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LA Lakers at the LA Memorial Coliseum

The genre of the sports list book has received a new addition. This new series that has been released has gone to several of the major sports towns (or at least those with rabid sports fans) and tapped local sports personalities or journalists to create an insiders view of that city’s sports culture. A nice idea, as fans can become agitated by the broad brush strokes that the national media paints a certain town’s fans. In Philly they boo Santa Claus; in New York they are knowledgeable but ruthless; in Boston they’re die hard but eternally pessimistic; in Cleveland they know even when their team is good, at some point they will find a way to lose; and of course, we arrive late, leave early and talk on our cell phones the whole time. (See: “Top 10 Reasons People Say We’re Terrible Fans”) With any stereotype there is a grain of truth, but these books allow the individual city’s to create a more three dimensional view, through guest spots by local athletes and luminaries of the local sports culture.

The authors of the Los Angles book are Matt “Money” Smith and Steve Hartman. Money is the everyman fan in a lot of ways and he’s So Cal to the bone. In his bio at 570 KLAC he lists his favorite sports moment as “Heckling Jim Mcilvaine from the Forum stands and having him try to hop the railing to beat the crap out of me.” He was also an intern at KROQ and is known for breaking “a little band called Sublime.” (It’s also the reason he can sneak in the “Top 11 So Cal Punk Bands You’ve Never Heard of But Should Have” into a sports book.) Steve Hartman is knowledgeable and has a long historic view of sport, but in a lot of ways many see him as insufferable, especially Laker fans who have trouble with his pragmatism and criticism, dubbing him “Hater Hartman”. But for the cause that is the book, they are both good choices.

The book covers all aspects of LA sports: Lakers, Clippers, Dodgers, Angels, and Kings. For our Laker-centric purposes, we’ll focus on the section that highlights the boys in Forum Blue and Gold.

Top 10 Reasons For A Laker Fan To Own This Book:

1. It will fit nicely into your lavatory library. You can put it into the rotation with Brain Droppings and Nine Stories.

2. It will either enhance your depth of Laker history and take you on a wonderful stroll down memory Lane (Top 10 Greatest Laker Moments) or let the neophytes in on the rich history of the franchise.

3. The folly that is The Clippers.

4. Francis Dale Hearn’s most utilized colloquialisms are included, but you probably could have called that one with Braille.

5. Because FBandG is in it (Best Los Angeles Sports Blogs). Checking in at #4 on the list, and it refers to Kurt as “sound, articulate and interesting”, a spot on assessment to me. But there is a glaring error on this list, and I think I know why.

6. It will help you with your Lakers bar trivia… “Who are the top 10 Johnsons in L.A Sports History?” also known as the “How can we put Magic at the top of another list?” list.

7. You can relive how Jerry West bamboozled the NBA for an extended period of time as G. M. (Mitch has followed in his footsteps with that big Pau Gasol feather in his hat.) But you’ll realize that he did this mostly through his draft picks.

8. Kobe lists his favorite arenas, and many fans are always looking for some insight into who that guy really is, the list is surprisingly nostalgic and emotional. Mentioning the arena’s in Italy, PalaEUR where his dad played, and Philly, “The Palestra is Philly”, as well as being one the guys who played in both the Forum and Staples.

9. “Big Game James” gives us a nice insight into who he felt could have shared his moniker, most of them guys he competed against, but not surprisingly, the top 2 he played with.

10. It will cause/resolve/complicate some good sports related discourse.

I’ll end by quoting the authors…

“Depending on your level of sports knowledge, you will either find this book a great source of information, a great trip down memory lane, or a great reason to insist “these guys don’t know what they are talking about.”

-Gatinho aka Scott Thompson

Michigan State vs. UConnESPN was in its infancy, the internet was a sparkle in Al Gore’s eye, the NBA was an afterthought or not thought of at all, and March had yet to go Mad. When March Went Mad by Seth Davis chronicles an important developmental era of basketball, and more specifically how its marketing and hype machine would evolve as seen through the prism of the 1979 Indiana State vs. Michigan State NCAA Final.

Most of us are familiar with Seth Davis from CBS and SI, but here Davis tries his hand at historian and myth maker. Davis lacks the story telling skills necessary to carry this flawed drama (the game itself an anticlimactic one), and it lacks a consistent tension to make this a truly riveting read. But the book is exhaustively researched, and the fact that neither Bird nor Johnson participated in the process allows for many unique viewpoints from several angles of perception of the events that unfolded.

Having the main characters absent would seem like a detriment to the process, but it actually allows for us to meet participants that have long been forgotten. From the coaches, to the role players, to the team managers, these secondary and tertiary characters help Davis mythologize the nexus of the personal rivalry that would translate into a rebirth of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the ’80’s.

College basketball has always been about programs. Modern sports programmers would have to be talked off the ledge if you told them that Michigan State would be paired with Indiana Sate in the final game with nary a Duke or North Carolina around to represent the powers that be. But they would be clicking their heels together in delight at the thought of a mano-a-mano battle between the two best players in the country, one having already been selected in the previous year’s draft by the evil genius of Red Auerbach and another poised to be picked first by the glamor franchise on the West Coast.

It a was time when the college game was a regional phenomenon. But Bird and Magic would usher in the modern age of basketball. They would be the ones who would give a young David Stern no choice but to begin to market personalities and individual stars. They would be the ones whose coat tails ESPN would ride as college basketball would be become the phenomenon that we may be seeing wane in the era of the one and done.

The basketball deities birthed these twins as saviors to bring basketball into the national consciousness. The white kid from French Lick, who is Jimmy Chitwood but with a back story that never would have made into the romanticized world of Hoosiers, and the black kid from Michigan, whose smile and style would have kids across the country regardless of height pining to be point guards making no look passes, cast as foils. Then to place them under the spotlight of the National title game in Salt Lake City, Utah, many fans seeing them for the first time that night, is so storybook, central casting may have deemed it too corny to produce. The anti-climactic game aside, where Michigan State showed they were the better team with Bird laying the proverbial egg, failing to duplicate the performance that had seen the Sycamores go undefeated that season and that still eats at him to this day,

The structure of the novel follows the recruitment of the two players with Bird’s being the more riveting tale. We may connect Magic with Hollywood and Showtime, but it is Bird’s tale that is truly cinematic. He liked to fight. He liked to drink beer. He joked and harassed in a manner that displayed his lack of knowledge or concern with things political or correct. Davis’ depiction of Bird as the prototypical yet complex “hick” is the novel’s strength.

Johnson’s portrayal peels back the layers from the public persona that we dream is inseparable from his private one. In previous tomes writers have failed to give any depth to who Earvin really is. Davis does nice work in allowing the reader to make connections and decide if there really are any chinks to be found in the wildly-adored Teflon Johnson. From a Laker-centric viewpoint, When March Went Mad can be seen as a pre-history of Johnson. Long time fans will find themselves making connections between the collegiate Johnson and the professional one. I found myself especially ruminating on Johnson’s amazing rookie year with the club, showing that the leadership and skill he possessed at Michigan State would translate to the pros better than any imagined.

Davis also plainly yet elegantly fleshes out exactly what made these two players unique on the court. They were innovators and improvisers yet understood the premise of the game at a level that those around them were struggling to keep pace with. Davis takes us through the parallel journeys of two teams previously unrecognized on a national level and their ascent to prominence.

When March Went Mad chronicles an unrepeated “moment in time” that could be called the Coming of Age of basketball in its rise in the American consciousness. The days of “bracketology” and the injection of the information age still on the horizon, one can see where it has come from and can’t help but continue to speculate where it is going.

-Scott Thompson aka Gatinho

“You can’t pass up a great player at the big position for a great player at a another position…history bears this out.”

-Bill Fitch

On the eve of the 2007 draft the Portland Trailblazers are caught, once again.

Select the anchor in the middle, the man who has the back to the basket game that so many teams have as their number one need?

Or select the dynamic wing player. The man who may be that combination of creativity, athleticism, and desire to win that only comes along a handful of times per generation?

Well, the Trailblazers have been there before.

Filip Bondy’s Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever, chronicles the last time the fans in Rip City anxiously awaited and then desperately tried to forget what it was like to have a top 2 pick.

Bondy’s work goes in depth to show the machinations and thoughts that go along with the difficult process of evaluating talent and extrapolating what it will look like in the future.

The book is a treasure trove of anecdotal wealth. With multiple stories and story lines, one can gain a more dramatic view of the events of that draft and how they are still repercussing throughout the league and the fate of its individual franchises.

The novel describes the series of events and the main players of the ’84 draft who became difference makers and follows them from college, through the draft process, into their early NBA impact, and finally to where and if they fit into the pantheon of legends.

Hakeem Olajuwon, picked first by Houston, Charles Barkley, picked 5th by the 76ers, John Stockton, picked 16th by the Jazz and, of course, Michael Jordan, somehow drafted third.

In contrast we also follow the paths of the lesser lights, Sam Perkins, a solid pro, drafted 4th by Dallas and the outright blunder of the Sam Bowie pick, drafted second by Portland ahead of Jordan. The subtitle of this book could easily have been The Ballad of Sam Bowie.

The profile of Barkley is driven by his quotable quotes and shows how intelligent and unique of personality he is and was. It puts readers back in touch with the college “Porky Pig on a Trampoline” Barkley and the pro “I’m not a role model” Barkley. His verbal exasperation at being drafted by the Sixers allows for a laugh out loud moment, one of a bundle that the book provides.

The career arc of Sleepy Sam Perkins illuminates the unpredictability and human element of the outcome of this yearly crap shoot. Bondy shows that there are dissenting evaluations about the career and success of Perkins as a draft pick still unsettled in the present day.

Was he a great pick ‘chemistry-wise’? He had a long career littered with playoff trips. Or was he an under aggressive and undersized player who never found his niche until his teams and coaches recognized his weaknesses and emphasized his strengths?

Stockton turns out to be an unlikely star in the novel, just as he was in the NBA. Frank Layden was the man doing the drafting in Utah in 1984 and hearing Stockton’s story told through his sarcastic sense of humor makes it that much more enjoyable. Bondy gives us insight into the always stoic Stockton, fleshing out the man who would be passed on by 15 teams only to later become one of the game’s greatest.

But the title of the novel and its bold hypothesis seem ambitious for the books content. It floats through your head as you turn the pages and there never seems to be that moment, “Oh, that’s how the 1984 draft changed the NBA forever.” It left me thinking that we could say that about a lot of NBA drafts, but it is more appropriate for 1984 because of the anomaly and innovator that Michael Jordan would come to be. As the 1984 draft unfolds you can’t help thinking about Barkley, Stockton, and Olajuwon. While he was playing, Jordan single-handedly kept the rings off the hands of this draft class.

He changed the NBA forever through his impact on the marketing of NBA players, his career beginning the oft-criticized era of players being marketed ahead of teams, and through his ground breaking ability to make money as salesman off the court. It was previously thought that an African-American athlete couldn’t be a pitchman for big brands, and Jordan definitely put all that on its ear.

The question becomes what was changed inside the game? After Jordan didn’t every GM’s dream return to being about drafting the next great big man? Are GM’s any less covetous of the next back to the basket center that will forever change the way the opposition defends their team?

1984 changed the NBA “forever” in that it was the impetus for the draft lottery after teams suspiciously lost games down the stretch. But did the lottery really change that or are we still watching players sit with suspicious injuries while they giggle on the bench in street clothes?

If anything Tip-Off does a wonderful job of chronicling the continuing nuances and pitfalls of the draft. Bondy has painstakingly researched and interviewed the players in this drama to create a book that is almost encyclopedic in knowledge. His straight-forward newspaper style will not put him among the more romantic sports novelists, but this book deserves its place.

If Tip-Off were to be paralleled with an ’84 draftee, it would be the other pick Portland made in the draft, the pick that a Portland fan may point to when being ridden about the Sam Bowie debacle, Jerome Kersey. Kersey, drafted 46th, would play 11 years with the Blazers, score 12,000 points and get 6,000 rebounds over his career. He was a solid workman-like pro that would be an important cog in the contending Blazers of the early 90’s.

This might be a difficult read for Portland fans who suffered through the ‘84 draft and the subsequent thrashings by the man they could have drafted, but to say that they are once again between a rock and a hard place is laughable. What team or fan wouldn’t want their Oden or Durant dilemma?

For this draft and any other, the cliche of “time will tell” rules.

“Always pick the best athlete…to choose by position or need [is] utter folly.”

-Scott Thompson aka Gatinho

Quotable Lakers

Kurt —  December 24, 2006

One of my early Christmas gifts this year is a book called “Laker Glory,” a collection of quotes from and about the Lakers, compiled by freelance author Alan Ross. It’s not going to be confused with “The Show” anytime soon, but there are some interesting quotes I’ve found already, so I thought I’d pass them along.

We’ll start with two from Elizabeth Kaye, author of “Ain’t No Tomorrow: Kobe, Shaq, and the Making of a Lakers Dynasty,” talking about Kobe:

As a kid he played until he vomited, then he kept playing until he hit a wall. Still he played. And it taught him that you can push yourself beyond the point where your body shuts down, and from that he deduced that the tame was mental, that mind could win out over matter. Too much of the time the game was too easy for him…. For Kobe, there were no obstacles, only challenges.

And:

“I was like a computer,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Ian Thomsen early on. “I retrieved information to benefit my game. He didn’t play on a team or learn street moves like the crossover dribble until he came back to the United States for high school. This meant his path to the NBA was devoid of the usual gyms and playgrounds — even for the most part, teammates. Thomsen came to thing of Kobe as the NBA’s first test tube player.

Chick Hearn on Elgin Baylor:

He might just be the best player I ever saw. He was doing things that Dr. J. made famous 20 years later.

Nate Thurmond on Wilt Chamberlain:

Wilt liked records, so during the (record 33-game win) streak he played the best defense of his career.

Author Bill Libby on Wilt:

He always wore a rubber band around his right wrist to remind him of the days when he was too poor to replace his sagging sweat socks and had to hold them up with elastic.

There is a poetry that can be found in numbers. When you turn numbers over and around, when you attempt to make them tell you a specific story, those numbers begin to speak to you.

When the numbers melt into the Language, they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do, to become fiction and drama and poetry.

The Mind of Bill James, How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball, and basketball, too, by Scott Gray chronicles how twenty-five years ago, Bill James started writing about baseball, and a new way of qualifying a game many love was born.

For those who abandon themselves to the game, for those to whom the hurried and casual summaries of journalism are a daily affront…

Bill James begat Rob Neyer, Billy Beane, and Moneyball, which begat Basketball on Paper, 82 games, APBR metrics, and the new stats. A collection of folks who have been attempting to qualify basketball, and its player’s and statistic’s, in a way that focuses and clarifies opinions.

James has spawned so many folks who have taken his original ideas and mutated and translated them into other arenas, making him a truly iconic figure.

But the biggest achievement of this book is removing the label of “stat geek” and a “baseball by numbers” guy from James’ persona. Bill James was a Liberal Arts major, a lover of literature and rhetoric, politics and discourse. A man who writes things like,

Dan Ford…plays the outfield like a blind man staying overnight at a friend’s apartment.

His own opinion on the role of statistics in sport bucks what the national media has misrepresented him as.

Statistics are to sport, …like the relationship of tools to machine and to the mechanic who uses them, The mechanic does not begin with the monkey wrench. All he wants from the monkey wrench is that it do it’s job and not give him any trouble.

In short, this is not some right brained pedant sitting in his parent’s basement.

This is a book about a man and his unique mind first, second it’s a sports book, and third a baseball book.

And forgive me, but he is just so damn quotable:

On baseball cards:…a chart of numbers that would put an actuary to sleep can be made to dance if you put it on one side of the card and Bombo Rivera’s picture on the other.

Given an option, all men prefer to reject information. to which author Gray adds,

Misguided faith leads to stubborn repetition of foolish decisions.

Bringing this back to the Lakers and being someone who has them on the brain on a perpetual basis, I saw so many axioms that could easily be applied to other team sports and, well, life in general…

Applied to the Lakers and the use and misuse of the term dynasty, from Japanese artisan Kaneshige Miciaki,

Tradition consists of creating something new with what one has inherited. Producing something new while incorporating what came before- That’s tradition.

For Jim Buss and his opinion of Andrew Bynum:

There is a place for impatience in the building of a (basketball) team. All of us have a tendency to coast for as long as we can, and never find out what we can do until we have a time of crises….If he finds himself, great; if he doesn’t, we’ve got a (basketball ) team to run.

Italo Calvino said, a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say, and Bill James, his contributions to baseball, and his lateral approach to writing about sport fit that mold.

-Gatinho