Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hoopin' It Up with the HSL

The NBA, NCAA, and a memorable amateur tournament from the late 90's. It's an all basketball Thursday for the High Socks Legend on this cold, dim, fluorescent morning...

-Is there any greater pleasure than seeing Grant Hill decide to turn back the clock and just take over a game? This happened Wednesday night when the Suns nipped the Jazz at home for their 6th straight win, courtesy of G-Hill's 26 points. He had several big hoops in the 4th quarter, including the game winning baby fadeaway in the lane with under a minute left. While these nights are now fewer and farther between than they used to be, with Hill averaging a little over 11 a game, it just makes these special performances all the more meaningful. Regardless of how you view Hill, either as one of the all-time NBA greats or a guy incapable of leading a team on a playoff run, there is no questioning his unending determination and his genuine love for the game. He could have hung it up long ago, with his mega bucks from the Orlando contract secured safely in the bank, and just relaxed 365 days a year. But it was never about that for Grant Hill. His passion for the sport was always so evident in watching him play, and as evidenced by his display last night, that candle is still flickering.

The Suns are making a mad dash for the 8th playoff spot in the West, currently owned by the Mavericks. I will be paying extra attention to their place in the standings over the next couple weeks. Just imagine the underdog Suns creeping into the postseason, then taking down the hugely favored Lakers in a gut wrenching Game 7 at Staples with Grant Hill leading the way on those creaky, worn ankles. You just got the chills, didn't you?

-Louis Amundson continues to get under people's skin, and tonight I found out why. About a month ago, the Suns forward was involved in a confrontation with Zach Randolph that saw Amundson get cracked in the jaw with a beautiful left hand. Randolph defended his actions by claiming he was fearful of a potential Amundson kiss when they got face-to-face (not kidding). Randolph was curiously only suspended for two games. A few nights ago, Amundson was again bothering the opposing big man. This time it was Nene. It did not seem as if anything major was going on. Just a simple possession, most guys moving at half speed, when Nene apparently felt it was an appropriate time to headbutt Mr. Amundson. When's the last time you saw a guy employ the headbutt in an NBA game? As if that weren't enough, when Louis remained on his feet following the initial blow, Nene tried finishing the job by winging a little elbow in his grill. The Nuggets center was immediately tossed from the contest. Subsequently, he has been hit with a two-game suspension, or more aptly titled, the "Louis Amundson Special."

It seems like you can do whatever you want to this pony tailed instigator, and walk away with just a couple of games docked from the paycheck. Tonight, I found out why the penalties are so light. Paul Millsap, a terrific sub off the bench for the Jazz, entered the game and found himself going up for an easy layup. Not so, said Amundson. He fouled him hard, preventing the easy bucket. However, on replay, when looking up at the ball when it was released to see if there was contact, it appeared everything was clean. Yeah, on top, everything was clean. Look a little lower. You'll notice Amundson's size 16 Reeboks making severe contact with Millsap's "Jackpot Zone." Put it this way...when Millsap went to the line to shoot his free throws, I've never seen a player trying harder to take a deep breath. Cut to the Suns on offense maybe 90 seconds later. Amundson is driving to the hoop, and flies through the air for a pretty finger roll. Looks harmless enough. Cue the ESPN replay, as we now see that Amundson brought the knee up this time and delivered a second hard shot to Millsap's home base. Somehow, Millsap swallowed his pride and did not retaliate as Randolph and Nene had before.

Millsap could have put Amundson in a choke hold. He could have given him a swift karate kick to the ribs. He even could have went "Last Boy Scout" on Amundson and just popped a cap right between the '1' and '7' on his jersey. But he did nothing of the sort. I guess Millsap was uninformed of the aforementioned NBA edict stating that any violence towards Amundson short of on-court murder will be treated the exact same...a two-game hiatus with specific instructions to "finish the job" next time.

-Some players to watch in this weekend's NCAA tournament action...

DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh- My friend BK described him well. "It's like watching Jason Maxiell, but 20 pounds heavier." Pretty good comparison. Blair is an undersized force in the post at just 6'7, but makes up for it with his wide frame and ultra-physical nature in the post. He attacks the offensive glass with ferocity. And much like Maxiell, Blair struggles mightily from the charity stripe, checking in at about a 60% clip. There is only one reason that Pittsburgh managed to avoid becoming the first top seed ever to drop the opening rounder to the #16 team: DeJuan Blair. He tallied 27 points and 16 boards, practically declaring the painted area his own private property for the afternoon. Blair is the only player to have personally destroyed UCONN center Hasheem Thabeet this year, as he continually took it to the 7'3 giant on his way to a 20-20 performance back in February. Pitt struggled mightily in getting out of the first portion of their bracket. But now, with some of the early tournament jitters gone, look for Pitt to get back in high gear against Xavier, with the big fella doing his best Maxiell impersonation along the way.

Chase Budinger, Arizona- I like this guy for one reason and one reason only. He is one of the best volleyball players in the country, and the announcers never let you forget it. Budinger could dunk from half court, or sink a 3 from the upper deck. He could turn the ball over 35 times, or airball every free throw he takes. The play-by-play guy doing the game will always have the exact same reaction after anything that Budinger does.
"Hey Jim, did you know that Budinger was an all-state volleyball performer in high school? How about that!!"
Just trust me. Try and watch 5 minutes of Zona's game with Louisville without Budinger's volleyball prowess being mentioned. Never gonna happen.

Cole Aldrich, Kansas- The 6'11 hoss for the Jayhawks has been a monster in the first two rounds, racking up a combined 36 points and 33 rebounds. The fun part about watching Aldrich is the feeling of deja vu that hits you any time he does something on the court. You see the lumbering pivot man with "Kansas" etched on the chest of his jersey, and your brain immediately tells you, "Hey, you've seen this guy before...come on, just take your time and think of it. About 15 years ago...same exact person...maybe a little better looking." Oh, yeah!! Now I remember. I have seen this guy before. And I liked him much better back then...when he was called Greg Ostertag.

-Sometimes during the NCAA tournament, we are treated to an inside look at a team's locker room before the game as the coach relays his final inspirational thoughts. How the players relaxed to that point is anybody's guess. Some probably took a nap. Others might have just laid back with the big Rasheed Wallace headphones on, letting some tunes sharpen their focus. But I once witnessed the most unique pre-game ritual in the history of competitive basketball. The year was 1997, and I was in Milwaukee with my brother Gabe to represent Detroit in the annual Maccabi games. While we were part of the Ping-Pong faction of the delegation, one of our good buddies J-Brown was a member of the hoops squad. He was a reserve guard with the court vision of a young Mark Jackson and a penchant for the "occasional" turnover. We went to check in on him before their big game against San Francisco. The room was dimly lit. It was almost silent, with very little chatter among any of the guys. I found it to be a bit puzzling. I mean, it's good to get your mind right, but this felt like a library.

So I casually whispered to Brown how quiet it was in there and if maybe his guys were a little too nervous for the game. Next thing I know, I'm being sssshhhh'ed by everybody in the room. I say one thing, and the place flips out. Then I realize, everybody around me is seated and staring up at a small TV screen in the front of the room. Ahh, now I get it. They must be watching something to motivate them, like a montage of famous basketball clips or a scene from Braveheart. I felt bad for a moment, until I turned my head and saw exactly what it was that had been commanding their full attention. Two words...Major Payne. Let me say that one more time just so it registers...they wanted to watch something to get them in the perfect frame of mind for a gold medal opportunity, and "Major Payne" was the selection. The horrid 1995 comedy starring Damon Wayans as a discharged Major from the Marines was the piece of film that was getting these boys ready to go to battle in the biggest game of their lives. When you see that movie, you walk out thinking, "If I write a personal note to Damon Wayans, do you think he could find a way to get the last 95 minutes of my life back for me?" This was the single worst choice in basketball history for pre-game motivation in getting a team ready to play.

Not surprisingly, J-Brown's squad from Detroit suffered the same fate that 'Major Payne' did at the box office...they bombed. Now, granted, that 15-16 year old San Francisco group had a few guys that were probably NBA ready. But the main reason for defeat that day lies in the two hours prior to tip-off. One team was being pumped up by the words of Winston Churchill, Vince Lombardi, and Jim Valvano...and the other one was hearing Damon Wayans say things like, "Killing is my business, and business is GOOOOOOOD!"

So while you may think that the winners and losers this weekend will be decided during the games, it is in fact much more important to note what goes on before any on-court action even takes place. Because you can always make up for a missed shot or unforced turnover with good defense or a crucial rebound. But attempting to recover from a disaster like "Major Payne" in such a short amount of time is beyond human capability. Guess they shoulda went with Blankman.

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