ON PASSING THE TORCH TO NO ONE (Occasional Sports Moments #24)

I’ll pay tribute to the swashbuckling spirit, which is also vanishing, some other day. For today, another ode to a stoic.


“When Tim Duncan retired from the NBA”


I’ve been following the NBA since 1970. That means I missed Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell and saw Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson only in the twilight of their respective careers.

I caught most or all of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the still-going Lebron James.

If you asked me which player I would start a team with if my life depended on them winning a championship in the next five or ten or fifteen years, I’d pick Tim Duncan, who just announced his retirement after nineteen years, all spent with the San Antonio Spurs.

During that nineteen years, Duncan’s teams had the highest winning percentage of any franchise in the four major sports. This was despite being in one of the smallest pro sports’ markets (bottom ten percent); despite playing in a league which is built to reward large market teams like no other (outside San Antonio’s five championships, small markets have won a combined total of three titles in the last sixty years); and despite never playing with an in-prime teammate who was an elite all-timer. (Duncan did play the first few years of his career with an aging, past his prime, David Robinson).

I detailed some of Duncan’s unique greatness here (he did not win the championship that year but went on to win another the following year–it’s one measure of his greatness that he was 2-1 against LeBron in finals, and it was only an epic meltdown from Duncan’s Hall of Fame coach that kept it from being 3-0).

I put up most of what Duncan did in the linked post–the most impressive stats being leading those five small market teams to championships and leading four title winners in both scoring and rebounding, an achievement he shares with Jabbar.

But, impressive as they sometimes were, he was never about stats. All he ever cared about was winning–low post, pick-and-roll, run and gun, big stats, not-so-big stats, my best teammate is a center with creaking knees, a crazy swing-man who gives you twenty-five points with eight assists one night and five points with eight turnovers the next, a flashy point guard who can’t shoot or play defense.

Just win. Any which means. Any which way.

Let me enumerate just a few of those ways and means:

For nineteen years, defeat was his fault. Victory belonged to the team.

There was no fanfare. In the league that defines bling, he showed up to receive an MVP trophy wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.

When Kobe Bryant retired from the Lakers this year, he did it with a pre-season announcement accompanied by a rock star-style farewell tour, complete with gifts from all the teams he was visiting for the last time.

When Duncan retired today, in the middle of the off-season, he sent a text.

When Michael Jordan got tired of carrying the weight, he went to a bad team and settled for being an exhibition. Tim Duncan, playing longer, never got tired of carrying the weight. The Spurs won at least fifty games every year of his career except a strike-shortened season in which they won the championship.

Unlike Jordan and Bryant (and Magic and Bird and LeBron) he never ran off a coach, even though his coach made blunders that probably cost him two championships. Not only did he not run off his coach, he never said a bad word about him. He never said a bad word about that crazy swing-man Manu Ginobli either, even though Ginobli’s mental blunder in one playoff probably cost him yet another championship. None of the other players i mentioned, ruling in dynastic NBA cities like Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago would have let any of that go.

Like I said. Defeats were his, no matter who caused them.

The result?

He got called boring. He didn’t care. He got jibed for failing to market himself. (As Garry Trudeau once said: “America is the only country where failure to promote yourself is seen as a sign of arrogance.”) He didn’t care.

Excepting Robinson, his Hall of Fame teammates will be there because they played with Tim Duncan. His Hall of Fame coach will be there because he coached Tim Duncan. That’s one of those “subjective” achievements that really isn’t subjective at all.

I can’t speak to hockey, but, in the three team sports I watch, only Duncan and Russell consistently raised the level of their teammates’ play to such an extent.

If mental toughness is the hardest to achieve (and it is), and mad consistency is the truest measure of that toughness (and it is), then, along with Russell and Chris Evert, Tim Duncan was, from first day to last, the toughest athlete to play a major American sport.

Like them, he will never quite get the credit for it. This is not coincidence, because, like them, he was a supreme stoic. Maybe the two qualities–stoicism and mad consistency born of attention to detail–stem from a basic personality type. I don’t know. But I suspect Timmy is the last of his type we’ll see rise to such heights. There’s too much pressure to conform to the preferred self-promotional style in this better world we made for his like, once common in type if not degree, to come round again.

He played beautiful basketball, much of it beyond the comprehension of the experts who spent two decades failing to make that beauty evident to the average fan.

He didn’t care about that either. Great as the basketball was–fun as the basketball was–I’ll miss that more.


A WORD ON GREATNESS (Occasional Sports Moment #21)

Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart blocks a shot attempt by South Florida’s Ariadna Pujol, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the American Athletic Conference tournament finals at Mohegan Sun Arena, Monday, March 7, 2016, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Of course, I was rooting for the other Huskies at the women’s Final Four (for reasons I explained here). But since they were eliminated in the semi-finals, I decided to go ahead and root for history in the finals.

The history was made.

I don’t actually watch more women’s sports than men’s but for a number of years I’ve tended to watch them with greater interest. Women haven’t reached their limits yet. And, for me, watching minds expand and expectations of exceeding limits defied and redefined is the best reason to watch a sport. Any sport.

The University of Connecticut just finished an unprecedented run: four straight championships. In the last three of those years, they lost one game. They won each of the other 122 they played by double-digits. Of course, this has led to the latest twist on Martina Navratilova’s old formula for the difference in perception regarding men’s and women’s sports: When men dominate, it’s about how great they are. When women dominate, it’s about how weak their competition is.

I’ve been following women’s basketball pretty regularly since the early eighties. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds in that time. Believe me, UConn isn’t dominating weak competition. They are dominating for the same reason any player or team dominates: They’re better than everybody else. They’ve set incredibly high expectations  for incredible talent and sweat blood to meet them. That formula never changes. And in any sport, that’s bound to breed resentment, even hostility.

But it’s only when women do it that it invites condescension. Heck, I root against UConn most of the time myself, and for the same reason I rooted against the UCLA men when I was growing up, which is the same reason people have always rooted for any David against any Goliath. It doesn’t have to be rational. To tell the truth, UCLA played the game I wanted to see played. And UConn plays that same game, just as well. I don’t care much for their coach, Geno Auriemma. From the outside, he seems like a typical autocrat, by turns nasty or obsequious as the moment requires.

But boy do his teams play beautiful basketball. And boy can he coach. He plans every game around choking off your strength and exploiting your weaknesses, Kind of like John Wooden used to do back in the old days…at UCLA.

It’s true he can recruit like nobody’s business. Nobody wins without players, and Breanna Stewart (pictured above), who just finished her college career by winning the Finals MVP for an other-worldly fourth time, is the most complete player I’ve ever seen of either gender. I generally hate comparing women to men (a sports commentary device that is always designed to deliver a reminder that men are better–see the Navratilova formula above–and is used by female reporters, who should know better, even more than men). But regarding Stewart, the best descriptions I can think of are these: Imagine if Lebron could shoot. Or if Bill Russell and Larry Bird had been the same guy. Imagine that the next really transcendent male player we see, really should be compared to her. If he can’t dominate the paint at both ends, throw every pass in the book, rebound like a demon, run the floor like a greyhound and shoot threes, we should keep looking.

I won’t hold my breath on any of that coming to pass. But I’d sure like to see that guy, whoever they compare him to.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the burning question on ESPN chat shows for the last month has been whether UConn’s dominance is “bad for women’s basketball.”

That’s where we’ve come to and I talk about it more than occasionally around here: The relentless drive for mediocrity and acceptance of same. Greatness is just an illusion, after all–or else a cheat.  It must be, because nobody’s ever really better than everybody else at anything, ever.

Having failed the fairness test everywhere it counts, in economics, politics, culture, we’ve decided to impose artificial “fairness” on whatever’s left and to question the validity of anyone who defies the formula. Everywhere but “fringe” sports, the endless celebration of conformity and coloring within the lines is universal.

UConn just lost three All-Americans. Their run of good old fashioned excellence-beyond-measure will, like all such runs, end soon enough.

It’s fine to keep rooting for David.

But we should never forget to celebrate true greatness while we can.

YANKEE (Yogi Berra, R.I.P.)

yogi berra

Along with his longtime manager, Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra was the greatest malapropist in the history of American sports, or maybe just American life. As he might have said, half of what he said he didn’t even say, and it hardly mattered.

Along with Bill Russell, he was also the greatest winner in the history of American team sports. As his manager used to say: You could look it up.

Like Russell, he was never about eye-popping stats, and, unlike almost every other truly great athlete of the last century (or any century) he seems to have also been a genuinely modest man, a quality that has always been rare, though perhaps never quite so rare as now, when football is king, and, not coincidentally, we win all battles and lose all wars.

Look, I grew up in the south when it was still the south. Hating Yankees, the New York baseball team kind especially, was something like the Eleventh Commandment. But nobody, here or anywhere, ever didn’t love Yogi. Long before saber-metrics proved how essential he really was to all that winning, even people who didn’t know baseball knew exactly what he meant.

Nobody was more quotable than him. But he didn’t really have to say a word.



WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (That’s Baseball…Not Really. Sports Moment #11)

An occasional sports moment and I’m gonna rant a little and really try to futz up the line between when I’m kidding and when I’m not, but first, two things for the record.

Baseball’s still the sport for me. Bill Terry’s famous quote still holds–it must be a great game to survive the fools who run it.

And I have no strong rooting interest in the American League Championship Series between Detroit and Boston, though my youthful ties to the Tigers (Al Kaline was my childhood idol–I’ve always been more oriented to players than to teams), the hard times in the Motor City and what I realize is a completely irrational desire to see the otherwise likeable Red Sox punished for their Old Testament facial hair fetish makes me lean a bit more one way than the other.


Irrespective of all that, the general shape of the Tigers’ collapse on Sunday evening in Game Two speaks to larger things.

In case you don’t like baseball or just missed it, the scenario was this:

The Tigers’ Max Scherzer, who led baseball in wins this season and will almost certainly be the American League Cy Young winner, pitched the first seven innings, during which time he gave up two hits, one run and struck out thirteen batters. At the end of seven, his team led 5-1.

Now there was a time within living memory (my childhood to be precise) when no manager alive would have considered taking a pitcher of Scherzer’s quality out of a game of such magnitude where he was absolutely dominant and his team was ahead. And there was a time when said pitcher would have, shall we say, let his displeasure be known if ever such a move was even contemplated.

We’re not talking about stretching back to the days of Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Pity the man who would have attempted recommending such a course to Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver in my youth– let alone Warren Spahn or Juan Marichal the day before that.

That was then. This is now.

Now it’s as natural as breathing for a manager (in this case Jim Leyland) to assume his pitcher is exhausted from striking all those guys out and to let him know between innings that he won’t be going back out there.

And it’s just as “natural” for the pitcher to smile and go about fist-bumping his teammates getting attaboy’s and job-well-dones all around.

So that happened on Sunday night and the rest was reasonably predictable if not inevitable. Leyland, having taken over the game from his best player, then proceeded to use four pitchers in the eighth and “managed” his team from a 5-1 lead to a 5-5 tie.

The Tigers then proceeded to lose in the ninth with a fifth reliever–that is, a fifth consecutive pitcher who didn’t have anything close to Scherzer’s stuff–on the mound.

So instead of a 2-0 choke hold on the series for Detroit, it’s all tied.

In addition–and also absolutely inevitably–game announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver spent the top of the ninth explaining why all of Leyland’s moves made perfect sense and the fact that it all blew up in his face was just one of those things.

Of course they did.

Over-managing is hardly a new phenomenon. I’m sure it’s as old as baseball (if not the human race). It’s certainly been part of the game since I’ve been watching it.

But the kind of micro-management we now see routinely was once the strict province of authoritarian football and basketball coaches. In fact, Leyland’s over thinking and over-tinkering reminded me of nothing so much as San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich (like Leyland, a highly respected, top-of-his-profession sort with championship credentials) taking his best shot-blocker, overall defender, team leader and rebounder, Tim Duncan, out of the game not once but twice in the closing seconds of Game Six of the NBA Finals when what his team needed most desperately was defense, leadership and rebounding–again with all but inevitable disastrous results.

As my dad used to say–“Only a genius could have done it, because no ordinary man would have thought of it.”

Jim Leyland’s old enough to have been shaped by a the mentality on display in that Spahn-Marichal story linked above (just as Popovich is old enough to remember a world where Bill Russell would have laughed at him if he tried to take him out of a game in a similar circumstance), but it hardly matters because all that’s gone now. Gone from him, gone from baseball, gone from American life.

Hey, (just kidding) now we’re all back to reversing the course of civilization, constantly bringing chaos to order instead of the other way round (just kidding). Why expect a mere baseball manager to resist the tide? (Just kidding….No, really.)

So, yes, he should have left Max Scherzer in the game. Scherzer should have been irate at being removed–the one time when throwing things would have been justified he and his teammates should not have been all smiles and hugs. And, yes, Buck and McCarver should have called Leyland on his mistake (and should have questioned his decision even if the Tigers’ relievers came in and clinched the game with six straight outs) and should have called Scherzer on his passivity.

None of that happened.

It was like it was a football game or something (just kidding). Like an NFL Game where nothing can ever really be wrong, because it’s all so wonderful–it’s the National Football League!–and anybody who says otherwise will soon be looking for work.

Of course, football–particularly in its existentially god-awful, strictly-for-gambling-addicts-and-Sunday-drunks professional form (just kidding…hold on there buddy, just put the beer bottle down and hand me the tout before somebody gets hurt!)–is now the national sport (I wish I was kidding).

And as I frequently say around here: We will win no more wars. (Just kidding….I swear.)

Sure. I’m kidding.

But, gee, I wish I could get a bet down on that last!



…Or pretend to, at least.

This week the San Antonio Spurs reached their fifth NBA finals of the “Tim Duncan Era.” The Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade (that’s DBCCB for short if you’re a newcomer here) at ESPN and the other usual outlets are suddenly doing things like wondering if Duncan is the equal of, say, Kobe Bryant!

I didn’t stick around for the debate between whatever intellectual titans actually engaged in this particular argument, just caught the teaser. Somehow, I doubt they called it the no-brainer it is.

Tim Duncan is the best player of the post-Jordan era and a top-ten all time.

He’s also probably the most underrated player in the history of American sports (off hand the only competition that comes to mind is Chris Evert but that’s another topic for another day–in any case the list is very, very short.)

Consider this:

In the history of the modern NBA, which effectively began when Bill Russell arrived in Boston in 1957 and ushered in the recognizably modern game, NBA titles have been won by “small market” teams exactly seven times. That’s seven times in fifty-six years.

Four of those seven titles were won by the San Antonio Spurs (currently the 24th largest market in a 30-team league). For the record, the others were the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, the Portland Trailblazers in 1977 and the Seattle Supersonics in 1979 (ah, the seventies!).

So to put it yet another way, since the beginning of the truly modern NBA (which began with the twin arrivals of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird–to major markets of course–in 1980), only four championships have been won by small market teams (four in thirty-three years) and the Spurs won all four.

Duncan led every one of those San Antonio teams–each of whom had the deck stacked even more thoroughly against them than the teams that won in the seventies–in both scoring and rebounding. The only other player who led four championship teams in the two most important statistical categories was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (As Lew Alcindor, he led the Bucks to their title, then repeated the feat for three of his five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.**)

(Just as an aside, Duncan and Jabbar also led their teams in blocked shots each of those four years–to my mind a more important, game-controlling statistic than the more popular “assists” category, which is rather randomly applied in any case.)

In addition to all that, Duncan never once played alongside a fellow twenty-point a game scorer in any of those championship runs. (Tony Parker had the best scoring season of any of his teammates when he averaged 18.6 in 2007–Parker also edged the now thirty-seven-year old Duncan as the team’s best scorer this year, so Duncan will not be in a position to break his tie with Jabbar when the championship series starts next week.)

Just to put that in perspective, [and granting that team scoring totals have come down somewhat over the years] Jabbar only failed to play beside at least one twenty-point a game scorer on one of his championship teams (and even then, he was abetted by Oscar Robertson and Bobby Dandridge who averaged 19.4 and 18.4 respectively–in other words, in the season when he had the least big-time scoring support, he still had two scorers as effective as the 2007 Tony Parker, the closest thing to a consistent big-time scorer Duncan played with during any of his championship runs.)

Bear in mind that Duncan did all this while routinely playing for something like half his market value–thus providing the only means by which his franchise could possibly pay the competitive salaries to other players that have allowed them to compete.

All of this has been accomplished so quietly that Duncan has rarely been mentioned as a truly era-defining player. Journalists–and not only the DBCCB membership–tend to be impressed by flash and stats. Duncan has never been big on either. Yes, he can fill a stat sheet, as evidenced above. But his career numbers aren’t eye-popping by any stretch and the myriad ways in which he effects and controls games are rarely if ever pointed out by commentators or morning-after talking heads. Whether they don’t know the value of making percentage plays that don’t show up in box scores more consistently than anyone who has played in the last forty years (the time period I’m qualified to pass judgement on–I missed Bill Russell sad to say) or simply think it’s not worth talking about–i.e. “too boring”–I don’t know.

Some of this might end up being discussed further if Duncan’s team manages to win a fifth championship in the next few weeks–especially if it comes at the expense of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. There are some who are saying that Duncan might, in effect, “take the leap” into the land of players who define the history of the NBA.

That’s nonsense. He took that leap long ago. Nothing has changed just because the people who get paid to pay attention to such things have finally decided to do their jobs. And I’ll put very long odds on ever seeing his like again.

[**NOTE: George Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles in the pre-Russell era and he almost certainly led his team in both scoring and rebounding all five years. But rebounding totals were not kept as an official statistic during his first two title seasons. The only other players to lead championship teams in scoring and rebounding more than once were Shaquille O’Neal, who accomplished it three times with Los Angeles, Hakeem Olojuawan, who did it twice with the Houston Rockets, and Larry Bird, who, remarkably since he was not only a small forward, but playing on teams with Hall of Famers at center and power forward–the traditional positions for rebounding leaders–did it twice with Boston. As with Jabbar, O’Neal and Bird were, in all cases, assisted by more accomplished scorers than Duncan ever had. Olojuwan did do it once with less, or similar, support (the second time he had Clyde Drexler averaging over 20 a game).

Michael Jordan, of course, led six teams to championships in a large market (Chicago). It’s difficult to compare a swing man to a post player in terms of impact since he isn’t likely to lead a team in rebounding or blocks. But it’s worth noting that Jordan certainly had more scoring support. His number two man, Scottie Pippen, met or exceeded Parker’s 2007 scoring average in five of Chicago’s six championship seasons (and was only a fraction below it the other year). And no, that doesn’t make Duncan “better than” or necessarily even as good as Jordan or any of the others. But it does mean that whatever belated consideration he is getting when it comes to being mentioned in their company is long overdue.]