Monday, March 8, 2010

Watching Matt Barnes, thinking of M.L. Carr

During Sunday's Lakers-Magic game, Orlando's Matt Barnes tangled with Kobe Bryant throughout the game in a series of confrontations, one of which resulted in technicals against both players. It's the type of thing Kobe often gets involved with, whether it's Raja Bell in the 2006 playoffs or with Ruben Patterson years before that. His standard move in these moments is to raise both arms, the universal signal for, "I did nothing wrong here. This madman is trying to hit me but I'm not reacting. Look, don't believe me, I'll even raise both arms to show I'm not brandishing a weapon." Perhaps it is Kobe that instigates these things...

But Barnes was particularly infuriating during yesterday's game, disrupting my peaceful Sunday and forcing me to throw pillows and a small blanket across our living room. Some of his antics would have impressed Bill Laimbeer, or, even worse, shamed him. The highlight of the Barnes-Bryant matchup comes just after the two-minute mark of the above video. Barnes takes the ball out of bounds with Kobe guarding him. Instead of looking for a teammate, Barnes first fakes a pass right at Kobe's face, a move usually seen on the playground in a game involving a pair of 13-year-olds who both like the same girl. To his credit, Kobe didn't even budge, meaning he didn't really think Barnes would rocket a ball of his head or he's blind in one eye. It was a ridiculous move and, from my unbiased perspective, should have resulted in a technical. Call it violating the spirit of Naismith's game, or something.

Barnes has played for seven teams in seven years and if he can scratch out a 30-year career he'll hit every city in the league. He's a tough defender, a decent shooter and is one of those guys who everyone hates when they're on the opposition but loves - or at least grudgingly accepts - when they're on the home team. To cap off his day, Barnes hit a key 3-pointer that put the Magic up six late in the game. Then, after the Lakers had narrowed it to two in the final seconds, he played tough defense on Kobe's final shot, which went off the rim to preserve Orlando's victory. Barnes celebrated by shooting his arm up, index finger extended, though thousands of other fingers from Lakers fans were probably rising at the exact same moment.

Every time I watch a player like Barnes torment the Lakers, I can't help but flashback to former Celtic instigator M.L. Carr, the most hated opponent of them all. Carr was a pretty good player early in his career, but by the time the mid-1980s rolled around and the Lakers-Celtics rivalry picked up where the 1960s left off, he was an aging guard with little on-court value. But he remained an integral part of Boston's chemistry, setting the stage for legions of towel-waving reserves who followed. Carr's towel followed in the smoky path of Red Auerbach's victory cigars two decades earlier, enraging fans and delighting Boston fans. Carr whipped the towel around above his head with more passion than anyone clutching a Homer Hanky inside the Metrodome during the 1987 World Series. He fired up his teammates and the Boston crowd, and was never afraid to take his tired act on the road.

As a 10-year-old decked out in head-to-toe Lakers gear, I couldn't help but loathe him. Looking back, Carr's performance art pieces on the sidelines at The Forum and the Boston Garden actually only add to the lore of the old rivalry. Back then, it seemed like the two teams really did hate each other. And Carr's white towel represented everything I hated about Boston. Sure, Ainge's whining, McHale's awkward movements and Bird's brilliance bothered me, but Carr symbolized the arrogance, despite the fact he usually only left the bench if the true stars played well enough to put the game out of reach.

On the 1985 video Return to Glory, which chronicles that season's playoffs, Carr talks about his role on the team, explaining that as an older player he could sit and pout about his reduced playing time, or try to do what he could to help the team win, which meant firing them up. It's a rational, unselfish comment. But at the time nothing he said could have lessened my dislike for him and his linens.

The 1984 Finals proved to be Carr's greatest moment as an antagonist. The Lakers choked away a pair of games that year. They possessed superior talent, but the Celtics outfought them, bullied them and relied on horrendous mental mistakes by James Worthy and Magic to win the series in seven grueling games. During Game 4, after Worthy missed a key free throw, another maddening Celtic - Cedric Maxwell - walked across the lane with his hands around his neck, letting everyone know that Worthy had choked.

But Carr stole the show and, eventually, the key game of the series. For once, his biggest contribution didn't come while standing on the sideline in his warmup pants. In overtime of Game 4 - one of those two games the Lakers choked away - the Lakers trailed by three in the closing seconds and had the ball. Carr stepped in front of a pass and went down for the game-clinching dunk.

Watch that dunk again. After he puts it through, Carr nearly runs over the ref (technical?). He then throws his arms to the sky with the over-the-top glee of a scrub who just scored his only points of his varsity career by hitting a half-courter at the buzzer on Parents' Night. A few games later, the Lakers tossed Carr around a bit and he said it was "all-out war," a war the Celtics won in Game 7.

A decade later, Carr took over as Boston's general manager and led the team to the abyss. He eventually became coach. In his second and final year on the bench, Boston won only 15 games and he was replaced by Rick Pitino, who wasn't much better. It warmed Laker hearts to watch a former enemy play a big role in the downfall of the franchise, a struggle that didn't really end until Ainge and McHale colluded in 2007 to give Boston Kevin Garnett, leading to another title.

Today, Carr works with an organization called WARM2Kids, which "provides social, emotional, and educational support for today's youth." He's also the founder of two charities and is by all accounts an outstanding community leader and upstanding citizen, the type of person people should look up to and admire.

Which is why I'll continue to remember him as a player. I don't need those memories tainted by the reality of Carr's good deeds.

In 10 years maybe Matt Barnes will be on the sidelines, leading the Magic or Cavs to a 15-win season. I'd be happy for him. Still, when it comes to being an annoying and infuriating opponent, Barnes can't - to borrow a crude phrase - carry M.L. Carr's jock.

Or his towel.


Dad said...

The Barnes Kobie thing was goofy and not basketball, more like pro wrestling. It may have been brought on my the ghost of Dennis Rodman. What the hell is with Artest's hair??

Brock said...

Looks like Dennis dropped the drag and put on a Lakers uniform.

Shawn Fury said...

You'll be happy to know he shaved his head after yesterday's game, because he let Carter score too much or something. Yes, a very stable guy.