TrueHoop: Basketball Books

Wednesday Bullets

September, 16, 2009
9/16/09
1:02
PM ET
  • Steve Nash, Hall of Famer?
  • Hard to argue he isn't grown up yet: Kevin Durant reportedly organized 6:30 am pickup games, which he'd play in before his summer University of Texas class on ... adolescence.
  • Ryan at the Basketball Geek goes in-depth discussing a new book by Wayne Winston. Winston is one of the big names in basketball statistics, who is under contract with prominent referee-basher Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks. So, when Ryan writes about one particular part of the book, I'm dying to know more: "In the next chapters, Are NBA Officials Prejudiced? and Did Tim Donaghy Fix NBA Games?, Wayne shows how we might try to analyze these topics, and what conclusions we'd want to arrive at based on the analysis." Good tease! (Also, Winston explains why Sebastian Telfair is an underrated gem.) 
  • There have been so many stories of professional athletes being misled or ripped off in various financial schemes. This is a refreshing and new angle. Horace Grant is reportedly due a payment of nearly $1.5 million. He made a mutual fund investment on the basis of representations it was extremely safe. Turned out, it wasn't, and now he's getting his money back.
  • A suggestion that the NBA might have better referees if they busted the union and started from scratch. I have my doubts. Before declaring any such thing, I'd want to see evidence that the recent hires from the D-League -- the referees who presumably most approximate what we'd have as replacements -- were in some way more accurate than the old ones.
  • This is a teaser, and the payoff is, if you sign up ... getting to watch video of two people you don't know playing a video game. That counts? That's enough? That's teasable?
  • The Blazers hired Hersey Hawkins as player development director. Attention lucrative market to the north in search of an NBA team to love: In case Brandon Roy, Martell Webster, Nate McMillan and Paul Allen didn't have enough Seattle ties for you ... Chris Bowles, who had that title previously, and got the Blazers doing some interesting stuff, has a new job with the team.
  • Have you seen the hot new rumors about the European big man the Spurs are in love with? Those rumors are three months old!
  • Marvin Williams just signed a contract worth around $40 million. I'm thinking it might be time to buy his family Leage Pass. Here he is in an interview with HoopsTV: "The Hawks have seven nationally televised games on their regular-season schedule this year, equal to the total amount the franchise has had over the past 11 seasons combined. Have any thoughts on the Hawks moving into the NBA spotlight? That's huge. Huge. I think every player loves top be on national television, but especially me being from the Seattle area, my family doesn't get a chance to see me play very often, so having all those games on national television is big. It's big for the Atlanta Hawks organization. It just shows people around the League and the world that we are getting better."

Hall of Fame Day

September, 11, 2009
9/11/09
9:32
AM ET

Do you believe in Air? That's the question of the day.

And, guess what -- everyone does. Literally, everyone. With a big "A" or a little "a" on "air" it's a basic part of being alive.

Michael Jordan
The Hall of Fame festivities kicked off Thursday with a dinner.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Michael Jordan's career has been remembered every which way (by the NBA, by the Bulls, by the media, by Hollywood, by North Carolina ... even the Miami Heat, a team for which he never played, has retired his number). But making a big stink about people who used to play in the NBA is really the job of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and now -- five years after he hung up his sneakers -- it's the Hall's turn to salute Jordan, as well as C. Vivian Stringer, David Robinson, Jerry Sloan and John Stockton.

There is a dizzying array of accompanying commentary, which Matt McHale has tidily assembled into an ever-growing list of links.

I'll share one quick story, from the legendary Dean Smith, who was, of course, Michael Jordan's coach for three years at the University of North Carolina. In his book "The Carolina Way," Smith drops one of the great tributes to Jordan's magical powers into the middle of a mini-lecture about the perils of showboating.

Jordan clearly made even Smith, the high priest of understated class, see the merits in a certain kind of flash:

Maybe it was old-fashioned on my part, but I detested showboating. I didn't want a fancy pass when a simple one would work as well or better. I loved for our team to dunk, but I didn't want our team to stand around and scowl at opponents after doing so. I never thought it was cool to show up an opponent on purpose. Now, if they were unduly provoked -- and that happened sometimes -- that could be a different story. One of Michael Jordan's dunks against Maryland might be an example. Michael felt an injustice had been done against him by a Maryland player, so late in a game at College Park, he felt payback was justified. If you didn't see this particular dunk, I'm sorry I can't describe it to you. People still talk about it when Michael's UNC career is recalled. I believe it was the night that windmill dunk became part of basketball's lexicon.

(Video that could be of that dunk.)

Then, after one of the the most convincing testimonials ever for whatever it is Michael Jordan does in the air, Smith goes right back to making his point about how there's no point in being showy. The message may be lost a little. Jordan may have done it primarily with his play (expect a discussion of some of those later today), but he was surely the best ever at showing up opponents, and as such is the primary muse to many a showboater.

Meanwhile, I'm on my way to Springfield (another question for me today, besides Do You Believe In Air: Do You Believe in Amtrak?) for a day of multi-faceted Hall of Fame coverage, culminating in a special liveblogging (complete with input from several people, including you) of this evening's proceedings. Stick around.

John McPhee on Flashy Play

August, 10, 2009
8/10/09
5:29
PM ET

To me, the best sports article ever written is John McPhee's essay on Wimbledon, called Centre Court. It was published in Playboy and as far as I can tell it's not online. (UPDATE: Bingo.) But it's amazing.

McPhee is one of my favorite writers anywhere. I have a well-thumbed "John McPhee Reader." That compilation has the essay that became McPhee's first book: The loving profile of Bill Bradley, as an undergraduate, called "A Sense of Where You Are."

This summer it dawned on me that while I had read the second chapter of that McPhee book, I had yet to read the entire thing. So I bought it and am nearly done. It's a must-read.

It is striking in many ways, however. First of all, I'm blown away at how much McPhee -- one of the most evidence-driven writers out there -- allows himself to play cheerleader. Were this a later book, I suspect he would have toned down the praise. "Bradley," he writes in a typical passage, "has become such an excellent basketball player that it is necessary to look beyond college basketball to find a standard that will put him in perspective. The standard's name is Oscar Robertson ..." McPhee then rattles off the relative merits of each, and it's hard to know which player McPhee would prefer to have on his team.

There are countless other good reasons to read this book. I haven't even finished yet, but already am aware of several things I'd like to know more about:

  • In 2009, the two-point jumper is coming to be seen as the death of efficient offenses, which run much better with 3-pointers and layups. In the mid-1960s, this very same shot was the innovation that had made basketball offenses efficient. 
  • The racial undertones of this book are thick. It's a book about a very white time in basketball, which is complicated to read in 2009. (Insert six million-word further explanation here.)
  • It says that Bill Bradley did academic work from six in the morning to midnight for eight straight weeks. What? Really?
  • As an undergraduate, Bill Bradley played in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Before coming home he went on a lecture tour of Asia.
  • One person who guards him really well in college: Cornell's Dave Bliss. Yes, that Dave Bliss. Tenacity isn't the only quality you need to succeed long-term.

But here's the McPhee line that has been stuck in my head all day:

Many basketball players, outstanding ones included, have a tendency to be rather tastelessly rococo in their style, and Bradley stands out in contrast because he adorns nothing that he does.

It's unmistakable, right? He's essentially saying that there's something a little better about practicing the fancy parts right out of your game.

And I think we can all see the general merit in such a thing. Certainly, there are plenty of players who put a lot of effort into dribbling behind the back, whooping up the crowd, or leaping into crowds of defenders. Those things don't necessarily help teams that much.

But when I think about the very best players I have ever seen, heard of, or played with ... a lot of them feel extremely comfortable on the basketball court, and make it their business to demonstrate a sense of ownership of that space. Sometimes that means being flamboyant -- doing something ostentatious to show your spirit is not likely to be restrained by, well, anything.

Scared players, you see, are never "rococo." 

So, I'll sign up for McPhee's general theory, that it's worthwhile for most players, most of the time, to be as efficient as possible, so as to be more elite.

But a different question is: Among the best of the best in any field, is it valuable to be plain? To avoid being demonstrative and showy in attitude? 

That I doubt.

Monday Bullets

May, 18, 2009
5/18/09
1:21
PM ET
  • It's so basic, I'm sure it exists. I'd love to know: What percentage of a team's shots are contested jumpers? They're the worst shots in basketball. And many stat geeks would generally point to contested jumpers as mistakes. But I suspect there's some number of contested jumpers that are inevitable. That's what you get when the defense doesn't give you anything. Then you'd have to look at players like Kobe Bryant or Ben Gordon ... players who take a lot of contested jumpers. When they do so, are they taking possessions that could have been open jumpers or layups and making them lower percentage, or are they taking possessions that would have been contested jumpers by less skilled players? Gets tricky. Also would be interesting to see if there are players you can stick on the floor who bring down your percentage of contested jumpers. Presumably you want those guys.
  • Who's to blame for players doing insane things to gain competitive advantages? Fans, largely. That's the conclusion of a new book by Stefan Szymanski called "Playbooks and Checkbooks: An Introduction to the Economics of Modern Sports." It was reviewed by Harry Hurt III in The New York Times: "We live in the age of tarnished sports superheroes, as steroid scandals vividly illustrate. But Mr. Szymanski lays the blame for most of the problems afflicting sports on fans rather than on self-centered players or avaricious team owners. 'We want to see excess, we want to see the contest to be taken to the ultimate limit and we are willing to pay handsomely for it,' he writes. 'Our demand for winning is what drives much of the excess in the sports world of today.'"
  • A really amazing tale of the front office maneuverings that got Chauncey Billups to Denver. (Via Piston Powered) One key factor: The Nuggets noticed that Allen Iverson had lost a step, and had trouble guarding Mateen Cleaves in training camp. (If Iverson comes back fast as ever next year, get ready to credit hard work. Because at this age, nothing comes easy.) If you're really into Billups, it's also well worth going back to read Tom Friend's amazing profile.
  • John Hollinger suspects the Nuggets will beat the Lakers, but it's a classic case of what's more important? Playing well now? Or playing well all season?
  • A fascinating and honest explanation (and a tad PG-13 for language) of why those Where Will Amazing Happen commercials don't please everyone. NBA take note: The writer is a real basketball fan, but can't place most of those plays. That's probably not as intended. My thought is this: There will be something in promos for the NBA. Really beautiful cinematography of the best players doing what their best at, when the game is on the line ... I'll take that. This is letting the product sell the product. Show me what's great! So much better than telling me.
  • Chad Ford on Earl Clark: "After a workout, Clark sought out an NBA executive who was watching the workout with me that day. Clark introduced himself and then asked the executive, 'What did you think of my workout?' The executive gave the standard 'You looked good' answer and then Clark asked his follow-up. 'No, what I want to know is, what do I need to work on? How do I improve? I'm just trying to get better.' The executive said he couldn't remember, in all his years of scouting, a prospect coming up and asking that question."
  • What happened when the Cavaliers played the Magic in the regular season -- a detailed breakdown.
  • Zach Lowe of CelticsHub: "The Marbury and Moore signings were failures. Could the Celtics have signed Joe Smith? Or Drew Gooden? We don't know the answers to those questions. But as I argued at the time, signing Moore and expecting him to contribute was unrealistic. The Celtics bench had 12 points in Game 7, and just eight before garbage time."
  • Ready to come back to the NBA: Bostjan Nachbar.
  • Would anyone ever hire a coach just because he knows a lot of trick plays? Of course not. But wouldn't you tune in just to watch a Paul Westphal team fake punts (or whatever trick basketball coaches have) and that kind of stuff?
  • Sonic fans, not surprisingly, aren't really feeling the NBA Cares campaign. SuperSonicSoul: "Is it me or does the league have a serious case of self-congratulationitis? I'll grant you that the NFL and its similar United Way spots are a bit gratuitous, but those are 1) humorous and 2) paid ads, unlike the NBA Care spots which are 1) boring and 2) apparently gratis, as they show up as segues into live action. Further, I can see the logic behind the NFL's spots, in that they promote a charity – the United Way -- which everyone can agree provides a service. But what is the logic to promoting NBA Cares, other than to show how wonderful the league is? As far as I can tell from my limited viewing this spring, the majority of the spots show individual players painting graffitoed walls, reading books to second-graders, and making chit-chat with people in soup-kitchen lines. There is no specific action the ads -- and, let's face it, that's what these are -- command the viewer to take; no charity name, no organization, no website. Hey, NBA, we get it. You care about 'the community,' whatever that ambiguous phrase means. Good for you."
  • UPDATE: Wow. Brian Grant has been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. Ric Bucher: "Then the Blazers invited him to a Nov. 6 game against the Rockets to honor Kevin Duckworth, the Blazers center who had died of a heart attack at age 44 in late August. Grant wasn't going to miss it, even if he was filled with dread about being in front of a Rose Garden packed with fans and former teammates who had watched his every move for three seasons -- and knew a constantly jiggling left hand hadn't been one of them. 'I hadn't been in front of a crowd that big since I retired,' he said. 'I kept trying to think about how I could disguise my hand. And I knew the players were going to see it and wonder what was up. That's what bothered me the most. I did not want to be perceived by the players as weak.' He wore jeans, a white T-shirt, a button-down shirt over it and a dark blazer. It was a cold December day, but he sweated through all of it. Clutching his left hand with his right to keep it still only prompted other parts of his body to start twitching -- his head, his shoulders, his legs. He played it off as nervousness, admitting only to former teammate Jerome Kersey that it was a tremor and that
    he didn't know the cause. He finally decided, though, to find out."

One of the most examined relationships in basketball is the one that resulted in the sport's greatest dynasty -- that between Red Auerbach and Bill Russell. Bill Russell just published a book describing that relationship from the inside, remembering his days with Auerbach, who died in 2006. This review is by Zach Lowe of CelticsHub.

The paradox of Bill Russell's tender little book "Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend" (written with Alan Steinberg) about his 50-year friendship with Red Auerbach is that you don't learn many new facts about either man. There's a chance that Russell doesn't know very many details of Auerbach's life that aren't already in the public domain. And in a way, that's one reason the two men were able to be friends for so long. In their time together, they were both stubborn men who cherished their privacy, and so they each respected the other's right to be stubborn and private. As Russell puts it: "We didn't know much about each other's private life. Neither of us knew if the other was a Republican or a Democrat. I didn't know if he went to synagogue, and he didn't know if I went to church. To most people, that might sound strange, but for us, it was routine. That was how we were, and we liked it that way."

If you've read any of the major books about the Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s -- Jeff Greenfield's "The World's Greatest Team" or John Taylor's "The Rivalry," for instance -- you're not going to find any new basketball anecdotes here. Russell's best Auerbach coaching stories are ones we've read before -- Red screaming such foul-mouthed digs at Wilt Chamberlain that the Dipper confronted him during a game, forcing Russell to shoo Auerbach out of Wilt's reach; Auerbach's insistence that a different set of rules applied to Russell, including that Russell could sip tea in the stands during scrimmages and leave the team for days at a time; Auerbach intentionally chewing on a cigar right before confronting a referee, so chunks of cigar would fly from his mouth into the ref's face during his tirade. All of this stuff has been written before, but it's nice to read these anecdotes again and to have them all included in a quick, 180-page read.

But there is value in having Russell tell this story from his perspective and his alone, without other sources chiming in with their views on the Celtics coach. Russell softens Auerbach without uncomplicating him too much. The most common image we have of Auerbach is of a profane, authoritarian coach. Russell doesn't ignore that side of Auerbach; in fact, Auerbach's sideline antics, so infuriating to everyone but the Celtics, drew Russell closer to his coach. Russell cared about little other than winning, and he understood that Auerbach's nasty sideline demeanor was an act designed to intimidate the officials and upset opposing coaches. It was meant to help the Celtics win, and Russell wasn't above using some unpleasant gamesmanship to achieve that goal.

Russell reminds us that Auerbach was also a calm man who dealt with players in a way that is not so different from how Phil Jackson treats his players. That comparison -- unlikely as it may seem, given the cliched image of Jackson as laid back Zen Master -- has been made before, but I'm not sure its ever been spelled out as completely as it is in Russell's book. According to Russell, Auerbach gave his players wide authority to suggest new wrinkles on the team's famous six plays or change strategies during a game. He never screamed at the team after losses, because he knew the players were already down and that his words wouldn't sink in. There are echoes of this in Jackson's book "The Last Season," in which he writes about the importance of players proposing strategic adjustments and not over-practicing or hurting a player's self-esteem.

In the twelfth game of his rookie season, Russell became enraged because Auerbach had Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman trying to post up on offense while Russell stood around, out of position. Auerbach called timeout, and as the other players stood around the coach, Russell sat on the bench, disgusted. Auerbach asked Russell why he wasn't in the huddle. "Everybody else is playing center tonight," Russell recalls complaining. "I don't need to be in the huddle to know how to get out of their way."

This was a rookie talking back to Red Auerbach, though Russell was an outstanding rookie and Auerbach hadn't won an NBA title yet. But still. A rookie can't talk to a coach that way in his twelfth career game. Auerbach thought for a few seconds and then said, "Okay, nobody plays center but Russell." For Russell, a man who disliked authority figures to that point, it showed Auerbach was willing to listen -- and that he would coach to win, not to feed anyone's ego, including his own. It was the same reason why Auerbach didn't try to change Russell's then-revolutionary shot-blocking game when some of his other coaches had urged him to stay on the ground on defense. The shot-blocking worked, and Auerbach understood that. Russell admits that he was too stubborn -- and perhaps too suspicious of white authorities as a relatively radical young black man -- to have gotten along with Auerbach had the coach been an unreasonable tyrant.

To read stories like that for 180 pages is a useful antidote to the more popular -- and just as valid--image of Auerbach. This is not a complete, unbiased biography of Red Auerbach, and it is not meant to be. That's not to say that Russell is sugar-coating. He discusses a couple of Auerbach's careless race-related remarks, such as when Auerbach assumed Russell must have known about Sam Jones, then a college player, because both men were black. And he stresses that Auerbach had no intention of being a civil rights crusader in becoming the first pro coach to start five black players in the early 1960s. They just happened to have been the best players on the team.

Even though this is familiar ground, there are some moving new tidbits here. Russell writes about how he felt sitting one seat behind (and above) Auerbach at Celtics games late in Red's life, an arrangement they preferred because they could chat without turning their heads and missing the game. "I had the sensation that my presence made him feel safe," Russell writes. "And I admit that, for that one instant, I felt that I was still protecting him, the way I always had as a player."

That simple, evocative prose is typical of Russell's writing style. The last scenes, in which Russell describes his final conversations with Auerbach and Auerbach's funeral, are sincerely moving, and I won't ruin them by excerpting them here. But it's wonderful to see the gentle side of the two of the game's fiercest competitors.

I touched on it the other day -- Pat Conroy wrote books about the painful aspects of his basketball-infused youth, and in so doing alienated his father, his school (the Citadel), and countless others.

If you have read the Lords of Discipline, or My Losing Season, or the Great Santini, then you know that Pat Conroy's childhood was ripped in half by pain and fear. It'll make you cry.

But decades later, it's a different story. And this new story, of resolution? It might never be told better than ESPN's Wright Thompson tells it.

Thompson's story starts like this:

Pat Conroy's dad hit him after games. He hit him with fists, and with open palms, hit him until blood ran from Pat's nose or lip onto his basketball jersey. Don Conroy didn't hit his son only after games. He hit him for smiling at the wrong time, talking at the wrong time, crying at the wrong time, for trying to defend his battered mother at the wrong time. On occasion, he hit him just for the hell of it. Pat's first childhood memory is of sitting in a high chair watching his mother try to kill his father with a kitchen knife and then his dad laughing while beating her to the floor. 

That's Don Conroy, who has since passed away.

How often does a story that starts like that later have a paragraph like this?

Reading about himself disgusted even Don Conroy. Starting that day and continuing for the rest of his life, Don set about proving that his son's description of him was false. He completely changed. No one could believe it. When Pat went on a book tour, Don went with him, signing books and often adding: "Thanks for reading my son's work of fiction." Then he would underline fiction, like, seven times. Finally, he and Pat were talking. And laughing. They became close. Don became the book, putting "Santini" on his license plate. He loved the movie, exclaiming to Pat when the Oscar nominations came out, "Son, you and I were nominated for Academy Awards last night. Your mother didn't get squat." It was all so strange, but nothing more so than this: When Pat wrote the book, he humanized the main character, sanding off some of his dad's edges because he didn't think readers would believe the truth. Later in life, Don took on those good traits Pat had invented; Pat Conroy rewrote his father. 

Well worth taking some time to read the whole thing. 

I have said a couple of times that I think Pat Conroy's "My Losing Season" is the best book I have ever read about basketball.

Conroy is an award-grade practitioner of English language on any topic, but in this instance, he happens to be telling true stories of being on a basketball team.

It's a gruesome tale of a boy having his heart torn out by a father, a school, and a coach that are so hell-bent on toughening him up that they leave almost no room at all for the enjoyment life. They set out to break the boys on the team, and they succeeded. It's a dreadful thing, to live your teen years without spirit.

The bonds of common suffering, however, among the teammates, are tremendous. And this book goes a long way to explaining how the massive role teammates play in each other's lives.

Of course, by wholly demonizing aspects of the Citadel, in this and other books, Conroy did not help his relations with the school. 

Charles McGrath of The New York Times tells the story:

Conroy never fully bought into the Citadel system, especially the freshman hazing. By his own admission, he was "mouthy," and was such a sloppy, demerit-ridden cadet that even as a senior he had not advanced beyond the rank of private. In later years, when asked to compare himself with a typical Citadel grad, he liked to say, "I'm richer, smarter, more famous and nicer."

Relations between Conroy and his alma mater began to deteriorate in 1970 with the appearance of "The Boo," his self-published novel based in part on Lt. Col. Thomas Courvoisie, the assistant commandant of cadets when Conroy was there.

"It was banned on campus for about six years," Conroy said, sitting in the Citadel's McAlister Field House, a place to which he used to think he could never return. His exile from the Citadel really began in 1980, he added, when he published "The Lords of Discipline," a novel that depicted racism, brutality and official corruption at a place called the Carolina Military Institute, though the disguise fooled nobody.

"That was the nuclear explosion," Conroy said. "I was warned that it would be dangerous for me to go back to the Citadel and so I didn't."

He reluctantly missed [his nephew] Ed's graduation in 1989 and, a few years later, the graduation of his best friend's son.

Then, to make things worse, in 1995, Conroy publicly embraced the cause of Shannon Faulkner, who was attempting to become the first female cadet to enter the Citadel. Back then, Conroy was not just unwelcome on campus, he could not walk the streets of Charleston without someone stopping a car and hopping out to yell at him.

"There was one guy," Conroy said, "who got back in his car and then jumped out again and shouted, 'Class of '59!' "

Conroy laughed and shook his head. "Citadel grads are the biggest bunch of loudmouths who ever lived."

But here's the amazing thing: With time, there is reconciliation. Would you believe the Citadel recently held a parade in Pat Conroy's honor? His nephew Ed has become the head coach of the basketball team. School officials even praise Conroy and some of what he has stood for (for instance, there are now girls attending the Citadel, and racial attitudes have apparently progressed).

Pat Conroy is back in the embrace of the Citadel, and smiling this time. Having felt the pain of the rift's creation -- as expressed in Conroy's writing -- I can now also feel quite viscerally the relief of reconciliation, and the world is just a little bit of a better place for it.

How did it come about? Read the whole story. Amazingly, his father played a key role. And there's also this reality, as expressed by Conroy: "What is sillier," he asks, "than a 60-year-old man feuding with his college?"

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Of all the dazzling illustrations in The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, my favorite is the one of Chris Paul in the locker room, hanging up his street clothes [sheepskin] in exchange for his game jersey [wolf suit adorned with the #3]. 

Off the court, Paul is the prince who guest stars on NPR's precious weekend game show.  On the court, he's the nastiest point guard since Gary Payton's prime, and shouldn't be defended without a tetanus shot.  

Take last night's Hornets-Pacers game in Indianapolis.  The Basketball Jones got this dispatch this morning from a Paul heckler [Mike Wells at the Indy Star confirmed the report], who recounts what happened in the expensive seats [PG-13]: 

You know the story about Bosh's girlfriend and LeBron? That happened to me tonight. I was out in Indy sitting first row behind the scorer's table, chatting it up with players left and right (they were, however, ignoring me). The P's had a solid lead and CP wasn't showing up much directly on offense, missing several jumpers.  He came to check in at around 3:36, and I was in complete Pacers mode. Without thinking, I murmured, "CP ain't s***. He quickly turned around and said, "What? High off the fact that he even acknowledged me, I said, "Yeah, you're lucky T.J.'s (Ford) not playing. He replied, "Yeah, I prayed for that last night, and rolled his eyes and laughed. I was in complete disarray, and said to the man that I had so passionately spoken in MVP support for last year: "You shouldn't have been mentioned for MVP last year, Kobe is way better than you. He laughed and walked off. My friend gave me the "what have you done look.

CP, the passing machine, stopped passing then. He began to shoot every time he got the ball and took over the game going 6/8 and scoring 11 points in the final 3:36. I was standing and cheering passionately every time Granger hit a big shot and he was looking my way.

After a timeout, he walked from the bench to halfcourt smirking and smiling, staring me down the whole way. I gave him a thumbs down and shook my head. With 26 seconds left he drove, danced around with the ball and hit West for a wide open jumper to win it. I thought the game was over, but it wasn't.

CP went over, took a photo with someone, then walked in my direction. I stood up. He stopped directly in front of the scorers table and, pointing a solid finger, and said in LeBron fashion, "It's your fault. It's your fault. My legs began to shake as my star crush walked away.

What did I do.

 Indy Cornrows has more on Paul and the game here.

Macrophenomenal

October, 28, 2008
10/28/08
12:58
PM ET

FreeDarko.

If you're in a hurry, it's not the site for you.

Too many days, I am in a hurry, and skim. And you can miss all the good stuff by skimming. The blog FreeDarko is basketball through the lens of manifesto, academic essay, and irreverence.

All that said: I love the site. If somebody loves the NBA more, writes about the NBA with a keener sense of fun, or flat-out works harder to find a fresh take on things basketball, then I don't know who it is.

There is gold in them there hills.

So it was with great enthusiasm that I opened a non-descript manila envelope that contained, it turned out, the new book by the FreeDarko crew (ringleader Bethlehem Shoals, illustrator Big Baby Belafonte, Brown Recluse Esq., Dr. Lawyer IndianChief, and Silverbird5000): "The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac."

You can see and read a lot of the book on the official book website. You should. In fact, I insist you go, and spend time. You will see what I have seen: This book is stunningly beautiful. Page through it, and you can't help but marvel at the skills of Big Baby Belafonte. It's a hard-cover that makes good use of some serious paper stock. There is artwork everywhere, enhancing and not distracting from the main message.

And every darned thing -- from getting Gilbert Arenas to write the foreword, to a little chart showing Rasheed Wallace's production before and after a technical foul (he's better after) -- just screams clever.

(There is a ton of amazing writing. A more meaningful real TrueHoop review of this book is in the pipeline.)

Tracy McGrady
FreeDarko teaches serious lessons. For instance: Tracy McGrady really needs his sleep.
Art by Jacob Weinstein, reprinted from "THe Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac" with permission of the FreeDarko High Council.

The whole thing makes me think, mainly, "this was a lot of work. My hat is off to FreeDarko."

Now, I proceed with a couple of caveats. The first is just that the FreeDarko writing style is intentionally somewhat impenetrable. It's not for everyone. FreeDarko walks a line: Between the finest sportswriting out there, and the needless application of an academic voice where straight talk would suffice.

For instance, in the hot-off-the-presses book, FreeDarko says: "The League is strengthened by its most compelling Personalities, including: Players with inscrutable Superstitions; Players with improbable Body Types; Players whose emotional baggage is visible during Play."

I get it. This is aping a legal document. They talk a certain way and that is fun.

But a little voice in inside me jumps up and down, wondering: Why (ever in life, in any endeavor) make something complicated that could be simple? In the foreword to that very same book, Gilbert Arenas gets a very similar point across in the plainest English: "You pay all this money to sit up close, believe it or not, you want to get hit with a ball and get your drink knocked over. You want to leave with something to talk about. You want Shaq to fall on you and get drenched in his sweaty-sweat-sweat. That's all part of the game."

My other hang-up concerns the medium of the essay itself. If FreeDarko is going to make history as the de facto essayists of an NBA generation, their information had better be on the money. The medium itself -- the long-form essay -- exists to express a more nuanced version of the truth than can fit in a simple article or blog post. But if your knowledge, the truth you are intent on expressing, is not itself more granular and subtle, then what is the point of using that medium?

In other words, if you're telling me something in passing, then I'm not going to nitpick the details. But if you're casting yourself as a long-form expert (even a tongue-in-cheek one) then your information-gathering and fact-checking had better be tight.

And it usually is. But the truth is that young blogger/essayists don't get killer NBA access these days, and once in a while that shows. So, you can get yourself deep into this book's chapter about say, Ron Artest, and find the line: "Never aspiring to be the alpha dog on any of his teams, he nonetheless maintains a high scoring average."

I almost spit my coffee on that one. Run this by GMs, scouts, and anyone who watched the Kings closely last year. For stretches of many games, Artest more than aspired to be alpha  ... he flat-out ballhogged his way through possession after possession, breaking plays to call his own number time and again. I have seen it with my own eyes, and I have heard it from all manner of basketball people who have seen it too.

But that beef is small. As you'll see by reading the book yourself, "The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac" is just thick with stuff that you won't get anywhere else. 

For instance, one of my favorite little charts ever. (It'll be on the book's website in a few days, I hear.) Remember back when Tracy McGrady was new to the NBA, and there were a lot of mentions that he happened to be one of those guys who needs a ton of sleep? FreeDarko cites Darrell Armstrong, a former teammate, saying "He sleeps all the time. He sleeps when we come in from shootaround, in the locker room, on the plane. ALL the time."

McGrady had his first child in 2003. Anyone have little kids? You know that if you're at all an involved parent, that'll mess with your sleep like nothing else.

You have to see this amazing chart on page 99 of the FreeDarko book: Tracy McGrady's field goal percentage in games with short rest. From 1997-2002, when he was childless, his field goal percentage was essentially the same, no matter how much rest the team had between games. Since his first child, the shorter his rest, the worse his field goal percentage. Without kids, he made better than 45% of his shots on the second night of back-to-backs. As a parent,  he's mired at 40%. Is it the sleep? Just age? I don't know. But it's sure something clever to think about, and that kind of insight is more than reason enough to love this book.

RIP Rodney Parker

December, 17, 2007
12/17/07
5:47
PM ET

Rick Telander's "Heaven is a Playground," based on his experiences on the streets of New York City in 1974, is right up there with the best basketball books of all time.

And while it's a story rich with Brooklyn, the street, and basketball players, it's really the story of Rodney Parker.

As described, Parker is an "uncle" to young players. He's the conduit between the athletes on the playground and the college coaches who can free them from the grind of inner city poverty. Parker's a shoulder to cry on, a mentor, a coach, and someone who might lend you a few dollars if you're in trouble. He's also something of a mystery.

In the summer of 1974, as Telander tells it, Parker seemed to be making most of his money by scalping tickets:

Ever since I met Rodney, I have been trying to determine exactly what it is he gets from all his wheeling and dealing, why he works so hard finding downtrodden boys and sending them to schools, compiling massive phone and food bills in the process with no apparent recompense. Does he simply get money under the table for delivery? Is he looking for the one big apple to make him rich, or is it something more prestigious, that mythical "super-agent job. Or is it simply goodwill?-Rodney the hyperthyroid samaritan in gym shoes.

I've begun to believe it's all of them, perhaps in fluctuating, unknowable degrees: Rodney the Mystery Man .He could keep an analyst busy for years, says Manhattan friend Bob Kalich, a part-time author. "He's an angel with unhealthy parts.

What was Rodney Parker? The same topic recurs later in the book in reference to James "Fly" Williams:
Personally, I was never convinced that Rodney was not actually selling his players in the fashion of the traditional flesh peddlers--dangling out talent to see which hungry scout, coach, or alumni group would pay the most. But a recent visit to agent Lew Schaffel's had shown me otherwise.

The talk around the playgrounds had been that when Fly blew the reputed $1 million no-cut Denver contract he lost Rodney at least $100,000.

"We-ell," said Lew. "Realistically, I think if Fly had done things right he could have gotten more like a no-cut $500,000, and if Rodney had signed a split-deal with an agent he could have gotten half of ten percent or about $25,000. But here we didn't offer him a thing. Nothing. Oh, we might have given him a little something as a thank you when it was all over, but he didn't even ask for money."

What was it then that Rodney wanted?

"He wanted to be Fly's friend."

It's unclear if we'll ever get real answers to some of those questions, especially as now we will not be able to ask Parker himself.

I am very sad to report that yesterday morning Rodney Parker died in New York at the age of 71.

Parker's daughter Kristin Parker told me earlier today that Parker had been living in Harlem, suffering from pulmonary fibrosis which had made it harder and harder for him to breathe as he aged. A very proud man, he had hidden his illness as best he could, and for much of the last year would allow only Kristin to care for him.

He also wanted nothing to do with doctors. A little over a week ago, she relays, he was laboring worse than ever, and had not been eating. Against his protests, she called the EMTs. When they arrived, he told Kristin to "get those people out of my house."

The EMTs talked to a supervisor, which did nothing to change his mind.

Eventually the police were summoned, and still he wouldn't budge.

They negotiated. At one point, an officer mentioned that there were other things they should be doing.

"You have better things to do?" he shot back. "Go do it."

Eventually, they convinced him to go to the hospital ("When the police arrived," Kristin remembers him saying later, "I knew the jig was up.") where doctors found a collapsed lung and evidence of other trouble that was, as far as Kristin knows, not fully diagnosed before his death.

"Even at the hospital, though, he was making everybody laugh," says Kristin. "I mean, they said 'You have pulmonary fibrosis -- what do you do for a living?' Most people who have that work where they breathe bad air. But he just said: 'I'm a ticket scalper!' Who says that?"

When people asked him why he hadn't sought medical care, his response was often along the lines of "what good would it do?" Fitting, then, in a way, that less than 48 hours after doing what everyone told him he should do, he passed away.

The Parkers are in the process of making funeral arrangements at the moment. Kristin says Telander has been tapped for a eulogy, and expects many of Parker's basketball friends -- there are a lot of them, including some big names -- to come together to celebrate a unique life.

If you knew Rodney Parker and have any stories to share about the man, please do so in the comments below.

Wednesday Bullets

September, 19, 2007
9/19/07
1:39
PM ET
  • TrueHoop reader Brandon suggests that Anfernee Hardaway is not worth nearly what he once was worth. Instead of "Penny," he suggests, we should call him "Peso" Hardaway.
  • You have to respect Jim O'Brien for this lovely comment. He's out pressing the flesh with Pacer fans something fierce. Here's how the Indianapolis Star's Amy Hyerczyk recites one key message, as recalled by local Kiwanis member Greg Fennig: "'He sat down with a bunch of us at our table and asked us what we thought was most important for him to be successful,' Fennig said. 'We all just kind of sat there, scratching our heads, not sure what to say. He responded with one word: love. He said that it will be about getting the guys to respect each other and care about each other and work together. Those are the critical elements.'"
  • The current Dime magazine (this article not online, sadly) has an Austin Burton profile of Caron Butler. Brace yourself for profound honesty from Butler about the dark days of his youth as a member of Racine, Wisconsin's Gangster Disciples. It has this eye-popping quote: "Basketball took me all over the world, farther than selling narcotics took me." He also admits that he never was all that into basketball until he did some long hours locked up in solitary confinement while doing time for a gun charge. Then he started hooping hard in the lock-up -- winner took Little Debbie cakes -- and when he got out he joined an AAU team, determined never to make it back to a correctional institution. Very good read, and I salute him for his honesty.
  • If you're in the Boston area, you can go see Sonny Vaccaro speak at Harvard Law School tonight.
  • Logos on caskets and urns. Baseball people take things so seriously.
  • You have to wonder if Greg Oden will return with that killer attitude. So far, so good.
  • The best high-school players of recent history.
  • The scoop on Rudy Fernandez.
  • I once read the book Swee' Pea, about Lloyd Daniels, a great player, but one of the most addiction-prone humans ever to step on a basketball court. At one point, they even sent him to play in New Zealand where, at the time, apparently, there were no drugs. So he reportedly drank INSANE quantities of beer instead. Now Lloyd Daniels' agent is talking about him.
  • Brandan Wright blogs on AOL about, among other things, Greg Oden: "I am pretty good friends with Greg Oden, though. I hung out with him a bunch at the rookie photo shoot. He's a really cool, really quiet guy. He's nice and down to earth too. We talked a bunch, played video games, typical guy stuff. His whole situation is really unfortunate. Injuries and surgery are part of the game; it's just one of those unfortunate things. But I think Greg will come back strong. He has to be patient with the process, though. It's tough to sit out for a long time and then have to come back like you've never been gone. What's most difficult is he's going to have to be a rookie again next season. I think a big thing about your rookie year isn't just playing the games but learning about all the off-the-court stuff. Unfortunately, he's going to have to wait to learn a lot of this stuff. But I'm sure he'll be fine. (I've been lucky. The worst injury I've ever had is a sprained ankle. I hurt my hip a little while ago, but it's totally fine now. I've never even had to have surgery or anything. Knock on wood ...)"
  • Why doesn't Hassan Adams have a job?
  • This American Life is a fantastic radio show, and they just rebroadcast a 17-minute long interview with Luis Da Silva, who starred in those Nike ballhandling commercials six years ago.
  • Keith Bradsher in The New York Times: "... the N.B.A. plans to announce Wednesday the formation of a Chinese subsidiary. To head it, the league has chosen Timothy Chen, chief executive of Microsoft's China operations and one of the best-known business executives in China. For the N.B.A., China is a growth opportunity. It is already the N.B.A.'s largest market outside the United States. Nearly a third of the traffic to NBA.com comes to the Mandarin Chinese side of the site."
  • Forget the salary cap. For some teams, the challenge is to keep certain players under the calorie cap.
  • This is ridiculous. (If Portland thought Greg Oden was going to get injured, why would they have picked him?)
  • Guess which NBA rookie had a million questions for Bill Russell? That's right, Joakim Noah. Memo to everyone else: if you ever wanted a winner of a role model ...
  • Bill Laimbeer and Swin Cash (who shared a table at an All-Star media session in Las Vegas, and were both very smiley at the time) are now locked in a player vs. coach spat for the ages.
  • The Madison Square Garden case rolls on.
  • Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko makes a convincing case (language!) that Vince Carter is not built, mentally, for basketball. But then he shows us video of a game-changing alley-oop windmill dunk, and all is forgiven.
  • Etan Thomas on the bad doings in Jena, Louisiana.
  • Comparing Jason Kidd and John Stockton. Did you know Stockton only ever had one triple double?
  • Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel talks to an anonymous NBA scout about Charlie Bell: "... the scout said Bell not only sets up well as the primary
    backup at shooting guard to Dwyane Wade, but that he could also envision Bell closing games alongside Wade because of his defensive tenacity -- sort of a Damon Jones who can play both ends of the court. The scout said there is no way first-round pick Daequan Cook would emerge, in the short term, anywhere close to Bell's current level. The scout, though, warned not to overstate Bell at point guard, rating him as little more than a fallback option. He said a Bell/Smush Parker combo in the absence of Jason Williams would not be enough to guide a contender. But he also said Bell is a far superior player to Parker on both ends of the court, going as far as to question why the Heat was so quick to sign Parker or why it even tapped into its mid-level exception for the former Laker."
  • UPDATE: Re-capping the argument that Allen Iverson is not an efficient NBA player, in a column that the New York Times never ran.

I have never collected anything in my life. Just not that into "stuff." ('Cause what happens is that I don't know where to put it all, and then at some point we end up moving, and then you have to throw half of it away.  Better to never even get that half to begin with.)

My one recent concession, though, is good books about basketball. And lately there have been a lot of really good ones! (And there are more coming, including a Brian Windhorst and Terry Pluto book about LeBron James that I'm eager to see.) 

The best list I have seen of the must-read basketball books of recent years is up now at the Painted Area. Great stuff. 

Friday Bullets

June, 15, 2007
6/15/07
11:51
AM ET
  • Underappreciated in this series: Manu Ginobili. (Thanks to TrueHoop reader Anthony for putting these numbers together based on Popcorn Machine box scores.) This is one of those instances when plus/minus can make you aware of something that wasn't otherwise evident. Consider this: over the four games of this series, the Spurs outscored the Cavaliers when Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, or Bruce Bowen were on the bench. But when Manu Ginobili was on the bench, they were -18. In total, the Spurs were +64 with Ginobili on the floor compared to when he was off, +22 with Duncan, +18 with Bowen, and +12 with Parker. (Even in his "miserable" 0-7 Game 3, Ginobili was +11, second only to Brent Barry.) Yet somehow Manu Ginobili didn't even enter the MVP discussion.
  • The Akron Beacon Journal's Brian Windhorst: "Overall, it was a tremendous season by the Cavs. They should be celebrated and lauded for so many different reasons. But the pain they are currently experiencing is just as important. Sometimes it takes crushing defeat to be forced into fixing what needs to be fixed. This goes for Danny Ferry, this goes for Mike Brown and this goes for LeBron James. The Cavs need some more dynamic offense players, they need a more dynamic offensive system and they need their most dynamic player to become more complete."
  • I met "The Cavalier" of YAYSports fame at the game last night and he showed me a secret from his movie. It's a real secret. I'm not telling.
  • Respect for Tony Parker. And for Tim Duncan.
  • One last time sitting in for ESPN's Chad Ford on The Daily Dish. This time my guest is Filip Bondy, author of "Tip Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever" which is a doggedly researched tale with a lot of lessons for 2007. Great anecdote about Charles Barkley trying to gorge his way to wealth.
  • Full Court NBA Blog: Please give it up for Robert Horry, the league's Most Band-Wagoning Player!
  • Want to get into coaching? You have to start somewhere. Charlie Ward, high school assistant coach.
  • Reportedly spotted getting to know the city of Seattle: Kevin Durant. Also, interestingly, representatives for both Oden and Durant say their players will not work out for the Sonics. If I were Seattle, I'd leak word that they are considering Al Horford or someone with the second pick, just to at least see if they can tease out one good private workout of their future.
  • On the other hand, maybe workouts aren't all they're cracked up to be. Here's what always got me: every player has some good workouts and some bad ones, and every team knows this. So if you draft the guy who happens to have a good workout for you, aren't you putting a ot of your decision making in the hands of random chance?
  • Memphis enjoyed their private workout with Mike Conley, and say he hits floaters like Tony Parker.
  • Yi Jianlian has a blog. The way we're headed, half NBA will be blogging, and that will be amazing. They'll compete to relate more meaningfully with fans.
  • Remember that documentary about the Palestra I blogged about months ago? Coming to a television near you. Also in hoop documentary news, there's a new one about basketball in Senegal.

Thursday Bullets

May, 24, 2007
5/24/07
1:45
PM ET
  • Is Del Harris done on the bench in Dallas? If so, that's big.
  • At the beginning of this past regular season, I got an email from a Blazer fan who had just gotten a tattoo of the Blazer logo on his chest. He wanted to make clear he was with the team in the bad times, so no one would accuse him of jumping on the bandwagon in the good times. Jeremy emails that his tattoo just got a lot cooler: "I got a lot of "why would you get that team tattoo?" and "the blazers suck" and of course the old "jailblazer" garbage when I told people about it. I'm in Ohio (Columbus actually -- somehow being where Oden plays makes me feel like I was a part of this whole thing) right now but I can't wait to get back to Portland and feel the energy. I got my tattoo last year so I showed my support when we were at the bottom. It's going to be great when we're back at the top in a few years."
  • Tom Sorensen of the Charlotte Observer says the NBA should learn from NASCAR: "Had Stoudemire and Diaw been available, does Phoenix win Game 5? There's no way to know. We know only that a bad interpretation of a good rule prevented us from finding out. Everybody rips NASCAR for its loose interpretation of the rules. NASCAR has a rule book with words and numbers just like every other major sport. But NASCAR doesn't use it. NASCAR's real rule book has but one rule: Don't let the rules ruin the show. If that rule had been applied to the NBA, Stoudemire and Diaw would not have been suspended. Robert Horry is to the basketball court what debris is to the race track. NASCAR is not going to punish stars because of the reckless action of a scrub. The ultimate injustice is that Horry, who was suspended for two games, is playing for the Western Conference championship. At least NASCAR removes its debris." There's irony here: I firmly believe that if the NBA was as racially homogenous as NASCAR, they wouldn't even have that rule. There's a race element behind the reality that NBA players fighting is seen as a national tragedy, while MLB or NASCAR professionals fighting is seen as boys being boys.
  • A bunch of Knick bloggers are describing great Knick memories. Episodes one and two are up now.
  • Sources tell the Charlotte Observer that Dallas assistant coach, and former Michael Jordan teammate, Sam Vincent is the new head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats.
  • Concerns about Greg Oden's sense of fashion.
  • Listen up Boston, Memphis, and Milwaukee: ESPN's John Hollinger told you months ago (Insider) that tanking doesn't pay.
  • Nate Jones on fixing LeBron James. I'd add working with a shooting coach. I get a lot of emails from basketball people who are amazed that his form varies from shot to shot, which many people out there believe they can fix. The problem, however, is time. He's about to have another baby, and he has Team USA to worry about. Not much off-season for LBJ.
  • The Sixers have three first round picks in a nice draft. Billy King's job, I'd wager, depends on getting this right.
  • Remember the unnatural movement that got Kobe Bryant suspended? There's a video case to be made that he's not the only one.
  • About the 1:30 mark, check out the incredible out-of-bounds save. Look how the opponents are all deflated.
  • Lenny Wilkens sounds oddly defensive and weird in this interview, but makes one point I had been wondering about: does a Greg Oden or a Kevin Durant change the minds of some legislators about paying for an arena? At some point in the next couple of years, it might be politically smart to be associated with this team. Wilkens thinks it does make a difference.
  • LeBron James is getting heat on the Darfur thing.
  • Great video of the TV introduction to the 1976 NBA Finals.
  • Mike Miller gives a million dollars to a children's hospital.
  • Boston Celtic pity party.
  • In the four minutes a week I'm not watching basketball, writing about basketball, being a dad, or sleeping, I'm reading this book.
  • The case that the lottery and draft system are not broken.
  • I had a dream last night that Stan Van Gundy became the next coach of the Orlando Magic. Maybe he's working with my vision.
  • Video of staff reaction of the draft lottery in the SuperSonic offices. When it was time for the third pick to be announced, they were all chanting "Portland, Portland ..."
  • The lottery, in its way, was kind to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
  • ESPN's David Thorpe (Insider) has a prescription for LeBron James tonight: "As for James, he needs to convert easy opportunities in transition and initiate contact with Prince on his drives to get to the free-throw line. He had zero attempts in Game 1. As expected, Prince's defensive prowess caused James some problems, and Wallace just made it that much more difficult. The Pistons' length is tough to beat at the rim, so James should go to his mid-range game. Not at 18 feet, but 10-15 feet."
  • Just have to get this off my chest, as I'm still getting emails from Phoenix fans who are feeling sorry for themselves about the lottery. What part of Joe Johnson for Boris Diaw, another first-rounder, and Atlanta's unprotected 2008 pick is Atlanta supposed to pity you for? Not to mention you're one of the best teams in the league, and you have two first-rou
    nders to go with some unbelievable talent.
  • Fixing the Nets.
  • My daughter's clothespin butterfly good luck charm made the New York Post. Bless you, Marc Berman, who goes on to recommend that James Dolan make an offer for it to use next year.
  • Dan Shanoff's new blog on raising a good sports fan.
  • To be taken with several grains of salt: A shard of an idea from Miami has Zach Randolph to Miami and Udonis Haslem to Portland. Or how about Randolph to New Jersey for Richard Jefferson?
  • UPDATE: Sounds like Rick Adelman owes his new job in large part to the rave review Clyde Drexler gave owner Leslie Alexander.
  • UPDATE: At the lottery, Kevin Pritchard also had a good luck charm made by his daughter.

Mark Kriegel on PISTOL

February, 5, 2007
2/05/07
2:50
PM ET
When Mark Kriegel's book PISTOL: The Life of Pete Maravich was excerpted in Sports Illustrated a couple of weeks ago, I pretty much went bananas and declared it the greatest thing ever--based solely on the excerpt. (I have a history of getting very excited about good basketball books. I'm excitable like that.)



Since then I have actually gotten my hands on a review copy of the book, and I have read much of it. My first impressions are confirmed. Great book. (Bill Simmons is all over it too.)  Kriegel is about to tour all over this great nation promoting PISTOL (starting this afternoon at the NBA Store in Manhattan), and as he's packing up in L.A. he spent some time with me on the phone on Friday.



To me the big topic was Press Maravich. The book makes clear that Press Maravich was hardly an extension of Pete--the way celebrity parents tend to be viewed--but rather very much the other way around. As Kriegel explains, long before Pete was born, Press established a family dynamic that practically forced Pete to become a brilliant-but-depressed-hardwood-wizard, and the crazier that family got, the more Pete had to become a superstar at all costs. In many ways it's a book on how not to raise a happy kid. Here, slightly edited for length, is my conversation with Mark Kriegel:



Your book has a blurb from Pat Conroy, who wrote my favorite basketball book of all time, My Losing Season. [That book is about, in large part, Conroy's troubled relationship with his father, who was also a central figure in Conroy's book The Great Santini.] I'm thinking between your book and Conroy's you could write some kind of basketball anti-parenting guide.

When I started this project, I fully expected Press Maravich to be very much like the father in The Great Santini. I thought it was a story of a father with a demonic design for his son. But the more research I did, the more people I talked to, the more I liked Press. He was way more sympathetic than I ever imagined. He was motivated by love. Maybe misguided love, but love.



To my mind, the foundation of the whole Maravich family mystery is Press. Press informs every part of the story. You really can't understand Pistol without first understanding Press.



Press was born in Pittsburgh, when it really was like "hell with the lid taken off." When he was three-and-a-half his father was killed, so they move to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania where his stepfather was not close to him. Then he lived next to the J+L Steelworks, under the lights of the bessemer furnace. The poor kid literally doesn't know if it was day or night, with the lights from the furnace fires and all the soot snowing down on them.



This was not the kid you'd vote most likely to succeed. He was in the special ed class, which was for the kids who were slow learners or had some physical problems. He was going nowhere.



And then, at 14, a missionary--some do-gooder type--gives him a basketball. It's the first time Press does anything right. His whlle life changes. His charisma comes out. His physical ability. Basketball saved him from having to go under the tunnel into the mill. The way he was headed, working in the mill was the best he could hope for, and then suddenly he had a whole different life. Basketball was his salvation. It was his religion.



Press finds the game in its infancy. I'm looking at old box scores, from like the 1930s, and I'm seeing games where it's 30-28 and Press scored 20 points. And he was good looking! People were calling his name. In Aliquippa at that time there was not too much to cheer for except maybe Press Maravich. There were newspaper headlines about him. That's a big deal for a kid who was warehoused in the special ed. class.



The teams at that time were barnstorming teams. You had to sell the game. It was not like baseball and boxing. You had to get people into the tent. They'd pile into cars and play three or four games a day.



Then he went to tiny Davis and Elkins in West Virginia, and then played for pro teams in places like Clarksburg, Youngstown, and Detroit. In what is now regarded as the first season of the NBA, he played for the Pittsburgh Ironmen, and for the first time it seemed like he had something semi-permanent, but he was just out of the Navy and he had no legs anymore. And the franchise sucked, so it folded.



So he became a coach. And what he was looking to do--it's clear--was to build the perfect basketball  machine. He was coaching at these small schools in West Virginia, and he enlisted this ex-pat Czech psychiatrist to develop a questionnaire, for profiling players. He wrote a masters thesis at West Virginia on basketball recruiting, but it was really about tendencies. He was looking to engineer the perfect basketball player.



In reading your book, it's clear that one thing that really didn't matter at all was Pete's own free will. When you see those highlights, it seems like it's a story of Pete imposing his will upon the game, but his will determined very little, it seems.

Those moments on the highlights are breathtaking. They are genius. But they are not spontaneous. Pete had an unbeleivable capacity for practice--like all the great ones. Magic Johnson had it. Michael Jordan had it. And Pete had it. Pete could practice longer than the other kids. A lot longer. And starting early in Pete's life, Press was clearly trying to create the perfect ball player. Those homework basketball videos that most people probably know about today--those are dexterity drills really. That was revolutionary at the time. No one was doing that, and Pete was doing it all the time. And he cultivates this genius. It's like a classical musician who has played scales so many times that suddenly he can improvise, and it's not b.s. improvisation. It has merit.



There's a lot of talk about that in the book. For instance Bud Johnson, the PR man at LSU, every once in a while he'd see Pete do something he had never seen before. He'd go up to Pete after the game and say Pete, I never saw you practice that. Pete would say oh yes, I have practiced that many times, in my head.



The other thing about those highlights--is that the game then was not the game of today. Today plenty of people do little bits of these kinds of things. When LSU played Tulane, after the game the Tulane players asked their coach to replay a certain play again and again, because they flat did not believe it had happened.



So, what was Pete's motivation to do all that practice? Was it a love of the father thing?

It was a love of the father, a love of the game, and a love of his family. Over time, as his family situation deteriorated, Pete became more and more responsible for his family's salvation. The more disfunctional his mother became, the more Press had to try to raise the family, the more he depended on Pete bail him out. It gets to the point where Pete is the only good thing in Press's life. The idea becomes that the kid he raised will set the records that will last forever, and that will become the only way that anyone will remember that Press was a hell of a basketball coach.



The funny thing is that Press was a great conceptual coach. His great strength was to take undertalented and overmatched players and to make them win with team defense. It was the opposite of flashy. But just with his own son, he violated every precept.



Older guys from the ACC will tell you that Press winning the 1965 ACC tournament with N.C. State was as good a coaching job as they had ever seen. They beat Duke, a team with a whole bunch of future professionals. N.C. State had no business winning that tournament. That ACC team had only two guys who could dunk. Press did it with defense and running.



So Pete comes, seemingly, out of nowhere.

Over the years, Pete takes a lot of heat for not being a different type of player. There was the expectation that he might magically morph into Bill Bradley.



But there was enormous pressure to be "Pistol." There was an economic imperative that he played a certain way at each stop. At LSU he opened the Assembly Center. In Baton Rouge livestock shows were more popular than basketball when Pete got there. But then with Pete there, the governor signed the Assembly Center bill, and everyone understood that it was Pete's job to fill that building, in a part of the country where basketball had never been popular.



In the NBA, in Atlanta, Pete was the lynch pin in a real estate deal. The guy who owned the Hawks owned the air rights downtown. He had a land-use study showing that he an arena with foot traffic downtown. In Atlanta at that time, Pete was the only guy who could fill an arena like that. They had to get the Pistol.



It was the same thing when they were trying to draw fans in New Orleans a little later. You want to fill a stadium where it's not basketball country? You get the Pistol.



It's the same story everywhere he goes. People want to see that flash.



In a lot of fields around this time, white people were doing things that black people had been doing before. Like the Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley--who you could argue made it big at least at first, by essentially imitating what other less famous black people were doing. Is Pete another story like that?

That's subject to argument, and I think it's probably one of the things that helped to drive Pete a little crazy. There's a will to look at Pete not as a ballplayer, but as the recurring figure in American popular culture: the Great White Hope. He was almost like a pop singer or a musician in that regard. A guy like Chet Baker, Eminem, Elvis, or some others. Pete's story is in many ways another telling of the Elvis myth.



I would argue, however, that Pete was a different talent than any that came before. I have heard it argued well that black players had been doing that for years. But remember John Wooden has seen the Rens and the Globetrotters, and he makes clear that he has never seen anyone do the things that Pete can do with a ball. And Press took young Pete to see the Globetrotters, not for fun, but as part of his basketball education. Pete was nine, and in the locker room after the game, Press had Pete show the players his tricks, and even then the Globetrotters realized that Pete was special.



Black or white, I don't know of any other player with that beat. Everything, with Pete, was about the beat. You could set his highlights to rap music, even though he was playing before there was rap music. He was ahead of his time. Even if you include Michael Jordan--I don't know a single player except Pete who would be better today than he was when he came up. Today it's a much easier time to be a player like Pete. In many ways, he really anticipates what the guard would become.



Wooden, by the way, roomed with Press at the summer camp at Campbell College, and considered Press to be a great basketball mind. He says you can not understate Press's understanding of the game. Early on, Press had Pete do his ball-handling routine for Wooden, and Wooden said that's wonderful, but wouldn't it be better to have him work on his footwork for defense? Press said you don't understand, he's going to be the first million dollar player. And Wooden said maybe, but he'll never win a title.



And in a larger sense, they were both right.



When Wooden got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at UCLA (he still calls him Lew) he goes to Press to put in his high-low offense. That's how much Wooden respects Press Maravich, and how much Press was an enigma.



You did a ton of research for this book. For instance, you tell us that the nickname of Pete's mom's mailman, long before Pete was even born, was "Pickles." Do you ever feel like you have done too much research?

You never feel like that. I always feel sick that I haven't got enough. I did, however, go over the early years as hard as I could, because I was convinced that everything that happened to Pete was cut before he was born.



Most importanty: Pete's mother's first husband was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. She already had a kid, Pete's older brother Ronnie, and she was not right after that. Press comes back from the war and marries this woman. She's in the same situation he had grown up in with his mother. And he has the idea that he'll make it right. But it's a recipe for disaster, because in many senses he's already married to basketball, which is not going to ease her feelings of abandonment.



What was wrong with Pete? Off the court, it seems like he was almost never happy.

Well, he had good days and bad days. It really depended on his mood. I think there's no question that he suffered from depression throughout his career and life. Also, he was ahead of his time, which is hard. Today, he'd be an unquestioned superstar. And over time I think the losing really kicked his ass. Atlanta, for instance, couldn't have been a worse place for him. It was destined to be an absolute disaster.



It was a very very good team, but they couldn't get by the Lakers of West, Wilt, and Elgin. The Hawks were a largely black team in the deep south. They played at the Georgia Tech field house which only sat 7,200 and they still couldn't draw.



They needed a Great White Hope, so they got Pete, with his massive salary. The salary was an issue. Joe Caldwell was the team's best player, and he was upset about it, and bolted for the ABA.



Then there was a style of play issue. Pete needs to run, and the rest of the team needs it slow. The veterans all knew each other and knew how to play. Then they had the most expensive rookie of all time. It was no good for anybody--and he was only brought in as part of that real estate deal. And it cost them Joe Caldwell, who could have gone to the Hall of Fame. I'd be pissed off too.



It was a set up to fail.

It was a set up to make the owner money, but they never took the basketball part of it into proper consideration.

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