TrueHoop: The Moment

The March classic we never saw coming

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
By Benjamin Polk
Special to
Kevin DurantGarrett W. Ellwood/Getty ImagesWith buzzer-beaters and frantic action, one mid-March regular-season game became a classic.
Most regular-season NBA games share a certain weekday rhythm. First quarter proceeds to fourth, runs are exchanged, the game winds down. You wake up in the morning and go to work. You tell a few jokes, come home and go to sleep.

But sometimes this rhythm is disrupted. Sometimes a game ruptures our expectations, startles us out of our patterns of habit. Sometimes the everyday turns transcendent.

On March 23, 2012, the Minnesota Timberwolves slouched into Oklahoma City to play the Thunder. Both teams were wobbly with fatigue, the result of the grueling, lockout-compressed schedule. The Thunder were cruising to the top seed in the Western Conference while the Wolves were shredded by injuries -- Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Michael Beasley were all on the shelf -- and mired in another wrecked season.

We thought we knew what was coming. Kevin Love would grab some rebounds. Kevin Durant would score a bunch of points. The Thunder would roll the Wolves in routine fashion and we would all say goodnight, see you again tomorrow. The season would grind on.

Instead, what we got was a minor classic, a wildly exciting two-overtime 149-140 Thunder victory. Love scored 51 points. Durant went for 40 and 17 rebounds. Russell Westbrook dropped a career-high 45. J.J. Barea notched his first triple-double. The game had manic offense, frayed D, impossible plays, incredible performances, desperate comebacks. Westbrook and Barea relentlessly shredded defenders. KD and Love traded buzzer-beating 3-pointers like new-school editions of 'Nique and Larry.

“It was a crazy game, it was crazy,” Durant says. “We almost gave up 200 points that game!”
[+] EnlargeKevin Love
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsKevin Love matched an important late 3-pointer from Kevin Durant with one of his seven own treys.

“It was mayhem,” Love says. “It was just nuts.”

By the end, despite the humble circumstances, the game somehow felt consequential. “I replay it in my mind a lot,” Durant says. “It was one of those games that you’re going to think down the line and be proud that you were a part of.”

The game wasn’t played at near-perfection levels like last season’s NBA Finals; it was much weirder and woollier, filled with absurd bounces and fatigue-addled mistakes. But it shared with those Finals a sense of crazy, righteous desperation. And those very imperfections made it feel more beautifully unhinged and thrilling, as if the fundamental facts of everyday life -- the blemishes and mistakes, the banalities and small absurdities -- had become transfigured. The game had no impact on the standings and didn’t so much as blemish the playoff picture. By our normal calculus it meant almost nothing. And yet it felt as if something truly meaningful were at stake.

“The crowd gets into it and gets energized,” says Love when asked to describe the game’s energy. “In something like that it’s fight-or-flight. You really have to pick up your intensity to a whole new level. You know the other team’s really going at you and giving us their toughest blows and you’re trying to put that sledgehammer on them too.”

So what was the moment that transported this game to that new level? Was it Barea -- displaying all of the desperation, skill and absurd bravado that make him the maddening, fascinating player that he is -- converting an offensive rebound and diving layup to tie the game at 113-113 with 27.3 seconds remaining and cap the Wolves’ late comeback?

Was it Durant’s answer on the ensuing possession, the gorgeous crossover and step-back 3 that had Anthony Tolliver skittering on his heels? Or Love’s cold-blooded, heavily defended, buzzer-beating, game-tying reply seconds later, his seventh 3 of the game? (“He said ‘In your face,’” said Westbrook, who was guarding Love on that shot. “He kept pointing like ‘In your face, in your face.’”)

Was it KD’s corner 3 at the end of the first overtime that tied the game at 129-129 and capped a five-point, 46-second comeback? Or his in-out dribble and deep-leaning baseline fadeaway that put the game away in the second overtime?

Or maybe it was one of those strange plays that give a game like this its rough texture and life? Like, in the second overtime with the Wolves trailing by three, when Tolliver gathered an offensive board, found himself wide open at the doorstep of the basket, poised to cut the lead to one … and blew the layup. Almost instantaneously, Westbrook was streaking in the other direction for an electric coast-to-coast finish that put OKC up by five. It was a devastating -- and devastatingly quick -- swing that stunned the Wolves and sent the crowd into a frenzy.

So which was it?
[+] EnlargeRussell Westbrook
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsRussell Westbrook surged late, scoring a career-high 45 points.

Says Durant: “Really, when Kevin Love hit that shot to take it into overtime. After that it was like, man, whatever comes through this game, I’m not surprised.”

Says Love: “We were down by like 10, and people watching might have thought it was over. But then we made a run back at them at the end and started inching our way back. And when I hit that shot on Russell to head it into the first overtime, I thought, ‘this is a wild game.’”

But by the time Love hit that shot, the game’s intensity had already escalated; the Wolves had already capped their improbable comeback with Barea’s offensive rebound and drive to the rim. Love himself acknowledges that his shot was not just remarkable in and of itself, but as the culmination of an unfolding process.

Even more telling is Barea’s answer. When asked which moment defined the game’s new intensity, he did not hesitate: “Oh, when we hit a shot to win the game and they tied it to go to overtime.”

Which sounds perfectly reasonable, except that what he describes never actually occurred.

Without a doubt, the individual moments are memorable in and of themselves. But they carry special significance in our minds because of the context of intensity and thrill from which they emerged. Ray Allen’s Game 6 buzzer-beater is already legendary not simply because it was a great shot at a hugely important time, but also because it signaled the incredible competitive fervor of the entire series. Love’s 3 is memorable not just because he nailed a deep, heavily contested shot as time expired, but because it embodied and distilled everything that came before and after: the incredible shots and feverish rebounding battles; the appalling turnovers, the blown layups.

Some spectacular plays -- a Blake Griffin dunk, a Kyrie Irving crossover -- come out of nowhere. But most truly great moments feel impoverished as disembodied highlights. They are culminations; when we watch them we realize that something incredible has already begun to happen. They are instances of a phenomenon already in progress, of a game already overflowing.

When John Lucas hit a blind free throw

September, 27, 2013
Goldwein By Eric Goldwein
Special to
John Lucas
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesAmong John Lucas' most enigmatic moments? A free throw attempt with his eyes wide shut.
Renee Richards was sitting front row the night her doubles partner, John Lucas, put on a show at Madison Square Garden.

As Richards recalls, the Milwaukee Bucks are blowing out the New York Knicks. It’s “an exhibition like you wouldn’t believe,” she says.

The 33-year-old Bucks point guard is running up and down the court screaming “No way, no way,” and in the closing moments he does something outrageous.

“He’s right in front of the basket where we have our seats, and he stands there at the free throw line and he yells, 'No way Renee, No way Renee,'" she said. "And he closes his eyes and he makes the free throw.”

It's a quintessential Lucas performance, but to Renee it was so much more.

Lucas was a two-sport prodigy. He landed on Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” as a 14-year-old tennis phenom, topped Pete Maravich’s scoring record in high school and was an All-American in both sports at the University of Maryland. Lucas was selected first overall by the Houston Rockets in the 1976 NBA draft -- a rare feat for a point guard. Three days later, he was signed by the San Francisco Golden Gaters to play World Team Tennis -- a rarer feat for a point guard.

Richards, now a practicing ophthalmologist, was the transsexual tennis player who stirred international controversy after the former Richard Raskind appeared in tournaments as a 41-year-old woman. The United States Tennis Association barred Richards from competing in the 1976 US Open but Richards challenged the USTA in New York State Supreme Court, which ruled she could enter the tournament without submitting to chromosome testing. In 1977, she played in her first US Open as a woman. A spectacle ensued.

The next summer, Richards joined forces with Lucas on the New Orleans Nets. An NBA point guard and a 43-year-old transsexual -- both lefties -- playing mixed doubles.

“It was like being at the wedding of a transvestite and a dock worker,” quipped one reporter after watching them at the 1978 US Open.

Lucas, who says the pairing went 28-1, saw it differently: “We were two lefties that both hit sliced serves. Our height was very good and we created problems.”

The Lucas-Richards duo was perfect for the quirky but competitive World Team Tennis. They did things -- chest bumps, for instance -- that would have been frowned upon in other tennis venues.

“I put a basketball game on a tennis court,” Lucas said. “That’s how I played tennis. I tried to make it an athletic event.”

Off the court they were partners in mischief. Richards recalled a road trip in Indianapolis when they were in a weight room and some men started making offensive remarks about her sex change. Lucas, protective of Richards, threatened them with a 200-pound barbell.

“And he says ‘Listen, Dr. Richards is my friend and she’s my doubles partner. I don’t want you to say anything more against her,’” Richards said, laughing. “And this guy just looked up at him and John’s holding this 200-pound weight over his head, and that was the end of that.”

Richards mentioned another time when Lucas walked into a redneck bar in Lakeland, Fla., and asked for a six-pack of Heineken.

“A black guy in Lakeland, Fla., in the middle of the night in this hot, scalding road house, the door won’t open, the neon light in front of it and guys playing pool inside, not a black guy in sight. I said, ‘You’re not going in there,’" Richards said.

Lucas didn’t listen. He walked in, asked for the beer, and the bartender froze; he couldn’t comply since the customers were watching, but he couldn’t outright ignore the request. Richards broke the silence, asking the bartender for the six-pack. The bartender gave it to her. Problem solved.

“He was very na´ve in some ways but brilliant and sophisticated and educated and all that, but in some respects he was a kid,” Richards said.

Renee Richards’ notoriety was fading when she joined John Lucas on the Nets. One year removed from the saga of the 1977 New York Supreme Court ruling, she was gaining recognition on the pro tennis circuit as a competitor, not a sideshow attraction.

Lucas, meanwhile, was starting to lose control of his life. Drug problems surfaced after he was sent to Golden State in 1978. In his third and final season with the Warriors, he missed three team flights, six games and more than a dozen practices. Whisperers around the league said cocaine was the problem. Golden State, then in postseason contention, suspended Lucas for the final eight games of the season.

Jack McCallum profiled Lucas the following offseason in a 1981 Sports Illustrated story titled “Picking Up The Pieces.” Lucas’ psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Strange, said the troubled point guard was “emotionally and physiologically fit to continue his profession.” Depression, not drugs, was thought to be the cause of his problems.

“It’s just an unfortunate accident that happened to a good guy. I’m not a bad guy. I’m nobody’s problem child. Never have been, never will be,” Lucas told McCallum.

The Warriors shipped Lucas to the Washington Bullets for two second-round picks that summer and the problems escalated. Donald Dell, then Lucas’ attorney, said his client approached him about hiring a personal security guard to fend off drug dealers. So Dell arranged for a former D.C. policeman to trail the NBA star.

“And guess what?” Dell said. “It was not successful. After a couple months, somehow people would always still get drugs to him, even though this guy was traveling with him and living with him in his apartment.”

The Bullets waived their problem child in 1983, but in spite of the off-court antics, other teams could not resist the talented point guard. Lucas -- after a brief tennis stint -- joined the Lancaster Lightning of the Continental Basketball Association. A 20-point, 14-assist performance, in one half, caught the attention of San Antonio Spurs general manager Bob Bass, who signed Lucas for the remainder of the 1983-84 season.

San Antonio traded Lucas to Houston, where he played alongside Hakeem Olajuwon and 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson on the greatest team that never was. He failed a drug test that December and “retired,” but completed a 40-day rehab program and returned to the court that season.

The next year with the Rockets, Lucas averaged 15.5 points and 8.8 assists through 65 games. But his season was cut short when on March 11, 1986, he awoke from a cocaine-induced blackout in downtown Houston. Instead of trying to make it to practice, he took more cocaine. He was released after failing a drug test a few days later.

The Rockets reached the Finals sans their starting point guard, losing to the Boston Celtics in six games.

The drug relapse in Houston turned out to be Lucas’ last. Months later, he launched a substance recovery program which has evolved into a network of drug treatment centers for athletes. Today, he has a cult following as a training guru and life coach. Recent pupils include ex-Rutgers coach Mike Rice, Kentucky assistant Rod Strickland and NFL rookie Tyrann Mathieu.

The blind free throw happened in 1987, a year after he was cut from Houston. The Milwaukee Bucks signed him midseason and he averaged a career-high 17.5 points playing under Don Nelson.

That night, in his 12th game with Milwaukee, Lucas records 27 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and seven steals in a 127-104 win over New York. He sits out much of the fourth quarter, but subs back in with four minutes remaining and the Bucks leading 110-94. In his first possession, he sinks a jumper over Gerald Henderson. A couple of minutes later, he is sent to the foul line and hits the first of two freebies.

The second one, the blind free throw, doesn’t go exactly how Richards remembers. Before the shot, Lucas smiles, glances at his doubles partner -- who he hasn’t seen since 1978 -- and shouts “No way.” But if he closes his eyes, it’s barely noticeable. It’s only for a split second.

The shot goes in, he backpedals, and hustles through the 48th minute. He’s prancing around like he’s a rookie, MSG Network announcer Greg Gumbel says.

The Bucks have last possession and they’re running out the clock. An unguarded Lucas is standing in the paint, calling for the ball. Forward Junior Bridgeman finds the slick lefty, who converts a mid-air, catch-and-shoot just after time expires, and disappears under the stands.

Renee hasn’t seen him since.

When Rick Barry put fans in their place

September, 26, 2013
By Kevin Draper
Special to
Joe Lacob and Rick Barry
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsWhen the boos started filling Oracle Arena during a tribute to Chris Mullin, Rick Barry snapped back.

The crowd was boisterous before the game even started. The Golden State Warriors would retire Chris Mullin’s jersey at halftime. With the present rarely any good and the future perpetually two or three years away, Warriors fans are conditioned to look to the past. In most places, jersey retirement ceremonies are remarkably staid affairs.

Oakland is not most places.

Al Attles, Rick Barry, Don Nelson, Tim Hardaway. All the legends were there to pay tribute to Mullin on the night his jersey was raised to the rafters. The crowd was perfectly Oakland -- standing ovations for anybody who had ever worn a Warriors jersey, wisecracks from the stands and “I love you, Mully!” shouted from all over.

I first noticed the change in tenor when Bay Area broadcaster and the night’s emcee, Greg Papa, introduced Warriors owner Joe Lacob with the promise, “We saved the best for last!”

The boos started slowly, as the mic was handed to Lacob. Scattered at first, from places above and behind me. Dozens became hundreds, then hundreds became thousands until a baritone familiar to all sports fans echoed throughout Oracle Arena: "Boooooooooooooo."

The booing stretched on indefinitely, the tension so thick that the seconds may as well have been hours, recalling Einstein’s famous quote about relativity. There was no obvious end point: Lacob was just standing there, a bemused expression on his face.

Mercifully, it finally subsided -- but only temporarily, because Lacob had the audacity to address the booing this way:

“Now that we got that over with.”

Lacob would pay heavily by suffering a new chorus of boos every time he tried to hem and haw his way through the prepared speech.

Lacob’s baptism by fire was jarring to the senses, but it shouldn't have been all that surprising. Twelve years earlier, Warriors fans booed then-owner Chris Cohan while he was standing next to his own son and Michael Jordan, an act for which Cohan never forgave them.

That isn't to say that Lacob’s booing was undeserved. When he strode to center court, the 18-24 Warriors were down 14 to an anemic Timberwolves team and well on their way to a 16th losing season out of the last 18. Only a week earlier, the Warriors had traded quasi-star and fan favorite Monta Ellis for an injured-for-the-season Andrew Bogut. It didn't help matters that Lacob had the temerity to speak after Chris Mullin, the guest of honor. Really, we all probably should've seen this coming.

The truly shocking moment of the night -- the most incredulous moment I have ever experienced as a basketball fan and something that left my mouth agape -- came when the notoriously unlikable, NBA Hall of Famer and all-around cantankerous old man Rick Barry seized the mic to berate the crowd. Acting like a grumpy senior citizen chasing teenagers off his lawn, Barry barked at me and the thousands I was surrounded by:

“C’mon people. You fans are the greatest fans in the world, as everybody said that. Show a little bit of class. This is a man I have spent some time talking to. He is going to change this franchise. This is crazy! Seriously. C’mon. You are doing yourself a disservice. All of the wonderful accolades being sent to you, for you to treat this man who is spending his money to do the best that he can to turn this franchise around -- and I know he is going to do it. So give him the respect that he deserves.”

The fan-team relationship is a curious one. Fans love to use the first person plural when discussing sports -- we traded Monta Ellis last week, we are down to the Timberwolves by 14, wesuck -- implying that they are a part of the organization. They’re not employees or team members, of course, but it’s more complicated than that.

Sports teams are money-making corporations at their core. On the face of it, Barry’s statement, “... for you to treat this man who is spending his money to do the best that he can to turn this franchise around,” is absurd. In no other realm of the consumer market do producers so quickly take their customers for granted. Barry said Warriors fans should be grateful for the money Lacob is spending, but much of that money they gave to Lacob in the first place when they bought tickets, merchandise and concessions.

But sports teams aren't just corporations; they also occupy a weird space in our culture. They’re a throwback to a much more violent time, an era when Greek city-states frequently marched against one another. Today, with no other socially acceptable outlets for such tribal behavior, sports teams foster rivalries between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, New York and Boston. Often, a pro team is the most recognizable reflection of our community’s identity.

He didn't mean to make such a cogent, philosophical statement, but Barry hit the Stockholm Syndrome nail on the head. Warriors fans are supposed to feel grateful that they are allowed to spend money to support such a terrible team.

Team marketing efforts do everything possible to obscure the reality that, like any other corporate entity, they’re simply selling a product -- two and a half hours of entertainment. They want fans to feel something greater, to feel that their money supports a special relationship that exists between them, their favorite team and the region it represents. Sales efforts are often akin to selling war bonds. Teams build marketing campaigns around the idea that attending a basketball game supports your community. If you don’t buy a ticket, the Warriors can’t offer a contract to that superstar, and then those rotten scoundrels in Los Angeles will win.

If a movie theater has uncomfortable seats and shows bad films, or if a restaurant is unclean with gross food, you simply stop frequenting them. Some cities have treated their teams that way, but not Oakland. The Warriors haven’t had consecutive playoff appearances since 1992, yet they consistently post average to better-than-average attendance numbers. Regardless of how the team performs, Bay Area fans continue to show up to games and part with their money. Selling a crappy product to Warriors fans is easier than stealing candy from a baby.

Being an owner of an NBA team means being a vassal with a large fiefdom -- and the fans are your serfs. After 30 years of being treated as ATM machines, happily forking over their hard-earned cash despite the take-for-grantedness of it all, on one night last year, Warriors serfs revolted. Knowing no other way to properly display their unhappiness, they reluctantly interrupted the coronation of Chris Mullin and turned to the last arrow left in their quiver, seizing upon a public appearance by Joe Lacob to boo like no other fanbase has booed before.

Warriors fans unleashed a lifetime’s worth of pent up disappointment in a single moment. Booing opposing players, referees or the Los Angeles Lakers has always felt artificial; most people are just going along because it is expected of them. But this was jolting, visceral and authentic. More than anything, the booing was a genuine expression of the indignity of fanhood, the closest thing to a fan revolt that we’re ever likely to witness.

But like a modern day George Washington riding out to Western Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, Barry snarled and disarmed Warriors fans, reminding them that they are simply cogs in the money-printing machine that is the NBA.

If I remember only one thing from the night of March 19, 2012, it will be that Rick Barry told me to my face that my only role was to give Joe Lacob money, and Rick Barry was right.

Chasing Larry Johnson's 4-point play

September, 25, 2013
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
Larry Johnson
AP Photo/Ron FrehmShots like Larry Johnson's improbable 4-point play in the 1999 postseason transcend the game.

I didn’t know Larry Johnson’s 4-point play was shady, for it brought only joy to my house. There was no social media to alert us to how Antonio Davis barely touched Johnson, and broadcaster Bill Walton’s musings about a “phantom foul” were drowned out by a father and son, celebrating in unison.

It was glorious because the Pacers were Evil and the Knicks were Good. My dad was a New Yorker, transplanted to San Diego. I didn’t know the first thing about New York, but I knew we got along during those brief moments when the Knicks grazed glory. We high-fived and hugged, and I did a backyard victory lap that ended in some leaping on the trampoline. Back injuries might have robbed Larry Johnson of his hops, but his second life as an outside shooter propelled me skyward.

Legend has it that sports strengthen the bond between father and son. Sometimes, for some of us, sports are the bond itself. My father was divorced, bitter, paranoid and clinically depressed. A dank fog hung over his house in sunny Pacific Beach. The lights were dim, the carpet was dirty with termite droppings. Cobwebs would form in corners of the living room, especially during those long periods when my dad couldn’t bring himself to rise from a cruddy 1970s-era waterbed.

He wasn’t a bad person, but he wanted no part of happiness. And he compounded that problem by pushing those close to him away by trying to pull them closer to his misery. Knicks fandom came to suit him quite well, especially during the Isiah Thomas years.
Though the Knicks were powerless against Michael Jordan, they had the unique power to chase away my dad’s demons. The games made him present, animated, even cheerful. With his curly hair, glasses and goofy grin, he looked like an ideal sitcom dad -- the kind who casually strolls into his moody kid’s room and corrects the young man’s perspective with a joke here, an anecdote there.

He even found joy in the pain of Reggie Miller’s incandescent shooting. My dad was so taken with Miller’s takeover moments that he’d lose track of how the Knicks were losing, shouting “wow!” for situations that begged for curse words. Our house was enlivened by such tragic basketball figures as Patrick Ewing, John Starks and, finally, LJ.

Many will remember Larry Johnson’s famous shot for his goofily miming “LJ” with his arms, at the height of glory. Others recall how the entry pass was almost stolen before Johnson snagged it. A smaller subset may remember Johnson blessing sideline reporter Jim Gray in Arabic after the game. What stuck with me, what will always stick with me, is the special way Madison Square Garden reacted. Later that night, in a highlight montage of the shot, I saw the most awe-striking crowd reaction I’ve taken in on television, short of ordinary folks revolting against a despot. To know why is also to know how the game has changed.

Down three with 11.9 seconds left and lacking any timeouts, the Knicks were doomed. In 1999, 3-pointers didn’t just fall from the sky. Well, maybe all 3-pointers actually do fall from the sky, but back then, they just didn’t rain reliably. New York made 382 3s in 1997-98, matching what the 2012-13 Grizzlies did as last season's last-place team in 3s made. It wasn’t that the Knicks were especially bad from distance, as they were actually top-10 in made 3-pointers in their last full season before the 1998 lockout. Iso-era teams just lacked shooters, or at least the inclination to let it fly. Unless your team had Reggie Miller, the Grim Reaper was pretty much your sixth man in these kinds of situations.

That’s perhaps why the Knicks crowd is sitting up until the point when Johnson ties the game. Standing represents anticipation. Sitting equals resignation. Fans weren’t braced for the Knicks' cramming one of their four 3-pointers a game into the last, heavily guarded 12 seconds of action. Notice that Miami Heat fans -- those who had not already left the arena, anyway -- are standing to watch Ray Allen try a game-tying 3 in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. A hopeful crowd is certainly braced for the possibility that one of the Heat’s many marksmen will come through. Miami’s arena hops in celebration, but it looks nothing like the human storm surge of 18,000 in Madison Square Garden, compelled from seated to a simultaneous high-jump by the unlikelihood of a 3-pointer combined with the even zanier unlikelihood of a 4-point play.

“It still sends chills up and down my back when I see it,” Jeff Van Gundy, then the Knicks' head coach, would later say of the crowd reaction. WFAN radio host Joe Benigno described what happened as, “The entire crowd just came up as one.”

That night, I fell in love with the pixelized image of Madison Square Garden, which looked like the world’s easiest game of Whack-A-Mole. My dad was a divorced, angry loser. I was a nerdy, brace-faced loser. Our social calendars might as well have read, “Whenever it snows in Pacific Beach.” He’d often drive around, just to drive around, muttering vitriolic nothings at the air. I’d pass the hours by throwing a penny at a waggling pen, smacking it over the fence of a baseball stadium I’d constructed from encyclopedias. Yet two social failures were able to share kinetic euphoria with thousands, jumping as they jumped, clumsily hugging as they clumsily hugged. Perhaps it’s pathetic that this nearly comprised our bonding with each other and with the outside world, but it was better than nothing.

I can’t remember what happened the next day, and that’s what’s so great about Larry Johnson’s shot. The next day was probably dull and terrible. And the next day. And the next one after that. Wonderful memories of June 5, 1999, dwarf so many negative months, the quick adrenaline spike of joy winning storage precedence over the long ebb of misery.

Since then, I’ve wondered if I write about basketball because I’m chasing that transcendent Madison Square Garden moment of an 18,000-person nirvana, or because I’m retreating to the few times I actually shared with my father. It’s all been a search for connection, one way or another. It’s all been an escape, too.

The games are trivial and the players are strangers to the fans who live vicariously through their exploits. This ridiculous game’s redemption lies in how it foments a bond between those strangers. Fans from disparate backgrounds can understand what it’s like to feel the exact same thing at the exact same time. A wonderful sense of community can form under the MSG lights. A broken family relationship can look like what each side always wanted, under the warm glow of the TV. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need sports to serve as a proxy for relationships. But the world will never be as perfect as the feeling of seeing Larry Johnson hit that shot.

Before there was YouTube, there was Wilt

September, 24, 2013
Harris By Curtis Harris
Special to
Wilt Chamberlain and Gus Johnson
Getty ImagesThere's no visual evidence, but Wilt Chamberlain's block of Gus Johnson's dunk is the stuff of legends.
The moment doesn't exist in photo or film, but surely it does exist.

The Baltimore Sun on Nov. 26, 1966, recounted the powerful blow the day after it occurred, in a 129-115 victory by Chamberlain's Philadelphia 76ers over Johnson's Baltimore Bullets in Baltimore. Johnson, according to the paper, suffered a “wrenched shoulder” thanks to Chamberlain's mammoth swat.

The Los Angeles Times on Feb. 26, 1981, recalled that Wilt Chamberlain “dislocated the shoulder of the powerful Gus Johnson when he blocked one of Gus' dunks.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer on Oct. 26, 1986, got the scoop from Billy Cunningham, who witnessed the event: "It was Gus against Wilt," Cunningham said. "Gus went in to dunk, and Wilt caught the ball, threw Gus to the floor, and they had to take Gus off the floor with a dislocated shoulder."

Imagine if this kind of debilitating block was registered in the YouTube age. It'd be plastered into our digital minds and never forgotten. Instead it occurred in an era when players were supposedly plodding, slow, uncoordinated or some combination of the three. And if you possessed some measure of athleticism you were unfairly taking advantage of the physically unfortunate. Rare is the footage to combat these prevailing myths.

Those misconceptions don't reconcile with the image of Wilt Chamberlain, a 7-foot-1 center who jumped high enough to block shots at the top of the backboard's square. They also don't quite jibe with Gus Johnson, a 6-6 forward who shattered three backboards with his monstrous dunks in the 1960s.

One such instance in 1964 caused Hawks guard Sihugo “Si” Green a bit of discomfort:
Gus Johnson remembers being "about three steps in front of Lenny Wilkens, Chico Vaughn and maybe Cliff Hagan," accepting a crisp, one-bounce pass from Wali Jones and going up to dunk.


"I hit the rim with my forearm, just tore the basket down," Johnson recalled. "The rim came down on Sihugo Green's foot, and he missed two weeks.”

Wilt and Gus exemplified the seemingly impossible possibilities of human athleticism, but they weren't alone. Elgin Baylor of the Los Angeles Lakers was already side-stepping opponents on the fast break with a move that would later be dubbed the “Euro Step.” Dave Bing of the Detroit Pistons was spinning defenders in circles with his tricky handles. Walt Bellamy of the Chicago Packers could cut baseline and deliver a gliding reverse slam despite being a 6-11 center.

By the early 1970s, guards like 6-3 Randy Smith were dunking with artistry that we're now fully accustomed to.

But Gus Johnson's and Wilt Chamberlain's cataclysmic clash remains something of a Holy Grail for the era's athleticism. Words and recollections attest to its power, but it will never really be found again. Even more curious is that Wilt and Gus reveal to us the fleeting nature of athleticism and its deceitful promise of eternal miracles.

Johnson was tragically like a Greek hero. His mythical feats became fewer and harder to find as his career progressed. Yes, he possessed a muscular physique like Hercules, but knee ligaments, unlike muscles, can't be chiseled like marble. Knee ailments knocked out large chunks of his career and limited his court time. Unfortunately, the hobbled hero can't recount his glory days to us anymore. He passed away far too early in 1987 due to a brain tumor.

Wilt Chamberlain's mythological countenance endured for his whole career. More than any single player he extended the limits of what was physically and conceivably possible. In addition to basketball, Wilt had run marathons, pumped more iron than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even became a volleyball Hall of Famer. In 1999, though, the one muscle that can ill-afford to weaken gave out on Wilt. The Big Dipper's heart stopped beating and the titan of years gone by passed away quietly in his bed.

As today's star athletes eventually reach their old age, they can point back not only to words and memories, but the indisputable video to prove just how awesome, just how spectacular, they were. The men of the 1960s can't always provide the film, but, in an odd twist, the lack of film aggrandizes their accomplishments.

We can see exactly how LeBron James delivers his machine of flying death. In fact, we can see it in real time, slow motion, from cameras behind the backboard, from cameramen camped at the baseline and numerous other assortments of angles and speeds. The saturation of media today perhaps peels away too much mystique of our current hardwood immortals.

But for the titanic block that Chamberlain delivered on Johnson, we have a few words and our imaginations to work with. That's something we decreasingly get to use these days. We know not what type of dunk Johnson was attempting. We don't know exactly how Wilt's body was positioned. We're oblivious to how far out Gus leaped to instigate the showdown. We're at a loss for the look on Chamberlain's face as he successfully protected the rim or, conversely, the pain on Gus' face as his shoulder separated.

What we do know teases us and propels us to fill in the gaps with our imaginations. Every man and woman can hear the story, but play it out in their own individual way giving the moment a unique personal power. The cold and calculating camera robs us of that private vision. The void of knowledge, the scarcity of detail, the sketches of what was, breathe life to a real moment that will forever be a tall tale.

Landing a punch on Michael Jordan

September, 23, 2013
By James Herbert
Special to
The Moment is a new basketball series about points in time that reveal a lot about the game.

Steve Kerr and Michael JordanNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesSteve Kerr delivered one of the most improbable punches in NBA history when he hit Michael Jordan.
Teammates fight.

They fight like siblings, like roommates, like couples. When you see the same people every day, there’s friction. Sometimes frustration away from the court manifests itself on it. Sometimes tempers flare in the heat of battle. As a player, you know this. You know a little confrontation doesn’t have to mean anything.

Until you’re trading punches with Michael Jordan.

“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking,” TNT analyst Steve Kerr says, laughing as he recalls his scrap with the Chicago Bulls legend in the fall of 1995 at Bulls training camp. “It’s Michael Jordan, it’s the greatest player ever, but I was pretty competitive and I kind of played with a chip on my shoulder. I had to or I wouldn’t have made it.”

The two guards were matched up in a scrimmage. It was intense. Jordan had heard the critics after the Bulls’ playoff loss to the Orlando Magic and intended to silence them. He averaged 26.9 points in the final 17 regular-season games after coming out of retirement, but shot only 41 percent from the field. The postseason defeat to the Magic in the conference semifinals, his first series loss since 1990, had some suggesting his best years were behind him. At 32 years old, Jordan was hell-bent on proving otherwise. It was palpable in every drill, every time down the floor.

He and Kerr talked trash on a couple of possessions, and then it escalated.

“I took exception to something he said,” Kerr says. “So I was talking back and I don’t think Michael appreciated that ... and we got in the lane and he gave me a forearm shiver to the chest and I pushed him back. And next thing you know, our teammates were pulling him off of me.”

The 6-foot-3, 175-pound Kerr wound up with a black eye. He threw some punches before it was broken up, too.

“I knew that if we were in an actual fight he could actually probably kill me if he wanted to,” Kerr says. “It was more just I’m going to stand up for myself.”

Kerr and Jordan didn’t have much of a relationship at that point. They’d played together for only two months. Before Jordan left the arena that day, then-Bulls coach Phil Jackson -- who perhaps would have prevented the tiff if he wasn’t in his office doing a media conference call, Kerr suggests -- told the superstar he had to speak with Kerr that night.

Jordan made the call within the hour and apologized. They talked some more at practice the next day and moved on.

As odd as it sounds when you consider that Kerr is the son of intellectuals, someone who was taught that violence is not the preferred method of conflict resolution, he believes that getting into it with his co-worker -- getting into it with Michael Jordan -- was the correct thing to do. He says he was embarrassed by how he was being treated and he wasn’t going to put up with it.

“You can’t run away from a fight,” says Bill Wennington, then Chicago’s backup center and now its radio color commentator. “You gotta protect yourself and defend yourself and Steve did just that.”

“It was a totally different relationship from that point on,” Kerr says.

There was mutual respect, with Kerr feeling that Jordan trusted him on the court more in important situations. In Jackson’s new book, "Eleven Rings," he says the punch was a wake-up call for Jordan and a turning point for the championship-winning 1995-96 Bulls who won 72 regular-season games, a record that will likely never be broken. Who knows what the wake-up call would have been if the fight never took place? Who knows if there even would have been one?

“It made me look at myself, and say, ‘You know what? You’re really being an idiot about this whole process,’” Jordan says in "Eleven Rings." He realized he hadn’t gotten in sync with his new teammates after coming back from his baseball sabbatical.

“He became, I think, more compassionate to everybody, and definitely to me,” says Kerr. “He had a different approach than most people and he was such a maniac, the way he would kind of attack the game and the season, that he had to understand that everyone was different and not everyone was as talented as him and not everyone was made up the same way as him.”

That was a two-way street. To be a teammate of Jordan, you’d have to accept that he’d push you sometimes. It just usually wasn’t that literal.

During one practice, Wennington blocked Jordan’s shot. After that, Jordan made a point of shooting over him, daring him to try again.

“It became almost his spark of the day,” Wennington says. “He must have come by me five or six more times in scrimmages. I’m guarding Luc [Longley] and I’m isolated in the corner, he drives through the whole lane, comes out to me, and [says], ‘Block this!’”

If you understood those challenges were all about wanting to win, you could enjoy playing with Jordan. Both Kerr and Wennington say they did. Still, relating and connecting to the most famous people on the planet isn’t simple. It was difficult to have normal interactions with Jordan away from the court because of the crowds he’d attract.

“We understood he lived a different life than the rest of us,” says Kerr. “So everyone respected his privacy away from the court and respected the fact that he needed a couple bodyguards on the road with him and that he was going to stay in his suite and play cards and stuff rather than go out. I mean, that’s probably what everybody else would have done, too, given the life that he led.”

There can be tension when one member of a team dwarfs the rest in attention and popularity. Jackson’s job was to diffuse that, to foster a sense of community. That season he also had to integrate Dennis Rodman and his colorful personality, ask Ron Harper to accept a role as a facilitator/stopper, and convince Toni Kukoc to be the sixth man. While this group’s transcendence might seem inevitable now, it was never guaranteed. A different coach might not have been able to manage them, to keep them in tune with each other.

“On a basketball team, you can have this phenomenon where even though you’re together every day, you’re not really communicating,” Kerr says. “And Phil never allowed that to happen.”

The Bulls couldn’t have been great without their immense talent, but they couldn’t have been historic without coming together. Chicago avoided major issues after the Kerr/Jordan incident and never lost more than two games in a row, taking on the characteristics of its coach and its leader. The same relentlessness that produced the training camp tussle led to arguably the best season of all time.

“We had this incredible sense of drive that came from Michael but that permeated through the whole team,” says Kerr.

There’s no easy road map to cohesion for a basketball team. Every locker room has different personalities, every coach different methods. From afar we don’t see what goes on in practices, and we’re unaware of little day-to-day arguments. Great teams don’t completely avoid clashes; they create an environment in which friction can be dealt with. A scuffle doesn’t have to splinter a squad -- it can be a catalyst for forging tighter bonds.

You could see the chemistry in the way those Bulls operated on the floor. In "Eleven Rings," the chapter about the season is titled “Basketball Poetry.” When the triangle offense is flowing, it’s a thing of beauty. Kerr says the team had a “magical dynamic,” that its energy was “incredible to experience.”

“People talk about the basketball gods,” says then-assistant coach Jim Cleamons. “The gods show up, they reward that type of play. They reward that type of selflessness and ... it’s wonderful to watch. It’s a joy to be around.”

That sort of harmony is all too rare. It’s certainly worth fighting for.

The perks of being dunked on by Dr. J

June, 10, 2013
Wade By Jared Wade

I was alone, the only person watching the NBA playoffs on a 16-foot television. It didn’t last. Soon others entered. Most wore purple, some wore yellow. A few carried boxes. One young lady put tchotchkes on my table. Yellow-and-purple tchotchkes.

I asked what was up.

"We're having a Lakers viewing party," said the woman.

"Who is we?"

"The … Lakers," she said, realizing I didn’t belong.

It made sense. We were in downtown Los Angeles at the ESPN Zone, a sports bar to the nth degree. Staples Center sits next door, and the injury-riddled Lakers were about to play Game 2 of their first-round series in San Antonio, hoping to pull even with the Spurs at 1-1. Fans needed a place to congregate. Why not here?

In came a man who did belong: Michael Cooper.

He dressed simply -- a baby-blue button-up tucked neatly into dark slacks -- but his tailored, freshly pressed clothes stood out. Even those who didn’t notice his sartorial style would recognize his ballplayer gait.

It was clear that someone had entered the room.

He walked my way. I was just a face in the growing crowd, but we made eye contact, and he gave a nod. It was the nod famous people give when they know you know who they are. He was just being friendly. Though I was planted at a long, communal table and Cooper had his own VIP chair, we were next to one another when he took his seat.

The box carriers unpacked, arranging items on a table beneath the giant TV. They arranged purple-and-yellow jerseys and basketball shoes. One sneaker was in a glass case.

At first I couldn’t read the number and signature. Then I made it out.

Antawn Jamison?

The jerseys were similarly odd: Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, Andrew Bynum.

Then, one made sense. It had No. 21 on the back. Ahhh. There it is.

The Michael Cooper jersey?

Nope. It was a Kareem Rush throwback.

I wasn’t surprised that someone else had worn Coop’s number. I knew the Lakers hadn’t retired the jerseys of all their greats.

Still, it was off-putting to be sitting next to Cooper, the 1986-87 Defensive Player of the Year and a guy who made eight straight All-Defensive Teams, and see a Kareem Rush jersey.

I looked up, and there was a break in the game action on the big screen. A Crown Royal commercial came on with Julius Erving as the liquor’s pitchman.

As with everything Dr. J-related, the highlight soon showed up.

For the man sitting next to me, I imagine it is the highlight; The Doctor’s breakaway, cradle, “rock the baby to sleep” dunk over Michael Cooper in January 1983 during the Lakers’ regular-season visit to the Spectrum.

I looked over at him.

"What?" Cooper asked me, raising his arms. "You got something to say?"

I did not.

I did manage a question. Holding back laughter -- maybe fear -- I asked him how many times he has seen that highlight. I expected him to shake his head and say, “Thousands, jerk.” Or check my chin.

He didn’t answer. But he did let me in on a little secret.

"The funny part about it -- every time I see that, I get paid,” Cooper said.

I don’t know if he was leading me on or if he actually gets a royalty check each time the ad airs. Crown Royal has to license the footage from somewhere.

But Cooper repeated his claim later in the evening while emceeing the event. He joked with the crowd, saying I tried to clown him. He recounted our exchange, saying that he receives $1,500 every time it airs.

I was taken aback. Twice, Cooper had owned the moment. The Doctor’s butchered patient -- a stopper of the highest order, the guy Larry Bird called the best defender he ever faced -- was embracing his inclusion in maybe the most iconic poster dunk in basketball history.

Some people might be ashamed. Players today are told, “Don’t jump.” Brandon Knight and Jason Terry, victims of the two most heinous facials handed out this season (here and here), probably wish they had taken that advice.

Coop? Thirty years after the dunk, he’s taking it in stride.

As he should.

Michael Cooper is a Lakers icon. To those in the know, he is an NBA legend. But to many casual sports fans, he is just a guy who played with Magic, an afterthought who didn’t make the Showtime “big three” cut behind Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and James Worthy.

Through this dunk, however, he has become immortal. Whenever Dr. J is celebrated, the footage inevitably resurfaces. I must have seen the time Coop got dunked on thousands of times.

He never answered after I asked how many times he has seen it. But I’m guessing the years -- and maybe those $1,500 checks -- allow Cooper to enjoy The Doctor’s most famous dunk more now than he did in 1983, and more than any of us do today.

The Moment: Cruel coaching

April, 5, 2013
By Stephen Danley, Special to
The Moment is a new basketball series about points in time that reveal a lot about the game.
Rutgers University Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Rice watches a player come out of his defense stance, throws a ball at the players feet, then flies in and violently pushes him. The player hangs his head as Rice strings together obscenities, showing him the right way defend while emasculating him in front of his teammates.

This moment matters, not because it crosses the line of appropriate coaching, but because it blurs it. Rice’s gay slurs and kicking of players were horrendous and exceptional -- but this specific incident shows that lesser levels of abuse were also a routine part of his teaching style.

Watch the player’s body language. He knows he is in trouble. This has happened before. The player slouches, prepared to be berated. Rice “shows him how to play defense” by hitting him. The player is helpless to stand up for himself and is pushed out of the way.

This is not an anger issue -- it’s a cultural one. This is what passes for coaching at the collegiate level; types of behavior that no other member of a university faculty could possibly get away with.

Rice was fired not because he lost his temper but because the public finally was able to peek under the hood of collegiate coaching. It is sadly recognizable for those of us who played competitive sports, and shocking for many who didn’t. I played collegiate basketball, had teammates compete across the country and have mentored players since I stopped playing. This is our common experience. We’re often ashamed and angry at the way we’ve been treated. We were cursed at, physically intimidated and threatened for years.

For athletes in a macho culture, it’s hard to admit how much it hurt us.

When I work with young players now, the first thing I tell them is that it’s not “soft” to be frustrated when a coach treats you poorly. It’s not your fault that coaches think screaming, intimidating and punishing students are acceptable ways to get you to play hard. That type of behavior is not just a Mike Rice problem, it’s a sports problem.

As an academic, I say with confidence that coaches treat student-athletes in a manner that would never be permitted by anyone else on campus. There is a chasm between what is expected of professors and coaches. If one of my students came into my office to talk about a paper, and in an attempt to motivate him, I repeatedly called him some of the filthiest words in the English language, as Rice did (and coaches all across the country routinely do), would it be appropriate? If a student showed up five minutes late for class and I told him to return the next day at six in the morning, forcing him to run until he fell to the floor puking, would I still have a job the following week?

Of course not.

And yet these actions are everyday occurrences in university and high school programs. Yes, Rice took them farther than the average coach. But his transgression was not simply losing his temper a few times. He created an hostile atmosphere for his players in which they feared him because of his physical and verbal outbursts and intimidation. This, sadly, is not rare. Coaches routinely embarrass their players, crudely mock them, shout obscenities at them, then make them run excessively (to punish players and control them, not to improve conditioning) for perceived transgressions on and off the court. Players fear their coaches, while coaches lord their authority over players’ athletic dreams and day-to-day lives.

Collegiate coaches can get away with abuse because they have all the leverage. Student-athletes have limited eligibility and rules making it very hard to switch schools. Often there is no good outlet for their concerns in the institution. In other words, they are completely at the mercy of their college coaches. These students deserve the same dignity, patience and mentorship that universities strive so hard to provide off the court. So why do we allow coaches to wield power over students in such ugly ways?

In this, no one's hands are clean. Not the NCAA which has a rule structure which makes it hard for athletes to leave abusive situations without sacrificing eligibility; not the institutions, which allow coaches to behave in ways faculty never could; and certainly not the coaches themselves.

And that's why the real scandal is not just Rice’s caught-on-video moment. While awful and extreme, this is not an isolated incident nor a single bad apple. It is indicative of a wider sports culture that allows coaches to routinely verbally abuse their players and physically intimidate them. We need to decide whether behavior that would result in firings anywhere else at a university is acceptable on the practice court.

Dr. Stephen Danley will begin as an Assistant Professor at Rutgers-Camden University in the fall of 2013. He is a Marshall Scholar and Oxford graduate who played basketball for the University of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2007. His twitter handle is @SteveDanley.