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

TAYLORTAURASI

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.

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.

However….

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!

 

ONE BY ONE, THE LIGHTS GO OUT…(Michael Hastings, R.I.P.)

Anymore I only follow sports intensely for a few weeks out of the year.

Most of those weeks take place between the last week of May and the first week of July when the French Open, the NBA finals, the U.S. Open (golf version) and Wimbledon follow along in rapid succession.

During that stretch–even when every single professional athlete/team I have anything invested in isn’t coming up short in the most painful ways imaginable (that’s Maria Sharapova, Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, Phil Mickelson, Sabine Lisicki if you’re counting at home)–I’m likely to miss things and this year, what I missed was the death of Michael Hastings.

Hastings was the reporter who, among many other admirable things, caught Stanley McChrystal being the kind of general a society tends to put in charge when its political leadership retains a strong, security-state-maintenance-only interest in waging wars but is utterly contemptuous of anyone who might suggest they should also therefore take on the hellish task of winning them (or even, when it comes to that, in defining victory and accepting the possible consequences of coming short).

Hastings did much more important work than proving McChrystal was the  particular brand of horse’s ass who airs his dirty laundry in front of a Rolling Stone reporter and then is shocked–shocked I say!–to find that dirty laundry in print somewhere. But it was that story that broke him from the pack and made him one of the very few “big league” reporters who might some day make the new security state nervous.

Of course, there is no evidence whatsoever that Hastings’ automobile “accident” was anything more than an automobile accident. Nor will there ever be such evidence. We know this because the FBI–not to mention the ever-reliable LAPD!–has already issued an assurance of such. And what more proof could we possibly ask for?

Granted, establishment journalists never seem to go out this way. But I’m sure that’s just coincidence.

All we really know is that when the sun came up on a particular day in the middle of June, 2013, there were a tiny handful of national reporters with both the will and the pedigree to rattle the system’s cage.

When the same sun came up a day later, there were  a tiny handful minus one and a convenient lack of witnesses.

Goodbye us.

 

 

THEY PROBABLY DIDN’T REALLY MEAN IT THAT WAY, BUT… (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #14, Claire Danes In Homeland Really Is All That)

I’ve said here before that “modern” television doesn’t appeal to me much, mostly because the reach tends to exceed the grasp by an almost infinite measure (the suggestion that these shows now do what movies used to do seems to me little more than an admission that nothing has officially replaced something).

However….

I haven’t exactly been in a High Art mood lately. It helps if you can stay awake–which I find pretty much impossible during those weeks when the French Open and the NBA Finals are double-teaming me morning and night.

So, when last Thursday evening found me morbidly depressed (after Tim Duncan’s 37-year-old knees couldn’t get enough lift to drop in a point-blank shot in the final minute of game seven of the NBA finals–probably because his 37-year-old back was exhausted from carrying the lifeless corpses formerly known as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli around for most of the series and literally all of games 6 and 7, not that I’m bitter or anything), I decided to take my mind off things by driving to the local all-night Wal-Mart that is furthest from my house and picking up the cheap Season One package of Burn Notice (which is old-fashioned television for those keeping score and fun on a lot of levels, but essential because, sooner or later in every episode, Sharon Gless shows up with her definitive Chain-Smoking-South-Florida-Late-Middle-Age-Wife-and/or-Mother-Who-Can’t-Wait-For-Bingo-Night, the only portrayal on modern television that reminds me of anyone I grew up with or, for that matter, of any recognizable human being at all).

Scrounging around–Wal-Mart never keeps the thing you are actually looking for in the place where you would reasonably expect to find it (I’m convinced this is the key to their success as they are the only corporation that recognizes how deeply Americans still love a mindless, pointless challenge!)–I also came across Season One of Homeland and, recalling encomiums from various people I respect, talked myself into making it my $29.95 “splurge of the month.”

And, of course, the most insistent of those plaudits have come in praise of Claire Danes’ performance as Carrie Mathison, the-bossy-but-tormented-white-woman-charged-with-the-security-of-the-free-world-whose-love-life-is-definitely-in-the-toilet-as-a-result (yes, it’s an actual type now, Hollywood will never run out of ways to kick women in the face, though it’s at least possible that Danes has found a way to kick back).

The praise is well-deserved. But I’m not convinced it’s for the right reasons.

It seems that what has impressed most reviewers is an evidently accurate portrayal of someone coping with bipolar disorder. I’ll buy that Danes is authentic in that respect. I’ll even buy that that’s plenty of reason for her to have swept up a lot of well-earned awards for this particular season. Conveying that kind of edge and intensity for an entire season can’t be easy.

But I’m more impressed by her capacity for getting under the skin of the great modern American dilemma, which is the question of whether the creation and maintenance of a massive security state is a valid response to…well…anything?

Because the thing that’s most striking about Danes’ character isn’t that she’s coping with a damaging mental disorder while operating under the kind of stress that would likely drive even a stable personality to suicide.

No, the thing that’s really striking–disturbing actually–is that you can’t trust her. I mean, this girl will lie to your face.

Whoever you are!

And while most of the lying might be about doing her job–she is a spy after all–Danes managed to make me believe her character was attracted to the job in the first place for this precise reason.

This is well outside the normal approaches that Hollywood, or pretty much any mainstream security state narrative (particularly including the narrative pushed by “journalists”), which are basically all designed to accept the necessity of the security state itself. Not as a repository for the career arcs of the emotionally damaged, but, you know, to keep us free!

Whatever you want to say about the varying approaches to telling spy stories it has pretty much always come down to the same thing: In the end, you can trust the hero/heroine to do the right thing for the right reasons. This is as true of John Le Carre as it is of, say, Burn Notice.

Inside or outside, rogue or paragon, field agent or desk-bound, complicated or simple, deep character study or mind candy, atheist or true believer. Doesn’t matter. Spy stories in the West come down to this: You spend the story hoping the hero/heroine who is standing in for us had a good Sunday School teacher (the atheists, incidentally, tend to have the very best Sunday School teachers even if, as in the case of this show’s Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin, they are almost always called something else) and in the end you go “whew, that sure was close.”

And, of course, a lot of that sort of thing does happen here.

But Danes’ character in the first season of Homeland is way past all that.

She’ll lie to get what she wants. If what she wants happens to coincide with what everybody else wants–with what we want and what her Sunday School teacher wants–then so much the better. (And, since this is hardly avant garde narrative or anything, she really does want what we want and, doubly “of course,” she’s the only one who is right–all standard stuff.) Danes, though, is the first actor I’ve seen to play this traditional role in such a way that her lies really are more about saving herself than saving the world.

In that sense, the bipolarity, however truthfully and convincingly portrayed, is a ruse, a macguffin even. Much easier for someone with a “condition” to tell both herself and everybody else (including us) that it’s okay for her to be more interested in saving herself than in saving anyone else (including us) if what she’s saving herself from–on our behalf!–is the bats in her belfry.

But, intentionally or not, this core of selfishness lies on a restless, seething bed of existential unease.

Because if Carrie Mathison is what we need to protect ourselves in the War on Terror–and, in Homeland, she is, finally, the one who protects us–then we aren’t protected at all. Or at least we aren’t protected by anything more tangible than what a real Sunday School teacher would call blind faith.

And that’s where Danes’ conviction and commitment to realism doubles down. There’s no line her character won’t cross to protect us…but only because there’s no line she won’t cross to protect herself. So God help us if this messed up woman is ever really wrong.

I mean, it’s okay if the last line of defense goes a little screwy when (for plot reasons only) she’s off her meds.

It’s another thing entirely to discover that she’s a bottomless well of need. Because if that really is the last line of defense, then we really are all screwed.

I’m guessing this kind of thing won’t be permitted to last, but, for now, I can’t wait for the fall DVD release of Season Two to see where the gatekeepers allowed her to take this.

[NOTE: I was less impressed than most people with Damian Lewis’ performance as the POW who might have been turned. His Manchurian Candidate is a long way second to Laurence Harvey’s, who I could actually imagine someone asking to run for Congress. As Lewis plays even his public side, Nicholas Brody is the kind of man political handlers hurl past Olympic sprinters to get away from. But Mandy Patinkin, as Danes’ wise old, seen-it-all handler, has made the role of a lifetime out of very standard stuff indeed. He’s so good at playing this stock character that he’s actually reinvented its boundaries. And Jamey Sheridan, as the Vice President, is completely convincing as a big league politician who makes it disturbingly easy to root for the terrorists.]

THE DBCCB NEVER RESTS (Sports Moment #7…Though it could also fit into the “You Can Maybe Understand Why Women Sometimes Go A Little Crazy” Category I’m Now Thinking Of Turning Into An Official Category!)

Stephen A Smith and Skip Bayless vie for leadership of the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade daily on ESPN. I have to confess that most days I’m not likely to be awake during the morning hours and am even less likely to be watching television. During the French Open and Wimbledon I make exceptions and it’s now that time of year.

It’s also NBA Championship time, so during commercial breaks and rain delays this week, I’ve occasionally cruised through the ESPN talk shows. Of course, the quality of the discourse often reaches (or stoops to) levels that are liable to induce actual physical pain among any bits of living brain tissue that get within earshot (though I have to admit it still can’t challenge the average level of commentary during an ESPN tennis match).

Today, though, was a real winner.

In the process of defending Tim Duncan from one of Bayless’ frequent forays into absurdism-ad-nauseum–in this case the notion that Duncan needs to win the upcoming series and deliver an MVP-caliber performance in order to “keep” his place in the NBA’s all time top ten–Smith actually blamed the relative lack of success by the Spurs in the playoffs since 2007 on…wait for it…

Eva Longoria!

I believe his exact quote was:

“Because we all know the power of women!”

Longoria was engaged to Spurs point guard Tony Parker in 2006–by which point they had been dating for two years–and married to him from 2007 to 2010.

Smith kept rambling on about the “distractions” which had caused the Spurs to lose in early rounds in recent years. He got Longoria’s name in there several times.

He did not, of course, mention that Longoria was dating Parker (in what was probably the most high profile romance in sports at the time) in 2005 and engaged to him in 2007. Those were two years when–despite the “distractions”–San Antonio won the NBA title.

In 2007, Parker, set to marry Longoria the following month, was so thrown off his game by “the power of women” that he managed to win the Finals MVP.

And, of course, when the real supposed “distraction” of divorce occurred in 2010, it was because Longoria caught Parker serially cheating on her–in the last case with the wife of one of Parker’s ex-teammates.

Look, the San Antonio Spurs won championships–when they did–because they played the best basketball.

When they didn’t win championships, it was because they didn’t play the best basketball.

One could parse all the reasons they won in any given year and all the reasons they lost in any given year and come up with a list reaching to the hundreds in each case.

Not one of those reasons involved Eva Longoria getting duped and shafted by Tony Parker.

The leadership of the DBCCB’s Sports Division is never truly stable. Smith…Bayless…Mike Greenberg…Colin Cowherd…Anybody working for Fox Sports Radio any second of any day.

The list is endless, the competition brutal and relentless.

But, for this week at least, Stephen A. Smith sits on the brass toilet alone.

(Incidentally, in Smith’s rant on Duncan’s secure place among the all time greats of the game, he listed exactly none of Duncan’s actual spectacular and highly improbable achievements–instead relying on statistics, the least impressive aspect of Duncan’s game. For the genuinely relevant info and talking points, you can scroll down a bit here and read my post of a few days back. That’s another enduring quality of the DBCCB. Even when they’re right, they can only be trusted about as far as you would trust Tony Parker with your hot wife….And, oh yeah, before I forget. Go Spurs!)

 

 

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.]