Posts Tagged ‘Elgin Baylor’

The All-Star Game That Nearly Wasn’t

NEW ORLEANS – In the months, weeks and days leading up to the 1964 All-Star Game, the NBA players and their still-budding union had been blown off more than once by the franchise owners and the league’s hierarchy. Officers and player-reps of the National Basketball Players Association would travel to a Board of Governors meeting, encouraged that they would have an audience with the bosses, only to be left cooling their heels outside the room.

Until the evening of Jan. 14, 1964, when the owners of the NBA’s nine teams were the ones on the wrong side of the door, banging and pleading to get in.

“The owners kept putting us off and putting us off,” said Tom Heinsohn, the Boston Celtics’ Hall of Fame player, coach and broadcaster who was NBPA president at the time (owing mostly to his offseason job in the insurance field). “Finally, we decided, ‘We’re not going to play the All-Star Game.’ “

Boom!

Golden State Warriors vs. Boston Celtics

Tom Heinsohn was the NBPA President during the NBA’s 1964 labor negotiations at All-Star weekend. (Getty Images)

The NBA won’t exactly be celebrating the 50th anniversary of this pivotal moment in its history at All-Star Weekend in the Big Easy. But without it, the league might look nothing at all like it does now, with players and owners building it into one of the most popular sports options on the planet.

Like the union itself – founded in 1954 by Celtics guard Bob Cousy – the issues of 1964 had been on the table for most of a decade. The players were trying to institute a pension plan to cover their some portion of their retirement years. There were concerns about working conditions, such as meal money, full-time trainers (home and road) for each team and schedule considerations (for example, no Sunday matinees after Saturday night games). There also was the sheer recognition of the NBPA as the collective bargaining voice of NBA players, with Larry Fleisher as their executive director.

“They’d tell us they were going to do all these things,” Oscar Robertson said this week, “and then they’d change their minds.”

According to Heinsohn, it was the NBA’s first commissioner, Maurice Podoloff (for whom the MVP trophy is named), who was most resistant to a unionized labor force for the league. The otherwise genial Podoloff, on orders from the league’s nine owners, “did everything possible to thwart our efforts,” Heinsohn said. His successor, J. Walter Kennedy, was said to have fallen right in line with that tactic.

That offseason, one more attempt to pitch their demands to the Board of Governors got dashed. So in the months leading up to the All-Star Game – a Tuesday night affair, not the weekend it is now – Heinsohn and union VPs Lenny Wilkens and Bob Pettit had notified management of their last-ditch plan.

An unexpected opportunity to negotiate

No one took it seriously until that day. A major snowstorm over the nation’s Eastern half led to All-Stars players and NBA owners arriving through the afternoon. Heinsohn met his guys in the hotel as they did, getting them to literally sign onto the petition to boycott the game that evening.

Cincinnati’s Wayne Embry, who arrived with Royals teammates Robertson and Jerry Lucas after being diverted from Cincy to Minneapolis to Washington, with a train to Boston, said: “Tommy was in the lobby. He says, ‘Here’s what’s happening.’ “

Said Heinsohn: “[That list] was the ‘Magna Carta’ of the players association.”

Wayne Embry

Cincinnati Royals star Wayne Embry was a big player in the 1964 NBA labor talks. (Getty Images)

Interestingly, there was a wild card in play that worked in the union’s favor: For the first time, the All-Star Game was being televised live in prime time. The window of air time was finite.

“You can imagine what was at stake for them,” said Embry, the burly center who became pro sports’ first black GM with Milwaukee in the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era. “But there was a lot at stake for us, too. It got pretty tense, with owners threatening players.”

The clock was ticking. Kennedy was sweating. ABC made it known that it would pull the plug on the telecast if the impasse wasn’t broken.

Owners such as the Celtics’ Walter Brown came to the East locker room at Boston Garden, each imploring his players to reconsider. Brown, of course, represented the host team and felt more pressure than his peers for what was unfolding. “He wound up calling me the biggest heel in sports,” Heinsohn said, “and saying, if there’d been a team out in Hawaii, he’d have sent me there.”

Legend has it that Bob Short, the Lakers owner, tried to barge into the room but had to settle for barking some orders to the cop posted outside the door. Said Heinsohn: “He tells this old Irish police guy, ‘I’m Bob Short, the owner of the Lakers. You go tell Elgin Baylor that if he doesn’t get his ass out here fast, I’m done with him!’

“So Elgin gets the word and said back to him, ‘Tell Bob Short to go [expletive] himself.’ “

‘It was something we had to do’

As tempers flared, the players’ resolve intensified.

“We weren’t quite united at first but we soon got there,” was how Robertson recalled it. “It took a little conversation but we got it done. People came in the locker room making threats, telling us we were going to ‘kill basketball’ and ‘What are you doing?’ It was a TV game and we could understand that, but it was something we had to do. If you negotiate in good faith and you agree to do something, you should be true to your word.”

Oscar Robertson

Oscar Robertson, an NBPA exec in 1964, was one of the loudest voices calling for change in the NBA’s labor agreement. (Getty Images)

The “good faith” view of ownership rapidly vanished. Jerry West, Baylor’s L.A. teammate, told the Los Angeles Times in 2011: “The players were controlled by the owners. All of us felt like we were slaves in the sense we had no rights. No one made anything then. You had to work in the summer. It was the stone ages of basketball.”

With ABC executives in his ear and game time fast approaching, Kennedy conferred with his owners. Then he knocked on the locker room door, entered and told the players that, yes, their concerns would be addressed: a pension plan, the working conditions and the rest, giving the NBPA a real voice and solidified seat at the bargaining table.

Pettit and Embry recalled a vote taken by show of hands, with an 18-2 outcome in favor of playing the game.

“There was a lot of discussion, pros and cons among the players,” Pettit said, “and there were players who still thought we should not go out and play. I think it was Wilt Chamberlain who said, ‘We’ve got the commissioner’s guarantee that he’ll do everything in his power. We need to go out and play the game.’ I guess we went out three or four minutes before what was supposed to be tip-off, took one or two layups [as warm-ups] and started the game.”

Embry recalled a delay of about 15 minutes. Others have referred to the near-boycott as “the 22-minute strike.” That night, Robertson was named MVP after scoring 26 points with 14 rebounds and eight assists in the East’s 111-107 victory. Bill Russell had 13 points and 21 rebounds, Chamberlain went for 19 and 20 and Pettit had 19 and 17.

NBPA’s stance paves way for today’s players

The real winners, of course, were the NBA’s rank-and-file players and their union. In time, the pension plan initially designed for only active and future NBA labor was extended back to cover pre-1965 players. That and the other benefits laid a foundation for much of the players’ condition today, including (after subsequent lockouts and wranglings) a $5.7 million average player salary in a league generating $5 billion in annual revenue.

“You talk about money, there wasn’t a whole lot of money in that [locker] room in terms of salary,” Robertson reflected. “Today, I think it would be very, very difficult when guys are making millions and millions of dollars per year for playing basketball – I don’t know if [a threat to boycott the All-Star Game] would have happened today or not. I don’t think a lot of players today are even aware that this happened.”

The NBPA will try to educate them a bit this weekend. Ron Klempner, acting executive director of the NBPA while a search for Billy Hunter‘s replacement continues, told NBA.com this week that the 1964 All-Stars’ stance will be remembered in a video shown before the union’s annual players-rep meeting Saturday.

“Our players are being made very aware of the importance of that stand taken by the 1964 All-Stars,” Klempner said. “It was a watershed moment for labor relations in sports, in terms of the recognition of our union and really in terms of fairness.”

Klempner said the union hoped to have one or two of the participants attend the meeting and possibly other weekend events. Pettit, who lives in Baton Rouge and is a season-ticket holder for the New Orleans Pelicans, is a handy and natural choice. Robertson’s name was in play, though at midweek he said he still had a schedule conflict.

Said Pettit: “It’s important to let [current players] know. Hopefully I’ll have that opportunity to touch base with them on what happened.”

Sixteen of the 20 All-Stars from 1964 still are alive, 50 years later, and it remains a source of pride for those who interviewed. That year was a big one across America, with the Civil Rights Act out of Washington under President Lyndon Johnson. And the stand taken by the NBA players had a ripple effect across other pro sports.

“It was very much a defining moment, 50 years ago, in the history of the NBA and its players,” said Embry, who went onto serve in management roles with Milwaukee, Cleveland and currently Toronto, in addition to private business opportunities such as McDonald’s franchise ownership. “Having been on both sides of unionization in later life, as it turned out, it worked well for both. You’re always going to have labor negotiations, but think about what it would be if you didn’t.”

In the moment, though, that sort of clarity didn’t come easily. Back in 1964, Embry was a 26-year-old from Springfield, Ohio, manning the middle for the Royal, living pretty much paycheck to paycheck and letting others in that East locker room do most of the talking.

“I thought, ‘Well, there goes my job.’ I was an All-Star but I wasn’t a superstar,” Embry said. “I was scared [sick].”

Hang Time Q&A: Oscar Robertson On Turning 75, Triple-Doubles And G.O.A.T


VIDEO: Oscar Robertson career retrospective

Oscar Robertson on his NBA beginnings, lawsuit | Robertson on 3-pointers, big men and today’s NBA | Robertson on race relations in the 1960s | Who is the greatest of all time? | Robertson on his life & legacy

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played with or against many of the NBA’s most legendary players in a Hall of Fame career that spanned 20 seasons, was asked recently for his take on the simmering Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James greatest-of-all-time debate.

Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati, Nov. 2013

Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati, Nov. 2013
(Steve Aschburner, NBA.com)

“LeBron is awesome, MJ was awesome, but I think Oscar Robertson would have kicked them both in the behind,” Abdul-Jabbar said on ESPN radio. “He had all the skills. He could rebound and box out guys four and six inches taller than him. He was ruggedly built. He had fluid, quickness, and just understood the game. No flair, he just got the job done every night. Who’s going to average double figures in points, assists and rebounds?”

It was a rhetorical question because, in the 52 years since Robertson became the first NBA player to average a triple-double – in his case, 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game – he remains, famously, the only one to do so.

Ask Robertson who the most neglected great player in league history is and he’ll tell you Elgin Baylor, whose moves and above-the-rim bursts made him a precursor of Julius Erving, Jordan and the rest. Ask plenty of others, though, and the name that bounces back is Robertson’s, a.k.a., The Big O.

That was an easy one for Wayne Embry, NBA lifer as a player, team executive and Springfield, Mass., inductee himself as a contributor.

“Look, there’s no question about it: Oscar Robertson is the greatest basketball player of all time,” said Embry, now working with the Toronto Raptors after his years with Milwaukee (as sports’ first black general manager) and Cleveland. “No disrespect to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or LeBron James, but I want people to remember this: Oscar Robertson played in a time where we didn’t have ESPN and this and that, but look at his achievements.

“Nobody [else] has averaged a triple-double, and that was with 30 points by the way. And he also averaged 11 assists. Combine the two, how many points does that equate to for your team? In the age of analytics, you want to factor in that he averaged 12 rebounds on top of that. Now who in the history of the game has done that?”

This is an appropriate spot to note that Embry was Robertson’s roommate during their years together on the Cincinnati Royals in the 1960s. Still, stats are stats, and giant steps are giant steps. Robertson did spread that triple-double across 1961-62, the same season in which Wilt Chamberlain averaged his mythic 50.4 points.

Impressed? Hold on. If you take Robertson’s first six NBA seasons – 460 games played from 1961-1966 – he averaged 30.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 10.7 assists. Those numbers are staggering at a time when doubling up in two of those categories can earn a player $20 million annually.

As Robertson’s 75th birthday approached – the milestone is Nov. 24 – we sat down at one of his favorite haunts, the Montgomery Inn Boathouse, on the riverfront in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati. He passed on the ribs for which that restaurant is known, but skipped little else in a wide-ranging, part-cantankerous, part-charming, relentlessly honest and insightful two-hour conversation.

The following is excerpted from that:

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NBA.com: This place is decorated with jerseys of famous Cincinnati and Ohio sports stars, but I don’t see anything of yours on the wall.

Oscar Robertson: I’ve got a college jersey here some place. I don’t know where it is now. Nothing from the NBA, nothing form the Royals.

NBA.com: Is it odd living in Cincinnati after all these years, when the city hasn’t been an NBA market in more than 40 years.

Robertson: Yes it is. Because I have to wait late at night to get the scores. Newspapers don’t write anything about it. You can watch some games on television but it seems to me, have they forgotten basketball here? They’ve got football and baseball and that’s all they write about, the Bengals and the Reds. But there are other teams!

Also in Hang Time
West praises former rival Robertson
Hall of Famer Jerry West discusses what it was like entering the NBA and matching up regularly with Oscar Robertson, the trials they both faced in trying to overcome the Celtics to win a championship and the early years of the NBA.

Pro basketball is never mentioned around here. They don’t mention when the Pacers are playing, and the Pacers don’t do anything about advertising over here either. That’s an hour-and-a-half ride. They should have a bus, picking up 40 or 50 guys and taking ‘em over to games.

NBA.com: You played in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, and you had no control over your playing whereabouts thanks to the Draft and the lack of free agency back then.

Robertson: You can be the greatest player in the world, but if you’re with a team that’s going nowhere, you’re not going anywhere either. You can play great but if the players around you don’t complement what you do, you don’t go anywhere.

NBA.com: Hardly anyone did if they didn’t play in Boston back then. Was it hard falling short against the Celtics year after year after year?

Robertson: Not really, because I realized we didn’t have the talent. We didn’t have the bench. We didn’t have management. We didn’t have athletes on our teams, even our starters. Then you’ve got to make the right trades sometimes. No team has won without making a trade.

NBA.com: Now teams have free agency, which you know a little about. [The "Oscar Robertson lawsuit," a class-action case brought by Robertson and other players against the league, opened the door to basketball free agency when it was settled.]

Robertson: I think the Oscar Robertson case made guys into movie star-type athletes. Big money and personas about them, people following them around and wanting to meet and greet them. But still, if owners did not want to try to get that player, you still couldn’t go anywhere at all. Owners will say a lot of players are greedy and all they want is a lot of money. But they’re there to give the money out. Without the owners, this never would have been possible.

NBA.com: If that case had been brought earlier and been called the “Sam Jones lawsuit” so you might have benefited from it, would you have looked to leave Cincinnati?

Robertson: I probably would have. … I realized after I played a few years, we were not going to win anything in Cincinnati. Great guys. But like anything, it takes talent. It takes a good bench. It takes people not [just] liking each other but playing well together, which is a real key.

NBA.com: Some would say these days that it takes two or, in Miami’s case, three stars to win a title.

Robertson: That’s always been the case. you look at championship teams. The Lakers, Boston, they had more than one star on their team. They had two or three stars, sometimes four. That’s how you win basketball games.

NBA.com: So those great Celtics teams led by Bill Russell – were they great because they were stocked with Hall of Fame players or did their players get to the Hall because of how much that team won?

Robertson: I’m sure because they won, a lot of guys went into the Hall of Fame. But even the Hall of Fame, it’s changed over the years. It’s not because of your talent or how good you were that gets you in anymore. It’s a lot of different things. If someone likes you and thinks that what you did is a credit to the game of basketball, they can put your name forward and really broaden the campaign for you, and you can get in. I like football because … a lot of people go into [football's] Hall of Fame but during that induction ceremony, it’s only the players. And they don’t have any year where there are no players who go in.

NBA.com: Did the ABA ever come after you? You would have been a tremendous “get” for that league.

Robertson: Yes, I talked to them at one time. It wasn’t that big a deal. I spoke to the Indiana Pacers once because I’m from Indianapolis. It wasn’t anything I was looking forward to. It was a decent league. It had some good players in it. It was almost a dunk league, a show-me league, a big-time-play league. I guess I didn’t realize that it [four ABA teams merging into the NBA] eventually was going to happen anyway. It’s like the NFL and the AFL, it was going to happen.

NBA.com: Is there anyone who’s not in the Hall of Fame who ought to be?

Robertson: Probably Guy Rodgers [who played 12 seasons, 1958-1970, mostly for the Warriors, Bulls and Bucks]. He did a great job for many, many years. Handled the ball well. I think he should be in the Hall of Fame. Excellent leader. For the people who vote for a guy to be inducted, I don’t know if they understand what happens on the basketball court. I think maybe they read a lot of stats. … You should have some basic knowledge of the game other than saying, “I saw this guy play and he averaged 25 points a game.” But what about the other things that happened? Could he play any defense? Could he get a rebound? Were there [other] factors?

On 3-pointers, big men and coaches in today’s NBA

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VIDEO: A look back at Oscar Robertson’s career awards

NBA.com: What jumps out at you about the NBA today?

Robertson: There are no good inside players anymore. The offenses don’t work off the pivot anymore either. So it’s just a different game. If you can’t score from outside, you’re not going to win. The 3-point line is great, but it’s backed up much of the game. Even though you score a thousand points – the other night, I think the Clippers had 37 3-pointers. But the other team was 10 behind ‘em. I think you’ve got to get inside. If you’ve got decent inside people, you’ll do well.

NBA.com: Are the best big guys born or made?

Robertson: I don’t think they’re coached right. I don’t think anyone takes time to teach the centers how to pass out of the pivot. How to make a move off the pivot. You don’t make cuts off the pivots anymore. There are no back-door plays. No weak-side plays at all. Those things are so important to spreading the floor out, keeping the floor covered.

Dwight Howard is a great athlete – doesn’t have a shot off the pivot. See, [Tim] Duncan could score off the pivot. Duncan is simple. He just gets it down. But you don’t have a [Bill] Russell, Wilt, Nate Thurmond, those big centers. It’s all gone. And the guys you do have, they don’t seem to be able to play defense off the pivot. I’ll never forget the first time Wilt faced [Walt] Bellamy, he must have blocked his first seven or eight shots.

NBA.com: That was mentioned in some of Bellamy’s obituaries [the Hall of Famer died Nov. 2].

Robertson: Wilt was trying to prove a point to him. And Walt was averaging 31 points a game and 19 reobunds, which goes unheard of anymore .Wilt want to prove who the top dog was. Fortunately you don’t play against Wilt every night. No one could handle Wilt. Wilt saved basketball when he averaged 50 points a game. For TV or what-not.


VIDEO: Take a look back at Oscar Robertson’s exceptional rookie year

NBA.com: Is the game better coached now?

Robertson: No. You have one little play [pick-and-roll]. Hope somebody tries to double-team you, throw the ball to the guy in the corner, he makes a long 3-point shot, something like that. I don’t think there’s much coaching at all, because players today are such gifted athletes, they do that without thinking about it. “I pass you the ball, I pick your man off, try to roll off” – that’s just natural play when you don’t know anybody. Whether you’re playing in the park or in the All-Star Game, you did those things without thinking about them. It’s great, if you can score without a lot of movement – if you can score. If you don’t score, everybody else stands around and watches you.


VIDEO: Some of Oscar Robertson’s best plays

NBA.com: Do you believe in the concept of “clutch?”

Robertson: Could be. Here again, I think that what happens at the start of the game is just as important as what happens at the end. Jerry West was called Mr. Clutch because he got the ball at the end. And he should have had the ball. Fortunately for him, he made those baskets. If you don’t get the ball where you’re in position to make a basket or miss it, you’re not considered clutch. Some players don’t mind having the ball at the end of the game, when there are seconds on the clock. Some players don’t want that. [For more on Jerry West, click here]

NBA.com: You took those shots on your teams?

Robertson: Some of them, not all of them. But I’d been in so many big games when I younger, in high school and college, it didn’t bother me. No pressure at all. I just wanted to make the shot. If it happens, it happens. [If I missed] it didn’t bother me at all. I think the game of basketball is up and down. You’re not going to win every game. In sports, they think it’s a life and death situation but it really isn’t.

On crowds and race relations in the ’60s


VIDEO: Oscar Robertson talks about the off-the-court challenges he faced
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NBA.com: What were the crowds around the NBA like, when you played?

Robertson: Some were very nasty. Boston. Philly had nasty fans – they’d yell insults at you a lot. Chicago had tough fans at times. I think they wanted their teams to win, so if you came in and defeated them, they didn’t like that at all. Sometimes it was a personal jealousy thing. But you get used to that.

NBA.com: Did it ever get racial?

Robertson: Oh hell, back then? That goes without saying. Being born in the south [Tennessee], growing up in Indianapolis where the Ku Klux Klan actually built our high school [to segregate black students] – Crispus Attucks – and being segregated in an all-black neighborhood, some things you get accustomed to. Not that you liked them, but you got used to them.

It’s almost like animals out in the wild, where they teach their young how to survive. Our parents were like, “You can’t go here. You can’t go there.” If you go to visit your parents and grandparents in Tennessee, you ride on the back of the bus. You don’t go into a restaurant anywhere along the route to get anything to eat. All those things. You learn that over a period of time, more or less so you can exist.

NBA.com: People have praised sports for breaking down those types of barriers. Is that overstated?

Robertson: No, it’s not. My high school had an all-black team and a lot of our friends were white guys, and they’d come to the park and we’d play together. The Olympics is a prime example of what athletes can do not only in their country but in the world.

I’m sure all the players I played with didn’t like black people, but we were in a setting where we had to work together in order to win. Then people got to know you and you got to know them.

I always said, on a team, you don’t have to come home and live with me. We just have to play together for a couple hours. Most of the guys were great guys. During my playing career, I never felt I had someone I disliked.

It’s like a soldier fighting in the war. Some guys from the deep South don’t like blacks, some blacks from up north don’t like whites. But you get in a foxhole, it’s a different story. Then when they left their foxholes, they’d still go their separate ways.

As a race, there was so much going on. It was so volatile – the right to vote. Right to go into a restaurant or a movie. Sit where you want to sit on a bus. Be able to go from this side of town to that side. Or get a job. A lot of whites didn’t think about that, where it concerned me or other black people.


VIDEO: Oscar Robertson talks about the racial aspect of playing in the NBA

NBA.com: So what is your take on the Miami Dolphins’ locker room controversy?

Robertson: When I heard that, I almost couldn’t believe it. The young man [Jonathan Martin] was a starter. But you have a lot of people in football who think that type of attitude is what makes you a good player. I don’t think that – it’s whether you can play or not. But for them to blame everything on that [Richie] Incognito, as if the coaches didn’t know anything about it? Some coaches knew all about that stuff. Then you hear black players say, “How can that guy turn in a player?” He ain’t no player to me.

Direct your energy to the guys on the field you’re playing against. If you feel like you want to call a guy the N-word and he’s as big as you and he’s across the line from you, then it’s a different story. You get an immediate response. It’s a different story then. But if I’m playing on your team and I hear you calling this guy a name that I don’t like? Damaging, to say the least.

NBA.com: Some people say that the 1960 U.S. men’s Olympic team on which you played might have challenged the more famous 1992 “Dream Team.”


VIDEO: Oscar Robertson reflects on playing for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team

Robertson: We went out to Denver for the trials. I think you had, I’m gonna say, 10 teams and you played a game every night for seven nights to get into a championship round. So we picked our team. My starters were myself and [Terry] Dischinger at forward, [Darrall] Imhoff in the pivot, Jay Arnette and Jerry West at guard. And Bellamy came off the bench.

[Coach] Pete Newell played Imhoff because the starting team that won was [our] first team in the Olympics. He was telling me how he had such a hard time with AAU getting Bellamy on the team, which you really needed to win in Rome. AAU was so powerful then. They put four or five guys on the team. Actually, AAU was more powerful. But we won, so we got to place our first team on the Olympic team.

On the Greatest of All Time and the greatest today


VIDEO: Oscar Robertson leads the Bucks to the 1970-71 championship

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NBA.com: What do you make of Kareem’s comments about you in relation to Jordan and James?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson in 1974

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson in 1974
(Dick Raphael/NBAE)

Robertson: I appreciated him saying that. You know what happens today in sports: With the advent of all the ads and things, it makes players much bigger than they really are.

To say this guy could outplay that guy, it’s ridiculous. I could play against anybody. Elgin Baylor, they never even mention his name, they couldn’t handle Elgin Baylor on the basketball court. None of these guys playing today.

Everyone thinks because a guy can dunk a basketball … [that] doesn’t mean he can play. Can he make a play? Can he set a pick? Can he roll to the basket right? Can he help out in the right position? All of which has nothing to do with … it’s what TV is today. Highlights. They want the sensational windmill dunk – the guy who hits the jump shot never gets a look. Oh, the one [Ray Allen] hit for Miami, they’ll throw that in, because it was a pressure shot and he got it in the basket.

NBA.com: How high should Kareem rank on these G.O.A.T. lists?

Robertson: Russell was great. Wilt was great. Kareem was great. Just because you can say he didn’t do this or that … no one could stop Kareem off the pivot. I don’t think Bill or Wilt could stop him from shooting that sky hook off the pivot.

NBA.com: The Internet would blow up if someone averaged a triple-double over his first six seasons in the league. Was that a big deal for you to do that?

Robertson: Not at all. I thought everybody played the same way. That’s the way I learned to play: Pass the ball, shoot when I got open, rebound if I’m inside.

An assist was different when I played. “A pass that leads to a basket.” Now I can throw you the ball outside, and you can dribble eight or nine times and shoot, that’s an assist.

You see guys throw alley-oops to players – how in the world can a guy get an alley-oop? If I’m guarding somebody, OK, the first time you get an alley-oop on me. The next time you’re not gonna get it because I’m going to play defense on you. These players seem like they go brain-dead when it happens. How can a guy score four or five of these things on you in a game?

Say you’re a good 3-point shooter and you hit the first one. I’m not gonna get off of you anymore. Just like when Kobe Bryant scored 81 points – I’d have fouled out. He might have got ‘em on the foul line but not shooting the ball. It seemed like they got out of his way.


VIDEO: Oscar Robertson’s trade to Milwaukee reshapes the NBA

NBA.com: Which player today do you enjoy watching?

Robertson: There are a lot of good players. I like the guard at Cleveland [Kyrie Irving]. I like to see LeBron play. I love San Anotino’s team — they actually come down and run plays. Indiana has come on. They have a collection of good athletes who make plays.

A lot of team can’t do that at all. I don’t think Miami’s very good, other than [Dwyane] Wade and LeBron. Seems like the other guys can’t even dribble the ball two or three times and get a shot off. Now this is me looking in.

And they blame Carmelo [Anthony] for the demise of Denver. I thought he played great out there. Other guys couldn’t get a basket, they threw it to him and he put it in the basket – and they didn’t like him for that? Isn’t that something.

NBA.com: Who do you want taking the shot at the end of the game?

Robertson: You tell me.

NBA.com: I think that’s Carmelo’s greatest skill.

Robertson: You can say that again. He can really shoot it, can’t he? But other guys are good shooters like that. At Indiana, very good shooter, Danny Granger. And this kid from San Antonio, he made so many one night against Miami it was unbelievable. Danny Green. Then the next night, he doesn’t get a smell of it.

NBA.com: Any thoughts on the one-and-done college rule?

Robertson: I’ve spoken to [Kentucky coach John] Calipari about that a little bit. He says there’s nothing to be done about that. It’s what the players want to do. But why one-and-done? You can go to the Army when you’re 18. Why shouldn’t you be able to play [pro] basketball and football if you have the ability to play, and someone will pay you? You shouldn’t have to say, I’ll go to college for a year. That doesn’t make sense. … Then they want you to play well but they don’t want you to play well enough so you’ll leave.

NBA.com: Did you work under year-to-year contracts or multi-year deals? We hear that a lot of guys played hurt back then.

Robertson: Mostly year to year. Sure, you had to play. Plenty of times. The year we beat Baltimore, the final game [1971], I was hurting so bad, I was up all night. I had a bad groin. I was hurting like crazy. I put heat on it all night long. It got to the point, I’m getting close to game time, I told ‘em, “Look, I’m gonna go out and try to play. If I can’t go, I just can’t go.” I went out there and started running and running, it stopped hurting. I just got used to the pain, I guess.

I had a broken finger one year, I just taped it up. Achilles tendon messed up one year, I kept playing, knotted up. Hamstring pull. If you play enough, you’re going to get hurt.

NBA.com: You a fan of instant replay?

Robertson: To get it right? I think it slows the game down. Make the call and if you miss it, too bad. Players adjust. Why don’t they have someone else there at the game look at the call? You can tell in one second who knocked the ball out of bounds.

NBA.com: There’s a question that gets asked around the NBA: “Steve Nash or Steve Kerr?” In other words, would you rather have multiple MVP awards and the All-Star career that Nash has had or multiple championships as a role player.

Robertson: Russell won with a lot of different people in Boston. The kid [Robert Horry] who played for Houston, played with the Lakers and San Antonio … he’s got seven or eight rings himself, doesn’t he? [Horry has seven.] So just because you win a ring … not demeaning Bill’s ability, but does that say you’re the greatest player? Bill played great for the Celtics, no doubt about it.

Different people have different thinking about it. Steve Nash played great for Phoenix a few years ago, won MVP a couple times. I don’t think he should have won two. You’ll see writers anoint someone before a season starts. I don’t know who they’re going to give it to this year. It’s not going to be LeBron. They want to pass that award around.

NBA.com: Never mind multiple rings, how different would your career feel to you if you hadn’t managed finally to win a championship in Milwaukee.

Robertson: It wasn’t any big difference-maker for me. I didn’t even think about it. Because we had a little better team. We had a great bench. That’s how we won. The next year they traded almost all our players away. You’d have to ask the Bucks management about that. I could not understand how they could do that.

The start of my last year, to start practice, you’d run three laps around this [gym]. Being a veteran, I took my time going around. Kareem would always outrun everybody. [Milwaukee beat writer] Bob Wolf wrote in the paper, saying I was too old and couldn’t play anymore. I called him up and said, “All right, you can write what you want. But I don’t want to do another interview with you.” This is practice, man. We hadn’t even started playing yet.

NBA.com: You sounded a little like Allen Iverson.

Robertson: [Laughs] But I think the Bucks set it up for me not to play anymore after that year. If you look, my last year, I was playing [35] minutes a game. But I was gonna quit anyway.

NBA.com: Did you still have some game in you?

Robertson: Oh sure. I could play with those guys. But it got to a point where they kept on making trades, bringing in the wrong people each year. It wasn’t working at all.

On life after the NBA

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NBA.com: Once you were done playing, you worked one season as a TV analyst. But you often have said that your lawsuit against the league led to you being blackballed because owners resented your involvement as the head of the players’ union and as a big-name player.

Robertson: I got involved with CBS, which was a joke. They decided that, because of the lawsuit, I was an adversary. It really was a blackballing when it happened. But the players association didn’t do anything about it. Over the years, I’ve thought about it a lot. But when the NBA said they were going in another direction, I said, “Fine.”

The NBA has done a lot of things over the years. A lot of great things but that doesn’t mean they haven’t done some things they shouldn’t have been doing. At first they didn’t want any black guys coaching. Then they got Russell – he wouldn’t have played for nobody else. That’s when Red [Auerbach] named him the coach.

NBA.com: Was the lawsuit worth it to you?

Robertson: It had to be worth it. I was involved in a situation when I first got there, I didn’t understand it but I grew into it. I saw some of the situations that were happening to players. When I first started playing, we got $8 a day for meals. Didn’t have a trainer. You flew on the first [commercial] flight going.

Look what that lawsuit did for basketball. Propelled them to the atmosphere. Beyond the moon. And they talk about great things that changed basketball. Not because I was involved – I was with some other guys, Wes Unseld, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere – it changed basketball. It made guys millions of dollars. You see entourages they have with them, limousines going to games, guys making $20 million. Now they get shoe contracts that make them superstars.

NBA.com: It shifted the balance of power to the players.

Robertson: No, it really shifted the power to the owners. Say you had a real good team and you needed Wilt. … If you were outside your contract, you could go. It made a lot of teams different.

NBA.com: It’s been said that you’re only old when your regrets outnumber your dreams. Do you still have some dreams?

Robertson: Sure, I have things I still want to do. Especially in business, which I haven’t gotten there yet.

NBA.com: Your business ventures might surprise some people. You founded Orchem, a chemical manufacturer, in 1981. You also put your business degree to use, too, through Oscar Robertson Solutions, a document management and consulting firm. I know you’ve had some challenges, financial and otherwise, in those endeavors. Does business scratch the same itch as basketball, in a competitive sense?


VIDEO: The Beat crew talks about Oscar Robertson’s legacy

Robertson: Yes. Sometimes it’s a little more difficult. Because in sports, you’re out there and either you do it or you don’t do it. People could say anything they wanted until I hit the floor, then it was up to me. But in business today, it’s up to a lot of people.

I just wish I had played a little later [at a bigger salary]. Then I could have gone into what I wanted to go into. When I was with the players association, we talked to [late head of the NBA players union] Larry Fleisher one year about groups of players getting together and buying car dealerships in every NBA city. It didn’t work out – couldn’t get the financing. But it would have been great. In every city, you set up a Ford and a Chevrolet dealership? Man!

NBA.com: Generally it sounds like you’re OK that you played when you played and were paid what you were paid.

Robertson: I didn’t make a million dollars in 14 years. But times are different. I just think that players today are instantly gratified to be making the money. Some don’t appreciate that they’re making what they’re making. They take it for granted.

NBA.com: How would you like to be remembered?

Robertson: I have no idea. It doesn’t really matter that much to me. People are going to say what they want to say anyway. Like one [reporter recently] asked, “Do you think you could play in the game today?” I said, “It’s obvious you don’t know anything about basketball or you wouldn’t ask me that question. So I have no comments for you at all.” I just walked away from him.

Did he think, if they had eight teams, how many guys wouldn’t be playing now? Or 12 teams or 16 teams? How many guys would not be playing [in the NBA] now?

NBA.com: You’ve never been shy about speaking your mind.

Robertson: My wife [Yvonne] gets on me. She says, “Don’t tell ‘em all these things.” I say, “I won’t. But if they ask me, I’m not going to lie about it.”

The Doctor: How A Legend Was Born

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It was in the autumn of 1976, just a few hours after news had leaked out that basketball’s hidden treasure was finally making the jump to the NBA when a man strode up to the ticket window at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, slapped down his weekly paycheck from Ford Motor Company and said: “Gimme all you got for The Doctah!”

The oft-told story may be apocryphal, but it accurately describes a time when the greatest legends still grew and traveled by word of mouth and every up-and-coming, next-great-thing sports star wasn’t identified and overhyped before he left junior high.

To the national consciousness, Julius Erving seemed to swoop down out of the sky like an unexpected alien invader. However, the tales of his mind-bending feats had traveled the lines of the basketball tribal drums long before he went mainstream with the Philadelphia 76ers.

The NBA TV documentary, The Doctor, which debuts Monday night at 9 p.m. Eastern, reintroduces the player who changed the style, image and direction of pro basketball to a new audience.

There is at least a generation of fans that has grown up probably thinking of Erving in only two images that are shown in the opening montage for each game of the NBA Finals. There is that float along the right baseline with arm extended, finding his path blocked by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, seeming to change direction in midair and coming out on the other side of the basket to flip in a bank shot. And there is that steal and the drive in the open court, the rise into the air, the sneer on his face and the helpless look of defender Michael Cooper as Erving eventually finishes with a windmill slam.

These are the grainy YouTube images that endure in a high-res, 3D world. The 90-minute documentary tells the fuller, deeper story of a young man who was struck by tragedy early in life and went on to rise above it, or maybe was inspired by it.

The NBA TV Originals crew, led by executive producer Dion Cocoros, has unearthed rarely seen footage of Erving not only playing in the boondocks of the old ABA, but also treasures of highlights from the world famous Rucker League in Harlem, where the legend of The Doctor was born.

The clip of Charlie Scott launching a heave from behind the half-court line that is snatched from midair by a young Erving and slammed home with two hands is like watching Michelangelo sketch out his first ideas for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Seeing shots of school kids and adult fans crowding rooftops and sitting in trees to get a glimpse of Dr. J at Rucker Park demonstrate the height of his popularity and legend.

“When you show some nice moves at the Rucker League, they show you their appreciation,” says a young Erving in the film.

His father was killed in a car accident when he was nine years old and his younger brother Marvin, 16, died of Lupus when Erving was a freshman at the University of Massachusetts and those two events seemed to make him more introspective in his formative years and as a young adult.

It was the basketball court where Erving cut loose with his emotions and expressed himself, eventually taking the wide open style of the playgrounds into the pro ranks.

He was the marquee attraction, the driving force, the star that kept the ABA afloat for more than half of its nine-year existence, waving that red-white-and-blue ball in his giant hands as he seemed to defy gravity and attacked the rim from every angle imaginable.

“My brother was the first one to tell me about him,” said the flamboyant Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins. “This kid Erving, man, he’s a bad boy.”

From that tall Afro that seemed to blow backward in the breeze as he soared toward the rim to those Converse sneakers that were his endorsement of choice and trademark in the early days, to stylish hats and the fur-collar jackets and platform shoes, The Doctor was always cooler than the other side of the pillow.

He understood his place as the star of the show in the ABA, where he won two championships with his hometown New York Nets on Long Island and he embraced a role as the NBA’s ambassador and maybe even savior when the made the jump to the Sixers just a few days before the start of the 1976-77 season as the two league’s merged. It was a time when two-thirds of the NBA’s teams were swimming in red ink and a time when newspaper headlines screamed the 75 percent of the players were using drugs.

“From the standpoint of a young, African-American man who was patriotic and believed in the American dream, I embraced that duty to be a role model,” Erving said. “If it meant spending extra time withe media or going out of my way to promote the league and the game, I felt it was a duty.”

At the same time, it was a natural instinct to enter a league where the likes of Earl Monroe and Pete Maravich were showing flashes of individualism and lift it up and slam it home into the mainstream.

“The freewheeling, playground style of play, that’s where I felt most comfortable and where I wanted to go,” he said.

It is the style that built on his predecessors in Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins and was handed down to Michael Jordan, LeBron James and is on display every night in the NBA of today.

The fine film shows Erving’s often frustrated pursuit of an NBA title with the colorful, ego-filled Sixers that included George McGinnis, Lloyd (pre-World) Free, “Jellybean” Joe Bryant, Doug Collins and Dawkins, to name a few and his finally teaming up with Moses Malone to grab the brass ring with Philly’s sweep of the Lakers in 1983. It was one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history.

You can turn on dozens of TV channels every day in the 21st century, download images to your smart phone and feed on a steady diet of YouTube clips today that make flying to the hoop as routine as riding a bus.

But there was a time when such things were only the talk of legends.

“I always thought you never know who’s watching,” Erving said. “So you can do one of two things: Assume everybody’s watching or act like you don’t care.

“I always like to assume that everybody is watching. I’ve been far from perfect in my professional and private life. But what’s important is to have goals. I wanted to be good, to be consistent, to be dedicated.”

The Doctor shows how.
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Pilot’s Tale Of Lakers’ Near-Disaster Hits Bookstores

Long before Ray Kinsella assured Shoeless Joe Jackson that, no, this wasn’t heaven, “it’s Iowa,” a plane full of NBA players and staff rightfully could have wondered the same thing about their own field of dreams.

Fifty-three years ago, the Minneapolis Lakers didn’t come back from beyond to play a basketball game in rural Iowa – they almost went in the opposite direction when their team plane experienced mechanical issues while carrying them home from a game that night against the St. Louis Hawks.

That harrowing trip and its impropable stop in a confield in Carroll, Iowa, is the subject of a new book, “The Miracle Landing” (Signalman Publishing, May 2013) written by the co-pilot that night, Harold Gifford.

Gifford, 89, a retired World War II pilot and aviation professional who lives in Woodbury, Minn., has told the story in bits and pieces through the years, most conspicuously three years ago to reporters working up 50th-anniversary accounts of the near-tragedy. But he finally has pulled it together in book form, with the subtitle: “The true story of how the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers almost perished in an Iowa cornfield during a January blizzard.”

Straight to the point, certainly. But it only suggests at the implications of what might have been. Or rather, what might not have been.

The NBA was a more raggedy operation in those days, after all. The Lakers were a proud franchise with five championships in their past, but they had fallen on hard times in the Twin Cities. George Mikan was long gone and, because of difficulty securing a proper place to play, so were many of their fans. By 1959-60, the team was losing twice as many games as it won; even a stellar rookie named Elgin Baylor couldn’t pull Minneapolis closer to St. Louis in the Western Division than 21 games.

Owner Bob Short, who owned the DC-3 plane, was within months of relocating the whole shebang to Los Angeles, where the No. 2 pick in the 1960 draft, Jerry West (selected right after Oscar Robertson), would join Baylor for the start of what has been the franchise’s long, glamorous and successful stay in southern California.

Still, it’s safe to say that if the unthinkable had happened, the NBA might have moved on. It would have been in no hurry to replace a team in the Twin Cities and it might have been years, through expansion or another franchise move, before the league planted a flag in L.A.

Certainly, it wouldn’t have been named the Lakers.

“This incredible story is a turning point of Lakers history and the more the fans know about their team, the more they love us,” Jeanie Buss, executive VP of the Lakers, said for the book’s press release. “Because of this miracle landing, the players and other passengers on this flight would be able to continue their lives with their families and their loved ones for the next half-center.”

That, of course, is the real happy ending. But the NBA by-product was that the Lakers survived, as a group and as a brand, to build on a legacy of championships and remarkable play.

None of it more remarkable, though, than the work of Gifford and fellow pilot Vern Ullman that snowy night. The plane’s electrical system shut down, its radio went dark, the instruments and windows in the cockpit began to ice over. The Lakers players and staff shivered and sweated in the back, simultaneously. The pilots dipped low, seeking visibility, risking the treeline.

Less than a year earlier, rock ‘n’ roll’s Buddy Holly‘s plane had gone done in similar bad weather in Mason City, Iowa. This time, pilot Gifford peered out an open side window and locked onto highway US-71 as a guide but couldn’t find a rural airport. The lights of tiny Carroll began to blink on as residents were awakened by the late-night roar of the plane’s engine.

In the distance, the pilots saw a snow-covered cornfield, unharvested, the stalks still standing upright. If they could only …

Aw, no sense trying to sum it all up here. Especially with the book out and available everywhere, in print and electronic forms, including here and here.

Griner Wouldn’t Be Longest Draft Reach

HANG TIME, Texas – Never underestimate Mark Cuban’s knack for attracting attention. And who could blame him if the idea was to draw it away from his underperforming team that is ironically keeping a team of barbers on hold at the same time they’re about to cut off their string of consecutive playoff appearances at 12 years?

Should the Mavericks draft Brittney Griner?

Let cranky Geno Auriemma be outraged and throw bricks. Let former greats of the women’s game Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers Drysdale offer their words encouragement to the Baylor star. Let Griner give even the most outrageous hope and dreams to any little girl who has ever dribbled a basketball.

Let’s face it. The Mavs selecting Griner wouldn’t be the first unusual pick in the history of the NBA draft. And before you snicker, remember that somebody took Pervis Ellison, Greg Oden, Kwame Brown and Michael Olowokandi No. 1. Here’s a reminder of a few others off-beat choices down through the years:

JIM BROWN (Syracuse Nationals, 1957 ) – The Nats didn’t have to reach outside the city limits to take a flyer on the guy who would become perhaps the greatest player in NFL history. Brown played four college sports — football, basketball, lacrosse and track — at Syracuse. He even averaged 15 points a game for the basketball team in his sophomore year. But even though there was little doubt that Brown was bound for a career on the gridiron, the Nats made him a ninth-round pick.

Other notables in draft: “Hot Rod” Hundley (No. 1 overall by Cincinnati, traded to Minneapolis); Sam Jones (No. 8 by Boston).

FRANK HOWARD (Philadelphia Warriors, 1958) – It wasn’t just his physical stature at 6-foot-8, 275 pounds that caught the attention of the Warriors in the third round. He could really play and was an All-American in basketball at Ohio State. But baseball was Howard’s first love and he signed with the Dodgers and had a 15-year career in the majors, hitting 382 home runs with 1,119 RBIs.

Other notables in the draft: Elgin Baylor (No. 1 overall by Minneapolis); Hal Greer (No. 13 by Syracuse).

BUBBA SMITH (Baltimore Bullets, 1967) — Long before he became known for playing the role of Moses Hightower in the Police Academy movies and starring in Miller Lite commercials, the 6-foot-7 Smith was an All-American defensive end at Michigan State. His height attracted the attention of the Bullets in the 11th round of the NBA draft, but Smith was the No. 1 overall pick of the NFL Colts and a champion in Super Bowl V.

Other notables in the draft: Earl Monroe (No. 2 overall by Baltimore); Walt Frazier (No. 5 by New York).

BOB BEAMON (Phoenix Suns, 1969) – Who could blame the Suns for taking a flying leap? After all, they were coming off a 16-66 record in their expansion season in the league and Beamon had just shattered the world long jump record by more than a foot at the Mexico City Olympics. Beamon had grown up playing street ball in New York, but was strictly a track and field athlete in college at Texas-El Paso. The Suns picked him in the 15th round of the draft, but he went back to school and graduated with a sociology degree from Adelphi University.

DENISE LONG (San Francisco Warriors, 1969) — The 18 year old out of Union-Whitten High in Iowa was the first woman ever drafted in the NBA, taken in the 13th round. She had averaged 69.6 points and had a single game high of 111 points in her senior year. NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy voided the pick, calling it a publicity stunt by Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli and also noted that high school players weren’t eligible at the time. Mieuli brought Long and other female players in to play before Warriors home games.

Other notables in the draft: Lew Alcindor (No. 1 overall by Milwaukee); JoJo White (No. 9 by Boston); Mack Calvin (187th by L.A. Lakers).

DAVE WINFIELD (Atlanta Hawks, 1973) – It wasn’t just the Hawks who were trying to get their talons on one of the greatest all-around college athletes ever with their fifth-round pick. He was also drafted by the Utah Stars of the ABA and the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, but went to baseball when the San Diego Padres chose him as a pitcher. In college at Minnesota, Bill Musselman once called him the best rebounder he ever coached. But Winfield did quite well in baseball, a 12-time All-Star with 465 career homers.

Other notables in the draft: Doug Collins (No. 1 overall by Philadelphia); Kermit Washington (No. 5 by L.A. Lakers).

BRUCE JENNER (Kansas City Kings, 1977) — Before face lifts and the Kardashians, there was a time when Jenner was known as the “world’s greatest athlete” after taking the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and the Kings made him a seventh-round draft pick. He never played in college and the closest Jenner ever got to basketball stardom was when he sank a shot during the singing of YMCA in the 1980 movie Can’t Stop the Music, which starred the Village People.

LUSIA HARRIS (New Orleans Jazz, 1977) – Here’s the real forerunner to Griner. A 6-foot-3 pioneer of the women’s game who led Delta State to three consecutive national titles, Harris was the second female ever drafted by an NBA team when the Jazz made her a seventh-round pick. Just imagine the show if she had been given a chance to team up with Pete Maravich in the backcourt. Harris showed little interest in her selection and declined a tryout invitation from the Jazz. It was later revealed that she was pregnant at the time.

Other notables in the draft: Bernard King (No. 7 overall by New York Nets); Jack Sikma (No. 8 by Seattle).

TONY GWYNN (San Diego Clippers, 1981) — After he set the San Diego State assist records for a game, season and career, he was hardly a reach for the Clippers in the 10th round of the draft. Gwynn said that dribbling strengthened his wrists and helped with bat speed and his on-court quickness made him a better base-runner. It all added up to a Hall of Fame baseball career with 3,141 hits and eight N.L. batting titles.

YASUTAKA OKAYAMA (Golden State Warriors, 1981) — Tallest player ever drafted by an NBA team? Not Yao Ming or Gheorge Muresan or Manute Bol. Try Okayama, who was 7-foot-8. He earned a second degree black belt in judo in his native Japan and began playing basketball at age 18 at Osaka University of Commerce. Okayama attended the University of Portland (Ore.), but did not play there. He was a member of the Japanese national team from 1979 to 1986. He never signed with the Warriors or attended a camp.

Other notables in the draft: Mark Aguirre (No. 1 overall by Dallas); Isiah Thomas (No. 2 by Detroit).

CARL LEWIS (Chicago Bulls, 1984) — It might have been the year when Michael Jordan earned his first gold medal, but Lewis was definitely the biggest star of the L.A. Olympics, tying Jesse Owens’ record of four track and field gold medals. Though he never played basketball in high school or college, a West Coast scout recommended drafting Lewis in the 10th round because he was “the best athlete available.” That same year the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the 12th round as a wide receiver. Lewis stayed with sprinting and the long jump to become arguably the greatest track and field athlete ever.

Other notables in the draft: Hakeem Olajuwon (No. 1 overall by Houston); Michael Jordan (No. 3 by Chicago); Charles Barkley (No. 5 by Philadelphia); John Stockton (No. 16 by Utah).

Buss, Hearn Rank Among Greatest Lakers

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They gathered at the Nokia Theater in downtown Los Angeles on Friday, on Chick Hearn Drive and everything, for a public goodbye to Jerry Buss, with Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Stern, Shaquille O’Neal and others talking at a memorial for the Lakers owner who died last Monday. That was followed by a private ceremony Friday as Buss was laid to rest.

Mourners spoke with sincerity and humor – and even love, the way Johnson came to view Buss as a father figure – and in some cases tried to define Buss’ impact on the NBA since buying the Lakers in 1979. That was the easy part. Former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo said “He was as innovative as anyone I’ve met in basketball in my four or five decades.” Stern noted a few years ago that “Jerry, quite simply, was a pioneer in understanding what the value of entertainment was in a community” and 10 titles is a statement all its own. Buss made historic contributions.

Placing him in the entire Lakers stratosphere, home to legends on and off the court, is tougher. Several of the 10 or 15 greatest talents in league history have played, or continue to play, for the franchise. One of them (West) is also among the best front-office minds ever. This is the organization that had the rarity of a broadcaster making the Hall of Fame.

Put it this way: Wilt Chamberlain casts a shadow over most every player in NBA history, but has trouble cracking the team’s top 10 because all he had was five seasons. Some were pretty remarkable (20.5 points and 21.1 rebounds in 1968-69, 27.3 points and 18.4 rebounds in 1969-70), but the cold reality is that the imposing Wilt wasn’t even the best center in the L.A. era. Abdul-Jabbar was, and O’Neal may be ahead of Chamberlain as well.

Strictly on impact during the Los Angeles years:

1. West. He averaged 27 points, 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds while playing his entire 14-year career for the Lakers, numbers that stand out enough but are especial because he and Elgin Baylor helped the team carve out an audience after the franchise moved from Minneapolis. And then West became the personnel boss who kept L.A. in near-constant title contention. Plus, he coached three seasons. His presence with the Lakers span four decades – from 1960 through 2000 – and set standards as a player and executive.

2. Johnson. He was more than just great to the extent of three MVP awards, three Finals MVPs and centerpiece of five championship clubs. Johnson was, well, Magic. He was the embodiment of what Buss wanted in a glam franchise, he was a leader, and he was demanding in a way that was welcome at the time but would have been savaged today in the way every Bryant sideways look at a teammate is dissected.

3. Buss. The doctoral student in chemistry turned real-estate mogul turned owner was the only Laker who bought his way into the organization. Once there, he tilted life in Los Angeles toward the NBA, surpassing the Dodgers in passion in a change that once seemed impossible. Buss did more than just fund West’s jackpot roster moves. He made the money flow by promoting the Lakers as a Hollywood landmark with glitter falling off players as they breezed downcourt, which made the rest of the league jealous and/or angry but also made the rest of the league rich. Buss was known to meddle in personnel decisions, but, a gambler himself, also urged West to go for broke rather than play it safe.

4. Bryant. His on-court feats make him one of the legends regardless, but he gets extra credit as a player who bridged championship generations. Bryant may be known to many for being divisive but should be remembered, among the many positives, for being part of a continuation, no easy task. Simply, if Bryant does not work, prepare and will himself into becoming a superstar, the Lakers get more like one, maybe two, titles in the 2000s instead of the five.

5. Phil Jackson. Jackson was an underrated coach, far better on Xs and Os than most outside the game would credit, but his presence was undeniable. The credibility he built up from the Bulls years allowed him to tweak, drive, cajole and manage head-strong Bryant and head-strong O’Neal. Most others in the same situation would have become road kill.

6. Pat Riley. What a fit in style of play and style period. Riley mastered the psychological tricks long before Jackson and perfected the Showtime system Buss wanted, all the way to Riles becoming part of the Hollywood production himself. The slicked-back hair, the expensive suits, the draw to the spotlight, the growing ego – Riley fit the mold. Four titles in seven years said it was OK to be that way.

7. Abdul-Jabbar. Of course the numbers – the average of 22.1 points and 9.4 rebounds in 14 seasons in L.A., the three MVPs in that time, the five championships, the first two seasons of leading the league in five statistical categories each time. But the real impact is that Showtime doesn’t play out to full glory without his professionalism and preparation. Imagine if Abdul-Jabbar led with his ego when Magic splashed onto the scene. Imagine the infighting, imagine the trade possibilities that could have altered the NBA landscape for years. Kareem was a selfless, well-liked teammate from high school to college to the pros, and never was that more meaningful in setting an example of maturity with the Lakers.

8. O’Neal. People forget, in the rush to knock Shaq for his behavior late in his career, that the O’Neal of the Lakers years was an awesome display of power that few can come close to matching, let alone actually being on the same short list. When the work effort matched the talent, he was that rarity of the player no team could answer. And when the work effort didn’t, because of health or dedication, he still put up Hall of Fame numbers.

9. Baylor. He never won a championship, which pained him decades later anytime someone mentioned it as a needle, but an incredible forward who once averaged at least 27 points a game in five out of six seasons. It was Baylor, not West, who was the established star to attract attention when the team moved to Los Angeles in 1960.

10. Chick Hearn. A tough call between Hearn and Chamberlain. Chick’s impact on the Lakers, though, is greater. He had a huge role popularizing the NBA after the move from Minneapolis and, in decades to come, became nothing short of one of the popular men in the city, if not the sporting world. Hearn was a connection that lasted decades.

Garnett Stands Alone At This Stats Summit With … Guess Who?

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Kevin Garnett, drawing on the muscle memory of tens of thousands similar movements, leaped high and spun around for yet another fadeaway jump shot. It was the same as so many before it — and completely different and special too.

When Garnett’s shot dropped at 8:07 of the second quarter Thursday in Boston’s blowout victory over the Lakers at TD Garden, it boosted him to 25,000 points in his NBA career. More than that, by reaching the latest in his mash-up of big number thresholds — at least 25,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists, 1,500 steals and 1,500 blocks — Garnett joined an elite class of … one.

Just him. That’s it. With a hat-tip to Celtics radio play-by-play man Sean Grande for his swift Tweet noting the achievement, the fact is no one else in NBA history has bundled all those milestones into one illustrious career.

Let’s pause here to consider whether Garnett, thus, might rank even higher on the list of all-time greats than we might previously have pegged him.

(Silence. Pondering. Reflecting historically.)

“I’m sure someday when I’m rocking in a rocking chair, having a cigar or something, thinking about what I’ve done, I’m sure it will make some sense to me,” Garnett told reporters after the game.

OK, if he won’t do it now, we will: Garnett has combined longevity, durability, production and versatility like no one else in league annals. And scoring — where he now ranks 16th on the all-time NBA list — was in some ways the least of his skills or priorities, given his passion for boyhood idol Magic Johnson‘s pass-first approach (assists) and the intensity with which he embraces defense (rebounds, steals, blocks).

Across the six truly prime seasons of Garnett’s career, from 1999-2000 through 2004-05, he averaged 22.6 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists. He topped 20-10-5 each year  — only Larry Bird did it as many as five times — but he did it in Minnesota, in flyover country for national media, as a 7-footer, on Timberwolves teams that surrounded him with limited help.

Was he a stats monster? Yes, but out of necessity, not merely for show. Garnett lugged the Wolves to eight straight playoff appearances from his second year in Minnesota through his ninth. At no point during his 12 seasons there did he underperform his contracts, not the controversial six-year, $126 million one that served as fuel for the 1998 lockout nor the nine-figure extension that followed.

Only when Garnett got to Boston, on the dark side of 30, did his workload lighten and his focus shift. With Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and eventually Rajon Rondo around — the highest-quality teammates he’s ever had — Garnett could focus on defense and offensive flow. He earned his precious championship ring in his first season as a Celtic — who can forget his goofy, post-Finals elation? — and was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. As his minutes dipped, he went for surgical impact rather than total game domination.

Now he stands alone atop a mountain range of stats.

Or nearly so.

The NBA portion of the record book is clear: No other player has amassed the numbers in those five categories that Garnett has. Some legends miss because they played all or part of their careers prior to 1973-74, the first season steals and blocks were recorded. Elgin Baylor might have been a candidate but he retired in November 1971. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit four of the five milestones but got no credit for steals for his first four seasons. He finished with 1,160 — and had 397 in 310 games in his fifth through eighth seasons.

Wilt Chamberlain? Though the Dipper led the NBA in assists one season and averaged 4.4 over his career, he ended with 4,643.

Hakeem Olajuwon was short on assists (3,058). Tim Duncan won’t make it in either assists (3,546) or steals (857). Oscar Robertson, the ultimate triple-double man, didn’t get any steals or blocks until his final season and didn’t reach 10,000 in rebounds (9,887).

Bill Russell didn’t score enough. Michael Jordan didn’t board or block enough. Bird and Baylor didn’t play long enough. Admittedly, Garnett got an early start coming right into the NBA from high school, but that just earns him props for guts (to do it) and good health (to last this long).

LeBron James? He has the same preps-to-pros advantage as Garnett. But halfway through his 10th season, James has blocked 621 shots. Double that for a 19-year career and he still would be 258 swats short.

Upon further review, however, there is one man who can stand toe-to-toe, if not eye-to-eye, with Garnett at this particular summit. The trick to finding him is to switch out the qualifier from “in NBA history” to “in NBA/ABA history.” And there he is – Julius Erving, a completely different player from Garnett but with comparable numbers and matching milestones.

Erving’s NBA-only stats are solid: 18,364 points, 5,601 rebounds, 3,224 assists, 1,508 steals and 1,293 blocks in 11 seasons. But The Doctor spent his first five seasons interning in the ABA, playing 407 of his eventual 1,243 games. And his numbers there were staggering: 28.7 ppg, 12.1 rpg, 4.0 apg, 2.4 spg, 2.0 bpg.

Add the totals to his NBA work and Erving’s line is: 30,026 points, 10,525 rebounds, 5,176 assists, 2,272 steals and 1,941 blocks in 16 seasons.

Erving, somewhat neglected himself in “all-time” talk, is remembered as one of the game’s great artists and ambassadors, revealing a nasty streak only at the end of his highlight throw-downs. Garnett is known as one of the most competitive, cantankerous and crude blast furnaces to roam the NBA’s courts, with a far greater defensive inclination.

It elevates both of them to share this particular achievement.

No. 1 question: Will Davis stay?

So the question is: Where do you think Anthony Davis will finish up his NBA career?

Didn’t mean to make anyone in New Orleans spit out their Sazerac. Not suggesting that there are problems buzzing around the hive of the Hornets.

It’s just that when the word came out over the weekend that Kwame Brown was signed by the Sixers, it got us to thinking about overall No. 1 picks in the NBA draft and how many of them went on to be certified stars and played their entire career with the team that picked them.

Not many, as it turns out.

If we discount the past five top choices — Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Davis — as being too early in their careers to measure, the fact is that only a dozen of the first 61 No. 1 picks in league history played for just one team. That is including Dwight Howard, who has one foot out the door in Orlando and Greg Oden, who has not yet been signed by another team since leaving Portland.

What’s more, only four of those No. 1 picks went on to become Hall of Famers — Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, James Worthy and David Robinson. Tim Duncan will surely become the next to join the elite list.

The point is that even at the very top of the draft batting order, it’s quite rare to plug in a name and expect that player will never wear another jersey. Oscar Robertson went to Milwaukee to get his championship ring. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar jumped from Milwaukee to L.A. Hakeem Olajuwon finished his career in Toronto, Patrick Ewing with stops in Seattle and Orlando.

Which brings us back to Brown, who’ll be taking career averages of 6.8 points and 5.6 rebounds to Philly.

Sixers president Rod Thorn has heard and read all of the wise cracks about his team’s pick-up and thinks it is time that fans got past the line on Brown’s resume that says where Michael Jordan picked him in 2001, according to Spike Eskin of CBSPhilly.

“You’re looking at Kwame Brown from the standpoint of being the first pick in the NBA Draft once upon a time,” Thorn told 94WIP’s Angelo Cataldi and the WIP Morning Show. “We don’t need him to do that. What we need him to do is be a defensive player, rebounder, stalwart on our back line to help us from that angle, that’s something we didn’t have and what Kwame has done over the latter part of his career. He wasn’t a great player as the first pick the draft. If he was the 25th pick in the draft I think the fans would look at him a little bit differently.”

While Philly is the seventh stop on Brown’s career, he is hardly the most peripatetic No. 1 pick. That is just over halfway to Joe Smith’s record of 13 different teams since he was the No. 1 pick in the 1995 draft.

But Brown has plenty of traveling company. After being picked No. 1 in 1959 (Wilt Chamberlain was a territorial pick of the Warriors then), Bob Boozer played for six different teams. Walt Bellamy was the top pick in 1961, played for six different teams and never won a championship, but still was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Jim Barnes was the No. 1 pick in 1964 and also played for a half dozen teams.

And, of course, there was The Big Ring Chaser, Shaquille O’Neal, who hopscotched from Orlando to L.A. to Miami to Phoenix to Cleveland to Boston.

So in the wake of Kwame Brown’s latest move, we’ll ask the question again: Where do you think Anthony Davis will finish his up his NBA career?

When he’s all business, Bynum works





SAN ANTONIO – George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Andrew Bynum.

Those are the five Lakers who have pulled down 30 rebounds in a single game. Those are also the five reasons that Bynum’s flake-out over the past few weeks has been so frustrating.

For one, the 24-year-old center has the potential to be the driving force behind another deep run for the Lakers in the playoffs this season. For another, he could be the anchor for the next Lakers’ dynasty.

Bynum grabbed 30 boards, which was a career high for him and the best rebounding game in the NBA this season, on Wednesday night in a 98-84 whipping of the Spurs. He didn’t merely dominate the boards, he devoured them. At halftime he had 19 rebounds to just 18 by the entire San Antonio team. By the fourth quarter, the Lakers had built a 26-point lead.

They did it all without Kobe Bryant, who missed his third straight game due to an inflammation in his left shin.

They did it because Metta World Peace turned back the clock to his old Ron Artest days, dialing up 5-for-8 from behind the 3-point line for 26 points, because Pau Gasol went for 21 points and 11 rebounds and Matt Barnes came off the bench for 13 points.

“We always want Kobe on the floor with us, but with or without him, we’re always a tough matchup for a lot of teams because of our size,” said Gasol.

(more…)

And Onesanity




  • The basketball perspective? It’s a hot streak. A lot of guys have ridden the comet like this. Mostly All-Stars or even Hall of Famers, but we’re still talking seven games, five of which have been against opponents that today have losing records. This is not about basketball. Jeremy Lin has transcended sports.
  • It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Lin is humble and genuine and entered the league with the Warriors last season just wanting to be one of the guys, even if it was an unrealistric goal even then. He was a local product, an Asian-American in the Bay Area and the focus of such an immediate buzz, no matter how many wrongly try to portray February 2012 as some moment of discovery, that Golden State had to call a press conference to introduce an undrafted rookie who would need to improve just to crack the rotation. You don’t have to root for the Knicks to root for Lin.
  • Welcome to a world where a guy with a Harvard economics degree is considered an underdog.
  • Lin could retire tomorrow and have made more of a mark in a couple weeks — in New York, in NBA history — than most do in years. Talk about perspective.