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Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Updated: February 16, 11:53 AM ET
Hoops heaven? Here's why it's L.A.

By David Schoenfield
Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

Bryant & Smith & Rose
Kobe's Lakers are two-time defending champs, but is L.A. the center of the hoops universe?

Basketball, a sport invented in a YMCA gym in Massachusetts, grew its roots in the Midwest, became the city game on the concrete playgrounds of New York City, spread south to North Carolina with the help of a high school coach from Indiana, became Showtime in Los Angeles and reached new heights of popularity when a kid from Carolina starred in Chicago.

Indiana. New York City. North Carolina. Los Angeles. Chicago. The five basketball meccas have long intertwined: John Wooden's intial fame came as an All-American at Purdue; a former Indiana high school coach named Everett Case turned North Carolina State into a power in the late '40s and early '50s, growing the popularity of the sport in the region; the University of North Carolina's first NCAA championship came under Frank McGuire, a New Yorker (his star player was Lennie Rosenbluth, from Brooklyn); Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went west from Power Memorial High School in Manhattan to play for Wooden and later star for the Lakers; the Lakers-Celtics rivalry that saved the NBA in the '80s was energized by Larry Bird, from small-town French Lick, Indiana; Michael Jordan, of course, is from North Carolina; Jordan's rivals in the late '80s and early '90s were the Pistons, led by Chicago native and Indiana University star Isiah Thomas, and the Knicks, helmed by one-time Lakers coach Pat Riley; former Pacers star Reggie Miller, who played his college ball at UCLA, drove Knicks fans crazy with his playoff heroics; Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski? From Chicago.

The attention this week is on Los Angeles as it hosts the All-Star festivities ... but is L.A. really the center of the basketball universe? The Wall Street Journal recently described the state of North Carolina as the "Basketball Capital of the World," citing the success of its college teams, the number of McDonald's All-Americans from the state and the rise of NBA talent like Raleigh native John Wall. (The article conveniently ignored the Charlotte Bobcats, who own a losing record and the third-lowest local TV ratings in the NBA). Meanwhile, Chicago gave us Jordan's glory years and counts current superduperstars Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose as natives. Indiana has given us Hoosier Hysteria and Butler's magical Final Four ride. New York merely invented the game, or at least invented the way the game is supposed to be played (according to New Yorkers, anyway). Los Angeles? Merely the home theater for many of the greatest players of all time: West, Baylor, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe.

So which place really deserves the title "Center of the Basketball Universe"? Let's take the emotion out of it, temporarily remove our passion for Kurt Rambis' spectacles or Bob Knight's sweaters, and look at this objectively. We'll look at different categories, placing an emphasis on the current over the historical, and award points to each city or state to declare the Center of the Basketball Universe.

CURRENT LEGACIES

NBA STATUS (50-POINT SCALE)

Lakers fans are often portrayed as the ultimate bandwagon jumpers (or worse: bandwagon celebrities), fans who know the team only as "Kobe and that French guy with the beard." Is this true? Sure, maybe their home games don't always rock like the Duke student section, but there is no denying the Lakers' strong following. Sports Business Daily recently published local TV ratings for the NBA. The Lakers had the fourth-highest rating (behind the one-team markets of San Antonio and Utah, plus Miami). This is no one-year fluke; the Lakers were fifth last season, well ahead of the Bulls (eighth), Pacers (22nd), Knicks (26th) and Bobcats (27th).

The Lakers easily lead in total viewers this season -- 278,000 households per game, on average, well ahead of the No. 2 Bulls' average of 141,000 households. Obviously, there are market-size advantages to total viewers, but the fact that the Lakers far outpace the Bulls or Knicks is solid evidence that Los Angeles is a city of basketball fans and refutes the belief that Chicago and New York are populated with thick-and-thin basketball junkies.

And there is no denying the national appeal of the Lakers: A recent Lakers-Celtics game drew ABC's highest regular-season rating for a non-Christmas day game since the network acquired NBA rights in 2002. The Lakers have also led NBA teams in merchandise sales in seven of the past eight seasons.

Anyway, after saying all that, the Lakers are the two-time reigning champs, so I don't think anybody will disagree with this order:

1. Los Angeles (50 points)
2. Chicago (40)
3. New York (30)
4. Indiana (20)
5. Charlotte (10)

COLLEGE STATUS (40-POINT SCALE)

Duke (2010) and North Carolina (2009) have won the past two NCAA championships, Wake Forest is having a rough season but has made seven of the past 10 NCAA tournaments, and North Carolina State ... well, we'll leave the Wolfpack for another day. While Wake alums Chris Paul and Tim Duncan are once again NBA All-Stars (and Davidson's Stephen Curry a future candidate), it's interesting to note that Duke and UNC are once again All-Starless. The last time one of those schools had an All-Star was 2008, when Rasheed Wallace, Antawn Jamison and Carlos Boozer made it. Wallace entered the NBA in 1995, Jamison in 1998 and Boozer in 2002. Boozer is the most recent Duke player to make an All-Star Game, and Jamison and Vince Carter (who also entered the NBA in 1998) are the most recent UNC All-Stars. The Tar Heels haven't produced an NBA All-Star in 13 seasons? Shockingly true.

That said, and even though UCLA boasts first-time All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love (in what should become annual appearances), North Carolina holds the clear No. 1 slot in this category. As for No. 2, while Indiana University is still trying to rebuild from the 6-25 disaster of 2008-09, Notre Dame, Purdue and Butler are holding up the state's collegiate tradition. The Irish and Boilermakers are ranked in the top 15. Purdue is aiming for its fourth straight 25-plus win season and is a lock for its fifth straight NCAA tourney appearance. Notre Dame will be making its seventh tourney trip since 2001 (although it has advanced to the Sweet 16 just once). Butler's magical ride last year helped the championship game receive its highest TV rating since 1999. Is all that enough to push Indiana over Los Angeles, considering all the NBA players coming out of UCLA and USC in recent years? I think so.

1. North Carolina (40 points)
2. Indiana (32 points)
3. Los Angeles (24 points)
4. Chicago/New York (tie) (12 points apiece)

HIGH SCHOOL STATUS (40-POINT SCALE)

Here's what we're going to do: Pick the best 10-man squads of current NBA players who attended high school in our five areas.

John Wall
Washington Wizards rookie John Wall hails from Raleigh, N.C.

North Carolina
G -- Chris Paul, Stephen Curry
F -- David West, Antawn Jamison
C -- Brendan Haywood
Bench -- John Wall, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Hill, Josh Howard, Chris Wilcox

Strong in the backcourt with Paul, Curry and Wall off the bench, with West and Jamison providing scoring punch at forward. But the team is devoid of quality big men, forcing Haywood -- a colossal disappointment with the Mavericks this season -- to start at center.

New York
G -- Ben Gordon, A.J. Price
F -- Charlie Villanueva, Ron Artest
C -- Joakim Noah
Bench -- Sebastian Telfair, Sundiata Gaines, Gary Forbes

What has happened to New York City basketball? The area is so devoid of talent it can't even field a 10-man roster of New York-area high school players unless you stretch the boundaries 40 miles north to Peekskill to add Elton Brand and Hilton Armstrong or into New Jersey and add Andrew Bynum. (I included Noah and Villanueva, who lived in New York but attended prep schools in New Jersey.)

New York's history of basketball talent is rich -- Bob Cousy, Lenny Wilkens, Connie Hawkins, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Bernard King and Chris Mullin, to name just a few of the greats -- but the area hasn't produced on an NBA All-Star since Artest joined the league in 1999 and Stephon Marbury entered in 1997. The decline of New York City basketball is so pronounced it begs the question: What happened?

Indiana

Gordon
Gordon
G -- Eric Gordon, Mike Conley
F -- Zach Randolph, Josh McRoberts
C -- Brad Miller
Bench -- Courtney Lee, Jeff Teague, Gordon Hayward, Luke Harangody, Jared Jeffries

The starting five is solid with big-time scoring threats Gordon and Randolph and a true point in Conley. But with Greg Oden sidelined, there is little depth in the frontcourt once you get past Randolph and the veteran Miller.

Chicago

Rose
Rose
G -- Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade
F -- Kevin Garnett, Corey Maggette
C -- JaVale McGee
Bench -- Shannon Brown, Evan Turner, Julian Wright, Juwan Howard, Nazr Mohammed

We'll give Garnett to Chicago, even though he grew up in South Carolina, attended middle school in South Carolina and attended his first three years of high school in South Carolina before transferring to Chicago's Farragut Academy for his senior season. Chicagoans claim him as one of their own even if that's kind of like Kansas City Chiefs fans claiming Joe Montana as their greatest quarterback.

Los Angeles

Westbrook
Westbrook
G -- Russell Westbrook, Arron Afflalo
F -- Paul Pierce, Dorell Wright
C -- Tyson Chandler
Bench -- Darren Collison, Jrue Holiday, Trevor Ariza, Landry Fields, Ryan Anderson

Easily the deepest team here, with Westbrook and Pierce providing the scoring, a 7-footer in the middle, explosive guards off the bench, and defensive stoppers in Afflalo and Ariza. More impressive is that six players averaging double figures couldn't even make our 10-man roster: Nick Young, DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Jennings, Andre Miller, Baron Davis and Amir Johnson. Most of these guys are young, as the L.A. pipeline is rich with talent right now.

Do you like Chicago's backcourt or L.A.'s depth and defense? I'm going to give the slight edge to L.A., especially when factoring in all the players we left off the roster plus the debatable inclusion of KG on Chicago's team.

1. Los Angeles (40 points)
2. Chicago (32)
3. North Carolina (24)
4. Indiana (16)
5. New York (8)

HISTORICAL LEGACIES

Certainly, historical legacies are an important part of our debate. We care about the Lakers because they have a history of success. We care about Duke and North Carolina because of their NCAA titles and intensity of their rivalry. Derrick Rose playing for the Bulls is a lot more interesting than Derrick Rose playing for the Sacramento Kings. We'll look at college, high school and NBA legacies.

COLLEGE (10-POINT SCALE)

The all-time North Carolina college team, based on college results and production:

Jordan

G -- David Thompson (N.C. State), Michael Jordan (UNC), Phil Ford (UNC), Johnny Dawkins (Duke), J.J. Redick (Duke)
F -- Christian Laettner (Duke), James Worthy (UNC), Sam Perkins (UNC), Billy Cunningham (UNC), Tyler Hansbrough (UNC)
C -- Tim Duncan (Wake Forest), Mike Gminski (Duke)

The all-time Indiana college team:

G -- Isiah Thomas (Indiana), Austin Carr (Notre Dame), Steve Alford (Indiana), Calbert Cheaney (Indiana), Rick Mount (Purdue)
F -- Larry Bird (Indiana State), Adrian Dantley (Notre Dame), Scott May (Indiana), Glenn Robinson (Purdue), Troy Murphy (Notre Dame)
C -- Kent Benson (Indiana), Walt Bellamy (Indiana)

The all-time Los Angeles college team:

G -- Gail Goodrich (UCLA), Paul Westphal (USC), Reggie Miller (UCLA), Bo Kimble (Loyola Marymount), Walt Hazzard (UCLA)
F -- Marques Johnson (UCLA), Sidney Wicks (UCLA), Jamaal Wilkes (UCLA), Ed O'Bannon (UCLA), David Greenwood (UCLA)
C -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (UCLA), Bill Walton (UCLA)

We're leaving the all-time New York and Chicago college teams out of the discussion since they just don't measure up (New York hasn't had an All-American since Walter Berry and Chris Mullin in the mid-'80s, and DePaul's last All-American was Terry Cummings in 1982).

So who wins a mythical three-team tournament, based on college abilities? UCLA boasts Kareem and Walton, probably the two greatest collegiate players of all time. Sidney Wicks is largely forgotten these days, but he was the second pick in the 1971 NBA draft and an All-Star his first four NBA seasons (after which he essentially checked out). Ed O'Bannon never developed in the pros but was the Wooden Award winner in 1995 and the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four.

The North Carolina team doesn't need much introduction; in fact, you could argue that Michael Jordan doesn't even deserve to start at guard. David Thompson was a three-time All-American who led N.C. State past Walton and the Bruins in the 1974 semifinals, ending UCLA's seven-year title reign. Phil Ford was a consensus All-American in 1977 and '78, one of the best pure point guards in college hoops history.

Larry Bird
Larry Bird led unheralded Indiana State to the NCAA title game in 1979.

The Indiana team, however, would give both a run for their money: Bird and Isiah start things off. Austin Carr joins Isiah in the starting backcourt; Carr was one of the great college scorers of all time, averaging 38.1 ppg as a junior and 38.0 as a senior. Sure, this was the early '70s when nobody played much defense, but he scored a still-record 61 points in an NCAA tournament game and averaged 50 ppg in seven career tournament games. In 2008, ESPN.com named him the 22nd-greatest college player of all time. In case Bird and Carr don't provide enough scoring, you still have Dantley (25.8 ppg in his college career), Robinson (30.3 ppg in his final year at Purdue) and sharpshooters Alford and Mount. Benson and May, both two-time All-Americans, led Indiana to its undefeated 1976 season, back when you had to defeat 22-year-old men rather than 19-year-old boys to win a championship.

That said, I think North Carolina has the edge due to its versatility, speed and athleticism. How about a fast break with Duncan outletting to Jordan, with Thompson and Worthy flying down the wings? The state's depth is borne out in consensus All-American selections. Since 1960, North Carolina colleges have had 43 consensus All-American seasons (counting repeats), while Los Angeles schools have had 23 (the same as Indiana). As explosive as the Indiana team looks on paper, could it stop the dynamic 1-2 punch of Kareem and Walton? I'll give the edge to Los Angeles for the No. 2 spot.

I rank them:

1. North Carolina (10 points)
2. Los Angeles (8)
3. Indiana (6)
4. Chicago (4)
5. New York (2)

HIGH SCHOOL (10-POINT SCALE)

A couple quick notes here. The first step in determining where a player is "from" is to check their high school, note their place of birth. (Basketball-Reference.com, thankfully, lists the high school of every NBA player). Now, this can be a little tricky, especially in recent years when players will often transfer to a prep school for their senior year or postgraduate year. Tracy McGrady, for example, went to high school in Florida before matriculating to Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina for one year. He's not really from North Carolina in the traditional sense. As mentioned earlier, Kevin Garnett is a questionable inclusion for Chicago.

We're also considering suburbs for New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Julius Erving graduated from Roosevelt High School on Long Island. He's part of New York's legacy. Reggie Miller grew up in Riverside, Calif. Riverside is east of Los Angeles, in the valley sprawl, 60 miles from L.A. Too far away, plus it's a sizable city in its own right, with a population around 300,000. Miller doesn't count as a Los Angeles high school product.

Here are the all-time "he's from there" squads, based on peak NBA ability.

All-time North Carolina high school team

Paul
Paul
G -- Michael Jordan, Chris Paul, David Thompson, Sam Jones, Pete Maravich
F -- James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins, Buck Williams, Walter Davis, Bobby Jones
C -- Bob McAdoo, Brad Daugherty

Others of note: Lou Hudson, Walt Bellamy, Sleepy Floyd, Phil Ford, Antawn Jamison, Charlie Scott, David West

The Wall Street Journal wrote that with North Carolina's growing population and basketball madness, it continues to pump out NBA prospects like John Wall. In reality, this isn't a recent trend. For example, among players who began their NBA careers in the 1970s, North Carolina produced seven NBA All-Stars: Maravich, Scott, McAdoo, Jones, Thompson, Davis and Ford. Jordan, Worthy, Wilkins and Floyd entered the NBA in the early '80s. NBA All-Stars in the past 15 years from North Carolina total just three: Jamison, Paul and West. While there are more NBA players coming from North Carolina high schools now (27 since 2000, compared to 18 in the 1970s), the state has been producing star players for more than 40 years.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated opponents while at Power Memorial High School in New York.

All-time New York high school team
G -- Lenny Wilkens, Tiny Archibald, Chris Mullin, Bob Cousy, Gus Williams
F -- Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham, Connie Hawkins, Bernard King, Jamal Mashburn
C -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dolph Schayes

Others of note: Rolando Blackmon, Stephon Marbury, Vinnie Johnson, World B. Free, Wally Szczerbiak, Tom Gugliotta, Kenny Smith, Mark Jackson, Kenny Anderson, Ron Artest, Richie Guerin, Happy Hairston, Brian Winters, Ben Gordon

As noted, the decline of New York City basketball is such that no current player makes the all-time roster (or comes close).

All-time Indiana high school team
G -- Oscar Robertson, Eric Gordon, Louie Dampier, Dick Van Arsdale, Tom Van Arsdale
F -- Larry Bird, Shawn Kemp, Junior Bridgeman, Zach Randolph, Glenn Robinson
C -- Clyde Lovellette, Kent Benson

Others of note: George McGinnis, Don Buse, Calbert Cheaney, Rick Fox, Terry Dischinger, Mike Conley, Bonzi Wells, Mike Woodson

The Van Arsdale twins, from Indianapolis, were remarkable. Both played in the NBA from 1966 to 1977. Tom played 929 games, Dick 921. Tom averaged 15.3 points and 4.2 rebounds, Dick averaged 16.4 points and 4.1 rebounds. Tom made three All-Star teams, Dick also made three. Dick was the 10th pick of the 1965 draft, Tom the 11th.

Anyway, Indiana has produced 148 NBA or ABA players compared to North Carolina's 102 (with a current population of 6.4 million, Indiana claims the most NBA players per capita; North Carolina has a population of 9.3 million). Many of Indiana's players came in the early days, however -- 69 entered the pros before 1970.

All-time Chicago high school team
G -- Isiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Tim Hardaway, Hersey Hawkins
F -- Kevin Garnett, Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings, Michael Finley, Eddie Johnson
C -- George Mikan, Dan Issel

Others of note: Juwan Howard, Doc Rivers, Maurice Cheeks, Antoine Walker, Cazzie Russell, Nick Anderson, Red Kerr

So who wins the title of point guard capital of the world? NYC can claim Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Lenny Wilkens, Tiny Archibald and Dick McGuire, plus Gus Williams, Stephon Marbury, Kenny Smith, Kenny Anderson and Mark Jackson.

Chicago gets Thomas, Rose, Hardaway, Rivers, Cheeks, Rickey Green, Quinn Buckner and Kevin Porter (four-time NBA assist leader). Those guys have combined for 25 All-Star appearances. Edge to New York, although it closes slightly if you don't include McGuire (who made seven All-Star teams in the '50s despite never averaging double figures in points in any season).

All-time Los Angeles high school team

Pierce
Pierce
G -- Dennis Johnson, Gail Goodrich, Paul Westphal, Reggie Theus, Byron Scott
F -- Paul Pierce, Marques Johnson, Kiki Vandeweghe, Sidney Wicks, George Yardley
C -- Bill Laimbeer, Swen Nater

Others of note: Russell Westbrook, Baron Davis, Andre Miller, Michael Cooper, Joe Caldwell, Gilbert Arenas, Mark Eaton, Keith Van Horn

Solid, but maybe not quite as star-studded as expected, as DJ, Goodrich and Yardley are the only Hall of Famers, and the area has produced many more guards than forwards and centers.

New York still reigns supreme here, with an eclectic mix of points guards, forwards and Kareem in the middle. My rankings:

1. New York (10 points)
2. North Carolina (8)
3. Chicago (6)
4. Los Angeles (4)
5. Indiana (2)

NBA (20-POINT SCALE)

This ranking isn't too difficult to figure out considering the Lakers' 11 championships in L.A., but another quick way too look at it is to check the number of All-Star Game appearances for each NBA team since 1960:

Lakers: 102
Knicks: 61
Bulls/Zephyrs: 44
Pacers (ABA/NBA): 41
Hornets/Bobcats: 10

Quick aside: Is it possible that Patrick Ewing has been underrated? During his years with the Knicks, he played with four All-Stars. And those four All-Stars combined for exactly four All-Star appearances: Mark Jackson in 1989, John Starks and Charles Oakley in 1994 and Allan Houston in 2000 (when Ewing was nearing the end of the line anyway). And just how good were those guys? In 1989, Jackson averaged 16.9 points per game and 34.4 minutes; two seasons later, he was a backup averaging just 22.2 minutes per game. Oakley was a tough rebounder and defender but averaged just 11.8 points during his All-Star season. Starks was a dubious All-Star, making it despite shooting 42 percent from the field in '94. Ewing clearly lacked his Scottie Pippen or James Worthy or Kevin McHale as a wingman. Despite that, from 1992-97 the Knicks averaged 55 wins per season. Unfortunately for Ewing's legacy, they lost four times in the playoffs in a Game 7 and twice more to the Bulls. (Ewing usually played very well in those games, including a 29/14 line in a Game 7 loss to the Pacers in 1995 and a monster 37/17 line in Game 7 against the Heat in 1997.)

The Knicks trump the Bulls in All-Star selections, but the Bulls trump the Knicks in NBA titles. We'll rank them:

Lakers
The Lakers help make Los Angeles the Center of the Basketball Universe ... for now.

1. Los Angeles (20 points)
2. Chicago (16)
3. New York (12)
4. Indiana (8)
5. North Carolina (4)

To get our final rankings and determine the Center of the Basketball Universe, we just add up the points:

1. Los Angeles: 136
2. Chicago: 102
3. North Carolina: 96
4. Indiana: 80
5. New York: 68

There is no denying North Carolina's rich history of college hoops and star NBA players, but its lack of any NBA legacy of note makes it difficult to argue its case as the Center of the Basketball Universe. With the Lakers pursuing a third title, the local high schools and colleges churning out NBA prospects and a rich history of success, it's a clear victory for Los Angeles.

Of course, we didn't factor in the Clippers.