Departing Giants Leave Big Imprint

June 5th, 2011 sendarama Posted in pro basketball 1 Comment »

The biggest man in sports and the biggest man in the history of prime time television both called it quits Friday.

At a formal retirement press conference at his home near Orlando, Florida Friday, Shaquille O’Neal, 7’1″ 340 lbs, made official what he tweeted to his millions of followers Wednesday – he was ending his 19 year career as the most dominant big man in the NBA since Wilt Chamberlain. He retires as the largest brand name personality in any sport.

A one of a kind blend of size, natural ability, and affability, Shaq’s standing is secure as a top five big man, the only question being whether he is ahead or behind of Akeem Olajuwon as number four behind Russell, Wilt and Kareem.

Akeem won their only playoff match-up, the 1995 Finals, but Shaq wins the statistical analysis. In his prime, from 1993 through 2003, Shaq averaged 27.9 ppg and 11.8 rpg. During Akeem’s core years, he averaged 24 and 12. Shaq won four titles to Akeem’s two, but he had a better supporting cast. Olajuwon was a much better foul shooter….71.2% to 52.8 %.

In a match-up that’s almost too close to call, we give the edge to Shaq by virtue of his massive physical presence and his outsized personality. By all accounts, Akeem was a perfect gentleman, but we never got to know him the way we know Shaq.

Shaq critics, including Kobe Bryant, have derided him for devoting more off-season time to extra -curricular activities than to conditioning, but his nineteen years in an NBA uniform is exceeded only by Kareem (20) among the ten greatest centers of all-time, which in our view includes: 6. Moses Malone; 7. Patrick Ewing; 8. Willis Reed; 9. Nate Thurmond; and 10. Wes Unseld.

It’s true that Shaq devoted a lot of time to cultivating his off-court image. And the contrast between the sinewy Shaq who played three years at LSU and the current behemoth is stark. But it’s not unnatural for a center to fill out during the course of his career. See Malone, Ewing, and Unseld.

We didn’t have to bestow nicknames on Shaq. He took care of that himself, referring to himself at various times as The Big Aristotle (for his sheer genius), Osama Bin Shaq (for the terror he inflicted under the boards), The Big IPO (because his stock continues to rise), the M.D.E. (Most Dominant Ever), and most recently, The Big Twitterer.

The step-son of an army sergeant, Shaq credited his stern upbringing and his respect for authority as the foundation for his career. In his off-seasons, Shaq has attended the police academy, been trained as a reserve officer with the L.A. and Miami police, and has expressed interest in “ being the sheriff or chief of police somewhere in Florida.”

Matt Dillon and Chester

At about the time that Shaq was meeting with the press, another large authority figure, 6’7″ James Arness, 88, Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke” from 1955 -1975, died Friday at his home in Los Angeles. Taller than Cheyenne or the Rifleman, quick on the draw but virtuous and of sound judgment, Matt Dillon, U.S. Marshall of Dodge City, Kansas, was the dominant law enforcement man in the age of the TV western.

Premiering in September, 1955 on CBS, “Gunsmoke” was the first of the prime time television Westerns and the most enduring, ending a run of 635 episodes in 1975. Only the “Flintstones” has had a longer run in prime time television and it doesn’t use real actors. From 1957 to 1961, “Gunsmoke” was the highest rated show on television.

In addition to sensible scripts and believable characters, the heart of the show was Matt Dillon, whose great size and character elevated him above normal men. Unlike Maverick, who wore fancy clothes and gambled, or Paladin who dressed in black and had epicurean tastes, or Bat Masterson who sported a cane and top hat, Matt Dillon didn’t need any embellishment.

Dillon rode a horse without a name, dressed drably, carried a holster with only one gun, and seemed to have no interest in romance. Shaq would have referred to him as The Big Fundamental. But nobody dispensed justice more efficiently or displayed better judgment. Usually, the story was not about Dillon directly, but rather concerned a drifter, a town person, or one of the regulars, Chester, Kitty, or Doc. From 1962 to 1966, Burt Reynolds played Quint, the town blacksmith.

Laconic and shy in real life, Arness was a perfect fit for the Matt Dillon character, first popularized on radio. Arness was recommended for the TV role by John Wayne, who came to know Arness during the filming of “Big Jim McClain” and “Hondo.”

So embodied was Arness in the Matt Dillon role that he never got past it. Though relatively young at the end of Gunsmoke’s regular run in 1975, he returned to the role in five TV movies from 1987 through 1993 and his only other movie or television credits were variations of the Dillon persona, in TV re-makes of “Red River,” “The Alamo,” and “How the West Was Won.” After “Gunsmoke,” it was hard to imagine Arness doing light comedy or romance.

Unlike Arness, the media-savvy Shaq is poised to assume new roles. He already commands a world-wide audience for his every move. Sirius might give him his own channel. If Magic Johnson could host a late night talk show, why not Shaq?

But if Shaq does decide to go into law enforcement, he’d have no better role model than Matt Dillon, another big man who reached his expiration date last Friday.

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Spare Me The Melo Drama

February 27th, 2011 sendarama Posted in pro basketball No Comments »

I was appalled by the Knicks’ desperate attempt to outbid the New Jersey Nets for Carmelo Anthony, and I secretly hoped their efforts would fall through. Unlike the Nets, who needed Anthony to sell their franchise move to Brooklyn, the Knicks had a nice team without him, built around young players who were improving.

Plus, they were primarily home-grown. Stoudamire and Felton had been acquired via free agency, but Chandler, Fields and Galinari were all draft picks who had made good. The Knicks’ stirring 109-108 loss to the Celtics at the Garden December 15th, was the most exciting regular season game I’d seen in years.

The Knicks pushed the ball at every opportunity, did not hesitate to hoist three’s, and generally played with a passion. Their problems were on the defensive end, where they relinquished 106.6 ppg (second worst in the league), and under the boards, where they were undersized. The obvious need was for a defensive-minded center or power forward.

Nevertheless, the Knicks blew up their roster to get Anthony, sacrificing four of their best six players, their number one draft pick in 2014, and 3 million cash to acquire the defensively-indifferent Anthony, and 34-year old point guard Chauncey Billups.

The Nets made an equally lavish offer for Anthony: leading scorer Devan Harris, promising power forward Derek Favors, and four number one draft picks.

Not since New York and New Jersey quibbled over Staten Island had these northeast neighbors competed so hard for the same piece…. and we know how that turned out.

I fear the Knicks will suffer from buyer’s remorse. The current popular theory is that a team needs two superstars to contend for a championship, as if team work and chemistry didn’t count. The trade leaves the team thin in supporting players. Did the Knicks in fact acquire a championship piece, or were they suckered by the toxic effect of star power?

To my surprise, the reaction of the media and the fans I queried ran from mixed to supportive with a split along generational lines. Younger fans, including my son, who dresses in Knick clothing, and his college buddies unanimously applauded the deal. Most of the media concluded that the Knicks may have overpaid but acquired a necessary cog for a championship. My peers, weened on the teamwork and balance of the 70′s Knicks and the defensive ferocity of the 90′s Knicks, lamented the trade.

My conviction remains that the Knicks made a serious mistake in gutting their team to get Anthony. He is a sensational scorer, but his lack of commitment defensively, and his tendency to overshoot, are not the stuff of championship squads. His former coach, George Karl, echoed these sentiments. Melo’s late-game shutdown of Lebron James tonight was refreshing, but playing hard on defense every game will be the challenge.

During an interview with ESPN, Stoudemire and Anthony talked of “their dream” of bringing a championship to the Garden. For two fellows who big picture have labored with the Knicks for about a half an hour, this reeked of chutzpah. Try taking the team to the second round of the playoffs first.

Furthermore, history tells us the presence of two top scorers is no guaranty of a championship, let alone title contention. Examples of high-scoring combinations which did not work are Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett at Minnesota; Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning in Charlotte; and Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady in Toronto.

So how did Anthony convince the Knicks to so grossly overpay to get him?

As far back as his wedding last summer when he toasted with Amare Stoudemire and Chris Paul to their joint future with the Knicks (in the presence of Nugget owner Stan Kroenke), Anthony formulated a plan to get an extension at max money with the team of his choice, the Knicks.

With his contract expiring at the end of this season, free agency was never a viable option for Anthony; because under the collective bargaining agreement likely to be in effect for 2011-2012 and beyond, maximum salaries would be reduced dramatically. Anthony faced the prospect of earning up to 20 million less under the new CBA than by signing an extension under the existing rules.

Therefore, Anthony tried to engineer a trade before this year’s trading deadline of February 24th. He told Nugget management that he wouldn’t re-sign with them and preferred to be traded to the Knicks. Faced with the prospect of losing their star to free agency and not being compensated, the Nuggets solicited trade offers.

The Nets made their big offer, withdrew it, and then renewed it. The Knicks wanted Anthony, but not at an exorbitant price. Anthony had no intention of signing with New Jersey; but he deftly held open that prospect, which induced the Knicks to raise their offer…. and raise their offer…. and raise their offer.

I readily defer to the basketball wisdom of Knick President Donnie Walsh, but I can’t help feeling that impetuous Knick owner James Dolan pushed the deal. Had the Knicks remained patient until the trading deadline, they might have kept one of the relinquished starters and/or promising Russian center Timofey Mozgov out of the deal.

Nevertheless, the trade has spurred interest in the Knicks. Anthony No. 7 jerseys sold out immediately. Knicks’ tickets are the hottest entry on StubHub, surpassing Lady Gaga. Courtside seats for their first game with Anthony, against Milwaukee last Wednesday, sold for 13K.

The Knicks are not the only reason the Garden is abuzz. St. John’s has beaten five top 20 teams on the Garden floor this year, and is likely to secure a double bye in the upcoming Big East Tournament. As well, the Johnnies’ fifth year senior Dwight Hardy has surpassed Kemba Walker as the front-runner for Big East player of the year. With eleven, count ‘em, Big East teams on track to make the NCAA’s, New York is again the basketball capital of the world.

By the time St. Johns has concluded its run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments, we’ll have a clearer picture of Anthony’s short term impact on the Knicks.

The Heart tells us that Stoudemire and Anthony together will lift the Knicks to a strong regular season finish and a deep run in the playoffs.

The Mind tells us that they won’t.

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Nats ‘Dunn’ Right, but May Not Get Money’s Werth…….Here Come the Knicks

December 11th, 2010 sendarama Posted in baseball, pro basketball 2 Comments »

The Washington Nationals have been involved in a lot of decision-making lately.

First, they allowed their most productive slugger, Adam Dunn, to leave via free agency. Second, they signed 31-year old outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven year, $126 million contract.

We should have seen the Dunn departure coming since all summer long management told us how pleased they were with Dunn, and Dunn said repeatedly that he wanted to stay. Unless you’re Derek Jeter, this kind of talk, like a vote of confidence for a manager on a losing streak, is usually a prelude to a parting. So despite all the good will, when the ink was dry on Dunn’s new contract, it bore the letterhead of the Chicago White Sox, not the Nationals.

Dunn is proof that a one tool player can survive in the big leagues so long as that tool is hitting home runs. The burly first baseman can neither run, throw, field, nor hit for average; but his near forty dingers a season made him a coveted piece, at least for an American League team seeking a DH and part time first baseman. The White Sox signed Dunn for four years and $56 million.

Dunn signed with the Nationals in February, 2009 for two years and $20 million. With the Nats, he played an awful left field and then an awful first base. He directly caused no less than five losses last year with errors or missed fielding opportunities. All one need do is watch the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira for a few days to appreciate the value of a good fielding first baseman; but in this curious free agent market, Dunn’s value soared.

And let’s not forget that Dunn’s a rally killer in the middle of the order. Among Dunn’s 648 plate appearances in 2010, 199 ended in strikeouts and 77 were walks. Thus, 43% of the time, Dunn did not put the ball in play. Needless to say, he is not adept at bunting or advancing runners.

In furtherance of their questionable judgment, the White Sox proceeded to re-sign Paul Konerko to a three year $37.5 million contract. Konerko is also a terrible first baseman who hits for power. Presumably, either Dunn or Konerko will play first while the other DH’s.

Or maybe manager Ozzie Guillen will play them both at first at the same time to attain the defensive capability of one adequate first baseman.

In either event, don’t be surprised if slick fielding Chisox shortstop Alexei Ramirez suddenly develops a case of the throwing jitters, or if the right side of the Sox infield begins to resemble a New Orleans levee.

Which brings us to the Nats’ second big decision this week…. the signing of Werth to a contract which well exceeds his resume. The feeling here is that the Nats were wise to bid adieu to Dunn but are unlikely to get a satisfactory return on their investment in Werth.

Werth connects

Werth has a wealth of talent. He has each of the five tools. With his flowing locks and movie star good looks, he plays a glamorous right field and has a Winchester for an arm. But the Nationals are paying established superstar money to a player who (they hope) has yet to demonstrate his best work.

In pulling the trigger on Werth, were the Nats trying to compensate for the loss of Dunn? Or were they looking to make a big splash for the purpose of reviving their sagging season ticket base?

When a team invests $100 million in a player, it’s normally for the purpose of retaining an established star or to snag a free agent who can take a contending team over the top. By his own admission, GM Mike Rizzo views Werth as a building block for the future. That’s a lot of money to spend for materials.

And how are the Nats going to fill their need for a left-handed slugger in the middle of the lineup? Free agent first baseman Adam Laroche would fill the bill, but if he signs with the Cubs, as appears likely, the Nats will be stranded.

Werth is in his baseball middle age, but he has played only three full seasons as a regular. From 2008 to 2010, he batted fifth for the Phillies behind Rollins, Utley, Victorino and Howard. In the words of former Phillie Mike Schmidt, “He could stumble into 75 rbis just by playing everyday.”

But despite this stellar setup, Werth only drove in 85 runs in 2010. He’s never hit 300. He’s hit 30 homers once. He’s driven in 100 runs once. The Phillies normally hold on to their own (witness long term contracts for each of their Big Four), but they were unwilling to go more than five years for Werth.

For the Nationals to receive back in kind, Werth would need to hit 35 homers, drive in 120, and bat 310. Batting in a lineup where he will be the featured piece, with the burden of producing, without a lot of men on base, Werth will be hard pressed to get anywhere close to these numbers.

Come late September, imagine this scenario: the Nats are out of the mix at ten games below 500; Werth is resting on 27 homers, 88 rbis, and batting .285; and attendance is flat with 2010.

How shrewd is the Nats’ $126 million investment going to look then?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * *
Here Come the Knicks

I got my first look at the new-look New York Knicks last night. En route to their 101-95 victory over the Wizards, the Knicks extended no less than three positive streaks:

1. Seventh win in a row. 2. Eighth consecutive road win .3. Seventh consecutive 30-point game for Amar’e Stoudemire.

More important than the Knicks’ streaks is the manner in which they are doing it. The current crew bears no resemblance to the detestable bunch of overpaid losers and ball hogs which have populated their roster for the past ten years. It’s taken time for third year coach Mike D’Antoni to fashion the team in his image, but the free agent acquisitions of Stoudemire and Raymond Felton and the emergence of second round pick Landry Fields as a starter have re-vamped the team’s culture.

Many questioned whether Stoudemire could flourish without Steve Nash getting him the ball on the run. But the Knicks half-court offense starts with a pass to Stoudemire on the left elbow. He will then either back his man off for a deadly 12-foot jumper or drive left or right. This process more often than not results in a driving dunk or lay-in, or a trip to the foul line, where the 6’10 pivot shoots 79%, outstanding for a big man. Last year the Knicks were the third worst foul shooting team in the league. Now they are fifth-best.

Stoudemire in lift-off

Felton has provided an unexpected boost at point guard. The Knicks signed Felton to only a two year contract in order to preserve their shot at Chris Paul in 2012, but they may already have their point guard of the future.

Felton rushes the ball up court and deftly sets up his teammates for open threes or lay-ups. Unlike his predecessor at the point, Chris Duhon, he has his own offensive game. He’s averaging 18.3 pts per game, which is five points above his career average. And, like four of the Knick starters, he can shoot the three. Defensively, Felton has the speed to stay in front of the quickest opponents and is a terror going after loose balls. Last night, he befuddled John Wall into the rookie’s worst game of the season.

Fields was a four-year player at Stanford and plays a game which befits his education. He’s probably the most understated two guard in the league, but his heady play and court sense compensate for his lack of offensive sparkle. Fields’ 7.5 rebounds per game leads all NBA guards.

At 15-9, the Knicks are only ½ game off Miami’s pace. Who would have predicted that pre-season? Skeptics will point out that among the Knicks’ fifteen victories, only two have come against teams with winning records. And, in a reflection of their thin bench, all five Knicks’ starters are averaging over 30 minutes per game.

As the schedule toughens and the season takes its toll on the Knicks’ starters, they may be vulnerable to a drop-off. Or their hot streak may be a harbinger of a budding NBA power. After all, the Knicks have been strong and then weak in alternating decades since the 1950′s.

With only two weeks remaining in the god-for-saken “aughts,” it’s their turn.

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