Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A reminder, I'm writing at tvfury.wordpress.com

If you've missed me pontificating for thousands of words on the NBA or Janesville, I've been doing a bit of it at tvfury.wordpress.com. Check out my posts here. But I will keep posting on my own blog as well, especially when I need to rationalize slow starts by the Lakers.

Seeking hope from the 1991 Lakers

See if this sounds familiar:

The Lakers, led by a legendary guard, start the season 0-2. A new coach takes over, replacing a legend who won multiple titles but went out in embarrassing fashion in the second round of the playoffs. That legendary guard isn't what he once was, but is still one of the best in the game. The second-best player is probably a bit past his prime but still effective, though he, too, is coming off a disappointing playoff performance. A beloved bench player left town. The new coach preaches a different style, a new offensive system that replaces one that was so well-known - and so dominant - it went by a single word.

That's the 2011-12 Lakers. But it was also the 1991 Lakers. Chances are this season doesn't end like that one, but Lakers fans can at least hope it does, by looking back on how that 1991 season began.

Magic Johnson was the legendary guard, not Kobe Bryant. Mike Dunleavy was the new coach, not Mike Brown. Pat Riley was the legendary coach, not Phil Jackson, and the Lakers lost 4-1 to Phoenix, instead of being swept by Dallas. James Worthy was the second-best player, not Pau Gasol. The beloved bench player who left was Michael Cooper, not Lamar Odom. And Mike Brown has replaced the Triangle, in the same way Dunleavy - and the Lakers' older legs - spelled the end of Showtime.

Like this season, the Lakers started the 1991 campaign on national television, losing 110-99 to San Antonio in a game that's only memorable because it was the first regular season game broadcast on NBC, which had replaced CBS. Hello, John Tesh. The Lakers lost to Portland in overtime in their second game and after a victory, dropped two more to fall to 1-4, inciting panic throughout LA. The Lakers were done. Magic was too old, Dunleavy too dumb, Worthy too horny (he was arrested in Houston early in the year for soliciting a prostitute). The Lakers had picked up Sam Perkins and Terry Teagle in the offseason, but these weren't the '80s Lakers. Portland, which won the West in 1990, becoming the first team other than the Lakers or Houston to win the conference since 1979, was the overwhelming favorite.

But on their way to the graveyard - where they could join other '80s relics like the 76ers, the Rockets and the Celtics - the Lakers turned their season around. They won eight in a row, then, later in the season, ripped off a 16-game winning streak.

The Lakers adapted, making things nice and easy for headline writers who must have scribbled a "From Showtime to Slowtime" line at some point during the season. They could still run on occasion - even today, at 52, Magic could probably lead a break as well as anyone and he certainly could in 1991. But Worthy and Scott had slowed down and Cooper was gone. Instead the Lakers relied on a devastating post-up game. Magic and Worthy could dominate in the paint. Vlade Divac was in his second year and had developed a nifty game, when Magic wasn't yelling at him. And Perkins showed off a back-to-the-basket arsenal few knew he possessed. Four players who could post up at anytime, an advantage that was unmatched in the league. Was it as fun to watch as the 1987 Lakers? Hardly. But it was still highly effective.

Not effective? New addition Terry Teagle. This seems weird to say 20 years later, but I was quite excited when the Lakers signed Teagle before the 1991 season. Teagle. He came with a reputation as a streak scorer, someone who would provide instant offense off the bench. Instead he never found his role, his awkward-looking baseline jumper clanked out more than it fell and not even Magic could turn him into the sixth man they needed.

Still, the Lakers won 58 games and swept Houston in the opening round. The second round featured an entertaining matchup against Golden State, led by Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. The Warriors - who played defense then the same way they play it now - stunned the Lakers in the second game and barely lost Game 3. They eventually fell in five but not before Lakers fans had flashbacks to previous playoff flameouts against Phoenix and Houston.

In the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers faced heavily favored Portland. But after stealing the first game and winning Games 3 and 4 with ease in LA, the Lakers held the advantage. Game 6, when LA eliminated Portland, featured Magic's famous clock-killing pass to no one in the final seconds.

The Finals were a dream matchup that year, with everyone finally getting to see Magic vs. Michael, a series people waited years to witness, in the same way everyone's waited for Kobe to face LeBron. Unfortunately, one player - Jordan - was in his athletic prime while the other wasn't quite as dominant as he had been. Again the Lakers stole Game 1, winning it on a Sam Perkins 3-pointer and a Jordan miss at the buzzer - yes, Michael Jordan did not hit every game-winning shot he attempted, no matter what the kids might have heard. The series turned in Game 3, when the Lakers squandered a double-digit advantage in the second half and Jordan drilled a difficult game-tying shot over Vlade in regulation, before sealing the deal in overtime. Two games later, Jordan had his first title. Five months later, Magic retired. It was another decade before the Lakers won another title.

But back to those Finals. I still believe the Lakers would have had a great chance at victory if they'd won Game 3 and taken a 2-1 lead. More importantly, they could have won if James Worthy had not been hobbled by a devastating ankle sprain, which he suffered in Game 5 of the Portland series. The injury robbed Worthy of all his quickness, he was unable to take advantage of Scottie Pippen down low, who famously switched to guarding Magic later in the series. Alas.

The series ended with Worthy and an injured Byron Scott sitting out Game 5. Seven Lakers played that game: Magic, Perkins, Vlade, Teagle, Tony Smith and rookie Elden Campbell. Blech. Yet the Lakers led late. And Magic still managed to dish out a remarkable 20 assists. Twenty assists, while passing to those teammates. For those who sometimes say Magic was made much better by playing with Kareem, Worthy and so many other great players, Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals should be offered up as proof that Magic could rack up assists playing next to anyone. The difference, of course, was on the scoreboard.

So now, 21 years later, can the Lakers repeat that performance and pull out one more magical run behind an aging legendary guard? Who knows. In the shorter season, there's less room for error. With Kobe Bryant's injuries racking up on a nightly basis, he's not as dominant as Magic was in 1991. Gasol seems to have lost something - a step or his fire - in a way Worthy had not in 1991. But at 0-2 it's far too soon to bury the Lakers, even if that sounds like someone whose head is buried in the sand. The West isn't what it was a few years ago, when 50-win teams only had the 8 seed. Dallas is in disarray, the Spurs are another year into their fossilization and who knows if Memphis can repeat what it did in 2011. Oklahoma City's the clear favorite, just like Portland was in 1991. The Clippers look like a force (okay, so that is something that's different from '91). If the Lakers can stay relatively healthy and get homecourt at least in the first round of the playoffs, they could do some damage.

And then maybe they'll face the Heat in the Finals, who will take on the role of the Bulls. They'd be younger and hungrier than the old warriors from LA. They'd probably win it in five or six games. LeBron - in his prime, while Kobe is not - would get his first title, just like Jordan won his. It wouldn't be the worst ending for the Lakers.

But first they have to win at least one game in the regular season.


A bunch of vids from 1991, including from the invaluable YouTube user non-player zealot. Search 1991 on his page for a bunch more.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A look back at Big Game James

I'm not a conspiracy theory guy. Birthers, Truthers, New World Orders, whatever.

But for awhile I firmly believed that an anti-Laker cabal operated NBA TV's programming. This is a small conspiracy group - our numbers are, well, one. And it's not the type of conspiracy that attracts the attention of Art Bell, Alex Jones or Jesse Ventura. But it affected me. For years - but even more so since the lockout started and NBA TV's programming has consisted of old NBA games, 87 screenings of Teen Wolf, 76 of One on One and 64 of The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh - I watched as the network seemed to only play Lakers losses or Celtics victories. Seemed like every time I turned it on, NBA TV showed Game 4 of the 1984 Finals, or Game 7 from that series or Game 5 of the 1987 ECF or Game 2 of the 1991 Western semis. They showed Lakers collapses and Celtic triumphs.

I wasn't sure who was in charge but I figured they wore green to the office and spoke with an annoying accent.

But a few weeks ago, I flipped to NBA TV and settled in for a long night that celebrated Laker players and victories. Specifically, the network aired Game 7 of the 1988 Western Conference Finals and Game 6 of the NBA Finals, both dramatic LA victories. Plus, a biography of James Worthy's career played before those two games. Hmm, how would this affect my conspiracy theory? Surely it punched holes in my beliefs, and if I actually analyzed the programming I'd realize that I had often seen games from the 1985 NBA Finals or even '87. We'll see. Perhaps I'll accept that there's not anti-Laker bias at the network. Or, like other conspiracy theorists, I'll simply ignore the evidence and bend small pieces of unrelated evidence into a grand theory that re-affirms my warped outlook.

Regardless, that night gave me a chance to watch five hours of James Worthy at his finest. And James Worthy at his finest was strong in the post, fast on the break, quick on the block, efficient on the perimeter, powerful at the rim and practically technically perfect in the paint.

He was the third most-important member of the 1980s Lakers, but while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar towered over the league and Magic Johnson created Showtime, Worthy proved the perfect complement to both and an often-dominant force in his own right. Along with Kareem's sky hook, Worthy's low-post game gave the Lakers an unstoppable inside combination, two options the Lakers always went to whenever someone did slow down the fast break.

Ah, the fast break. Showtime would have existed without Worthy - in fact, it did before the Lakers drafted him with the first pick in 1982 - but it wouldn't have been as effective. And it certainly wouldn't have been as breath-taking.

Worthy came to the Lakers after starring at North Carolina, where he led the Tar Heels to the 1982 national championship. Here's a great video on Worthy's Tar Heels days.

Watching this, you see many of the moves that he later perfected with the Lakers, minus the goggles. And hearing one of the coaches talk, it sounds like Worthy had many of the same moves going all the way back to 8th grade. Probably had the same beard. Strangely, Worthy's freshman year ended when he broke his leg, the same way his rookie year ended with the Lakers in 1983. In the 1982 title game - which ended with Worthy accepting a misguided pass from Georgetown's Fred Brown in the closing seconds - Worthy dominated, hitting 13-for-17 from the floor for 28 points, though he was overshadowed by the winning shot by a freshman named Jordan.

The Lakers drafted Worthy a few weeks after winning the 1982 NBA title, taking advantage of the No. 1 pick through moves that seemed to define the early 1980s, when great teams got even better thanks to bizarre trades with bad teams that always got worse.

For his career, Worthy averaged 17.6 points and shot 52 percent from the floor. That shooting percentage actually dropped quite a bit at the end of his career, when Magic went away, followed by Worthy's knees and quickness. His first eight seasons in the league, Worthy never shot below 54 percent. But Worthy made his reputation in the playoffs - Big Game James did not earn the moniker because of December games against the Kings. In the postseason, Worthy increased his career scoring mark to 21.1 points per game.

Not that Worthy was infallible in the biggest moments. Lakers fans can still picture his pass in Game 2 of the 1984 NBA Finals. The Lakers were up 1-0 in the series against the Celtics and by two in the game. But Worthy's lazy pass - which hung in the air like a Ray Guy punt - never found its target. Gerald Henderson stole it, went in for a layup while Johnny Most's black heart burst with joy, and the Celtics stole the game and eventually the series, also helped along by big missed free throws by Worthy in Game 4. Five years later, in another Game 2, this one against the Pistons, Worthy missed a free throw in the final seconds that could have forced OT, though without Magic and Byron Scott, the free throw likely would have only delayed the inevitable.

But usually Worthy more than lived up to his nickname, and his last name. His greatest moment came in Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals, when he scored 36 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and dished out 10 assists as the Lakers survived against the Pistons and became the first repeat champion in 19 years. That performance came against one of the great defensive teams of all time, the Bad Boys. Mahorn, Rodman, Salley, Laimbeer, the Pistons threw everything at Worthy, and he kept throwing everything down.

A year later the Pistons got their revenge as the gods took out Magic and Scott's hamstrings. The undermanned Lakers - Kareem was on his last legs, in his last games, and David Rivers and Tony Campbell had prominent roles - lost in four, even though they led in the fourth quarter of the final three games. The final game, however, saw Worthy again at the top of his game. He finished with 40 points. It's one of his most underrated performances, lost in the defeat and in his own Game 7 effort from two years earlier. But everything in the Worthy arsenal was on display.

Here's the first quarter from that game. It's a long video. Worth it.

At one point Worthy hits eight straight shots, again against one of the best defenses in league history. It's a unique mixture of power and finesse, aggressiveness and patience. If you want to fast-forward a bit, go to the six-minute mark - that's when Worthy hits his first shot and then a brawl nearly breaks out after Mahorn flattens Michael Cooper.

Worthy's real explosion begins at the 14-minute mark: Jumper from just inside the 3-point line; up-and-under fake, back with the left hand; fearless drive to hoop for finger roll; turnaround jumper on post; 15-foot jumper; monster dunk off the break (great no-call on a possible charge on Coop); 17-foot jumper.

Worthy put on those types of displays throughout his career. Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale were generally regarded as the two post players with the best moves down low during that era, but Worthy wasn't far behind. He possessed the full array, moves he perfected and practically patented. When he faced the basket and a defender, he was equally comfortable going left or right. A drive to the right often brought a finger-roll. To the left he could explode to the basket for a dunk. He'd hold the ball for a few seconds, staring into the defender's eyes. He'd do a bit of an Ali shuffle and then make his move, when he wasn't simply pulling up for a better-than-you-think jumper.

When he pump-faked inside, Worthy used both arms, his head and nearly his entire upper body to sell the move. Defenders might not bite on the first or even the second, but he'd do it until they did and finish it off with a finger-roll. He could spin off a defender the second he caught a pass with his back to the basket and roll in for a dunk. Or he could simply nail a turnaround jumper, spinning to the baseline or the paint.

But the reason Worthy's low-post brilliance doesn't resonate quite as much is because the enduring image of the 6-9 forward is of him swooping from the lane for a dunk on a Lakers fast break. He might have been the best finisher in NBA history, able to glide in for a layup or power in for a dunk. When Magic grabbed the ball Worthy ran down the court like a 100-meter sprinter, looking up once he crossed halfcourt, just waiting for the moment when Magic would deliver a no-look pass.

Worthy's dunks almost always looked the same. Right arm fully extended, it seemed like all he had to do was flick his wrist at the rim.

People occasionally debate just how good Worthy would have been if he hadn't played with the Lakers, specifically with Magic. It seems people have that discussion about Worthy more than they do about any other Hall of Famer. Worthy's numbers - especially his shooting percentage - did drop when Magic retired. But the years he spent running full speed while Magic played contributed to his decline once Magic left. His knees finally gave out. Physically he was nowhere near the same player, meaning the easy baskets didn't come like they once did. He still could dominate down low. And he showed in those '89 Finals - when Magic played about a game and a half - that he would have been able to score no matter who was at point.

Worthy wasn't a great ball-handler and he was never a shutdown defender, although he did a good job of harassing Larry Bird in both the 1985 and '87 Finals. Plus, one of the most famous plays of his career - the steal in Game 6 of the '87 Finals - came on the defensive end. But he was the perfect offensive weapon for the Showtime Lakers, sleek, dangerous, a cruise missile flying down the Forum's court, launched by order of Pat Riley and controlled by Magic Johnson.

In Worthy's final Finals appearance, he limped along in a way that foreshadowed his final seasons. Worthy suffered a severe ankle sprain in Game 5 of the WCF against Portland. He managed to play as the Lakers clinched in six. But against the Bulls, Worthy staggered along, robbed of all his quickness. Each time he scored, he labored back. There were no fast-break dunks, few classic Worthy finishes in the paint. People said Scottie Pippen got the best of him, but that was only because Worthy was on one leg. Yet he still averaged 19 a game, before finally sitting out the decisive Game 5.

If he'd been healthy...I tell myself the Lakers might have pulled it off. They would have won a sixth title since 1980, would have delayed the Bulls dynasty a year. And 20 years later, NBA TV would have replayed the Lakers' victory in the 1991 NBA Finals.

Or not replayed it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Death of a friend

When someone dies following an illness, the obituary often reveals the deceased "was surrounded by family and friends." The line is an affirmation that in their final moments, when they left this life and death arrived, they were with those who loved them most. It can also provide at least a shred of comfort to the survivors during a tragic time.

Last Saturday, Janesville native Keith Wiste died at the age of 39 in Mankato. He took his own life, after battling depression for years. He left behind his devastated parents, older brothers Paul and Rob, younger sister Catherine, nieces, nephews and countless friends. Anyone who knew Keith liked him, and those who knew him well loved him. The thought of Keith being alone in his final moments is unbearable, the mental images something out of a nightmare. It rips at your guts, brings tears to your eyes and an ache to your heart.

Even in a town of 2,000 people, it's not quite true that everybody knows everybody. But everyone knew Keith and his family. Keith's dad, Ron, owned Wiste's grocery store, a renowned meat market that had been a fixture in Janesville seemingly since the time the town first appeared as a dot on a map.

Growing up, I looked up to Keith, who was three years older than me. Like small towns everywhere, sports drove life in Janesville. Keith played football, baseball and basketball. At his parents' house, Keith, his brothers and dad hosted countless basketball games at the hoop in their backyard. Every kid in town knew about the hoop at Wistes and had an open invitation to shoot anytime they wanted.

When I was younger I couldn't beat Keith or the other older kids who would one day go on to star at our local high school. But I tried. Keith graduated in 1990, a member of the first graduating class from the newly formed Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton. He graduated from Southwest State University in Marshall. Over the next decade, he coached girls' and boys' basketball teams at numerous schools in southern Minnesota, staying involved in the game he'd loved since childhood. For a few years he coached at his old school, JWP, a tenure filled with difficult losses and even tougher times, but even that did little to dampen Keith's enthusiasm for a life on the sideline. Coaching was in his blood. He also umped and reffed. It wasn't just coaching - sports were in his blood.

He also owned his own successful business, Wiste's Continuous Concrete Edging; of the numerous online tributes to Keith, many include comments from customers, who remember him for his work ethic, craftsmanship and personality.

Those are just a few of the facts of Keith's life.

Keith the man? He was funny, generous, personable, outgoing, helpful, quick-witted, empathetic and owned a smile that lit up his whole face and any room he was in. He loved his nieces and nephews. He had one maneuver - a point and smile - that he executed so often and so well, a friend noted online that it was a "patented" Keith move. He was...alive.

And he suffered from depression. Keith endured a couple of debilitating bouts with the dreaded disease, but had been doing well for more than a decade, committed to taking the medications he knew helped him stay healthy. But his latest, final battle with the disease came after he had stopped taking the medicine. He reached out to his family, who, like always, rallied to his side. By the time he started back on his medication, the darkness must have been too overpowering. Suicide was the cause of death, but depression killed him, as surely as cancer and diabetes kills its victims.

His wake on Tuesday brought hundreds of people to the Janesville funeral home, situated along the old Highway 14. The people came to remember Keith and to offer comfort and support to his grieving family. Scheduled to run between 4 and 8 p.m., the wake lasted until just before 10 p.m., the line of people stretching out the door practically from the time it began until it finally ended six hours later. The people who stood in line were his friends, or knew his folks, or shopped at Wiste's, or graduated with his sister or worked with his brother or hired him for a job. So often, when a person commits suicide, their life becomes defined by the way it ended, instead of how it was lived. Those people made their way to the funeral home because Keith died, but they were really there because of the way he lived.

It's impossible to fully understand the pain that drives someone to suicide, just as it's equally difficult finding the words to describe what was lost. Anything besides "I'm so sorry for your loss" sounds inadequate. You could search the writings of prophets and poets and still never find the words that adequately explain the pain the victim felt or the hurt that crushes those left behind.

His funeral on a cool, rainy Wednesday packed the Lutheran church in Janesville. Those who crammed into the pews and balcony said goodbye to Keith and listened to the thoughtful, comforting words of pastor Larry Griffin, who attempted to explain the unexplainable. But not even the heavens can ever truly answer the question we'll never stop asking: why?

Death brings small towns together, physically and emotionally. There's comfort in numbers, or at least a bit of support. You see people you grew up with and thought you'd grow old with, before college and relationships and jobs and...life separated you from them and your town. You gather to mourn, while regretting that it took the death of a friend to bring everyone together. At Keith's wake and funeral I talked to people I haven't seen in 15 years, sat next to folks I've barely spoken with since graduating 18 years ago. It was like an all-school reunion. If you took all the old basketball talent that gathered together you would have had an alumni team that could compete against just about anyone. Of course, we would have been missing the guy with a potent outside shot - Keith.

I last saw Keith over Christmas, when I was home from New York and attended a basketball tournament in Mankato. As I walked out of one of the gyms at Bethany, I spotted Keith near the exit, standing, watching hoops and smiling, a scene that had taken place hundreds of times in his life and one I'd seen dozens of times. I stopped to say a quick hello, how are you? Figured I'd slide out of that gym and head to another one for a different game.

Two hours later... I never left that gym and never actually budged from my spot near the doorway, next to Keith. We spoke about our lives and old times, about basketball, the games we played and the ones he coached. We laughed. We talked about our dads. We talked about our jobs and a few of our goals. We said goodbye and promised to stay in touch. Maybe catch a game the next time I was in town. The regrets about never catching that next game will surely linger, but not as long as the memories of that night and of his life.

Keith Wiste died on September 17. He was laid to rest on September 21. He was surrounded by his loving family, his friends, a town that loved him, a town that will miss him and a town that will never be the same.


More on Keith

Thursday, September 1, 2011

NBA Flashback: Benson, Breuer and more

I'm resigned to the fact I probably won't get to watch another live NBA game for about five or six months. Normally when October rolls around and the nation's sports fans are focused on the NFL or Boston or New York or one of those other cities that are home to Major League Baseball franchises that are recognized by Bud Selig but not Fox Sports, I'm gearing up for the NBA season. I'm ordering the NBA TV package. I'm scouring message boards or debating on Lakers forums about whether it really would be in the best interests of the team to trade Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol for a future first-round draft pick. I'm throwing out everything that's green - including money and recycling bins - in our household in preparation for another year of Celtics hatred.

But this year, thanks to the lockout, I'll probably do none of that. And with nothing in the present and a bleak future, I'll retreat to the past. There I'll find old NBA tapes tucked away and discover magical YouTube clips. Or, like I did tonight, I'll spend four hours watching NBA-TV and classic games from the league's past.

Tonight the network carried several "playoff gems," games that included a vintage performance from George Gervin, a Randy Breuer sighting in a Bucks-Sixers playoff game and Vinnie Johnson's unbelievable scoring binge against the Celtics in the 1985 Eastern Conference semifinals.

Ah, the NBA in the '80s. There's still nothing quite like it, even though I, unlike many others, still love the league as much today as I did back then. But now, let's roll back the videotape, pull out the history books, and in the voice of that guy who narrates the formerly omnipresent VH1 shows, let's rediscover why we loved the '80s. A potpourri of hoops from the glory days.

* The Vinnie Johnson game was amazing. He scored 22 points in the fourth quarter in Game 4, against the defending champs. This is why he was the Microwave. For the game he hit 16 of 20 from the field, most of them on tough jumpers with that odd form from that oddly shaped body.

A few months later, Vinnie's effort led to one of my favorite narration scenes in NBA history and surely the most awkward. I've written extensively on the Return to Glory video before. My campaign to have it win a retroactive Emmy remains in full effect - I'll send another letter to the committee after this blog goes up. It's all about the Lakers finally defeating the Celtics, the begoggled wonder, Worthy's dunks and Magic's passes, paired with creepy, inspiring music from the 1980s. But early on in the video, while recapping the Celtics-Pistons series, Dick Stockton describes the action by well, talking about a lot of Johnsons. I won't embed the video for fear of violating obscenity laws in 22 states. Here's the link. Go to the 5:20 to 5:52 mark. And here's the transcript:
"For Chuck Daly, Johnson was right on target. Johnson's heroics also baffled the Celtics, for it wasn't Detroit's three All-Stars who evened the series, but an unheralded, happy-shooting man named Johnson. Appropriately, the Celtics had a Johnson of their own. Dennis Johnson, another guard who sparkles in the playoff limelight. DJ's aching wrist made him miss the morning practice. But no injury could slow him down from a 30-point evening. Daly turned to his own version of Johnson."

Oh, Dick.

* That game also featured the work of Kent Benson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1977 NBA draft. That previous sentence is completely accurate, though perhaps the word featured is a bit much. But the Milwaukee Bucks really did take Benson No. 1. The former Indiana star averaged 9 points and 5 boards in his career. He also famously used his mug to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hand when the Captain's fist struck the young center's face. Benson's face should have been suspended. That's not the only time the word bust was used in connection with Benson. The next seven players taken after him had higher career scoring averages. Some of the guys taken after him? Otis Birdsong, Marques Johnson, Walter Davis, Jack Sikma, Bernard King, Cedric Maxwell and Norm Nixon. Yes, it's safe to say Benson didn't work out as well as Milwaukee's previous No. 1 overall pick - Kareem. The Bucks had a thing for overachieving Hoosiers who underachieved in the NBA. A year earlier, they took Benson's old teammate, Quinn Buckner. Somehow they avoided Scott May.

* As I mentioned on Twitter, it was odd watching the 1986 Bucks-Sixers game. The Sixers crew handled the broadcast. The analyst had a familiar voice but I couldn't place it. I finally figured it out - Doug Collins.Then I also realized why it took me so long to place him: I'd been watching for 20 minutes and not once had he mentioned he coached Michael Jordan.

* On NBA-TV it was a big night for tall white guys from the Midwest. The Bucks game also gave a glimpse at the giant Minnesotan, Randy Breuer. The Lake City legend battled under the boards against Charles Barkley. At one point, after a collision in the lane, it appeared, just for a second, that Barkley might be capable of snapping the skinny Breuer with just a bump from his ample ass. By the way, big Randy is no longer the all-time leading scorer in Lake City history. That honor now belongs to Lance Meincke. Still, Breuer did lead the school to back-to-back state titles. Unfortunately, there weren't a lot of people videotaping Minnesota prep games back in the late '70s. There were people videotaping NBA games in the 1980s. And here's one of the few online clips of Breuer as Michael Jordan viciously dunks in the tall fellow's stunned face - or, if you prefer, posterizes him.

* What's America's longest-running punchline? Historians can help me out here. What's something that could get a laugh decades ago and still could today? My vote: The San Diego/LA Clippers. If it seems like you've been making fun of the Clippers forever, it's because you have. Fathers pass the jokes down to their sons who pass it on to their sons who pass it on to their sons. At some point, daughters get in on the joke. The Clippers. They've changed cities, but rarely their fortunes. And guess what? In the 1980s? They were really bad.

1989: 21-61
1988: 17-65
1987: 12-70 (!!)
1986: 32-50
1985: 31-51
1984 (San Diego) 30-52
1983: 25-57http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif
1982: 17-65
1981: 36-46
1980: 35-47

The most frightening thing about that 1987 season is that the Clips started it 3-3. So they finished a tidy 9-67. They actually dropped from 3-3 to 3-15, lost 12 in a row. And how about this? After they won to snap the losing streak, the Clippers then lost 16 in a row. So a 1-28 stretch. They also finished the season the way you want to finish it if you're really trying to make a mark as being one of the worst teams in NBA history - they lost the final 14 games of the year. Of course, since they are the Clippers, they pulled off the Timberwolvesesque achievement of missing out on the first pick in the lottery, which turned into David Robinson. Instead they took Reggie Williams with the fourth pick. He failed to change the franchise's fortunes.

* The 1984 season ended in heartbreaking fashion - at least for Magic Johnson and 9-year-old Shawn Fury. In Game 2 of the Finals, Magic forgot how much time remained in regulation and the Lakers failed to get a shot off, while Kareem stood on the block, arm raised, waiting for a pass that never came as the Lakers waited for a title that never came. But before that, the Lakers benefited from someone forgetting about the scoreboard. In this case that player was young Dallas guard Derek Harper, who, in Game 4 of the Western semis, thought his team led the Lakers even though it was tied. The tough-to-watch footage - even for a Lakers fan it's hard to watch someone publicly shamed like this, perhaps because we now know what was down the line for Magic - is here, starting about the 3:40 mark. Yes, the Lakers won in OT. Just like the damn Celtics did a few weeks later.

And since I can't end on a downer about the Lakers and Magic, there's this:

Friday, August 19, 2011

Jack, Nikita & some nukes

I don't remember when we learned about the Cuban missile crisis in school. Probably in 8th grade, likely in the final 10 minutes of the hour-long class, perhaps after the 11 minutes spent on the Korean War. The teacher likely left us with a message of, "And tomorrow, we'll cover Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran hostage ordeal."

The story always fascinated me, even when I only knew the broad strokes and simplistic version: Dastardly Soviets sneak nukes onto Cuba; U.S. discovers it; John F. Kennedy appears on TV to tell Americans they'll all die; generals want to invade the island; blockade; Soviets back down; America wins; USA! USA!

Learning about the crisis nearly 30 years later made it impossible to really understand what it must have been like in the country during those days. It was laughable thinking about my parents hiding under school desks as a mushroom cloud rose outside of Fulda - "True, these shoddily made desks collapse under the weight of our heftier students, but they will shield our youngsters from a thermonuclear device." Kids still feared nuclear annihilation, primarily because of the TV movie The Day After. But the Soviet Union's eventual collapse meant there was no longer an ever-present enemy waiting to hit the button and send us scurrying into bunkers or under desks. We had 30, 40 years of living with Mutual Assured Destruction and most people felt confident leaders for both countries really did understand the theory. Students felt scared because of what happened to Jason Robards on TV, not because of what nearly happened in real life three decades earlier. At that stage, America seemed protected, isolated from danger, if not the world.

Certainly September 11 changed that view. But even in the aftermath of the horror of the worst day in the country's history, I didn't ever feel - and I don't think the majority of people did either - that the entire country was in danger of total destruction. In so many ways the danger was more terrifying than the Cold War, because it was random, unpredictable, and could seemingly happen anyplace, and at anytime. Even with that, there wasn't the fear that the entire country - the whole world, for that matter - could be brought down in the matter of hours, with just a push of a button.

That was what I imagined life was like in the early '60s, as the United States and Soviet Union escalated their arms battle and it all came to a (war)head in Cuba. But still I only knew the children's book version.

Several years ago I watched - and thoroughly enjoyed - the movie Thirteen Days, though I was somewhat surprised to learn Kevin Costner (or at least his character, Kenneth O'Donnell) had saved the world back in 1962. For the most part, the movie received praise for its accuracy. There were a few notable exceptions, the main one probably being that O'Donnell, who served as Kennedy's special assistant, didn't have much of a role during the two-week drama, even if he had a big one in the subsequent two-hour one that came to theaters.

Still, entertaining flick.

But now I finally feel like I've read the definitive account of the crisis. Michael Dobbs' One Minute to Midnight came out in 2008 and has been called "extraordinary," "fast-paced, suspenseful," and a "welcome introduction to that perilous time." Those were some of the official reviews and I can't add much to those. The book filled in any missing gaps I had and shed new light on old issues I thought had been settled long ago. It's literally a minute-by-minute account of the crisis. Half of the book focuses on one day - Saturday, October 27 - when the world really did come close to witnessing a nuclear exchange between a pair of superpowers who would have been anything but in the aftermath of another world war.

Dobbs' book puts the reader in the moment. Now I feel like I do know what it was like and why it was so terrifying, even though the most frightening aspect of the book isn't necessarily the fact the world came so close to the brink, but how it came so close to destruction.

One of the primary strengths of the book is it tells the story from all perspectives - American, Soviet, Cuban. Dobbs gets into the heads of Soviet soldiers in Cuba and leaders back in Moscow. He takes you inside the cockpit of a U-2 and into the White House. He explains Fidel Castro's motivations and the obsessions of the politicians who were determined to eliminate him, seemingly at any cost.

The book opens with some amazing anecdotes, which any conspiracy theorist would read and exclaim, "Told ya so!" On the first pages, Robert Kennedy meets with a group focused on eliminating Castro. These were the folks who brainstormed the idea of using "chemical agents to destroy Castro's beard, so that he would become a laughingstock among the Cuban people." It's not known if a night of heavy pot use prompted that idea. But Dobbs reports on how far the U.S. was willing to go to rid itself of the former baseball player turned ruler:

"The State Department drafted plans for the sabotage of the Cuban economy; the Pentagon came up with a scheme for a wave of bombings in Miami and Washington that could be blamed on Castro." Fake bombings blamed on a stooge? Okay.

RFK was meeting with that group when the missile crisis started. From there, Dobbs meticulously documents why events escalated, culminating in "Black Saturday," when nuclear war seemed possible.

The American generals were eager for some action. General Thomas Power told an aide to defense secretary Robert McNamara, "The whole idea is to kill the bastards." If there were "Two Americans and one Russian" left alive at the end of the war, "we win." Dobbs writes that McNamara's aide replied, "You had better make sure the two Americans are a man and a woman." And, preferably, attractive ones.

At the time, the United States did possess an advantage in sheer number of nukes. We could have blasted the Soviets and "won" a war, while losing tens of millions of Americans. And, terrifyingly, some in the military seemed all right with that proposition.

Looking back, it's frightening to see how a little thing could have led to a big war, whether it was the Soviets shooting down a plane in Cuba or an American spy plane accidentally venturing into Russian airspace. Imagine WW3 starting because of a befuddled pilot. It's absurd. And was completely possible. Fortunately, John Kennedy also spent time looking back during those crucial days. He reflected on how World War I started because of "mistakes, misunderstandings and miscommunication" and how that unleashed "an unpredictable chain of events, causing governments to go to war with little understanding of the consequences."

If nothing else, Dobbs' book is a great reminder about the benefits of civilian control over the military. Support the troops? Sure. But make sure you oversee their leaders. Their job is to win wars, but it's the politicians who have to be trusted with knowing when they should begin.

And that goes for the Soviets too. Nikita Krushchev, like Kennedy, fought to control a situation that had first spiraled out of control because of his own actions. For eventually pulling the missiles out of Cuba, Krushchev was basically labeled the loser in the event, by people on both sides. What a wimp! Didn't have the guts to go through with a war! Actually, he helped save the world, after almost helping destroy it. Just like Kennedy.

Dobbs writes:

"The question the world confronted during what came to be known as the Cuban missile crisis was who controlled history: the men in suits, the men with beards, the men in uniform, or nobody at all. In this drama, Kennedy ended up on the same side as his ideological nemesis, Nikita Krushchev. Neither man wanted war. They both felt an obligation to future generations to rein in the dark, destructive demons they themselves had helped to unleash. ...Something more than dumb luck was involved in sidestepping a nuclear apocalypse. The real good fortune is that men as sane and level-headed as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nikita Sergeyevich Krushchev occupied the White House and the Kremlin in October 1962."

We should all be thankful for Krushchev? I think we missed that part in school.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Update: New post on TVFury, new post coming here

Today on TVFury, we had an interview I did with former SJU quarterback Tom Linnemann. As always, Linnemann was extremely entertaining and very willing to share his opinions on a wide range of subjects. Check it out here:

The Fury Files: An Interview with Tom Linnemann

Later Thursday night I should have a new post up here on shawnfury.blogspot. Nothing too long - probably not 4,000 words on basketball movies from the '70s - but a little book review about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It'll be just like history class!

And Friday on TVFury, we'll have our links post up - The Tapes - and perhaps my podcast with Terry Vandrovec.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Robby Benson, a tutor, a basketball, and a red-hot poker

Any child of the '80s who dreamed of becoming an NBA star, or even only fantasized about hitting a game-winning jumper in the state tournament while under the guidance of a crusty old coach who just got off a boat, surely watched Hoosiers dozens of times. It remains the standard-bearer of all sports movies, and is certainly the best hoops movie ever made.

But another basketball film, released a decade earlier, probably maintains a spot in the heart of those same future hoop stars, especially if those players were a bit more mature — and a lot hornier.

One on One starred a young, floppy-haired Robby Benson, who also co-wrote the film (his dad, Jerry Segal, was the other writer). Last night, after midnight, just as I was headed to bed, I stumbled upon the movie on NBA TV. Despite having to wake up at 6:30 in the morning, I stayed up until 2, watching Robby overcome tough odds, an abusive coach, disdain from arrogant hippies, bullying teammates and his infatuation with a red-headed tutor.

The movie came out in 1977. When I was younger, One on One always seemed to pop up on TBS about once a year, usually on a Saturday afternoon, probably before a 4:05 Braves game. Back then, I felt frustrated at the lack of basketball scenes in what I thought was a basketball movie.

Instead, Robby's character, Henry Steele, spends his time on the bench, riding the pine while pining for his tutor, played by a fetching Annette O'Toole. Watch the trailer again. How would anyone even know the movie focused on a basketball player? It looks more like young Mr. Steele stumbles upon a swingers compound. If the movie is a porno, he certainly seems to have an appropriate name for such a role. "The story of a winner." A winner in what?

Benson attends the generically named "Western University" and struggles to adjust to the large campus. He doesn't help matters by speaking in a voice that's one level above a whisper. What kind of guidance did the director give Robby before his scenes? "We need you to speak like a frightened 11-year-old girl. All the great guards, from Maravich to Robertson, do this. Not only is it great with the ladies, but it's a fine way of inspiring your teammates as their floor general."

Yet he becomes something of a ladies' man. At one point an intoxicated older woman gives him head while Robby drives a car and, to paraphrase Lou Reed, he never loses his head, creatively bribing a police officer who had pulled him over for speeding by offering up a pair of tickets to the big Notre Dame game. It's the last time anyone was excited about Notre Dame basketball.

It's Robby's on-court life that proves to be a nightmare for much of the movie. He fights for playing time. The intensity bothers him. During one practice, his friend gives him speed. As a "Say No To Drugs" performance, it ranks up there with the famous Dragnet episode about the dangers of acid. Robby acts like a cokehead as his embarrassed teammate, who provided the drugs, realizes perhaps he should have first introduced the small-town rube to pot. Once he gets back on the court, Robby continues his out-of-control ways, just the type of performance you'd want from a point guard. It does give him a bit more quickness, but at what cost?

Veteran character actor G.D. Spradlin has the best role in the movie. Spradlin portrays the old-school coach, Moreland Smith. Throughout his long career, Spradlin — who worked as an attorney for an oil company before getting into acting - specialized in playing ruthless, uncaring, occasionally evil men. He was the sleazy senator in The Godfather Part II, the leader of an assassination attempt against the California governor in Nick of Time and a corrupt sheriff in the classic Tank.

In One on One he mentally abuses Robby. He allows the other players to do it physically.

To his credit, Robby refuses to back down. He's Henry Steele, damn it, and that means he's strong. Sure, he looks like a 98-pound weakling out on the court with the men - and probably weighed 108 pounds in real life - but he will not allow coach Smith to break him, even as he's occasionally breaking down.

Another classic scene. Weirdly, this is the same speech my junior college coach, Mike Augustine, gave to me. Making it even stranger? We didn't even have scholarships.

In the end, of course, Robby/Steele wins the girl and the big game.

About that game: Overall, the hoops scenes in One on One are to basketball what the kiss between Norman Dale and Myra Fleener was to romance. In the final game, the one where Steele comes in off the bench in the final 3 minutes to rally Western to a rousing victory, the opposing team hits approximately 23 consecutive layups in the final moments. It's shocking to see an intense coach like Smith lead a team that plays defense like the 1991 Denver Nuggets. Steele scores, opposition gets a layup. Steele nails a jumper, opposition gets a layup. Steele dishes, opposition gets a layup. Yet somehow Western narrows the deficit, although they still trail by 5 with less than a minute to play. After Steele slices it to 1, Western again steals it and gets the ball on the sideline with four seconds left. Steele hits the winning layup after an improbable series of events leaves him wide open under the hoop, a sequence that could have only been accomplished in four seconds if the timekeeper from the 1972 Olympic gold medal game manned the scoreboard clock.

The basketball scenes are at least played on a real college court, in a real arena at Colorado State University, unlike so many TV shows and movies, when the action is compressed onto a 30-foot court that makes the athletes look like oafs.

Young Henry feels pretty cocky after those three minutes of stardom. Three minutes. To that point he'd shown next-to-nothing, other than an inability to hold his uppers. His jumper still looks shaky, he needs a year in the weight room or a week with BALCO, and he falls for any girl who looks him in the eye and says hello. But like he was back in his Colorado hometown, he's now the man. And he tells coach Smith what he can do with that scholarship, in probably the best part of the movie.

The first reviews are fun to look back on. Take the one in The New York Times, which says the ending includes a "smashing basketball game." Well, that is one opinion, especially if a British reporter wrote it.

It's impossible - at least for me - to watch One on One, or any basketball movie, and not think about Hoosiers, even if one movie was more about getting laid than layups.

Compare Henry to Hickory star Jimmy Chitwood. On the court, there's not much comparison. While Henry plays for a Division I school and we only see Jimmy at little ol' Hickory, Jimmy is the superior player. There's a decent chance he eventually landed at Indiana, or perhaps Purdue. Better jump shot, better basketball build, smarter player, moves without the ball much better, underrated ball-handler. Off the court, though, Jimmy probably would have dreamed of having Henry's life. Beer! Car! Speed! Chicks!

Both guys labored under a tutor. But while Jimmy studied the War of 1812 under the angry, bitter eyes of Myra Fleener, Henry learns about the origins of World War I from Janet Hays, who wants to explore the finer parts of anatomy while also discussing history. I remain convinced that Jimmy never kissed a girl, much less got lucky with one. Who knows, maybe he flamed out once he landed at Indiana - or Purdue - when he, like Steele, discovered women. Steele proved he could balance women and ball. Jimmy still hasn't.

One on One attempts to show some of the corruption of big-time college athletics, but someone watching this movie 30 years after its release has been desensitized by sports scandals, whether it's money in the mail, point-shaving, payouts, abusive coaches or...tutors who do everyone's homework - but don't hook up with the players. One on One has a message and a good one, but a message never trumps an underdog story, especially one that's still referenced every March anytime a plucky club upsets a superior foe.

One on One is no Hoosiers. In some ways it's hardly a sports movie. But it's a good film for anyone who loved hoops, girls or hoops and girls at the same time.

If you don't agree with that? You can take this blog, find a red-hot poker and, well, you know.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

New post on TVFury

I have a new post up on TVFury. Surprisingly, it's about basketball.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A new adventure

A brief announcement.

There's now yet another place to read me online. The world needed this.

I've teamed up with my old friend and former colleague Terry Vandrovec for a site called TVFury.

Check it out here.

My first post is up here.

We were going to wait until August 1 to launch the thing and I suppose that's still the official start date. But, well, it's basically launched, so please check it out when you get the chance. We're still not sure exactly what will all be on the site but basically it'll be us writing about whatever. Primarily sports, but other things too. Sort of like my blog here.

I'll still be posting here on my own blog so don't abandon this one.

But TVFury should be pretty fun. We had heated negotiations about the name. I fought for Fury to be first. Lawsuits were mentioned, but things settled down. For now.

We're going to update the site throughout the week. Once August 1 hits we've talked about each of us having a post a day three or four times a week so we'll see how that works out. We're also going to have podcasts so you'll get to listen to our radio-ready voices.

Terry is a kick-ass sports reporter at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, where he covers South Dakota State University and writes about 95,000 words a week with stories, blogs, live chats and tweets. I've known him since 2000, when I started working at The Forum in Fargo. He was attending Concordia at the time and was something of a wunderkind. He's had the same work ethic since he was in school - extraordinary - and is an extremely talented and passionate writer. He's all right for a Cobber.

He's so passionate he just couldn't wait until August 1 to start writing on TVFury. And I couldn't let him have all the glory, could I? So there we are and there we'll be. Hope you enjoy it.

For those on Facebook - I know, pretty much everyone but me - there's a Facebook page: Facebook.com/tvfury

And we're on Twitter.

Monday, July 18, 2011

But how would Gandhi handle the sales staff?

Nelson Mandela turned 93 today. One of the most important figures of the 20th Century continues to inspire a decade in to the 21st, though he long ago gave up his official power in South Africa.

Like so many of her fellow South Africans, Louise reveres Mandela. She vividly remembers his release and fears the day when the country loses the man who symbolized and led one of the world's greatest human rights struggles.

Pick up a copy of his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom for all of the stunning details of his life. He's of course known for his 27 years in prison, but there was so much before the incarceration and so much he did after his release.

Perhaps the most important thing he ever did came after he left prison, when he played the key role in preventing a civil war in South Africa after apartheid died and white rule ended while black leadership began.

But forget saving a country. Perhaps Mandela's most important achievement was inspiring a new generation of IT people.

Check out this three-year-old blog entry.

Nelson Mandela avoided a civil war. IT Managers can learn a lot from how he did this. So what's a CIO or tech manager to do when they get plopped down in the middle of a battlefield?

If you saw Invictus - and you're an IT manager (I'm going with the lower-case on managers, they have big enough egos as it is) - you'll know the answer involves rugby. So, anonymous IT manager stuck in a cubicle or, if you're lucky, an office, take heed of Mandela's strategies. Implement them the next time some co-worker or underling begins to annoy you.

"It was Mandela who said "You don't address their brains, you address their hearts." IT managers can learn a great deal from all of this. When placed in a situation where there are multiple warring sides, a good manager needs to move quickly to diffuse the situation."

Perhaps if Mandela ever releases another book in his final years, he'll reveal how he made it through the inhumane conditions at Robben Island by wondering what an IT manager would do. Those lessons learned would have led him to being bored, dismissive, arrogant or incredulous. He would have shook his head in pity at someone who failed to do the most basic of tasks. He would have cracked bad jokes and probably been unsocial.

The blog - with the awkward, and somewhat unsubtle headline W.W.N.M.D? What Would Nelson Mandela Do? - is at least a temporary break from tough-talking businesspeople who quote Sun Tzu's The Art of War (or does that only happen in movies?). You wouldn't find many world leaders who would serve as a better example for tech geeks and the employees who frustrate them. No one wants to work under an IT manager who sports a yellow bracelet that wonders what Gaddafi would do.

Mandela is one of the most remarkable people of the last 100 years and one of the most important. He's inspired millions, in dozens of countries. No one should ever take him for granted, and his birthday is a perfect time to appreciate him. And, of course, the next time your work computer freezes up and Bill from the IT department gets into an argument with Joe about the cause, but finally relents when their manager intervenes and reminds them that everyone's on the same team and working toward the same goal, you might want to say thanks to Mandela. Yeah, he saved a country. But he might have also saved your desktop files.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Magic's 1996 comeback: Not a complete disaster

If I had to make a list of iconic images from Magic Johnson's career, I'd come up with the familiar ones known to Lakers everywhere: mauling Kareem after The Captain's game-winning hook in Magic's first game as a pro; the hug after Magic's 42-point performance in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals; the bullet pass to Worthy for a dunk in Game 6 at the Boston Garden in 1985; the no-look, behind-the-head pass to Worthy against Golden State; the junior, junior skyhook; flinging the ball downcourt against Portland.

All of those moments took place between 1979 and 1991. I could probably list 200 moments and games before I'd ever list one that happened during the 1996 season. The comeback. Like many Lakers fans, I've ignored details from Magic's 1996 return to the game, treating it the way De Niro fans must treat the last 10 years of his career. It was the year after the Lakers' surprising run in the 1995 playoffs and the year before the Shaq-Kobe era began. It was a pretty young team whose most famous player was an old guy who hadn't played in five years. The season ended with an ugly playoff loss and that was - finally - it for Magic's career. It wasn't as disastrous as Magic's talk show, but it wasn't a whole hell of a lot better.

I saw one game that season
, when the Lakers drilled the Timberwolves in Minnesota. But for the most part I've blocked out much of that season, even though it was the final one for my all-time favorite athlete. You'd think I'd remember more about the actual end of his legendary career.

The last few days I've been looking back a bit more at that 1996 season, reading old stories and watching old games. And maybe it's time for me to re-assess that half-season. The season didn't add to Magic's legend, but it didn't necessarily detract from it either. He was no longer one of the top two or three players in the league, but he was still plenty good for a 36-year-old who sat out four-and-a-half seasons. He was older and slower, grouchier and, at times, a bit angrier. He wasn't the Earvin Johnson of old but there was still a touch of magic.

In 1995, the Lakers finally emerged from the mediocrity that afflicted the franchise after Magic's 1991 retirement and went 48-34, before upsetting Seattle in the playoffs and losing to San Antonio in six games. The team had young talent, with Nick Van Exel, Anthony Peeler and Eddie Jones emerging as legitimate players. Cedric Ceballos turned his career around and averaged 21 a game. They had a flopping Vlade at center, Elden Campbell - or, as he was officially named The Enigmatic Elden Campbell - at power forward and decent depth. But they struggled at the start of the 1996 season. They started the year 13-13. They were 24-18 after a victory over the Nets on January 27.

And that's when Magic returned. This classic Gary Smith article tells much of the story of Magic's decision. There was the All-Star game return in 1992, the Dream Team and then an abbreviated comeback in the fall of that year, which basically ended when Magic got cut during a game and the video of him bleeding on the court became yet another iconic image of his career, only this one didn't leave anyone smiling.

But in 1996 he returned, and not just for one game or a few exhibition contests. He returned in the middle of a season to a team that was 24-18.

The first game was at The Forum, the site of so many classic moments, against the Golden State Warriors and rookie Joe Smith. The Lakers won 128-118, a flashback game that looked more like one from 1986 than '96. Magic played 27 minutes and had 19 points, 10 assists and eight boards, a decent night for any player, an extraordinary performance for a guy coming off the 1,800-day disabled list.

At the 1:20 mark of that video comes perhaps Magic's most famous play that season, the fake pass that left Latrell Sprewell bewildered and the crowd delirious.

Reality, for the team, hit a game later, when the Bulls - who came into the game sporting an absurd 40-3 record - rolled to a 99-84 victory in LA. Following the game, Michael Jordan - who was in the middle of a triumphant comeback but would eventually attempt his own ill-advised one - proved something of a prophet when he said he told Magic he had a killer instinct look in his eyes but his teammates didn't.

If there was any question about that, it was proven when Ceballos - apparently forgetting that he was Cedric Ceballos - left the team in March, upset about playing time. He eventually returned but the team was seemingly divided. Later, Van Exel was suspended for bumping a referee. Magic, being the leader he was and wanting to show the younger guys how to properly intimidate the stripes, did the same, albeit a bit softer, a few games later and earned his own suspension. And once the playoffs began, it seemed almost inevitable that the two-time defending champion Rockets, despite not having homecourt, would eliminate the Lakers, which they did in four games.

But there were plenty of highlights, despite the fact I've blocked many of them over the last 15 years. And many of them are online. YouTube user nonplayerzealot is one of the best online historians of all-things Lakers and he has a huge collection of games from that 1996 season.

This game against the Jazz was something of a grudge match, four years in the making. When Magic first returned in 1992, Karl Malone expressed reservations about playing against someone with HIV. Malone took some heat for the comments, though he was only expressing thoughts that were surely shared by many other players at that time. Magic prevailed on this night, though, scoring 21 points to go along with seven rebounds, six assists and one Showtime flashback at the 2:30 mark.

Here against the Bucks, Magic finished with 20 points and eight assists.

The Lakers had some impressive victories in the second-half of the season. They handed Orlando its first home loss of the season, after the Magic had won their first 33 games at home. After Magic joined the team, LA went 29-11, basically a 60-win pace. Magic averaged 14 points and seven assists a game. One of his signature moves during his comeback came in the post, where he often tossed lobs to Jones or Ceballos who cut through the lane while Magic backed the defender down into the paint. He still had the hook, he still possessed the set shot from deep. He still smiled. And, on occasion, he could still lead a break, running it at 36 like he did when he was 26.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Magic's 1996 comeback is that it showed what the Lakers lost when he left the first time. Magic was still great in 1991 and was still good in 1996. How far could he have led the Lakers in 1992 and beyond? His knees had a lot of mileage on them but in 1992 the Lakers had finally signed a decent backup point guard in Sedale Threatt. Magic would have changed his game but remained effective and, likely, dominant for at least a few more seasons. He still would have been the smartest player on the court and few backcourt players would have had a chance against him in the post. Maybe the Bulls don't have their first three-peat if Magic stayed around. But then they probably don't get Shaq or Kobe and who knows where the franchise would be today.

No, there no iconic moments from that comeback season. But there were just enough Magic moments in 1996 to conjure up memories of the '80s and to remind people of what was lost in 1991.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Life at camp. Or not

Lots of talk about camps these days. Friends are sending kids to swimming camps. Others are going to basketball camps. Teenagers we know are headed to acting camps. They're all sleepaway camps, a chance for young kids to stay away from home for the first time and an opportunity for teens to leave the nest and enjoy some freedom before returning back to their parents, a nice preparation for life after college.

My parents never had any desire to send me off to any camps other than basketball ones and for that I'm forever grateful. I understand their appeal. City-dwellers pack their little ones off to camps in the country where they see real pigs and real crops. Suburban moms and dads load their kids onto a yellow bus that takes them to a green lake where they get to be around water for the only time all year. They learn how to interact with other kids. They learn, I don't know, woodworking skills, so when they return home they can show off the shabbily made hat rack they constructed at camp. It boosts their self-esteem, at least when it's not being stomped out of them by a goon named Billy and his giggling 11-year-old henchmen.

I dreaded the idea of those types of camps as a kid.

Here's how I spent my summers during my elementary school years:

Shot baskets at the city park for five hours a day. Pepper with friends at the baseball field. Played quarterback or wide receiver in pickup football games. Stood on Mott Street alone, throwing a tennis ball against a rock wall for hours at a time, practicing my fielding. Ran around the tennis court for three straight hours, took a half-hour break, went back for two hours. Rode my bike around Janesville, including trips to Lake Elysian. Bought cheap baseball cards at Wiste's with my friend Brandon. Beat everyone in town who had the guts to challenge me in ping-pong.

And I was supposed to give that up for a week or two or three spent at some lake with dozens of kids, none of whom I knew, many of whom likely displayed sociopathic tendencies when lodged in poorly constructed cabins and supervised by horny teens who look the other way at camp shenanigans while getting to second-base with their fellow counselors? Certainly the fact I was not an outdoorsman played into my perhaps-ignorant disdain for camps. I loved being outside, but not if it involved fishing, hunting, fires, tents, bugs, hikes or treks. I wasn't a Boy Scout, at least not an upper-case one.

Only once did I ever come close to going to a real camp. In the summer before sixth grade, I learned I'd been selected to attend the school safety patrol camp in Legionville, near Brainerd. The camp - which supposedly is the only one of its kind in the United States - lasts a week and teaches kids to be crossing guard captains. It's on a lake. I wanted to remove myself from consideration, but I don't know that anyone had ever been done so in the program's history, which goes back decades.

Crossing guards are apparently a Minnesota invention, like Bisquick and the Green Giant. At the camp you learn safety patrol essentials, although I'm not sure what the essentials are: how to hold the flag, how loud to yell at students who walk outside the lines? You learn how to lead your fellow crossing guards. But you also swim and canoe. The camp apparently works, as does Minnesota's attention to school safety patrol. According to this trooper, "since the school patrol began in 1920, there has never been a fatality at a crossing where the school patrol has been on duty."

It's a great achievement. Still, I'm not sure if the camp deserves all the credit for that great safety record. Specifically, how does canoeing and swimming help the junior safety patrol members? What's the connection? Do they teach crossing-guard training at swimming camps?

I fortunately never found out what exactly happens at the crossing guard camp. My parents had already planned a vacation for the week in question, a trip to Kansas City to see my uncle Jerry. Later I heard some stories about the camp, some of which I believed involved depantsings of weaker children. Instead of spending that week in Legionville, I spent it in K.C., taking in a Royals game in their beautiful stadium, seeing Top Gun on the big screen and watching the Celtics clinch the NBA title. All right, so not everything about the week went well.

I missed the camp and missed out on my chance to be a captain. In fact, I didn't become any type of crossing guard, though I did enjoy their efforts as they helpfully kept us safe on the mean streets of Janesville.

My prejudices weren't restricted to sleepaway camps. For a few years, Janesville's Catholic church, St. Ann's, ran a little camp early in the summer, where we gathered with other little Catholics from other little towns for a week of bible study and games. It was as boring as it sounds - sorry, Mom. And with the church one alley away from our home, I had no chance of avoiding the camp or scripture.

Finally, in the summer before seventh grade, I went to my first sleepaway camp. A Pacesetter basketball camp. A week-long camp where I knew no one and had to show off my Janesville skills in front of southwest Minnesota's young hoopsters. It wasn't too stressful, though. The camp was in Fulda. And instead of sleeping in a bunk bed with a snoring roommate, I stayed with my grandma, in an upstairs bed. Instead of eating burnt marshmallows, I ate French toast and bacon - every morning - and hamburgers, roast beef and chocolate shakes at night. It was the type of sleepaway camp I could handle.

Louise didn't have much time for camps as a kid either. She hated the sports and other activities but did manage to capture one honor - the prestigious Boy Chaser Award. She still has the certificate. As parents, we'll probably ignore our own youths and pack our bawling children off to sleepaway camp, where they'll learn crafts and woodworking and improve their self-esteem. They'll swim and canoe and write letters home, telling us how much they love the camp, or at least that's the letters we'll read once the camp censors are finished with their edits.

Or maybe we'll schedule some family vacations for those weeks.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

While crowning the new Tiger, don't bury the old one just yet

Padraig Harrington suggested it, others agreed. Rory McIlroy might have a better chance of passing Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championship victories. Rory McIlroy, winner of one major. Rory McIlroy has the better chance and not Tiger Woods, winner of 14 majors.

There are a hundred reasons someone might believe it, although relatively few that make much sense. McIlroy's effort was awe-inspiring, because of the results and the ease with which he dominated. The winning score of -16 would catch your eye if it happened in an August tournament that no one cares about, one that doesn't even end on CBS because it drags on past the 7 p.m. hour and 60 Minutes must start on time. To do it in the U.S. Open is mind-boggling. Yet that score might not even be the most impressive aspect of McIlroy's performance. The when is just as important as the what. He did it two months after collapsing in the final round of the Masters, when he trudged around the course looking like a kid who'd been beaten up on the way to school.

How many sports equivalents can you think of that compare to McIlroy's rebound? It'd be like Buckner hitting three homers in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, or Nick Anderson burying 15 straight free throws in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the 1995 NBA Finals. Athletes who collapse don't bounce back like this, at least not immediately. They can rebound in a year, maybe two, but rarely will it happen in the next big event and often it never happens at all. There's likely never been anyone who's ever dominated like McIlroy did just one major following his disastrous final round. I struggle to think of comparisons. In tennis, Jana Novotna blew the 1993 women's final at Wimbledon and cried on center court. She eventually won her Wimbledon title - five years later.

No, McIlroy stands alone, in more ways than one. But as people praise the kid from Northern Ireland and pronounce him to be the main threat to Jack's record, it's worth stepping back and looking at the guy who's still the dominant figure in golf - even if he's no longer it's dominant player.

With his physical injuries and mental maladies, Tiger Woods has never seemed so diminished, as McIlroy's youthful dominance reminds people of what Tiger once was while making them wonder if he'll ever be close to that again. But this isn't football, baseball or basketball, where athletes peak in their 20s or early 30s. This is golf - the sport where a 60-year-old could be within a par on the 72nd hole of winning a major.

The leg injuries make Tiger seem older than he is and they might ultimately end his career prematurely, along with his chase of Nicklaus. But the calendar says he is still 35, even if his body and our eyes say different.

He's 35. And he's won 14 majors. It seems like he hasn't won one in forever and it seems like he never will again. Think of the columns that run after every one of his major failures. He might not catch Nicklaus. He's losing time. He's blowing too many opportunities. Nicklaus is out of reach. The articles have been written since his dramatic U.S. Open victory in 2008.

But then think about this: If Tiger wins one of his next 11 majors - just one out of the next 11 - he'll be ahead of Nicklaus' career pace. Jack didn't win his 15th major until the 1978 British Open, when he was 38 years old. He didn't win 16 and 17 until he was 40. The last two and a half years Tiger's gone winless in the majors and to hear commentators - who dissect his swing with the intensity of Oliver Stone looking at the Zapruder film - you'd think he had the ugliest game outside of Charles Barkley. Terrible swing, he's lost it with the putter, no confidence. Yet since 2009, these are his finishes in the majors:

2009: T6, T6, Missed cut, 2.
2010: T4, T4, T23, T28.
2011: T4.

And that's with a bad swing and no game. What if he gets more comfortable with his swing and with his new life? Is it that difficult to picture him again reeling off victory after victory?

This drought is also nothing new for Tiger, even if the circumstances - crashes! women! sex! Perkins waitresses! rehab! golf clubs to the head! - are unlike anything else. He's played in nine majors without a victory. After his 1997 Masters triumph, he went 10 majors without a victory, before winning the 1999 PGA. Then, after steamrolling golf in 2000-2002, he went 10 more majors without a victory, before winning the 2005 Masters. During those dry spells, the same columns were written - he's lost his confidence, he's lost his swing, what's he doing, who's the next Tiger? But both times he figured it out. And when Tiger begins to win, when he does figure out the new swing that everyone thinks looks worse than the old one, the victories come in bunches - three majors in a year, four in two years. We've seen these struggles before, but we've also seen the turnaround. He's gone nine majors now without a victory. Maybe it will again be 10. But then?

The injuries, of course, provide a driver-sized asterisk to all of this. If he can hurt his knee while swinging under a tree at the Masters, what's going to happen the next time he takes one of his vicious cuts from a vicious lie? Health is the great unknown, as it is for any athlete. But we should know what will happen if he does stay upright.

And one more note on McIlroy's victory and how it compares to Tiger's 2000 romp at Pebble Beach. Was it more dominant? More impressive? It was certainly a lower score. Rory won by eight, a nearly unfathomable number. Yet Tiger nearly doubled that margin of victory, winning by 15. And this year, 38 players finished the U.S. Open at +2 or better. In 2000? One player - just one - did that.

Does it mean Tiger Woods will ever be that good again? Of course not. But chances are - whether it's this year or next, two majors from now or five - he'll again be great.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Reverend George and the Lakers

I'll never forget June 13, 2004. I remember it on the anniversary every year.

The Detroit Pistons defeated the Lakers 88-80 in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, taking a commanding 3-1 series lead, despite 36 points from Shaquille O'Neal. At the end of the night I knew the Lakers' dynasty was all but dead. The championship run had ended the year before and now the Shaq-Kobe-Phil era was entering its final days.

I also got married that day.

Happily, the details of the ceremony remain more vivid than those from the game.

The ceremony took place near a pond in Central Park. Perfect setting. Nice weather - which prevented me from having to answer my dad's earlier-asked question, "What are you doing if it rains?" My parents, sister, and two of my oldest friends flew in from Minnesota. Louise's mom was there from Cape Town. A small group of friends gathered. People enjoying a picnic in the park cheered after the vows.

And then there was Reverend George.

We found Reverend George in the Yellow Pages. An interfaith minister who could perform any ceremony for the right price, the reverend said he possessed decades of experience and came highly recommended - I believe there were two exclamation points next to his Yellow Pages ad. A few weeks before the ceremony, George came to our apartment for the quickie equivalent of pre-marriage counseling. I suppose he had to make sure we were a male and female and he said he wanted to chat with us about the ceremony and get to know us better. Instead the night turned into a therapy session for the reverend, who expressed his frustration with an ungrateful daughter. He complained about her and cut her down. For every question he asked us, he delivered a pair of stinging insults about his child. At various times I retreated to the kitchen with Louise, leaving Reverend George with her mom, where I asked her, "Did we hire a psycho for our wedding? But you said he's pretty affordable, right?"

Still, he seemed competent. Perhaps even licensed. On our wedding day, he showed up wearing a robe and a smile. Very personable man in public. He joked with my folks and organized the gathered guests. He didn't know anything about us - our histories, personalities, likes or dislikes - yet he collected a few scraps of info we provided and cobbled together a short speech about "Shawn and Louise." He mentioned the long-distance relationship we had and said Louise's accent must have surely made it easier. It did. Good line.

Then he started talking about the vows and he brought up the accent again. He knew I wouldn't forget hearing Louise's vows, not with that accent. Oh, that accent. The accent. Finally, because it was getting weird and because I felt like I had to defend my role as Louise's husband - even if in the law's eyes I wasn't technically fulfilling that role yet - I interrupted the reverend and said, "Hey, who's the one getting married here?" It snapped him out of his accent-induced haze.

He stammered, regained his composure and finished the ceremony. Later, as we accepted congratulations from our friends and family, Reverend George slid up to me and apologized if he had overstepped his bounds. For a brief second, he flinched, as if he thought I might belt him in front of all our guests and all his gods. I assured him I wasn't offended. We invited him to the reception back at our apartment. He politely declined, perhaps spooked off by the possibility that in his inebriated state he'd reveal even more about his love of South African accents and his hatred for his daughter.

We were lucky we still had a reception to offer up. Two days earlier, Louise called a few friends of hers, telling them the reception - although not the marriage - was off. The cause? Our pilot light had gone out. Now, we had just moved into our apartment. I came from a land of electric ovens, Louise came from a land where you cooked outside over fire. When the pilot light went out, and the smell of gas polluted our small kitchen in our studio, we both expected the worst - death, perhaps by explosion, maybe by poisoning. Before I had a chance to look online, knock on the super's door or call my parents - pilot-light veterans - Louise hopped on the phone and called the whole thing off. Without a pilot light, she couldn't cook the food she had planned for the reception. Not to mention the logistical difficulties that arise from holding a wedding reception in a burning apartment.

A few minutes after those calls, our super came and relit it. Then I talked to my parents and they said it happens all the time. And in the seven years since, it has happened several times and we've managed to light it back up every time.

We had a blast at the reception, figuratively. My parents were able to talk to Louise's mom for the first - and thus far, the only - time in their lives. My old Minnesota pals met my new New York friends. My sister got sick because of too much South African wine and not enough food. Throughout the night I glanced at the TV, and watched the Lakers take the lead, before they fell into a tie, and then fell apart for good.

The night concluded with us taking the train to the Pennsylvania Hotel. We enjoyed our wedding night in a gorgeous suite. Our first night as man and wife. I turned on ESPN to see the final score of the Lakers game. I knew that night was the end of an era.

But even better, I knew it was the start of a new life.

Happy anniversary, honey.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The night Magic and Barkley both had 30-20 games

Late November NBA games are usually forgotten by early December. It's the first month of an eight-month season and barring a season-ending injury, the results are all-but inconsequential, at least in terms of division races or playoff positioning. But special performances, even at the start of the season, will be remembered long after the end of it. And thanks to dedicated fans with internet connections, old game tapes and time on their hands, those games are now preserved decades after they were played.

Such is the case with a game between the Lakers and Sixers on November 28, 1988. The Lakers won a close one, but the individual performances from a pair of Hall of Famers are what stand out. Barkley played all but one minute and scored 31 points - despite making only 5 of 14 free throws - grabbed 23 rebounds and had six assists. Magic kept pace with 32 points, 20 assists and 11 boards.

The '89 season was a strange one for the Lakers, one that marked the end of a career and an era. It was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's final season and there was no doubt it was time. Kareem was no longer the Kareem of 1975, or even '85. In 1987, at the age of 40, he scored 32 points in Game 6 of the Finals. A year later, again in Game 6, the Lakers went to him in the closing seconds and he hit a pair of free throws as the Lakers held off the Pistons and clinched their second straight title in Game 7. But he struggled throughout his final campaign, a season that saw him honored and celebrated in cities throughout the league. Before the games would begin, the teams would present Kareem with gifts - some heartwarming, some corny, some ridiculous - honoring his efforts and unparalleled career. He often played like the old man he'd become, averaging only 10 points per game.

As a team, the Lakers were now firmly under Magic's control. He won his second MVP in 1989, averaging 22 points, 12.8 assists and 8 rebounds a game. Michael Jordan - the second-best player in league history after LeBron James - finished second in the voting, despite averaging an absurd 32 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for a Bulls team that went 47-35.

The Lakers started the 1989 season 15-3, but soon lost six of seven and meandered through the remainder of the never-ending campaign. They finished 57-25, but found their game in the playoffs, sweeping the first 11 games before facing the Pistons in the Finals, in a series where David Rivers and Tony Campbell played prominent roles. It didn't end well. I forget the details.

But all that was still far down the road when the Lakers traveled to Philly. The Lakers had lost their previous game to Detroit and Magic must have suffered some type of leg injury - his season of course ended with a hamstring injury against those same Pistons - as Chick Hearn says, early in the game, that Magic isn't limping.

The Sixers managed to win 46 games in 1989, despite running out a lineup that had prominent roles for Mike Gminski and Chris Welp. Barkley was, of course, the star, averaging 25 and 12 rebounds. He still had a lot of the roundness that gave rise to his nickname and he was still a year away from a season that saw him finish second in the MVP voting. But he was certainly a force.

To the tape.

* I always loved watching games on television from Philadelphia's Spectrum. The games somehow looked different in the famous old arena, whether it was the distinctive color scheme or having the benches on the near-side, so we see the back of Riley's perfect hair instead of his strained face.

* Magic starts the game with several patented drives, showing off his ability to slide through the defense with the ease of a player six inches shorter. Perhaps the short shorts helped by providing less resistance as he flew through the paint.

* At the 2:20 mark, a low point for Kareem - Mike Gminski easily blocks the Captain's shot. It wasn't a hook, but humiliating nonetheless. The all-time leading scorer, one of the most dominant forces in league history, perhaps the most dominant college player in history (I know, I know, Walton was a "better" college player, but Kareem's the one with three NCAA titles), and now, here, in his 20th season, he's rejected by Mike Gminski. A Dukie. It was time to retire.

* I love the pass from Magic to A.C. Green at the 3:05 mark. Green was no Worthy on the break. Still, he often found easy baskets by running down the middle of the court, ahead of Magic, who had the ability to laser or lob a pass to the power forward. Passes like the one at the 40-second mark of this video. Green had a reputation, deserved, for blowing layups. At least he converts this one.

* Worthy put up 14 points and seven rebounds in the first quarter. Never known as a great rebounder, Worthy proved it by grabbing only three more the rest of the game.

* At the 5:12 mark, a Scott Brooks sighting! Scrappy, short, not very good. The player Timberwolves fans would come to know in the coming years. Michael Cooper easily rejects Brooks' shot at one point, a play that looks like me defending my 11-year-old niece. Create, Scotty. Pass. Scrap. Annoy. Don't shoot.

* The game is a dunkathon for Barkley, who one minute, as he wanders up the court after a rebound, looks like a 54-year-old banker trying to keep up with a 21-year-old at a noon YMCA game, but the next looks like the heaviest sprinter in Olympic history as he rumbles down the lane, filling it in a way that A.C. Green could never imagine.

* Brooks defends Magic. Forget this looking like me going against my 11-year-old niece. This looks like my 11-year-old niece trying to guard Magic. Not the highlight of Jim Lynam's coaching career.

* Stu Lantz is now in his fourth decade as an analyst for the Lakers. Today he talks constantly on broadcasts, dominating the conversation. He's the analyst in this game with Chick. He doesn't get many words in, other than providing wrong information five seconds into the broadcast when he says the Lakers have won seven straight games in Philly. Chick corrects him - they'd won seven straight overall. Otherwise, Lantz delivers three-second remarks while Chick carries the broadcast in his unique way, commenting that the mustard's off the hot dog after an errant fancy Magic pass and controlling the pace of the broadcast with the type of ease and confidence Magic used while controlling the game on the court.

* Magic's assist pace actually faltered. He picked up his 12th at the 5:20 mark - of the second quarter. But as he did in so many Lakers games, especially when he took over as the primary scorer from Kareem, he looked for his own offense when the game got tight in the closing minutes.

* The force of nature Barkley displays his jaw-dropping abilities at the 10:20 mark, making the steal, pushing it upcourt and delivering a perfect behind-the-back pass for a layup. Awesome to watch.

* After the Sixers take their first lead of the game, Magic responds with a 3-pointer, which Chick says is just his third of the season, in 16 attempts. The '89 season would actually be the first when Magic showed any real ability to threaten from beyond the arc. He made 58 three-pointers total his first eight seasons. He made 59 in 1989, 106 the following season. In 1988 he hit 19 percent of his three-pointers. Horrific, yet quite a bit better than 1983, when he went 0 for...21! By 1990 he was hitting 38 percent. Yeah, he worked on his jumper in the pros.

* At the 14:29 mark, with 30 seconds left in the game, Magic throws in an impossible lefty shot in the lane that puts the Lakers up six. Chick, somewhat surprisingly, puts the game in the refrigerator, even though it was still only a two-possession game. The Sixers still had a shot, actually. They had Hersey Hawkins, a threat from deep. They still had Barkley who could barrel to the lane quickly and turn it into a free-throw shooting contest.

But Chick still puts in the fridge, shuts the door with the light off and the eggs cooling. Why? Because he knew the Lakers had Magic.