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.

Or:

“When Tim Duncan retired from the NBA”

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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.

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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.

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.

OH, SO NOW THEY GET IT…SURE THEY DO! (Sports Moment #6)

…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.]