Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Covenant of Hype, Covenant of Game.

As mentioned previously, I procured another copy of David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game. I cannot stress enough how much this book either shaped my views of the NBA and/or crystallized existing sentiments. Halberstam spent & documented the '79-'80 season with the Portland TrailBlazers. But as any headcase & erudite fan of the L knows, one season is always only a shard of a larger story. So, as a historical document, the book details the early years of the Trailblazers franchise, more specifically a detailed retelling of the assembly and subsequent disassembling of the '77 championship team. There are deep & frankly soul-showing profiles, sprinkled in bits and pieces throughout the narrative, of Jack Ramsey, Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Larry Steele and Kermit Washington. Shorter profiles abound. Anecdotal gems spill from the pages like water from a sprinkler.

I came away from the reading with two nuggets of enlightenment:

1. Bill Walton absolutely loved the game of basketball. Once you've read the saga of his foot, and you know where he came from, and how much he loved the game, and you think about the hyperbolic asshole (at times) on television today, well, I feel that's the result of a career cut short by injury, which, I think, pains Walton to this very day. Especially the way he can hound big men in general & Shaq in particular: in his soul of souls Walton wants to be on the court, not talking about what's going on out on it.

2. Although much has changed, the NBA is still very much the same as it was 30 years ago. It was and always will be a business. A sports-entertainment business. What really sticks out is the inside view of the hair-pulling and gnashing-of-teeth process that is negotiating a new contract. Man alive! If you have trouble with CBA and cap rules as is, then don't try to comprehend the confusion when egos and pride and wives and families and strange interpersonal loyalties come into play. When chatting about the 40 Year Old Virgin w/ Fat, once, he remarked (maybe something someone else said or wrote) that there's little more terrifying & uncomfortable on this earth than 2 adults trying to make eachother feel bad. Inner emotional workings of contract negotiations - pride, responsibility, loyalty, memory, fear - are just as bad.

There's a lot more to love. Take the following. Its the start of training camp in the fall of '79. The Blazers coaching staff is enjoying breakfast, and are playing a game created by Stuart Inman, the Blazers VP & personnel manager. Its called 'Players I Would Pay to See,' and is really just an excuse for these coaches and staff to daydream about great players. Speaketh Inman...
"Bill Russell," Inman began it. "I remember the first time I saw him play and he couldn't even sink a free throw and he was skinny too and I thought, turkey, turkey. Then there was a fast break, a sure basket and at the last second Russell had raced the length of the court and swooped down and blocked the shot. It wasn't just the block, it was the psychological destruction that went with it. I remember," Inman continued, "when the Celtics would play the Lakers in championship games and the Laker crowd would be noisy and they would come out, one by one, and slap hands, and then they would introduce Russell and he would come out, and stand apart, absolutely motionless, his face scornful, and the crowd noise would just stop. He didn't just indimidate other players, he demoralize the home crowd."1
Morris Buckwalter, Blazers assistant coach.
"They tell the story, I'm sure it happened, of Oscar [Robertson] going for the basket, making a move, putting a head fake on his man, and then spinning for the basket. He gets by and scores and [ref] Earl Strom calls it walking. 'How can it be walking when you've never even seen that move before?' Oscar asks Earl."2
Inman, again.
"I would pay to see Bill Walton. A great shot blocker, a great concept of the game, great intelligence and he brought a special tempo to the game, there was a rhythm to his game and it was always the right rhythm. Most of all," he paused, "his effect on his teammates. As long as he was there they all knew they would be in every game and they controlled their own egos. With him they always knew they could do it as a team."3
Jack Ramsey chimes in regarding Walton.
"He was so competitive," Ramsey said. "The bigger the game, the better he played. Once we were playing Milwaukie and he had made a couple of bad plays, and I called time, and the other players came over to the bench and he just stood there under the basket shouting at himself. 'Just don't throw me the fucking ball. Just pass it to anyone else.' Great competitor."4
Speaking of players of yore, ESPN's apprently been repackaging those old NBA videos w/ Dan Patrick narrating. Although not quite the NFL Films treatment many of the faithful have been hoping for, I guess its a step in the right direction. Not surprisingly, however, the final product indulges in bits of dramatic anachronism. 1st of, following a Magic Johnson segment, Bob Cousy is profiled as the 1st great NBA "showman," but kindly depicts him hanging them up after winning a fifth consecutive championship w/ the Celtics. As an admirer of Big O, I found this immediately suspect & rank of revisionism: Cousy became coach of the Robertson's Cincinnati Royals in '69-'70, & the then-41-year-old Cousy even suited for 7 games that year along side O. Then, in the summer of '70, the Royals traded Robertson to the Bucks for Flynn "Electric Eye" Robinson (7 seasons in on 7 teams in 2 leagues)5 & Charlie Paulk (3 pro seasons on 4 teams)6.
Many observers believed it was Cousy's jealousy of Robertson that led to the trade. The Big O had just broken many of Cousy's records and Cincinnati was suddenly too small for the both of them. "Whatever his reasons were," Robertson later said, "I think he was wrong and I'll never forget it."7
Perhaps this doesn't exactly tarnish Cousy's legacy. If anything, it precursors Magic's unspectacular attempts at a comeback & coaching of the Lakers or Jordan's stint in Washington. But to ignore trading Robertson? Gimme a break.

A similar incident occurred immediately after the Cousy segment, they profiled Maravich. There wasn't so much revisionism this time around as convenient ignorance. He was depicted as the ultimate showman, &, well, that's basically correct, but it fails to draw the more emotional conclusions that Breaks of the Game does. Maravich had been drafted by Atlanta in '70, who broke up a successful, virtually all-black team when they opted to draft Maravich out of LSU. NBA basketball was not doing well in New Orleans when the Jazz traded 2 1st round picks, 2 2nd round picks, 2 roster players & any chance of the Jazz ever being any good in New Orleans for Maravich, & then signed him to a long-term deal worth $700,000 a year, purportedly more than the rest of the team's salary put together.8
There had been, not surprisingly, tensions between Maravich and many of his teammates throughout his career (there were similar salary discrepancies everywhere he went), since in order to justify that much money he had to handle and shoot the ball all the time. But fans, particularly fans new to the game, loved him, he was exciting and wonderful at the theater of basketball. Weak management, worried about finding fans, loved him in the early years because it could hype him. More than any other athlete in basketball he dramatized the conflict between pure sports as they have been and sports in the modern televised era. He always landed in situations where a nervous management was anxious to hype, not the quality of the game but a show, Pistol Pete, the flashy scorer with the fancy moves. He was been handsomely rewarded for his service, not merely in terms of salary but in publicity; there had been magazine covers to pose for and television commercials to shoot. But at the same time something happened that was terrible for a fine athlete. His essential covenant had always been with hype instead of with his teammates and the game. Every move - and there were many - to sell him and make him the show had pulled him that further from his teammates and the idea of basketball. Now, in his tenth year of the professional game, one of the two or three highest-paid players in the league, he had a reputation in some quarters of being a loser. Even those sympathetic to him did not really know if he could play team basketball. His career was almost over and no one really knew how good he was.9
That last sentence always makes me want to cry. The Hawks made the playoffs the first 3 years Maravich was in Atlanta, & lost in the 1st round each time (to the Knicks in '71 & then consecutively to the Celtics in '72 & '73). The Jazz never made the playoffs and moved to Utah. Do you see the simple deception in the ESPN piece's depiction? In light of Halberstam's portrayal does it seem false? I arch eyebrow & protrude lower lip at you, ESPN!


-d.d.

1 Halberstam, David. The Breaks of the Game. Ballantine, New York. 1981. 14th printing, 1992. p.73.
2 ibid, p. 74.
3 ibid.
4 ibid, p. 75-75.
5 Flynn Robinson. No, I do not know why his nickname was "electric eye."
6 Charlie Paulk.
7 O's NBA.com profile.
8 Of course, by today's standards paying one player half of yr total team salary isn't quite as heretical a concept.
9 Halberstam, p. 98-99.

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