Sunday, October 31, 2010

Haunting Moments From Knicks History

Some say that adversity reveals the true measure of a man. Others claim that prosperity provides persons the freedom to show their true colors . I posit that Halloween is actually key to knowing someone else. Because there are two types of people on Halloween. People who love it and people who don't. Just like in partisan politics, neither party is likely to be swayed by any rationale from the opposition. And one's relation to Halloween really tells me just about all I need to know about them.

While there are social mores and likely various local statues to discourage me from going door to door, trick or treating in costume, my lack of insurance leaves me without a dentist or physician to dissuade me from starting my Halloween with several bowls of Count Chocula and Boo Berry cereals. The local A&P didn't have any Franken Berry or Yummy Mummy or else those would have been part of my morning feast as well. Not exactly the breakfast of champions, which is sort of fitting for this post.

To celebrate Halloween, I'll be going to Atlantic City to see Phish recounting some of the most terrifying moments in the history of the Knicks. So, gather 'round the up-turned flashlight boils and ghouls, inch closer to your neighbors and see if you watch these macabre moments without your blood curdling. Be warned: the walls may bleed orange and blue and Isiah Thomas may return from the grave at any point while you're web browser has this page open. And, if you say Frederic Weis three times while staring into your computer monitor, Vince Carter will come to your place of business and emasculate you in front of your peers and countrymen.

The Charles Smith Layup Line

The summer of 1993 season holds enough horrors to keep several NBA fan bases awake at night. Promising Nets shooting guard Drazen Petrovic died in a car wreck on June 7 in Germany. Draz had averaged better than 22 during the previous season and was named All-NBA Third Team. His star was on the rise and he was a leader of the NJ squad that included Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman. Assuredly two players who needed strong leadership more than most. Shortly after Petrovic's death, rising Celtics star Reggie Lewis died of a heart attack while practicing at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. With Magic Johnson's stunning retirement and announcement that he'd contracted HIV not too far in the rearview it was a strange time in the NBA. Michael Jordan was establishing himself as the league's dominant force but this was not fait accompli.

In fact, Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference during the 1992-93 season. After brushing aside Indiana and Charlotte by a combined 7-games-to-2 tally, the Knicks stormed out to 2-0 lead over the Bulls in the best-of-seven Conference Finals. Reports filled the papers that Jordan had been gambling in Atlantic City until as late 2:30 a.m. the morning of the games in New York. Times scribe Dave Anderson chastised Jordan, along with everyone who paid for a ticket, for his late nights and lauded "the Knicks' home casino advantage."

Perhaps inspired by the doubting buzzards circling above (or just because he was that damn good), Jordan pulled the Bulls level by winning games 3 and 4 of the series in Chicago. The traveling circus returned to the Garden for the pivotal Game 5, and the contest was as taut and even as one would expect. The Bulls were the defending champs and the Knicks were the team poised to knock them off. Looking back, it sounds foolish to say that the Knicks were poised to knock off the Bulls. But back then they really, really were. They won 60 that year, going 3-1 against Chicago along the way. Patrick had gone for 24 and 12 per night with 2 blocks and 2 assists. The Knicks had been dogged all season long, resourceful and tight knit. They allowed the fewest points per game, and, perhaps most importantly, they trusted each other. Which is why, with the game on the line, Ewing flipped the ball to teammate Charles Smith rather than forcing up a shot and hoping for a bailout foul call. Smith got the rock right underneath the rim. All he needed to do was lay it in and the Knicks would have regained control of the series. But Smith couldn't get the ball to go down. He tried. Was stopped. He tried again. Was stopped. Again. Then once more. And no points. Yes, I still believe that he was fouled. Several times. But he shrunk in the moment, no doubt about it.

This failure haunts me more than any other during my time as a sports fan because this was one of the few times when the Knicks really were the better squad. I truly believe that. And the damage from this moment was hard to salve over. It sapped the Knicks of the one thing that they had in spades all season lon, and through the first 11 games of the postseason, belief. They believed they would win. They believed they were better than Jordan. And after losing this series, I don't think the team ever really regained that feeling. Just think, had they won this game, and either Ewing or Charles Barkley (who led Phoenix to the Finals) wins a title then the narrative of the 1990s NBA is entirely different. Especially if Jordan still retires before the following season.

Jordan Dunks Over Ewing


Reggie Miller


Olajuwan block


1999 NBA Draft

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Foto

The Big Fella Meets Webster

The Post is Prologue: Knicks @ Celtics

New York Knicks (1-0)
@
Boston Celtics (1-1)
TD Garden, Boston, MA
7:30 PM


After Wednesday night's season-opening triumph over the Toronto Raptors I noted that several members of the new-look Knicks roster were undefeated in blue and orange. And, I even argued that it was a significant fact as far as it related to the team's sense of self. Well, that status and self image will surely be tested this evening when the Knicks take the floor against the defending Eastern Conference champs in Boston. Vegas has the Celtics rated 9 points better than the Knicks and sets the over/under for the game at 198.5 points. Sounds about right. Although I do think that if Boston covers that spread then the you could probably knock the O/U down to 195.

The veteran Celtics made a statement in dominating (though not actually pulling away from) the SuperFriends of Miami earlier this week on national television. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen looked every bit the genuine article while the Heat seemed, not surprisingly, like a bunch of extremely talented guys who were all introduced to each other on the bus ride over from the hotel. Even Shaq looked useful. The Celtics then went out on the road and lost their second game to the LeBron-less Cavaliers in Cleveland. Not exactly a stirring encore. And probably terrible news for the Knickerbockers. While I do believe that the Knicks can beat this Celtics group, I think the odds would have been much higher if the Celtics weren't still flush in the face after an embarrassing loss.

That being said, this game is a great early-season test. Going back to the unexplained animosity between Quentin Richardson and Paul Pierce and right up through Kevin Garnett's ejection versus the Knicks in the preseason, recent games between these two clubs have contained more live current then the league standings have dictated that they might. Considering the Celtics' last game and the Knicks desire to rebrand themselves as contenders (or at least as being mediocre), I'm expecting fire. the over/under on Kevin Garnett scowls is at 17.5 and I'm willing to stake large amounts on the over.

If the Knicks are to steal this one then I'd suspect that Rajon Rondo's tendency to turn the ball over would figure prominently. The Knicks will need transition hoops to keep pace with a more muscular and efficient Celtics offense.

Things to Look For:
-How does Stoudemire do against KG? Does KG guard him straight up or do the Celtics run all those old centers at him?
-How does Ray Felton cope with Rondo's speed? And can he use his physical strength to get the better of him on the other end? Do we see Toney Douglas defending Rondo a lot?
-What does Chandler bring off the bench? How does that Douglas-led second unit handle itself? Can either Roger Mason Jr. or Bill Walker make any impact?
-Who guards Pierce? I'd love to see some combination of Gallinari and Chandler go at him. One is long and the other is strong.
-Can Landry Fields get through all those screens to stay with Ray Allen? As usual, I think that this game could be decided by Allen's ability to find a rhythm. Does Chandler guard him late?
-Can Gallo get on track? Although he hit a few big shots against Toronto he never really asserted himself.
-And how much does Amar'e assert himself tonight?


In what I aim to be a season-long habit, I've been trading emails today with a blogger who covers the Knicks' opponent. Below you'll find a back-and-forth with one of the contributors at CelticsBlog.

WWOD?: Which made more of an impression: the opening night win over the Heat or the follow-up loss to the Cavs?

CelticsBlog: I'd say the opening night win. The loss the following night can be attributed to taking their opponent for granted along with the Cavs being very motivated in their home opener. Also, it was the second of back to back games for the Celtics along with travel overnight. Not many Celtics fans are concerned about the loss.

WWOD?: After an up-then-down-then-up 2009-2010 season, what do Celtics fans expect this year? What is the least the team can accomplish without being considered a disappointment?

CelticsBlog: The majority of Celtics fans expect a great season. The team is healthy and motivated and very deep. The bench strength has given fans reason for optimism. Anything short of Banner 18 will be a disappointment.

WWOD?: With 5 of the 7 players getting the most run for the Celtics already being age 30 or older and 3 of the team's top 4 players ranging from 33 to 35, what is the urgency level for this season? Does it feel like a last Gasp effort?

CelticsBlog: I have to laugh when people talk about how old the Celtics are and use that as a reason they rank them below the Lakers. In truth, the Lakers are an older team than the Celtics. The Lakers have 9 players 30 or older while the Celtics have just 5 players 30 or older. The Celtics big 3 take excellent care of themselves and all have at least 2 years left on their contracts. This isn't a last gasp effort. This team is very capable of winning it all this season and next season, barring a major injury.

WWOD?: When does the Shaq-Nate comedy revue begin filming episodes?

CelticsBlog: That's a good question. If you followed their exploits in training camp you know that there won't be a dull moment for Celtics fans this season with those two around.

Also:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Knicks Open Season, Win. In Canada!

The Pre-Ramble
Back were it all began, the Knicks opened up the 2010-2011 campaign in the same city where they’d played the first game in franchise history in 1946. Toronto the Good, here we come again.

Of that first-ever game way back when, the Knicks’ first-ever captain Sonny Hertzberg (yeah, a 5-foot-9 Jewish guy from Brooklyn who attended City College was once the captain of the Knicks) noted: "It was interesting playing before Canadians. The fans really didn't understand the game at first. To them, a jump ball was like a face-off in hockey. But they started to catch on and seemed to like the action."

Flash forward more than 60 seasons and Canada has not only generated enough hoops passion to fuel a disdain for Vince Carter but it has also given us The Basketball Jones. Although in the first game of the post-Bosh era, it must be noted that empty seats were visible at all levels throughout the night. And the Canadian fans didn't seem to be particularly taken with the action until the fourth quarter.

Missing from said action, were three key participants for the Knicks: imported players 6-foot-11 wunderkind Anthony Randolph and athletic shooting guard Kelena Azubuike, both acquired for David Lee from Golden State, were sidelined due to injury and MSG Network announcing stalwart Mike Breen was calling more important games elsewhere. Or, perhaps, like my friend Ryan, he’s not allowed into Canada for reasons undisclosed.

Along with co-captains Amar’e Stoudemire and Ray Felton, coach Mike D’Antoni, looking sharp with a crimson power tie, sent out third-year forward and lifelong Italian Danilo Gallinari and rookies Landry Fields and Timofey Mozgov. Before tip-off, the MSG network plays a brief interview that Tina Cervasio conducted with Amar’e. His two talking points are “Have fun” and “Play Knicks basketball.”

I’m in. Amar’e’s got the confidence to sell the idea of “having fun” being a viable strategy for success. If someone asked Zach Randolph or Eddy Curry or Jamal Crawford what the team needed to do before the first game of the 2007 season and the first response was “have fun” then I would most certainly have not been pleased. Likewise, the idea that there was a brand of “Knicks basketball” worth emulating would have seemed laughable. But if Jets coach Rex Ryan can conjure Jets Football by the power of his personality and strength of his belief, then perhaps Amar’e and D’Antoni can do the same with the local hoopsters.

The Game:
Despite the explosive presence of Amar’e in the lineup and the aforementioned discussion of something dubbed “Knicks basketball” this game came down to getting stops. Not fast breaking. Or slam dunking. But stops. Same as it always does. And the Knicks got the stop they needed when Leandro Barbosa's three-point attempt from the corner missed with three seconds remaining. Wilson Chandler contested that shot (like so many others during the second half) after the rest of the team forced the ball into the corner with some solid defense of their own. It missed. Gallo controlled the rebound, and Felton iced the contest with two made free throws. As Gary Cohen didn't say often enough this summer in Queens, "Put it in the books!"

By virture of the Knicks beating the Raptors, 98-83, to start the season, Amar'e is undefeated in a Knicks uniform. Ray Felton is undefeated in a Knicks uniform. Ronny Turiaf is undefeated in a Knicks uniform. Roger Mason Jr. is undefeated in a Knicks uniform. Timofey Mozgov is undefeated in a Knicks uniform. Landry Fields is undefeated in a Knicks uniform.

Of course, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and Gallo have more than enough Knicks losses to go around, and I don't mean to obscure those facts. The Knicks have been bad for years. And they've known it. They may not have liked it and some of them may have doggedly fought to change it. But each player on the roster for the last few seasons woke up each day knowing that he was a member of a bad team. Well, the identity of this current group is being formed right now, and beating Toronto was crucial step in establishing a positive self-image.

All of that being said, I don't think that Mozgov probably sees himself as a winner. Or, победитель, in his native tongue. At least, he shouldn't. That was a brutal display of professional sports playing to open the game by the 7-foot Russian. It's clear that in the space where I see the No. 25 sewn onto his jersey, opponents see a bullseye. For all the coordination and muscularity that seems to separates him from so many foreign bigs, the Moz just doesn't seem to have the instincts for the way the game is played. Now, he may have instincts for basketball. But not for NBA basketball, with fouls being drawn and assessed and such. Raptors players were just lining up to get bowled over by him at either end of the floor. He was pulled less than two minutes into the game with two fouls.

Rather than replacing his starting center with Turiaf, presumably his second-string center, D'Antoni sent 6-foot-8 Wilson Chandler into the game. The shy tweener is listed as a "guard-forward" on his player page at NBA.com, and his presence increased the revolutions per minute of the Knicks offense and shifted some of the Raptors defenders one county over from their comfort zones. I loved the move and can only assume that the Knicks coaching staff had assumed the Russian wasn't long for the floor when they planned the rotation. The MSG announcing tandem of Clyde and Kenny Albert went out there way to inform viewers that Chandler was not fazed by his sixth-man status. He was not insulted at all, they insisted. Well, he came out and played like a dude with something to prove. Chandler's urgency at both ends of the floor spurred the team to take control of the game by the end of the first quarter. In a league were wing players seem to get longer and leaner through the years, Chandler's bulk makes him a unique physical presence. He dominated the the middle acts of this game.

Which brings us to the endgame, when Stoudemire asserted himself. After Andrea Bargnani hit a three-point shot to pull the Raps within a pair, 89-87, with just better than five minutes remaining, STAT reeled off a 7-2 run to stake the Knicks to a 96-88 lead at the two-minute mark. Jarrett Jack kept the home team close until Barbosa's last-gasp shot failed to fall, but Amare clearly took over in the clutch. He grabbed the reins at the precise point where so many Knicks teams have lost control in recent years. Maybe David Lee does that if he's still around. But maybe not. After all, he was on the floor in a lot of games that were pulled out late by the other team.

While Amare is undefeated in a Knicks uniform.

Other Observations and Musings
-Although I’m a proud owner of a pair of blue, black and orange Starbury hightops, I think that Gallo’s blue and orange shoes by Reebok are my favorite Knicks kicks since Patrick Ewing’s foray into the footwear market.

-The orange shooting shirts are nice. The second Knicks-related text message (the first stating simply "Go Knicks!") implored me to buy one of these.

-Raptors point guard Jarrett Jack just kills the 'bockers. I'm not sure if Anthony Mason knocked up his sister in the summer of '95 or what but the Georgia Tech alum seems to have some sort of vendetta in effect.

-Someone, dressed in street clothes, at the end of the Raptors bench was sporting a Blue Jays hat. We approve this message.

-Aside from Mozgov, Bill Walker was the only Knicks player who seemed completely out of sorts. After impressing with his effort in the aimless, harum-scarum action late last season, he seemed lost in the more purposeful, structure of last night's offense. Perhaps he just had a rough night or ate something that didn't agree with him, but I'd have to guesstimate the BW is the first player dropped from the rotation when Azubuike or Randolph returns, especially with Douglas and Chandler seeing time at two guard.

-Toney Douglas showed real solid. He's going to play his way into a trade if he keeps this up.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Dawn of a New NBA Age

When 38-year-old leviathan Shaquille O'Neal lowered his meaty, tattooed left shoulder into the lane and flipped up the first shot of the 2010-2011 NBA season while wearing a white-with-green-trim Boston Celtics uniform it was undeniable that the political topography of the NBA is vastly different than even a decade ago.

Also on the floor in the home white for the Celtics were power forward Kevin Garnett, small forward Paul Pierce, shooting Ray Allen and point guard Rajon Rondo. First-round draft picks at every spot. Pierce was drafted out of the University of Kansas with the 10th overall selection by the Celtics in 1998 and has been in Boston through the dark ages and the stabbings, but Allen and Garnett were acquired in separate trades prior to the 2007-2008 season.

Dubbed "the Big Three" and saddled with expectations befitting the sum of their impressive talents, the veteran trio went on to win the NBA championship in that first season together. After being ousted by the Orlando Magic in the Conference Finals in 2009, Boston took a lead into the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2010 Finals before succumbing to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in the waning moments. ESPN's Bill Simmons will forcibly explain why this is the closest a team has ever come to a title without winning despite the fact that there have been 16 other Game 7s in the history of the NBA Finals and three of those were decided in overtime. Losing teams broke the 80-point barrier in handful of those games, as well.

As anyone with access to a television, radio or garrulous regulars at a dive bar can tell you, the Celtics' opponent on the opening night of the 2010-2011 NBA campaign, the Miami Heat, made waves in South Beach and throughout the Association this past summer by inking LeBron James and Chris Bosh to free-agent deals. James is the reigning league MVP, and Bosh is a very good (though not nearly as great as the company he keeps) jump-shooting big man. Both were brought to Miami by Heat executive Pat Riley to join the homegrown stud Dwyane Wade, who had lifted the club to a championship in 2006. That '06 Heat team also featured the aforementioned Shaq at center. But more about him later.

Wade, James and Bosh are to be the Bigger Three. Perhaps the Biggest Three if none are felled by injury; and respected veteran shotmaker Mike Miller (also acquired via free agency during the offseason) starts to shoot again after two years with fewer than nine field goal attempts per game. In the first nine seasons of his career he'd never put up fewer than 12 per 36, and this drop-off has gone largely unexplained (at least to me). Sidelined due to a hand injury, Miller wasn't involved in last night's season-opening tilt. On the floor to open the game and wearing black jerseys with white letters and red piping for the Heat was point forward James, shooting guard Wade, power forward Bosh, designated small guy Carlos Arroyo and center Jo-El Anthony, who, judging by the pronunciation of his first name, would be better suited playing outdoor day games so that he could absorb the powers of our yellow sun.

When James, Wade and Bosh entered the league as the first, fifth and fourth picks, respectively, of the 2003 NBA Draft such a constellation of stars playing in one regular-season game would have seemed far fetched. For the most part, David Stern's NBA entered the 21st century with a de facto one-in-his-prime-superstar-per-franchise policy. San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan had been named league MVP after the 2002-2003 season. He had led his team to the championship as well. Garnett was a menacing war machine in Minnesota that year and Karl Malone was still musclebound and delivering parcels in Salt Lake. Allen Iverson led the Sixers in points and body art.Tracy McGrady was dropping better than 30 per night in Orlando. Jason Kidd was the engine of a fast-breaking New Jersey attack. Chris Webber was angling to get over in Sacramento. And Rasheed Wallace was the main attraction under the big top in Portland.

Most star players (who were piloting contending teams) had a talented running mate or two playing with them, guys good enough to make an all-star team in their best years, but only Pierce had a pal netting better than 20.0 per game in Antoine Walker. And nobody was mistaking 'Toine for an alpha-male superstar.

The only title aspirant that really broke the star-plus-sidekicks mold in the season before James, Wade and Bosh broke into the NBA was the Los Angeles Lakers, who featured an increasingly tenuous pairing of future Hall of Famers in Shaq and Kobe Bryant. The Lakers had acquired the Big Aristotle via free agency after the 1996 season, three days after corralling Kobe in a trade with Charlotte, who had just selected the high-school hotshot with the 13th selection in the '96 draft. Looking back, one assumes that the Lakers had an inkling that they'd be inking Shaq when they shipped out incumbent center Vlade Divac in order to acquire Bryant.

At this point, though, there was no Twitter, no YouTube and no Facebook friending, and with the shine having come off international competition and even the All-Star Game and dunk contest there were seemingly far fewer cordial ties among players around the country. It was still a dog-eat-dog game and pride and respect seemed to be on the line more often than not. If Philadelphia played Orlando then Iverson believed a win would prove that he was a better man than McGrady. Those were the stakes.

Before Shaq and Kobe teamed up, and probably going back to the heyday of the personality cults established by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird each of the league's best 10 players, winning a championship meant overcoming the other nine. Both Magic and Larry wanted to go through the other in the NBA Finals in the 1980s. Jordan furiously guarded his perch above the sport's other luminaries in the 1990s. For them, winning a championship was synonymous with knocking off Jordan. For him, victory meant humiliating his competitors. That was the journey. And it was, more or less, the point. Which is why, for many fans, the 1993-1994 and 1994-1995 seasons occupy the same relation to the rest of the decade that the third installment of the Godfather trilogy has to its predecessors.

During this feudal era, most NBA cities were the fiefdoms of one of the game's top players, and each had his own vassals, valets and serfs. When Shaq entered the league in 1992, Patrick Ewing controlled New York. He had a man at arms in Charles Oakley and a court jester in John Starks. Hakeem Olajuwan ruled Houston with an even more formidable retinue. Dominique Wilkins owned Atlanta. Charles Barkley had just taken over in Phoenix. David Robinson was the Admiral down in San Antonio. Clyde Drexler was the man in Portland. Reggie Lewis was the heir apparent in Boston. And Michael Jordan was Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago. Of the 10 teams to win 45 or more games in Shaq's rookie season only two had tandem headliners. Utah featured John Stockton and Malone while Seattle showcased Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

Things remained more or less the same until Shaq departed Orlando via free agency in 1996. The Magic had won 60 games the previous season but had been dispatched by the veteran Bulls juggernaut in the postseason. Shaq then took his talents to sunny Los Angeles and teamed up with the blossoming Bryant. Sound familiar? The Lakers then racked up titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Sporting an No. 8 on his shirt, Kobe averaged better than 30 per night the year before Miami's SuperFriends entered the professional fray while Shaq was dropping about 27 per (though his per-minute scoring numbers were slightly better than Kobe's). Two of the most gifted players in the game were teamed up and winning titles. Of course, to hear Shaq tell it, the Lakers also followed the same star-plus-sidekicks formula that was prevalent elsewhere. Tension came with the success, though, and the interpersonal dynamics of the club were back-page news. Could Kobe and Shaq coexist now that each was as full-fledged superstar? Could two of the top players in the game share the ball?

The Shaq-Kobe Lakers were upset by Larry Brown's Pistons in the 2004 Finals, and Shaq was traded less than a month later. Roll credits. With no Hollywood ending for Shaq and Kobe, their divorce seemed to fortify the alpha-male theory undergirding the Feudal Era. Yet it was actually the beginning of the end of the age. And it was, not coincidentally, the debut season for Wade, James and Bosh.

The first time that any of those three took the floor against the Shaq and Kobe, Karl Malone was also wearing a Lakers jersey. So was Gary Payton. Both had come to Los Angeles expressly to win a title before retiring. After falling short throughout their accomplished careers, they were taking their last best shot before they hung up their hightops. When their bid fell short, most fans and members of the media considered the Pistons' upset a referendum on such piggy-backing, but the formation of the 2010-2011 Heat suggests that the league's impressionable young players felt differently.

In the aftermath of the Lakers' loss in the '04 Finals, the club unloaded the Big Carpetbagger for a satchel-full of spare parts and a draft pick. Looking to reach the Finals with a third different franchise, Shaq opened the next season in Miami, with Wade. Pat Riley was running the Heat at the time and moved back too the sideline in December 2005. The trio would edge Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 Finals (a fact that I was unaware of for several days having departed for '06 World Cup in Germany after Dallas had taken a 2-0 lead in that best-of-seven series).

Cuban was and remains an aggressive presence in the league and no doubt understood that if Shaq could switch teams twice in the middle of his career then any personnel move was possible if you could find a hamstrung franchise to poach from and solve your own salary cap. Which is how the Celtics would acquire Garnett from Minnesota in a similar many-for-one type of deal just two seasons later. Which, mostly brings us back to last night's game, when Shaq was starting at center for the Celtics with hopes to win his fifth title before he hangs up his high tops.

Everyone wants to credit James, Wade and Bosh with ruining or forever altering the game, but the players drafted in the class or 2003 are the children of the Shaq-Kobe divorce that came after 2004 Finals, caught between O'Neal's gregarious roadshow and Bryant's isolationist rage, with their value system totally skewed by the spite-fueled rivalry between their estranged parents. James is not an innovator any more than he is a team captain for the Heat. He and his peers have grown up in the league as Shaq has traversed the country and won titles on both coasts. They've formed their opinions on business and team-building as he's paired with Kobe and with Wade; hooked on with Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns; and even danced on the sideline with James in Cleveland before coming aboard the Good Ship Celtic. Just like Malone and Payton had signed on with the Lakers for the '03-'04 season.

Even if the plan to join forces was hatched during 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the worldview that each of those players brought to the Redeem Team was forged in the Lakers' flameout of 2004 that occurred during their rookie season. More than James, Wade or Bosh, Shaq is responsible for the current roster of the Miami Heat. And, along with Kobe, he is responsible for promulgating the notion that quantity of titles matters far more than quality. The former running mates have been engaged in a counting competition ever since they parted ways. "More than" the other guy is now more important than directly beating the other guy in a head-to-head fashion. In other words, Robert Horry is an icon.

The notion that how one wins matters is perhaps the last vestige of the NBA's feudal era and the source of the rift that opened up between the two generations of players this offseason. Magic, MJ and Barkley all publicly criticized James for taking the "easy" route to the winner's circle. Meanwhile, Shaq continues to chase rings around the country. Which is why his presence on the floor last night in a Celtics uniform christened the beginning of the NBA's League of Nations Era just as much as the debut of the Heat.

Formerly autonomous nation-states in Cleveland, Toronto and Miami, respectively, each SuperFriend has sacrificed his provincial sovereignty to acquire titles faster and in greater number. And, if South Beach is the NBA's Versailles then we all now what comes next. World War II once enough superpower teams are established, the Cold War once the next Kobe-Shaq dyad emerges, and eventually a first-third world divide in which the scrappy have-nots will constantly threaten the juggernaut haves (think Golden State over Dallas). Carmelo will not stay in Denver. And Chris Paul is not long for New Orleans. Few players will see the value in asserting their rule over a particular city and player movement will increase. In part, because frst-world general managers like Mitch Kupchak will continue to fleece third-world executives like Chris Wallace for their naturals resources (think the Pau Gasol deal). Ultimately, more headline players will give up their fiefdoms to form coalition squads.

The kings of old are dead. Long live the League of Nations.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Monday Mudita

With a 2-1 loss seemingly moments away, the Columbus Crew goalkeeper Will Hesmer loped up the field to get into the opposing box for a corner kick in the second minute of stoppage time. Eddie Gaven was set to send in the corner kick. And the fans at BMO Field in Toronto were collecting their belongings and/or filing toward the exits. Among those belongings they thought that they had a win.

The Crew had taken an early 1-0 lead thanks to 14th-minute header off a corner, but then allowed to goals to Toronto before the intermission. That's were things stood when Hesmer came rolling upfield. And scored. Level at the death. Not only was the shock goal just the second scored by a keeper in MLS history, but it pulled the Crew back within a point of the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings.

Monday Morning Schadenfreude


There seemed to be a flurry of brutal, cringe-worthy hits around the NFL this weekend, several the fault of Steelers linebacker James Harrison who leads with his helmet as predictably as Billy Joel closes concerts with "Piano Man."

Harrison joked after the game about the way that Browns QBslashRBslashWR Josh Cribbs was "asleep" after one of his helmet-to-helmet hits. This wouldn't seem so strange if it had happened in the locker room with his teammates. But he said this to reporters. And coming the day after a Rutgers football player was paralyzed from the neck down it just couldn't have seemed more ignorant or mean-spirited.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tirico's Father Went the Same Way

You may not have noticed, but a sporadically competitive Jets-Vikings game was shown in fits and starts, mostly to fill time, around the fringes of ESPN's ornate commemoration of Brett Favre's 162nd career fumble 500th career touchdown on Monday night. The Jets dominated the visiting Vikes in the rain-delayed first half, but the Wrangler woke up from his shame slumber and loosed his denim shackles in the second half and began picking out wideouts Randy Moss and Percy Harvin amidst the storm of Jets defenders.

Holding tight to an fast eroding 22-20 lead, New York had the ball with 3:09 on the clock. The Vikings had two timeouts and all of the momentum after the fleet-footed Harvin had skittered across the middle of the field to pull his team within two points. It seemed clear that Minnesota would use their remaining timeouts to stop the clock after the first two plays the Jets ran of the possession. They did. The Jets, though, had picked up a first down on the second of those plays, a 11-yard pass to Santanio Holmes, and seemingly had the game in their hands since the visiting Vikes had no means of stopping the clock. Ground and pound time. Right?

On first down the Mark Sanchez handed the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson, who was gang tackled for a one-yard loss. With the 2:00 minute warning creeping within sight, offensive coordinator dialed up a pass play. Sanchez snapped the ball and threw it. It dropped incomplete. And the 2:00 minute warning hadn't arrived, essentially gifting an extra clock stoppage to Minnesota. On the ensuing third down, the Jets also had no choice but to try to pass for a first down to try keep the ball out of Favre's hands. When that third-down pass dropped incomplete, I cursed under my breath and shook my head. The Vikings were going to get the ball back with pretty darn close to two entire minutes to move down the field for the go-ahead field foal. My phone buzzed with a text message reading: "Did the Jets hire Herm to run the clock at the ends of games.

Was it Sanchez's fault for not letting the play clock tick down a bit further before starting the second down play? Was it Schottenheimer's fault for trying to get too cute? Or was it really Rex Ryan's fault for not insisting his team ran this game to the death with Shonn Greene or LT?

There was a little blame to go around for everyone, but, regardless of who was to blame, the strangest aspect of the whole scenario was the way that ESPN play-by-play regular Mike Tirico freaked out. He was appalled and seemingly insulted on a personal level by the mistake. The Syracuse alum reacted with such venom when Jets screwed up, raising the Vikes' hopes for a win in a Lazarus-like fashion, that I began to wonder if he was actually a fan of Gang Green. After all, why would a play-by-play guy lose his cool so explosively over a strategic miscue? This wasn't a flagrant penalty or egregious officiating mistake. Nor was it altogether shocking considering that poor clock management is as prevalent among coaches as I'd imagine chlamydia is among NFL groupies. Maybe Tirico had money on the Jets' money line. Or maybe his father went the same way, killed by poor clock management. Yeah, that must be it. Only way to explain the outburst. Just like how Captain Ed Hocken felt at the end of The Naked Gun when Ludwig fell from the stadium was flattened over by steam roller and eventually marched over by a marching band. His father went the same way. And it's tough when the Fates just throw these things right back in our faces.

Fittingly, Braves Lose on Columbus Day


No amount of tomahawk chopping or oh-oh-ey-ohhing could keep the National League's only franchise named (however insensitively) for the New World's indigenous peoples from being defeated on Columbus Day. The Cleveland Indians could not be reached for comment. Probably because of all those small-pox infested blankets that the Phillies sent them in the Cliff Lee deal last year.

Monday, October 11, 2010

WWOD? Re-Runs: ¡Buen Dia De La Resistencia Indigena!

(We'll supplement this week's sporadic posting with a re-run from Columbus Day 2009)

When I was growing up in the suburbs north west of the Big Apple, I spent the second weekend of several Octobers playing in a youth soccer tournament in the town of Parsippany, NJ. A lot of kids did. It was a big deal. Tents were rented. Canopies erected. Coffee and hot chocolate were poured from those heavy-duty brown plastic multi-gallon thermoses. Bagels were plastic-wrapped and marked C or B and arrayed on folding tables alongside candy and other things that my mom wouldn't buy me because she had made me a sandwich that was in a soft cooler . Paper boxes of munchkins were picked up at Dunkin' Donuts (by someone else's mom) en route to the first game on Saturday morning. Merchandise was hawked and kids clamored for t-shirts with clever slogans (like "soccer stud" with a picture of a screw-in stud for your cleats). Like I said, it was a big deal. Especially if you were like nine.

The travel soccer club in my town was the Ramapo Wildcats. I played with the team in my age group from the season it was founded early in grade school right on through high school when it was broken up. I was the only one that lasted that long. This, more than my play, allowed me to be team captain at various points throughout the years. I didn't get an armband but I did get to call a lot of coin tosses. We wore a green and white kit and took our name from the nearby Ramapo Mountains. The Ramapo Mountains are part of the Appalachian Mountain chain and were/are home to the Ramapough Lenape Indians. To travel to this tournament, my mom would drive us in our big black Chevy Suburban along Rt. 202 which ran along the foothills of the mountains.

My younger sister's team played in this tournament as well. And eventually the team's of my two younger brothers did. I recall my sister's squad having the most success. My teams? Not so much. Not that we weren't good, because we were. Seriously. Be impressed by me. Please. We once won the fabled Virginian. I know! But we couldn't seem to crack the nut that was Parsipanny. And the victory carried some cache. Not the trophy. Or the extra patches from other clubs that could be acquired by playing a few extra games. Nope. The prize was Monday. It was having to play in the finals on Monday and then getting to miss school.

The Parsipanny tournament was held Columbus Day weekend every year. The first two rounds were Saturday and Sunday and the championship games in each age group were Monday morning. The way I remember (which may be wrong), the public schools in my town used to get this day off. Until we didn't. It became just another Monday. Except one with more talk of the Pinta than normal. And perhaps a little preview of the first Thanksgiving. The only way to get excused from school was to reach the Final. So many kids in town were played with the Wildcats that all the teachers knew about the tournament and didn't give you a hard time about the absence.

That tournament in Parsipanny is what I think of every year when Columbus Day rolls around. I think of Smith Field, cool early morning games and the Burger King that was just outside the entrance to the field complex and that we would sneak over to, click-clacking in our cleats, in between games. I remember the white t-shirts from that tournament that had a picture of a three boats. Those boats stretched across the ample chests of soccer moms who wore them on the sidelines were sailing to America. Carrying fair-skinned folks whose arrival would eventually produce, among many other things, this tournament.

The name of the town comes from the Lenape word "parsipanong," meaning "the place where the river winds through the valley." Before there was a Burger King, a Smith Field complex and public schools classrooms to avoid on Mondays, the area had been populated by the Lenape. Not only were they spread up to the Ramapo Mountains, but also throughout New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware and up into the Hudson Valley. Today, though, the Lenni Lenape are not recognized by the U.S. Government. Meaning, they've got no reservation of their own. Not that having a reservation is the cat's pajamas. It's usually not. But it's something. It's a place where you can invite me to gamble and buy cheap cigarettes. It's also a place where, for example, you could have schools teach a version of history that accounts for your existence. It's a place were Columbus Day might not be viewed quite the same.

The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the "New World" might not seem like a day for celebration for those who are really from Parsipanny. For Native Americans and indigenous peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere it probably seems like a pretty shitty holiday. And no amount of zeppolles or sausage and pepper sandwiches at the various Italian-themed street fairs taking place around the country are going to change that. That said, I enjoy those items. But I'm not Native American. I'm a white guy from the 'burbs who likes greasy food served outdoors.

Italian-Americans have increasingly adopted Columbus Day as a day to celebrate their heritage since Columbus was from Genoa even though he sailed for Spain. It's also a big day for those who are looking to commemorate the audacious use of flags in history.


Oct. 12 has been a day for celebrations going back to the days of the 13 colonies. Oddly enough (at least it seems odd to me), Colorado was the first state to make Columbus Day a state holiday in 1906. It became a federal holiday in 1934. This was initially opposed by many in the middle of the nineteenth century. And not because folks realized that Columbus didn't exactly "discover" this land. Or because people felt it was giving undue glory to one of the sadder chapters in human history (that being the chapter in which Spaniards and assorted Europeans lay waste to civilizations on two continents in the Western Hemisphere, clearing space to allow for the destruction of a third continent). Rather, nativists and anti-immigration activists in America didn't like that Italians and assorted Catholics were increasingly using the day to celebrate their heritage. That was the problem: Catholics getting a little too uppity. WASPS, Masons and other right-wingnut "patriots" were afraid that the Catholics were going to take over the country. Probably to turn it over to the Vatican. That old gag.

In the twentieth century, South American countries began to celebrate Dia De La Raza in place of Columbus Day. This "Day of the Race" was meant to run counter to the Eurocentric holiday in the U.S. and commemorate the pre-Columbian cultures that had been nearly expunged from the continent. In 2002, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez renamed the holiday Dia De La Resisencia Indigena, meaning "Day of Indigenous Resistance" to remember the struggle of those ancient cultures living in the New World against their would-be colonizers. Two years later, a statue of Columbus was toppled in Caracas on Oct. 12. Things were getting interesting.

This past weekend a soccer tournament was held in Parsipanny. It's now called the Parsipanny Pride Tournament rather than the Columbus Day tournament. I'm not totally sure what that means. Although I don't suspect that Hugo Chavez had much to do with it. Needless to say, I wish I could have been playing in the finals instead of at work today.

Monday Mudita

Monday Morning Schadenfreude


Kurt Warner stand-in Max Hall (an undrafted free agent QB out of BYU) making the first start of his NFL career for Arizona took the hardest hit that I saw yesterday. But in a Warneresque bit of falling upwards, Hall's fumble is picked up by a teammate who rumbles into the end zone for a touchdown that proved vital in the Cardinals' upset win over New Orleans.

And, without futher ado, the most impressive sporting flub of the weekend:

Entroducing... Tampa Bay's DJ Kitty

Blood feuds between cities, double-crosses by free agents or tight-fisted owners, redemption for players felled by injury or who have run afoul of the justice system due to crimes against women, pets and/or teammates are the sorts of backstories that I try to tease out whenever watching sports with my girlfriend. For example, knowing that Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton wears those long sleeves under his uniform because he hates all the tattoos that he got when he was a crack head, that long-haired Tim Lincecum got busted for pot possession, and that Alex Rodriguez purportedly wears lipstick and has a fetish for women with very masculine physiques all make watching the baseball playoffs slightly more palatable for her. So does being appraised of which players have or have not bedded Alyssa Milano. Figuring out "clever" heckles based on player names - "... more like Brian McCan't" - also helps.

The hope is to infuse the game with the interpersonal drama that makes her love reality programs like Project Runway. Meanwhile, what I should have been doing is trying to appeal to her love of kitten mittens, cuteoverload.com and random videos of two bunnies and two cups. Which is exactly why she is rooting for the Tampa Bay Rays to win Game 5 against Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers on Tuesday.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

CC Riders

Most Yankees fans are relieved that one-time No. 2 starting pitcher A.J. Burnett has been dropped from the pitching rotation for the division series against the Minnesota Twins because Burnett struggled mightily in the second half of 2010.

After a first half in which he was rarely better than mediocre and frequently less than adequate, the right-hander pitched to an unsightly 5.60 ERA in September, which wasn't what the brass in the Bronx had banked on when they'd inked him to long-term deal that paid him $16.5 million this year alone. Of course, they weren't nearly as upset in September as they were in August when he tallied a 7.80 ERA. In a world with no New York Metropolitans, A.J. is likely the biggest NYC baseball pariah in 2010. Hopefully he'll put Ollie Perez on his postseason comp ticket list.

With Burnett banished, Andy Pettitte untested after a long injury layoff, and 24-year-old Phil Hughes (whose performance this season should make him the No. 2 starter in Burnett-less Bronx) relegated to one start in the ALDS, there is a lot riding on CC Sabathia's performance in the opener.

Watching Tampa Bays race ace David Price go down against Texas today really crystallized that for me. Behind Price, Tampa has Garza, Shields and a bevy of other capable arms. Now, I don't know if they brought any bats with them into October, but that's another questions for another post. On the other hand, if CC doesn't earn the win tonight in Game 1 then this Yankees team, for all its offensive fireworks in 2010, could be dispatched by Minnesota without anything too extraordinary happening at Target Field. After CC, the Yankees' rotation is filled with question marks heading into the playoffs and the club has been dismal against left-handers lately (the Twins will send out southpaws in Games 1, 3 and 5). Obviously, any team that loses Game 1 is emminently beatable in a five-game affair, and I don't mean to imply that I've discovered that point. In other groundbreaking WWOD? discoveries, he who spends all his money on lunch will not have much for dinner. What I'm saying is that this Yankees club is especially vulnerable after Sabathia in a way that the other playoff teams are not. A Game 1 loss potentially hurts them more than Tampa, Texas, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Perhaps the only other club as dependent on a win in the opener is Minnesota, who would ask Carl Pavano to pitch Games 2 and 5. Which makes CC's Game 1 outing arguably the most important start in the any Division Series.

Despite tossing just 13.1 innings since the middle of July, Pettitte is scheduled to start Games 2 and 5. Granted, the veteran had posted an 11-2 record until he went on the shelf with a groin injury. And his resume is stocked with more postseason wins then I've had jobs with the word "assistant" in the title. Nevertheless, it's a lot to ask of a guy on a 20-month stroll to 40 years of age and just coming back from injury to pitch twice in a five-game series, including a potential winner-take-all game 5 on the road. Could anyone really be that surprised if he were to scuffle or pull up a little lame on a third-inning pitch in the cool Minneapolis air? I don't think so. And, no one could blame Pettitte.

If CC were to get edged by the Twins' Game 1 starter, Francisco Liriano, and Pettitte were to sputter then the secondary consequence of Burnett's ineptitude would become apparent. Had Burnett posted Hughes' 18-8 record or even his 4.19 ERA then there would be no doubt about who starts Game 2 in any postseason series. But without Burnett's track record or pay check, the inexperienced Hughes doesn't get that assignment. Which means that that the team's second best pitcher doesn't pitch twice in a best-of-five series. Which means Pettitte gets bumped up a spot due to his "experience" and despite his recent injury.

Again, the Yankees' offensive prowess can make these all moot points, but if CC can't deliver a Game 1 victory and the Yankees get dumped then it won't necessarily be the fault of Sabathia, Pettitte or even Hughes. It'll be the fault of a guy in the bullpen unlikely to even appear, whose poor performance led New York skipper Joe Girardi to ask too much his veteran workhorse and too little of his promising pitcher of the future.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The VerKNICKular


Aproperez

Form:
adjective; adverb; preposition

Etymology:
Facing an extra-inning game on the final day of the 2010 regular season, erstwhile Mets skipper Jerry Manuel had no choice but to call on exiled left-hander Oliver Perez as the game entered the 14th frame. The score had been knotted at 1-1 and neither anemic offense seemed to be able to dot the final lower-case j of their respective jokes of seasons.



Meaning:
1. to succumb to one's worst flaw; as to occur in a manner befitting the precipitating circumstances; poetic justice.
2. occurring at the least opportune time.
3. so as to flaunt a shameful secret.
4. to be hoisted with one's own petard

Usage:
1. With the 2010 Mets' campaign played under a cloud of poor personnel decisions and marred by injuries, ineffectiveness and malaise it was aproperez that disgraced and obstinate hurler Oliver Perez walked in the final run of the season.

2. After murdering his brother and usurping his throne in Denmark, it was aproperez that Claudius was felled by a familial relation.

Antonym: Aproposey


Meaning:
1: at an opportune time : deservedly
2: fortuitous timing; a happy coincidence
3: a deserved victory, especially one by means of one's strong suit.

Usage:
1. After providing much-needed pop to the Giants' lineup in second half of the season, it was aproposey that NL Rookie of the Year candidate Buster Posey capped off San Francisco's 3-0 division-clinching victory over the Padres with a solo home run.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Aproperez

Having not toed the rubber in a Big League game in nearly a month, it was only fitting that Oliver Perez took the loss in the Mets' season-ending defeat to the Washington Nationals yesterday. Out of options in the 14th inning at Citi Field, beleaguered Mets skipper Jerry Manuel had no choice but to bring in the lethargic albatross from the bullpen with one out.

Ollie hit the first batter in the shoulder. He then walked the next one, two, three batters to plate the go-ahead run for the Nationals. There had been 16 scoreless half innings in this game before Perez entered the fray. Perhaps neither of these mediocre teams had the talent to push across a run. Or maybe all the uniformed men in both dugouts were intentionally keeping it going because knew that all of their jobs were in jeopardy as soon as this contest was in the books.

Perez, though, knows that he'll get paid handsomely next season regardless of how many days come between appearances. He took matters into his own hands and singlehandedly killed off a game. Although, some might argue, that he'd managed the same feat with the entire season months ago.