Monday, November 30, 2009

A Forgotten Friendship: The Story of Quentin Richardson and the Free Throw Line

It doesn't exactly take a heroic effort to get sent to the foul line in the NBA. You drive to the hoop, go up for a shot, take a little contact, and earn yourself a pair at the stripe. It's not rocket science. Now, there might be a game or two where a player will be hesitant taking the ball to the rack and go free throw-less for a short span. But to play in multiple games at the swingman position in the NBA without ever shooting a single free throw is nothing short of miraculous. A few weeks ago, we looked back on the career of Nick Anderson. Anderson famously became spooked of the free throw line in his later years, and even played an entire campaign one season, spanning 169 minutes, without once going to the line. Turns out that was just chump change compared to our boy Quentin Richardson.

The forward for the Heat has played a staggering 322 minutes this year and is still yet to attempt his first free throw. Don't bother rubbing your eyes or adjusting the brightness of your screen. You read it right the first time. 322 minutes. And not one free throw attempt. Is he afraid of something here? Did a teammate jokingly tell him that the free throw line is actually a "danger zone" loaded with hidden landmines and traces of anthrax, only for Richardson to miss the sarcasm entirely and regard the comment as a legitimate national security threat? How else to explain a starting small forward in the NBA playing that many minutes without ever taking a free throw?

With Nick Anderson, it was understandable. The memory of the '95 Finals never stopped haunting him, and he eventually became Polynice-esque at the line, causing him to make a personal vow never to return. Richardson, on the other hand, is a semi-respectable 71% free thrower for his career. He's always been able to get himself about 100-120 freebies a year. Now, all of a sudden, that number has been whittled all the way down to Goose Egg City. I know Q-Rich has essentially become a 3-point "specialist" these last few years (with 'specialist' being used very liberally), but he is taking that title to new and dangerous heights this year. When you are able to play the shooting guard/small forward combo position in the NBA as a starter for as many games and minutes as Richardson has without earning a single trip to the line, and not be banished to the NBDL or Slovenia in the process, it is truly a miracle of the highest proportions.

I've always been a sucker for unique streaks in sports. When Baron Davis repeatedly failed to shoot better than 50% in a game for nearly an entire season (62 games total), I basically shut down the rest of my life to devote all my attention towards it. In the world of baseball, I developed a secret affinity for Rondell White's bizarre stolen base streak, and was crushed when it finally came to an end. (White registered at least one theft in each of his first 14 big league seasons, and oddly enough, in the last 6 years of the streak, he stole one, and one only, every single year to keep the streak alive. Tragically, in season #15, ol' fella couldn't get the legs going for a single attempt. I'm still recovering.) Former Piston legend Terry Mills took the city of Detroit by storm in 1996 when he canned 13 consecutive treys to tie Vanilla Brent Price's NBA record. Those 13 bombs might have only spanned three nights during the season, but to us wide-eyed Pistons fans, his name might as well have been DiMaggio.

To most NBA fans, Quentin Richardson is just a washed-up swingman gunner who no longer does much swinging or gunning. He doesn't capture any headlines and will never be the focal point of a Kornheiser/Wilbon on-screen debate. His durability has and always will be a major issue, and there have even been some rumors that Q-Rich is planning to change the name on the back of his jersey to "Smits" in honor of his similarly oft-injured Dutch mentor.

But to me, Quentin Richardson is so much more. Because there are good streaks. And there are bad streaks. But it doesn't matter to me...I like 'em all. Which is why I'll be paying extra attention to those Miami Heat box scores in the coming weeks.

You'd think it would be impossible for any NBA player to keep logging court time and hoisting the rock without ever once getting bumped or grazed in the process. But then again, nobody ever thought Brent Price and Terry Mills would knock down 13 straight from long range. And nobody ever thought that Kwame Brown could fumble 768 consecutive post entry passes without once making a clean catch. But those things did happen. So maybe Q-Rich can go the whole year without ever stepping to the free throw line. I know I'll be watching. (Even if I am the only one.)

Because after all, a streak is a streak, and no matter how obscure or bizarre it happens to be, sometimes you just have to sit back and acknowledge the consistency, appreciating the little nugget of minutiae that is being cemented into the long and glorious history of the NBA.

I love this game...

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Monday, November 23, 2009

You Can't Make It...So Why Take It??

A reputation is a powerful thing. Many times, simply having a reputation for being good at something outweighs the reality of whether or not that skill actually exists. I present to you now, Exhibit A, in this demonstration: Rasheed Wallace and his reputation for being a guy with the ability to "stretch defenses" with his long range shooting. NBA followers for years have touted Sheed's "inside-outside" combination, and his uncanny knack for a power forward to step out and knock down the three. But when you stop taking all of these myths as gospel, and actually watch Mr. Wallace play for several seasons in person, you ultimately discover the truth. Just because he likes shooting the three does not mean he can shoot the three. I just thank the Lord he's doing it somewhere else now.

The Celtics lost a rare home game Friday night to the defending East champs, the Magic. Interestingly, heading into this game, Doc Rivers had went public with his unhappiness regarding the team's shot selection and their propensity to settle for the deep ball instead of attacking the basket. Prior to the game with Orlando, this excerpt appeared in the Boston Globe.

The Celtics have become 3-point happy at the wrong times this season. Coach Doc Rivers finally stepped in, telling Rasheed Wallace to limit the threes, during the final quarter of last night’s 109-95 win over Golden State. "I got on him, and I rarely do, about the threes. Because even though he was wide open, it’s really tough. I mean, he was wide open and he took two, but we had just taken two quick ones."

So all of this was said heading into the Friday night game with the Magic. Rivers was clear; more ball movement, better shot selection, less 3s. What does Rasheed do? He goes out and jacks up eight bombs from downtown, making a grand total of zero. Now there are very few players in the NBA that can hoist that many 3s in a game and get away with it. Steve Nash...Andrea Bargnani...maybe even Jason Richardson, with the way he's been stroking it this year. But Rasheed Wallace?? After a very specific order from his head coach to "limit the threes"??? He shoots eight of 'em????? Trust me when I tell you after watching this man play in Detroit for the last six years...the more 3s he takes, the less likely you are to win the game. How did the Celtics do Friday night in that game with the Magic? They lost by five, and scored a season-low 78 points. It was an ugly affair, filled with clumsy offense and errant shooting. And our man was at the center of it all.

I still do not know where Rasheed Wallace's reputation as a "dangerous outside shooter" originated. It's the classic case of, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story," because the facts in this matter do nothing to support this longstanding claim. Sheed has played in the league for 15 years. You wanna know how many times he has shot above 36% from beyond the arc? Once. And that was 11 years ago. Keep in mind, 36% is not some ridiculously high number for a 3-point shooter. It's probably a little below average, at best, especially for a player that fires them up at the rate Sheed does. How many times did we as Pistons fans have to watch Rasheed on those silly "pick-and-rolls" in late game situations when there was nary a "roll" to speak of? He would set a lame pick, float behind the long line, wait for the pass, and then jack it up as soon as the ball touched his fingertips. The shot would almost always go begging, and you were left wondering how this continued to be viewed as a smart offensive strategy when it worked so infrequently.

Take a look down south, where Atlanta currently sits in the catbird seat of the Eastern Conference with a glistening 11-3 record. Sure, they picked up high-scoring guard Jamal Crawford in the off-season and franchise player Joe Johnson continues to do his thing, but it's been the emergence of Josh Smith that has been one of the biggest differences for Mike Woodson's crew. Before this year, he'd been a freak athlete too block-headed to take full advantage of his insane set of physical gifts. He would dominate for periods, make the occasional highlight play, and far too often, become lazy and go hang out in three-point territory. Should he have been spending that much time out there, or for that matter, any time out there? The answer is a resounding N-O. He was a putrid shooter from long range, and each one of the 100-150 bombs he attempted every year did their own small part in making you realize that this guy was simply "never going to get it." Sound familiar? After all, that's basically the way Rasheed's whole career has been. No light bulb ever went off for him. He entered the league shooting a relatively low amount of threes, usually between 30-50 a year. That changed very quickly. By the time he had gotten comfortable in Detroit, he was practically paying rent outside the line, routinely forcing up over 300 a year, culminating in his unforgettable 2005-06 campaign when he managed to sling 434 from distance. Free-throws for Sheed that year...183. Way to use your 6'11" frame to your advantage, Sir. But Josh Smith made a decision as this season approached. He was going to become a smart player for the first time in his career. He was not going to become another Rasheed Wallace.

The three-point section of Josh Smith's stat line this year has been virtually non-existent. And not just an, "I'm gonna take maybe one or two 3s a game so I don't go into withdrawal" kind of thing. He has literally sworn off the three-point shot entirely. Save for one last-second desperation heave against Miami last week with the first half clock winding down, young Josh has not taken another three-pointer this whole year. And the difference it has made on his game has been evident from opening night, when he made 7 of 10 shots and handed out 8 assists, leading to a double-digit win over Indiana. He is shooting a career-high 54% from the field. (The first time in his career he's been over the Baron Davis mark.) His rebound and assist figures are also the highest they have ever been, and he's committing less turnovers than at any point over the last four seasons. He's like a new person, and it all traces back to his cathartic admittance that he could not conquer his personal devil, the three-point line. It has turned him into one of the most feared players in the league, and it has made the Hawks a legitimate contender in the East for the first time since Mike Fratello was roaming the sidelines. As for Sheed, I wouldn't expect a similar revelation at any point in the near future.

Watching Rasheed Wallace play for the Pistons over the last number of years was one of the more frustrating experiences any Detroit sports fan has had to go through. You always heard from people on TV and around the league that he was such a "team player" and that his "basketball IQ was off the charts," but I got news for you. It was all a whole lot know what. The man could have undergone a Josh Smith-type renaissance at some point in his career, but he never did. He just got worse. That 0-8 three-point performance against Orlando is the perfect reminder of the type of player Rasheed has always been. His coach put out an order for his team to follow, and Sheed simply ignored it. In yesterday's game against the Knicks, a two point escape job in overtime, his minutes were sliced in half. After playing a season-high 34 minutes in the game with Orlando, Sheed played just 15 on Sunday, his lowest total on the year. And he didn't exactly make a case for a bump in that playing time. The old gunslinger snapped off six shot attempts in his limited appearance, again making zero, including a goose egg for three from TreyVille.

As a Pistons fan, I'm just grateful that those shots are being taken somewhere other than the Palace. His act grew tired over the years, and for people to think his addition suddenly makes the Celtics the favorite again in the East is absurd, to say the least. Most good shooters will tell you that the reason they keep on shooting is because no matter how many in a row they miss, they still feel like the next one is going in. For bad shooters like Rasheed, that mentality leads to self-destruction, and an NBA career ultimately defined by countless bricks, plummeting shooting percentages, and a reputation that could not be less deserved.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

A Mismatch in Any Era

The Detroit Pistons have not been playing their best ball of late. Their big men are struggling to contribute offensively, the guards are forcing the action a little too much, and Jonas Jerebko gets more uncomfortable offensively with each passing moment. It has led to three straight losses, albeit to a trio of playoff teams in the West. Looking ahead to Saturday night, the Pistons travel to Salt Lake City to take on the Jazz, and the point is this. The Pistons could trot out five Hall-of-Famers for that game. They could bring back Dave Bing and Bob Lanier in their primes. They could lure Kelly Tripucka back to the Pistons' announcing booth for one more night. Hell, they could be given a 25-point lead at the beginning of the game, be allowed to play the whole 48 minutes on a never ending power play, and be given permission by the NBA to have both Abdenour brothers on the sideline to serve as dual head trainers. None of it would matter. Because as any knowledgeable Detroit basketball fan knows, the Pistons never win in Utah.

A little history here to see exactly how devastating the Curse of Utah has been. It hasn't always been like this for the Pistons and Jazz. After all, when the Jazz played in New Orleans and were led by Pistol Pete Maravich and a generous entrée-sized portion of rice pilaf, the Pistons had tremendous success. They would go 6-4 in the Big Easy during the five short years the Jazz took residence there. Then everything changed. The annual Mardi Gras celebration forced the Jazz on a month-long road trip in the midst of a playoff run, and the franchise decided that was the last straw. They packed their bags and headed for the friendly skies of Salt Lake City, but as the Pistons would discover in the years to come, "friendly" would be the last word to describe a trip to this godforsaken city. "Hell" would be more like it.

The first Pistons-Jazz clash in the new Utah digs took place in the 1980 season. It was too much Adrian Dantley, and not enough Kent Benson and Phil Hubbard, and the Jazz romped by 14. This became a familiar sight. The three years to follow also brought L's to the Pistons ledger on their annual Utah trip. The '84 season also saw a Jazz home triumph, only this time they were especially hostile hosts, exploding for 143 points and winning by 18. Again, the next three years all told the same story: L, L, L. The Pistons had traveled to Utah eight times, and come up short every single time. Finally, in 1988, the 'Stones broke through. They squeaked out a 3-point win, and then somehow managed to make it back-to-back wins the next year with a 4-point thriller in double overtime. Perhaps the pendulum was finally swinging back in favor of the boys from Motown on their yearly jaunt to Jazz Country. Think again.

The Pistons played twice more in the Salt Palace (one of the more underrated arena names from the 'Pre Corporate Naming Rights' era), getting handled both times. The Pistons must have exhaled a bit, knowing the Jazz were moving from that wretched building where they had managed just two wins against ten losses. Off to the Delta Center, the new state of the art facility that would now hold close to 20,000 screaming Mormons intent on making it as difficult as ever to get a W in their multi-wived territory. First trip to the new digs...two point loss in a nail-biter. Ron Rothstein came aboard in '93...Bam! 24-point shellacking courtesy of the Mailman. It was Don Chaney to the rescue in '94 and '95, but sadly his dynamic duo of Rafael Addison and Oliver Miller wasn't enough...they lost both contests by a combined 45 points. Doug Collins took over right where his predecessors left off, making three Utah treks to Utah and coming home empty on each occasion. Thankfully, the lockout forced the league to adopt a reduced 50-game schedule in 1999, and the NBA had some rachmanos for the Pistons, sparing them their annual plank walk in Utah.

This decade of Pistons-Jazz basketball got off to a most inauspicious start. Termed the "Bryon Russell Conspiracy" in these parts, this was the game where the Jazz had a clear shot-clock violation in the final seconds that was inexplicably ignored by all three referees, denying the Pistons a final shot to win the game. (I went into greater detail on this game in an earlier blog...2nd item down.) Somehow, the Stones got up off the mat and took revenge by winning back-to-back Utah affairs in the 2002 and '03 seasons. No matter how much Rick Carlisle frustrated me during his two years as Pistons head coach (and yes, I still wake up in a cold sweat 2-3 times a week over his mismanaging of Corliss Williamson's minutes in 2002), I must give the man his props for going 2-0 in the Utah Dungeon. Granted, in his first win, Karl Malone and John Stockton were a combined 77 years old...and in the second win, Malone missed the game entirely and was replaced in the starting lineup by John Amaechi, but it remains a highly impressive accomplishment by Carlisle, nonetheless. The last six years have been status quo in the "rivalry." Loss after loss after loss after loss. To see a perfect display of the Jazz home dominance, go back to the Pistons' championship year of 2004. They rode into Ostertag's World carrying a 4-game winning streak. Forty-eight minutes later, that streak was up in smoke. Chauncey and the boys then reeled off eight more victories. So that's 12 wins in 13 ballgames for the eventual champs, and the only loss during their hottest period of the season came at Utah. Coincidence?? I think not.

Sometimes I wonder...what makes traveling to Utah and getting a win such an impossible feat for our Detroit Pistons? There have been other dominant teams out West over the years, but none of them strike fear into the hearts of Pistons fans quite like a trip to Utah. For so many years, you knew a game with the Jazz meant endless Stockton-to-Malone pick-and-rolls, where your only hope as a defense was that the ball might eventually be swung around to some mook like Shandon Anderson or Scott Padgett. There's Jerry Sloan, who's been guiding that ship ever since they made the switch from peach baskets. There's the bloodthirsty Utah crowd, which seems to be louder and more intimidating than any other in the league. NBA talking heads would constantly clamor about the noise at Arco in Sac-Town, or the near-impossibility of scoring a victory in Spurs Land; but it was always those hooligans in Utah that made you fear for your life, even while sitting at home watching on TV from 1,700 miles away. And don't think you're getting a fair whistle in Utah, either. The refs are about as impartial as Brendan Fraser's fellow students at the end of School Ties. It is fairly common that a team will outplay the Jazz in their gym, but still fall short due to the alarming disparity at the free throw line.

Let's remember here...I'm about as much of a "homer" Pistons fan as there is in the world. I was the guy that had psychotic hallucinations about the Pistons actually coming back against Cleveland last year after two demoralizing blowouts to open the series, even going so far as to use a Hugh Grant romantic comedy as a source of inspiration. All that being said, I will now also tell you that the Pistons have absolutely zero chance of winning in Utah on Saturday night. 100% Loss...0% Win. I hate to be Mr. Doom and Gloom, but the numbers in this case are simply impossible to ignore. Consider these numbers.

-The Pistons have played in the Jazz' current home (now EnergySolutions Arena...maybe the worst creation of the "Corporate Naming Rights" era) 17 times...they've won twice.

-They have played the Jazz 19 times this decade, home or away...again, they've won twice.

-They have lost 8 in a row overall in the series, including a 17-point drubbing in Salt Lake last year.

-And now for the coup de grâce...the Pistons are a ghastly 18-41 all-time against the Jazz of Utah, by far their worst winning percentage (.305) against any opponent in franchise history. Second would be the Celtics...third would be the Lakers. You get the idea.

There aren't many times during an NBA season when you can say with complete and absolute certainty that one team has literally no chance of winning a particular game. Well, this is the rare exception. The Jazz are by no means steamrolling over the NBA in the season's opening weeks. They will enter Saturday night with a pedestrian 6-6 mark. Mehmet Okur is out with an injury and there's something called a "Wes Matthews" starting at shooting guard. On paper, they look very beatable. Against the Pistons, however, they are indestructible. So don't bother tuning in Saturday night or checking out the box score Sunday morning. This game's outcome was decided 30 years ago when that godforsaken Mardi Gras festival forced the Jazz out of New Orleans and into Utah, where they have now taken up permanent residence in the personal nightmares of every Pistons fan from Saginaw to Saugatuck. Utah has always been a state well known for their commitment to religion. But Saturday night, the big fella upstairs will be firmly on the side of the Pistons. They need all the help they can get...

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Sometimes When You Win, You Really Lose..."

As moviegoers, we are always in search of the "perfect film." The one that makes us laugh, makes us think, and keeps us smiling from the opening credits through the final frame. But has a movie ever actually achieved this mythical status? That's debatable. Groundhog Day gave it a good run, but ultimately fell short due to the skin-crawling presence of one Andie MacDowell. A Few Good Men was also close to perfection, but it gets penalized for the awkward "Are they or are they not a couple" dilemma between Cruise and Demi. Ghostbusters II remains an all-time great, but is docked severely because of the terrifying painting of Vigo the Carpathian that kept me awake every single night from 1989-92. The search for the perfect movie is almost always a fruitless one, but there is nothing more frustrating than thinking you really have a shot, only for the dream to come crashing down in one fateful scene. Let's take a little trip down memory lane and deal with a movie, White Men Can't Jump, that was capable of flawlessness, but too often carved a path leading directly to sheer frustration.

Billy Hoyle is the definition of the tragic American figure. He was a basketball sensation until his career got derailed by an ill-fated point shaving incident courtesy of the famed "Stucci Brothers." He had a fiery, trivia-laden, Latina girlfriend on his arm, only he was too absent-minded to figure out how to keep her happy. With the right mentality and a bit of luck, ol' Billy could have had it all. And at one point during the flick, it looked like he was well on his way. He had defeated Sidney in the opening-scene shooting contest. He had a couple more successful hustles, leading his jar of cash to be almost filled to capacity. Yes, he got cleaned out by Sidney in a backstabbing reverse hustle, but even that couldn't keep Billy down. He reconciled with Sidney, they entered the 2-on-2 tourney, and won the whole thing, albeit with enough trash talking and threats of violence to make even Anthony Mason blush. Things were all good for our man Billy. He was a champion. He was on his way home to be with his ever-supportive girlfriend, who also was prepared to surprise Billy with pizza and wine. (An odd combo, but any girl who's at home awaiting your arrival with a pizza is a keeper.) And he had a check for $2,500 in his pocket. So Sidney's driving, Billy's riding shotgun, and the conversation inevitably turns to dunking. I wish they would have just stopped the movie right there. Cut, print, send to the studio. Go no further. Unfortunately, we had no such luck...and neither did Billy.

We all know what happens next. Billy repeatedly tells Sid he can "stuff it." Sidney shrugs it off and hits him with the nondescript, but goading, "Ok, fine." They locate a random "goal," on the side of the road, and before you know it, Billy is putting up his half of the five grand that he can dunk the ball successfully given three tries. One heartbreaking minute later, Billy goes "miss, miss, miss" on his three attempts and we are left sitting in the audience shaking our heads and cursing under our breath. But the question remains...what made Billy think he could jam?!?!?? Dunking a basketball is not one of those athletic achievements that changes for a person on a day-to-day basis. Either you can, or you can't. Simple as that. Like Billy, I've always been a capable hooper with range from deep and a supreme knowledge of the game. But make no mistake...I'm a 6-foot Caucasian with absolutely no illusions of ever flying above the tin and flushing it down unless they one day decide to spring-load the floorboards and shrink the ball to the size of a plum. But here's Billy, vertically and athletically challenged, putting all of his newfound bankroll on the line for a task that he had to have known full well was a virtual impossibility. If he wanted to parlay his money that badly, why not challenge Sidney to another 3-point shootout? Or go find the nearest roulette wheel and throw it all on black? It's so hard to get into his head here and figure out what in the world he thought was going to happen. If you ain't a dunker, you don't just walk onto the court one day and accidentally throw one down. It's not like hitting a half court shot. If you can't dunk, you can't dunk. Period. No amount of pride or determination is going to change that.

The ensuing scene plays out predictably. Billy returns home to Gloria, eventually comes clean that he lost all of the bread (again), and she storms out, leaving him with a couple cold slices of 'Za and an escalating fire inside the motel room. She puts all of the blame on Billy, and that is understandable. But not so fast. What about the winner of the aforementioned Dunk Bet, a Mr. Sidney Deane? I'm well aware that in the world of hustling, there are no friends, only potential marks. We learned this earlier in the movie. But this wasn't even hustling. This was simply Sidney taking advantage of an unstable buddy during a desperate period in his life. Sidney knew Billy was always looking to turn one dollar into ten, and ten into fifty, and he pounced on the opportunity. That's not what I call being a friend.

I also take exception with the famed sports movie writer/director, Ron Shelton, and his handling of this portion of the film. If he wants to make the flick all about streetball and hustling, that's fine. At that point, I'd pretty much swallow everything with a grain of salt and realize there are no morals or ethics involved. But Shelton makes it about more than that. We see a relationship developing throughout the movie between Billy and Sidney that extends away from the blacktop. Even though most of their interaction takes place with a ball and a basket, there is clearly another element at work here. When Billy needs help getting Gloria on Jeopardy, it's Sidney who assists him in making it happen. When Sidney's crib gets robbed and he's strapped for cash, he goes to Billy to help him win one more money game against The King and Duck. Believing these two guys were friends was easy for us as viewers. Their chemistry was undeniable, both on and off the court. Even with the unsavory hustle job by Sidney earlier in the movie, they settled their differences and came together for the tournament victory. So why, Mr. Shelton, did you find it necessary to pull the rug out from under us again and have Sidney fleece Billy for a second time??? I'm sittin' here 17 years after the movie came out, and I can't wrap my head around it. It's gotta be one or the other. Either they are mortal enemies and out for blood at all times, or they are loyal friends willing to lay it all on the line when the chips are down and their partner is struggling. Shelton selfishly yanks us back and forth throughout the 115 minutes when all he really had to do was pick a dynamic, stick with it, and let us jump in with both feet.

White Men Can't Jump will always be considered one of the best sports movies of all time. And that isn't really debatable. There are a million memorable lines, countless hilarious scenes, and some pretty respectable hoops action. Wesley and Woody were both perfect in their roles, as were all of the supporting pieces. Even Snipes' pesky and annoying sidekick, Kadeem Hardison, starts to grow on you after a while. But it could have been the best. It should be one of those movies you see on TV and automatically decide "That's it...I'm stickin' with it 'till the end." But it's not. Because it can be so freakin' frustrating. Because of Billy's hard-headed ways. Because of Sidney's paper-thin loyalties. And because of that damn dunking scene. Maybe one of these days, I'll get past it, and enjoy the movie for what it's worth. But I don't think so. Because everybody knows that white men can't jump. Everybody, that is, except for Billy Hoyle.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Hoopin' Dinosaurs, Bad Jokes, and a Shocking Discovery in the NBA

There might not be a more enjoyable team to watch in the NBA right now than the Toronto Raptors. Friday night, the Raps trailed the Clippers by 22 on the road. But they kept scrapping, kept moving the ball, and by the time the 4th quarter started, the game was deadlocked. Twelve feisty minutes later, the Raptors had worn down the Clip Show, and were rewarded with an easy 15-point win. But it was the way they did that made it so enjoyable to watch. Franchise player Chris Bosh, the man that is near-unstoppable when he wants to be, did a lot of everything on this night. He hit for 21 points, hauled in 14 boards, and handed out 6 dimes. And unlike most of the other superstars in the league today, he continued to share the ball even at the game's most critical stages. Whereas other "stars" demand the ball at these moments and tell everyone else to scram, on this night Bosh simply took what the defense gave him and reacted. If Chris Kaman was guarding him straight up, he would take him to the rack. If the double team came, he would find the nearest Raptor sharpshooter. And there are plenty of those.

There's Hedo Turkoglu, the big off-season acquisition from Orlando. Once he finds his groove with this club and gets acclimated, look out. At times with Orlando last year, he was relied upon a little too much to be a playmaker and do things off the dribble. With this squad, and proven point Jose Calderon running the show, Hedo can float a little bit more and let the game come to him. Too often during last spring's playoff run he would wind up taking forced shots or making wild forays to the hoop simply because nobody else could really create their own shot. Now he can go back to being that guy from his days in Sacramento. The guy that blends in with the other pieces but can still get you 25-30 on a given night.

The aforementioned Calderon is about as fiery as they come at the point guard spot. He's like a cross between John Stockton and Gary Payton. Like Stockton, Jose is generally a very composed player and smart enough to run his offense fluidly, making few turnovers and getting the ball where it needs to go. And like Payton, he can absolutely flip out on his opponent if the situation calls for it. Late in Friday night's game, Clippers PG Sebastian Telfair tried leaning into Calderon to draw a foul on a desperation three. In the process, he caught Calderon above the eye with a little chicken wing elbow, and wouldn't you know it, the little Spanish firecracker absolutely flipped his wig. He got up off the deck, started screaming at Telfair, the referees...pretty much anybody within shouting distance that was wearing a uniform. Was he right? Ahh, it was questionable. Definitely some contact, but most likely completely inadvertent on the part of Telfair. Didn't matter to our boy. A few possessions later, Jose drove to the hoop and got a layup. And with a minute to go, and the Raptors now fully in control up by 12, he nailed a long bomb from beyond the arc and again started with the hysterics. Yelling towards the crowd, nodding his head violently like some kind of drunk bobblehead...and this was a shot to put his team up fifteen with less than a minute to play. The man might be certifiably insane, but he sho' is fun to watch.

Then there's the little known 2nd year guard from Italy, Marco Belinelli. Until his recent surge with 'Ronto, Belinelli was most known for going off in a summer league game last year for like 45 points. He then spent the actual season rotting in Don Nelson's typically overcrowded doghouse. Now it seems the Italian Bomber has found a home. He comes in off the Raps bench with one order: shoot. He's 6'5" with a quick release, making it pretty difficult to bother him when he decides it's time to fire. On this night, Bells banged out six buckets in his 28 minutes, with three of 'em coming from the land of plenty. It's funny watching him operate in a pick-and-roll situation because the defense reacts to him as if he is a normal guard that is capable of either driving or pulling up. That would be incorrect. This man has one thought on his mind, and that is hoisting from downtown. He's also the kind of guy that will have the ball in his hands with somewhere between 8-10 on the shot clock, only to decide, "Alright, it's up to me time for any more passes!" leading to him dribbling in a circle for the next few ticks before letting fly from 27 feet. This kind of play definitely leads to streaky spells, but when he's got it goin', Mr. Belinelli becomes a very dangerous 4th quarter weapon for these Flying Canadian Dinosaurs.

And last but not least, the forgotten first overall pick from the 2006 Draft, Andrea Bargnani. The lanky Bargnani had a hard time finding his niche in the NBA during his first couple years. He fashioned himself as a Dirk Nowitzki-type double threat, but in reality, he seemed like more of a poor man's right handed version of Sam Perkins. His 3-point touch was suspect, and he made very little contribution on the glass. Still too early to be labeled an outright "bust," there were plenty of grumblings that the big fella was never going to live up to the lofty expectations that come with being Numero Uno in a draft. Fast forward to the present. In the season's opening weeks, Bargnani has taken the Eastern Conference by storm. Averaging just under 20 points per game, he has proven to be the perfect frontcourt complement to the similarly multi-talented Bosh. Bargnani is on his way to becoming the best shooter in the NBA. Yeah, you heard me. Not just one of the best...the absolute best. Doing most of his work from the outside, Bargnani is shooting over 50% from the field, a career-best 47% from long-range, and a mind-boggling 93% from the charity stripe. And this man is seven feet tall! If he continues to stroke it like this, the Raptors become almost impossible to defend. On a high pick-and-roll with Calderon, Bargnani casually floats out to the top of the key after setting the screen. If they choose to cover him out there, Calderon is free to roam and make a play for himself or Bosh on the weak side. If they double the guard, Bargnani is left alone from 23 feet, at which point the referee ought to just extend both his arms into the air and head back downcourt. It's always cash money for the Big Lasagna, and like his predecessor Big Smooth, the ball is released effortlessly without the slightest trace of physical exertion.

I'm not proclaiming the ballers north of the border to be the favorites out of the East, but something is definitely being built there. Bryan Colangelo, once the architect behind the dazzling Run 'N Gun Suns' squads of the early 2000's, is now putting together a similar group of marksmen in Toronto. Hell, even former Piston Amir Johnson has displayed an active pulse playing for this team, putting to rest previous rumors from his days in Detroit that he was born without an ounce of talent...or a human soul. So keep an eye out for this exciting bunch from Toronto. They run the floor, they move the ball, and they all know how to shoot the rock. I look for them to make the playoffs and possibly even get a little run going once they get there. Or maybe they are completely average and everything I just wrote was a blatant overreaction to one enjoyable night of NBA action. They were playing the Clippers, after all...

When you say someone has a "very dry sense of humor," doesn't that basically mean that they aren't the least bit funny? If you're funny, you let people know it. When you make a joke, people know you are making a joke. Heck, you throw a pair of those goofy glasses on with the fake moustache and I'm a happy camper. But with "Dry Humor" guy, you have to sift through the metaphors and the monotone delivery just to try and figure out what what this mook is talking about and why it might be funny. You know what all of these guys with the dry sense of humor have in common? None of 'em are funny. Not a one. And nobody ever just has a "dry" sense of humor. It's always "very dry." Is this supposed to make it better? I mean, is anything really better when it is dry? Dry chicken?? No thanks...that sucker should be juicy. Dry heat? No thanks...I enjoy breathing without feeling lightheaded. Dry ice? I still don't know what that means. So let's stop complimenting these unfunny people for their underrated "dry" senses of humor. They're not funny, and they never will be.

The Pistons and Wizards were getting set to tip-off Saturday night. The players took the floor, the referees got in position, and the coaches took their seats. Everything seemed perfectly fine and normal...then I saw it. It was an uncomfortable sight to see. No, scratch was a startling, nightmare-inducing sight to see. No, no, no, scratch that, was the single worst thing I had ever seen in my life. The it I refer to is none other than the starting shooting guard for the Washington Wizards on this night, Mike Miller. I don't know how else to say this, so I'll just come right out with it. He...looked...pregnant.

You heard me. The signs were all there. He was heavy. He was bloated. Looked like he hadn't showered since training camp. He was wearing a giant shoulder/torso contraption underneath his jersey, presumably a tool from Lamaze class to assist with breathing when the big moment arrives. His hair, typically well-coiffed and styled, now looked unwashed and grimy. It was excessively long, had strawberry blond highlights mixed throughout, and then in the back, Miller had fashioned some kind of dirty mock-ponytail deal that made him look like a cross between Mario Batali and the doughy, middle school version of D.J. Tanner. Almost makes you shiver just thinking about it. I mean, Miller was never Mr. America or anything, but at least when he was at Florida and early in his NBA career, he kept his hair clean and short, even if it did make him look exactly like Hilary Swank's character from Boys Don't Cry.

In the early moments of this game, maybe the second or third possession, a whistle blew and there was a short stoppage in play. The camera panned to a clearly exhausted Miller, bent over with hands on knees, and desperately gasping for air. Pistons' play-by-play man Mark Champion tried justifying Miller's fatigue by saying something like, "Well, that's what happens when you miss a couple of weeks. It takes time to get readjusted to the speed of the game." Nice try, Mark. Miller was most definitely panting and wheezing, but it had nothing to do with missed time. It had to do with the fact that he was carrying another human life inside his belly. Whenever Rodney Stuckey or Ben Gordon would start to make a move off the dribble to steam past Miller, you couldn't help but feel a tinge of sympathy. The poor man obviously had no chance of keeping up and would usually wind up grabbing an arm or piece of the jersey as they sped by. But it didn't end there.

See, pregnant women are known to be moody and irritable. Miller was no exception. Each time the referee saddled him with another foul, Miller would lose it. He made ugly faces. He whined incessantly. He had a look in his eye that said, "I need a big jar of pickles and a quart of chocolate ice cream...IMMEDIATELY!" At one point, a Piston slipped on a wet spot in the paint and the ballboy went to clean it up. Ninety-nine percent of the time in this situation, you assume it's just a player's sweat that dripped onto the floor, making it slippery. However, when Mama Miller is roamin' the hardwood, you really have to consider the possibility that homeboy's water just broke with a wheelchair/ambulance combo being needed pronto. The question is, how are Flip Saunders and Co. going to keep their expectant shooting guard safe as the year progresses and he enters his third trimester?? Your guess is as good as mine, but let's just hope that opposing defenses know better than to foul Miller hard as he enters the lane. There's a bun in that oven...

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Taking Back Sunday

Sunday afternoon. Those words used to mean something around here. There might have been leaves to rake, errands to run, or in-laws to visit, but all of those things would have to be worked in carefully. Around the Lions game. You could make plans for later in the day, or even for brunch in the mid-morning, but being occupied from those sacred hours of 1:00-4:00 Eastern Standard Time?? Not happening. That was Lions time. No, our boys in Honolulu Blue were not perennial Super Bowl participants; but you'd better believe they would be fighting for one of those last playoff spots come late December. They had a Hall-of-Fame running back (Barry) and a semi-intelligent coach (Wayne-O), and that was good enough for us. Good enough to carve out that crucial make-or-break portion of our Sunday. But those days are no longer. The Lions took our loyalty, and abused the privilege. We no longer feel burdened on the final day of the weekend. Once again, the time is ours.

You could say I grew up in the heyday of Detroit Lions football. The numbers don't lie. In the 1970s, the Leos made exactly one playoff appearance. In the 80s, that number doubled to two. (And one of those was the fluky strike-shortened '82 campaign when the NFL invited practically every team to the playoffs, including the 4-5 Lions.) All of a sudden, the 90s came along, and the Lions were almost annual postseason participants. They went dancing a whopping six times, and even managed to snag the first and only playoff win in their history. Those were the days. The Silverdome was rockin' and rollin', with as much brawling in the stands as there was on the field. Barry Sanders was in his prime, cementing his legacy as quite possibly the most entertaining athlete in Detroit sports history. Herman Moore and Brett Perriman combined to form one of the most dangerous receiving combos in the league. The defense, while unspectacular, was nothing like the group of sieves that occupy Ford Field today. The coaching of Wayne Fontes and Bobby Ross was never going to be confused with the likes of Lombardi or Halas, but it was serviceable, and each guy carried their own little unique charm. And finally, that special group that has defined this franchise for centuries...the quarterbacks.

It was most definitely a ragtag bunch of journeymen, but somehow each was usually able to put it all together for a few weeks, or even a season. Erik Kramer looked like a future star in '91. Rodney Peete never quite panned out, but on a good day, he could still qualify as some kind of poor man's Randall Cunningham. Dave Krieg dusted off the cobwebs for a playoff run. Scott Mitchell, though wildly inconsistent and often downright horrendous, was still capable of slicing and dicing a secondary ('95) when he had perfect protection and the aid of All-Pro receivers. Hell, even the severely washed up Gus Frerotte could call himself a Lions playoff quarterback by decade's end. Save for the typical playoff disaster where #20 would run for -12 yards and the game would be decided by halftime, you felt pretty cozy being a Lions fan during the 1990s. You could spend those Sundays doing whatever your heart desired, but chances are as the clock ticked towards 1:00, you were scrambling to rouse up some corned beef and a bag of Ruffles before the opening kickoff descended on Mel Gray's waiting hands. But times have changed. And so have our Sundays.

That "pull" is gone now. That feeling that used to inevitably creep into your brain telling you, "Stop, drop and roll. It's time to watch three consecutive hours of Lions football" is a thing of the past. Sunday is a day for the cider mill now. It's a day for hitting golf balls or catching a flick. Even if you find it necessary to watch TV, the other options are far more satisfying than another Lions' stinker. There's the AFC game on CBS. There's the highly underrated PBA tourney on ESPN. I'll even go so far as to flip on CBC and watch a healthy matinée dose of Raptors' basketball. After the triumvirate of Mornhinweg, Mariucci, and Marinelli produced one of the sickest runs of futility in the history of professional sports, what choice were we really left with? Were we supposed to blindly continue to devote precious chunks of our Sunday to watch a rookie QB throw ducks into the wind? To watch mooks like William James and Eric King unsuccessfully try to impersonate real-life NFL cornerbacks? Even if we moved past all that, and decided to subject ourselves to this horror, most of the home games are blacked out due to dwindling home crowds that are no longer measured in thousands, but in dozens.

To watch the Leos now, you have to be willing to get dirty. My buddy BK, perhaps the most die-hard Lions fan in the state, spends his Sunday afternoons hacking bootleg websites and streaming fuzzy pictures to his computer. God forbid he misses one of those riveting Casey Fitzsimmons 3-yard catches or the similarly timeless Cliff Avril 15-yard facemask penalties. You gotta respect BK's desire and undying loyalty, but at the same time, you worry that this kind of behavior can only end in disaster, with the next Nick Harris 28-yard shank job sending him right over the edge and into a lifetime catatonic state that could only be cracked with a Lions' Super Bowl appearance. Somebody better go unplug that modem...immediately.

My Sundays have changed quite a bit from those salad days of the 1990s. Back then, the day would be mapped out around the Lions. Where can we go grab a bite and watch the game? Who should we have over the house to watch the game? Is there any way to kidnap Brian Baldinger to prevent him from announcing this game? But now things are different. I'll flip on the game for a few minutes in the first half. Maybe a couple more plays here and there. If it's close late in the game, maybe I'll come along for the ride. But if I happen to miss the entire 60 minutes, then that's fine, too...I'm not gonna lose any sleep. Nobody gets together anymore to watch the Lions. And why would they? It's like having a viewing party to root on the Washington Generals. You already know the outcome, so why put in the time and effort? You can catch the highlights on the 11 O' Clock News for a fraction of the emotional price. The philosopher Albert Schewitzer once said, "Do not let Sunday be taken from you. If your soul has no Sunday, it becomes an orphan." The Lions have stolen our Sundays for a very long time, but we tolerate it no longer. The day is ours now, Lions-free. And fear not; the resulting void in our souls will be filled in no time. The PBA Tour season is right around the corner...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Yet Unnamed Monday Weekend Sports Re-Kap

Let's see here. Allen Iverson becomes a malcontent in his final days in Philadelphia, ultimately resulting in his being dealt to Denver to pair with Carmelo Anthony, forming what was supposed to be one of the Western Conference's most dangerous duos. "The Answer" hoops it up in Mile High for the next couple of years, playing his typically selfish brand of ball, and leading his squad to one playoff victory against eight losses. Can you say "Washed Up"?? Apparently Joe Dumars couldn't, because he chose to deal his franchise player, Chauncey Billups, to the Nugs in exchange for the one-year services of Mr. Iverson, who by this time was living solely off his past reputation as one of basketball's elite. That one year could not have gone worse. Iverson's style clashed with fellow guards Rodney Stuckey and Rip Hamilton. He feuded in the media with head coach Michael Curry. And when all was said and done, he hid on the disabled list with a completely exaggerated, if not totally fabricated, back problem. The Pistons got swept out of the playoffs, meaning Allen Iverson's teams had now won a grand total of two playoff games in his last six seasons.

The thing is, lost in all the trials and tribulations during Iverson's one year in Detroit was this simple fact; dude wasn't that good anymore. He still had the same me-first attitude on offense with a propensity to jack up ill-advised shots. Only now he wasn't quick or athletic enough to just blow by his defender and get all the way to the rim. He'd more or less become a jump shooter, and a below average one at that. How any team looked at his performance last year and decided, "Hey, let's sign this guy!" is beyond me. But apparently the Memphis Grizzlies' organization was born with the same deformed "Common Sense Gene" as the Detroit Lions. Even though the Grizz had a young roster with young guards that needed consistent playing time to build confidence and experience, they chose to roll the dice and hope the addition of AI would not rock the boat too much. Maybe they thought he would somehow shed his 14 years of selfish behavior and suddenly become a rah-rah guy content with being a backup/mentor to O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley. Ohhhhhh rightttt, I forgot about thattttt. In other words, there was ZERO chance this was going to work out.

It was like the episode of Saved By The Bell when Zack is forced to lead an incompetent group of classmates during a series of physical challenges set up by the military recruiter visiting Bayside High. Zack brooded and complained about the band of misfits assigned to his team. As the other side built up a huge lead, Zack thought about quitting. But in the end, he realized what was the right thing to do. Zack returned to his squad, fired them up with some motivational words of wisdom, and the episode ended with his best buddy Screech taking home the title for the team. Zack was cheering him on the whole way. But unfortunately for Allen Iverson, the NBA does not flow as seamlessly as a 30-minute Saved by the Bell masterpiece.

In the real world, Iverson missed the first three games of the year with an injury. When he returned to appear in the next three, it was in a reserve role, playing anywhere from 18 to 28 minutes. Again, at this stage in his career and with the makeup of the Grizzlies' roster, this is quite understandable. That is, to everybody except Iverson. He whined, he cried, he threw his coach under the bus to the media. Just another day at the office for Ivo'. Finally, over the weekend, The Answer notified team brass that he was taking an indefinite leave of absence. He claimed that it was not an issue of playing time, but instead an urgent family matter. Sorry, Sir, but this sounds like a classic case of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. You told us last year that your back was too damaged to continue playing when it was widely known that the only real symptom you suffered from was a "badly bruised ego." You quit on your team then, and you are quitting on your team now. So Allen, take alllll the time you need in coming back. In fact, take the rest of the year off. Get your "family" straightened out...make sure the "back" feels right. And when you finally decide you're ready to reenter the league as something other than a basketball diva trying to relive his past glories, then make that cry of "Wolf!" one final time. You'd just better pray that there will be a team out there willing to Answer. Because the rest of us can still hear you...but we stopped listening a long time ago.

On a return trip home from Boston this weekend, my Dad made what was quite possibly the best observation of 2009. Looking out the window, he noted, "You could be sitting anywhere on the plane. There is always going to be a wing right next to your window." Sounds far-fetched, but it could not be more true. You could be in the first row up toward the front, you could be in Row 32 in the very back...push up the windowsill and that giant wing is going to be directly to your right or left. This happens without fail on every single flight. And just spitballin' here, but why do the airplanes really need wings in the first place? I look at birds and see them flapping their wings constantly to support their current flight. That makes sense to me. But the wings on a plane just sit idly by the side like two huge matzah balls looking for something to do with their life. Hey Wing, would it kill you to at least give us the impression that you're working by moving up and down a little bit during the flight so we don't walk away thinking you're a complete lush?

Name me a more annoying sports term from the last decade than "Bowl Eligible." Can't do it, right? Around this time of year, as many college teams start creeping toward their sixth and seventh wins, we become inundated by this paper-thin qualification for postseason activity. I hate to sound like Mr. Old School here, but back when there were only so many bowls, teams strived simply to compete for their conference title and then let the chips fall where they may. There was no mythical number of victories to reach. With Michigan in the throes of another historically awful season, you would think that one-hundred percent of the focus would be on their woeful ineptitude and their now-weekly train wreck on defense against the dregs of the Big Eleven. Instead, the media continues to pepper us with incessant reminders of the Wolverines' desperate quest to become "bowl eligible." We are told that with this most recent loss to Purdue, Michigan only has two chances left to secure their all-important 6th win that will guarantee them a spot in the most insignificant postseason in all of sports. Is this really what Michigan football has come to? Have the goals of the program really gone from "Conference and National Championships" to "Let's just make sure we get to .500 so we can be one of 68 teams able to claim they went 'bowling' this year"??? What a sad state of affairs. I understand that the current bowl system isn't going anywhere, and that there will only be more bowls in the future. (Get ready for the "Yankee Bowl" from new Yankee Stadium in 2010!! Sadly, not kidding.) But let's try and keep things in perspective. Rich Rodriguez has led Big Blue on another embarrassing campaign, and that will remain the case regardless of whether or not they achieve the silly "bowl eligible" status with a win over Wisconsin or Ohio State. And if you do happen to be one of those Michigan fans chomping at the bit to see the winged helmets out on the gridiron in the EagleBank Bowl, then you should probably seek out some kind of professional care. Honestly, you need help. And not the kind of help that can be served in a "Bowl."

He may or may not be the greatest human being of all time, but I can assure you this. Kenny G. is the most talented musician this world has ever seen. He is to the saxophone what Sandy Koufax was to the curveball. Others may have tried to perfect the art first, but when the master finally comes along, it's game over. Even though me and my brothers were never the biggest smooth jazz guys in the world, there was just something about G that drew us in early on. His hit CD Breathless got passed around our bedrooms so many times growing up you'd have thought we were related to the man or something. I'll never forget when Sam hypothesized what would happen if Kenny just opened his mouth as wide as it could go and screamed at the top of his lungs. He ventured to say that the resulting sound would be that of beautiful jazzy tones sounding just like those that emanate from KG's famous soprano sax. Like, if worse came to worst, and Homes forgot his sax back in the hotel room for a big performance, he could just step in front of the mic and start screaming, and nobody would bat an eye. For some reason, that comment always killed me. Just imagining Kenny G. getting frustrated doing his best to try and talk like a normal human being, only for his numerous attempts to be thwarted by his inability to make any sounds that weren't those of harmonic soulful beats. It's one of those completely insane thoughts that somehow seems completely feasible when you sit back and really think about it. But I digress. The reason Mr. G. is making news in the HSL world on this Monday is that it seems the Great One is back in the spotlight. The popular 90's alternative rock group Weezer is still doing their thing, and wouldn't you know it, they decided to grab a slice of "G" for their newest single. The resulting rehearsal video is just too funny for me. Weezer is rockin' along, playing this tune entitled I'm Your Daddy, and all of a sudden, at about the 1:55 mark, here come the flowing locks of one Kenneth G. striding to the front of the set with saxophone in tow. It almost looks like the band members have no clue who the guy is, and in all likelihood, they don't. The whole mix is just so bizarre that you can't help but watch it with an ear-to-ear smile. Of course, our boy plays flawlessly, and even pops in for a couple more bars as the song progresses. The combination of Weezer/Kenny G. is not one I thought I would ever be lucky enough to see. Thankfully, I was mistaken. Enjoy the G. Lord knows I have.

No, I still have not gotten over the time in middle school when a surly employee at Barnes and Noble admonished me for asking where the new Kenny G. album was located. He shot me a judging look and asked, "What, you like "elevator music"?? I stood up for G. then...I'm standing up for him now. You got a problem with that????
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Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Three-Man Weave...and a Little Pesto for the Road

I know Clippers fans have been through a lot over the years, but it seems they've hit a new personal low. In the final minutes of their victory over Minnesota the other night at Staples, they began to shower chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" on Chris Kaman as he stepped up to the free-throw line. I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a little nauseous when I heard it. I'll give the guy his due credit, especially after his Chamberlain-like start to the campaign. (Avg. 23 and 10 through the first five games) But let's keep things in perspective here. The MVP award is an honor given to the NBA's elite; the guys able to sustain a level of greatness over the duration of the 82-game grind. Kaman is a man-moose that, in all likelihood, will be in street clothes come the new year with some debilitating ailment like a "sore throat" or "jet lag." And does Clips' boss Mike Dunleavy have even the slightest bit of regard for Kaman's health? The 7-footer is not exactly Rip Hamilton when it comes to conditioning, yet Dunleavy keeps trotting him out there for 40-plus minutes a night. Frankly, I'm concerned for the big man's overall well-being and worry that if this is not remedied soon, the whole saga will ultimately conclude in tragedy with Kaman collapsing on the court at season's end, forcing an actual moose to appear onstage with David Stern in place of his fallen comrade to accept the MVP trophy.

-In my mind, you really haven't become fully "mature" as a person until you start to appreciate Pesto. Prior to my 21st birthday, I had the same thought process many other little kids had. "Ewww!! Green sauce on my noodles?!??! Get that outttta here!!" But then came a revelation. There's no need to be scared of Pesto. It's not gonna hurt you. In fact, it might even help you. It's plenty easy on the eyes, and when prepared correctly, can do wonders for your taste buds. It's one of those versatile sauces that can be enjoyed in pizza and on pasta, in addition to being a welcome dipping home for thousands of crackers over the years. Of course, Marinara has always been Top Dog when it comes to sauces in the Italian game, and Pesto respects that. But I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the two of them swapped spots on the pecking order in the years to come. To some, enjoying a bowl of Pesto is just that: a little basil, a little cheese, and a few crushed pine nuts. To others, such as myself, it's a sign from God that you are now fully developed as a spiritual being, and ready to join the real world in all of its aromatic, creamy, and green glory.

-For the last million years, fellow High Socks Legend Bobby Jackson has been a super-sub for nearly every Western Conference team in the NBA. But recently, he decided it was time to hang up the knee-highs and begin his life after basketball. Not so fast. The Sacramento Kings brought Jackson on board to work in their front office as an "ambassador" for the team. Hmm, I was always under the impression that ambassador was a designation reserved for a respected diplomat of an entire country...not for former shoot-first point guards representing the Sacramento Kings. What are his responsibilities as an "ambassador" anyway? Making sure Sean May stays under the team-mandated "Four Bills or Bust" weight limit? Having Shabbat dinner with Omri Casspi every Friday night? Preventing access inside Arco Arena to former Kings' embarrassments like Duane Causwell, Tyus Edney, and an end-of-his-career, heavily bloated, Nick Anderson?? I wish Bobby Jax the best of luck on his new endeavor. Even if I have absolutely no f$%!ing idea what any of it really means.

-The final years of the aforementioned Nick Anderson's career were among the most depressing in league history. The onetime sharpshooter out of Illinois really never recovered from his debacle at the charity stripe in Game One of the 1995 Finals against Houston. He missed four straight at the line that night in the closing seconds with a chance to clinch the game, paving the way for a Rockets sweep over his Magic. After that, ol' Nick was never the same. But those last couple of seasons were downright sad. The most startling was his 2000-01 year when he hooped it up with Sac-Town for 21 games. Nick was a shell of his former self at the age of 33, but he still had a hint of giddy-up in his offensive arsenal when he wanted to. However, with that '95 meltdown never really escaping his thoughts, he had become absolutely terrified of the free-throw line. Not just spooked by it...scared to death by the sight of it. Anderson saw the court for 169 minutes during that infamous season, and not one time did he draw a foul and get sent to the line. Not a single free throw attempt in 169 minutes. He played in 21 ballgames and attempted 57 shots. How in the world did he not initiate contact on just one of those occasions? What happened if the referee did call a shooting foul on the man guarding him? Would he just feign injury and hightail it to the locker room? It's one thing to hold on to a traumatic event in your career to motivate you going forward and to ensure history does not repeat itself. But to be so effected by one moment of inaccuracy that it actually prevents you from ever drawing a foul the rest of your life?? That's unhealthy.

People always talk about guys like Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel when discussion arises about professional athletes that just completely lost it mentally and were never the same again. Sadly, Nick Anderson is a board member of that group, too. He was a respectable 70% free-thrower in that 1995 season when the Magic won the East. Two years later, he had stopped attacking the basket out of fear, and when he did get hacked, wound up chucking it towards the rim at a shocking 40% clip. One of the most interesting, and at the same time tragic, NBA careers in the history of the game.

If Will Bynum played 42-44 minutes a night, is there really any doubt that he would lead the league in scoring and win the MVP?? I don't think so. Reach the HSL at

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Ball and a Hoop is All You Need...

It's the most commonly asked question among males between the ages of 6 and 106. "You wanna go shoot around?" It's a simple offer. Let's grab a ball, find the nearest hoop, and forget about life for a while. And just shoot. Hook shots from the corner, spot-up threes from the wing, and when you run out of things to throws. A million of 'em. If you're a hooper, a gym rat, or any other term that describes a man obsessed with buckets, then you know where I'm coming from. In essence, you can find out pretty much everything you need to know about a guy by the way he carries himself in this situation. How quick is he to deliver your change after a make? What kind of pass is he giving you? When it's his turn to shoot, how much time is he taking to set up? What's he wearing? While the activity in and of itself is an uncomplicated one, there are many nuances that go along with it. In this piece, we will examine this ageless form of male bonding ranging from the peach baskets of the 1890's to the 'Chain Nets Craze' that came to define the year 1995. So lace up your kicks and settle's time for the "High Socks Legend Breakdown of the Shootaround."

The Dreaded "Garage" Hoop

A house is meant to hold many things. There's a chimney perched at the top. There are windows facing the outside. There's a front door allowing for entry. But if you had boys in your house growing up, there was one thing you did not put on your house...and that was a basketball hoop. Ahhh yes, the infamous "backboard attached to the garage." Who was the ad-wizard that came up with that one? Seriously, a backboard, rim, and net just stapled to your home?? Not good...not good at all. You ever shoot hoops on one of these monstrosities? An errant miss doesn't go out of goes on your roof. Everybody had an instance when they pulled a sick UTEP 2-Step on their defender, drove to the hole, went up for the layup, and then realized, "The lane was open. The garage was not." Ouchie-Magouchie. Somehow it just seemed more difficult to hit a shot on a garage hoop. Maybe it's because we're taught growing up not to vandalize property. "Don't throw rocks at the neighbor's house!" "Don't you dare toss those hot dogs into that man's spotless garage floor!" (We might have done that once.) And now we're expected to voluntarily heave a solid leather object in the direction of a small hoop on top of a garage knowing full well that even the slightest misfire might result in an all-out carnage of damaged shingles and busted gutters? Thanks, but no thanks. Dig a hole on the side of the driveway, plant a solid metal pole, and throw a square at the top. Done and done.

The Egg

You know it the second the ball hits your hands. It's an egg. It might look round and it might feel round to the amateur shooter, but to any veteran hooper, the egg is easier to detect than the hairpiece on Marv Albert. You bounce that Eggball and there's no telling where it's gonna end up. It makes dribbling a nightmare. Friendly rolls around the rim are non-existent. It always just feels depressing to me. There's something so peaceful about holding that perfect leather ball, fingers spread wide, one hand on the side, one hand behind. But holding the dreaded egg just sends the complete opposite wave of emotions rushing towards me. I feel disappointment, I feel sadness, and to be honest, I feel violated. Of course it is our responsibility to come to the court equipped with a decent pill to shoot with, but on the off chance that we arrived empty handed, it would be nice to not be forced to visit Egg City. Has anyone even figured out how these basketballs turn into eggs?? I mean, they are round to start, they get bounced around a little bit...why are they suddenly changing shape so drastically?? You could take me and roll me around the floor for a while, bounce me off a trampoline 35-40 times...I think when all is said and done, I'd be lookin' pretty similar to how I do now. Why is a basketball so different? I guess there are certain things in life that are just never explained...

Be Prepared...For Anything

My younger brother Sam is the self-professed "King of Shooting Around." The guy will go shoot anytime, any place. Six in the morning...six at night. Doesn't matter to Sam. He's down. The man just loves to shoot. But with that passion comes a level of preparation typically reserved for life-altering events like weddings and the birth of a new child. While most guys show up at the courts toting a no-frills gym bag, Sam essentially has a piece of luggage draped over his shoulder. Take one look inside and it becomes quite clear that he's not here to mess around. There's an old-school woven jump rope with the big wooden handles. I've never really seen a guy start jumping rope on the b-ball court, but I guess Sam wants to be ready just in case Sylvester Stallone shows up at the JCC wanting to film an impromptu training montage. There are also the various "ointments" and "substances," some of which may be legal...some of which would probably get a horse disqualified from the Kentucky Derby. He's got the ball, his sneaks, and a couple towels. And for the grand finale, an empty can of La Choy Rice Noodles. Why, you ask, would any sane human being take an empty can of rice noodles with him to go shoot hoops? I'll tell ya. Because, as many of us have experienced before, sometimes you get to the court, you have your gear on, you're ready to start bombing away. Then you realize...the ball ain't got enough air. It's one of the most deflating (literally) feelings in the world. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Unless you're Sam. Because when you take a step back from his perceived insanity and actually look inside that old can of rice noodles, you will find a needle. A needle that is then attached to a pump. Which allows you to re-inflate your rock, and avoid a potentially tragic and most sudden end to the day's proceedings. See, the needle and pump combination is often overlooked, but today, it gets its due. You could make the case that the basketball pump has saved more lives over the years than the insulin pump. So while we poke fun at Sam for his oversized gym luggage and wild assortment of performance-enhancing materials, we must also pay homage to his forward thinking. For he is the guy coming to the rescue when that first bounce of the ball reveals a lack of air and trouble on the horizon. The La Choy Crunchy Rice Noodles that were once once housed in that can never let anybody down. Now that same can contains a needle. A needle that keeps our basketballs healthy and thriving at a time when they need it most. I like to refer to this as the "Circle of Life."

Can't Just Drive By

Shooting around is a wonderful activity to participate in, but for a basketball junkie, watching someone else hoop it up can be almost as satisfying. You ever find yourself driving through a neighborhood, see a kid readying himself for a 12-footer from the corner, and not stop to watch the end result??!? If you just pass right on by without blinking an eye or hitting the brakes, then I don't think I wanna know you. I could be driving a taxi with a pregnant woman in the back ready to give birth at any moment...I'm still not going anywhere until that little fella on the circular drive puts up some kind of shot. You can yell and scream all you want back there, lady...I'm a hoop-head of the highest order. It's who I am, and I ain't changin'...

Got a thought on the timeless art of "Shooting Around"?? Drop it here, or shoot me an E-mail at