Archive for May, 2011

Dirk’s Moment

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

 

Scene:  American Airlines Arena, Miami.  Year:  2006.   It’s Game 3 of the NBA Finals.  The arena is jammed with tanned fans wearing white t-shirts – just as it will likely be tonight, in the present day, when it will be the site for Game 1 of the NBA Finals.  But on this night the crowd is getting more and more nervous as the game wears on, because the Dallas Mavericks  – then and now the Heat’s opponent in the Finals – are controlling the game and appear poised to take a 3-0 lead in the best of seven series.  And everyone who knows basketball knows that 3-0 leads are insurmountable, and that no NBA team has ever come back from such a deficit.

The face of Dallas is 27-year old Dirk Nowitzki, a blossoming superstar who, a few weeks earlier, had made perhaps the defining play in franchise history:  An old-fashioned three-point play in the final seconds to tie Game 7 in San Antonio against the Spurs.  In the next series, he averaged 23½  points and 13.1 rebounds per game against the Phoenix Suns to send the Mavs to the Finals for the first time ever.  Dirk was about to become the best player on a championship team, just as soon as Game 3 was in the books, anyway.

Now it’s the 4th quarter, and the Heat is listless, down 13 points with six minutes to play.  It happens almost in the blink of an eye; suddenly, the home team is sharp, focused.  The crowd, the sleeping giant, awakens.  The Mavs slowly fall apart.  Dirk isn’t terrible in those final six minutes, but he misses his only shot and is whistled for a key offensive foul.  With the Mavs down by two, he draws a foul and heads to the line with 3.4 seconds remaining.  He’s 9 for 10 in the game.  One of the best free throw shooters in the league.  90% during the playoffs and regular season.  The first one is good, and the second…miss.  Six days later, Miami wins the series in Dallas.

________

 

Dirk is now 32 years old, and he knows.  He knows that he’s done everything the NBA, accomplished every goal, filled every line on his resume, checked every box – except one.  He knows that there are two categories of elite players, that some are destined to live forever in the group of players who were great, but…well, you know.  Dirk knows.  He knows that MVP awards and All-Star appearances mean nothing when the final judgment is passed.  He knows that, fair or unfair, truly elite players must break through that wall, no matter how much of it is out of their control.  He knows that people are at this moment saying the exact same things about LeBron James.  He knows how fans, the media, and even other players talk about Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and others:  Great players, but…well, you know.

Dirk also knows – doesn’t he have to know? – that this may be his last chance.  The Mavs of 2011 are the most unlikely of title contenders; many predicted they would lose to Portland in the first round.  Two of their most important role players, swingman Caron Butler and guard Rodrigue Beaubois, haven’t played in the playoffs due to injuries.  The Mavs best players, other than Dirk, have been Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion, two veterans thought to have been washed up years ago.  After beating Portland, the Mavs marched on with a stunning sweep of the Lakers and a bruising 5-game takedown of the talented but inexperienced Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals.  Not much more than an afterthought when the regular season ended, Dallas has lost only three games so far in the playoffs.

Most of it has been because of Dirk.  He’s taken this postseason and made it his own, even more so than he did in 2006.  He’s been pouring in points from all over the court.  Against the Lakers, he was a matchup nightmare, opening the floor for shooters like Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic.  Against the Thunder, Dirk had a pair of career-defining games:  48 points in Game 1, where he missed only three shots from the field and hit all 24 of his free throws, and 40 points in a crucial Game 4 win, including a variety of near-impossible shots down the stretch.  In one sequence, the Thunder tried guarding him with anyone they could find.  First Kendrick Perkins, then Serge Ibaka, then Nick Collison.  Finally Kevin Durant gave it a shot, but the result was the same.  None of them could stop the German.

Now, Dirk and the Mavs are once again on the verge.  Once again, Dwyane Wadeand the Heat stand in their way.  This time, it’s Dallas who will be the underdog.  This time, they will have to figure out who will guard LeBron.  Only Dirk and Jason Terry remain from the ’06 Mavericks.  Surely Dirk wanted this rematch.  Few teams, or players, ever get a second chance like the one that will begin tonight.

To say that Dirk is the face of the Dallas franchise may be an understatement.  The Mavericks were the worst team in the NBA for much of the 1990s.  Dirk arrived in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, and Dallas returned to the playoffs a year later, for good:  they haven’t missed the postseason since.  Or won fewer than 50 games in a season.  In that span, Dirk himself hasn’t averaged less than 20 points per game.  Appeared in every All-Star Game.  Won the league MVP award in ’07.

Still, despite stellar numbers in May and June, he could never quite shake the label: Dirk was a Guy Who Couldn’t Get it Done in the Playoffs.  Wasn’t tough enough, they said.  Didn’t they see his numbers increase across the board?  Didn’t they watch him single-handedly beat the Rockets in ’05?  Drop 50 on the Suns in ’06?  Who else has made the playoffs 10 straight years and averaged 26 points and 10 boards per game?  Nobody.  When they collapsed against the Warriors in the ’07 playoffs, the whispers began.  After another first-round exit for the Mavs in ’10 – for the third time of the previous four seasons – it was set in stone:  Dirk was never gonna win the big one.  2006 was his peak, he gave it a good shot, but that was that.  Some players are destined for Category 2.  Great players, but…well, you know.

________

 

It had to be Miami, didn’t it?  To some, the Heat embodies everything that is wrong with modern-day basketball, an AAU team come to life in the pros.  They’re on a grand experiment, and, so far, it’s working.  Dirk and the Mavs represent the last hope of the basketball purists, the ones who believe that a great team can always overcome an opponent with great players.  There are also other elements of sentimentality.  Dirk is the hardened veteran, taking possibly his last shot at a championship, with the same team that drafted so long ago.  Compare that to Chris Bosh, who hadn’t ever been past the first round until a few weeks ago.

Dirk certainly doesn’t need this series to validate his career.  He’s a sure Hall-of-Famer,   maybe the best international player the NBA has ever seen.  Other than the fabled skyhook of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dirk’s fadeaway is the most unblockable shot the NBA has ever seen.  We may not ever again see a 7-footer with a similar arsenal of weapons, from his spins and fakes in the post to his ability to drain three-pointers or beat slower defenders off the dribble.  Dirk has the handle of a guard, the size of a center, and the scoring ability of a forward.  Yeah, maybe he’s not guarding LeBron or Wade, but, then again, Europeans never did play defense, right?  If the Mavs can’t pull out this series, Dirk still has a career that most players would envy.

But then again, in that strange, abstract way that superstars are ultimately judged, Dirk needs this series to validate something.  He needs it to be part of that group that can never, and will never, be questioned.  Yeah, Dan Marino was a great quarterback and everything, but he was no John Elway.  Just like Ted Williams was no Joe Dimaggio, just like Karl Malone was no Tim Duncan, just like Alex Ovechkin is no Sidney Crosby.  Win one time, and the questions go away for good.  Win zero times, and the questions never stop.  Yes, Dirk Nowitzki is, was, and will be remembered as a great player.  How great?  We will know soon enough.

Summer Reading (cont.)

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Sick of reading articles about the NFL lockout?  Tired of all those fantasy sports “experts” telling you what to do?  Can’t stand the endless top ten lists and pointless slideshows?  I have a wonderful prescription for you ailments…First, check out this fantastic new site, sportsfeat.com.  It’s a companion site to the equally superb longform.org, and it features new and classic sportswriting, updated daily.  Your first click to this site should be enough to kill a weekend, or maybe a marriage. 

 

Next, read these.  Ten pieces of classic sportswriting.  Not a top ten anything, not the ten best ever.  Just ten really, really good ones.  Great ones, perhaps.  And while there’s some really great ones not yet online – Myron Cope’s 1963 profile of Muhammad Ali comes to mind – the articles below can all be found with a click, many thanks to the amazing Sports Illustrated vault.

 

(And by the way, most of these were written years ago.  And I wrote this particular list a couple years ago as well, long before sportsfeat existed.  I swear.  Anyway, enjoy.)

 

Laughing on the Outside, by John Schulian (2000)

 

A lyrical portrait of the life of Negro League star Josh Gibson, who died in Pittsburgh just months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional sports.  It’s almost impossible to separate the fact from fiction in Gibson’s life, and he endures one of the most enigmatic professional athletes of the 20th Century.

 

Cut Off From the Herd, by S.L. Price (1997)

 

An in-depth and downright fascinating profile of Randy Moss when he was at Marshall.  Looking back, this article explains so much about the way his career turned out.

 

Eat, Drink and Be Scary, by Wright Thompson (2008)

 

Thompson has done a bunch of great stuff at ESPN, including many of the longer “E-Ticket” features.  But this one’s from the magazine, and it’s a great premise:  the writer spends a day with George Selvie, a defensive end who plays for South Florida.  Selvie is undersized, he must put on weight, so he eats as much as he can every day.  Thompson tries to keep up with him, eating everything he does, for one day.

 

A Rough Time on the Road, by Stan Fischler (1964)

 

Another fabulous premise:  hockey player misses team train, has to travel alone, from Boston to Montreal, in a blinding snowstorm, in time for a game the following night, so he doesn’t get fined.  Great stuff.

 

Seeing Red After All These Years, by Bill Simmons (2002)

 

A young Bill Simmons interviews an old Red Auerbach at his office in D.C.  It’s an anomaly in Simmons’ canon of articles in that a) he left his home to write it, and b) it includes quotes from a real, live person, rather than an announcer or a decades-old movie.  The result is very good; I wish he would do stuff like this more often.

 

Jordan’s Moment, by David Halberstam (1998)

 

Longtime journalist and sportswriter Halberstam wrote this incredible article for the New Yorker just around the time he released a book about Jordan.  The article focuses mainly on Jordan’s final days with the Chicago Bulls, including a superb breakdown of the 1998 NBA Finals.  It’s a must-read if there ever was one.

 

Heaven Help Marge Schott, by Rick Reilly (1996)

 

One of Reilly’s signature pieces from his classic period, also known as the last time Rick Reilly was good.

 

What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now? by Richard Ben Cramer (1986)

 

This is considered by some to be the best piece of sports journalism ever, or at least one of the best.  It’s a vivid portrayal of the aging superstar, who at the time was living alone in the Florida backwoods, spending his days fishing and yelling at people over the phone.  It’s also one of the most famous articles ever to appear in Esquire magazine.

 

The Four Horsemen, by Grantland Rice (1924)

 

This piece begins with perhaps the most famous introduction in all of sports journalism.  “Outlined against a blue-grey October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again…”

 

Thus the 1924 National Champion Notre Dame team is immortalized, not to mention Grantland Rice himself.  One interesting thing you’ll notice if you pay attention:  this entire recap does not include a single quote from anyone involved in the game.  And, 77 years later, Bill Simmons rekindles interest by starting Grantland.com

 

The Legend of Bo, by Joe Posnanski (2007)

 

Bo Jackson, the once-in-a-generation athlete, as done by Joe Posnanski, now a heavy hitter at Sports Illustrated.  Don’t miss this one. 

 

Summer Reading List

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Well, it’s the lazy days of summer and nothing much is happening in the sports world these days.  Well, except it’s not yet summer, and the NBA and NHL playoffs demand our attention.

Let me try that again—it’s almost officially summer, a great time to read, and, for some, school is over and the summer has already begun.  Please allow me to present 10 great sports books for your summer reading pleasure.  Please note that these are not my ten favorite sports books of all-time, nor are they an attempt to list the ten best sports books ever.  These are simply ten sports books I’ve read and enjoyed over the years, in no particular order.

Whether you’re at the pool, the beach, the park, or bored at a Pirates game, sports books are a great time-killer, and they are often times quick, light reads.  Please enjoy responsibly.

Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, by David Halberstam

There are plenty of Jordan books out there, from Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules” to Michael Leahy’s “When Nothing Else Matters.”  For my money, this is the best one and probably the most comprehensive.

The author is legendary journalist David Halberstam, who also wrote “Summer of ’49,” about Joe Dimaggio’s Yankees, and “The Breaks of the Game,” about the ’79 Portland Trailblazers.  In this effort, he tackles everything from Jordan’s suffocating worldwide fame to his insane competitiveness to his unprecedented commercial appeal.  There is also some truly fascinating stuff in here about Dean Smith, the freshly-retired Phil Jackson (whose career path is pretty bizarre), Scottie Pippen (a truly elite sidekick), Larry Bird, and David Falk (Jordan’s power-wielding agent).  The chapters about Dennis Rodman and the ’96 Bulls are top-quality stuff as well.

Jordan himself declined to be interviewed for the book, which kind of makes it better.  It was published in 1999, just after Jordan’s second retirement, when he was almost universally revered.

Babe:  The Legend Comes to Life, by Robert Creamer

Much like Michael Jordan, it is likely no one will ever know the real story of Babe Ruth. But, this book, which includes interviews with tons of people who knew the Babe, is probably as close as anyone will get.  It was written in the ‘70s by Robert Creamer, one of the original writers for Sports Illustrated. Although he can be a bit folksy at times, he nails down every side of the Babe’s story.

Ruth comes across as somewhat of a tragic figure, a fun-loving superhuman who never had a real family and was shunned from baseball when he retired.   People say sometimes, “There will never be another (fill in the blank).” I think Ruth was the first sports figure you could say this about.   Also notable: Leigh Montville basically rewrote this book, gave it a new name (The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth), and published it a couple of years ago.

The Fight, by Norman Mailer

Novelist Norman Mailer traveled to Zaire (now the D.R.C.) to cover the legendary 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, known as the Rumble in the Jungle.

Mailer writes exquisitely of his time in Africa. While abroad, he spends significant amounts of time with the two fighters and their respective entourages.   He also piles around with fellow writers George Plimpton (covering the fight for Sports Illustrated) and Hunter S. Thompson (covering the fight for Rolling Stone).

The documentary about this fight, When We Were Kings, is equally superb. The book is worth it just for the description of the actual fight, but there is plenty of other great stuff in there to keep you interested.

The Mad Dog 100:  The Greatest Sports Arguments of All-time, by Chris Russo

Chris Russo, better known as the Mad Dog, once represented half of the best sports talk radio program on the East Coast, Mike and the Mad Dog, which ran daily on New York’s WFAN from 1989 until a couple summers ago.

Anyway, Russo breaks down some key sports arguments here with Mad Dog-like surliness.  What is the best NBA team of all-time?  (Hint: the ’96 Bulls didn’t make the top five.)  What is the most impressive record in all of sports?  (A 56 game hitting streak is up there.)  Is Sox-Yankees or North Carolina-Duke a better rivalry?

Although he somehow left out the “Barry Sanders vs. Emmitt Smith” argument, I would still highly recommend this book.

Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby

All you need to know about this one is that it’s the best soccer book of all-time, and it’s nothing like the mostly terrible movie of the same name.

Hornby—who also wrote “High Fidelity” and “About A Boy”—is a soccer-obsessed lunatic who explains why, in meticulous detail, exactly he is a soccer-obsessed lunatic.  It helps to read this one in a British accent.

A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley

Not even really a sports book, but a book that transcends classification.  In this “fictional memoir,” the author/narrator is a troubled soul who is obsessed with Frank Gifford and the New York Giants.  You’ll never find a better description of the brutal hit Gifford absorbed from Chuck Bednarik of the Eagles.

Fab Five:  Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream, by Mitch Albom

Whatever you may think of the squirrely Mitch Albom, few can argue with the idea that he’s a fine writer when he wants to be.   My advice is to skip his schmaltzy books, like “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” and read this book about one of the most famous college basketball teams that never won a championship.

Albom covers the two years when the Fab Five came of age, and there’s plenty of interesting stuff about Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and the rest of the baggy shorts & black socks crew.  One of the better sub-plots is the tragic story of Michael Talley, a high school star in Michigan who started for the Wolverines but lost his spot when the freshmen arrived.  He also lost his confidence, never made it to the NBA, and—rumor has it—was the culprit who signaled for time-out from the bench just before Webber infamously signaled for it on the court in the waning seconds of the ’93 championship game.  Also:  watch the 30 for 30 documentary on the Fab Five.  It’s tremendous.

The Professional, by W.C. Heinz

I gotta admit it:  I picked up this book a few years ago only because it was a point of contention in the hilarious, and now infamous, tirade by author Buzz Bissinger on HBO’s Costas Now.  Also, this was the book that Ernest Hemingway famously commented on, calling it “the only good novel about a fighter I’ve ever read.”

Anyway, W.C. Heinz seems like one of the last old-time sports writers in the mold of Grantland Rice or Red Smith.  This book is right down that alley—a simple, no nonsense story about a pro boxer and the training he goes through leading up to a title bout.  It almost makes you wish you were alive in the 1950s, unless you were, in which case:  good for you.

Ball Four, by Jim Bouton

Do you like drinking, foul language, baseball, sex, and the late 1960s?   Then this book is for you.

There’s a reason this is one of the best sports books of all-time, and it’s probably this:  Bouton, while reporting his days as a pitcher for the expansion Seattle Pilots, lets us in on all the dirty little secrets about baseball that no one was ever allowed to tell.

For his troubles, he was famously banned from Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium until 1998, even though he won two World Series games for the Yanks in the mid-1960s.  Former teammate Mickey Mantle refused to speak to Bouton after this book came out; they finally reconciled shortly before Mantle died.

Love Me, Hate Me:  Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero, by Jeff Pearlman

Pearlman spares nothing in this scathing biography of Mr. Balco Bonds.  I mean Barry Balco.  I mean Barry Bonds.  The author interviewed something like 500 people, and the picture that comes into focus is pretty clear—Bonds is a jerk.

Also, in case you didn’t know, he did steroids.

There are some great stories in here, like when he threw a whole pizza at Pirates outfielder and former teammate R.J. Reynolds, or when he got into a brawl with Giants 2B Jeff Kent in the dugout.

But the best story, possibly apocryphal, is how Bonds refused to listen to Andy Van Slyke’s advice to shade to the left when Francisco Cabrera singled in the bottom of the ninth to send the Braves to the World Series in 1992.   I guess that’s why Barry’s throw was a little off-line.


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