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The Zen Master…

May 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Assuming that this was the end – and I generally believe that an athletic lifer has left the sport when they start tossing roses onto his casket – Phil Jackson’s career finished not with a fight, nor with the bells ringing in victory, but with a sad, effeminate whimper.  Whether or not you thought the Lakers were poised to win a title this year, I doubt anyone expected a four game sweep at the hands of the Mavs.  In years past, Kobe’s Lakers would have beaten the Mavs simply by glaring at them prior to tip off.  That was not the case this year.  The resolve of the Lakers was so low, that they allowed an opposing team to shoot 60% in an elimination game.  Worse, they allowed two bench player to shoot 15 of 16 from behind the three point line.  15 of 16.  That’s a pathetic job of closing out from a team that typically demoralizes three point shooters.

The Lakers thought they would beat the Mavs, because they were the two time defending champs and the Mavs were, well, the Mavs, a team known for choking.  Yet, it was the Lakers who choked, who quit, who took to cheap shots, rather than hard play.  And, because of that, a man whose teams had won an NBA record 11 Championships makes the long, slow, walk to the arena’s door; not on top of his sport, but behind the sweep of a broom.

There is no doubt that Jackson leaves the game as an immortal.  He already resides in the Hall of Fame and his mug would certainly be carved into any mountainside discussion of the greatest NBA coaches.  Yet, it might be that he resides all the way at the top of the mountain.  When you are assessing the greatest coach of all-time, you have to put Red Auerbach first, simply because he was so much more than a coach.  Coach, GM, team President, Red was all of those things, but having said that, it’s unfair to penalize the Zen Master because he coached during an era when – generally – coaches coached and GMs GMed.  If we look only at what they did as managers of men on the court, then I think the case for Phil becomes far more pronounced.

In an age of ever encroaching parity, Phil Jackson didn’t just win more titles than any coach in pro-basketball history, he won more than any coach in any sport, ever.  John Wooden won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years, a feat both impressive and unimaginable in today’s NCAA, but 10 is not 11 and Wooden coached in an era, where – frankly – the talent pool of college basketball was not quite as fluid as it is today.  Besides, that’s college athletics: of the pro coaches, Red and Scotty Bowman both won nine titles.  Extremely impressive feats, but two shy of Phil.  Baseball’s best (Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel) have seven and they both managed the Yankees.  George Halas and Curly Lambeau both won six titles, but that was before there was a big bowl of super… For all of the romantic waxing, sports is a bottom line endeavor and nobody’s bottom line has as many titles on it as Phil’s…

I would pick him as the best because he implemented a system that meshed Jordan’s considerable talents with the rest of the team; because he convinced Shaq that in June you needed to amp it up to a fifth gear (and in exchange allowed Shaq to spend November and December in 1st); because he found a use for Bill Wennington, Will Purdue, Luc Longely and every other 7’0 unathletic white guy who should have been destroyed in the NBA.  I would support his candidacy as the best because when Dennis Rodman was going from culturally queer to iconoclastically irreverent, Phil found a way to keep the Worm in the game; I would pick him as the best simply because he convinced Kobe to pass, and then convinced him again four days later when the Black Mamba forgot; I would pick him as the best because when the greatest player of all-time retired (for the *cough* first time), Phil’s team won 55 games.  Take any team in the NBA, remove their best player and ask them to win 55 games next year.  They wont – and I can assure you that whoever that “best” player is, he isn’t Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

Now, Phil’s detractors will site that iconic name and argue that he won 11 championships because he had the very best players, but you and I both know that’s stupid.  In 39 combined seasons without Phil as their coach, the five best players that the Zen Master led (Michael, Scottie Pippen, Shaq, Kobe, and Pau Gasol) won a combined one title.  ONE.  And that one came with Pat Riley at the helm.  You cannot win in the NBA without great players, but great players do not win in the NBA without a great coach.  Do you know how many different coaches have led their teams to NBA titles over the last 25 years?  Eight.  Twenty-five years, eight men: Jackson, Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich (4), Pat Riley (5), Larry Brown, Rudy Tomjanovich (2), Chuck Daly (2), and KC Jones (2).  That’s it, that’s the list.  You could argue that Rudy T and Jones were merely good, not great, but I think at that point you’re pretty much splitting hairs.  The rest though are exceptional coaches.  You must be an exceptional coach to win a title in the NBA, you must be a really exceptional coach to win four or five like Pop and Riley, but to win eleven?  That’s phenomenal greatness.

So Phil walks away as perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history.  Of course, as I said at the start, athletic lifers rarely leave until Death’s clammy fingers forces their hand, and Phil, well, for all his talk of Montana, Phil is a lifer.  Basketball is in his blood.  So I for one wont be surprised if a year from now he’s smiling away beside James Dolan, discussing how the Knicks need to bring defensive intensity back to Garden…

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A Stocking Worth of Sports Stories

December 27, 2010 1 comment

Well, the big Holiday is over and with it the little holiday as well, which makes this something of an exhale slowly moment. Between the end of the school term and preparing for the arrival of the Jolly Man in Red, it seems like a thousand sports stories have passed me by without an opportunity for me to yodel on their significance. So, I think we’ll blast through some stories, stocking style. Small sweet little packages, which include some underwear, socks and, probably, a little coal…

LeBron wants to return to the 80s:

Hopefully the league can figure out one way where it can go back to the ’80s where you had three or four All-Stars, three or four superstars, three or four Hall of Famers on the same team,” James said. “The league was great. It wasn’t as watered down as it is [now].”

So, LeBron wants to return to the 80s, why? I don’t know, maybe he’s a fan of Wham? Seriously, I love the King’s comments on returning to 1980s basketball when the league had two or three Hall of Famers on every team. There’s so many levels of absurdity on this topic, so let me just pick a couple off the top: I guess most obvious that I haven’t seen anyone else discuss, is that the notion that there were three or four all stars (let alone Hall of Famers) on the same team is ridiculous. In 1986 Boston had three all stars, as did the Lakers. Of course, last year Boston had three all stars and the Lakers had two, so… yeah, the league has really altered drastically over the last 25 years.

The Hall of Famer thing seems different, I mean we all remember those Celtics and Lakers teams. Bird, Magic, Kareem, McHale, Worthy, Parish, Dennis Johnson, Bill Walton… They were loaded, but two teams does not a league make. Most teams were not so fortunate. The 76ers of course had three Hall of Famers, but one was a 35 year old Dr. J in his second to last season and the other was a 22 year old Charles Barkley in his second season. The Milwaukee Bucks won 57 games that year. They had no Hall of Famers. The New York Knicks lost 59 games that year and they had a Hall of Famer. Granted, Patrick Ewing was a rookie, but you get my point. It’s easy to think of the Lakers and the Celtics and believe that the 80s were a time when every team had an overwhelming abundance of talent that made the NBA a richer, better league, but that’s the sort of hyperbolic nostalgia that makes people think that the 1950s were a better time for everyone.

The real difference between the so called Golden Age of the NBA and the league today isn’t the number of players, or a watered down product. The growth of the game in other countries (namely Spain and Argentina, but also Russia and Eastern Europe) has seen an influx of foreign talent that ably fills in the rosters of those seven extra teams.  No, the real difference is free agency and salary caps. The Lakers and Celtics might be able to draft and assemble a team with as much talent as their mid-eighties teams, but they’d never be able to keep them together any longer. James Worthy, picked number one in 1982, would play out his rookie contract and want to be paid as the number one pick he was, only the Lakers already in the luxury tax because they’re paying max money to Magic and Kareem would have to watch as he took the big offer from Golden State. In 1986, the NBA was only in the second year of the salary cap era and the effects had yet to be fully realized. Now, however, it looms over every basketball decision. So, perhaps instead of politicking to contract teams, LeBron should try campaigning to get rid of free agency and the salary cap…

Speaking of James, his statement is so outstanding coming from a man who dubbed himself “The King.” Like most monarchs, LeBron clearly is unconcerned with how a return to the 80s might affect the NBAs commoners. Sure, LeBron, like his princely friends Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh might love combining their principalities, but what of the peasants? NBA teams have 15 players on their roster. That means that if he went back to the 80s, when the NBA had 23 teams, 105 players would be out of work. Of course, they could probably find someone in Europe or Asia who wanted to pay them to play basketball, but players aren’t the only people employed by teams. There’s also administrative staff, coaches, trainers, scouts, communications, public relations, dancers, financial officers, and oh yeah, hundreds of arena workers.

Yes, I realise that it’s unfair to criticize LeBron for not thinking about the thousands of people who would be out of work if the NBA returned to the 80s, he was after all making an offhand statement, but the perception problem that LeBron created for himself with “The Decision” is only exacerbated by his voicing an opinion on contraction. LeBron is battling an image as a narcissistic, self involved, prima-donna with a king complex. I’m not saying it’s fair, I’m also not saying that it isn’t fair, I’m merely saying that talking about eliminating thousands of jobs for people who aren’t part of your principality is not going to help you sell sneakers.

Phil Doesn’t Want to Play on Christmas

It used to be two (games),” Jackson said Tuesday. “It used to be Phoenix and LA and New York and Boston, or New York and Philly or somebody on the East Coast… Now I see they’ve got like six games on Christmas. (It’s actually five, with the first at 9 a.m. PST and the last at 7:30 p.m.) It’s like Christian holidays don’t mean anything to them anymore. Just go out and play and entertain the TV. It’s really weird… But it is what it is. We’ve got to go to work and we’ll do what we have to do to make the best of it. I don’t think anyone should play on Christmas Day. Soccer teams don’t play. They take a break. No hockey. I don’t understand it.

Yes, until recently, the NBA only had two games on Christmas Day, which meant that only four teams actually had to give up their Christmas days, so this isn’t really an issue that affects most teams. I mean, Lionel Hollins and the Memphis Grizzlies don’t really have to worry about going to the arena on Christmas Day. Of course, unfortunately for Phil, he’s only coached two teams in his NBA career and they existed in the second and third largest markets; plus, in ten of those seasons he was coaching the defending champions, so yeah, I can see how he might want the occasional Christmas day off, but…

I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for Phil. He is paid a lot of money because he’s in entertainment. I’m not breaking any new ground here. Sport is entertainment and athletes are paid millions of dollars for playing games, because they play them in front of people who want to watch. And amongst all the other things people do with their families on Christmas Day, a lot of people want to watch basketball. You know what else thousands of people like to do for entertainment on Christmas Day? They like to go to the movies. Amazingly enough, those movie theaters don’t just run themselves. And I think we can be fairly certain that the people who run them aren’t being compensated quite as well as the Zen Master.

Of course, Phil is complaining on religious grounds, which seems to make his case stronger, except that something about that strikes me as disingenuous. I mean we are talking about the Zen Master. A man who named his book “Sacred Hoops” and who to this point has spent most of his career presenting himself as a spiritually enlightened Native American warrior crossed with a Buddhist monk. Even if he is a practicing Christian worried about missing out on his prayer time, this isn’t a new trend. When he was a player, Phil’s team played on Christmas Day ten times. As a coach, he’s now coached 18 Christmas Day games. So, while I can see that he might want to take a Christmas Day game off for once, his proclamating that the NBA “It’s like Christian holidays don’t mean anything to them (the NBA) anymore” is just asinine. Of course, this is Phil Jackson we’re talking about, so he probably was just trying to keep David Stern’s blood pressure from getting too stagnant.

The Pats Are Awesome:

I know this isn’t breaking any news or anything, but… God Damn is Tom Brady good. Last year I couldn’t imagine anyone playing quarterback any better than Peyton Manning. He just had so much command of the game and he was making heroes out of guys who’d basically walked off the street look like Marvin Harrison. Yet, this year (albeit with slightly more talent around him), Mr Gisele is reminding me of why he is actually the best quarterback of this generation.

Likewise, in his column this morning, Peter King posed a question to his readers about who he should choose as coach of the year. Maybe I’ve watched too many Patriots’ games over the last month, but this really was a D’uh moment for me. Sometimes I think that with coach of the year awards, we try to get too smart. Awarding the coach of a team that we expected to be bad, who finished .500 or better, instead of someone who actually is the best coach in the game. It’s why in the NBA Mike Brown, Byron Scott, Sam Mitchell, Avery Johnson, and Mike Dunleavy combine to have as many coach of the year awards as Pat Riley (3), Phil Jackson (1), Greg Popovich (1), and Jerry Sloan (0, or “WTF” as it’s also known). Unlike an MVP award, where writers generally try to award the best player (sometimes errantly, but that’s another issue), with Coach of the Year awards, they often award the best “story.” It’s why Todd Haley and Raheem Morris will get a lot of consideration for the award this year. And yes, they’ve done a phenomenal job in coaching Kansas City and Tampa to 10 and 9 win seasons job, but there truly is only one answer to this question.

The best coach in the NFL this year, last year, the year before that, or for most of the last decade was Bill Belichick.

Who is the coach of the team that is 13-2 and looking like it might be more dominant than the undefeated 2007 Patriots? Who’s the coach whose team has now gone seven games without a turnover (and have only turned it over nine times all year)? Who’s the coach whose playing two undrafted running backs, guys who by the way have rushed for nearly 1500 yards on an average of 4.79 per carry. Who’s the coach who saw trouble brewing in his locker room and decided that he didn’t need one of the five greatest receiveers to win games? Who’s the coach who got better production out of Deion Branch the rest of the season than the traveling Randy Moss show? Who’s the coach of the team that has won seven straight by an average score of 37.3 to 16.9? Oh and by the way that stretch of games included wins over the Steelers, Colts, Jets, Bears, and Packers…

The answer, the only answer, is Bill Belichick.

The NCAA Suspends Six Ohio State Players for Rules Violations… Starting Next Year.

And there it is, the coal at the bottom of the stocking. Thank you NCAA for once again wearing your greed and hypocrisy like a crushed velvet suit for all the world to see. You guys are special, and coal might actually be too good for you this year.

David Stern and Phil Jackson in a pissing contest…

April 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Daivd Stern doesn’t like NBA coaches criticizing his officials. Phil Jackson loves criticizing NBA refs. Well, you can see where this is going can’t you?

Stern:

I wish I had it to do all over again and, starting 20 years ago, I’d be suspending Phil and Pat Riley for all the games they play in the media,” Stern said in a press conference at the Ford Center moments before Game 3 of the Lakers-Thunder series. “You guys know that our referees go out there and knock themselves out to do the best job they can, but we’ve got coaches who will do whatever takes to work them publicly. And what that does is erode fan confidence and then you get some of the situations that we have.

Uhmmm… really? I think that scandals in which one of your referees is arrested by the FBI for betting on games erodes fan confidence, but maybe that’s just me.

Jackson:

I think when you start throwing one- and two-game suspensions in the threats, I think that means a lot to both ball clubs and coaches,” Jackson said at Lakers practice. “It seems awful heavy-handed to me, but David is one who isn’t shy about being heavy-handed.

Yup, David has long wielded a big iron fist and it seems to be getting harder. I don’t think that there can be any debate that Stern is one of the greatest commissioners in Sport’s history, but he’s been on the beat for over 25 years. It may be sacrilegious to say of a man who is often described as the smartest in every room he enters, but over the last couple of years, I’ve begun to wonder whether Stern’s best days have past him by. He seems to increasingly lead by bullying and on the issue of refereeing, he’s spraying blame like a blind skunk, while failing to grasp the subtlties of the issue.

If you think the job of an NBA ref is easy, you are a moron. These are giant, freaks of nature out there, playing the game at a pace that you and I on our couch cannot even dream of. To determine whether someone has managed to get all ball, or clipped the wrist, is really easy when you’re watching on TV and someone slows it down for you, but at full speed? With a six-ten, 245 pound monster in front of you? And bodies flying everywhere? That’s freaking hard.

Having said that, NBA officials over the last decade haven’t really done themselves any favors. They’ve had some incredibly brutal days at the office. Bill Simmons, of course, has made a career knocking the officiating of games and he’s hardly alone. Each of the big sports has their own problems with officiating, but the NBA’s are so much more pronounced. In part that’s the legacy of Tim Donaghy, but it’s also because of the NBA’s long history of “star treatment.” Worse, is the growing belief that Stern selects certain refs to ensure favorable outcomes in games and the idea that crowds in hostile arenas can affect calls. Instead of accurately addressing these issues, whenever somebody has the temerity to question his refs Stern just huffs and puffs.

One day, some enterprising young commish is going to realise that to really engender confidence in referees, you have to make them accountable to your audience. I don’t mean releasing them to the wolves, but having them answer questions from a small media contingent would go a long way towards establishing fan confidence in the jobs of referees. We understand that refs are human, well at least those of us with any sort of brain, and that they will make mistakes, but sometimes it would help to hear a referee say, “I made a mistake there. My angle was bad…” Or, it would help to hear their explanations for why they made a call one way over another.

I know, it’s a novel idea, but allowing some – again limited – access to referees would allow fans to consider their mistakes in a human context, rather than a robotic one. More importantly, it removes them from behind the protective iron curtain and creates the appearance of accountability. It might – and I repeat might – even have the affect of making refs more aware and, thus, making them work harder to improve their craft.

Anyhow, back to Jackson and Stern…

Jackson also wanted to clear up his brief meeting with Stern prior to Game 3 at the Ford Center. Stern described it as, “I just came by and said, ‘Hi,’ and he said, ‘I don’t like you today,’ and I said, ‘I like you.'”

We ran into each other in the hallway … I did not say I didn’t like him. I said, ‘I’m not happy with you,’ is what I said and he said, ‘I’m happy with you,'” Jackson explained. “He misquoted the exchange.

Alright boys, calm down. No need to squabble, just whip them out and lets see who can shoot the farthest…

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