Monday, November 28, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Phoenix Suns

I imagine the first thought that crossed my mind upon waking up this morning is similar to that of many NBAers. Actually, that’s probably not true. I did not bound out of bed singing “thank God the Bentley’s not getting repo’d.” I am confident, however, that my first thought mirrored the second one of many pro ballers: only four weeks until opening day? Damn, gotta get to work!

I started a series highlighting the five (sometimes more) greatest highlights in each franchise’s history out of a stubborn refusal to write about the lockout and- fearing we’d not have an NBA season to enjoy- a desire to keep front and center that which drew us all to the Association in the first place. I now encounter the greatest of all possible obstacles, however, out of respect to the most fun project I’ve ever undertaken, this show will go on. The timetable will be less than certain as the upcoming season will take priority, but that’s just fine. These types of memories have a serious shelf life.

Alright, let’s get back to work, this time with the Phoenix Suns.

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Suns is fun, exciting ball. Walter Davis, Paul Westphal, Dennis Johnson. The talented lead guard quartet of Kevin Johnson, first alongside Tom Chambers, then Charles Barkley, followed by Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury and two-time MVP Steve Nash in Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, it’s impossible to think of an era in which the Suns were not both loaded with talent and a fun watch.

As you read on, you’ll notice one notable name missing from the list above and the highlights below.

Brooklyn-born, Rucker-trained and the first face of the Suns franchise, Connie Hawkins is deserving of a far more prominent place among the greats of his era. After starring in basketball’s urban cathedral, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Iowa. With great size, athleticism and a skill set rarely seen in a man his size, he was surely destined for the pinnacle of pro hoops.

Sadly, however, during his freshman year, he was wrongly implicated in a point-shaving scandal that was traced back to New York. “Hawk” maintained his innocence and never admitted to any wrongdoing, but was expelled from Iowa, unable to secure another scholarship (where’s Jerry Tarkanian when you need him?) and blacklisted from professional basketball.

Rather than parlaying his inevitable college dominance into NBA stardom, Hawkins, though dominant at the various stops on his journey, became something of a basketball vagabond. Following the scandal, he spent one season with the ABL’s Pittsburgh Rens, with whom he averaged 27.5 points and 13.5 rebounds, and won league MVP. Following the ABL’s demise, he spent three years with the Harlem Globetrotters, during which he filed a lawsuit against the NBA for unfairly banning him, before joining a new pro basketball startup- the ABA.

A member of the Pittsburgh Pipers in the ABA’s inaugural season (1967-68), Hawk had one of the best seasons in league history, averaging a league-best 26.8 points, with 13.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists, earning an All-Star selection, league MVP and- after averaging 30-13 in the playoffs- leading the Pipers to the ABA title and capturing the playoff MVP in the process. After the season, the Pipers moved to Minnesota, where Hawkins averaged a fantastic 30 and 11 in an injury-plagued 1968-69 season, after which his suit with the NBA was settled and, at age 27, his rights were assigned to the NBA’s latest expansion team, the Phoenix Suns.

Though he’s synonymous with franchise, Hawkins spent just four seasons with the Suns- one great (24.6, 10.4 and 4.8 assists in 1969-70), two near great and one solid. He was named an All-Star four times, All-NBA First Team once and was a part of the first playoff team in franchise history.

Had the league itself not robbed him of his best years, the Hawk would occupy a far more prominent place in NBA history. Unfortunately, we are thus left with patchy recollections and a collection of highlights devoid of context. What these clips, limited though, do not lack is a window into a graceful dominance- one reminiscent of today's elite big men- that made Connie Hawkins one of the sport’s great icons that never truly was.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Raindrops on Roses...

A portion of last night was spent searching- idly I feared- for video evidence of Sam Cassell's "baila cojones grandes." In those dark moments, we were faced with a life devoid of both NBA basketball and Sam I Am's peace de resistance. Shortly before going to bed, around 2am I think, I unearthed the following, a momentary respite from the specter that the result of the NBA's latest marathon negotiating session would turn nuclear winter into armageddon:


Treating a bullet wound with a Vicoden tab? Maybe, but what else did we have?

I went to bed hopeful and optimistic, as I have been all along (because, really, there's not much point in the alternative), that if nothing else, the two sides would at least agree to continue chatting into the weekend.

This morning, I awoke, sluggish, unmotivated and frankly somewhat grumpy, not mentally rebooted to the point where I knew to check for lockout news. I grabbed my phone, as I do every day within 90 seconds of getting out of bed, and was greeted with this.

If you are here now, I probably don't need to tell you what happened next. Fist pumps, uncontrollable grins and the shedding of digital tears of joy on Twitter. We've mocked the "don't care" crowd, created fantasy leagues, wondered aloud if we'll get discounts on League Pass (we won't, but who cares?!) and generally rejoiced. A lot of love to all the folks that gutted this thing out together, and an incredible amount of gratitude to the guys and gals that hung out in hotel lobbies at ungodly hours in the hopes of passing along the ever-so-rare nugget of good news. We made it, everyone!

This is going to be a whirlwind month (and season, really), but for the time being... go crazy, folks! GO CRAZY!!!

Lookin like a season. How u?

These Are The Moments... The Los Angeles Clippers

I hate that some people act as though the Clippers didn’t exist prior to Halloween 2010.

I mean, come on! There was the Clippers before there was Blake Griffin.

I should know. While I am a Laker fan, I am also an L.A.-raised NBA junkie. Since the mid-80s, if the Clippers were on (and the Lakers were not), I was watching.

I remember Michael Cage, Loy Vaught, Danny Manning, Mark Jackson and Ron Harper, but also remember Ken Norman, Quintin Dailey, Tom Garrick, Joe Wolf and Terry Dehere. I remember the Clips’ early 90s ascent past the post-Magic Lakers, their return to the NBA basement and the turn-of-the-century accumulation of young talent (still have a bootleg L.O.-Elton-D. Miles-Q-Richt-shirt from Figueroa).

I moved East almost seven years ago, at which point Clipper games (and, with Chick Hearn now gone, Ralph Lawler’s calls) took on added significance. I was watching, lump in my throat, when Shaun Livingston suffered the most devastating injury I’ve ever seen. I won a tidy sum riding the Clippers in Sam Cassell’s early weeks with the team. I loved the 2006 run to within a game of the Western Conference Finals.

So, yeah, when some jackass boils down the entirety of Clipper history to one magical season of the Blake Show, it gets on my nerves.

(Seriously, NO idea what came over me with that embarrassing, mailed-in question. Thanks to Charlie Widdoes, Tim Severson and Greg Wissinger for dishing out a collective wake-up call. And while I'm thanking the academy, a shout out to @KJ_NBA for the picture above)

 Ok, now that that's taken care of, let's do this, shall we?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Boston Celtics

In 13 years, Bill Russell was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times- the first ever to win three in a row- and, with help from the likes of Bob Cousy, Sam Jones and John Havlicek, hung 11 banners in the Boston Garden rafters. Russell’s the unrivaled record of winning, combined with his contributions to the growth and evolution of the game itself- the cerebral transformation of defense and rebounding into art forms, the unprecedented versatility as a big man to work as an offensive facilitator- have, by all objective measures, forever secured his place atop the Celtic pantheon.

Except one.

As expertly as Russell capitalized on his incredible arsenal of talents, particularly on the game’s biggest stage, another Boston icon sits atop Mount “Holy shit!”

The greatest Celtic of the last four decades, Larry Bird built a resume that rivaling that of any of his legendary, emerald-clad predecessors. In 14 years, Bird earned three rings of his own, a dozen trips to the All-Star game and, in 1986, became the last player to capture a third consecutive MVP award. More than any achievement, however, Bird’s lasting legacy will be one of intangible greatness. As fascinated as I am with the increasingly prominent role played by statistics in NBA analysis, this is still the primary prism through which I view the game.

Say what you will about the efficacy of terms like “assassin” and “clutch,” there is something innate, a hoops genius that allows the very greatest of the great to treat the game like a game. It is an ability to not only understand the game, but to feel its pulse. It is this almost supernatural sense of the moment that allows a truly special player to not only throw a pass where he cannot see or to play most of an NBA game with his off hand, but to do so on command, successfully and without wavering for a moment in the focus on extinguishing an opponent.

Friday, November 18, 2011

These Are The Moments... The New Jersey Nets

In terms of achievement, the story of the New Jersey Nets is anything but storied. With the notable exceptions of the Jason Kidd era that saw the team rise from the depths of mediocrity and irrelevance to represent the Eastern Conference in consecutive NBA Finals, there’s not been a great deal to write home about.

Aesthetically, however, thanks to the playmaking of Kidd, Kenyon Martin and the final days of the artist now known as Vintage Vince, signature moments have not been in short supply the past dozen years. More on this momentarily.

Some will point out, rightfully, that Nets’ highlight history began a quarter century before Kidd’s arrival and peaked three decades before VC hit the turnpike. This, of course, is in reference to the franchise’s days on Long Island, when a young Julius Erving, one of the game’s early skywalkers, starred for the ABA’s New York Nets. Erving’s place in Nets’ history is beyond reproach- he was named league MVP each of his three seasons with the team, never averaging worse than 27.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5 assists, and led the Nets to a pair of ABA championships.

Unfortunately, due to a paucity of identifiable highlights (hell, whatever there is of Dr. J’s ABA highlights, ID’able or not, doesn’t measure up to the accounts of his greatness) the Doctor is absent from the body of this retrospective.

There- no elephants in this room.

Now, without further ado, to the swampland!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Houston Rockets

The stories of most successful NBA franchises are profoundly influenced by stellar play in the middle. This is true of no franchise more than it is of the Houston Rockets, whose legacy of big men ranks among the NBA’s very best. What sets this group apart, however, from history’s other great big man dynasties is aesthetics.

From a man as close to eight feet tall as he is to seven with a feathery touch to 18 feet, to one that made offensive rebounding a spectator sport, to a pair that exhibited more guardlike agility and skill while still dominating in the frontcourt- top to bottom, no collection of NBA bigs has been more enjoyable to watch over the past 30 years.

Heading this group is one of NBA history’s five greatest centers, and my pick for the most enjoyable to watch, Hakeem Olajuwon. This is man with whom virtually all discussion of Rockets’ history begins and ends. In the interest of staying true to the theme of this series, I’ll keep the words to minimum, but I must say this- in terms of sheer skill and the ability to command the game while simultaneously transforming it into a work of artistry, Hakeem sits at the head of the class.

Monday, November 14, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Miami Heat

Recently on Twitter I declared that in terms of both on court brilliance and general persona, Dwyane Wade is the coolest NBAer I’ve ever seen. He not only makes jawdropping plays on a regular basis, but seldom, if ever, looks like a douche in his reactions and celebrations. Though not particularly relevant in any tangible sense, when one sets about identifying the greatest highlights in NBA history, it places Wade atop the list. This, along with Wade’s status as one of few old-school, one-team superstars (haven’t thought it all the way through, but I love Hakeem Olajuwon as a comp- and no, I haven’t forgotten Dream's brief stint in Toronto), distinguishes him from most NBA players, including a certain teammate with whom he is inextricably linked.

LeBron James is the superior basketball player, as spectacular a highlight factory as there is and hardly the recipient of a cold reception upon his arrival in Miami. With that said, the relationship that Dwyane Wade shares with the city and pre-Decision Heat fans is a special one, one possible only through time and a shared journey- apologies in advance for trotting out this exhausted storyline- one precisely like that left behind in Cleveland by LeBron James.

Not making value judgments, just stating what’s so. These are Dwyane Wade’s people. And like D-Wade’s unflappable coolness, this doesn’t manifest itself in the form of wins and losses, but if you need a highlight kicked up from spectacular to sublime…

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Blissful Denial- Complete NBA Blogger Season Previews

Whether the 2011-12 NBA season takes place at all, and what form it will take if it does, remain to be seen. Given some unfortunate developments in recent days, optimism has never been in shorter supply. As you look for coping mechanisms in these trying times, allow me to offer up a suggestion- drinking and denial.

Season or not, thanks to the efforts of CelticsBlog's Jeff Clark and a host of extremely talented writers from all corners of the NBA blogosphere (and me), we have 2011-12 previews for every NBA team.

Wipe away the tears, pour yourself a couple fingers of bourbon and enjoy:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The These Are The Moments... The Sacramento Kings

I love the Sacramento Kings.

Though I’ve never set foot in the building, I feel like I know every crevice of (if you think I’m calling it Power Balance Pavilion, you’re outta your damn mind) Arco Arena. I love the way the local cowbell-toters not only packed the place, but transformed it into a cauldron on par with any in NBA history. I love the early work of C-Webb and Slim Shady (always thought “White Chocolate” was lame) and developed an illicit mancrush on Mike Bibby in the spring of 2002. Hell, even Doug Christie… nah, even I can’t sap it up that much. Fuck that guy.

Strange words from a Laker diehard, I know, and for years the diametric opposite was true, but looking back, I, we, needed the raw emotion that the Kings inspired in the Lakers’ otherwise businesslike Lightswitch Dynasty. Plus, it’s important to understand that few franchises figured more prominently in the NBA experience of my generation of Laker Nation.

From the baby blue-clad lean years of the 1980s- when the league consisted of 23 teams, nationally televised games were rarer and League Pass not even a fantasy, and much of what you got were division matchups- to the electrifying dawn of the Webber era, the epic 2002 Western Conference Finals, ‘Reke (a Hype favorite) and #herewestay, it’s been a long and winding road whose apex, while brief, was as intense and traumatic as any I’ve experienced. Emotions run hot here.

Have these emotions and experiences biased my selection of the top highlights in Kings’ history? Probably. And I’m totally cool with that:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

These Are The Moments... First Up, The Seattle Supersonics

The journey may be more important than the destination, but what makes it memorable are individual moments of which it’s comprised.

Between the lockout providing an impromptu crash course in labor law, ever-increasing sophistication in statistical metrics and heightened, coach-like awareness of tactical nuances, NBA writers and fans are more informed today than at any time in history. The net effect of the advancements in fan intellect is decidedly positive (and NO, they do not take the fun out of fandom), but the thing is, for the incredible value they add to our understanding of the game, advanced stats and subtle nuances seldom leave you laughing out loud in an empty room.

Solid defensive rotations, proper spacing on a post entry pass and Usage Rates are fascinating in their own right- and you don’t need me to tell you about how talk of BRI splits and “system issues” gets a party started- but love affairs are sparked by visceral, “HOLY SHIT” moments. I (and probably you as well) am all about these moments. Be it one that sums up perfectly its author, or the matchup in which it took place, or one that defies all logic, the most memorable moment in sports is one in which even the most solid and painstakingly crafted gameplan is torn asunder by the spontaneity of athletic brilliance, and maybe a bit of luck.

Thanks to a mild depression and a case of lockout fatigue that’s left me nearly catatonic, I have taken immense comfort in the warm embrace of the past. Anyone familiar with my work knows that this is hardly my first excursion into the rabbit hole of NBA history. This time, however, I’m embarking on a project that, rather than simply supplementing knowledge of statistics and storylines from years past, allows for a look back, if only momentarily, at the game’s greatest moments, hopefully (we’ll see) through the same prism as the fan bases that actually lived and died with them.