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Archive for October 12th, 2011

(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on September 20, 2011)

The best thing about the NBA lockout has been NBA TV’s alternative programming with Old School Monday’s, Playoff

The Big O and The Logo.

Gems and Hardwood Classics.   Digging deep into the video archives, the network is broadcasting rarely seen footage from a bygone era and the more recent past.  The gems and classics mostly from the 80’s and 90’s are fascinating while the old school games from the 60s and 70s are even more riveting.

For any true basketball buff, the images broadcasted in recently introduced color format from the 1969 NBA All-Star at the Baltimore Civic Center may be akin to an archeologist discovering caveman hieroglyphics.  And although in many spheres like the segregated gymnasiums the game had long sped up, the NBA was just catching up.

Many of the faces and names are familiar yet some are strangely unknown.  This appears to be the generation caught between the past and the present much like the Mad Men seen on AMC. But this was also the period when Converse was king and anybody worth his asphalt wore the canvas footwear, the blue-starred Chuck Taylor’s provided enough stability and support for the players to run-n-gun foreshadowing the future.

A few years later at the 1972 All-Star game held at the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles, the picture although far from HD quality was brighter and sharper.  And although most players still avoided the off hand dribble delaying the invention of the cross-over and other moves that would ultimately quicken the game, the evolution was ever apparent.

Connie Hawkins’ bird-like swoops to the hoop drew oohs and ahs from the crowd as if they were observing alien form.  The players similarly in awe almost conceded the lane to the high-flying Hawk as he would hover to the hoop holding the ball a high with one hand.  All they could do was seemingly check the technique and hoped he missed.

What was also striking was that many of the players were not elongated as today’s player.  They were beefy and used strength as much as quickness.

Oscar Robertson who dominated the action in ’69 taking MVP honors with 24 points looked more like a strong safety.  And the sharp cut afro-wearing Big O could easily be mistaken for Otis Redding on stage gyrating and grinding to a gritty beat proving he was the baddest man in the land.

After twelve years of work in the league by the ’72 game he was still a dynamic figure on the court.  Robertson was known for backing his opponent down with his ample booty but he also played with an aura of aggression and arrogance.  Forty years later,  Big O is still cock-sure about his and his contemporaries game much like how Otis through two rappers remains relevant.

That game also featured Jimmie Walker.  Although a couple of inches shorter and listed a few pounds lighter than Robertson, he looked almost like his twin in physique and style. But what is most noteworthy is that it was a peek at the player drafted number one overall in 1967 who, however, would become more famous for being the father of Jalen Rose.

By now, we all are aware of Rose’s lineage and issues he had with his father who was never present in his life.  However, without so much of seeing a highlight of Walker prior to this broadcast it was like ogling a ghost.  Walker may not have been Mr. Mom or Daddy Day Care, but Rose’s NBA career clearly stemmed from his poppa’s rollin’ stone DNA.

But at the end of the game, the brightest star of the game was a man with West across his back and chest.  Jerry West, playing in his home arena for the West All-Stars, won the MVP by leading, along with Hawkins, a balanced scoring attack with 13 points and closing out the game with a buzzer-beating jumper to win it for the West, 114-112.

As an African proverb reveals, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten. “

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(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on August 29, 2011)

The sleepy-eyed Kyrie Irving’s unflappability displayed moments after being selected number one overall by the

Kyrie Irving will have to battle some New Jersey demons to succeed.

Cleveland Cavaliers at this past June’s 2011 NBA Draft will be tested because the future may be full of false hopes and unfortunate fate.

The 6-3 point guard didn’t face any summer scrutiny on the court as the rookie leagues were a victim of the lockout.  But cloistered away on the Duke campus attending summer school he may have some time to reflect upon what’s in store for him.

Not only does his surname sound reminiscently familiar to Julius Erving and Earvin Johnson but he has to follow LeBron James only one year after his exodus.

And although, not even a toe injury that limited his freshman season to 11 games would prevent the former St. Patrick’s (Elizabeth, NJ) star from being the first New Jersey high school player to be drafted with the No. 1 pick, the NBA, mysteriously, has not been kind to high-drafted Garden State guards.

The state has a rich basketball tradition such as hosting the first professional game in Trenton, NJ.  One of the first high school players drafted directly to the NBA was Bill Willoughby from Englewood, NJ.  And while many  New Jerseyans have made it to the NBA, the last great NBA player in my opinion who played high school basketball in the state is Rick Barry (Roselle).

Despite that annually there are a couple of high schools from the state rated at or near the top of the national rankings, many of the players’ All-American status has meant little to predicting pro success. Good coaching could be the reason why team success may outdistance the individual success. But the high esteem may also be the result of these generally North Jersey area teams and players getting a biased view from the New York metropolitan media hype machine.

Irving was born in Australia but he’s Jersey-bred much like sweet Jersey corn.  Down-under just happened to be the place where his parents were living at the time of his birth as his dad pursued his professional basketball career.  The younger Irving was reared in West Orange, NJ and as mentioned played his school-boy ball in the state.

Conversely, Shaquille O’Neal who wears his Newark roots as a badge of honor was first recognized overseas stationed with his military step-father and then playing high school ball in San Antonio, Texas.  And recently Hall-of-Fame enshrined Dennis Rodman born in New Jersey (Trenton) does not claim the state as home as he quickly left and grew up in Dallas, Texas.

Busts and disappointing players may not be regionally discriminatory but the spate of bad luck that has befallen Jersey ballers like Irving is eerie. His predecessors have met some Sopranos-like shit sidetracking their NBA careers.

Bobby Hurley, a six-foot point guard also from Duke born in Jersey City, NJ who played high school ball at the city’s St. Anthony’s was drafted 7th overall in 1993 by the Sacramento Kings. In his first 19 games, he was playing well for the Kings producing 7.1 ppg and 6.7 apg.

But on the way home from that 19th game, he was driving down a dark road without a seat belt when he had an accident that threw him100 feet into a ditch. His lungs collapsed and he had broken ribs, a fractured shoulder blade, a compression fracture of his lower back, a torn tendon in his right knee and soft tissue injuries.

His rookie season was done and the next five years he was in the league but only played a total of 44 games.

Another New Jersey and Duke point guard faced a more definite ending to his career. Jason “Jay” Williams from Plainfield, NJ played scholastically at St. Joseph in Metuchen. He was drafted third overall at the 2002 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls and finished his first season on the All-Rookie Team.

However, that summer, Williams crashed his motorcycle into a streetlight. He was not wearing a helmet, nor was he licensed to drive a motorcycle and it was in violation of his contract. The accident severed a main nerve in his leg, fractured his pelvis and tore three ligaments in his left knee including the ACL.

He never played another minute in the NBA.

Finally, DaJuan Wagner, 6-2 guard from Camden, NJ who played one college season at Memphis and was selected sixth in the same draft as Williams.  Wagner, as Irving, was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers.  He missed the first few months of his rookie season with an injury but burst onto the scene scoring in droves.  He finished the year scoring 13.4 ppg.

After 11 games into his second season, he was hospitalized for ulcerative colitis and eventually had to have his colon removed.  His Cavalier career was over and a comeback with the Golden State Warriors was aborted when they brought out his two-year guaranteed contract due to his poor health after just one game.

But Irving has already been through what most can not imagine. At the age of four, his mother, Elizabeth, died from Sepsis Syndrome and a multisystem organ failure. And he almost lost his father, Drederick, ten years ago when his dad witnessed the mayhem while narrowly escaping death at the World Trade Center during the 9/11 tragedy.

So, maybe these macabre musings pale in comparison to his actual experiences and he will remain unflappable.

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(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on August 11, 2011)

The NBA lockout is propelling toward a self-fulfilling prophecy of a lost season.  Most of what I’ve heard and read about the pending and now ongoing lockout was that it was sure to be long and hard battle.

The optimist opined that we’d be lucky to duplicate the previous labor impasse 50-game condensed season back in 1998-99.  The pessimist piled on and reported that the 2011-12 season is dead on arrival.

However, most of these speculations offer little analysis other than trying to figure out how many teams are losing money and how much.  And I’m afraid that the constant chatter that the sky is falling may prove Chicken Little right.

It’s very well likely that many teams are struggling.  But why are buyers lining up to recently purchase teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks, and the players are almost universally expected to give up a lot?

The new owners are viewed as Warren Buffet acolytes pouncing on undervalued investments while the players have historically been savaged as spineless and short-term thinkers.  This is the case despite that during the past few collective bargaining negotiations in 1998, 2005 and now there is still a sense that they got too much and must give back what they negotiated.

The NFL lockout was resolved seemingly on a few big issues.  The football owners got back a few points in the split of the overall profits and hammered out a reduced rookie wage scale. The players got fewer training and practice sessions (that theoretically extend careers) and perhaps more guaranteed contacts.

The NBA lockout similarly can be reduced to a few issues.  All the other maneuvering is posturing.  The NBA suing on the grounds that players are not negotiating in good faith and the player statements about going overseas make the news but are not about to lead to a settlement.

We saw how the lawsuits entangled in the NFL labor dispute were seemingly easily resolved once the deal was near.  And, the NBA superstar is not really en masse willing to risk guaranteed millions playing in less than stellar conditions. Nor or there enough teams with spots to offer particularly considering they could potentially lose signing others players by “renting” the superstars who would return to the NBA once the lockout is over.

The first vital issue confronting the NBA is the owners figuring a better way to share revenue.  One reported discrepancy between what a top team can rake in for a home game versus a bottom earner is about $10 million dollars.  That over a 41 home game schedule is a significant difference of $410 million dollars.

The NBA is not willing to split the loot more “fairly” throughout the league like the NFL though and would rather resolve the matter of revenue capacity by reducing player salaries. The league proposes to offer the drowning smaller market teams a rope in the form of the mere chance to maintain star players with a hard cap and financially driven measures restricting player movement.

Those who argue that player movement has destroyed franchises point to how the Miami Heat took two players from smaller markets in Cleveland and Toronto who then sunk in the standings and financially. But it’s a fiscal ruse to use the animosity the Superfriends engendered to yoke rising costs as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took less money to make it happen.

The NBA has always been a league dominated by a few teams like an oligarchy; financially and with finals titles.  The Minneapolis Lakers dominated by fortunately having the first big man in George Mikan.  The Boston Celtics quickly followed with its dynasty led by Bill Russell acquired via a trade in part because the St. Louis Hawks were reluctant to employ a black player.

The Lakers, by now in Los Angeles, reclaimed the torch back in large measure to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forcing a trade from Milwaukee. He had a preference for his hometown New York Knicks but was just as eager to return to the city of his beloved alma mater UCLA. The Chicago Bulls acquired Michael Jordan’s right hand man Scottie Pippen through a draft related trade powering it to six rings.

Then, the Lakers did it again through free agency by snatching Shaquille O’Neal from Orlando and pilfering Kobe Bryant from the rest of the league with the help of threats that the high schooler only wanted to play for the Lakers.  Most recently, two former Celtics players in executive roles may have conspired to send Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kevin Garnett to Boston to swing the balance of power.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were acquired by their respective teams with slick moves.  Boston’s Red Auerbach  drafted Bird the year before he declared (since prohibited) and the Lakers traded an aging superstar for a number one pick that ultimately resulted in Magic’s selection.

My point is that the flow of players whether team or player fueled has been the legacy of the league. Yes, the current owners coming into the league within the past five-ten years, unlike the more established owners who got in the game with a few million and have had team values rise exponentially, face higher purchase prices and the potential to lose more money and faster than ever before and in turn want more certainty.

But it seems that the NBA would not want to chance parity as although the league in the 1970s ushered in a transformative style of basketball with the ABA player and esthetic that resulted in multiple teams winning titles, very few seemed to care. The star-ship model won out and seems here to stay.

However, there is hope. The players need to as partners with the owners recognize the long term multiple year contracts have not always worked out for the better of the league. Often, teams handed out five and six year huge guaranteed money contracts that quickly turned bad with years of dead weight due to injury, non-incentivised players or just bad decisions.  The solution is having a maximum length of a contract as four years.  A bad contract would not burden a team for that long and the player would still have future opportunities to subsequent deals.

Only narrowing the scope of the issues rather than stagnating on minor obstacles will stop the doomsday reports for the 2011-12 NBA season.

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(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on July, 7, 2011)

Imagine it’s the early 1980s as hip hop, crack cocaine, the Big East and Reganomics have hit the hood, and you’re on a New York playground basketball court.   It’s your turn to ball and the guy who picked you up says, “I got him with the wave cap on.  You got The Truth.”

It might be time to tighten up the laces.

Last week at a ABS Sports & Entertainment Grouplaunch party for Better Baller Athletics at Riverbank State Park in Upper Manhattan, I ran into The Truth aka Walter Berry.

Before I get too deep into the truth let me sidetrack you all. Berry and I go a long way back.  When I was at NBA.com, one year our office fantasy basketball league decided that your team name had to incorporate a current or former NBA player’s name with a same or similarly named beautiful female celebrity.

Someone went esoteric; Suzette Charles Barkley (Suzette Charles was Miss New Jersey and runner-up to Vanessa Williams as Miss America until the photos).  Some went the combo route like Joakim Kardashian or Chris Paulina Porizkova.  Another went alliterative funky with Kerry Kittles Washington. Others went classic like Earl Marilyn Monroe.  I intertwined by acclamation a true beauty with the truth and came up with Walter Halle Berry.

Try this at home; you can come up with your own all day long.  But let’s get back to the truth.

Although philosophers ponder about what is truth, in the New York City basketball circles it was former St. John’s University star Walter Berry.

The 6-8, left-handed, power forward had a game that featured an array of almost unstoppable inside moves and shots from acute unique angles.  He finished fastbreaks with enormous efficiency or settled down on the block to splash the twine with short floating jumpers. All the time, he did it with a southpaw ease that seemed like he wasn’t trying.

Many also recognize Paul Pierce as The Truth after he dropped 42 points in a 2001 losing effort against the Los Angles Lakers. Shaq pulled a Boston reporter over and gestured toward the scribe’s notepad. “Take this down,” said O’Neal. “My name is Shaquille O’Neal and Paul Pierce is the motherfuckin’ truth. Quote me on that and don’t take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is the truth.

A great story and even more special when you realize that Pierce was about a year removed from a knife stabbing attack that required lung surgery.  However, New York’s reverence for basketball is awash with colorful basketball aliases such as Lloyd “Sweet Pea” Daniels or Dwayne “Pearl” Washington. But the Mecca anointed Berry with the most supreme compliment in The Truth.  Not “Truth” as the basketball bible, basketball reference.com mistakenly lists.  Then again, even the bible has human editors.

It may be futile to find a particular person to give credit or a precise moment he became The Truth.  At some point in time a mass of people believed he was it. Alas, I wonder how it is to live with such mythological expectations.  As you may have surmised, New York playground phenoms being accorded such proverbial nicknames seem less a blessing and more of curse to a successful NBA career.

And three decades removed from being declared as The Truth, Walter Berry is considered by basketballdom as a bust.  But ironically, that conclusion fails to actually consider many truths that emerge upon a further evaluation.

On the eve of the 2011 NBA Draft, held a few miles away across the Hudson River in Newark, NJ, Berry was present at the event as a mentor to the CEO and founder of the ABS group, Alexis Stanley.

“He is right behind me in the background telling me this is what I should do, this is who you should talk too,” says Stanley, a former NBA and New Jersey Nets intern and current law school and MPA student. “He’s like a godfather to me.”

This godfather is now living in Georgia, but he took the time to come up to New York to see this fledgling venture get off the ground.  “I’m working with providing low and moderate income housing in Atlanta,” says Berry.  “But I’m here for support.”

Berry reveals that he’s back in New York so often though that he never misses it but that coming home is always good.  He played all over the city’s playgrounds and went to two high schools in the Bronx (DeWitt Clinton and Morris) before finishing his school-boy career at Ben Franklin High School in Brooklyn.

All the transfers cost him credits and ultimately his degree was not recognized by the NCAA denying him the chance to play Div. I basketball.  A federal court upheld the NCAA’s position and that led Berry to attend San Jacinto Junior College in Texas.  But after one year, he was eligible to play for the big schools and they came hard.

“There were a bunch of other schools recruiting me like Duke, North Carolina and Georgia,” says Berry.  “But there was no question, I was coming home.”

At St. John’s, along with teammates Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson, he led the Redmen (since changed to Red Storm) to the 1985 Final Four.  The logos and signs around Adolph Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky may as well have read Big East Tournament rather than NCAA Final Four as joining the crew from Queens was Villanova and Georgetown. The next year, he averaged 23 ppg and 11 rpg, and was the best college player in the land winning the John Wooden Award and voted the AP Player of the Year.

In the infamous 1986 NB Draft, he was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 14th overall selection.  However, he was shipped off to the San Antonio Spurs after just seven games. Yet, in his rookie campaign he averaged 17.6 points on a .531 shooting percentage (fifth in the league) while grabbing 5.4 rebounds per game.  He had just about the exact same production in his second season.

Almost mysteriously, his production declined in short stints with the Nets and Houston Rockets, and he was out of the league. What happened?

Rumors abounded that he couldn’t get along with this or that coach.  However, in his words, “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” says the chuckling Berry referring to his 1989 signing with Basket Napoli (Italy).  He would play international basketball until 2002. His travels also took him to Spain and Slovenia but mostly in Greece where he learned to speak the language fluently.

Berry was earning about $300,000 in the NBA while he likely received millions per annum in Europe with the teams’ also paying taxes and living expenses. But there may be more to the truth of the matter than just money.

“Walt needed to be the man. It’s not like he was selfish, but Walt is not a role player,” says former NBA player Jaren Jackson (Georgetown, 1985-89).  Jackson, who was at the launch party, played against Berry in college and the NBA before earning a ring with the1999 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs.

“The NBA was stifling to him.  They wanted him to be content with a limited role but that’s not Walt’s game.”

In other words, the truth doesn’t compromise.

Ron Naclerio, the legendary high school basketball coach at Queen’s Cardozo High, who was there supporting the Better Baller Athletics’ president, Melvin Robinson, a former player of his, more or less agreed with Jackson.

“Walt was a little stubborn and he didn’t want to change his game,” says Naclerio.  “But they didn’t seem to understand that the unorthodox way he played is what made him effective. And it’s hard to come back with all the success he had overseas.”

It may have been the good living in the Mediterranean as Berry looks happy and content.

He relishes in the recent success of former teammate Mark Jackson wishing him well in his new coaching endeavor with Golden State.  And he’s even contemplating being back in the game with Chris Mullin, his other college running mate, if Mullin lands another executive position with an NBA team.

Berry seems to have no regrets about how his playing career evolved and could care less about the bust label.  The Truth knows the truth.

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