Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The blog lives, even if the Lakers don't

The Lakers' humiliating defeat to Dallas sent Phil Jackson into retirement, but not this blog. The pain, anger, bewilderment, confusion, sadness, apathy and rage only lasted a day or two. When a team gets swept and loses the final game by a margin usually seen in junior high basketball games where there's no rules against pressing or using overgrown players with wispy mustaches, there's not much to be said and even less to regret. The Lakers had their run and it ended, but they still have the pieces to return to the Finals next season. I'm ready to look forward. And when I need to look back, I have dozens of tapes and DVDs of past triumphs to help with therapy.

In the past month I finished a book proposal that will hopefully find a home and that took up most of my writing time. To catch up, and in honor of my friend John, I present bullet points:

* We just returned from a trip to Minnesota. Louise made it back alive, but not unharmed. A typical Minnesota trip, in other words. On previous trips to my homeland, Louise has suffered the pain of frostbite, the discomfort of an insect sting and the humiliation of bird shit on her face. She remains convinced the state is out to get her, that her African blood is somehow unwelcome. I always told her that's ludicrous.

Now I'm not so sure.

One day we drove to Winona to visit my aunt and uncle. For years I've told her we should visit Winona, the beautiful city on the Mississippi. A few hours into our stay, we went to an area where you look down on the city and gaze at the river. Impressed, Louise suggested we walk down a hill that went through some woods. My mom would pick us up in the van at the bottom. Louise doesn't hike. She doesn't camp. She's not a lover of the outdoors and the feeling is mutual. It seemed like a strange request. The path had steps but these were still the woods and this was still Louise, sporting her red flip-flops, as if she were headed for a day at the beach in Cape Town.

Disaster struck perhaps a quarter-way down the hill. My nephew Brock led us while Louise and my aunt followed me. I saw Louise flying past before I heard anything. In fact, I don't know if anyone made a sound. I looked to my right and saw ass, hair and lower back, as Louise slid past me headfirst down the side of the hill, headed straight for a tree. She slid a good 10 feet, if not more. It looked like she was enjoying a romp on a snow-filled hill at Lake Elysian, minus the sled. If she'd squealed a cartoonish, "Wheeeeeee!" as she slid past, it wouldn't have been entirely out of place.

A tiny stump stopped her when her shoulder jammed into the protrusion. We scrambled toward her carcass. She looked up with a shocked look but a clean face. No bruises, no gaping wounds. But large, ugly scrapes scarred her arms and legs. The worst injury, however, wasn't visible. She fell when she twisted her ankle on the side of the step and toppled over like a doomed, aging prizefighter in the ring against a young champion. She limped back up the hill but could barely put any pressure on her right foot.

A day later, I drove her to the urgent care clinic in Waseca, where the doctor diagnosed her with torn ligaments in her foot. She wore a walking cast out of the clinic. Six weeks to fully heal. Today she's still hobbling around, looking a bit like Willis Reed in Game 7. But we did learn an important lesson. If Louise is going to get hurt - and since we will return to Janesville, this is more when than if - having it happen while we visit my parents isn't the worst thing. She saw a doctor within five minutes at the clinic and was out after a half-hour. Back in New York, when she needed stitches for a cut on her foot, she waited five hours. Minnesota will hurt her. But it will also take care of her.

* A jarring moment in Janesville: Dairy Queen changed the sizes of its malt cups. Surely some type of market research drove this decision but it sent me into a brief tailspin. The medium cup now looked like a small. It came in a clear container with a top and possessed the same look of the new McDonald's shake, complete with whip cream and a cherry - if you desired, which I don't. I've been eating Dairy Queen malts for 25 years and the look of the cup never changed. We visited the DQ three times in Janesville and I'm still not used to the new equipment. It seems too classy, too corporate. Fortunately the product tasted the same. Zagat rated the Dairy Queen milkshakes the best in the country, which corresponds with the equally prestigious Fury rating. Dairy Queen's product is still king, even if its cups aren't.

* I started reading the monstrous new book Those Guys Have All the Fun, the oral history of ESPN that clocks in at 763 pages and about that many pounds. The book received tremendous publicity before its release, as various sites and magazines ran excerpts detailing feuds between rivals and romps between friends. I just started the section on 1992-94, when Keith Olbermann arrives on the scene and starts pissing off everyone at the network.

One of the early sections details a key point in ESPN's "worldwide dominance." And looking back, it's an event that really should have shown that ESPN can turn anything into a big-time event. Forget poker, Australian Rules Football and the ridiculous Who's Next - in 1987, ESPN convinced the country that the America's Cup was the biggest event in the land. A yacht race. But I remember watching part of the event as a land-locked kid and I remember the thrill when the Americans recaptured the Cup, which they'd lost in 1983 to the hated - I guess - Australians. That victory by the Aussies snapped a winning streak that started in 1857. So America's pride was on the line in 1987. I've never watched a yacht race since and I don't know the results of any of the America's Cup events since 1987. But oh how I wanted us to crush the Australians. The only thing that would have made it better is if the Soviets could have been involved.

Here's how analyst Gary Jobson described the monumental victory:

A lot of curves cross in favor of ESPN on that magic event. By 1987, the country had been dealing with another recession and was just not feeling great at that moment. We had lost the America's Cup in 1983, a shocking loss to many. At the time, the movie Crocodile Dundee had just come out, and the Cup was happening in summer in Australia, which is winter in the U.S. You could watch the races live and get onboard the boats, which had never happened before. It was windy and exciting every day. So the combination of patriotic fervor and strong winds matched up perfectly with an outcome very much in doubt.

Apparently all America needed during the last recession was a yacht race, instead of a stimulus. You're out of a job? Forget your problems, watch some rich guys float around the ocean. Crocodile Dundee came out? It's unclear if Jobson meant the movie made Americans excited about Australia or gave us another reason to hate the country. Were we supposed to be so upset by this funny-talking foreigner who had bigger knives than our muggers that we'd want to dominate in the water? Or were we so excited by the Croc that we'd tune in to the America's Cup just to see, perhaps, Paul Hogan providing analysis or pulling a shift on one of the boats? Weird moment in time; Paul Hogan ruled the metroplex, yachting ruled TV. But one thing remained the same - the USA kicked some ass. Too bad it didn't come at the expense of the Commies.

* Went to a Twins game at Target Field. Great experience. First home game since Harmon Killebrew's death. Jim Thome blasted a pair of homers. Twins took a 7-4 lead into the eighth. And then, predictably, inevitably, everything fell apart and the Twins lost in extra innings. The most amazing sight of the night came in the bottom of the ninth, when the Twins had the possible winning run in scoring position and the crowd rose as one. Everyone but my mom, who sat in her chair, asleep, as excited as an 8-year-old in church. We've long joked that she could sleep through anything but this provided the final proof of that theory. She obviously didn't miss anything, as the Twins failed to get the big hit. We woke her up in time to see the Twins lose.

* Mike Brown. Huh. Like many Lakers rubes, I would have preferred Rick Adelman, but Brown could prove to be a great hire. In a way, the somewhat unexpected hiring is in line with the majority of coaches Jerry Buss has brought aboard since 1980, even if this decision was more of a Jim Buss production. Early in the 1981-82 season, as the team struggled and Magic Johnson complained about Paul Westhead, Buss promoted a little-known assistant named Pat Riley. Originally, the plan called for Jerry West to serve as a co-coach, as an offensive coach. That, thankfully, didn't last, and the Lakers went on to win four titles under Riley while West became a legendary general manager.

When Riley left in 1990 following an embarrassing playoff defeat, the Lakers hired first-time coach Mike Dunleavy, a guy with no experience who had to handle a veteran team with legendary players who were a bit past their prime. After a shaky start, Dunleavy led the Lakers to the 1991 Finals, where they would have won if James Worthy had been healthy. So I tell myself. In reality they lost in five to the Bulls. A few months later, Magic Johnson called a press conference that changed basketball history forever and after the 1992 season Dunleavy left for Milwaukee. Instead of going after a big name, Buss hired longtime assistant Randy Pfund, a serviceable coach caught in an impossible situation.

Del Harris came to the Lakers for the 1995 season, another hire that raised eyebrows when it didn't cause yawns. When Phil Jackson joined the team for the 2000 campaign, it was really the first time the Lakers went after the biggest name available. The hire made perfect sense at the time, unlike many of Buss's hires. But like many who came before him, Jackson proved Buss knew what he was doing. The Rudy Tomjanovich hiring, of course, showed Buss is anything but infallible.

Will Brown be like Rudy T. or Riley? Like Dunleavy or Pfund? No matter who followed Jackson, their resume would look laughable. With John Wooden and Red Auerbach not up for leading an NBA team, it'd be impossible to find anyone who could come close to matching Jackson's achievements. Adelman, Van Gundy, Shaw - they all would have faced questions. Brown led the Cavs to 66 victories one season, 61 the next. Yes, he had LeBron. But the Heat had LeBron, Wade, Bosh and Juwan Howard this year but only had 58 victories. Brown made the pieces work, just not when it mattered most. The Lakers aren't going to plummet to .500 next season. They're old but the Mavs are even older. They suffered a devastating defeat but the Mavs suffered those every year except this one. With perhaps a few tweaks, they should again contend for the title.

Still, it won't be the same without Phil. The Lakers will see more in-game timeouts and fewer post-game quips. There might be better defense but worse offense. They'll have a coach who stands throughout the game, but they'll no longer have the coolest coach in the league perched on his big chair. It won't be the same, even if the winning returns.

* The playoffs continued without the Lakers, violating some type of league bylaw. I'm picking the Mavs. The Heat have looked great, but so have the Mavs. And during the season, when Dirk played, the Mavs were pretty much the best team in the league. Early in the year they won 17 of 18 games. Then, when Dirk returned from injury, they won 18 of 19, with the lone loss coming at the buzzer in Denver. I see Dirk pulling a Rick Barry, circa 1975, and carrying his team past a more talented squad. Mavs in 5, which will likely be as accurate as my last prediction - Lakers in 5.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

When dynasties die

A part of me doesn't really believe anything I'm about to type after this paragraph. A part of me remains convinced the Lakers will steal a game against Dallas on Sunday afternoon, then cruise to a victory at the Staples Center two nights later. Now it's Game 6 and Dallas feels all the pressure. Lose this game at home and they're on the verge of becoming the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-0 lead. No one's done that, not even the tortured Lakers teams from the 1960s, which lost in every conceivable manner except that one. But the Lakers pull out a close Game 6. The teams return to LA for Game 7 and is anyone outside of Dallas or Germany expecting the Mavericks to pull that one out? The Lakers roll and ride the type of momentum no one in league history has had into the Western Conference Finals. Eight games later - after sweeping Oklahoma City and Chicago - the Lakers are NBA champs. Again.

But maybe that doesn't happen.

Dynasties don't end well. Even when it ends with a team going out on top - like Jordan's 1998 Bulls did - the following seasons are disastrous and produce the type of basketball that is usually only produced by guys running around in Timberwolves jerseys. Dynasties end with young legs running past old ones, unless they end with the old legs breaking down. In 1989 the Lakers went for three in a row and rolled to an 11-0 record in the playoffs until Byron Scott's hamstring snapped before the Finals, followed by Magic's in Game 2. And that was it for the Magic-Kareem-Worthy-Cooper gang.

No one knew until November of 1991 that the Magic era had ended in June of that year, but when the Bulls methodically ushered the Lakers out in five games, it followed the template that's been repeated time and time again - the younger, fresher, hungrier team overwhelming the aging warriors. Same thing happened with the Celtics in 1988 against the Pistons. And those Pistons suffered a humiliating exit in 1991, when they, like the Lakers this year, were seeking a third straight title and fourth straight Finals appearance. Instead Jordan and the Bulls swept them, forcing Detroit's players to perp walk off the court in the closing seconds, a moment that might have been the most humiliating moment in Isiah Thomas's career, if not for his time spent in the executive offices in the CBA and at Madison Square Garden. In 1996, the two-time defending champion Rockets finally fell, losing to Seattle in the conference semis. They got swept, actually. Sound familiar?

There's something...beautiful about watching a dynasty die. It's the circle of the sporting life. No one's a champion forever. When you see a champion lose, when you see how easy it is for a season to end, it helps you appreciate just how lucky you have to be to win in the first place. You appreciate just how good a team has to be in the first place. The eventual struggles help put the past triumphs in perspective.

From a Lakers point of view, this series feels a bit like 1990. A year after Kareem finally hung up the goggles, the Lakers went 63-19, the best record in the league. In the semifinals they met Phoenix, a franchise that had served as a purple punching bag for the Lakers for much of the 1980s. But after winning the first game in LA, the Suns returned to Phoenix and swamped the Lakers in Games 3 and 4, before finishing it off in 5. Pat Riley won the Coach of the Year that year but was finished after the playoff exit. It was the end of an era, just like it will be the end of Phil Jackson's era if - when - the Mavericks dust off the Lakers in this series.

There's no such thing as a tortured Lakers fan. The only time Lakers fans could ever claim that was in the 1960s and boy could they claim it back then. But 10 titles in 30 years - and a total of 16 trips to the Finals - disqualify any current Lakers fan from crying woe. No one wants to hear it. On Lakers messageboards, when people aren't clamoring for the hiring of Larry Brown (no, really), they're trying to put this expected loss in historical perspective. How disappointing is it? To me, it would rank pretty far down the list. It doesn't compare at all to the defeats in the 1960s , when the Lakers were still seeking that elusive first title in LA. It doesn't compare to 1970. It doesn't come close to 1984, when Magic fell apart, as did the Lakers in seven against Boston. It doesn't come close to 2004, when the end of the season felt apocalyptic, as Phil left and no one knew if either Shaq or Kobe would return. If this is it for the Lakers, it ends a superb three-and-a-half year run. It was a run that produced a pair of titles, including a delightful Game 7 comeback against the hated Celtics. Have the Lakers underachieved? Yeah, a bit. Gasol looks lost, Kobe looks tired and Fisher appears fossilized. But Dallas deserves more credit than the Lakers deserve blame. Dirk's playing as well as ever, they have a great coach and tremendous depth. They deserve to be up 3-0.

But...is there a chance at a comeback? Sure. No team has come back from a 3-0 deficit but teams have come back from being down 3-1. So the Lakers have to win Sunday and then it goes from there. If any team is going to finally climb out of a 3-0 hole to win, wouldn't you think it'd be a team with the resume of the Lakers? Most teams that fall behind 3-0 are clearly inferior. That's certainly not the case for the Lakers in this series, at least for the first 42 minutes of the games. And for any team to pull it off I think they need Game 7 at home, which the Lakers would have. In 2003, the Mavericks were up 3-0 on the Blazers before losing three in a row. Game 7 was at Dallas, and in that game, the Blazers actually led by two points with four minutes to go, before the Mavericks pulled away. So no team has come back from 3-0 down but they have come back to tie it and lead by two with four minutes to go in Game 7.

Is it likely? Nah. This is probably the end, the death of a dynasty. And in its own way, it will be beautiful. But...

No one thinks the Lakers can win four in a row. But then, how many people thought the Mavericks would win three in a row?