Posts Tagged ‘Jerry West’

The China Experience, And What Comes Next For NBA Overseas

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HANG TIME WEST – The girl — about 5-foot-2 and appearing to be in her mid-teens — was caught in the mosh pit, jostled by enthusiastic fans on the rope line outside the hotel the teams shared in Beijing and overly aggressive security guards who would get unnecessarily physical to control situations. And she didn’t care.

It was the first morning the Lakers and Warriors were in China, last Sunday outside the Ritz-Carlton. She had straight dark hair parted in the middle, down just past the shoulders, black-rimmed glasses with yellow temples, paper in hand. She also had a dark streak from right eye to throat, tears combined with mascara.

She was crying at the chance to see Warriors players, coaches and staffers walk past on the way to the bus to practice, most of whom stopped among the crowd for autographs and pictures. A.C. Green, the former Laker and current Oakland resident on the trip as an NBA ambassador, spent about 20 minutes, or until every one of the few dozen fans who wanted an interaction left happy. It was the teenage girl who spoke up.

“I love basketball,” she said in broken English. “It is the importance of my life.”

The Warriors and Lakers in China was a hard schedule even with the first-class travel, with a series of appearances in the name of NBA public relations when players would rather have had alone time, and it was an unwanted trip for many with the regular season coming fast. But it was undeniably an experience of unique sights and sounds. Just ask Green and the girl with black watery line down her face.

A basketball takeaway? The 14 assists and five steals by Andre Iguodala in Shanghai on Friday. It was exhibition play, and not exactly against the dream Lakers lineup on a night no L.A. starter broke 26 minutes, Iguodala the distributor is intriguing look when Stephen Curry is out, or maybe even when Curry is in and able to play off the ball. Toney Douglas may be listed as Curry’s backup, but Iguodala, the likely starter at small forward or shooting guard, said he feels comfortable at the point. He has experience in the pros, mostly from his 76ers days. If Iguodala can be successful there, Golden State can play very big (Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes or Draymond Green, David Lee, Andrew Bogut) as part of several lineup options coach Mark Jackson can deploy with a versatile roster.

Meanwhile, Jerry West delighting in the chance to go mostly unrecognized proved to be short-lived. He received a very loud ovation at the first game, Tuesday in Beijing, when he was brought to center court to be introduced with Dell Curry, Muggsy Bogues and Green, and so many fans interrupted West at his seat back in the stands that the Warriors executive was finally moved to the scorer’s table with security close. Team officials are ordinarily not allowed to sit there, but the rules are bent for The Logo in a different continent.

Kobe Bryant left China with his status for the regular season in as much doubt as when he arrived. Bryant has not ruled out opening night, Oct. 29 against the Clippers, and he continues to increase the workout activities in the return from a torn Achilles’ tendon. But he is also underlining patience. As much as he wants to be on the court as soon as possible, Bryant gets the risk of coming back too soon and playing before the injury is fully healed.

The Warriors landed in Oakland at 1 a.m. Saturday with plans for a very quiet Saturday and a light practice Sunday to get re-adjusted to California time, and then for a big week ahead for the entire organization: Talks on an extension for Andrew Bogut could accelerate, with both sides optimistic a deal can get done before or very early into the regular season. A Golden State insider, while cautioning a lot of negotiating remains, agreed with Bogut’s assessment that team and player are starting serious conversations in the same ballpark on dollars and with common ground on length and possible incentive clauses based on games played. There is no deadline, but Bogut, hoping to stay, either wants the contract done soon or table the issue until after the season.

Beijing and Shanghai both have nice basketball facilities, but especially Shanghai, with Mercedes-Benz Arena and a second quality building in another part of town that was used for a Fan Appreciation Day. Shanghai as a whole has a very modern vibe. It has about six million more people in the city itself, yet seems to move smoother and is cleaner than the country’s government center.

One other thing about Beijing: Cabbies make the most ruthless of New York taxi drivers seem timid. It’s probably not only the cabbies, either. Traffic lines are suggestions, yielding to pedestrians an occasional happening.

And finally, there was Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni on Thursday in Shanghai, when asked what kind of restaurant he went to the night before with Yao Ming: “Chinese. But that would be just ‘food’ over here, right?”

Jerry West Gets The Chance To Not Be Jerry West


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BEIJING –
After he survived the steep half-mile walk that could have taken the place of an NBA conditioning session, after he endured a gauntlet of vendors shouting from both sides of the incline and stepping in front of shoppers to take a charge if it meant selling the kitsch, and after the uneasy gondola ride another 1,900 feet into the grey sky, Jerry West stood on the Great Wall.

He stared out over the valley lush with green and fall accents of red and gold. He smiled.

The Sunday visit with the Warriors, in his role as a minority owner with a voice in basketball operations while making appearances around the Bay Area, was an escape. A vacation, one of his former players, A.C. Green, called it.

A vacation from being Jerry West.

Fans scream for the attention of current players, not the man who became the logo for the entire NBA. Security forces dressed in black army boots, black pants and black shirts with white lettering and with black ear pieces are everywhere in cushioning the rosters of the Warriors and Lakers, the teams that play here Tuesday and in Shanghai on Friday as part of the league’s Global Games. While all this is happening, one of the greatest players in history is mostly unrecognized.

“You know what?” he said, standing on the Wall. “It’s really fun. It is. It’s nice.”

In an hour of walking among hundreds of Chinese residents with wife Karen as the Warriors toured the Mutianyu section of the historic structure, and mostly roaming away from the security detail, West is stopped three times. Two of the times are by American fans. One of those times, by a couple from Los Angeles.

“I was there when you made your 55 footer, by the way,” the man from Los Angeles tells West while walking away, referring to the famous buzzer-beater against the Knicks in the 1970 Finals.

West smiles in acknowledgement but also knows the truth: If everyone who said the same thing actually was there, capacity inside the Forum would have been 100,000.

Only near the end of the tour is West approached by an Asian, a man appearing to be in his early-20s. West smiles, shakes his hand and signs an autograph.

“I think coming to a foreign country and seeing people who are enthusiastic about it (the NBA) but not crazy-crazy, it refreshes him,” said Green, the former West first-round pick who is here as an ambassador for the league. “…. This is a vacation for him. He can really enjoy being here with Karen and just take in the culture and embrace that without a super-demanding schedule or interacting with demanding people.”

West is in good spirits as he takes the gondola ride back down the mountain, followed by the return trip through the rowdy venders to get to the bus for the two-hour drive through traffic to the team hotel. The history buff, in China for the first time, got to see the famous Wall. And he got to see it as a normal tourist.

He got his vacation.

Frantic Free-Agent Pursuit Of Howard Proves Talent Rules Over All



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Let the current Dwight Howard derby playing out in Los Angeles serve as Exhibit A for the defense. It’s talent over everything else where NBA free agency is concerned.

The same things that Howard has been bashed for the past year and half — his inability to make up his mind, a less than Dwight-like performance after back surgery, an emotional vulnerability while serving as a musclebound pinata for the pundits, etc. — are the same things that inspired the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers to ignore the rest of the free-agent field or what it will cost them in luxury-tax penalties (in the Lakers’ case) for an all-out pursuit of Howard’s services this summer.

Howard, 27, is far from washed up and is in the midst of his physical prime. And despite opinions to the contrary (sorry, Shaquille O’Neal, but you and plenty of others are wrong on this one), Howard is still the best big man in basketball. And Howard with a chip on his shoulder, with his talent, is a player all of these teams would love to build around.

The man Shaq suggested was ready to dethrone Howard as the top big man in basketball, Andrew Bynum, didn’t play a single second in Philadelphia this season and is low on the priority list for most teams.

Al Jefferson, the only other potential All-Star-caliber center in this free-agent class, is being pursued by the Charlotte Bobcats. But not with the fervor of these teams that are chasing Howard.

Can you envision Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Yao Ming (via Skype), Jerry West or any of the other stars who have volunteered to help their respective teams chase Howard in free agency doing the same for Bynum or Jefferson?

That’s not to say Howard hasn’t had his issues. And he’ll have to work to rebuild his brand with fans wherever he goes. But his stock is sky-high with the folks whose professional livelihood depends on them getting this right.

Howard changes the dynamic in places like Houston, Dallas, Golden State and Atlanta. Those teams instantly move into a championship-level tax bracket with Howard as the centerpiece of their franchises. (The Lakers tried it already and barely made the playoffs.)

“Don’t let all of that chatter from the season fool you,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “Dwight was going to be the game-changer in this free-agent class no matter what. He could have sat and rested that back through All-Star weekend and he’d still command this kind of attention in free agency. There is no one else in his class as a big man when he’s right.”

After Midnight Free-Agent Madness





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Who’s waiting on Dwight Howard?

Not the Detroit Pistons, who have bypassed the Howard free agency sweepstakes for a chance to snag Josh Smith, the versatile forward who ranks as the hottest commodity on the market not named Howard in the first hour since free agency began at 12:01 a.m. ET.

Pistons boss Joe Dumars and his brain trust met with Smith and his camp shortly after midnight with the sides discussing a significant four-year deal that would see Smith join an already impressive young frontcourt group that includes Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.

The Pistons would be the “surprise” team mentioned at the bottom of this report from Sunday morning and per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, who highlights the Hawks’ willingness to work a sign-and-trade deal for Smith rather than re-signing him themselves.

Anything is possible now that we have crossed the threshold into what some folks like to call the NBA’s silly season.

Only in the minutes immediately after midnight do we find out that a guy like Chase Budinger, a fine player, could end up being targeted by more teams than a player the likes of Al Jefferson.

Crazy season is more like it. (more…)

Game 7 Often Produces High Drama

MIAMI – Game 7 of The Finals is the ultimate basketball experience for both players and fans. One game for everything. And it often lives up to the moment.

The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat will play the 18th Game 7 in Finals history on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC), the last since the Los Angeles Lakers edged the Boston Celtics in 2010. That one went down to the final minute, as have many others. In fact, 12 of the 17 previous Finals Game 7s, including each of the last four, have been decided by seven points or less. They have featured some wild comebacks and several scary moments for the eventual champions.

The home team has won 14 of the 17, but we can’t forget that the Celtics had a three-point lead midway through the fourth quarter of that Game 7 three years ago. In 2005, the Spurs and Detroit Pistons were tied with 12 minutes to play.

That was the only Finals Game 7 the Spurs have played. Neither the Heat nor LeBron James have ever played in a Finals Game 7. Pat Riley has been there multiple times, however.

Here’s a look back at the five best Finals Game 7s of all-time, along with a full list below.

And for a complete history of Game 7s, check out NBA.com/Stats.

5. 1955 – Nationals 92, Pistons 91


The Nats trailed by as many as 17 points in the second quarter. Fortunately though, the league instituted the 24-second shot clock, invented by their owner Danny Biasone, that season. That allowed them to come all the way back and George King hit one of two free throws with 12 seconds left to give them a one-point lead. He then stole the ball from Ft. Wayne’s Andy Phillip to seal the championship.

4. 1988 – Lakers 108, Pistons 105


Up 3-2, the Pistons lost Game 6 similarly to how the Spurs lost Game 6 on Tuesday. They had a three-point lead with a minute to go and the championship trophy was ready in their locker room. But a Byron Scott jumper and two Kareem Abdul-Jabbar free throws pushed the series to Game 7.

With Isiah Thomas limping around on a bad ankle, the Lakers built a 15-point lead early in the fourth quarter of Game 7. But the Pistons came back to within two with just over a minute to go. They were down one with six seconds left, but A.C. Green broke away from the pack to make it a three-point game again and, as the crowd began to storm the floor, Thomas couldn’t get a game-tying three off.

3. 1969 – Celtics 108, Lakers 106


With Jack Kent Cooke‘s balloons up in the Forum rafters, the Lakers trailed by 17 early in the fourth quarter and lost Wilt Chamberlain to an injury midway through the period. But Jerry West led them back within a point. With just over a minute left, the Lakers’ Keith Erickson stripped John Havlicek, but the ball went straight to Don Nelson, who launched a jumper that hit the back of the rim, bounced high in the air, and dropped through the net.

It was Bill Russell‘s 11th and final championship and the first time the road team had won Game 7 of The Finals. West, the only Finals MVP from a losing team, finished with 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the deciding game.

2. 1962 – Celtics 110, Lakers 107 (OT)


There’s no better way to cap a great series featuring multiple Hall of Famers than with an overtime in Game 7. It wouldn’t have gone to OT, however, if the Lakers’ Frank Selvy hit the eight-foot, baseline jumper at the end of regulation.

He didn’t and the Celtics built a five-point lead in overtime before holding on for their fifth championship and fourth on their run of eight straight. Elgin Baylor led all scorers with 41 points, while Russell registered 30 points and 40 rebounds for Boston.

Each of the final five games of the series was determined by five points or less. Here’s video of West winning Game 3 with a steal and layup in the final three seconds.

1. 1957 – Celtics 125, Hawks 123 (2OT)


Two overtimes for the NBA title? Yes, please. The Hawks tied the game in the final seconds of regulation with two Bob Pettit free throws and in the final seconds of overtime with a Jack Coleman jumper. With his team down two again at the end of the second OT, St. Louis’ Alex Hannum purposely threw a full-court pass off the backboard to Pettit, but the Hall of Famer couldn’t convert and the Celtics won their first of 17 championships.

Boston rookies Russell and Tommy Heinsohn combined for 56 points and 55 rebounds.

Finals Game 7s

Year Home H Pts Away A Pts Margin Video
1951 Rochester 79 New York 75 4
1952 Minneapolis 82 New York 65 17
1954 Minneapolis 87 Syracuse 80 7 1954 Lakers
1955 Syracuse 92 Fort Wayne 91 1 Dolph Schayes: The Evolution of the Game
1957** Boston 125 St. Louis 123 2 1957 Celtics
1960 Boston 122 St. Louis 103 19
1962* Boston 110 L.A. Lakers 107 3 1962 NBA Finals
1966 Boston 95 L.A. Lakers 93 2 1966 NBA Finals
1969 L.A. Lakers 106 Boston 108 2 1969 Game 7
1970 New York 113 L.A. Lakers 99 14 1970: Willis Reed
1974 Milwaukee 87 Boston 102 15
1978 Seattle 99 Washington 105 6 1978 Game 7
1984 Boston 111 L.A. Lakers 102 9 1984 Game 7
1988 L.A. Lakers 108 Detroit 105 3 Big Game James
1994 Houston 90 New York 84 6 1994 Game 7
2005 San Antonio 81 Detroit 74 7 2005 Game 7
2010 L.A. Lakers 83 Boston 79 4 Game 7 Mini-Movie

* Overtime
** Double-overtime

Rating Ray Allen’s Big 3-Pointer





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Ray Allen‘s clutch corner 3-pointer that sent Game 6 of The Finals to overtime didn’t even rank among the top three impact plays in the final analysis of that epic contest.

My main man and NBA.com’s analytics expert John Schuhmann said something about the shot only increasing the Heat’s win probability by 10.8 percent, from 22.0 percent to 32.7 percent, or something like that.

But if the measurement was “Most Memorable 3-pointers Made in The Finals,” Allen’s shot that saved the Heat’s season (for at least 48, or more, minutes) has to rank among the best clutch shots from long distance anyone has made.

Win Game 7 Thursday night and, years from now, Allen’s shot will be the one that sticks out. It’ll rank right along some of the greatest clutch 3-pointers in the history of The Finals … shots like these:

Big Shot Bob (aka Robert Horry)’s dagger for the San Antonio Spurs in 2005 …


John Paxson’s crunch-time strike for the Chicago Bulls in 1993 …


TNT’s Kenny Smith’s money shot for the Houston Rockets in 1995 …


Dirk Nowitzki’s long-range shredder for the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 …

Jerry West’s 60-footer (it was only worth two points then) for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1970 …

And finally, Ron Artest’s (now Metta World Peace) game-saver for the Lakers in 2010 …

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.

Riley: LeBron The Best Of … Them All?





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Sometimes you have to let the words marinate for a bit, take your glasses off, rub your eyes and breathe in the gravity of a statement before you react to it.

I watched LeBron James smile his way through another (well deserved) Kia Most Valuable Player Award ceremony Sunday, his fourth in five seasons. I watched every second and listened intently to every word spoken. James won the award months ago, when he pushed the Heat into overdrive and set them on a course for a record season that included that wicked 27-game win streak and more highlights than basketball law allows.

James earned the right to do and say whatever he wanted. But it wasn’t his words that stopped me in my tracks. It was Heat president Pat Riley who forced me to pause when he uttered these words:

“Over these 46 years, I’ve had an opportunity to see some great players — and all the ones I’ve observed, watched and have seen, they’ve always gotten better. In my humble opinion, I believe the man right here is the best of them all.”

The best of them all?

Wow!

Let that sink in for a minute. Roll that statement around in your head and consider what Riley has seen, who he has coached and who he has coached against, and then say it out loud again.

“The best of them all.”

That’s a mouthful coming from a man who has seen and done what Riley has throughout his nearly half century in the game. He’s been immersed in the league longer than I’ve been alive, so I’m not here to refute his humble opinion or even to debate whether or not we should wrap our heads around the fact that LeBron has evolved — in a decade, mind you — into a player worthy of such high praise.

I’m here strictly to examine Riley’s words, to see if there is any way to scan the past four-plus decades of the league and rank LeBron ahead of the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and so many others.

This is a man who played on the Lakers’ 1972 championship team alongside Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. So his humble opinion comes from a very particular place (player, coach and executive who has won championships), one where few men in the history of the game can draw from.

And yet I still needed time to digest his high praise of LeBron.

Riley was an assistant with the Lakers when a 20-year-old Johnson scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out seven assists in Game 6 of The Finals his rookie year to secure a championship while playing in place of an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was the Lakers’ coach for the four other titles they won during Magic’s tenure as the leader and maestro of the Showtime Lakers.

He watched Magic revolutionize the game, from the inside.

And Sunday he called LeBron the “best of them all.”

Riley’s Lakers teams battled Larry Bird and the Celtics and, later, he took on Jordan. When Riley coached the New York Knicks, his teams battled Jordan’s Bulls when Jordan was at his zenith. Anyone involved with the league during Jordan’s glory years, teammates and foes alike, tends to show him the proper respect and admit that he’s the greatest thing they’ve ever seen.

Riley retired Jordan’s No. 23 in Miami for Naismith’s sake. And Sunday, he called LeBron the “best of them all.”

Riley came down from the front office to coach the Shaq and Dwyane Wade-led Heat to a title in 2006. And on Sunday, after three full seasons with LeBron, he called the current king of the league the “best of them all.”

The same declaration from almost any other man would mean little to most. Everyone has opinions about who the true G.O.A.T is and most of them are framed by a generational bias that is hard to shake. But when a man with a breadth of experience that travels through time, or at least the past 46 years, points a finger at someone, it wakes you up.

Now, there will be cynics who insist that Riley is simply doing his duty as the Heat’s boss and making sure to dollop the proper praise on his star. After all, Riley is going to need LeBron’s signature on an extension soon to keep the Heat’s current run going.

But Riley doesn’t waste his words. And he certainly doesn’t seem like the type who will pander to a superstar’s ego in that way or on that stage, not just for soundbite’s sake.

Riley has competed with or against and coached or coached against many of the players who make onto the short list we all use when discussing the “best of them all.” For 46 years, he’s been in the middle of the mix in one way or another, well before anyone even knew what analytics were and the advanced-stats craze reshaped the game.

So when he speaks on a topic like this, one that crosses all of the generational lines most people avoid during these discussions, it’s hard not to take his words to heart.

And even if LeBron still trails Jordan, Magic, Kobe, Shaq and many others in the championship rings race, is it so far-fetched to believe that he really does rank at the very top as a truly unique and once-in-a-lifetime basketball talent?

Riley says no.

What say you?

Can Dwight Make Lakers House A Home?

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SAN ANTONIO — Long before they ever squared off down in the paint, exchanged pushes and shoves, elbows and hips and knees in the frenzy of a playoff game, Dwight Howard knew all about the Spurs’ No. 21.

“I literally grew up watching Tim Duncan,” said the Lakers center as he unlaced his sneakers following practice.

Howard was only 11 when Duncan was drafted No. 1 overall by San Antonio in 1997 and Duncan had already won two NBA titles by the time Howard entered the league as the No. 1 pick in 2004.

“He’s a big guy who handled the ball, shot the ball well, had a lot of moves on the block and made it tough for guys to guard.  I loved watching that.”

But Howard never tried to imitate that. The truth is, his angular body and his offensive moves that are less-than fluid did always resemble those of another famous Spur, David Robinson. Those two have become friends, occasionally chatting by phone.

Yet when it came time for hero worship, Howard cast his gaze in the direction of, perhaps, the most famous big man of all time.

“My childhood idol was Wilt Chamberlain,” Howard said.

But it wasn’t grainy old videotapes that piqued his interest. The 1980’s-era Alphie the Robot, a one-foot tall toy that asked questions and dispensed bits of trivia to young minds, first told Howard about Chamberlain.

“He used to say: ‘Wilt Chamberlain scored a hundred points,’ ” Howard recalled.  “I was intrigued by Wilt Chamberlain from that moment on.  I wanted to meet him, but he died before I got a chance to get to the NBA.  He was my childhood idol.”

A six-year-old quickly began to research and learn about Chamberlain.

“He liked to have fun,” Howard said.

It’s funny how things turn out. Now Howard wears the Lakers jersey that Chamberlain once wore, lives just up the street from Wilt’s former Bel-Air palace in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“If you came out the back of his house and looked up to the right, my house is right there,” Howard said. “Mariah Carey lives right by me. You can see the ocean from my rooftop, downtown and the Staples Center from the back.

“And I’ve got a telescope just like Wilt had. The roof of his bedroom used to open and he’d look at the sky. Now I’m looking up at all the same stars.”

Along with a slice of the sky, it seems they also share struggles at the free throw line and a few personality traits, including a persecution complex. (more…)

Playoffs Snapshot — April 14

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The last Sunday of the NBA regular season delivers a trio of marquee matchups that require our full attention (doesn’t everyone need a little something to take their mind off of Kobe Bryant‘s season-ending injury anyway?) during the eight-game slate.

It’s a big day for playoff locks and contenders, alike. And it’s a huge day for Bryant’s Lakers. Here’s what you need to keep an eye on:

CHICAGO BULLS at MIAMI HEAT (1 p.m. ET, ABC): This game means little to these two teams in terms of playoff standing. The Heat have already locked up home court advantage throughout the playoffs while the Bulls will end up with the fifth or sixth seed and out of the mix for home court advantage. What this game does have, however, is plenty of symbolic meaning for both sides. The Heat’s 27-game win streak came to an end in Chicago, the league’s resident streak busters (they also snapped the New York Knicks’ win streak at 13 games Thursday night). Resting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh against a physical Bulls team in an essentially meaningless game for the Heat would be wise. Why take the risk?

But those bright lights will be on today and this is one last chance to send a message to a team that could be a legitimate threat to the Heat in the postseason. Will the Heat’s Big 3 resist the urge to make more than an appearance in the starting lineup before resting the remainder of the game?

As for the Bulls, the window for a Derrick Rose return during the regular season seems to have passed. And you better believe what happened to Bryant is weighing heavily on Rose’s psyche as he continues to contemplate his immediate future. There is simply not enough at stake for the Heat or the Bulls to take unnecessary risks, not even on the last Sunday of the regular season. Both Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, two guys notorious for wanting to maximize every moment, have the playoffs to think about now anyway.

DALLAS MAVERICKS at NEW ORLEANS HORNETS (6 p.m. ET, NBA TV): The Mavericks have already been eliminated from playoff contention, but Dirk Nowitzki can still reach a personal milestone today that only a select few players in the league have ever achieved. Nowitzki needs just 10 points to reach 25,000 for his career. He’ll become just the 17th player in NBA history to reach that plateau. Jerry West is 16th on that list with 25,192 points. Nowitzki ranks third among active players in career points behind Bryant and Kevin Garnett.

INDIANA PACERS at NEW YORK KNICKS (3:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): This is the sort of showdown worthy of the last Sunday of the regular season. The Knicks have a chance to clinch the No. 2 seed with a win on their home floor, a victory that not only secures their first round matchup against the No. 7 seed Boston Celtics but also completes their late-season walk down of the Pacers, who held a one-game lead over the Knicks for No. 2 a month ago.

Carmelo Anthony could use a little rest before the playoffs begin and if he and J.R. Smith and the rest of the Knicks who are healthy enough to suit up can get it done this afternoon, he might just get what he needs.

Roy Hibbert and David West should have a decided advantage inside if the Knicks’ wounded frontcourt forces Mike Woodson to start 6-foot-8 Chris Copeland at center again. The Pacers own a 2-1 advantage in the season series against the Knicks, but it won’t mean a thing of the Knicks lock up that No. 2 seed.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS at LOS ANGELES LAKERS (9:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV): Bryant’s injury could have a devastating effect on the Lakers’ long-term prospects because there are so many moving parts heading into the summer, with or without a playoff appearance. Those worries will have to wait, though. The now Dwight Howard-led Lakers have business to handle against the Spurs and the remainder of their regular season schedule if they are going to fight off the Utah Jazz for that eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

You can bet Gregg Popovich won’t bother resting any of his biggest stars (the ones who are actually healthy) in this one, not with a chance to help close the door on the Lakers’ playoff chances. He can guarantee the Spurs won’t have to deal with the Lakers in the first round by making sure his team pushes their advantages in this showdown, and that includes a decided edge on the wing for the first time in a while without Bryant in uniform. The Spurs need this game just as much as the Lakers if they want that No. 1 seed in the West.

Just like it has been in nearly every game they have played the past two weeks, the Lakers’ season is on the line. They’ll be fighting for their playoff lives until the final buzzer of their final regular season game. They need this one in the worst way and everyone knows it. While Bryant spends his Sunday resting after Saturday surgery to repair his ruptured Achilles, the Lakers will try to save their season (for one more day) in his honor.