Spurs (and cathartic art lovers) lose after Kawhi goes down.
The monetary and the military
They get together
Whenever it’s necessary
They’re making the planet into a cemetery.
Christmas Day, and did I need a gift! Feeling—ever since Elektion Day as if I am living somewhere between under a dark cloud and in a ratcheting-up concentration camp, I thought maybe I could still derive some pleasure—if not solace—from the long-anticipated NBA Finals “re-match” between Cleveland and Golden State.
Hard to argue with lefty sportswriter Dave Zirin’s point that players should be free to determine their own venues, but Kevin Durant’s move to the Warriors strikes at the heart of what makes professional sports interesting; dare I say “worthwhile”? Competitive balance and team cohesiveness.
With the NCAA tournament (March Madness) beginning only two days after the high school team I help coach was eliminated from the California state tournament, I figured I’d finally have a chance catch up on what’s happening with college ball. After all, even with the NCAA’s being increasingly exposed as The Evil Empire, c’mon, ya hadda love college ball. If you knew anything at all, you preferred it to the NBA, scorned those who did not. But not in the newly-dawned Steph Curry Era!
After a grueling six preparatory weeks of the NBA Playoffs, basketball fans and Lebron James followers alike had a week off before the Finals began. After conquering the Eastern Conference, King James seemed as worn out as I felt, but one could hope that the rest would be as rejuvenative as the two week mid-season rest he gave himself for his thirtieth birthday, after which he returned to his own self, turning around what looked like a disappointing season for the returning Odysseus of Northeast Ohio.
Bob Liss finished this report on LeBron James’s role in last season’s NBA playoffs a few days before James announced he was “going home” to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers next season. Liss takes in the news in his postscript to this piece.
I. Follies and Foibles
Finding fresh metaphors for Knickerbocker managerial incompetence requires a stretch. Celebrity coaches and general managers like Larry Brown, Donnie Walsh, Isaiah Thomas, and Don Nelson have become distant memories, nearly absorbed into the long history of franchise ineptitude that Red Holzman’s great teams made everyone forget, and to which Pat Riley’s thug squads lent a different coloration.
I. Tim’s Late Spring
A summer’s worth of blockbuster trades has radically shifted the traditional power axes in the NBA, as franchises move either to rebuild (Lakers and Celtics) or to weld together groups of superstars, some of them aging (New Jersey’s Nets, the LA Clippers) to challenge the budding Miami Heat dynasty. It could be a time of upheaval, with outgoing NBA Commissioner David Stern preparing to ride into the sunset in darkest February, after his thirty year reign—wearing a baseball cap, of course, and smiling, of course. With the smell of beer suds now washed from living room rugs after the thrilling Miami-San Antonio Finals, it’s an apt time to look at the state of the league, now LeBron’s League, it appears; inevitably, inexorably, but how justifiably?
I. Season Over, Suddenly
“Knickerbocker basketball is on the air.” That old phrase kept recurring to me whenever I got home early to watch a playoff game at 4 or 5 PM (as needed) this year, for this Knick team, warts and flaws notwithstanding, was always worth the watch. The reason for the early start is that I now live in San Francisco, have for nearly thirty years, but the Knicks in the last two years have captivated me in a way that goes way beyond geographical boundaries.
Despite having loved Carmelo Anthony’s play at Syracuse – where he stayed only one year, but brought lifer Coach Jim Boeheim his only NCAA championship – I had written him off as a selfish one-dimensional player while he was with the Denver Nuggets. That impression was confirmed in his early days with the Knicks, when he seemed to tarnish – even ruin – Amar’e Stoudemire, along with the chemistry that had fuelled Linsanity.
Yet I have now come to love watching Anthony play nearly as much as I do LeBron James; maybe more, due to the added suspense of an uncertain outcome, which brings me to another wonder: what an incredible assortment of individuals comprised the Knick team that Coach Mike Woodson took such a long way before getting derailed by a formidable Indiana team that Charles Barkley was telling us early on would defeat New York, and prevent the long-anticipated matchup with LeBron’s defending champion Miami Heat.
With that match-up no longer possible, the playoffs – especially with Golden State also being eliminated (by San Antonio) – suddenly lost their interest for me. I was certain that soon, after I briefly mourned, LeBron would bring them alive again, but there would never emerge that classic confrontation of James and Anthony.
II. Artists in Different Keys: Carmelo and LeBron
LeBron James is universally known for his inhuman physical gifts, from size and strength equal to the league’s most athletic giants, to speed and agility characteristic of the best guards. All these traits enable him, uniquely, to guard any player at any position. Yet reporters routinely remark that it is his mental equipment – his ability to read, change, and react to the constant flow of a game – that distinguishes the mature James as much as his physical prowess. He is, simply put, a basketball genius.
Whereas Carmelo, his close friend, is the consummate scorer, reminiscent even of Bernard King. Unlike James, Anthony rarely takes in all aspects of a game, but rules it through his scoring. Yet this domination is only achieved when he is able to blend some judicious passing into his game. And that of course depends on team-mates being able to make shots, to take some of the load off his shoulders, thus allowing him to play within himself, and overcome his natural instinct to score at all times.
I think of Anthony as a prince of hard bop. Solid definition characterizes his game at every move. By contrast, LeBron’s fluidity and ability to morph himself into the very action that he is enveloping and encompassing echoes Monk and Mingus, with a supreme overriding Coltrane flavor. He can make any melody work; forces nothing. Not so for Melo, whose clarity and often-astonishing precision in movement harkens back to Oscar Robertson. I sometimes think of him as a spoiled, petulant Oscar; a bit of Earl Monroe too, it could be argued.
Watching tapes of Knick playoff games, you can see him making decisions, all of which a discerning viewer (no genius required) can fully viscerally understand. One can feel as if he/she were Carmelo for that moment, that play, that superb effort leading to a score. With Melo, the flow is not continuous, certainly never infinite; there are discrete options: two horns; he’s playing them both; only question is which one. Whereas for James, his acts and the game’s flow somehow merge and echo one another. Melo fashions his games, sculpts; James is too caught up in motion to sculpt. But both are true artists. I will miss Carmelo’s special exuberant moments. I have saved three of his best games on my DVR; he is a joy to watch.
But beyond Carmelo and his personal battles with James, this year’s Knick squad – in both in its joyous abandon and its periodic dysfunction – had captured my imagination. How and why would I so miss them? It isn’t about home-town chauvinism for me: growing up in New York as an adolescent, with the Knicks slipping into mediocrity (often comic mediocrity), I became a St. Louis Hawks fan. I took the struggling Knicks totally for granted, all the while giving thanks for the first games of Garden double-headers; many times, my friends and I left after only a half of the “second game.” Eschewing regional loyalties, once my hero Bob Pettit retired, I came to be a fan of teams that played the game beautifully well, as long as they didn’t wear Celtic green.
Walt Frazier’s Knicks, under Red Holzman, won two titles, and fit that bill perfectly. So did Bill Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers. Both teams became icons of perfectly played team basketball. Their smooth unselfishness was a joy to watch for fans of all stripes, from all locations. They came to define both chemistry and legitimacy. You didn’t have to be a Knick fan to embrace that Knick team, any more than you had to live in Portland to love those Trail Blazers.
But there have been many other, less aesthetically pleasing iterations of the Knicks, including Pat Riley’s Thug Squads of the Michael Jordan Era, extending through the years of mismanagement under Isiah Thomas, and the reconstruction orchestrated by Donnie Walsh. Last year’s season had the dramatic structure of a five act farce, with plot reversals and climaxes galore. Perhaps it’s having to finesse change through obtuse owner James Dolan that makes it all seem so precarious.
What made this such a special group (even though they fell short of their high expectations)? Was it simply that they were representing the Knicks? Look, L.A. is still the transplanted Minneapolis Lakers, the Knicks’ tormentors when I was first starting out. And Phil Jackson came up as a gangly rhythm-disrupting Knick sub, a pup at Red Holzman’s tit, while Don Nelson was nursing at the other Red’s inflated one in Boston. Besides, Auerbach was from Brooklyn, you know. Jack Nicholson is a great actor and man about town, but Woody Allen and Spike Lee grew up in the cheap seats after a subway ride in from (where else?) Brooklyn.
The Knicks, who were the first team to sport a black-only roster, have had more than their share of bad black dudes: from Spencer Haywood, though the ultimate 1970’s backcourt of Micheal Ray Richardson and Ray Williams. So there is plenty of precedent for Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert! As there should be in New York. The most Jewish of cities, it led the basketball world in great Jewish players, who dominated the game for many years.
This year’s cast of characters, as assembled and blended by Coach Mike Woodson, suggested to me a kind of a re-working of Robert Downey’s classic film Putney Swope, in which the inmates run the asylum with perfect cover from the titular boss. It’s an admittedly loose analogy, but how else to categorize the colorful cast of Shumpert, Smith, Raymond Felton, Chris Copeland, joining the near-geriatric cohort of Rasheed Wallace, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, and Kenyon Martin, and former European star Pablo Prigioni?
Tyson Chandler’s inability to make even the simplest shots (despite his ridiculously high shooting percentage) rendered him a sadly comic figure when things started to go wrong against Indiana. But what else went so awry in destroying the chemistry and flair that characterized the Knicks when all cylinders were clicking was the astonishing demise of J.R. Smith, who had become that second scorer that great stars need in order to release pressure. Though not exactly Dwyane Wade, Smith had scoring sprees that were often prodigious. His ability to make long and difficult shots – and exciting ones – had given the Knicks a spark, and allowed Anthony moments of rest on the court, as well as vicarious excitement, as Smith’s scoring feats seemed so fashioned upon Anthony’s as to make him seem a perfect sidekick, at times almost a clone.
But with the Knicks up 3-0 against the Boston Celtic, Smith, who had gone from being a multi-talented head case to the deserving winner of the NBA Sixth Man Award, reverted to his old immature ways, threw an unnecessary and wildly self-indulgent elbow, and drew a one game suspension from which neither he nor the Knicks ever recovered. Adding the conflagration that would consume the Knicks, the insouciant Smith was seen out late “clubbing” with celebrities.
Anthony had been brilliant against Boston for the first three games and much of the fourth, but thereafter was never consistently himself, only in spurts, and Smith, that unabashed great gunner, could no longer shoot. The pattern and the cohesion had been destroyed. The other saxophone in Melo’s band had been muted; his solos alone had to supply the band’s energy.
They still got by Boston, but Indiana was too strong. It would take LeBron’s genius – and his buddies – to stop them.
Melo’s lack of Jamesian comprehension and intelligence was evident in his oddly skewed pre-game conceptualization of “whatever it takes.” Note the confusion of “I” and “we”: “It’s do whatever it takes, even if that’s 60 points and 20 rebounds; whatever it takes, I have to do it, we have to do it, as a team.”
In the final loss to the Pacers, Anthony’s twenty point first half was off-set by Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School product Lance Stephenson’s sixteen points and eight rebounds (on his way to 25 and ten). Stevenson brought a special intensity that was obvious from his wildly focused eyes to his pounding style, as befits a four year state champion in New York and the highest scorer in New York State history.
Anthony had been carrying the team by himself but could not keep pace; he labored mightily to try to ignite a sputtering offense. In Game Five, when he somehow led the Knick offense briefly back into a high enough gear to catch up, you could see him having to struggle extra hard.
In Game Six, the effort seemed to be all there again but it just wasn’t happening. Then, in a sudden turnaround by his cold-shooting team-mates, four threes in 100 seconds (the first three by Shumpert) turned a budding 72-60 rout into a 72-72 tie. The Knicks led 92-90 when Anthony attacked the rim, but was met there by Indiana’s massive center Roy Hibbert, who spectacularly rejected the shot, and took the life out of New York’s comeback, igniting a 9-0 Pacer run. Carmelo, exhausted, was futile thereafter: frustration, an ankle turn, three fourth-quarter turnovers. Out: 106-99.
Ironically, just a day before they were eliminated, in the process of clearing out miscellaneous papers over-crowding my desk, I came across a poem I had written in 2010 entitled “Death and the Knicks.” It was not about playoff elimination; it was a dirge prompted by the death of 1950’s Knick guard Dick McGuire. It brought back memories of the lovable but less than championship caliber Knicks that I grew up watching at the old Garden.
The 2013 Knicks have now died as well. They will not soon again be significant, despite their wildly exciting run. This was their best chance, in an increasingly powerful Eastern Conference, where several stars (Derrick Rose, Danny Granger, Rajon Rondo) of already contending teams are expected back from injuries. The Knicks can only contend if Shumpert, only 23 now, quickly blossoms into a star. No-one else on the roster has much of what everyone now calls “upside.”
Though we come to praise Anthony, we must bury him as well. Going forward, as people like to say, it appears to be LeBron’s league now, but NBA eras overlap. Was there a Duncan era? If so, is it over? This is Tim’s seventeenth year, yielding four titles, though never two in a row.
LeBron’s first trip to the Finals, for Cleveland in 2007, was thwarted by the Spurs in just four games. They may meet again in June. Closure, along with poetic justice, would so demand. But were the decision to be made on the basis of poetry alone, Carmelo would be there too.
1 A perfect example of LeBron’s genius came in Game One against Indiana: down one point with 2.2 seconds remaining, the shot James got for himself was a point blank lay-up.
2 I’m reminded of Tim Hardaway’s misconception that unselfishness meant working to boost one’s assists per game average.
3 Anthony’s 35 in three quarters, with only four in the fourth quarter, recalled Roger Brown’s 1960 39 point game for Wingate against Boys High with Connie Hawkins.
4 Looking like he stepped out of the ’50s to sing lead for The Platters, he certainly has the requisite bearing and charisma.
From June, 2013
I. The Game…What Game?
Everyone agrees basketball has changed dramatically over the decades since the NBA began in the 1940’s, but just how do we measure, mark, and comprehend the shock of the new game? Some markers are intrinsic (size, shape of court, basket height, rules to prevent outright domination by the tallest and most athletic), others extrinsic (length of shorts, salary, philosophy, place in American and world culture) to the game itself.
Lebron James has been a groundbreaking force in many ways, but who expected him to be in the forefront of the humanization of superstardom? A team player in all senses – even extending the notion to the NBA family of players – after seven years of Cleveland, he felt he needed someone to make the assist, help him carry the load. His buddy Dwyane Wade wasn’t quite enough last year, but this year, he found the perfect man; or, that man found him.
In Kevin Durant, whose calm self-effacing manner makes him a kind of anti-Kobe Bryant, James serendipitously was presented with the exact proper foil to carry him home without demanding that James trade too heavily on the alpha male aggression that he has seemed mysteriously to eschew.
Russell’s Way, Lin’s Path
Philosopher-king Bill Russell used to say basketball is a simple game, played by grown men in short pants. As the hem-lines dropped, though, the force of Russ’s dictum waned. The Jeremy Lin phenomenon leaves one looking back to Russ’s clarities and ahead to a New Age of lucidity for homo ludens.
I To Have or Not to Have?
So much attention has been paid to the Miami Heat—including myriad analyses of the nature of offenses revolving around a number of stars vs. one or two, what role players are all about, and how much experience/stature a contemporary coach hired (and presumably tutored) by Pat Riley must have—that it’s hard to have any new thoughts (feelings come easier) about Miami and LeBron James, who is becoming an enigma nearly as impenetrable as his thick tattooed arms.
When Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng missed his second of two free throws with two seconds remaining and his team leading 108-106 in the third game of the Chicago-Cleveland first round NBA playoff series, it was clear LeBron James would not have an overtime period of five minutes in which to add to his total of 39 points.
In Game Three of the Cleveland-Orlando NBA Eastern Conference Finals, with the Cavaliers trailing 77-70, announcer Doug Collins reached for an adequate descriptive term for Lebron James, and came up with: locomotive.