Sunday, February 21, 2010

Looking back on the golden age of basketball


Try to imagine this — a superstar college player today, say John Wall, who would tell confidantes that he'd play in the NBA for free. Yeah, not happening, right? 

Well, that's exactly what Larry Bird said upon the completion of his career at Indiana State as he prepared to join the Boston Celtics. He was so grateful for the opportunity, money didn't matter to him. He just wanted to continue playing the game he loved at its highest level.

Perhaps I'm extremely biased at the moment, considering I just finished reading the second of back-to-back books about Bird and his rival Magic Johnson, but I don't think most basketball experts would disagree with this — the game will never be as delightful or full of as much passion it was 25 to 30 years ago.

Blame society. Blame the media. Blame agents. Blame scouting services that start dissecting kids' crossovers and left hands when they're 6. All of the above have made the basketball scene today less about kids playing for the love of the game and more about money, exposure and such things as "The Summer of 2010."

It's not surprising. It's simply the evolution of society. But that means that now, more than ever, people my age and younger need to read such books as "When March Went Mad: The Game that Transformed March" and "When the Game was Ours," which both chronicle the careers of Bird and Magic — with the former focusing entirely on the 1979 season that concluded with the historic national-title game between Michigan State and Indiana in Salt Lake City and the latter, while overlapping, chronicling the careers of the pair of basketball icons.

I wasn't born until late in 1983 and my family didn't even own a TV until 1994, so I missed out on all things Bird and Magic. Through reading such books, however, not to mention watching ESPN Classic programs, I've gained a great appreciation and admiration for them and all the basketball stars of the eras before theirs that were marked by players working second jobs to support their families.

Yes, it's much easier to appreciate the feats of of players who made only a small percentage of the money that average players pull in today. (And that did relate to players showing incredible effort each game.) But outside of that, what stands out about Bird and Magic was the way they went about playing the game. There was never a personal agenda. They never played for their next contract. Rather, the games were always about winning, and that started with creating opportunities for their much less-gifted teammates. 

Not surprisingly, their unselfishness translated to matters off the court. After his career, Bird went back to his high school in French Lick, Ind., one afternoon to work out only to come across cheerleaders using the gym. They offered half the gym up to Bird, but he told them to go ahead and finish practice and stretched for 45 minutes while he waited. 

By no means am I bashing the state of basketball today or modern-day players. In fact, I probably watch more college hoops than I ever have. And come May, I'll be watching the long slog that is the NBA Playoffs every night. The games are exciting, the storylines juicy, the talent on the court incredible. 

But any young player today could benefit from popping in a DVD of how the game was played in the 1980s or reading a few books about teams like the 1979 Sycamores, who were made up of Bird and a bunch of nobodies. Wait, check that. Even Bird was considered a nobody to many in college basketball before he took the grand stage at the Final Four. 

Through playing team basketball and not worrying about any outside sources or distractions, Bird and his ragtag group were able to win an astounding 33 consecutive games before finally falling flat against the Spartans in the title game. 

And get this: To this day, here almost 31 years later, no basketball game has garnered higher TV ratings. None. It's a telltale sign of how big the game was then and how hyped up a single game could be despite the lack of multimedia sources that we now have today. Thirty years ago, it was all about the players and the game. 

Today, college basketball remains an incredible spotlight. The NCAA Tournament and its 65-team field is the greatest spectacle in American sports each March. Millions upon millions of Americans — whether hoops fans or not — fill out brackets and then tune in for the games. But in a sign of the era, there has been talk this season about expanding the tournament to 96 teams, which is just a horrific idea, and that talk, of course, is spurred by money. 

The title of Magic and Larry's book "When the Game was Ours" is perfect. Because back then, they did get a ton of attention for their exploits on the court — and rightfully so. Beginning with that 1979 title game, basketball went through a golden age in the 1980s when the NBA was at its best as Bird's Celtics battled Magic's Lakers in spectacularly hard-fought games and the NCAA had some of its greatest, most improbable championship games.

The basketball scene is still great today, and it could be even better if young players and fans alike read up on the era that predated them and learned to appreciate what it was all about.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A huge fall from grace for college hoops' best


I tend to think that I watch A LOT of college basketball and know a good deal about teams, players, rankings, and all that pizzazz. 

But, I swear, before Sunday afternoon I barely remembered that Louisville — yes, that unranked team led by that suddenly not-so-faithful coach — was a game away from, yes, the Final Four a season ago. Hard to believe, I know. But the Cardinals were a very good basketball team in March 2010.

They lost some talented players, of course — Terrence Williams, meet the New Jersey Nets and the true definition of a losing team — and that's a reason for falling from the ranks of the country's best. But before shocking Syracuse inside the Carrier Dome Sunday afternoon, I didn't have the Cardinals pegged as an NCAA Tournament team. Now they might sneak into the Dance and hang out for a few days.

Which isn't a bad fate compared to what North Carolina and Connecticut are going through. These are the truly shocking falls from grace. On a Monday night last April, I found myself in a swarm of thousands of yelling, burning, telephone-pole climbing college students — and others — dominating Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Just minutes earlier in Detroit, the Heels had thoroughly outplayed Michigan State to win Roy Williams his second national title in five seasons.

And ol' Roy must have felt on top of the world. Until this season hit.

In the lead-up to the season, life seemed pretty close to perfect in town. Sure, there were the expected departures of the Heels' top four players. But there still remained a strong mix of experience and talent. Enough so that national pundits called the Heels a top-five team nationally and those in ACC country put them right up on top of the conference with Duke.

Oh, and Williams also got a commitment from the Class of 2010's top player (and scholar) Harrison Barnes. Utopia? Yes, it seemed...

Meanwhile, in Storrs, Conn., no one expected the Huskies to earn a repeat trip to the Final Four after the departures of their top two players — including big man Hasheem Thabeet as the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. However, plenty of talent and experience remained, which garnered the Huskies a spot in the top 20 of most college hoops writers and allowed for pretty decent expectations, especially with the Big East supposed to have a down year.

Well, as the kids text these days, "Haha."

North Carolina is squarely on the bubble ... to make the NIT. (OK, the Heels are probably in good shape, at 14-11 and 3-7 in the ACC, to qualify for the tournament no one cares about; but that's the point. They're irrelevant nationally, except as the answer to this question: Which team has had the most inexplicably disappointing season). Connecticut, meanwhile, is in a similar position at 14-11 and 4-8 in the Big East.

So what's happened? What's gone wrong? I'm not going to delve into X's and O's since I haven't been around either team, haven't talked to players, haven't watched film during lonely nights on my couch (instead, I've spent such lonely nights catching up on the "Jersey Shore" phenomenon, but that's besides the point).

What this speaks to, more than anything, is that winning is never guaranteed, can never be taken for granted. A lot of the time, I think, casual observers, fans, broadcasters — heck, anybody, really — takes this approach. Because they're the Tar Heels and are led by Roy Williams and a host of All-Americans, we expect W's. And when there's a surprising loss to College of Charleston, we all know that Roy will push his players through a grueling practice that will result in inspired performances in the following games.

That's the way things go, right? The more talented teams, the teams with the HOF coaches, the teams with 100 years of glorious history win a lot of games. Some years aren't as great as others, but relatively. Maybe 23 wins and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament instead of a national title. You know, disappointing ... but wait until next year.

Well, that's been far from the case in Chapel Hill and Storrs this season. Williams has admitted to not being able to get a handle on how to, well, handle his team, on which buttons to push to get the most out of his players. The Heels absolutely have Sweet 16 talent, not to mention experience, but they haven't shown enough toughness late in games, they've resembled an unconfident bunch of players rather than players who were on a national-title squad a year ago.

At Connecticut, it's been easier to put the Huskies' struggles into tangible matter. They can't shoot 3-pointers, so opposing teams have bunched in their defenses. Add to that the health problems that kept HOFer Jim Calhoun off the sideline for a few weeks, and it's not a huge surprise — but still one — that they've struggled so much. 

But what's transpired at North Carolina is truly amazing and again a testament to the Chris Berman phrase, "That's why they play the game!"

If anything, this season has taught us that only a couple numbers matter: Yep, you guessed it — the points on the scoreboard for your team and your opponent. Next year, the Heels will again be graced with high expectations. Barnes and a cadre of other high-profile recruits will join the Heels' talented squad. 

But unless they learn how to win, don't pen-in a huge improvement in wins (as hard as that would be to comprehend). The same can be said of Connecticut and Louisville. The Cardinals showed Sunday what they're capable of, as they played a smart, tough game to depart the Dome with a monumental upset of the third-ranked Orange. But is it a sign of things to come or simply an aberration?

Only time will tell, but for now this season stands as one of the most confounding in recent memory — and a lesson to all of us that you can't just patch together a good team with a group of talented kids and a great coach.

Winning each season takes a lot of work and a strong belief in one another. For three powerhouses of a year ago, and many other years, that has not been the case since Midnight Madness.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Timely coaching decisions boost Saints to first Super Bowl


As I grabbed a refreshing beverage, popped open the Tostitos and salsa and found an open seat on the couch Sunday evening, I prepared my mental notebook for the seemingly inevitable. On American sports' biggest stage, which coach would make the faulty decisions, call the bad timeouts, try the wrong plays in the wrong situations?

In short, which coach would help cost his team a chance at the Lombardi Trophy. It happens every year — with enormous pressure on his shoulders, a coach isn't thinking clearly and hurts his team. Heck, sometimes both coaches enter the realm of boneheaded mistakes and cancel each other out.

But on Sunday, rather, Sean Payton made such smart decisions — such keen gambles — that he, along with field-goal kicker Garret Hartley, should have gotten a share of Drew Brees' MVP trophy. Payton didn't have any previous experience to prove he'd be on top of his game on football's biggest stage, and I did question a bit his decision to run the ball on a fourth-and-goal toward the end of the first half that was stuffed by the Colts.

From there, however, he was impeccable. 

On Indianapolis' next drive, with the Colts leading 10-3, Payton smartly didn't immediately use his timeouts, knowing that the other Peyton, that Manning guy, had the ball and could quickly turn a one-possession game into a bit of a hole leading into the locker room (not to mention a huge momentum shift). Instead, Payton let enough time off the clock to almost give the sense that the Saints were conceding the half, and then he called time after second and third down (a short-yardage situation that the Saints stifled) to give Brees just enough time to drive New Orleans into field-goal range. Smart coaching.

But not as genius as his first call of the third quarter. It's funny — as Jim Nantz was mentioning before the second-half kickoff Manning's lack of on-field time in the second quarter, I got a quick feeling that the Saints would try an onside kick. Sure, it would be a huge risk. A Colts recovery would almost certainly lead to points and a shift in the momentum. However, it was also the perfect time to execute it.

The teams had just come out of the locker room after a long halftime of The Who. Everyone was expecting a traditional kickoff and a return to normal football. So the kick caught the Colts off guard, and after a player in blue and white lunged at the ball and missed, a wild pileup occurred. And the Saints recovered. That, predictably, led to a touchdown and New Orleans' first lead of the game.

The Saints' offense got going by executing a flurry of short passes that allowed Brees to get rid of the pigskin before Dwight Freeny or any other Colt could eat him for dinner. Smart play-calling.

Manning, of course, answered with a touchdown drive of his own, and the Colts held a slim 17-16 lead into the middle of the fourth quarter. But by that point, Brees was in a zone and there was no stopping the Saints' attack. Until, it appeared, Lance Moore dropped a two-point conversion attempt that would have given New Orleans a seven-point advantage.

Except Payton saw differently. I originally blasted the coach from my comfy seat out of the spotlight, afraid he had burned one of his treasured timeouts in such a close game. But a closer look provided evidence that Moore had possession and was in the end zone before the ball was knocked loose. The refs agreed. The Saints won the challenge. Huge, gutsy call by Payton.

As it turned out, the conversion was a moot point in the 14-point victory. But it easily could have come into play. Manning looked destined to drive the Colts to a game-tying drive until his third-down pass landed squarely in the abdomen of famous-quarterbacks-killer Tracy Porter, who ran 74 yards with the ball for the game's final score.

Still, Manning drove Indy back down the field and appeared, again, on the verge of getting his team in the end zone and making things interesting — only to run out of downs. A touchdown on either of the possessions would have brought that conversion into play.

So what stood out to me about Super Bowl XLIV? 

How well-played it was. Brees was near perfect, completing 32 of 39 passes and not throwing an interception. The Saints didn't turn the ball over and committed just three penalties for 19 yards. That's incredible. Hartley set a Super Bowl record by connecting on three field goals of 40-plus yards (44, 46, 47). Amazing.

On the other side, the Colts played extremely well, too — except for a few I'll-be-thinking-obsessively-about-that-play-for-at-least-the-next-164-days happenings. Manning was a very solid 31-of-45 for 333 yards and a touchdown ... not including the interception. They didn't turn the ball over — besides you know what — and had just five penalties. Jim Caldwell was rock-solid in his Super Bowl debut.

But the game came down to a couple huge plays, the accurate leg of a young kicker coming off the greatest moment of his life a fortnight prior, and risky but smart coaching by a man who will no doubt be locked up as a head coach for a long time to come.

And citizens of a city nearly destroyed four-plus years ago can now celebrate for the foreseeable future, knowing that their football team is run and led by a coach and players who when given the biggest stage, are at their best.

Lucky for the billions watching Sunday night, we were all witnesses to the flawless execution.

And not surprisingly, Saints players punctuated the night with a perfect Gatorade drenching of their so-deserving leader as the game clock neared 0:00.