WONDER WOMAN (Penny Taylor Says Goodbye: Occasional Sports’ Moment #26)

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Penny Taylor played her last WNBA game yesterday, a loss in a playoff elimination game. I wrote most of what I had to say about Taylor here, a couple of years ago, when it looked liked her Phoenix Mercury team was about to redefine the possibilities of what women’s basketball could be.

That didn’t happen, for reasons I partially delineated in the UPDATE to the linked piece. But Penny Taylor was Penny Taylor down the bitter end.

When Holly Rowe approached her before what turned out to be her last game, she asked Taylor if she was having any reflective thoughts or perhaps feeling a bit sad about the now-imminent end of her career.

“No. I’m thinking about getting a *&%#ing win,” Taylor said.

That pretty well summed up every minute of Taylor’s career.

I had the privilege of seeing her play on television maybe fifty times. In maybe forty-five of those games there was what I can only describe as at least one “Penny Taylor Moment.” Some lunatic dive on the floor that turned out to have a point, some twisting layup in the lane, some no-look assist from her butt, some improbable rebound snatched from a gaggle of taller, “more athletic,” players that seemed to occur only when the game was on the line.

Some moment like the one in the videos I linked in the above piece (where she tied up a shooter with less than a second on the third quarter clock of a two-point game, forced a turnover, and then watched as Diana Taurasi sank a half-court shot off the in-bound to break the game open).

Not surprisingly, there was such a moment in her last game, too.

It came in the first half, when the game was still competitive but the tide was turning against her team.

No YouTube is available as yet, so I’ll have to describe it:

Taylor reached in on a burgeoning fast break being generated by the other team after a turnover near the mid-court line. After tapping the ball away, she dove on the court and secured possession. Just as she did so, the nearest player from the other team rolled over her and “accidentally” slammed Taylor’s head into the court with as vicious a close-range elbow as you’ll ever see. Taylor wasn’t quite knocked unconscious but she lay writhing on the floor for several minutes while the refs sorted out who the foul was on.

When it was finally decided that Taylor should be awarded two free throws, the announcers began pointing out that if she left the game for a concussion protocol, she would not, under league rules, be allowed to return. Then one of the announcers noticed that Taylor was wobbly on her feet when she was finally able to stand up. They doubted whether she would be able to continue, let alone make the free throws.

I laughed out loud and said: “Good God you morons. It’s Penny Taylor!”

Thirty seconds later, Taylor drained her two free throws. About sixty seconds after that, on an ensuing possession, she drove the lane, got knocked down…and drained two more free throws.

Down to the end, the people who cover the WNBA retained their complete state of ignorance regarding who Penny Taylor was, and why, as a gender re-write of that old classic line about Reggie Jackson would have it: “Winning just seemed to follow her around.”

Again I say, for the last decade-plus, the hardest-nosed basketball player in the world was a woman. A woman with her admitted share of all-star credentials, who, except when she was leading Australia’s national team, sacrificed superstar scoring stats, of which she was perfectly capable, in order to provide all the intangible things no one else could for championship teams in the WNBA and elsewhere.

And again I say, it will be a crying shame if the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame–the most prestigious of the sport’s several halls–follows the “journalists” who failed to recognize who she was, just because such an impossible lot of it didn’t show up in the box score.

Sayanora, Madam That-Ball-Is-Mine.

God it was fun!

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GAME CHANGERS….OR, ANOTHER WORD OR TWO ON GREATNESS (Occasional Sports Moment #22)

Dec 8, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) is guarded by Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Golden State defeats Indiana 131-123. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not often that we get to see a major American sport essentially redefined by one man. That’s what the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry, a seven-year NBA veteran who, remarkably, was only the seventh pick in the draft coming out of college (i.e., he was projected as a fine player, but literally no one saw this coming), has been doing for the last several years, culminating this week in leading his team to a staggering (and record-setting) 73-9 regular season record, basically by shooting three-pointers at such a rate that he’s literally expanded the area of a basketball court that needs to be defended by a couple of hundred cubic feet and more or less brought his teammates along with him.

The ways in which this changes the game both physically and psychologically are too numerous and subtle for me to go into in depth. All you really need to know is the last phrase of that first paragraph: A couple of hundred extra cubic feet now need to be defended by the same five men who have guarded the traditional area since basketball went full court many decades ago (and which did not fundamentally change when the three point shot was implemented in the seventies). Granted those men have gotten considerably bigger and faster, so much so that the game is almost unrecognizable from what it was fifty years ago.

But no player has ever changed the dimensions of the sport so radically in such a short time. For some perspective, Curry’s fabulous season just past allowed him to join the NBA’s 50-40-90 club (fifty percent from the field, 40 percent from the three-point line, 90 percent from the free throw line).

He’s the seventh to have done it (Larry Bird (2) and Steve Nash (4) did it multiple times). But that doesn’t come close to measuring the dimension of Curry’s achievement. He’s the first guard to do it while averaging twenty points (Nash averaged nineteen in his best year). He’s the first player period, to do it while averaging thirty points (Bird fell half a point shy in his best attempt). In other words, he averaged thirty, while doing something no player at his position had ever done while averaging twenty.

That’s changing the game dramatically.

And that’s just for starters.

Bird, the first man to achieve the feat, attempted 225 three point shots (1986-87). In the thirty years since, the most three point shots attempted by any player who achieved the feat was by Nash, who shot 381 in 2007-08. That’s a substantial, but perfectly reasonable increase, fully explained by coaches and players gradually reassessing the risk/reward of the three point shot attempt in a perfectly feasible and foreseeable fashion.

This season, Curry reached the same club while making 402 threes, or twenty-one more than Nash attempted. Put another way: He made more threes this season than Nash, who previously had the two highest marks for made threes by members of this particular club, made in his two highest seasons combined. Not one or two more: 73 more. For more perspective: The year Bird established the club, he made a total of 90.

Again, this is not incrementalism. It’s a complete re-imagining of what is possible in your sport.

Even more remarkably, Curry generated all this massive offense while playing the point guard position, which is designed for ball-distribution to his teammates, at an elite level. That is, even while leading the league in scoring and expanding the entire sport’s comfort-shooting range by 3-5 feet (the sport has to deal with it, even if he’s the only player at present who can really take advantage of this expansion–they dealt with it this season by holding the Warriors to 73 wins), he’s still one of the two or three best pure point guards in the league.

Oh, by the way, he also led the league in steals, a stat that complements his expansion of the floor’s scoring space by speeding up the game and leaves Curry running free in the middle of the court where, unlike any player in history, he can literally pull up at any point past the mid-court line or, if a game clock is running out, any point beyond it and make shots previously regarded as “prayers” way more often than real prayers have been answered since Moses got shut out of the Promised Land.

I mention all this because the emphasis from the basketball press all season (and the sporting press at large) has been on silly things like whether this Warriors team (assuming it wins the championship) could beat the Chicago Bulls team that held the previous wins record (hint: we’ll never know), or whether Curry could get to 400 made threes (hint: they played the entire 82 game season, just like always, and, in a season where he absolutely either would or would not, he did). Easy narratives prevailed, as usual.

But the real story is that, in theory, any great shooter who has had the benefit of the three point line could have done what Steph Curry did, and, more significantly, any number of players could have at least built a bridge across the yawning gap that now divides Curry from the history of the game.

None did.

None did, because that’s the way a sport usually works and the way human nature usually works. The unthinkable is always impossible….until it isn’t.

And sporting breakthroughs are just like breakthroughs in art, science or general human enlightenment: First, somebody has to dream it.

The only act of pure sporting imagination I can compare Curry’s last two seasons to are Babe Ruth’s home run barrage in the early twenties. Baseball answered the impending challenge to their business model’s competitive balance by introducing a “lively” ball. We’ll see what, if anything, basketball does to bring the rest of the sport up to Curry’s startling new standard, or, more likely, bring him back to the existing standard.

Let’s hope it’s not with the reintroduction of clotheslining.**

tycobb3Speaking of a return to the primitive, and players who define their sport for an era, I am definitely looking forward to getting hold of this author’s book. Among other things, it gives the catcher’s side of this famous photograph, taken roughly a century ago, of a player who defined his own sport for an era, while, in legend at least, remaining too crude, on and off the field, to be a role model for history….

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I’ve always suspected that Ty Cobb’s “virulent” racism, etc–which, along with the absence of compelling video footage, has rather overshadowed his own imaginative sporting genius (the best account we’ll ever have is from this man)–has lost nothing in the telling. That there might be a kernel of truth there is still likely, and I’m also wary of easy revisionism. Counter-myths can distort as easily as any other kind.

But if the quotes in the link are indicative, it certainly looks as though the story might have another side. Look for an assessment of that developing narrative in some upcoming monthly book report.

Meanwhile we can all amuse ourselves wondering what legends the famously mild-mannered Steph Curry will inspire a hundred years from now…if his team keeps wining championships.

**If you need a definition of “clotheslining,” the action around 0.35 to 0.38 should suffice. For the record, the NBA used to encourage this kind of thing.

OVERTURNING THE NARRATIVE (Old School Mercury Rising: Occasional Sports’ Moment #17)

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Haven’t had a sports moment in a while. I even laid off when Tim Duncan and the Spurs wasted the Heat in the NBA finals–getting revenge for last year’s heartbreak and sending King LeBron in search of World Peace, a Higher Purpose and a general approach to life and basketball that looks a lot more like Duncan’s (for all of which I certainly applaud him).

Permit me, though, to pause for a quick congratulations to the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, who just completed a season in which they established themselves as the new standard for the greatest women’s team ever.

The playoffs were mostly a walk-through, but there were two moments of possible angst–the end of the third quarter of a deciding Game Three in the Western Conference Finals against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx and the fourth quarter of Game Three of the Finals against the Chicago Sky.

I’ll get to some details shortly, but suffice it to say that, with all the new pieces added since 2009, including Brittney Griner (who, in her second season, developed a fantastic offensive game to go with all those blocks and dunks that have made her famous beyond the usual realm of women’s basketball and turned herself into a real force), when it came to winning time, it was still Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor (pictured above) who delivered the goods.

This was their third WNBA championship together (playing separately they’ve both won numerous times on the international stage, Olympics, FIBA, Euro-Leagues and the like) and the basics still applied: Taylor was the glue, Taurasi the glitter.

You need both to win. It will be a crying shame if Taylor, a superstar talent who has sacrificed her stats for years to do all the “little” things that don’t show up in box scores, doesn’t make the Basketball Hall of Fame just because there’s no stat for “If there are four people in this pile and I’m one of them, I’m coming out with the ball.”

There was a defining moment in their chemistry at the end of that third quarter in the Western Conference decider. The game was tied with about half a minute left–tight as a tick, basket for basket. Taurasi made a jump shot and then a half-court three-point heave to give the Mercury a five point lead and open up the game. They never looked back and those shots made every highlight reel I saw.

Deservedly so. But you had to watch the game to know that Taylor went into a pileup to win a loose ball that set up the first shot. Then she reached in on the defensive end and wrestled the ball away from a jump shooter, forcing a turnover with 0.8 left in the quarter.

As the announcers were chastising Taylor for risking a fifth foul (which would have put her on the bench for most of the fourth quarter in what was then a close game), the Mercury in-bounded the ball to Taurasi who made the “miracle” half-courter that broke the game open.

That basic theme repeated itself over and over in the (again, basket-for-basket) fourth quarter of the championship clincher against the Sky, won (with Griner injured and on the bench the entire game) when Taurasi made the last of a series of acrobatic shots to put the Mercury ahead and Taylor (who was maybe the seventh tallest player on the floor at that point) knifed through a crowd and grabbed the rebound of the Sky’s miss at the other end to seal the deal.

The WNBA has been a punching bag for the Boys Club (especially at talk radio) since its inception. And, truth be told, it hasn’t always been pretty. Too much imitation of the modern, mostly clueless NBA for my taste (the Curse of David Stern reaches everywhere)–though not from these two, who play very Old School.

But the script has definitely flipped.

Right now, at this moment, the hard-core truth is this: The hardest nosed basketball player in the world and the most entertaining basketball player in the world are both women and both pure winners. And they just happen to play on the same team.

Can’t wait for next season!

Here’s Taurasi’s half-court shot, caught by someone in the arena (just missed Taylor’s play, unfortunately, but nice atmosphere!)

And here’s the broadcast version, with the announcers questioning Taylor’s judgment….while the shot is being made…and, believe me, there is absolutely nothing more hilarious than referring to a tussle over the ball that involves Penny Taylor as “fifty-fifty”:

UPDATE: Next season never came. Taurasi sat out the following season when she was offered over a million to play in Russia. The contract was contingent upon being exclusive (hence no WNBA play–the WNBA had max contracts of just over $100,000). With the team thus having little chance to compete for the championship, Taylor chose to sit out the season as well and nurse her sometimes fragile health. They both returned for the current (2016) season, but both are now clearly aging and the magic is gone. As  I write this, they are below .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs. The team I wrote about here will likely be talked about as the standard for a long time. But they’ll never be what they might have been if fate had been kinder.