Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Who Sang For Davey Moore?

Davey Moore's father was the pastor at the Jesus Only church in Urbania, Ohio. The Jesus Only church was a Pentecostal group asserting the primacy of Jesus at the expense of the Trinitarian theology that was - and continues - to be the norm in Christianity. Rather than baptising in the name of "The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," Moore's father put all his faith in the Son.

From April 1957 through in St. Patrick's Day 1960, the pastor's son certainly seemed infallible. He ran off an 18-fight undefeated streak as a boxer, picking up the Featherweight world title along the way by upsetting Hogan "Kid" Bassey in March 1959 in Los Angeles.

Just five decisions into his win streak in early 1958, Moore was described by Sports Illustrated boxing scribe Gilbert Rogin, in not entirely complimentary fashion, as “a chunky, clubfighter who punches solidly but does not always maintain the pace.” By the time he defeated Bassey the following year, Moore's profile had risen and his notices were much more favorable. Dubbed "the Springfield Rifle" for his place of residence and for his bullet-strong punches, boxing writers and fans gravitated toward Moore, the rare American excelling in the Featherweight division, where fighters cannot weigh more than 126 pounds.

During Moore's career, the division was populated mostly by Hispanic and European fighters. Bassey hailed from Nigeria, and was the country's first boxing champion. The polyglot composition of the Featherweight ranks had Moore traveling the world to find fights. Not one to duck an opponent, Moore had unseated Bassey with infected tonsils and a 101 degree fever. After granting Bassey a chance to regain the top spot in the Featherweight division, Moore successfully defended his title an additional four times (while taking and winning many non-title bouts along the way).

Moore won a title decision over Kazuo Takayama in Tokyo in 1960. He then knocked out Danny Valdez in the first round in Mexico to keep the crown in April 1960 in Los Angeles and before winning a unanimous decision over Takayama in a return to Tokyo later that year to keep the world title. After a pummeling left-right combination to the jaw left Takayama essentially out on his feet in the thirteenth, Moore eased up in the last two rounds with the triumph assured and his foe visibly dazed. In August 1962, Moore again put his championship on the line against Olli Maki in Helsinki, Finland (where he had participated in the 1952 Olympics). He stopped Maki by TKO with three knockdowns in the second round.

By the time that the 29-year-old Moore climbed through the ropes of the ring situated above the pitcher's mound at Dodger Stadium on March 21, 1963, he had amassed a career record of 59-6-1. The WBC and the WBA Featherweight titles were on the line back in Los Angeles as were world titles in two other weight classes. It was big night for boxing in one of America's newest sporting venues, which had opened up less than a year earlier in Chavez Ravine. The opening fight paired welterweight champ Emile Griffith against No. 1 contender Luis Rodriguez. Griffith had regained that title a year earlier in a match at Madison Square Garden in which he inflicted mortal injuries on his opponent, Benny Paret. The death of a prominent fighter in a prominent fight that was televised nationally on NBC brought down a firestorm of criticism on the sport, with many seeking to ban it altogether.

In the opening match of the tripleheader, Rodriguez relieved Griffith of the welterweight crown, to the delight of the largely Spanish-speaking crowd, some of whom were likely displaced as the Dodgers bought out Chavez Ravine residents in advance of building their new home. Up next, Moore and Ultimo "Sugar" Ramos, a Cuban fighter by way of Mexico, took center stage.

The 21-year-old challenger started timidly against the established champion but grew into the match to the delight of the partisan crowd. Moore rocked his younger pursuer in the second round with a combination of punches but the crowds chants of RA-MOS, RA-MOS seemed to keep his feet beneath him. Thanks to a rapid-fire left jab, Ramos loosened several of Moore's teeth and shattered his mouth guard. For his part, Moore's right hand would pummel Ramos, swelling one of his eyes. Ramos' assault culminated in the 10th round, when series of upper cuts forced Moore across the mat to the ropes on the center-field side of the ring. Once his retreat route was hemmed in by the ropes, Ramos landed a left hook that knocked Moore to the seat of his shorts. As he fell, his head snapped back against the lower rope. Referee George Latka quickly approached Moore and began his 10-count. The battered but proud champ was up by the time Latka reached three. He returned to his corner after the bell sounded the conclusion of the 10th round. Before the 11th began, Moore's manager Willie Ketchum signaled that his fighter was done for the night.

Fully under his own power, Moore trudged to his locker room, where he chatted amiably with the press. Aside from a bloodshot left eye, he hardly looked like a man who'd had to throw in the towel a full five rounds before the fight was scheduled to be over. Defeated but not deflated, Moore told reporters "I'll take the rematch, you better believe it. Look, you guys know that when I'm right nothing gets to me. Not nothing. I was off. That's it. plain and simple."

Moore would go on to laugh and joke with reporters: "Just like you writers, if you'd only admit it. Can't write a lick some days. Well, that was me tonight. I just wasn't up to my best."

To the press, the 5-foot-2 Moore may have sounded like an aging fighter trying to explain away his inevitable decline like so many fighters before and since. After all, Father Time remains undefeated in all weight classes. When those reporters rushed back to their ringside seats for the third bout of the evening, they may not have believed that Moore would regain his belt from Ramos, but they likely believed that they would be there to see him try. And they certainly didn't expect that he was about to die.

Shortly after Moore was left alone with Ketchum and sparring partner Ronnie Wilson, he began experiencing sharp headaches. He called for his manager. Moments later, he collapsed into a coma. Seventy-five hours after the fight he was dead at White Memorial Hospital. The cause of death was massive trauma to the brain stem, presumably suffered when the back of his head hit the bottom the rope in the 10th round.

California Governor Pat Brown seized on Moore's death to (again) call for the abolition of boxing. Even the Pope spoke out, proclaiming the sweet science was "contrary to natural principles." Of course, most people were convinced that boxing was actually too close to the sort of base and violent natural principles that English philosopher Thomas Hobbes laid out in Leviathan. One of the voices that rang out in the aftermath of Moore's death belonged to a young folk singer named Bob Dylan, who wrote and performed a song entitled "Who Killed Davey Moore?"

The song was never on any of Dylan's officially released albums during the 1960s but was an occasional part of his live act. When introducing it to a crowd in New York on Halloween 1964, Dylan, in prototypical ironic fashion, said:

"This a song about a boxer...
It's got nothing to do with boxing, it's just a song about a boxer really.
And, uh, it's not even having to do with a boxer, really.
It's got nothing to do with nothing.
But I fit all these words together...
that's all...
It's taken directly from the newspapers,
Nothing's been changed...
Except for the words."

The prominence of topical songs during the 1950s and '60s and in Dylan's early folk/protest work made such a subject far less unusual than it might seem from the distance of nearly 50 years. Because other than Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine and now of The Nightwatchman, I can't fathom any serious contemporary musician devoting an entire song (and space in their setlist) to asking "Who Killed Dave Duerson?"

"Who Killed Davey Moore?" by Bob Dylan:

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not I,” says the referee
“Don’t point your finger at me
I could’ve stopped it in the eighth
An’ maybe kept him from his fate
But the crowd would’ve booed, I’m sure
At not gettin’ their money’s worth
It’s too bad he had to go
But there was a pressure on me too, you know
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not us,” says the angry crowd
Whose screams filled the arena loud
“It’s too bad he died that night
But we just like to see a fight
We didn’t mean for him t’ meet his death
We just meant to see some sweat
There ain’t nothing wrong in that
It wasn’t us that made him fall
No, you can’t blame us at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says his manager
Puffing on a big cigar
“It’s hard to say, it’s hard to tell
I always thought that he was well
It’s too bad for his wife an’ kids he’s dead
But if he was sick, he should’ve said
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the gambling man
With his ticket stub still in his hand
“It wasn’t me that knocked him down
My hands never touched him none
I didn’t commit no ugly sin
Anyway, I put money on him to win
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the boxing writer
Pounding print on his old typewriter
Sayin’, “Boxing ain’t to blame
There’s just as much danger in a football game”
Sayin’, “Fistfighting is here to stay
It’s just the old American way
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the man whose fists
Laid him low in a cloud of mist
Who came here from Cuba’s door
Where boxing ain’t allowed no more
“I hit him, yes, it’s true
But that’s what I am paid to do
Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’
It was destiny, it was God’s will”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

(Happy 70th birthday, Bob)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Better Know a Jets Draft Pick: Muhammad Wilkerson

Ever since the NFL Draft adopted its current Thursday through Sunday format, I've found it much harder to generate and/or maintain interest in the event (as a television program). With NBA playoff games airing daily this time of year and baseball a weeknight staple, I generally haven't caught the first night of the draft on television over the past few years which, of course, makes it's hard to muster enthusiasm to tune in to separate telecasts during the weekend when the name-brand talent is off the board. Given the current state of the NFL, I assume that the draft is much more profitable in this revamped state. Luckily for the teams, the importance of the draft in terms of roster construction is unchanged whether or not I find the it suitably packaged as television programming.

With several key free agents on both sides of the ball and a recent history of prioritizing quality over quantity in recent drafts, the New York Jets entered the 2011 Draft looking to stock the cupboard. They were especially needy in the defensive front seven and addressed that need with their first two selections. At No. 30 overall, the Jets drafted defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson out of Temple University. The Linden, NJ native stands 6 foot 4 inches and tips the scales around 315.

Rather than just trusting the Hair (Mel Kiper) and the Heir (Todd McShay) to tell me about Wilkerson and the rest of the newest Jets players, who were but a handful of the hundreds that they've studied over the past few months, I decided to contact Brian Dzenis, the Sports Editor of The Temple News, who has watched and covered Wilkerson for a lot longer than any talking head on television who we're likely to hear from this week. Dzenis came through in spades, answering a bunch of questions as he studied for finals and adding in some details that I hadn't come across anywhere else. For example: Against UCONN, Wilkerson caught a 3-yard pass on a fake punt play and didn't look too shabby doing it. Far and away, my favorite detail is that this defensive end wore a single digit number as part of the honor of being designated a "Temple Tough Guy" by a coach.

WWOD?: What was your initial reaction to hearing that the Jets had called for Wilkerson at No. 30?

Brian Dzenis: I'm not a huge mock draft guy, so I don't read into where players might go too much, but I certainly thought he deserved to be drafted in the first round.

WWOD?: Much of the pre-draft coverage of Wilkerson focused on his family and calm demeanor. Does that fit with the perception of Wilkerson on campus?

BD: Wilkerson is a very low-key, down to earth type of guy. In the two seasons I've covered the team, I never heard a peep about his character. He may not be the most exciting guy to talk to, but he works hard and his teammates and coaches respect him. He's a lot like his predecessors on the Temple D-line that have made it to the NFL, Terrance Knighton and Andre Neblett, they were quiet, but they always got the job done on the field.

WWOD?: Can you recall a particular game when it became clear that Mo was a bona fide NFL talent?

BD: The Penn State game this year certainly sticks out. Nine total tackles (four solo, five assisted) against a PSU O-line that gave him double teams multiple times is nothing to laugh at. His impact in a given game sometimes can't be measured on the box score, like when they played UCONN (and won), he didn't have a great game statistically, but the other guys around him on the D-line did because he could just take up so much space and create room for his teammates to make plays. He just always seems to find a way to make himself useful, whether it's the occasional multi-sack game or he'll just eat up double teams so his teammates can get to the quarterback/running back.

WWOD?: How many grains of salt, if any, should his stats and highlights be viewed given the level of MAC competition?

BD: I'm no fan of the MAC, but when he went up against Penn State and UCONN, two BCS schools, he handled himself pretty well. I think when evaluating him as a player, the thing that sticks out about him is that he's a 6-5, 300-plus pound guy who is FAST and is really consistent with his play. I imagine Rex Ryan was more impressed with his size/speed than the fact that he had three sacks in a game against Kent State.

WWOD?: Greatest on-field strength? Weakness?

BD: The guy wins nearly every one-on-one battle with offensive linemen and when he gets loose, he will end plays. I don't know how he'll adjust to being a defensive end in the NFL as opposed to a defensive tackle in college. I imagine there will be times when in NFL games, he'll be left on an island with a offensive tackle and that tackle will just get victimized by his speed. All the physical tools and work ethic is there, it's just a matter of how he'll pan out as a defensive end.

WWOD?: What's the story behind him wearing No. 9?

BD: When Al Golden was coach, he reserved the single-digit numbers for his "Temple Tough Guys," guys who exemplified Al Golden football, team values, etc. As for why he got No. 9 in particular, I have no idea.

WWOD?: On a scale of "It's a dream come true just to be in the NFL" to "We'll talk over Blue Hawaii cocktails before the Pro Bowl," how would estimate Wilkerson feels today?

BD: Definitely "It's a dream come true just to be in the NFL," He'll probably do his thing with the media when they first see him, but he likes to fade into the background and just let his play do the talking.

Gaudi's Lucious Sweet

Thursday, April 28, 2011

NFL Conscription Night

With the most accomplished players in the National Football League embroiled in lawsuits with the monied men who sign their paychecks and even the rank and file barred from clocking in at the office, the entrance of a new crop of young players into the NFL seems less a celebratory affair than normal. Nevertheless, the cameras will roll tonight at Radio City Music Hall and lumbering linebackers, serpentine cornerbacks and even a charismatic, regulation-averse franchise quarterback will be awarded new zip codes and oversize No. 1 jerseys of varying shades. Even a red-headed signal caller will be embraced.

As a Jets fan, the annual NFL Draft had become a de facto April Fool's Day until General Manager Mike Trader Tannenbaum landed key contributors Darrelle Revis, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, David Harris, Dustin Keller, Shonn Greene, Matt Slauson and Mark Sanchez in recent seasons. The most notable blemish (much larger than Kyle Wilson) on Trader Mike's draft resume is the ghastly Vernon Gholston pick in 2008. Gholston would fit in nicely on this Gang Green lowlight reel.

Reaching the AFC Championship Game in 2010 has the Jets selecting at No. 30 tonight, seemingly precluding a Gholston-caliber blunder. Sports Illustrated's Don Banks has the Jets tapping Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor as the successor to oft-injured Kris Jenkins. Meanwhile, the readers at Tim Graham's AFC East blog over at the Worldwide Leader have Arizona defensive end Brooks Reed as the Jets' choice. Everyone, including the crack(ed) staff at WWOD? HQ, seems to agree the bolstering depth of the defensive front seven is the team's greatest need. Although Shaun Ellis was a north-south terror in the Divisional Round of the 2010 playoffs against the Patriots, the Jets defenders did struggle to individually generate a pass rush. Everything needed to be schemed to create mismatches and overloads because no one was consistently winning one-on-one matchups.

Given the Jets recent history of eschewing quantity for quality on draft night, it will be interesting to see if they move up over the next few days. I'd assume that they won't because the cupboard is getting rather bare. And we all know how Rex Ryan feels about bare cupboards.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Fact Checking Stephen A. Smith

It's been more than two years since Ken Tremendous, Dak, Junior and the rest of the contributors at Fire Joe Morgan stopped scouring the sports media landscape for paeans to grit or attacks on reason. Sadly (for the rest of us), the success and stresses of their day jobs in the wider world had forced them to stop directing traffic at your local thoroughfare of debate, leaving us gridlocked, gawking at the latest roadside pile up of Bill Plaschke's mixed metaphors.

During the ensuing months, their methods have occasionally been applied by other practitioners, notably Drew Magary over at Kissing Suzy Kolber. FJM's titular muse has even been stripped of (or given up, depending on who you ask) his national platform for disseminating skepticism about the veracity of facts since the guys have closed up shop.

Perhaps in deference to its diminished capacity for nonsense and misplaced vitriol with Morgan no longer in the fold, the Worldwide Leader allowed Stephen A. Smith back onto its website not so long after the Hall of Fame second baseman was no longer calling ballgames. For those of you out there blissfully hard of hearing or otherwise unaware of this sports personality, Smith has alternately carved himself cozy and lucrative niches in print, radio and on the Interwebs over the past decade thanks in large part to the sheer force and volume of his ego and his inexhaustible supply of outrage.

Tireless and unchastened by setbacks, Smith is something of a marvel. If you didn't consume sports media and/or happened to be related to him then you'd likely be very impressed with how well he has done for himself and how many more famous people he knows than you. But if you consume sports media then it's likely you've come to loathe and/or mock Smith. In all three mediums, and under the employ of various media companies, Smith has eventually outstayed his welcome. He has left Philadelphia. He has left New York. He moved from South to North. He has gone from ESPN to FOX. And back again. He's even popped on MSNBC and in a feature film. In August 2005, at what looks to have been height of Smith's career, he was awarded a daily one-hour talk show. The show ran until January 2007, when it was cancelled due to low ratings and high levels of unintentional comedy. At his zenith, Smith was branching out from hoops, his area of expertise (read=contacts) and was offering opinions on other sports and even politics. Enter FJM.

With Smith back in print and writing about the Knicks, I've felt obligated to take matters, along with a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, into my own hands. Since Smith seems to have no fear of being fired, I propose something that might actually embarrass him: Fact Checking. Without further ado, welcome to the first installment of "Fact Checking Stephen A. Smith."

HED: There's no defense for Mike D'Antoni
DEK: Amid the wreckage of a first-round sweep, it's clear the Knicks need a new head coach

Byline: Stephen A. Smith

Source: ESPNNewYork.com

Now that the broomsticks have been unleashed and it has been emphatically established that the New York Knicks, for all their bluster and bloviating, are nothing more than an average franchise with an exorbitant payroll, it's time to move forward. To put legitimate pieces in place to preserve assets and eliminate liabilities.

For a man with no inside voice, who traffics exclusively in bluster and bloviation even after losing several high-profile jobs, I'm mildly surprised that Smith finds these qualities objectionable in another group just because they lost a playoff series. But I'm even more surprised to read "for all their bluster and bloviating" in regards to these 2010-2011 Knickerbockers. Who blustered? Who bloviated? Was Toney Douglas calling up WEEI in Boston to spread rumors about Delonte West having slept with Ray Allen's mom?

As best as I can tell, there was nobody wearing a Knicks uniform who was mouthing off before or during this series with Boston. For all the starpower of the new New York Knickerbockers, they haven't held any celebratory events in the vain vein of the Miami Heat. There were no guarantees. There were no ultimatums. No one even stated that it was personal. Is Smith confusing the Knicks with Rex Ryan's Jets? Could Smith have found Chauncey Billups' comment about the Knicks being a "tough out" this inflammatory? Perhaps he is conflating the chorus of barks from media members, like himself, surrounding the 'bockers since they returned to relevance over the past year with statements made by actual members of the team. In any case, we're off to an inauspicious start here as Smith is already imbuing the subjects of his story with attributes that suit his conclusion.

Also, the sentence fragment that concludes this opening paragraph makes me wonder if Smith is aware of how NBA front offices, especially the successful ones, spend the offseason. Had the Celtics not taken their brooms off their leashes(????) and allowed the Knicks to win one of those first two games before advancing to the second round would the Knicks not be putting legitimate pieces in place, preserving assets and eliminating liabilities? When Smith contends that circumstances have made it time for those activities isn't he just stating that the Knicks have entered the offseason? Or does assume that only losers have to worry such things? Does he know what RC Buford has been doing in San Antonio all these years?

It's true that the Knicks had an exorbitant payroll as they bottomed out in recent years, but Donnie Walsh took a can of gasoline and a box matches to the roster that Isiah Thomas had recklessly constructed. Several controlled burns later and the Knicks' 2010-2011 payroll of $67,327,114 ranked 16th out of 30. Without one of the top 10 earners in the league this season, the Knicks' salaries are closer to the cheapskate Sacramento Kings then they are to the high rolling (and title contending) Los Angeles Lakers at the top of the heap.

And after watching the Knicks' first-round loss to the Boston Celtics -- how they spent most of Easter weekend stinking up Madison Square Garden before a 36-year-old journeyman point guard nearly came to the rescue -- priority No. 1 is too obvious to ignore any longer: Mike D'Antoni has to go.

My dad suggested the same several times during my family's Easter Brunch. Please show your work, though, Mr. Smith unless you want to be relegated to Shit My Dad Says status.

It is not easy to call for the exodus of a coach who averaged 58 wins a season in his previous job, who is as kind and decent as they come. Nor does it seem fair to call for the head of a coach who, some would say, helped resurrect this franchise and made the Knicks relevant again. But when players are devoid of respect for a coach's basketball acumen, when the opposition laughs over the transparency of his game plan -- so much so that D'Antoni's players intimated they had instituted their own changes at halftime of a close-out game -- the need for a change simply cannot be denied.

In other words: What Smith is doing here is hard work. Not many journalists have the necessary fortitude to call for the jobs of decent, successful coaches. But, fear not readers, our scribe has been doing this since his college days at Winston Salem. The coach at WSU when Smith arrived on campus with college hoop dreams was the legendary Clarence "Big House" Gaines, who had already captured a Division II national championship and been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. As the door closed on his stillborn basketball career, Smith found his star on the rise in the student newspaper. The story that got everyone's attention? Smith calling for Gaines to resign or be removed from his post. Smith contended that the coach's flagging health was hurting the team and lobbied for the icon to be dumped.

Aside from his penchant for calling for coaches to be fired, you'll also notice that Smith always works in absolutes. Well, mostly. Sometimes he equivocates, but mostly things are must, always, never, now, impossible and obvious as described by Smith. Which, is why he asserts that his assertion about D'Antoni "simply cannot be denied." Really? Watch me.

The rare display of heart and guts the Knicks exhibited in the second half of Sunday's Game 4 didn't happen just because they started hitting shots and the Celtics suddenly forgot how to defend them. "We got tired of the way things were going," one player explained in the wee hours of Sunday night, long after everyone had departed from the Garden.

Considering Amar'e Stoudemire's standout game and the overall defensive effort in Game 1 and Carmelo and the Crickets nearly pulling off a shocker in Game 2, I find it a bit disingenuous to say describe the late rally in Game 4 as a "rare display of heart and guts." As the Yiddish saying goes, a half truth is a whole lie.

Smith seems to approach his written work as if it were being broadcast on AM radio. Knowing that he's filed columns via Blackberry, I wouldn't even be shocked if this were dictated and never revised. However, the ephemeral nature of talk radio allows high-volume half truths, recurring inconsistencies and outright exaggerations to flutter off into oblivion. As more and more journalists become talking heads on television and drive-time yakkers on the radio, the lines between these mediums are blurred and the work across all platforms tends toward the lowest common denominator.

"We walked in at halftime and said 'We can't go out this way.' We were pretty ticked off, especially at us not seeming to have any answers scheme-wise. We knew Boston knew everything we were going to do, how we were going to do it, so we needed to do something differently. We just couldn't keep going the way we were going."

Now, a quote like this shows the ace in Smith's hand: He's got access and contacts that the rest of us don't have. He's the Peter King of the NBA, regaling us with tales of his text messages with Allen Iverson. I don't doubt that this quote is at least paraphrased from a statement made by a player on the New York roster, but I also am not certain that Smith isn't using it somewhat out of context to further his point.

Clearly, Smith would like us to assume that the "we" used by the player does not include the coaching staff while the "us" does refer mostly to the coaching staff. He's also refusing to mention, for context, that the Celtics may have known what the Knicks were running because the team was thoroughly depleted by injuries to Billups and Stoudemire and the ineffectiveness of Landry Fields. Should D'Antoni have drawn up more plays for Jared Jeffries to keep the Celtics guessing?

As coach of the Knicks, D'Antoni deserves credit for inserting Anthony Carter into the game, allowing him to defend Rajon Rondo. He also deserves credit for allowing the team to go zone on occasion, for switching on shooters Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, with Carter serving as the catalyst. But if D'Antoni deserves credit for allowing those things to take place, he also harbors culpability for going a full game-and-a-half without a true point guard on the floor, for making little to no adjustments, for leaving the players to essentially decide for themselves at halftime Sunday that swinging back wouldn't entail just jacking up 3s inside of 10 seconds.

Buried in this counterproductive paragraph (insofar as it does more to disprove Smith's thesis than to show why the coach should be fired) is one valid point against D'Antoni. Perhaps it did take him too long to lean on Carter. To my untrained eye, Douglas seemed tentative from the moment that he picked up his first foul in Game 2. Every ill-advised and out of character backpedal on defense seemed rooted in his fear of fouling out with Billups in street clothes.

By my count, Smith credits D'Antoni with four things in this graph while citing three errors. I'm going to absolve him of going a game-and-a-half without a true point guard on the floor because his true point guard was injured in the waning moments of Game 1 and the consensus was that Douglas was the point guard to run out against Rajon Rondo. He wasn't up to it. And perhaps D'Antoni took too long to accept that fact. But how do you write about that without even mentioning in passing that starting point guard was unavailable due to injury?

It seems like Smith is unaware that Games 1 and 2 took place. Almost.

Notwithstanding the tremendous effort displayed in Games 1 and 2, the New York Knicks cannot play defense, folks! Primarily because schematically it's never important, nor has it ever been a priority in D'Antoni's mind.

Well, Smith is aware of the pair of tightly contested games in Boston. He just isn't going to let them sway his opinions. So, notwithstanding those two games in the four game series when the Knicks held a higher-seeded championship contender to 87 points and 96 points, respectively, this team didn't defend at all! Except when they did. My glasses aren't orange-tinted enough for me to claim this a stout defensive team or even an average defensive team. They allowed 110.1 points per 100 possessions and the league average was 107.3 this season. That ranked them 22nd out of 30 clubs.

Points per 100 possessions (DRtg) is a much better tool than points allowed because it normalizes the pace. That hasn't stopped most columnists from lambasting D'Antoni's teams through the years as the worst defensive teams in the league. Smith is clearly working off that assumption. However, the numbers tell a slightly different story.

YearDRtgLeague RankLeague Average

Contrary to popular belief, D'Antoni's teams in Phoenix were not terrible on defense. They were mediocre and were about league average per 100 possessions the entire time that he was at the helm. This competency was masked by the pace at which they played, fastest in the league in his first two seasons and then third and fourth in the next two. The faster pace may have allowed the opponent more chances to score but D'Antoni's clubs defended those chances about as well as most teams while scoring much better than most. I find it hard to believe that most teams wouldn't sign up for a league average defense with a top 5 offense.

Also, Smith's use of "notwithstanding" makes me think of the scenes in Talladega Nights when Ricky Bobby keeps beginning sentences by saying "With all due respect."

Mike D'Antoni's NBA teams have always excelled at the offensive end of the floor. He is an innovator on offense.

Yes, he is. Having conceded this point, Smith isn't going to trash his offense. Is he?

The same coach who's being paid $6 million per season here was out in Phoenix because he would not heed former Suns executive Steve Kerr's advice that he simply couldn't win a championship with his system. Fast-forward to three full seasons later and nothing has changed.

The same "former" Suns executive Steve Kerr that has been providing color commentary during these 2011 NBA playoffs rather than leading a team that aforementioned championship? Yup, that'd be the one. There is no doubt that Kerr's tenure was hamstrung slightly by cash-strapped Sun owner Robert Sarver but it seems like Smith might be rushing to credit the former sharpshooter as an authority on winning just because he presided over D'Antoni's exit from the desert.

I'm sure there are snarky Phil Jackson quotes that could have been employed here to much greater effect, but Smith isn't about to do research. That being said, I think many Knicks fans would like to see a de facto defensive coordinator added to the coaching staff.

There are high pick-and-rolls. There's Amare Stoudemire coming from the corner, getting the ball near the elbow, with everyone and their grandmother knowing that's exactly what is going to occur. Or there's Stoudemire coming from the low block to set screens -- except everyone knows he's getting the ball and that he's not going to set a screen. And intertwined with it all is the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, assigned to doing pretty much the same thing.

"We are easy to scout but tough to play against," John Wooden confessed to Time in 1974. "With Bill Walton in our lineup, our strategy is simple," Wooden explained. "You go to him until the opposing team stops it. Then you go to others. If you don't go to Walton, it's like using Babe Ruth in your lineup to bunt."

The Time article goes on to state that "The Wooden approach is, of course, more sophisticated than that; the Bruins always play within a well-rehearsed plan. On offense, Wooden's first love is the fast break, with Walton firing lead passes to his teammates streaking down the court to score before the opposition's defense can set up."

Sound familiar? After conceding D'Antoni's talents for offensive just a few sentences ago, it seems counterproductive for Smith to turn around and start taking shots at that aspect of his coaching. Perhaps, he meant to write "Notwithstanding D'Antoni's status as an offensive innovator..."

"Coach knows offense," one player explained. "It would be nice to set plays, control pace and not jack up shots just because you're open. But that's what Coach does. You could live with it if we played defense. But obviously, we haven't done that much. Good, bad or otherwise, all I can say is that I've never seen anything like this."

To me, this sounds like it might be Chauncey Billups, who is chummy enough with Smith to have appeared on Quite Frankly while it was on the air. Regardless of the source, Smith continues to take shots at the offense. To take issue with the quote itself, one could certainly argue pushing the tempo is controlling the pace and that D'Antoni's offense creates more open looks than the iso sets that one presumes would constitute the plays being suggested.

What team has a 6-foot-9, 230-pound player like Shawne Williams assigned to stand around and shoot 3s?

The answer to this question during the past two seasons was no one would have used him that way. Because nobody was using him in any way. Out of the NBA last year, Williams played just 15 games in 2008–09 for Indiana. Before he swiped the last spot on this Knicks' roster from Patrick Ewing Jr., Williams was an NBA washout with legal trouble and a bad reputation. During the season he played his way into the rotation and was briefly the most accurate three-point marksman in the league. He also added toughness to the defense, including a stellar effort on LeBron James in one of the Knicks' victories over the Heat.

Letting Williams play his way into the rotation from the bottom of the bench, seems to me an example of D'Antoni's flexibility more than anything else. Just a terrible choice to show that he's stubborn as far as I'm concerned. Talk about his refusal to use Eddy Curry or Stephon Marbury or the insistence of having Jared Jeffries on the floor for the final offensive possession of Game 2. How does a writer constructing a case for D'Antoni's dismissal based largely on the NYK-BOS series not mention Jeffries? Oh, wait, it's probably because Smith is notwithstanding Games 1 and 2.

What team has an athlete like Bill Walker, who's 6-6, 220, programmed to do the same?
See above. Having played sparingly in 1+ seasons in Boston and only in bursts in New York as trades and injuries have opened up playing time, I'd say there isn't exactly a book on best practices for Bill Walker. Again, Smith has chosen to call out a player that really isn't helpful in proving his point? Talk to me about the waiving of Corey Brewer if you're trying to show me that D'Antoni is unreasonable.

How can such a haphazard, frenetic brand of basketball -- you constantly hear D'Antoni screaming at players to shoot whenever open, no matter how much time is on the shot clock -- be permitted to continue when your $100 million franchise player just completed his ninth season? When Anthony, your other franchise player, just completed his eighth season? When both are signed for more than $80 million apiece over the next four seasons, yet based on the fatigue and injuries, neither looked as if he was physically conditioned to go another game in this series?

Just as important, what kind of players will you draft if this system remains in place? Knowing D'Antoni won't play guys who don't fit in?

Please just ignore the fact that Smith is now slamming D'Antoni's offensive acumen just a few graphs after heaping praise on it. Let's move on. So, if D'Antoni won't play guys who don't fit in then your drafting choice would seem straightforward. Draft guys that fit in. And who would that be?

1) Point guards with pace who can run the pick-and-roll.

2) Athletic Bigs that can get up and down and the floor to finish on the breaks that pacey point is initiating. Shot blocker preferred. And the ability to drop in a mid-range baseline jumper would be ideal but not required.

3) Hard-running wings who can keep opposing defense honest with ability to hit three.

Would it really be such a travesty to draft exclusively guys that fit this system?

The New York Knicks need a coach -- not a system. Coaches smirk at the luxury of preparing a game plan against it. Even folks like Charles Barkley have characterized D'Antoni's refusal to recognize the futility of his ways as "pure stubbornness."

Smith is right insofar as he states that the Knicks need a coach. Every team has a coach. Even the Toronto Raptors. But very few teams have a coach with a system. And, last I checked, a bejeweled, creaking fellow by the name of Phil Jackson was lauded for his use of (Tex Winter's) the Triangle Offense. Pete Carrill worked out fine for Princeton with that aptly named "Princeton Offense."

But if "even folks like Charles Barkley" disagree then maybe I should reconsider. What? Even paid commentators with a vested interest in being controversial? Mild-mannered, thinks-before-he-speaks Sir Charles? For a guy that railed against the blustering and bloviating by guys that didn't win at the top of this story, Smith sure seems to give a lot of credence to what Chuck has to say. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy watching Barkley on TNT, but I'm not about to make any personnel decisions because of something he said.

This city will have plenty of time to debate the future of Donnie Walsh as the president of the franchise, and whether he should stay so he can hire former St. John's star and present ESPN/ABC analyst Mark Jackson -- or whether MSG chairman James Dolan should let Walsh go and offer the coaching job and all of the basketball operations to a man in the last year of his deal, who just finished beating up on the Knicks: Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

What's not open for debate is that it's time for D'Antoni to go.

So, let's get this straight: Smith believes Walsh's future is open to debate despite having turned over Isiah's roster and gotten Melo and STAT fitted for Knickerbocker blue. He also believes that D'Antoni's future is sealed because his team didn't have a better showing in a first round loss to a team that he'd picked to win in the first place. And that Mark Jackson, who has never coached basketball at any level professional or amateur should replace D'Antoni before he has even one entire season with his tandem superstars.

Like a lot of fans and sportswriters, Smith makes the "perfect" the enemy of the "much, much, much better." He's refusing to accept a team that is so much better than anything the Knicks have fielded in ages because it is not yet perfect. He also seems to be assuming that anything that replaces this "very good" will be perfect.

But how does firing D'Antoni look when the Knicks are forced to interview retreads and lifetime assistant coaches? How does it look when Doc Rivers decides to have another go with Boston or to take a year off to watch his son play college ball? If Smith could look further into the future than RIGHT NOW, he might realize the smart play (for those looking to jettison D'Antoni) is to allow him to coach out next season and then go after Rivers once his son is one-and-done at Duke. There's also the reality of the looming lockout to consider? Do you want to hire a new coach and then pay him for a lost season while you're still paying D'Antoni? Of course, I guess Smith wouldn't concern himself with details of this sort since he still thinks the Knicks have the league's highest payroll.

Lest we want Amare and Melo to expire a helluva lot quicker than their contracts will.

Did Smith just intimate that retaining D'Antoni is tantamount to murdering Amar'e and/or Melo? Yeah, I think he did. At least, he didn't use an exclamation point.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Listening to an Oak on Earth Day

Over at the LoHud Knicks blog, Jamie O'Grady talks with Knickerbocker legend, car wash mogul and my personal role model Charles Oakley about the 2011 playoffs, Patrick Ewing's future as a coach and the prospects of his former club. As per usual, Oak is unfiltered and unforgettable. Aside from his steadfast belief in his former frontcourt mate, Oak's description of the South Beach SuperFriends was the highlight of the interview.
They’ve got the tools to win it all, because of their two great wing players in Wade and LeBron.

It’s like a 747 flying overseas; when you have two pilots capable of flying the plane, one can take a break and the plane still gets where it has to go. And when you have a flight attendant like Chris Bosh, that can make for some swagger.

The thing is, if the Heat make the finals, I think they are going to win it all — point blank.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dressing For Knicks-cess

It's the night before the first New York Knickerbockers playoff game at Madison Square since 2004 and I've got a pair of tickets staring up at me from desk. I'm pacing around the apartment like tomorrow's the first day of high school and I've just moved cross country from dingy North Jersey to a Southern California town where the local toughs learn karate instead of play normal sports.

I'm excited. Because the Knicks might win. I'm nervous. Because the Celtics might. I've got my lunch packed (two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a banana) and my first beer planned (from the stand across from the ticket windows in the LIRR station beneath the Garden). As best I can tell there is just one last thing to square before I try to fitfully sleep as I fret about spasming back muscles and knee blood.

What Knicks gear am I going to wear?

The J. Crew khaki pants that I wore to work today were unwashed and have been missing a button atop the zipper for more than a year. The fabric in the crotch and in the seat is thinning, but I will wear them until they tear. Same goes for the coffee chinos that I'll likely wear to work tomorrow. The remainder of my limited wardrobe of office clothes is in the same state of disrepair. I insist on wearing and re-wearing the same things over and over and am very reluctant to buy new clothes. This is especially true with pants. Because, don't you hate pants?

Work is a place that I attend five days a week, weekly, forever. Knicks games, on the other hand, are things that I could never attend more than 60 times per year and never have more than 35. Yet, my closet and dresser and home office are bursting at the seams with squirreled away Knicks gear as if there will be some circumstance that calls for me to dress solely in blue and orange or to sport the visage of Patrick Ewing at all times. While I admit that this is unlikely I've been amassing Sand Knit, Champion and Mitchell & Ness jerseys like my more successful and dapper friends collect wristwatches.

Hmm... a Knicks watch? I don't have one of those. I mean, I do have a few wristbands but nothing with moving parts. While I check eBay for anything like that, here's a look at the options I'm sifting through in advance of Game 3 tomorrow night.

The Kicks:


The Varsity Jacket: First up is a vintage varsity-style Knicks jacket. It has a dark blue wool body with white leather sleeves just like the one your dad wore when he was going down to Arnold's for a fountain soda. All patches and letters are sewn on and awesome. Easily the classiest choice of all that follows.

The Satin Bomber: Next up, we've got the choice of a new generation. This Starter jacket has a light blue suede body and bright orange leather(ish) sleeves. The patch sewn on the back is satin. Yes, suede and satin. Oh, and orange leather, too.

The Ex-Patrick: I lived in London in 2001. Some would say that I felt compelled to leave New York after the Knicks unceremoniously traded Patrick Ewing to the Seattle Supersonics. Those people would be wrong. I left the States to study at King's College for a year. Nevertheless, Patrick was on my mind. We were both strangers in strange lands that uncertain year. This olive military style coat was purchased at a thrift store up in Camden Town, a northwest London neighborhood full of thrift shops, record stores and flea markets. During many visits, the two best things I purchased were this coat and a bootleg of Nirvana's 1992 performance at the Reading Festival. It was on a cassette. I would eventually lose the cassette. But I managed to repatriate the coat. It originally had East German flags on the sleeves. I cut them off and sewed an American flag on one sleeve and a New York Knicks patch on the other. I later added the commemorative pin from the night that Patrick's No. 33 was retired at the Garden.

T-Shirts & Jerseys:

The Original: My fetish - and after showing you all of this stuff there really isn't much else I can call it - for Knicks gear began before I was 10 years old. Being the only child accompanying my grandfather, father and uncle to 'bockers battles at the Garden back in the late 1980s, there was usually someone with me who felt like spoiling me each time the souvenir stand unveiled a new t-shirt. Illustrations of the players were the big thing on the shirts at the time. This shirt depicting the 1988–89 Atlantic Division Champion Knickerbockers was one of my two favorites. It's a size small and there is a tag with name sewn into it.

I placed a shoe next to the shirt to offer some perspective.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Knicks Fan's Emotional Playoff Weather Report

I've spent the past several springs and early summers observing the NBA playoffs with the intellectual curiosity and remove of a laboratory scientist. I've studied team chemistry. I've charted passing-lane geometry. I've noted the power and grace of the players involved in those playoffs like a dance critic. And I've observed the customs of variously self-righteous, neurotic and apathetic fanbases like a sociologist. I've even unpacked literary analogs for NBA teams, once comparing LeBron James to the titular character in obscure Shakespeare play Timon of Athens and the heavily-inked Nuggets to Cyrano de Bergerac. Reading rather than rooting has characterized May for me. All of these endeavors have been exceedingly pleasant.

And terrible.

Because I write about sports in this space, and others, because I want to root, root, root for my home team. All the while, I've longed for the euphoria of Patrick's raised arms, embracing the crowd, after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994. I pined for the anxiety of game days while I was in grade-school, when I'd struggle to manufacture witty retorts when my classmates in suburban New Jersey gleefully informed me, often correctly, that the Knicks were going to lose to the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers or whomever was the night's opponent. I waited to stoke that same furnace of anger that brightly burned in my tentative teenage spleen when PJ Brown tossed Charlie Ward into the stands during the 1997 playoffs. I even missed the poignancy of the 2-for-18 desolation that had come closer than any other experience to matching the grasping, quicksand anguish of being dumped for the first time that mattered.

Without those things from 2004 to 2011, I was not so much a basketball fan during the NBA postseason as much as I was a basketball enthusiast. Hoops watching, and even hoops blogging, was like constructing scaled sea vessels that would forever stay dry and be kept in bottles or on bookshelves. While I certainly got high from huffing the modeling glue and enjoyed the meticulous handcraft, it was not the same as sailing.

But after years of clear indoor springtime skies, the winds are howling around and inside me, rattling the shutters and trembling beverages in their glasses as if a T-Rex is stomping through the streets of Jersey city. My sterile playoff viewing environment has been ripped from its moorings and spun like Dorothy's farmhouse in that famous Plains twister.

Marveling at the balletic grace and rocket-powered explosiveness of Amar'e Stoudemire in Game 1 flushed my face with the joy of the playoffs while raging at the no-call when Kevin Garnett plainly, efficiently tripped Toney Douglas to free up Ray Allen for the Boston's Game 1 winner on Sunday reacquainted me with the stakes. Watching Carmelo Anthony's regal, irrepressibly Bernard King–like effort rendered something like irrelevant by Jared Jeffrie's timid game-killing effort in the post last night in the penultimate moment of Game 2 of the first-round playoff series between the New York Knickerbockers and the Boston Celtics brought it all back to me. The feeling after Game 2 was agonizing.

And, I'd missed it. Terribly.

After each loss, I was torn between violent and melancholy desires. I wanted to sulk away quickly, quietly to a windowless room and sleep fitfully but determinedly until the next game. But I also felt a fierce Rondoesque straightline drive to HULK!SMASH! home entertainment equipment belonging to myself and others. I wanted to throw laptops against walls. And then tear flat screen televisions from their wall mounts. I wanted present company to leave without a word, especially self-righteous Boston fans cheering Chauncey Billups' knee injury while thinking their seat on the couch represented some sort of moral high ground. Yet I wanted to yell FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKKKKK as loud as I possibly could so that the neighbors would trudge downstairs to complain. And, then I wanted drink strong fermented drinks from ice-filled tumblers until my vision doubled and trebled as my urges to commit violence against myself and others lessened inversely.
Things are tough all over, when the thunder storms start increasing over the southeast and south central portions of my apartment. I get upset, and a line of thunderstorms was developing in the early morning, ahead of a slow moving coldfront, cold blooded, with tornado watches issued shortly before noon Sunday, for the areas including, the western region of my mental health and the northern portions of my ability to deal rationally with my disconcerted precarious emotional situation. -Tom Waits
To further confuse my emotional situation, both games engendered plenty of positive feelings along with all of the negative ones. In each contest, the best and most impressive player was wearing road blues. In Game 1, Amar'e was acrobatic and powerful. He looked like Patrick Ewing playing against the Celtics in 1990, and KG had as good a chance of staying in front of him as I did.

In Game 2, Carmelo Anthony channeled 1984 Bernard King in a talismanic and relentless performance. He scored 42 points, controlled 17 rebounds and doled out six assists (but, sadly, not seven). It was sports heroism (which is very distinct from actual heroism) and its most compelling.

I ooh'd and hot damn'd and hell yeah'd due to the superlative efforts of these two All-Star players who jumped at the chance to be paid exceedingly well by my the Knicks. The final scores of each games does not mean those exclamations weren't exclaimed and that that enthusiasm wasn't felt.

While I have managed to forage enough Knicks-related thrills to survive the regular-season mediocrity of the last few years, I haven't tasted moments as sweet as those for some time. I've subsisted mostly on a diet of Isiah-directed angst and then free-agency-related hope. But on Sunday and Tuesday, I was able to gorge myself on terrific play by STAT and Melo. Of course, the aged Celtics illustrated that being best was not nearly as important as being last in the postseason. In both games, the Celtics scored the last points of the game to secure the win. In both games, the final score threatened to render my elation and enthusiasm meaningless.

After two 2011 playoff games, the 'bockers are boasting an 0-2-0-2 record. Zero wins. Two losses. No draws. And, a pair of moral victories. Despite doing nothing to help the Knicks advance in the 2011 postseason, the slivers of light amidst the storm clouds are not insignificant. These twin silver-lined losses mark the best postseason that the Knicks have had since 2001. Not coincidentally, that was the last time that a basketball game ruined my day so thoroughly.

I was gutted after Vince Carter, Chris Childs and the Toronto Raptors ended the Knicks' 2001 season, closing the brief window of post-Ewing success. The lurching deadstop loss in the decisive fifth game of that series frustrated more than anything I've seen this week (or may see next) because that Knicks squad was trending down. Patrick was gone. Larry Johnson's back was going. Charlie Ward had just revealed himself to be an anti-semite. Without the center, the team could not hold. The sting of these 2011 losses has been mitigated by the fact - or, at least, my belief - that this team is trending up. Win or lose, the Knicks are blossoming into a better team than the Celtics right before our eyes. Of course, it also helps calm my nerves that New York has two home games coming hot down the pike with which they can even this series.

Biologically speaking, pain and discomfort are supposed to motivate us to back away from dangerous or potentially harmful situations. It is a warning signal. It's telling me to run like hell from these Knickerbockers. But like a moth to flame, I'm drawn to this likely losing effort. I've grossly overpaid for my ticket for Game 3 at the Garden on Friday and I'm open to all the pain that the fine print on the back of the stub absolves James Dolan of. Because, as William Faulkner wrote, given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain. After years of vacuous Knicks nothingness, I'm relishing the opportunity for pain and confusion and sadness because it brings the chance for transcendent moments of happiness and an increased likelihood of high fives.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Let's Party Like It's 1990

We've got a veteran, been-there, won-that Boston Celtics club against a not-quite-there-yet New York Knickerbockers club just like we did back in 1990. And we all know that Amar'e can knock down that 3-pointer that Patrick so famously hit.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Always Be Carmelo