Category Archives: Basketball

Outcasts, antique stores and Larry Bird

Rare is the instance where I can recall myself as a little kid and not instantly cringe with regret. So bear with me while I hang onto one of those moments. All it took was a glance out a window while driving around in Tennessee, of all places.

Pigeon Forge, specifically, is where I spotted a sign reading “OLD BASEBALL CARDS” in the window of an antique shop this week, and I filed it away as an activity for later. I was hoping to find a cache of 1970s or early ’80s baseball cards, something where I could walk away with some cool, weird stuff without having to break a $10 bill.

Instead, sitting near old Life magazines and tin Coke ads, were dozens and dozens of Larry Bird basketball cards. And I cannot undersell the incredible percentage of Bird cards — all from between 1990 and 1993 — in this box. If there were 400 sports cards in top-loaders up for grabs at a dollar apiece, about 100 featured a mullet-free Bird at the end of his career. Fleer, Topps, Upper Deck, Skybox and NBA Hoops were all present and accounted for. There were a lot of duplicates and a few I remembered picking up in fifth grade, but none of them hit me until I noticed this one, a 1992-93 Fleer card. I don’t know if it’s even worth the dollar. Obviously, I grabbed it. Continue reading

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Rajon Rondo, basketball’s answer to Pedro

In the face of logic and ravages of age, the Boston Celtics are in the midst of a revival and have a real shot at making a run in the NBA playoffs.

But in Game 1, the Celtics came out flat against the Atlanta Hawks. A bad call on a jump ball caused their point guard to lose his temper and bump a referee. They lost, and had to play the second game without him.

They did win, bringing the series back to Boston tied 1-1. After the game, that guard was apologetic and thankful to his teammates, but also surprisingly brash.

“I feel like we’ve already won the series,” he said.

Meet Rajon Rondo, basketball’s answer to the one and only Pedro Martinez. Continue reading

An ode to absurd stats

Wayne Gretzky still doesn’t feel real to me.

I am by no means the biggest stat head among the sports fan universe. To begin, I was never the best at math. But I’m not a prude — I’m constantly checking up on OPS leaders at Baseball-Reference and plus/minus at the Internet Hockey Database, and the absurd amuses and thrills me to no end.

I got into something of an e-mail volley with my friend and keeper of the SuperSonics flame, Ryan, that was really just a re-telling of some absurd stat lines through the years. He started it with his look back at Michael Jordan, which he highlighted in his own blog. To wit:

  • Taking out the 1998 season, Jordan’s lowest FG% in a full season with the Bulls (because he played for them 13 years and then just stopped playing basketball) is higher than Kobe Cry-Baby’s best year
  • Kobe’s best year: 46.9%
  • Jordan’s discounted 1998 season: 46.5%
  • Let’s just marvel at ‘88-‘89 season for a minute: 40.0 mpg, 32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 8.0 apg, 2.9 spg, 53.8 FG% (55.3%, if you don’t include his 27% 3PT%), 85.0 FT%, 34.8/7.0/7.6 in the playoffs.

Yeah, so Jordan was insane.

I countered with some notes on Barry Bonds, with the caveat that much of this might be artificially enhanced. Still:

  • Bonds’ OPS+ (which is OPS adjusted for era/league/all that) in 2002, was 268, the highest of all time. In fact, if you take the top 10 OPS+ seasons of all time, Bonds appears first, second (2004, 263), third (2001, 259), and tied for 10th (2003, 231).
  • Helping out the on-base numbers, Bonds set the record for walks in 2001 (177), 2002 (198) and 2004 (232). For good measure, he is also 10th all time with 151 bases on balls in 1996.
  • Back to 2004: He was walked intentionally 120 times. 120 times! On the all-time list, that’s 52 more than the batter in second place. And yes, that was Bonds with 68 in 2002. He’s also third with 63 in 2003, tied his 1993 finish in 2007 with 43, and then appears ninth on the list with 41 in 2006.

So the moral of this story is that Bonds terrified pitchers and managers. Rightly so.

I’ll wrap up this little exercise with the Great One, the man who graced my bedroom wall from 1993 to 2000, Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky in the early 1980s was a demon on skates, the leader of the dynastic Edmonton Oilers.

  • As a natural playmaker and a pass-first center, Gretzky scored at least 50 goals every season from 1979-80 to 1986-87. The high mark came in 81-82, when he set a record with 92 in a season (and scored 50 in the Oilers’ first 39 games). He went beyond 60 in 1982-83 (71), 1983-84 (87), 1984-85 (73) and 1986-87 (62).
  • How many other players have topped 70 goals? Seven: Phil Esposito, Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, Alexander Mogilny, Teemu Selanne, Bernie Nichols and Jarri Kurri. Hull did it three times, Lemieux did it twice, and Kurri was Gretzky’s linemate when he scored 71 in 1984-85.

And, for fun, let’s run down some of the single-season records Gretzky owns:

  • Goals: 92 in 1981-82.
  • Assists: 163 in 1985-86. He also owns every spot in the top 11 in this category.
  • Points: 215 in 1985-86. He owns all but two spots in the top 10; Lemieux ties him at fifth and 10th.
  • Playoff assists: 31 in 1988
  • Playoff points: 47 in 1985

And career marks?

  • Goals: 894
  • Assists: 1,963 (714 more than the second-place Ron Francis)
  • Points: 2,857 (Mark Messier is second all-time with 1,887)
  • Shorthanded goals: 73
  • Playoff goals: 122
  • Playoff assists: 260
  • Playoff points: 382

Considering the low-scoring era we live in now, this nears the unfathomable. Even if goals are up this year, with Steven Stamkos leading the way, there will never be another time like then, and there will never be another Great One.

The inevitable LeBron post

The sight of these two together makes you sick? Sorry. I cant help you.

I didn’t really want to weigh in here on this. Namely, basketball only means so much to me, so I didn’t expect to get caught up in this one way or the other. I just wanted LeBron James to pick a team and have all this news escape my life.

Then he picked a team and the sports world lost their collective minds.

There is real, pure, misguided hate being slung around right now. People are furious at LeBron James, calling him a coward, a traitor, an egomaniac, a jerk, a gutless puke; really, they’re calling him anything you can think of.

And to everyone who’s anywhere from furious or upset about this situation, or hoping the new James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh triumvirate in Miami crashes and burns, I’ll say this:

You need to wake up.

The easiest way is to go through every point that folks are upset over, and explain why it’s not that big a deal.

1. HE BETRAYED THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

I like this one, because it’s the easiest to knock down.

Anyone who thinks he owed it to the Cavs to stick around has never had a less-than-great job. Imagine, if you will, that you’re hired by a company right out of college. The money’s decent and you hang around for a few years, but after a while, you start to realize that your potential there is limited, promotions are rare, and you’ll be spinning your wheels the longer you stay.

One day, five other companies who are more appealing come calling, begging you to join them. And two of your friends were just hired by one of them, and it’s in a city where you’ll have more fun in your down time. And your current company? Their entire argument for your staying revolves around, “well, you were here first.” If you’re not leaving that company, you’re either a fool or you hate yourself.

Every move the Cavs have made to surround LeBron James with a championship-level cast has only worked to handcuff the team in salary cap terms, and none of the moves have worked to make the team markedly better. Ben Wallace? Shaq? Antawn Jamison? Every other team had at least the potential to win, especially Miami and Chicago. Cleveland had only this:

“If you leave, we’ll kill ourselves.”

If the only thing keeping me with a company was guilt, I’d be hightailing it out of that disaster-to-be, too.

And if this guy were my boss? Jesus. Get me out of there.

LeBron James didn’t betray the Cavs. They betrayed themselves.

2. HE’S A COWARD WHO THREW AWAY HIS LEGACY

This argument says that “Michael Jordan never would’ve joined forces with Magic Johnson/Isiah Thomas/Charles Barkley/Hakeem Olajuwon/etc.” These fans and writers are furious that LeBron, apparently, is throwing away his talent and his chance to build his own team into a champion, and that he doesn’t have Jordan’s killer instinct.

Now, is it LeBron’s fault that he didn’t have the characteristics so many wanted him to have? So many have pinned that on him, the next Jordan, the next Magic, that guy who can single-handedly carry a team to multiple championships. But what if he’s just a guy who wants to play basketball, who isn’t interested in that kind of legacy, but instead interested in the fun of playing basketball for money? Many are furious that LeBron would lower himself to being Wade’s second banana. They seem to be even more furious that LeBron himself doesn’t see it that way.

And on that note, no one has ever won a championship by themselves. Just about all of them had Hall-of-Famers and All-Stars around them. In case you forgot:

  • Michael Jordan: Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant
  • Magic Johnson: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Byron Scott
  • Larry Bird: Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Bill Walton
  • Julius Erving: Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks
  • Tim Duncan: David Robinson, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker
  • Kevin Garnett: Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo
  • Kobe Bryant: Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, hell, even Ron Artest
  • Isiah Thomas: Rodman, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer
  • Hakeem Olajuwon: Clyde Drexler, Kenny Smith, Otis Thorpe, Robert Horry (who helped a lot of other folks on this list, too)

If he stays in Cleveland, he never has a chance to join this list, either in the bold part or the help part. And the last time I checked, playing for less money for a chance to win was a good thing.

3. HE’S AN EGOMANIAC WHO LEFT IN THE WORST WAY POSSIBLE

Now, if I did decided to leave, would I have had a self-serving, one-hour special dedicated to it? No. But I’m not in the NBA, either.

The NBA, more than any other league on this continent, lives on egomaniacs. Chris Bosh had a documentary film crew following him around while talking to teams. Kobe Bryant used a rape charge as “everyone is against me!” fuel for his career. Long ago, Dennis Rodman helped jump-start reality t.v., Michael Jordan started the idea of a player as a “brand,” Latrell Sprewell tried to kill his coach and got away with it, with his contract in place … honestly, LeBron holding a sham special in Greenwich, Conn., is supposed to deeply, deeply offend me?

Cleveland fans will say it was the ultimate stab in the back, a humiliation of epic proportions. Maybe it’s true. But if you didn’t see it coming, you don’t know how the NBA works. The NBA is professional wrestling, right down to the “Superstar” designation and the maybe-they-are, maybe-they-aren’t fixed games. It’s a league of personalities, not teams, and looking at it any other way is to just be purposely blind to it.

Speaking of Cleveland fans…

4. HE STABBED CLEVELAND FANS IN THE HEART

Well, if he meant so much to you, maybe you shouldn’t have booed him in his last home game. And maybe you shouldn’t now be crucifying him for not winning you a championship all by himself. Really, the nerve of that guy!

Another thing, the idea of Cleveland being justified in burning his jersey is ridiculous. Cleveland is not the first city to lose a great player in a sport to free agency or a crazy trade. They will not be the last. But they act like this is unique to them. Well, tell that to:

  • Atlanta: Dominique Wilkins
  • Boston: Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, Curtis Martin
  • Chicago: Greg Maddux, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Scottie Pippen
  • Edmonton: Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, Adam Graves, and the rest of the Oilers
  • Miami: The 1997 Marlins, the 2003 Marlins
  • Milwaukee: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, C.C. Sabathia, Ray Allen
  • Minnesota: Kevin Garnett, Johan Santana
  • New York: Tom Seaver
  • Oakland: Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Baron Davis
  • Orlando: Shaq
  • Philadelphia: Charles Barkley
  • Phoenix: Amar’e Stoudemire (remember that? Like, three days ago?)
  • Pittsburgh: Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla
  • Seattle: Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, the SuperSonics

I’ll stop there, but obviously, with a little more time, I could go on forever.

I’ll speak on one of these, Johnny Damon. When Damon left the Red Sox for the Yankees, I was furious. But my anger was at the Red Sox, for creating this situation. And, later, for the fans for turning on him when he’d just helped the team win its first championship in 86 years. They were mad at him for taking the money. To them, I said (and still say), “when you turn down an extra $12 million, then we can talk.” I have a Damon t-shirt that’s a little worn, but I still wear now and again. Sometimes, people give me crap for it. And I always give it right back to them. I remember the good, and I don’t hold it against him because he exercised his right as an adult.

Now, if for some unknown reason, Wade had left the Heat and joined Cleveland, does anyone think those fans wouldn’t be holding a parade right now? Of course they would. But that’s not how it worked, so they get to act like a giant group of entitled babies.

Cleveland, you just watched the best player you’ll ever have, and for seven years. His team did little to improve the situation, and when he leaves, you burn his jersey?

I have no sympathy for you. None.

Every peak has a valley, and so on

Larry Bird, 1991 NBA Hoops checklist

I’d like to think that, somewhere, Larry Bird was bummed.

So, it’s been quiet around here, mainly thanks to an epic trip to Chicago. I landed last week, and eight hours later, Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks were lifting the Stanley Cup on the Flyers’ home ice, sending the city into a frenzy. It was unbridled mayhem, nothing but good-natured folks going out of their minds over their hockey team finally reaching the promised land, 49 years after their last trip.

Last night, I was in Massachusetts, again just in time for another championship game. This time, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers were writing the next chapter in their history, taking their series to a Game 7.

Needless to say, it didn’t go as well.

♦ ♦ ♦

First, the Hawks. Of course, I’m a Bruins fan first. The Bruins might mean more to me than any other team I follow, really. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the Blackhawks, dating to the days of Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios (who, at 48, is still kicking with the Atlanta Thrashers. Amazing). They’re an original six team, they play in one of my favorite cities, my friends all love them unconditionally, and if that weren’t enough, they have, easily, the best uniform in sports. This year, they were especially fun, with toothless Duncan Keith holding down the blue line and a front three of Toews, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane terrorizing NHL defenses.

Partying at Comiskey. From left to right: Me, a hoosier, a Cubs fan, Mrs. Jason Varitek and a White Sox fan, all united for the Hawks.

As was our plan, my friends and I made our way to Comiskey Park for the White Sox/Tigers game, with plans to keep tabs on Game 6 as best as possible. And thanks to the Bullpen Bar, that wasn’t very hard at all. Except for one magical inning where the Other Sox scored seven runs, there wasn’t much baseball watched. This was all about the Cup.

The game ended, and the center field scoreboard switched to the Hawks. Down 4-3, the Flyers tied it and sent the game to overtime. But Kane scored that beautiful, no-angle goal, and the place went crazy. By this point, I had totally bought in to the Hawks, wearing the sweater I’d picked up years earlier to the game. I was jumping on top of people, screaming, generally making an ass of myself, but all in good spirits.

The next two days were fantastic. I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the Hawks’ goal foghorn and the Fratellis’ “Chelsea Dagger,” which has become their anthem. We found the team at a bar the night after partying with the Stanley Cup, and then two million Chicago crazies packed downtown for the parade. By the end of it, I was totally exhausted, but satisfied. Nothing feels better than when your team takes it all home, and for these folks who’d waited so long, it felt great to see them have their day. I’m glad they let me be a part of it.

♦ ♦ ♦

Then, there’s the Celtics. They will likely always suffer the fact that I’m just not as into basketball as I am most other sports.

It wasn’t always that way. In fact, the Celtics were the first team I really fell in love with, in elementary school following the twilight of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, collecting basketball cards to match. Bird’s retirement offered up my first broken heart as a fan, and Reggie Lewis’ death not long after, well, there are still no words for that one.

But basketball changed as the 1990s went on. The Celtics went from great to good to bad, but more than that, the NBA took a turn I couldn’t stand. The referees were horrible (and are somehow worse now), the Knicks and Heat turned the game into a league-wide wrestling match, and the last interesting dude in the game, Michael Jordan, retired in 1998. With him gone, my focus on basketball went, and so did the Celtics.

Dovetailing perfectly with all that was the rise of the Lakers. To summarize, the Lakers represent just about everything I despise in sports. Their “Showtime” attitude, their ridiculous cavalcade of celebrity fans, their $10,000 seats, Phil Jackson’s Montana-sized ego, and, of course, Kobe Bryant. There’s not enough harm that could come to the Lakers to satisfy me. Naturally, going into last night, they’d won four championships since 2000.

Since 2007-08, the Celtics have mattered. With the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the maturating of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, and the continuing cool of Paul Pierce, the Celtics turned the ship around and reclaimed basketball glory in 2008. And that was nice, though the Celtics’ win seemed just as cool that year as the Lakers’ loss. But I’ll still watch the Celtics, still root for them, and always root for Paul Pierce, who was a baby the last year I really tuned into a full season end-to-end.

So, the night began at a restaurant in Dartmouth, Mass., eating a pizza at the bar and watching the first half. At halftime, following some great work by Rondo and Garnett, the Celtics were up 40-34, and feelings were mostly good. They were still getting out-rebounded and missing easy shots, and the Lakers still had that guy on their side.

For the second half, the show moved to a bar in New Bedford just a quick walk from my apartment, where a band was playing, which I appreciated. If this were the Bruins or the Red Sox, I wouldn’t want that kind of distraction. But I was feeling anxious, and not having to hear the announcers helped.

The third quarter looked great. Garnett was imposing his will, the Celtics ran up a lead, and going into the fourth, I felt slightly better than OK.

In the fourth quarter, it started again. Boston’s complete inability to hit a shot, which had killed them in Game 6, was back for an encore performance. And the Lakers were hitting shots. And soon enough, they had a lead.

With about six minutes left, I went home, and flicked over to Family Guy on Adult Swim. I had seen enough of the Celtics this year to know how this movie ended. After about 10 minutes, I checked online to see that, yeah, they were down by six with about a minute to go. Soon, it was outside for a walk, where the game was visible through a few windows. Through a curtain, there were all those yellow shirts storming the court, with the volume up high enough to hear the chaos in the arena. There was no doubt now.

For a real sports fan, the peaks are few and amazing. The valleys can’t be avoided.