially opting to wait until the authorities had their way with a full investigation. Losing buckets of money by the day under Stern’s order forced the Arenas plea bargain last week, one that will see him sentenced on March 26. Stern did what he should have in the first place as protector of the NBA, which is to move along the process, force hands and dispose and wash over the problem as quickly as possible.

Like the Tim Donaghy fiasco. That was a work of art. The NBA’s handling of the Arenas drama was not.

The league did stay true to its word in acting quickly after Arenas’ plea, suspending both he and Crittenton for the remainder of the season. (For Arenas’ it was another $7M hit. For Crittenton it meant contemplation of action against the league through the players union, apparently convinced that his refusal to back Arenas’ “joke” theory would grant leniency for an on-the-fringe player.) Even then a spin from some corner merged painting Arenas as tactician, confirming first that his contract would not be void and then solidifying it by offering himself up as lamb to the remainder of this season’s NBA schedule.

Could it be because there seems to be, however slight, some signs of allowance made to Arenas by somebody within the Wizards organization that made it possible for his guns to be smuggled into the Verizon Center? Is the club at fault to any degree, whether by ranked official(s) or a simple security guard at their station? Or was it that easy for Arenas to just walk into work with an arsenal ready to be laid out for practical jokes and the like? How many other players are moaning this morning in anticipation of new proposals, restrictions and guidelines regarding conduct and firearms? How many are cursing Arenas for the persecution he has opened them all up to? How many have been privately thanking their respective God that it wasn’t them? How many team officials are thinking the same thing and changing “understandings”?

Or is Arenas really this… alone?

In a North American society that praises the almighty bullet as an ally in the fight against local crime, security and protection it isn’t surprising that the NBA reflects some of that culture. And with multi-million dollar athletes from the hood walking targets in nearly every city they arrive in, protection and security are real and critical concerns. That Arenas’ guns were used in opposition to those issues is what makes him stand out from the long history of guns in the NBA, not all of it righteous.

Is Arenas to be believed as he maintains his showcasing of two gats to Crittenton by way of feigning the settlement of a gambling g debt was a prank gone insanely wrong? Based on his history it is entirely in keeping with his character, though that thick grey line that exists in professional sports was absolutely crossed with this bonehead move. In the small picture Arenas’ actions and subsequent taunting practically dared the NBA to suspend him and the remainder of the season sounds about right. In the bigger picture for the Wizards in a year there should have been celebrating Arenas’ return from two years worth of injury, returning as a playoff power and celebrating and honoring the life of recently deceased owner Abe Pollin they are instead figuring ways in which to blow the team apart and start anew.

Arenas can be blamed for much of the malignment but the culture of losing that has permeated throughout the roster is real and stained and is the result of many. The handling of Arenas’ injuries – both by himself and the club – and premature returns long ago left the team in leadership disarray. Many observers in the basketball world wondered aloud what form the Wizards would take upon Arenas’ return. The question was posed mostly as a wins versus losses debate. In this version of the equation everybody loses.

But none more than Arenas, which is the way it should be some would argue. As a grown man and league veteran there will be no tears shed for his plight. He could very well be remembered as the guy who put an end to the horror show that has been playing out under new head coach Flip Saunders (and before him Eddie Jordan), who surely buys another year of assessment after this mess. That change was induced by a public relations explosion of this magnitude is worthy of note, as is the way in which the locker room seems to be divided on support for their fallen comrade. Early in the process Arenas lashed out at team brass accusing them of a lack of support in the early days of this story breaking. The Wizards responded by tearing down the larger-than-life banner of Arenas that hung outside the V.

Antawn Jamison, the veteran forward who at one time held this Wizards team together in Arenas’ absence, has been publicly fed up and expects to be traded. Forward Caron Butler seems like a centerpiece but while his skills are solid he isn’t top dog material. Still, he is the best they have until the NBA draft when college standout John Wall will be drafted to one of several bad teams. The Wizards will be at or near the top of that group, which is why the Arenas-induced fire sale that is on the horizon will have an amazing effect on the future of the franchise.

Which will not include Gilbert Arenas.

By the time he returns Arenas will have missed the larger part of three prime years of basketball. His impressive branding, once a significant selling point to the package is now back to square one. His locker room respect has taken a hit too.

There are conflicting reports about the particulars of the confrontation between Arenas and Crittenton. It seems like more a case of those choosing to squeal or not. In his own guilty plea 10 days after Arenas’ own deal was reached, Crittenton’s lawyer painted his client as a man in fear for his life after threats by Arenas were issued over the debt. For that bit of squealing Crittenton’s charges were reduced to possession of an unlicensed firearm and a year of unsupervised probation coupled with community service. It certainly killed Arenas’ “it was all a joke” defense, which would have surely been the consensus of the locker room if a) that were indeed the case, b) if it were truly a team that wanted to get past it and c) if the locker room wasn’t so split.

Add “feared” to the adjectives now used to describe Arenas. A young black multi-millionaire with a gun, collecting locker room debts while playing pro ball for a team that not too long ago changed its moniker from Bullets to Wizards because of the extreme gun violence that had riddled the city. A city that has some of the toughest gun laws in the United States of America. How that knowledge didn’t give him the good sense to at least invite Crittenton over to his house for “tea” instead is a mystery. It’s an uneasy rap for a guy who now joins the Tiger Woods and Mark McGwire’s of the universe as a dude with a story he might never live down. A story that became larger than himself. Jalen Rose was the first to tell me that sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it. I’m not ready to put Arenas on the same shelf as Woods and McGwire because his motives seem less sinister even if the results were not. Do his ghosts run as deep as Woods? McGwire? Hell, Kobe Bryant? I’m not sure what, if anything, this episode has told us about Arenas that we didn’t already know. There is no unknown.

Prank? Invitation to a John Woo-style locker room showdown? Speculation on the inner sanctums of sports wet holes can be a tough crack, but even by leaning towards Arenas’ assertion that it was all a joke gone terribly wrong, what right could have possibly ever come of it?

The world won’t get to see Arenas play ball again for some time, but he will be back. The contract is guaranteed. So too is the fame. So too is the March 26 court date set for Arenas’ sentencing on his plea deal regarding the possession of an unlicensed pistol. The surgeries, the media beating, the financial hit, the guns… if he can find a way past it all Arenas’ return could mark one of the biggest comebacks in NBA history. Arenas once chronicled his climb up the basketball world in a popular shoe commercial a few years ago. It was a tale of how he beat the doubters and came from nothing to become one of the best players in the NBA. It was the story behind his wearing the number “0”.

It’s the only place to start.

THE BASKETBALL SAMURAI: Opening Tip

November 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Blogs, The Basketball Samurai

So I made the decision, a long, long, long time ago to be a journalist, a writer, a purveyor of facts and fiction both creative and bland, depending on who you are and what peaks your interests. I can be a significant part of your day or that part you would rather forget, or more specifically, avoid altogether.

Mostly I have made my bones as a writer in the sports industry, covering the National Basketball Association (among others) and its famous stars and personalities as a freelancer for many years and for many of your favorite sports outlets but, most importantly to me, as a writer for SWAY Sports. I call my own shots, dig for the untold angles and get to travel the NBA Universe from my SWAY Sports base. And as much as I love sports and basketball in particular, athletics is only the second love of my life. The first is writing.

I say that because there is a big difference and because sports journalism is not the only writing I do. I have dabbled in book writing from time to time and I say dabble because I have yet to publisher a page turner of any significance, to me or anybody else. None of these novelish efforts have involved sports or basketball though they are referenced, sometimes heavily, in many of those unfinished works. I have written scripts intended for major studio production but I have yet to give them to any major studio. I have gone from poetry to song writing, books and short story attempts and ghost writing jingles and tag lines (which is hardly a leap) with little to show.

It has been the sports journalism that has been my bread and butter, opened me up to television and film opportunities and most importantly – for survival’s sake – has paid me. And when I say survival that is exactly what I mean. Survive, not insanely prosper. Not even sanely prosper. In fact, some people have downright questioned my sanity for doing the things I have done for the amount I have done it for. No sports writer ever got stinky, filthy, professional athlete rich doing this gig. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule but in my experience quality and consistent writing opens you up to other mediums, which are the real paydays. Still, those cheques come and go as magazines and televisions shows and radio programs change formats, hosts, producers or straight up just fold. That extra $10,000 a year can disappear with the stroke of some suit’s pen, or with the appearance of too many bad-for-TV grey hairs, lest you buck the trend and avoid dye jobs. I myself have just stumbled upon my first grey hair and so my own countdown has begun I’m sure. Somebody’s always watching.

That includes the next and newest generation, which currently I am deemed a part of despite almost a decade in the business. The grey hairs should get me kicked out of that club pretty soon but for now I’m down. Oddly enough there are many sports journalists and television personalities that I have looked up to over the years, both before I entered the ring and after, that aim to keep me and others like me at a distance. The “show” can be a cutthroat business and talents flashes in and out of our industry like the proverbial strobe light. Some just barely hang on. Others dig in and find their niche. A few go big time and are afforded some staying power. I’m somewhere jumbled among those possibilities and with the way media works today, with millions of different mediums ready to deliver your news it some pretty cool ways, it gets harder and harder to establish your voice in the carnivorous landscape, which brings me to my long and winding road of a point.

Just write, baby.

Because nobody can deny a good read, a breaking story or a timely assumption. Nobody can resist a strong opinion that is well articulated with the power to possibly change your mind. To tell you something you didn’t know. And yet writing is subjective in that whole one man’s trash is another man’s treasure kind of way. Like movies and steaks, everybody has a strong opinion of what’s good and bad and everybody wants to believe that their standards are the highest. But to me good writing and writers are undeniable. Being serious helps, as does being inclined to spend countless hours awake and mute and secluded from all reality outside of your own… and then filtering the rest of the world into your work only as you see fit. When it comes to writing about sports debate is inevitable and furious, irrational debate is likely and so it can be easy to get a rise out of your readership.

I know a few writers who are excellent at this and yet I find myself wondering why most of them are dicks. It’s true. In order to be truly effective you have to pour some of yourself into the writing and that exposes you in some ways, little or small. When you are covering sports you are surrounded by guys (and girls) who write as though they played the game (some have and some wish it so) and act as though they are as “tough” as the culture they cover. It can be an interesting show to watch and I have spent many a media scrum among the throngs of reporters and recorder and cameras doing just that. I admit to being a people-watcher and writers are some of the more interesting. We are calculating, premeditive, chameleon like creatures that thrive on exclusive information and spit it out with a healthy dose of opinion and often perverse prose, however obvious or not. There can be a two-facedness about what we do that I haven’t ever been able to fully subscribe to. Some applaud it, some resent it, most just go about their own business because as writers, it’s all about us.

So for everybody who stops me on the street or drops me an email about what it is I do (some of you equate me to “Tommy” from that old nineties sitcom “Martin”) I wear many hats in this business of sports and hoops. I am your link to the inside, your unburstable bubble of brand new, your embedded journalist in the war to bring your sports news home. Your “twitterer”. Depending on whom you ask I am many other things as well. Some not so good and some oh so good. I’m like you – interested. At the end of the day though, I’m just a writer. I say “just” in the most respectful of ways in case my media brethren read these lines and suppose my suggestion offers that we are somehow unimportant. On the contrary. We are very important, but only if we do our jobs well and only to those who care enough to notice. Somebody always does.

Now where’s that dye?