Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Superhuman Highlight

In the days since Kobe Bryant unexpectedly crumbled at Harrison Barnes’ feet, in hopes of unearthing a clue as to what lays ahead for the Laker legend, an army of amateur physicians has mobilized, scrambling to bone up on possible causes of torn Achilles tendons and the impact of said tears – short and long term – on the effectiveness of NBA players so unfortunate as to feel their sting. For anyone hoping to once again witness Kobe at the peak of his breathtaking power, the findings are, by and large, less than encouraging: 

  • As vicious a competitor as the league has known, Isiah Thomas suffered a torn Achilles in the final days of the 1993-94 regular season. It ended his career. 
  • Once a rising star and a major contributor to the first-ever 8-over-1 upset in the NBA playoffs, LaPhonso Ellis – who was capping off a strong season, averaging 21.9 points and seven rebounds – ruptured his right Achilles on April 4, 1997. The injury did not end Ellis’ already injury-marred career – he bounced around the NBA for another six seasons – but he never came close to regaining his mid-90s form. 
  • Though not the star many had expected him to become based on his Duke days, Christian Laettner was building a very solid NBA career, having averaged at least 16 points and eight rebounds in each of his first five seasons and earning a spot in the 1997 All Star Game. However, an Achilles tear suffered late in 1997-98 season marked the beginning of the (rather protracted) end for Laettner. He spent another 6+ seasons in the NBA, but only once more had a double digit scoring average and only twice averaged as many as six rebounds per game. 
  • In August 2007, Elton Brand, then a member of the Clippers, ruptured his left Achilles tendon during an offseason workout. An MVP candidate and top-three power forward at the time of the injury, Brand missed all but eight games in 2007-08. He remains an active NBAer and still an excellent rebounder and solid interior defender, but has not come particularly close to recapturing past glory. 
  • On April 17, 2010, in the Utah Jazz’s playoff opener against the Denver Nuggets, Mehmet Okur ruptured his Achilles. He missed the remainder of that postseason, as well as that summer’s World Basketball Championships, but managed to make his way back on to an NBA floor in exactly eight months, returning on December 17, 2010. Sadly, Okur was never again an effective NBA player, scoring 194 points in 30 games after the injury. He retired last November. 
  • On February 7, 2012, while playing for the Clippers in Orlando, Chauncey Billups tore his left Achilles tendon. He’s had an extremely tough time bouncing back, taking part in just 21 games since, averaging 8.0 points in 19 minutes per game. It’s unlikely that he’ll play at a high level again. 

Not a pretty picture, huh?

Which brings us to the curious case of Dominique Wilkins.

On January 28, 1992, in the second quarter of a home tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers, like Kobe and the half dozen gentlemen mentioned above, Wilkins, tore his Achilles tendon. The injury, which left the tendon in his right leg looking, as he described it, “like a shredded mop," occurred a decade into the Hawks’ superstar’s career, at age 32. With Kobe, also an explosive wing scorer, clocking in at 34 years of age, Wilkins has emerged as the best case scenario. Now, it’s worth noting that despite the proximity in age, their respective odometers bear little resemblance to one another. At the time of his injury, Dominique had logged 27,482 regular and postseason minutes over 10 seasons, while Kobe, in his 17th season, has played 54,041 NBA minutes. Putting this aside – because, frankly, what the fuck do we know? – at the time, questions abounded – as they do about Kobe now – regarding Dominique’s future in the NBA, if he was to have one at all.

According to Wilkins, it took nine months and whole lotta patience before he fully regained confidence in his body’s ability to answer the NBA bell. By the start of the following season, ‘Nique had his mojo back. What followed, beyond serving as something for which Laker nation will spend the coming months crossing its collective fingers, remains, two decades hence, perhaps the NBA’s most remarkable (and, really, under-celebrated) triumph over injury – Adrian Peterson on the hardwood: Dominique Wilkins’ 1992-93 season.

His return to the floor brought with it not only external doubt and – one can only imagine – at least a little bit of internal fear, but also the band of bullies known as Pat Riley’s Knicks, ‘Nique came out swinging, however, making half of his 26 (!) shot attempts, en route to 30 points, albeit in a losing effort.

If his post-injury debut was a thrill, Wilkins’ second game back, the following night at Chicago Stadium against Michael Jordan and the now-two-time champion Bulls, was downright euphoric. While the reigning king managed 35 points, making 13 of 29 shots, and 11 assists, the night belonged to ‘Nique, who scored 33 on just 20 shots and grabbed seven rebounds in a 100-99 Hawks win. And he was off. Wilkins would score 30+ in four of the Hawks’ next six, capped off by a 41-point, 16-rebound explosion in a 116-107 home win over the Boston Celtics.

By the time all was said and done, Dominique had not only answered any questions regarding his ability to once again compete in the NBA, he’d summarily dismissed them and put together perhaps the greatest season of his Hall of Fame career. Dominique took part in 71 of the Hawks’ 82 regular season games in 1992-93, starting 70, playing an average of 37.3 minutes per game.

He finished behind only Jordan in the league’s scoring race, averaging 29.9 points per game, surpassing 20,000 career points in the process. A model of consistency, he scored at least 24 points in 58 of 71 games, 21 times going for at least 35, hanging 40+ on eight of those occasions. More remarkably, ‘Nique was as efficient as ever, shooting 46.6% from the field (his career average was 46.1%), with a career-best True Shooting Percentage of 57%. He posted a PER of 24.3, the second highest of his career (26.4 in 1989-90), good for fifth in the NBA, and well above his career average of 21.6. Per Basketball Reference, 1992-93 ‘Nique posted a career-best Offensive Rating of 119 and .191 Win Shares per 48 minutes – the second best mark of his career (.197 in 1986-87), FAR outstripping his career average of .148, and placing eighth in NBA. He was named an All-Star for the eighth time in his career, selected All-NBA Second Team for a fourth time (in addition to his First Team selection in 1985-86) and, again per Basketball Reference, finished the season fifth in MVP Award Shares.

The injury did force him to become more of a perimeter scorer, a conversion he managed with great effect. In ’92-93, Wilkins averaged 4.5 3-point attempts per game – up from 3.0 the season prior to his injury – of which he made a then-career best 38%. Now, lest you think a little bed rest had sapped the aggressiveness from ‘Nique’s game, it’s worth noting that only five NBAers attempted more free throws in 1992-93 than his 627, of which he made 82.2%. As already evidenced by his playing time and gaudy production, Wilkins’ role in the Hawks’ offense was not impacted in any meaningful way in the aftermath of his injury. In 1992-93 his Usage Rate – a whopping 31.9% – exceeded his career average of 30.3%. That this is only the sixth highest Usage Rate of his career speaks more to his insane run from 1984-85 through 1987-88 (USG%’s of 32.5%, 32.9%, 32.3% and 35.2%; that’s four of the top 64 Usage Rates, including the 13th highest, since 1977-78), than any lingering effects.

In terms of rebounding – an area presumably vulnerable to the lasting physical effects of an Achilles tear – ‘Nique lived up to his usual standard, averaging 6.8 per game (v. his career average of 6.7), 2.6 coming on the offensive glass. His Offensive Rebound Rate slipped (7.6%, v. his career average of 8.5%), while his Defensive Rebound Rate ticked higher (12.9%, 12.5% for his career). Overall, Dominique grabbed 10.1% of available rebounds while on the floor in 1992-93, in line with his career rate of 10.4%. He also became a more willing – and effective – passer, handing out 3.2 assists per game (compared with his career average of 2.5) and posted an Assist Rate of 14.9%, matching his career-best figure from 1986-87. Meanwhile, his Turnover Rate of 9%, while up slightly from its late-80s lows, was a) down from each of the previous two seasons and b) well below his 9.7% career mark.

In 1992-93, for the first (and only) time in his career, Dominique averaged at least 29 points per game, with a True Shooting Percentage of at least 57% and a 24+ PER. At the time, he joined a group of just 12 players in NBA history who’d collectively produced 28 such seasons. In the 20 years since, the feat’s been achieved nine times by seven players – Michael Jordan (who also did it five other times before Dominique), David Robinson, Shaq (three times), Kobe, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

Wilkins led the 1992-93 Hawks to a regular season record of 43-39, qualifying them for the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s #7 seed. The three-game sweep by the Bulls that ended their season was an anticlimactic, if hardly unexpected conclusion, though it does little (and frankly, less and less as time passes) to tarnish Dominique’s triumph over an injury that has otherwise proved a death knell for virtually every NBA career it’s afflicted.

This mini-project began less as an ode to herculean feat by a too-often overlooked great from my youth as it did a Laker fan’s quest for comfort. Comfort in the belief that learning about one recuperative miracle will somehow beget another. It should surprise no one if, in the coming months Dominique Wilkins becomes an icon in Laker nation. However, to reduce him to a mere rallying cry will be to do him a disservice. Yes, two decades ago, Dominique Wilkins returned to professional basketball more successfully in the aftermath of a torn Achilles than had any player before (or since). More remarkably, however, he did so at a level exceeding much of his pre-injury prime and, frankly, given the circumstances, turned in one of the great individual campaigns in NBA history.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Culmination of Kobe Bryant - 2.0

The realization on Friday night that Kobe Bryant – a man for whom the term “pain threshold” resides in a foreign tongue – had, in the midst of one of the NBA’s great feats of endurance, finally succumbed to physical limitation – mind you not until his third injury of the evening – was utterly jarring.

In characteristic fashion, Bean did not make for stage left until he’d literally done all he could. In an 80-second span, not five minutes after hyperextending one of his knees and tweaking an ankle, he buried a pair of 3-pointers – the second from nearly 30 feet out – to wipe out the remainder of a nine-point Warriors lead. Then, with 3:08 remaining and the Lakers trailing by two, he collected the ball at the left elbow and prepared to work on Harrison Barnes. As he drove to his left against the Dubs’ rookie, however, Kobe crumbled. That for some time he kept his seat on the floor, clutching at his left heel, was bothersome, but to pretend in hindsight that we expected Kobe to do anything less than give more of himself in pursuit of victory would be revisionist.

And, for a precious, fleeting moment, he did just that. After rising gingerly to his feet and plodding his way to the Lakers’ bench, Kobe reemerged, wearing an unfamiliar (compared with the one at which he idles) wince of pain, but reemerged none the less, allowing us, for one final moment, to continue taking for granted his indestructibility.

It was then that the wave finally broke. Upon burying his second free throw to tie the game at 109, it became terrifyingly apparent that business was no longer unfolding as usual. The Lakers immediately scrambled to take a foul so that Kobe could be substituted out. Again, he plodded toward the Lakers’ bench – only he kept going, down the tunnel, concentrating on each step, wearing, for the first time in recent memory, a look not of determination, but resignation.

The only thought I could conjure at the moment Kobe Bryant was forced from the floor was of the unfathomable pain he must have been experiencing. With Steph Curry eyeing 50 in a nail-biter on his home court, with the playoffs in the balance, the most injury-defiant of superstars met his physical limit. This had to be persuasive Eastern European prison guard bad.

It was, as it turned out, debilitating.

As always, however, Kobe did as Kobe does, justifying our blind belief in his preternatural ability to endure and overcome. What we know now that we did not then is that he managed those final free throws and unsettling trip to the locker room with the aid of one Achilles tendon.

Stop. Let that marinate for a second.

Dude buried a pair of freebies – in the final three minutes of two-point game with massive playoff implications – and then walked off after popping his Achilles.
Kobe. Bean. Bryant.

This, however, is not a eulogy.

Yes, immediately after discovering the extent to which the NBA’s ultimate warrior, I went there. I’d wager rather heavily that we all did.

Was that it? That can’t have been it. There’s no fucking way. Seriously, THAT WAS IT? 

“The hottest love has the coldest end.”
- Socrates 

Like many, I sat, catatonic, in the late-night glow of the television, a golf ball in my throat, watching, re-watching, damn near committing to memory Kobe’s raw, honest and vulnerable addressing of the media, exhausted, still-purple and gold-clad, eyes reddened by tears of frustration. I sat, adrift in a sea of (admittedly selfish, since, y’know, my tendons remain intact and I’m not looking down the barrel of a pregnancy’s worth of rehab) emotions.

Shock. Devastation. Heartbreak. Confusion. Loss. And, for every game I did not watch, and every time I prioritized a couple hundred bucks over witnessing generational genius in person, guilt.

Thoughts turned to the remainder of the playoff push (I’d rather send a mid-first-rounder to the Cavs than another $3 million to Bobby Sarver), the chance of a puncher’s chance at a playoff run (paper thin with Kobe) and the team’s future, financial (at least $70 million, and possibly nine figures, in luxury taxes due next year) or otherwise (Dwight’s show now – yay?), if only because addressing the current state of the Lakers’ union was too frightening. It is fitting that this, most soul-crushing of roller coasters has discovered a new depth of depravity, not only rendering the most energizing victory of this Laker season pyrrhic, but casting legitimate doubt on the future of the touchstone of a generation.

Hours passed, a new day dawned, and with it came a shift. The heartbreak lingered, but the fear and mourning were no more, replaced by defiance (by proxy; again, not my tendon), born of faith in a track record 17 years in the making.

This isn't the end. Why would it be? What, in our shared history with Kobe Bryant, would lead one to view this as the opportune time to doubt him? As Tom Ziller points out, for better and for worse, we’ve not only accepted Kobe’s superhuman ability to shrug off injury, we have reveled in it. We’ve come to demand it. And now, at the first hint of mortality, we abandon ship?

Yes, the Achilles is by far the most serious and time-consuming of the multitudinous ailments he’s accumulated through the years. And yes, given his age and the incredible mileage on his odometer, his game may undergo a transformation, perhaps more resembling that of Paul Pierce more so than Dwyane Wade. But the end? C’mon. Is the prospect of a successful return any less probable than the feats of physical endurance we’ve already seen? This guy does not go out that way.

No one’s gotten rich consistently betting against Kobe Bryant though the years. Provide the NBA’s most voracious student and maniacal workaholic with proof of concept (an athletic scorer no less), plus some forced convalescence for his laundry list of other maladies, and it still looks a sucker’s bet.

We’re not done here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Thank you, Dr. Buss

My greatest celebrity encounter came about eight years ago, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, early on a Saturday evening, while playing Pai-Gow Poker, as I often am when in Vegas, in the pit directly in front of the Studio Cafe. Alone at the table – not a terribly high limit one – $15 or $25, I believe, I see Dr. Jerry Buss approaching, 2 gorgeous young ladies in tow. The ladies sit down at third base and the seat directly to its left, with me situated two seats to the left of that. Dr. Buss calls over the pit boss and immediately has the limit at the table raised to $10,000 per hand, presumably so that his dates could play ($25 a hand) in peace without getting harassed by any Patron’d up party boys.

A “he’s cool” from the pit boss was thankfully sufficient to grandfather me in to my seat and a sub-five-figure limit. All of the necessary arrangements in place, Dr. Buss prepared to head off, presumably to a smoke-filled, marble and crystalline room, where a collection of tycoons of his ilk would proceed to play Monopoly, with actual real estate. As he began to walk to away, I had fanned my cards in order to set my next hand. As I did this, I spotted something over my right shoulder, out of the corner of my eye. It was Dr. Buss., scoping out my cards. We agreed with a nod on the proper play and I set down my hand.


Sweet! I just played a hand of Pai Gow with Jerry Buss! And won!

Only, Dr. Buss remained at my shoulder as the next hand was dealt about a minute later. Again, nary a word during our momentary strategy session and setting of my hand.

Another winner.

Holy hell it happened twice! This. Is. AWESOME.

A third hand is dealt, this one a dud. We both cringe and chuckle, as I set my hand and hope for the best. A lucky push! Rinse, repeat, try not to tremble visibly.

It is on the ensuing hand that I am finally dealt defeat, at which point Dr. Buss announces that he’s “got to get going.” Upon doing so, he pats me on my now-catatonically paralyzed back, smiles and says, “I wasn’t going to leave while we were winning.”

While we were winning. The owner of Los Angeles Lakers – Dr. Jerry freaking Buss! – didn’t want to mess with my mojo.

Reduced at this point to puddle in my chair, all I could conjure was "Dr. Buss, I am a lifelong Laker fan. Thank you so much, for everything." He shook my hand and proceeded to thank me. With that, he was off, over the neon horizon, in search of a hot streak of his own. Unsure whether to vomit or cry, I just sat there, for what felt like an eternity.

No, Dr. Buss. Thank you.

Thank you for your vision. Thank you for your commitment. Thank you for trusting your gut – as well as those of the men and women in your employ. Thank you for 33 seasons, 31 playoff appearances, 16 Finals appearances and 10 new banners. Thank you for taking care of Ronny Turiaf's heart surgery his rookie season. Thank you for – not once, but twice – convincing Kobe Bryant pastures are never greener than when they are purple and gold.

Thank you for "These men put their hands together, their souls together and brought me with them":

Thank you for the impossibility that was the Forum in the 1980s. That, in a city like Los Angeles, it was your venue to which the A-list flocked, showing up early, creating a playoff atmosphere during even a mid-March tilt against the Indiana Pacers, and partying well into the night at the Forum Club. You made possible and presided over a time in Los Angeles that will not, can not, ever be replicated. Neither the Lakers nor the NBA will ever be the same in your absence. That everything will always work out in Lakerland can no longer be taken for granted.

Rest in peace, Dr. Buss.

Thank you for running your team the right way. Thank you for bringing so much joy to so many.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The 1997 Rookie Game - Future Stars Collide

As part of a history project I recently undertook at Forum Blue and Gold, I reencountered the NBA's 1997 Rookie Game.

Though I've seen it in its entirety several times (still got it on VHS!), this is the most attention it's garnered from me since it truly shape-shifted into the opening stanza of the opening chapter of an epoch that now spans 17 years: Kobe Bryant at All Star Weekend.

Kobe, however was not alone, as an impressive contingent of rookies – Laker (Derek Fisher and Travis Knight - not crazy at the time) and otherwise – trekked to Cleveland for a weekend that, fittingly, also included a celebration of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Now, as I've mentioned before, far be it for me to gloss over an excellent performance by pre-Fro Kobe – a then-record 31 points, plus eight rebounds (seven turnovers, though) – but even the most rudimentary run through this game turns up a greatest hits of "cool shit goin' on" involving one of the great rookie classes in NBA history. (Huge bummer that Stephon Marbury missed this game due to injury - how epic could this have been?)

For starters, we’ve got Red Auerbach coaching Allen Iverson (the game’s MVP with an efficient 19, nine assists, three steals, three blocks and, if memory serves, braids for the first time), Antoine Walker (not yet in search of the elusive 4-pointer) and Ray Allen, while Red Holtzman coached Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. Let that marinate for a second.

Cool? Cool. Ok…


A few viewing notes:

0:23: "He [Iverson] may be feisty, he may outspoken..." What are you trying to say, dude?

0:26: See Allen Iverson. See Matt Maloney. See Allen Iverson torch Matt Maloney. Might wanna light a candle for Matt right about now.

0:32: See Allen Iverson. See Derek Fisher. See Allen Iverson torch Derek Fisher. I mean, damn, I genuinely love Fish (who had a fantastic game, with 16 points on just nine shots and six assists in 15 minutes), but those two don’t even look like they share a species.

0:40: Derek Fisher's chances of getting an invite to Kobe's pad were never higher.

0:57: Vitaly Potapenko smash! Drink!

1:07: Oh, hey Steve! What’s shakin’? “Not much. Just point-goddin’.”

1:42: A-freaking-I. If you think I’ve got a massive mancrush on Allen Iverson, you’re absolutely correct, but still, the level of devastation he wrought during this game cannot be overstated.

2:02: Turns out it wasn’t just Matt Maloney’s ankles that were in peril. Swatted twice in 3 seconds, once on a jumper – by Allen Iverson. Will the indignities never cease?

2:17: For those keeping score, that’s now two sweet alley-oops to Kerry Kittles. Such a bummer that his body failed him.

2:37: A.I., all 5’10” of him, head at the rim. Nothin’ to see here.

2:58: See Kobe Bryant. See Allen Iverson. See Kobe Bryant straight DITCH Allen Iverson at the arc. 

3:12: Steve Nash checking young A.I., with a live dribble. In related news, wounded gazelles do not thrive on the savannah.

3:35: R.I.P., Lorenzen Wright.

4:09: Say what?? May I have another? Open. Court. Legend.

5:07: AIMVP