TrueHoop: Royce Webb

'Black Planet' author on NBA, new film

November, 24, 2014
Webb By Royce Webb

When James Franco wants to make a movie with you, say yes. That’s what David Shields did, and the result is “Return to Black Planet,” scheduled to debut in early 2015.

The film is based on “Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season,” the book Shields wrote on the 1994-95 Seattle SuperSonics. “Black Planet” was published in 1999 to great acclaim and severe criticism because it went far beyond Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, George Karl and the Sonics to reveal the issues of race, sexuality and other taboo topics barely hidden below the surface of NBA culture.

The season Shields covered in “Black Planet” was a contentious one, with the Sonics coming off a historic playoff collapse, winning 57 games under great pressure and losing in the first round yet again, and in the book, Shields examined the tense times in microscopic detail. The film uses that season -- in juxtaposition to the Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning season -- as a jumping-off point for Shields to get into the dimensions of American culture that have informed his 15 books.

As we hit the 20th anniversary of that NBA season, and with the movie on its way, Shields, in this email interview, takes us on a tour of the “Black Planet” that he believes is still the NBA’s true habitat.

You open the book “Black Planet” by saying, “Race, the league’s taboo topic, is the league’s true subject.” As you observe the NBA now, does that feel as true to you today?

The NBA has changed, because the culture has changed, but nothing seems to me structurally different: Nearly all of the owners are white, most of the coaches are white, most of the commentators are white, and most of the players are black.

The originating sin of America is slavery, for which reparations should be paid and will never be paid; as a result, mini-reparations are paid daily, and the NBA remains for me reparations theater.

What do you mean by “reparations theater”?

Three hundred and fifty years of American history are complicatedly echoed in the interplay between players and fans. When talking about the brawl in Auburn Hills, Stephen Jackson said, “It felt good to punch a fan one time.”

I’m really interested in Kobe Bryant calling Richard Sherman’s “rant” last year evidence of “the ugliness of greatness.” I think the core of fans’ relationship is one that vacillates schizophrenically and mercurially from reverence to resentment. Fans fetishize the players’ athletic genius and both deify it and demonize it; witness the way awe turns into anger whenever a player holds out or flips off the offensive coordinator.

Just a couple of years ago, Derrick Rose was a canonized saint. The vitriol that fans now visit upon him is to me a powerful if coded expression of the gap between white people and black people even now, in a supposedly post-racial America.

Sports -- especially the NBA -- function as a place where American society pretends to discuss and pretends to solve questions and historical agonies that can't possibly be solved within the realm of sports.

And the cognitive dissonance of it all -- players talking almost always in platitudes, fans saying way, way more than we realize on sports talk radio -- makes the whole thing discombobulating, paradoxical, thrilling.

Return to Black PlanetLisa VangellowJames Franco interviews David Shields for an upcoming film, "Return to Black Planet."
You and James Franco are collaborating on the film version of “Black Planet.” How is that coming along?

James’s idea was to adapt “Black Planet” into a film, but not a traditional film full of scenes set in 1994 and 1995 at the Tacoma Dome, where the Sonics played their home games that season.

Instead, this is a monologue/documentary/confession/investigation/collage/remix of speech, video, audio and image. We shot the film over the summer and we’re now editing it. The plan is to release it as four episodes on MakerTV, and then as a unified film. We flip back and forth between the two seasons: the Sonics’ season of 1994-95 and the Seahawks’ season of 2013 (through the 2014 Super Bowl).

James conceived the idea of doing the film as a monologue. My role is to talk to him and to the camera. The film is a combination of a Spalding Gray confession (like “Swimming to Cambodia”), Errol Morris’s interrogation of, say, Robert McNamara (in “The Fog of War”), a Doug Stanhope rant and a TED talk.

I discuss America pre- and post-Obama, O.J. Simpson then and now, Jews and blacks, the never-ending shadows of slavery and the Holocaust and the Civil War, black men and white women, white men and black men, athletes as soldiers who -- barely -- get up off the battlefield, the irreducible tragedy of human tribalism.

Why is it a tragedy?

G.K. Chesterton, asked what was wrong with the world, said, “I am.” I try to bring the hammer to myself but also to the viewer.

In “Black Planet,” the candor with which you dug into taboo topics -- sex, death, race -- thrilled some readers. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and called (by A.O. Scott, now a film critic for The New York Times) “one of the best books ever written on the subject of sport in America, which is to say a book that is about a great deal more than sport.” At the same time, it turned off a lot of other people; about half the reader reviews at Amazon are pretty scathing.

What kind of reception do you expect for “Return to Black Planet”?

I try to be as honest as I possibly can about the contradictions within my own heart and thereby get to something "true" and revealing and important about contemporary American culture and human nature.

The core of sports fandom and sportswriting is the maintenance of dearly held illusions. A lot of being a fan consists of telling yourself fairy tales about place and territory and beauty and love and winning and salvation and redemption and transcendence. Only a few of my books deal with sports, but all of my work is an attempt to scrape away illusions within myself and within the reader/viewer.

As the readerboard outside the church around the corner from my house says (remember, this is in Seattle), “The truth will set you free, but first it will really piss you off.”

Gary Payton and George Karl were key figures in “Black Planet.” Did they read it and respond?

I'm curious if Payton ever read it. I’d guess not. He is aware of it. I’d love to hear his take. He's one of the most verbal people on the planet.

I heard from a third party that Karl read the book and liked it and thought that mainstream sports news organizations didn't really get what I was trying to do. Shortly after the book came out, I remember hearing on a national sports talk show the most transparent homoerotic panic expressed as hysterical antagonism toward the book.

In the 20 years since you started writing “Black Planet,” the Sonics went to the NBA Finals, fell apart, drafted Kevin Durant, and then moved to Oklahoma City. How did those ups and downs affect you?

After spending several years writing “Black Planet” and then a follow-up called “Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine,” I’d overdosed on sports, especially basketball. I really didn’t pay attention to sports that much over the next decade or more. But then along came the emergence of the Seahawks, and my now 21-year-old daughter’s fanatical interest in them, and my equally fanatical, perhaps more fanatical obsession with them.

All of life is a kind of star-gazing (everything from falling in love to raising a child to reading a book to watching a movie to hiking in the woods). I want to stop being a fan, but I’ve come to realize how powerfully connected for me -- and, I would argue, for nearly everyone -- the life force is to fandom. The book and the movie are an attempt to expose in myself and the reader/the viewer the underlying emotional psychic and cultural needs such fandom serves.

Did #NBArank overrate Kobe?

October, 17, 2014
Webb By Royce Webb

It’s time to take “respect” out of the NBA vocabulary, and Kobe Bryant proves it.

Look at what is happening with the announcement that Kobe finished 40th in this year's #NBArank. The same thing happened a year ago when we predicted Kobe to be the 25th-best player in 2013-14. The reaction both years was easy to predict, and it was ugly. Many fans were outraged, even ESPN folks were apoplectic, and Kobe himself mocked us, saying anyone who thinks he’s 25th “needs drug testing.”

The most common reaction was that we were crazy. OK, hard to refute that one.

The second-most common reaction was that we had disrespected the Mamba.

And that reaction was just plain incorrect. In fact, our problem was that we overrated Kobe tremendously, out of “respect.”

But “respect” is one of the most useless concepts in the NBA when it comes to player evaluation. If we had treated Kobe like any other player, we would’ve said he was no longer a top-25 player, or even close to that.

Let’s be blunt: Kobe Bean Bryant was one of the very worst players in the NBA last season -- a $30 million disaster. He was closer to the 425th-best player than the 25th-best player.

He played six games, in which he was mostly just terrible, with negative win shares -- that’s right, he was taking wins off the floor. The Lakers had a winning record before he arrived and immediately hit the skids. The team played worse with him on the floor, and on top of that, he insulted his teammates.

And this was entirely predictable. More than 1,000 men have played the guard position in the NBA. You can count on one hand the number of guards, from all of history, who have been notably productive after playing as many NBA minutes as Bryant has.

So why did we rank him as high as 25th? Out of respect. Too much respect, really.

In the NBA, “respect” is often a code word. It means different things to different folks, but when it comes to evaluating players, it often means that we agree to lie. We don’t like the truth, so we lie and call it “respect.”

Is this a polite impulse? It can be. We respect our elders, and in the NBA, we respect our veterans, even boorish guys like Kobe.

But if “respect” becomes a weapon to shut people up, what’s that about? If “respect” is a word used to bully people, that’s not real respect.

Why did Kobe get a $48.5 million extension from the Lakers before he proved he could play after the Achilles injury? Why didn't they just cut him using the amnesty clause, given that he’s probably done as a winning player?

Because the team believed it couldn't afford to “disrespect” Kobe. They knew he could make life difficult for them by appealing to his fans and supporters around the league. They knew he could bully them into “respect.”

You know, we shouldn't be forced to “respect” Kobe any more than he earns our respect. We can respect his career, sure, if we want to reminisce about the good ol' days.

But respect is earned, and the current version of Kobe is not much of an NBA player.

And when it comes to an evaluation system like #NBArank, it should be just that simple.

Talking honestly about tanking

February, 19, 2014
Webb By Royce Webb

Adam Silver is the HoopIdea commish, and that’s a very good thing for the NBA and its fans. As your new NBA editor Henry Abbott wrote this weekend, the buzzword in the NBA is innovation.

Another hot buzzword from Silver: transparency.

Silver used the word five times when asked about his approach to innovation, calling transparency “one of my guiding principles.”

What is transparency? It’s being clear about what is really going on.

That might not have been the intention of Rod Thorn, the NBA’s president of basketball operations, last Friday in an interview with TrueHoop TV, but the substance of his remarks was crystal clear. While discussing whether there were NBA teams that were purposely trying to fail, Thorn said, “I don’t look at it as tanking. I look at it as, ‘I don’t want to be at this level here. I may have to get worse to get good.’ It’s definitely a strategy and more and more teams are looking at it.”

Let’s unpack Thorn’s remark:

I may have to get worse to get good.

In other words, We may have to lose to improve.

Since transparency is a hallmark of the new NBA, let’s be transparent about tanking.

The NBA inadvertently set up a system that encourages teams to lose. The league doesn’t want to admit this. The cardinal sin of sports is giving fans reasons to doubt the integrity of the game. The underlying contract with fans is that NBA games are honest competition, not pro wrestling.

Tanking is also against the NBA’s own rules. Joel Litvin, the NBA’s president of league operations, told Howard Beck of The New York Times in 2008: “If we ever found a team was intentionally losing games, we would take the strongest possible action in response.”

The key word in Litvin’s claim is “found.”

See, that’s how lawyers talk. He didn’t mean “found” as in, “Hey, I found my wallet!” He meant “found” as in, “If we conducted an investigation and made a formal finding that a team was tanking, we would do something.”

The NBA’s spin is that coaches and players are trying to win, and that has a ring of truth. Silver took the same legalistic approach as Litvin on Saturday, saying “there’s absolutely no evidence that any team in the NBA has ever lost a single game, or certainly in any time that I’ve been in the league, on purpose.”

But even that is not always true.

Coaches and players are just pawns in a larger game -- a game all too often being played to lose. As Hall of Fame NBA writer Jackie MacMullan detailed recently, the Boston Celtics, from the owner on down to the head coach, intentionally lost as many games as possible in 1996-97 in an attempt to get the top draft pick and grab Tim Duncan.

Of course, most coaches never admit to tanking, even if it’s happening. But in a piece at TrueHoop, I detailed multiple occasions when players and coaches admitted to losing on purpose in the past 20 years. And those are just the on-the-record admissions. Plenty of NBA reporters have heard far more accounts of intentional losing by multiple franchises over the years, including this year.

Does anyone think the Golden State Warriors did not intentionally lose 22 of their last 27 games in 2012 to protect a lottery pick? Does anyone think that there are not multiple teams that are intentionally losing this season to improve their position in the loaded 2014 draft?

If the NBA cares about transparency, it should investigate and tell fans what it truly finds. Or better yet, appoint an independent investigator and then lay out the results of the investigation. That’s true transparency.

If the NBA cares about the integrity of the game, it should care that owners, general managers, writers, broadcasters, coaches, players and fans assume that tanking is happening and is a viable path in the NBA. Even Silver acknowledges that perhaps “incentives aren’t entirely aligned.” In other words, he knows that teams don’t always want to win.

Silver will be a great commissioner -- smart, progressive and visionary. In the long run, he’ll take the NBA to new heights.

Let’s hope he focuses on the fact that basketball teams are supposed to try to win. We don’t want a sport where fans have to assume that hundreds of games each season are questionable.

Honest competition is what makes the NBA playoffs the greatest postseason in sports. Honest competition is what gives us the amazing highs and lows of March Madness. And honest competition is the only way forward if the NBA is going to be the greatest league in the world.

Let the players decide the game

May, 2, 2013
Webb By Royce Webb
The OKC Thunder might feel ashamed Thursday.

But as Robin Williams said to Matt Damon, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”

Yes, it’s hard to blame the players for intentionally fouling Houston center Omer Asik seven times in two minutes Wednesday night, plus one other intentional foul that wasn’t called and two other shooting fouls in the fourth quarter.

The players were following orders: Stop the game because we don’t like how it’s going; don’t compete on the floor because you’re not good enough to win this playoff home game against the No. 8 seed; do not try for steals and blocks and stops; let’s keep our own crowd out of the game; let’s not get out and run and try to come back with the second-best player in the world doing what he does best; let’s not play basketball for a while because the Rockets are better at basketball on this night.

So it’s not their fault. They never had a real chance. They never had a real chance at a thriller of a comeback win. They never had a chance to do the thing they’ve trained their entire lives to do. They didn’t even get 48 minutes to show fans watching in the arena and on TNT and around the world that they could win Game 5 on talent.

How many times will we get to see Kevin Durant try to lead a series-clinching comeback win in the final five minutes of a nationally televised Game 5? Not many, and that rare opportunity Wednesday night was taken from us, and from him. With OKC stopping the clock and letting Houston set up its defense, Durant didn’t score a single point in the fourth quarter.

And it’s hard to blame Thunder coach Scott Brooks for trying to win (even if the strategy itself was dumb).

But it’s easy to blame a system that puts the game in the hands of the coaches and referees and the rulebook instead of the players.

The league has an enormous amount of intentional fouling of all kinds. The league continues to say it has the best athletes in the world.

It’s amazing that it would reward fouling at the expense of those athletes.

Obviously, the entire sport and the league’s reputation for excitement are built on the fact those great athletes can do amazing things -- and built on those amazing things happening during live play and not at the free throw line or in a boardroom somewhere with the suits making rules that give coaches more control over the game.

And while physical play is to be expected when bodies compete for space and the ball and baskets, there simply is no reason to reward intentional violence and intentional fouling. There is no reason to encourage coaches to take the game out of the hands of their players because the rulebook gives them another way to “win.”

The NBA is the greatest basketball league in the world, without a doubt. Sooner or later, it will stop rewarding intentional violence and intentional fouls, as other basketball leagues have done.

You often hear, especially in the playoffs, we should let the players decide the game. Amen.

10 points on tanking

April, 27, 2012
By Henry Abbott, Beckley Mason, and Royce Webb
April 2012 was an epic month for tanking in the NBA. But now it's time for the playoffs, when losing is never beneficial.

As we shift our focus from tanking season to the postseason, let’s sum up.

Here are 10 points from HoopIdea on tanking:
  1. Tanking happens.
  2. Tanking stinks for fans.
  3. The current lottery system is the main reason teams tank.
  4. Rebuilding is necessary. Providing teams an incentive to lose is not necessary. These are different things.
  5. Tanking is rarely a path to success. In fact, tanking and the current lottery system lead directly to the perpetuation of bad management.
  6. Tanking ruins entire seasons for multiple teams that could be better right now.
  7. Tanking is forbidden by the league, which has acted to prevent it in the past. The potential penalty for tanking is "the dismissal and perpetual disqualification from further association with the league.”
  8. Tanking can be eliminated. To demonstrate and stimulate the kind of creativity that can end tanking, we published the following ideas: Ditch the draft | The five-year lottery | Hollinger | Rig the draft | A logical lottery | Jeff Van Gundy’s solution | Grade on a curve | MIT Sloan Solution
  9. We can imagine – and can have – a sport in which teams have good reason to play hard all the time.
  10. We can imagine – and can have – a sport in which teams have a level playing field and don’t have to resort to tanking.

When tankers tell the truth

April, 16, 2012
Webb By Royce Webb
NBA teams have been tanking for decades to improve their draft position (and for other reasons), and NBA insiders have talked about tanking for decades -- in fact, over the years the NBA itself has recognized the potential for tanking and dealt with it in various ways, including altering the draft system multiple times to try to prevent it. Meanwhile, as the discourse about tanking has gone public, there have been thousands of articles written about the problem, including by such writers as Sam Smith and Bill Simmons.

HoopIdea has carried forward this discussion as part of our effort to improve the game. As we said on Day 1 of HoopIdea: Basketball is the best game ever. Now let’s make it better.

To make the game the best it can be, we want to make sure that when fans show up or watch on TV, both teams are always trying to win. And the NBA does, too. As Joel Litvin, the NBA’s president for basketball operations, told Howard Beck of The New York Times in 2008: “If we ever found a team was intentionally losing games, we would take the strongest possible action in response.”

Given that, it’s worth noting that tanking has been confessed to dozens of times off the record and a surprising number of times on the record:

2006-07 Boston Celtics
In 2007, with Greg Oden and Kevin Durant as the big lottery prizes, several teams were openly questioned about apparent tanking, including the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Memphis Grizzlies, the three teams that ended up with the best chance of drafting Oden or Durant.

In one notorious game late in the season, the Celtics, playing at home, led the woeful Bobcats 69-51 late in the third quarter -- and managed to lose the game by eight points, enhancing their draft positioning. Of course, Celtics coach Doc Rivers denied tanking charges. As Steve Bulpett reported in the Boston Herald: “Rivers insisted there was nothing sinister about leaving Paul Pierce (game-high 23 points) on the bench for the fourth quarter and letting the quintet of Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Allan Ray and Leon Powe stay on the parquet as the lead -- still at 10 with nine minutes left in the game -- disappeared.”

In the final week of the season, the Celtics and Bucks, both maneuvering for the best possible draft position, played each other and gave DNPs to high scorers Paul Pierce, Al Jefferson, Wally Szczerbiak, Michael Redd and Mo Williams.

After the game, the Associated Press reported:
Ryan Gomes had 13 through three quarters, but watched from the bench in the fourth as Boston clinched the worst record in the Eastern Conference and second worst in the league.

"I probably (would have played), but since we were in the hunt for a high draft pick, of course things are different," Gomes said. "I understand that. Hopefully things get better. Now that we clinched at least having the second-most balls in the lottery, the last three games we'll see what happens. We'll see if we can go out and finish some games."

2002-03 Cleveland Cavaliers
Did the 2002-03 Cavs tank to get LeBron James?

At the time, many assumed they did. John Lucas, who coached the team from 2001 to 2003, admitted somewhat bitterly that he went along with the apparent conspiracy: "They trade all our guys away and we go real young, and the goal was to get LeBron and also to sell the team," Lucas told AOL FanHouse in 2010. "You can't fault the Cavaliers for wanting to get LeBron. It was hard to get free agents to come there."

Lucas pointed out that before the 2002-03 season, Cavs management traded their three leading scorers and received almost nothing of value in return. Of course, Gordon Gund, the Cavs’ owner at the time, denied Lucas’ claims that the Cavs were tanking to get LeBron, the local hero.

Ricky Davis was one of the beneficiaries of the Cavs’ questionable moves -- in 2002-03, after several key teammates had been traded away, he led Cleveland by far in minutes, field goal attempts, scoring, assists and steals.

Yet he, too, told AOL Fanhouse that the Cavs were losing on purpose: "It was tough on [Lucas]. They were forcing him to lose and I know it's nothing he wanted to do. It's just the position he was forced in. But it's tough. ... It worked, whatever they did [to get James] so it's hard to knock them. They got what they wanted. But it was hard on Luke."

2005-06 Phoenix Suns
In 2006, the Phoenix Suns gave the Los Angeles Lakers an easy win late in the regular season to try to assure a matchup with the Lakers in the postseason, according to Jack McCallum in “Seven Seconds or Less.” McCallum was a Sports Illustrated writer who spent the 2005-06 season as an unofficial “assistant coach” for the Suns, and he provided this insight on how the coaching staff manipulated the standings:
The Suns believe that the Lakers' transition defense is close to nonexistent and will provide an open highway for the Nash-led fast break, so this was the matchup they wanted. [Suns coach Mike] D'Antoni couldn't precisely orchestrate it -- not in an eighty-two-game season -- but the coach had benched [Steve] Nash and Raja Bell for that late-season game, all but assuring a Laker win that would help them beat out the Sacramento Kings, who were in eighth place.

The Suns' scheme almost backfired, as the Lakers took a 3-1 lead in the series and nearly closed Phoenix out before the Suns famously rallied to take three straight and advance.

2005-06 Minnesota Timberwolves
The most spectacular tank job in recent memory occurred on April 19, 2006, in a Minnesota-Memphis game that is still a common punch line around the league.

Earlier that month, Chicago Tribune NBA writer Sam Smith had called out the Timberwolves and the league:
The NBA should take a look at this one in the interest of the game's integrity and paying customers. Minnesota needs to have one of the top 10 poorest records to keep its draft pick. Otherwise, it goes to the Clippers from the Sam Cassell-Marko Jaric deal.

In a 103-95 loss to the Jazz at home on Friday, [Kevin] Garnett sat out the fourth quarter after making all of his third-quarter shots. Garnett had 13 rebounds through three quarters, and Minnesota was outrebounded 18-6 in the fourth.

It's reminiscent of the game-throwing days before the draft lottery was started.

In the final game of the season, the Wolves sat Garnett and Ricky Davis, and then turned the game against Memphis into a joke by inserting Mark Madsen and letting him fire away. In six seasons, Madsen had made only one 3-pointer in nine attempts. But in that game he tossed up seven 3-pointers and missed them all -- they were his only 3-point attempts of the season. The Wolves lost the game in double overtime (Madsen started the second overtime with three 3-point bricks in less than a minute) and secured the draft pick.

After the game, Wolves coach Dwane Casey didn’t deny that the team was less than serious about winning the game: "The guys were having fun with it. For what we've been through this season, I thought the guys deserved it. I hope what we did didn't make a mockery of the game."

Was it a victimless crime? By securing a top-10 draft position, the Timberwolves prevented the Clippers from receiving the draft pick that became 2007 Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy (a future three-time All-Star whom the Wolves traded to Portland on draft night). And the Memphis win put the unfortunate Grizzlies (who also might have been motivated to lose the game) into a more difficult playoff bracket -- the Grizzlies started the postseason on the road and were swept by Dallas in the first round rather than having home-court advantage over a struggling Denver Nuggets team (which lost its first-round series to the Clippers).

On the flip side, the draft pick that did not go to the Clippers in 2006 eventually became the pick that allowed L.A. to acquire Chris Paul from New Orleans in 2011 -- and the Timberwolves will not get to use their own lottery pick this season, in part because of that infamous night in 2006.

1996-97 Boston Celtics
One of the most notorious years for tanking was 1997. It’s widely believed that the San Antonio Spurs tanked the season by holding out David Robinson longer than necessary to secure a higher draft pick, which became the most coveted player available, Tim Duncan. In fact, to many, this is one of the most incredibly successful tank jobs in NBA history, in part because the Spurs were already a very good team, and they have won four titles and counting with Duncan leading the way. But to our knowledge, no one involved has admitted that the Spurs were tanking.

The same year, though, the Boston Celtics did indeed tank, according to longtime Celtic M.L. Carr, who coached the team from 1995 to 1997. In 1996-97, the Celtics fell from 33 wins the previous season to 15 wins.

According to Mark Cofman of the Boston Herald, in 2001:
Carr suggested his last season as Celtics coach in 1996-97, during which the team suffered through a franchise-worst 15-67 record, was a tank job designed to deliver the incoming coach (Rick Pitino) with strong draft position. "That was part of the orchestration," said Carr, an obvious indictment of the entire organization and its part in encouraging a losing season in an attempt to get the first overall pick (Tim Duncan). As it turned out, the Celtics lost out on Duncan and settled for the third and sixth overall picks.

Pitino’s tenure as Boston coach would be a great disappointment, and he often lamented that he had taken the job with the expectation that the Celtics would get Duncan.

1983-84 Houston Rockets
Why do we have a draft lottery? Because of what happened in 1984.

In his book “Tip-Off,” a thorough account of the pivotal 1984 NBA draft, Filip Bondy dedicates a chapter to tanking entitled “Embracing Defeat.”

The ’84 draft included Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Charles Barkley. Bondy recounts some of the odd behavior of the Houston Rockets, who appeared to be maneuvering for the right to draft Olajuwon, a star at the University of Houston, with Jordan as a nice Plan B. (The right to make the first choice in the draft was decided by coin flip.)

As the Rockets nosedived, everyone noticed.

"Weird things were happening. A lot of funny stuff going on, leaving a dark mark on the integrity of the game," said Pat Williams, then the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

According to Dr. Jack Ramsay, then coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, "There was a lot of reason for concern, for suspicion."

As reported by Bondy, it was Frank Layden, the former Utah Jazz coach, who spilled the beans on the Rocket science: "They were losing on purpose. That was told to me by one of their executives, that it was a business decision. And that’s why we went to the lottery system. It’s still going on a little bit today, anyway."

Bondy writes: "The NBA’s image suffered a severe blow that spring from all the suspicious losing. … The league was so concerned about the perceived chicanery that its board of governors instituted a lottery system weeks after the 1984 draft to assure such nonsense would never happen again."

Then again: As we’ve seen above, the lottery does not assure that tanking ended in 1984. Not even close.

Furthermore, these are hardly the only cases in recent NBA history, and HoopIdea will continue to bring tanking to light.

How to fix goaltending

March, 30, 2012
Webb By Royce Webb
NBA referee logos
Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images
According to David Stern, this missed call might end up changing the game for the better.

Credit where it's due for this HoopIdea -- David Stern.

Just a few weeks after the NBA acknowledged that an official incorrectly called goaltending on a controversial play in the final seconds that swung an Oklahoma City-Portland game, Stern said on Tuesday night that it might be time to add goaltending to the handful of calls reviewable by video replay.

In Phoenix on Tuesday, Stern said: “Our competition committee has the final word on these things, but I think there's going to be a very robust discussion about goaltending.” The commissioner went on to discuss some of the difficulties with getting goaltending right, even with replay involved, as you can see on this video (provided by Michael Schwartz).

Deputy commissioner Adam Silver added: “Over time it's inevitable given the advances in technology that we'll increase our use of instant replay. We want to get it right. It has to be balanced against the flow of the game. I think when it's clear in certain cases that the viewer at home can see there was a missed call, our referees want to get it right, too. We will continue to look at it.”

Stern went on to suggest that input from “fans” had played a role in the expansion of replay, saying that the league was “getting pulled along” by the momentum toward using replay to help with difficult calls.

The play in Portland was an eye-opener. Goaltending is almost always a difficult call (despite what some broadcasters and fans seem to think), and this was an especially challenging case -- as Kevin Durant drove hard to the basket, LaMarcus Aldridge trailed and then knocked away Durant's layup, just before it reached the backboard, with all the action fast and furious. From a difficult angle about 30 feet away, referee Scott Foster whistled goaltending, to the delight of the Thunder and the dismay of the Blazers and their fans. This call tied the game 103-103 with 6.0 seconds remaining, and the Thunder went on to win in overtime.

And it was a big game in a short season. The Blazers lost a tough one at home to the Northwest Division leader, the first among 13 losses in 19 games in a tailspin that cost coach Nate McMillan his job. The Thunder, meanwhile, now hold just a two-game lead in the loss column in the Western Conference, with half of it coming from the controversial win in Portland.

The next day, the NBA, via Twitter, admitted, "Close call in Portland last night but w/ benefit of slow motion replay, goaltending was incorrect call."

Stern’s comments on Tuesday echoed recent comments by the NBA’s former director of officials, Ronnie Nunn, on NBA TV’s “Making the Call." When Nunn was asked whether the NBA could use video replay to overturn incorrect goaltending calls such as on the Durant-Aldridge play, Nunn said, "If we have more of them at critical times, it might be something to be included in the future" among reviewable calls.

Nunn also said that overhead cameras above the basket were necessary to get such goaltending calls right, referring to situations in which officials had to judge whether the ball hit the backboard before the blocked shot occurred, as in the Durant-Aldridge situation.

Keep that word in mind: cameras.

Eventually, it will probably be cameras that solve goaltending for us. At the moment, 10 NBA arenas (and counting) have been outfitted with high-tech cameras which track player movement and ball movement at 25 frames per second. While this technology is currently used to collect data that allows for more sophisticated statistical analysis of the game, it seems likely that cameras and software could be configured to help officials assess all sorts of things that are happening on the court -- and in real time or very close. In tennis, cameras are already used to determine close calls, down to fractions of an inch, and that’s just a start.

There are other potential solutions -- could computer technology, such as a microchip, be placed in the ball and other places to detect when the ball is on the way down or has hit the backboard? Probably so.

But let’s start with what we can solve now by reviewing goaltending calls. The technology is already too good to allow the calls to be so bad.

Falling down on the job

March, 26, 2012
Webb By Royce Webb
Why do we have flopping?

Because it’s rewarded.

Because falling down gets you wins.

How do we know? Because the league's most prominent floppers are a who's who of MVP candidates, All-Stars and NBA champions.

No rules committee brought us to this point intentionally. No one said, “Hey, what the game needs is more falling down! What can we do to reward players who fall down a lot?”

But that’s where we are.

It’s not obvious until you notice it, but giving players a reward for falling down mucks up the game in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, it leads to flopping.

Just as important, it encourages players to (a) jump in front of other players and then (b) fall down to get the call. Whether this is flopping or legit is in the eye of the beholder, but regardless, it’s a reward for falling down. Meanwhile, it’s a play that almost always puts the refs in the center of dispute and controversy, because it’s so difficult to call -- and it’s a play that prevents that kind of flow and spontaneity and true, athletic competition that almost everyone wants to see. So what’s so great about encouraging players to jump in front of other players and fall down?

In real life, when something gets out of hand, changes are made. If a company were to accidentally set up a system which rewarded employees for using lots of paper, the company would see its paper bill rise dramatically, its bottom line would suffer and the company would change the policy.

So what needs to happen in basketball?

We have to stop rewarding players for falling down.

We’ve offered some thoughts on how to stop flopping (here, here and here), and we’ll have more on this soon. You can add your thoughts at the links below.


You can give us your ideas and talk with us and other fans in the following places:
And for the truly ambitious: Shoot a short video of yourself explaining your HoopIdea, upload it to YouTube and share the link with us on Twitter or Google+.

Royce Webb is an NBA editor at Follow him at Twitter.

Mavs make basketball fun

March, 21, 2012
Webb By Royce Webb

Garrett W. Ellwood/Getty Images
Action. Ball movement. Speed and creativity. Basketball at its best.

Monday night the Dallas Mavericks demonstrated what HoopIdea is all about.

In a word ... fun.

The game flowed, back and forth. The ball moved beautifully up and down, side to side, in and out. Despite the Nuggets’ best effort, the Mavs spaced the floor and continually found open men, for 33 assists on 45 buckets. Players ran, cutters cut, everyone passed and shots fell.

The Denver fans were in the game too, because their Nuggets were also racing down the floor, cutting and dishing. For much of the game, the crowd was making the whoosh-whoosh sound more familiar to great tennis rallies.

After the game, Dirk Nowitzki testified, “We're really shooting the ball well, moving the ball. It's fun to play out there. When we were doubled, we passed it out and we made shots. It's a fun way to play if everybody touches it."

Coach Rick Carlisle couldn't hide his pride and joy in his team’s ball movement: "It was one of the smartest played games I've seen in the league all year long. Very disciplined, aggressive, but not frantic and moved the ball the way we had to."

This is one of the bigger goals of HoopIdea: to encourage a style of play that (a) is well coached, (b) gets more players involved and (c) allows talented players to do their thing.

Fun to play, fun to watch ... that’s what basketball should be.

We want your ideas on how to make it so.


Give us your ideas and talk with us and other fans in the following places:

HoopIdea: An even better game

February, 8, 2012
By Royce Webb and Henry Abbott

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
Thursday at HoopIdea: Henry Abbott will reveal how to make end-of-game situations more exciting.

Join us as we get going with HoopIdea, our engine for improving basketball.

The motto: Basketball is the best game ever. Now let’s make it better.

The problem: Many things in basketball exist because of rules and guidelines set up decades ago. But it’s time to rethink. As Bill Simmons wrote last week, the eight worst words in sports are "Because that's the way we've always done it."

  • More exciting
  • More fun
  • More intelligent

We want a purer form of basketball. When you play a pickup game, the game flows continuously. No one is trying to get the other team in foul trouble. No one calls a timeout. Defenders don’t worry about the restricted area, or try to take charges. No way. Players try to make plays.

That’s what we want to see: Players making plays. Great passes. Superior teamwork. Spectacular action. Strong defense. Fantastic shots. Amazing dunks. Great basketball, all the time.

  • Smarter rules that give us the game we really want
  • Continuous action that features creativity and athleticism
  • Fans on the edge of their seats, or better yet, out of their seats

We want to bring alive the excitement that fans feel during the greatest games, the greatest moments. We want to bring out the best parts of the game. We want the game to be played the way it was meant to be played.

The rules have been changed before, and they will be changed again. And we want you to play a role in those changes.


You can give us your ideas and talk with us and other fans in the following places:
And for the truly ambitious: Shoot a short video of yourself explaining your HoopIdea, upload it to YouTube and share the link with us on Twitter or Google+.

That’s all there is to it. Speak up and be heard.

Henry Abbott is the ESPN senior writer who leads TrueHoop and the TrueHoop Network. Royce Webb is an NBA editor at Follow on Twitter: @TrueHoop | @HoopIdea | @RoyceWebb