Tuesday, February 15, 2011
They're 46-9, which means the San Antonio Spurs are on pace for 69 wins, or, in other words, the second-most regular season wins in NBA history. But still, nobody talks about them. They're like a forty degree day.
"Ain't nobody got nothing to say about a forty degree day," said Stringer Bell once, while admonishing his muscle for failing to complete orders. "Fifty brings a smile to your face. Sixty? Shit, niggas are damn near barbecuing on that motherfucker. Go down to twenty, niggas get their bitch on, get their blood complaining. But forty? Nobody gives a fuck about forty. Nobody remembers forty."
But why are the Spurs a forty degree day? Why is nobody talking about them, even though they've got a chance (a long shot, still, I know) to win 70 games? These aren't your old, walk-it-down-the-court-and-pass-it-to-Tim-Duncan Spurs. Gregg Popovich wants them to run, and they do (well, with the 13th-fastest pace in the NBA, they run to an extent). They're the sixth-highest scoring team in the league. Manu Ginobili is, and always has been, one of the league's most exciting and creative players. His whirling forays to the hoop often end with his defender in a daze. He's fearless. He never stops working. And hell, he even started last night's game -- the very first play -- with a between-the-legs bounce pass to DeJuan Blair.
The Spurs even have off-court drama. There was Tony Parker's messy separation from Eva Longoria, which occurred because Parker screwed around with Brent Barry's wife. (Speaking of Barry, and this is quite a distance removed from talking about his wife's cheating tendencies, he has the most sneaky exciting highlight tape ever. I'm not even kidding.) George Hill sent text messages of his junk, long before Brett Favre did. Okay, so there's not much other drama. Tim Duncan isn't exactly the world's most news-worthy superstar, and Matt Bonner's not going to grab headlines any time soon. Shouldn't the on-court product be enough? Watching this team play could make Kendrick Perkins smile.
Do you not like teams that run-and-gun? Do you not like a team whose point guard is a blur in transition, who can finish among the trees from all angles? Whose shooting guard can leave you bedazzled on any given play, who swipes bats out of mid-air, and who looks a little like Andy Garcia? Whose small forward once did this? Whose power forward eats small children, and rebounds, for breakfast? Whose center is the best power forward ever to play basketball? Whose top sub is a 24-year old, long-armed Gumby who developed three-point accuracy to go with his impressive physique? Whose backup wing never got drafted, spent time playing professionally in Turkey, Italy and Spain, scores buckets in bunches, and -- according to his coach -- plays no defense whatsoever?
Maybe San Antonio just picked the wrong year to dominate the regular season. Miami bought itself a headline-hogging so-called Super Team, and Los Angeles, as the two-time defending champion, will receive plenty of attention no matter how many times they lose to the Bobcats. The Celtics are busy defying age, and the media can't ignore that. And Blake Griffin's busy posterizing unsuspecting fools and earning the hearts of all humans who pay any attention.
Maybe fans just can't forget the bland Duncan days. After receiving bank-shot torture for years, fans can't forgive San Antonio. I'm not a "bored by Duncan" type of guy myself. Where other people see boring plays, I see beauty, I see basketball fundamentals and footwork that took decades to develop. But I can see why people didn't like Duncan, whose highlight reel isn't nearly as exciting as Brent Barry's. And I can see why they still hold it against San Antonio, why they still give the Spurs the "boring" stigma, even if these new-look Spurs are anything but.
Maybe we just don't trust the Spurs. They haven't seriously contended in years, and maybe we still don't believe this 46-9 start. At some point, we think, Manu or Parker will get hurt. Or Duncan will completely tail off. Or Gary Neal will remember why he went undrafted. Or teams will start using Blair's lack of height against him. Or Cinderella's clock will strike midnight. Or the Spurs will pinch themselves, and it won't hurt, and none of this will be real.
The Spurs, despite Usain Bolt-ing their competition out West, continue to get overlooked. They continue to be perceived as nothing more exciting than a forty degree day.
But me? I don't believe the lack of hype. I'm starting to barbecue in this motherfucker.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Snoop Pearson took Michael Lee for a ride, and her ultimate objective was to kill the youngster, to kill the boy -- he'd like to consider himself a man -- who she had mentored in her own murderous ways. But Michael was smart, so he asked her to pull over the car and let him take a piss.
Instead of urinating, Michael pulled out a gun and aimed it at Snoop's head. She asked how he had known her intent.
"Y'all taught me," he responded. "Get there early."
Snoop and her partner, Chris, had turned Michael into a lethal weapon. They took him to some vacant buildings (Snoop and Chris knew those well), played paintball with him, and told him where and how to shoot someone dead. More importantly, they explained the value of preparation. Always scout a scene before stepping into it, they told Michael. Always scout each and every person you'll be doing business with.
By teaching Michael so well, Snoop had inadvertently given him the key that would end her life.
If you're a Celtics fan -- and I am, unabashedly -- enjoy yesterday's win against the Miami Heat. Enjoy Rajon Rondo somehow (and successfully) defending a man who outweighs him by 100 pounds, yet still runs a 40-yard dash just as quickly. Enjoy Von Wafer's sudden explosion onto the scene, a rare Wafer sighting in a season that has seen him register quite a few DNPs. Enjoy Kendrick Perkins' physicality, and Glen Davis' fearlessness, and -- hey, at least the Celtics won -- even enjoy Davis' attempted (and failed) dunk, or Wafer's second-grade-ish double dribble.
But the Celtics better get their shots in now. Because Boston's Big Three -- even if their play this season (Pierce's stat line yesterday notwithstanding) suggests otherwise -- are on their way out, and at some point the Heat will get the proverbial "it." Although Adrian Wojnarowski would like to remind you that the Heat were built to win now, they should still improve every season for the next five or six years. Udonis Haslem will return to health, and he'll provide toughness. Dwyane Wade and Lebron James, with every passing year, will learn to co-exist more peacefully. And the mid-level exception (assuming it still exists in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement) will allow the Heat to beef up its bench with one legitimate talent per season.
At some point, Miami will also start to pay attention to some of Boston's lessons. Inadvertently, while physically and executionally (I made up that word, in case you didn't know) dominating Miami, the Celtics are giving Miami the keys that could end Boston's life. Just like Snoop did with Michael.
Three seasons ago, the Boston Celtics convincingly slapped around the Los Angeles Lakers to win an NBA championship. Kevin Garnett compared the feeling to knocking out a bully, but there was only one problem with that analogy -- the Celtics were the bully. They were the ones who set the tone, the ones who threw elbows in the paint, the ones who boxed out on every possession. They were the ones who used physicality to their advantage, who made Pau Gasol look like a punk, who gave Los Angeles a treatment that could have been administered by Mike Tyson in his prime (and, knowing Kevin Garnett, he might have even bitten someone's ear). Hooks, uppercuts, haymakers -- Boston sent a flurry of punches to stagger Los Angeles, then finally ended them with the knockout blow in Game Six.
Rather than remaining defeated, the Lakers used the beatdown to their advantage. They needed to become more physical, and they did. They needed to heighten their defensive intensity, and they did. They needed to commit themselves in a way the Celtics taught them was necessary, and so the Lakers did. Losing to Boston toughened LA; it taught them there was another level of play they needed to reach. When the two teams again met in the Finals two years later, LA, in KG's words, knocked the bully out. Lessons learned, team improved, championship avenged.
The same process is now happening in Miami, with Chris Bosh starring in Pau Gasol's former "soft big man" role. To paraphrase Dwyane Wade, the Celtics are like the Heat's big brother. They keep dominating them down low. They keep executing them to death with teamwork. They keep loading up on Wade and Lebron's drives, and forcing other players to beat them. To this day, my brother's a miserable video game player because -- when we were young -- my cousins and I wouldn't let him play. He was the youngest, so we forced him to watch instead. The Celtics force the Heat to watch them play video games. The Celtics boss the Heat around in every way possible. The Celtics play physically, with an edge, a cockiness, a defense, and a swagger that are impossible to replicate in practice. Miami hasn't yet learned how to cope.
Maybe I'm being to easy on the Heat; maybe they should already know. After all, Wade and Lebron were both ousted by Boston last season. They know all too well what it feels like to see the Celtics move on, while they went home. Wade and Lebron should have learned the challenges Boston represents -- the size, and the fierceness, and the dedication to doing all the little things correctly. Maybe Miami should already be able to stand up to Boston, to stand up to the team that keeps smacking them around.
But the thing is, I firmly believe the Heat thought this process would be easy. They never expected Boston to provide such a challenge. They thought Boston, and the rest of the NBA, would bow down and kiss their SuperTeam shoes. Wade, Lebron and Bosh thought they'd join forces, strap on their capes, and see championships start to pile up. How many rings did Lebron predict, back at the WWF-style introduction they had? Eight? Eight titles, he predicted. By his side stood Wade and Bosh, the two sidekicks who would help Lebron get those championships. This would be easy, they thought. Alone, they were damn tough to beat. Together? They'd surely prove invincible.
Except they didn't suspect the Celtics to stand in their way, like a road block that's not moving anywhere. Like a basketball-playing road block that's just as skilled, yet deeper, tougher, bigger and more versatile. The Celtics don't cede a thing. They don't back down an inch. Rondo may stand only 6'1" and 170 pounds soaking wet, but there he was, with a forearm on Lebron's back, looking up at Lebron with eyes that screamed focus and intensity. It didn't matter that Pierce was hurt, or that Daniels, West, Shaq, Jermaine, and Semih Erden were all out injured. The Celtics, damn it all, were going to find a way to win. Either that, or they were going to exhaust every avenue while trying.
The Celtics provide challenges no other team does. They sneer, and they throw elbows, and they talk junk, and through it all they play near-perfect team basketball. They test teams mentally as much as physically, and if teams are not ready for their challenge, the Celtics will send them home thinking what Wade did: "Damn, they just treated me like their little brother."
But if the Heat are paying attention, Boston's actually showing them the tools to succeed. The Celtics are inadvertently teaching the Heat everything they need to know about unselfishness, toughness, and the blueprint for three superstars to blend as a unit that's more powerful than its individual pieces. Los Angeles learned those lessons, and learned them to the tune of two straight championships (and, perhaps, counting). Miami has to take the same steps LA did, to rise to Boston's challenge by using many of the same traits Boston exudes on a nightly basis.
Before I end, one piece of advice for Kevin Garnett: If Lebron ever asks you to pull over the car so he can take a piss, I suggest you tell him to hold it. He might have been staking out the scene. He might know that you're planning to kill him ruthlessly. He might use your own lessons against you, and, if you're not careful, you might end up with a bullet in your head.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Before Dennis "Cutty" Wise started mowing lawns or teaching boxing, he spent fourteen years in jail. The day before he finally got out, Wee-Bey Brice and Avon Barksdale asked him to chat.
"So what do you need to see me for?", Cutty asked. As Wee-Bey and Avon rarely ever chatted just to shoot the shit, the meeting served a purpose. Cutty had been a soldier prior to his fourteen-year stint in the clink, a legendary enforcer in the Baltimore drug game. Avon was soon getting out of jail himself, and the Baltimore Towers, which had been one of Avon's most profitable drug territories, had been torn down. Avon wanted to hire muscle to expand his crew and make up for losing his business from the Towers.
"A good soldier ain't gonna lack for work," Avon told Cutty. But after talking to Cutty, Avon wasn't sure the former legend still had what it took to pull the trigger. "The joint might have broke him," thought Avon. But Wey-Bey didn't think that was possible.
"Boss, you talking about homie who shot Elijah Davis; broad daylight; at Pensey and Gold; THEN picked up the phone, dialed 9-1-1 and told the police, 'I just shot a nigga. Come get him'," said Wey-Bey. "That dude ain't breaking."
Michael Jordan never shot Elijah Davis in broad daylight, and he never called the police just to tell them he killed somebody. But after what he did to Craig Ehlo, or Bryon Russell, or any number of other NBA players, maybe 9-1-1 should have been Jordan's first call. "I just killed someone. Come get him." Jordan wasn't a soldier, per se, but he certainly racked up a body count to rival even Chris and Snoop's.
Jordan's the best player ever to lace up a pair of basketball sneakers. He's basketball's Mozart. To paraphrase Will Hunting, when Michael Jordan saw a basketball, he could always just play. It didn't hurt his cause that he was as obsessed with basketball -- and winning -- as Liam Neeson was with finding his kidnapped daughter in Taken. Or that he could jump like a trampolinist on steroids. But he's been in jail -- err, out of the game -- since 2003. And even Cutty, Baltimore's greatest soldier, got affected by such a layoff.
After eight years away from the game, there's talk that the 47-year old Jordan (he'll be 48 next week) could potentially return to the NBA. He's practicing with the Charlotte Bobcats, and they've been impressed by Jordan's play. "He still has it," said Paul Silas, adding, "If he got in shape he could probably average about 15 to 20 points a game, no question, because he still has the shot. If he got in shape, he would probably average 20 because he can get the shot off, he can make them, and he has just an uncanny knowledge of the game."
Let's not lie to ourselves. The only reason we're having this conversation is because it's Michael Jordan. No other human being could conceivably contribute to an NBA team at age 48. I'm not even sure Jordan conceivably could, but I find it hard to bet against him because, well, he's the indomitable man who always wagged his tongue, the indomitable man who could only fail at one thing in his professional sports career -- baseball.
The thought of a Jordan comeback would make some people cringe. Many fans think he should have retired for good in 1998, after his second retirement, and that we should always remember the Bryon Russell shot as his final one. We should remember this picture as his final moment, rather than his stint with the Washington Wizards, or -- gasp -- struggling to make the playoffs (and maybe crack the rotation) in Charlotte.
But let's think about this for a second. Think about all Jordan's done in his career. The scoring titles, the MVP trophies, the championships, the did-you-see-what-I-just-did shrugs and the I'm-a-lot-better-than-anybody-else-on-planet-earth moments. Is anything he has already accomplished more impressive than succeeding in the NBA at 48 years old? Even if he's not an MVP candidate, or even a starter.
No man has ever played NBA basketball after age 45. The one man who played at age 45 was Nat Hickey, who played one game for the Providence Steamrollers during the 1947-'48 season (yes, the 1947-'98 season). Actually, that wasn't even in the NBA. The Steamrollers played in the BAA, the NBA's precursor. And Hickey shot six times during his lone game, missing all six attempts.
In modern NBA history, only one man has even played at age 44. That was Kevin Willis, who played five game for the Dallas Mavericks in 2006-'07, many moons after he should have been retired for good.
John Stockton and Karl Malone drank from the Fountain of Youth better than anybody else in NBA history, to this point. In his final year, at age 41, Stockton averaged 10.8 ppg and 7.7 apg. He also wore shorts that gave him a permanent wedgie. The Mailman scored 13.2 ppg and added 8.7 rpg during his final campain, when he was 40 years old. He would later take part in an odd Sketchers commercial alongside Kareem-Abdul Jabaar.
If Jordan could somehow whip himself into shape for a comeback (and sell his share of the Charlotte Bobcats, because NBA rules say no owner can play for a team) at age 48, after eight years away from the game, there is no historical comparison. If he could also, as Silas predicted, average between 15 and 20 points per game, it would be the greatest feat in basketball history. What else could be more impressive than scoring that many points, at that age, after eight years off? I remind you, nobody else has ever so much as played a single NBA game after turning 45 years old.
Of course, even if Jordan comes back, he's likely to fail. (I said I hate betting against him, but he's still damn near 48 years old. I have to bet against him, right? Even if he's Michael Jeffrey Jordan?) The human body isn't meant to play sports at age 48. Not basketball, at least. Even Jordan's body has to be deteriorated after eight years out of the game, right? Right?
On the other hand, it's Jordan. Michael Jordan. The man who adores competition, who even used his Hall of Fame induction speech as a platform for letting people know he was better than they were. I picture the practices he's going through in Charlotte, and I just see one image: Michael Jordan, frothing at the mouth, like a heroin fiend looking for one more fix, dying -- almost literally -- to play another NBA game. It's almost impossible to picture that Jordan, that singular-minded assassin focused only on improving his game and tearing out his opponent's heart, ever failing. Not even if he's almost a half century old.
Remember how he ended his Hall of Fame induction speech? "One day you might look up and see me playing the game at fifty [years old]," he said. "Oh, don't laugh. Never say never, because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion."
Michael Jordan has spent his whole life breaking down the human body's barriers. He jumped higher. He trained harder. He knew himself, and his game, and winning, better than anybody else before or since. But he's almost fifty years old, and that has to mean something. Right?
Avon eventually coaxed Cutty into returning to the drug game as Avon's muscle. A little while after deciding to rejoin the game, Cutty was sent on a mission to shoot and kill a rival drug dealer. The rival drug dealer sprinted away when he realized what was going on, but slipped and fell as he rounded the corner. Cutty chased him and caught up to the fallen man easily. He looked down his gun's barrel, at the rival drug dealer laying helplessly on the ground. All Cutty had to do was pull the trigger. As he would later say, "I had that kid in my sights, close enough to take off his cango and half his dong with it." But he couldn't bring himself to fire his gun.
"Whatever it is in you that lets you flow like you flow and do that thang," Cutty told Avon later, "it ain't in me no more."
Avon told Cutty it was okay; the drug ring could use him in a different role instead.
"No, man. I ain't making myself clear," Cutty responded. "The game ain't in me no more. None of it."
The game shouldn't be in Michael Jordan no more, either. Not after eight years away from the court. Not at the age of 47, soon to be 48. Still, no matter how improbable a successful Jordan comeback seems, I keep remembering one thing -- the time Jordan shot Elijah Davis in broad daylight, then called 9-1-1 to tell police to pick up the body.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Once a month, Omar Little accompanied his grandmother to church. She thought her grandson was a cafeteria worker at the airport, even though he was actually Baltimore's most-feared human, a stickup boy who wore a shotgun across his chest wherever he went. Though his grandmother didn't know it, Omar actually robbed drug dealers. But once a month, he took his grandmother to church. "Ain't no need to worry," Omar told himself, "because ain't nobody in this city that low-down to disrespect a Sunday morning."
Nobody was that low-down, that is, until they were. The prior Sunday morning, shots followed Omar's grandmother as he quickly hurried her from the shootout scene. He saved her life, but barely. "On a Sunday morning,"Omar said, "they near shot her best crown off." Omar liked to talk about how every man, even stickup boys like himself, needed a code to live by. But this was Baltimore, and the code that once said not to shoot civilians -- the code that once said not to harm anybody on a Sunday morning, or outside a church -- was dying. The city was changing, for the worse, and the code was disappearing.
Twenty-three years ago, Jerry Sloan began coaching the Utah Jazz. At the time of his hiring, people remembered Sloan as a player. The way he ran through screens, the way he clawed, the way he never backed down. Sloan's the only person whose competitiveness rivaled Michael Jordan's, Jerry Krause said, and he would do whatever it took to win a basketball game.
"He had very limited ability," said Krause. "And he got 300% out of whatever ability he had."
"Jerry Sloan was probably one of the most tenacious competitors I've ever seen," said Bob Lanier. "He'd get in your jock strap and ride you all the way down court."
He'd elbow you, too. And tug you. And trip you. And scream at you. And fight you, if he had to. But through all the play that some people call dirty, Sloan kept his code. He was a man of morals, a man of integrity, a man who just wanted to win.
He took the same integrity to the Utah Jazz, when he was named their head coach back in 1988. Sloan became known for his flex cuts, and his pick-and-rolls. He became known for tutoring John Stockton and Karl Malone. He became known for always falling short of an NBA championship, and he became known as perhaps the best coach never to win an NBA Coach of the Year award. Twenty-three seasons Sloan coached in Utah, and his teams had winning records in 22 of those seasons. He never did earn recognition as the Coach of the Year, but every NBA follower knew his value. More importantly, everyone knew what he stood for.
Sloan's teams became a symbol of his soul. They were never the sexiest teams; they would never be confused with Showtime. But the Utah players played with discipline, and they played hard. If they didn't, they'd have a 6'5" head coach barking in their ears, a coach who was still willing to kick their ass to prove his point, to teach his code.
He was hard on his players, of course. He had to be. He needed to force them to see his vision. He needed to instill his values; he needed to instill his code. No player was free from Sloan's occasional wrath. According to Mike Wise of the Washington Post, Sloan and Karl Malone had one verbal altercation eleven years ago. "Did you hear what Sloan just called me?" Malone asked afterward. "He done cussed me out like a damn rookie," he continued, still furious. Half an hour later, Malone had calmed down. "You know what? I needed that. I needed to hear what he told me today."
Sloan didn't tell his players what they wanted to hear; he told them what they needed to hear. I imagine he had very little filter to what he said. I imagine he didn't care whether you were Karl Malone or Gordon Giricek. I imagine he didn't care if you were black or white, or Cuban or Asian. I imagine he didn't care if you were a rookie or a twelve-time All-Star. If you were keeping Jerry Sloan from achieving his next 'W', you were going to get an earful. He wasn't ever the man to let anybody slide. And his players -- even though they sometimes fought with Sloan, even though they didn't always see eye to eye with their Hall of Fame coach -- knew he saw only winning. Winning was his code, and playing the right way was the means to getting there.
I didn't know when Jerry Sloan would resign, or retire. He seemed like he would always be in Utah. It's tough to think about Utah without him, or the NBA without him. If I ever had been able to envision Jerry Sloan leaving, he would have been leaving on his own terms. I never once imagined how his career would actually end, with team-wide turmoil, rumors of Deron Williams' discontent, and Sloan's words: "It was time for me to get out. I didn't want to be a hindrance to the team, or to anyone."
If Sloan hadn't really lost the team, he thought he had. He couldn't get through to his players anymore. The league's longest-tenured coach, one of the most respected figures in NBA history, didn't want to be a hindrance. His code wasn't working anymore. So he left, with a few tears streaming down his cheeks. I never thought Sloan, the pinnacle of toughness that he was, could cry. But leaving the game -- the game that he spent his whole life pouring his soul into; the game that has shaped him; the game that he's had as much an effect on as almost any human being currently alive -- can reduce even Jerry Sloan to raw emotions.
I'm not bothered that Sloan left Utah. That was always going to happen, some day. I'm bothered by the way he left, leaving behind a team that no longer realized his contributions to the game, a team that no longer recognized his code. If you're going to shoot somebody, don't do it on a Sunday, and don't kill a civilian. And if you're going to tune out a coach, tune out a lesser one, tune out someone who doesn't have only winning in his sights, tune out someone who hasn't pieced together 22 winning seasons in the last 23 years.
Disrespecting Jerry Sloan is just as low-down as disrespecting a Sunday morning. Where's the code, people? Where's the code?
Friday, February 11, 2011
Back before Bodie became my favorite hoodlum ever; before Wallace's two best friends shot him ("Where the fuck's Wallace?"); before Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell saw their empire lost to an up-and-coming Marlo, and their lives ruined by near-simultaneous betrayals; before Prezbo became a teacher; before Michael became the next Omar; before Bubbles ever stepped foot in his sister's house's upper floor; before we ever heard Clay Davis proclaim, "Shiiiieeeeettttttttt"; there was McNulty, that arrogant and intelligent prick, giving a fuck when it wasn't his turn to give a fuck.
As McNulty did that day, we do the same today. Does anybody want a Wire/NBA combination blog, which will likely result in hours of time wasted, all so we can discuss our two favorite past-times? No, probably not. But I didn't want Danny Ainge to keep Doc Rivers on board in the summer of 2007, and that turned out alright. The results of Doc's extension so far include 1) the term "Ubuntu", brought to the English language, 2) two NBA Finals appearances, 3) one NBA championship, 4) the beginning and (hopefully) end of the Rasheed Wallace Era, and 5) the return of the phrase "Celtic Pride."
We don't promise to emulate Doc's success, nor the Celtics' success, nor do we promise to popularize any African phrases. But Doc's second chance in Boston teaches us the following: not all things that seem so brutally ill-advised turn out poorly.
And so we start this blog, with McNulty's passion and fire (and perhaps a few of his asshole tendencies) streaming through our veins. Just like McNulty, we give a fuck when it ain't our turn to give a fuck. And one day, when Jay Landsman shouts out our eulogy in Kavanagh's pub, we can only hope he concludes with the following words:
"I say this seriously. If I was laying there dead on some Baltimore street corner, I'd want it to be you standing over me catchin' the case. Because brother, when you were good, you were the best we had."