Less rock, more Jazz
November, 11, 2010
By Henry Abbott
AP Photo/Dave Caulkin
The white cliffs of Dover are mostly dead plankton. Umm ... is this about NBA basketball?
Usually I walk to work, but today I drove, and I'm glad I did, because by listening to the radio I heard one of my favorite journalists, Robert Krulwich, talking about rocks. Which was perfect, because I had been trying to find a way to connect the Utah Jazz' consecutive mighty Florida comebacks to things like the inspiration of Maurice Lucas, and stat geeks. Shock of all shocks: geology is not a bad way to tie all that together.
As I poked the key into the ignition, I was hankering to write about the Jazz, but was wondering: What is inspiration in sports? Is it real? Does it matter?
The way it comes up today is: The Jazz had a huge road comeback in Miami on Tuesday night. Did that, in fact, make a huge road comeback in Orlando on Wednesday night more likely?
They knew they could do it. They did not give up hope. They had inspired themselves. We assume it to be so, we feel it must be so and we want it to be so. But is it really so?
This question had already been in my craw. More than three decades before his death, Maurice Lucas did something that still strikes me as amazing. From TrueHoop in September:
In August 1976, the Blazers had never had a winning season. They had never been to the playoffs. They had never really had any reason for hope.
Lucas arrived in town from the ABA and invited new teammates Bill Walton and Herm Gilliam to dinner at Jake's. They ate fish and talked about life. Walton would go on to name his son after Lucas, and the seeds of that friendship were nurtured at that dinner.
They finished eating, and stepped outside into the warm summer evening. Before saying goodbye, Walton remembers "Mo said 'Oh, by the way: We're going to win the championship. And we're going to win it this year.'"
Walton thought it was crazy talk, but smiled anyway, and said "OK, Maurice, whatever you say."
Lucas went on to do all kinds of things that made it so. He bought into Jack Ramsay's system (for a while, at least). He freed Walton from facing the toughest big men. He led the team in scoring. He hit Darryl Dawkins, to stop the Sixers' bullying of the Blazers in the Finals. The list goes on and on.
But my basic thought is that Lucas had both the authority and the inclination to make his teammates believe they were contenders, the value of which is immeasurable. Putting that idea out there colors everything else that happened all season. When Ramsay first started preaching his system, did Lucas color how it was received? Was this maybe the essence of greatness?
If you think you're on the path to the title, all the stops, people and advice along the way can seem special. Maybe Bobby Gross dove for more loose balls, thinking a title was in the cards. Maybe Johnny Davis worked a little harder getting in shape. Maybe everything changed.
Lucas' determination, belief and leadership were certainly not the only active ingredients in Portland's title, but they were certainly an essential one. Right?
Enter stat geek David Berri. His take on Lucas is pure: Lucas' production on the court mattered. Berri can't even bring himself to address the idea that Lucas could have contributed in another meaningful way.
And, in fairness, if players tend to produce fairly consistently over their careers, can you really say that for some period they were or were not fired up, and that such a thing may have mattered? And if it contributed to wins, how? Can you show me that Bobby Gross or Johnny Davis is more productive after Lucas said what he said? If diving for that loose ball mattered, or putting in that extra training, can you show me how that contributed to wins? And if they're not, what are we talking about?
There are two sides to this debate: One is that production is production is production. It's essentially a rock. It's no coincidence that Berri is also the guy who has found that which NBA coach you have does not matter all that much. In this view, the players do what the players do, and if you get a lot of the good ones together, you're a contender. Period.
The other idea is that we are humans, we are not just flesh and blood, but also spirit. There is no rock. There is life, the universe and everything. And it's all flexible and changing with the wind and the waves. Of course some teammate can say something that changes everything, something that makes regular players champions. Great fires are born of tiny sparks. Someone shoots a pig and starts a war. We've all seen this story before -- Hollywood loves it! Tiny things inspire huge events. Somebody reads a book, or makes a friend, or hears a speech, and the entire course of history is altered.
It would be just like those weaselly stat geeks not to get that, and to deny the existence of whatever it is that does not fit tidily into their precious formulas.
I recommend you listen to Krulwich's entire NPR story about some recent developments in geology. He summarizes the key part like this:
About 3.5 billion years ago, here on our planet, life began. No one knows how, people argue about why, but one would think the presence of life would be a ho-hum for the minerals. They're rocks. What do they care?
But life is a great sculptor. One very early form of pond scum figured out how to exhale oxygen into the air, and soon (well, not THAT soon, but soon enough) our atmosphere had enough oxygen to create rust, to combine with organic chemicals to make creatures with shells and bones and those creatures died and became rocks. What is coral but a clump of dead skeletons? Look at the White Cliffs of Dover — that's a heap of dead plankton.
Life is such a changeling, it created plants with roots that can rip rocks apart (slowly, but that's what they do) and worms that can ingest rocks and break them into soil. So let's step back and ask, how many new minerals have been created by living things on Earth?
Remember we start with 1,500 minerals before life.
After life, the number jumps to 4,500.
Life begets rocks! Whoa!
Minerals, the most inert and immovable of things, are two-thirds the result of all these little organisms running around, falling in love, and doing all the silly and un-rocklike things we do. The mighty white cliffs of Dover wouldn't have even existed were it not for all those plankton. Skin cells falling off our bodies right now might be mashed up, stepped on, carried away, and reprocessed into some totemic future equivalent of the Grand Canyon or Empire State Building.
It's getting tougher to believe in static things at all. If those enormous cliffs are themselves depend on a process that involves all those whimsical little organisms, it's kind of hard to believe that much of anything is really still. It's hard to believe that anything is "like a rock" in the way we are used to thinking about that phrase. If you watch for enough years, just about any darned thing can change.
That does not mean jack about the NBA -- except, just a little, doesn't it make you a little suspicious of anyone peddling the idea that everything that matters could be explained simply? The crosscurrents of life result in the tremendous rocks, for crying out loud. Is it such a stretch to think they might come up with some NBA wins?
Which brings us to the Jazz Wednesday night. If you believe experts, or Vegas, that team was supposed to lose both to the Heat and the Magic before the games even started. They were really supposed to lose both once they had fallen behind by double digits in the second half.
But they won both, thrilling anyone who loves sports and is not a Heat or Magic fan, and begging the question: Did the first comeback open the door to the second one? Was the first win to the Jazz like Maurice Lucas was to the 1977 Blazers, some kind horse whisperer, or Little Engine That Could chanting "I think I can" and inspiring something the team wouldn't have done otherwise?
With about two minutes left in the third quarter last night, the Magic -- undefeated in their new stadium at that point -- had just completed a 19-10 run, and were ahead by 18. 18! The Jazz were on the second night of a back-to-back. Change the channel already, those Jazz are done.
But they weren't. They scored the next nine points, outscored the Magic continually through the fourth and won by 10.
Are those two comebacks related?
Or, is the data view the right one -- that if you look at the NBA season, are comebacks fairly randomly sprinkled around in such a way that it's not all that shocking, in a season of 1,230 games, to have a couple of them arrive on consecutive nights? Isn't it just a case of Paul Millsap and Deron Williams each being productive players doing their things? Is belief any part of this at all?
David Thorpe is in the business of trying to inspire and educate players to perform better. He was also in Orlando for the game last night. Does he believe that the Jazz win in Miami changed that team in some way, and made them more likely to have another great comeback the next night?
"What it does is it teaches you that it's a long game. A really long game. It teaches you to stick with the system," he says. "They just ran their stuff, with minimal in-game adjustments. I think the Jazz players believe in Jerry [Sloan] anyway, but this ... nobody can take away these two wins. They could have a horrible game next week, and they still have these games as a reminder of what's possible. That helps you believe. And belief is probably the most powerful part of all this. Remember, not that long ago Deron Williams was chucking the ball at Gordon Hayward in anger as they were getting crushed by the Suns.
"The Jazz have had a lot of turnover. They had a lot of success with players like Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, who are all gone now. Can this new roster work? Wins like the ones in Miami and Orlando, they can squeeze out a lot of those doubts. And to have those doubts handled before Thanksgiving, that's nice. That can get to be real belief. And in the locker room after the game, let me tell you, I entered as soon as they opened the doors, and the team could not have been less giddy. You'd have thought they had just beaten the J.V. team in September. They were just sitting and waiting to be done with the media. All business."
Just like it had been on the court. There was not really a key personnel decision, nor a tactic that turned the game, according to Thorpe: "They just kept running their stuff."
Although to Thorpe that was pretty special. "What didn't happen was that Raja Bell didn't shoot an open 3 with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. Deron Williams didn't take a contested shot early in the count. They kept running the system, Jerry Sloan's system."
Jerry Sloan's system. There's cosmic irony here. I'd love to convince you this Jazz story is about life being improvisational, like jazz. And the flex offense is all about movement and controlled volatility. But let's be honest, in making the point that every darned thing on this planet can be influenced by the smallest things, the NBA's longest-tenured coach is a curious example. The entire NBA has changed dramatically, more than a few times, since 1988. But not Sloan. Same coach. Same team. Same system. The NBA is a volatile compound, but Sloan isn't. He runs the flex offense, and that's the system his players continued to believe in. And to succeed in Utah, you have to believe in that system -- it changes for no player. He's the coach who does not get fired when a superstar tires of him.
That entire time, Sloan has been the NBA's rock.
Which may be part of the lesson. Living breathing things can make not just love and war but also rocks. That's what we learned about the cliffs in Southern England. That's what we learned about the Jazz approach in those comebacks. Not every time, but sometimes us human beings -- with all of our frailties, limitations and passing concerns and urges -- can touch off something big and permanent. It's hard not to get a little inspired by that.