Thursday, April 29, 2010

Battle of the ages: Lucas vs. May, short shorts vs. shorter shorts

Some people advocate spicing up the NBA All-Star weekend by adding a one-on-one competition. It sounds great in theory. Kobe vs. LeBron, Durant against Dirk, Williams vs. Paul, Cardinal vs. Scalabrine.

But there's a decent chance such an event would be sort of a disaster, something even worse than watching Nate Robinson miss dunks for a half hour. The games could feature sparkling personalities, but dull play. No matter the age group or talent level, one-on-one games often devolve into contests between a guy who constantly backs down and someone who tosses up 3-pointers on every possession. It's even worse if one of the players has a height advantage. He spends the whole game re-creating the final 10 years of Mark Jackson's career, when all he seemingly did was pound the ball while posting up, starting from 20 feet out.

Maybe I'm cynical because of my own struggles in one-on-one games. I've never been great in them, in camps or the playground. Not enough quickness, not enough endurance. By the time I've played a fifth game up to 12, I'm as exhausted as a triathlete completing the running portion. For several years my nemesis was my newspaper colleague, Mike Nowatzki. Mike's a very good player. Very competitive games. We played countless games, indoor and out. Inevitably, he'd win three of four or four out of seven.

I always broke out the same excuses. He was in better shape. I always faded late, but often dominated the first game, which was the best game to judge the superior player. He's a few inches shorter so I felt bad and shot from outside most of the time. If I really wanted to win, I'd take him inside every point. As a sportsman, I couldn't do that. Finally I'd say one-on-one games are not a true indicator of basketball greatness. It's a team sport. Someone who's better in one-on-one won't necessarily be better in a real game of five-on-five. Most of the excuses were ridiculous, but that last one had merit, I think. Allen Iverson in his prime would have probably defeated Larry Bird in his prime one-on-one. But would anyone take Iverson if the games really counted? And then I'd tell Mike I'd be drafted ahead of him in a mock YMCA basketball draft. I had no evidence to support such a claim, but I was desperate to save face.

So I'm not the biggest fan of one-on-one.

And after watching the video below, it's easier to see why I don't think a one-on-one tournament would be the savior of All-Star Weekend. It didn't really work 40 years ago, and probably wouldn't work today.

It's 1972 and it's a one-on-one NBA tourney, played in empty arenas, taped beforehand and occasionally broadcast at halftime of real games. In this battle, it's Don May against Jerry Lucas. I didn't research it, but I'm guessing May's shorts in this game rendered him sterile. Keith Jackson and Bill Russell provide commentary.

Rules: Game is to 20, by twos, and you have to win by four points.

The game starts with a fairly obvious traveling by May, though NBA ref Darrell Garretson swallows the whistle (why should one on one games be any different than the real ones?). Lucas, who has a four-inch height advantage, drills a great hook a minute into the game. I don't want to say players back then didn't have the same physical conditioning as current players, but with the score 10-8, each guy bends over to grab his shorts, the easiest sign of fatigue. I recognize that move because I also did it about 10 minutes into a one on one game. But these guys are playing for 15 grand, according to Jackson. They should be in a bit better shape.

Garretson finally calls traveling on May at a key juncture, with Lucas up 16-14. May was apparently an old-school Lamar Odom, a lefty who was unable to go right (and, no, players back then weren't these incredibly fundamentally sound players, as evidenced by the shaky ballhandling skills from both guys). This inability to go right gets him in trouble as the taller Lucas just stands there while May flails about. Lucas transforms into my dad late in the game and drains another hook to go up 18-14. The hook has always been impossible to stop, whether used by Kareem, Jerry Lucas or baby boomers in southern Minnesota.

Lucas finally wins it 20-16 with a little jump hook over the shorter May. He advanced, though it seems unlikely Lucas lasted much longer in the tournament. 

The video ends with a ceremony honoring Elgin Baylor at the 1972 All-Star game in LA. Baylor retired early that year, a season that ended with the Lakers winning a then-record 69 games. The Hall of Famer never won a ring, but the Lakers won the title a few months after this ceremony. It was unfortunate that Baylor's body gave out before he could finally win the title that eluded him all those years. 

Baylor retired because of chronic knee injuries that took away his quickness and leaping ability. By the time he left the game, he was a shell of the player who dominated the game in the 1960s. Still, even in 1972, on a pair of bad knees, I'd have taken Elgin in a game of one on one against Lucas and May.

Actually, I think I could have taken Don May. As long as we only played one game. 

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