After an early season loss to the Denver Nuggets, the press drifted away from his locker to wait eagerly for the appearance of Kevin Love, fresh off his miraculous—and first—return from a hand injury. Kirilenko busied himself with preparations for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first extended road trip out west, packing a stack of paperback books with Cyrillic type on their black covers into his bag. “What are you reading?” I asked.
“Russian,” he said with a smile.
Kirilenko’s dry sense of humor might be completely unexpected if you’ve only watched him on the court. After their recent and unexpected win over the Houston Rockets—a win that saw Kirilenko work more as a distributor from the elbow—a reporter pressed him about exactly how that strategy opened up the floor.
“You’re trying to get all the secrets,” he said. “We got a win and we have to be quiet right now and save it for the next game.” When he’s enjoying a win like this, his deep-set blue eyes don’t seem as unreadable, nor his high, prominent cheekbones as sharp as they can look under the bright lights of the arena.
The day before the victory over the Rockets, which snapped a five-game losing streak for the Wolves, he sat in the tunnel outside the locker room. He appeared neither down about the streak nor amped up about what the next game might bring. Aside from his warm-ups and the way all 6’9” of him seems an ill fit for a tiny black folding chair, you wouldn’t have guessed he was a professional basketball player as he talked about his reading habits.
“I always read three, four books that are fantasy, that I like, and one has to be a classic,” he said. “You don’t like it, but you have to read it just to take your medicine. So at least you understand what you like, what you don’t like. You can make a judgment then. If you don’t read it, you can’t judge it.”
A lot of basketball fans might not be able to make sense of Kirilenko’s game, especially if they’re used to measuring players through stats accrued along straight lines: the most points, the most rebounds, the most blocks. Kirilenko’s approach to the game is more omnivorous; he plays in an all-around way we like to think we admire, but that all too often goes underappreciated. Maybe it makes sense that his career began not with a dream of one day being an All-Star, but with a simple question in St. Petersburg.
“When I was in the first grade—six years old, seven years old—my first coach, he came into my school and he picked three tall guys and asked them if they wanted to start coming to play for the team. Two guys said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Okay.’” Like Europe and unlike the United States, sports in Russia is not inextricably linked to academics, but rather exists on a separate but parallel track. Young athletes play in the system of “sports schools” until the age of fifteen, when they can begin their professional careers.
“Our [sports school] team had been playing good,” he said. “And I always said, ‘We’re all going to go to the next level, to the professional teams,’ but one of the guys said, ‘You know what? Probably just one of us is going.’ He was right! One guy went and started playing professionally.”
Kirilenko seemed to put it that way very deliberately, not entirely comfortable admitting that he was indeed that guy. It came up again when he talked about his former sports school teammates. “The rest of the guys start doing regular jobs,” he said, but then corrected himself. “I don’t mean regular jobs, I mean different jobs.” One of them, a manager of a foundation in St. Petersburg, still plays in an amateur league there. “He’s scoring like 30 points [a game],” he said with what seemed like pride.
Kirilenko says his approach to the game was balanced from the start. “I actually never scored many points,” he explained. “I don’t think I’m that [much of] a sharpshooter to score 30 points a night. When I was young, we had a lot of tournaments back to back-to-back so we played a lot of games. One tournament, they call you the best offensive player and the next, the best defensive player. And it was always like that.”
That’s something that followers of the Timberwolves have come to appreciate about Kirilenko’s game. Against the Rockets on Saturday he notched his seventh double-double of the season with 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting and 11 boards. Against the Cavaliers back in December he only had 8 points, but notched 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks, pulling close to the elusive five-by-five, a feat that’s only occurred five times since 2003. Three of those were Kirilenko’s.
To hear him tell it, that balance arises naturally from observing the flow of the game. “I’m pretty good at understanding what’s not good, so I’m not going to it. If I miss two or three shots in a row, I would not take the fourth shot. I would probably try to create a foul, try to go inside and finish with a layup. So I will choose the right opportunity. I would shoot it, but it’s going to be a way open shot. It’s not going to be a risky shot.”
It can be fascinating to watch this unfold in a game, especially compared to players who are constantly looking for their shot. “A lot of times, I use my shot in the beginning of games just to let my defensive player know that if you’re not going to close, I’m going to shoot the ball. If you make a couple shots, it’s going to be disaster for him because he has to get up and contest the shot. If you make the first shot, he has to contest very close and that’s the great opportunity to pump fake and create something out of it.”
His pump fake is a genuine thing of beauty. Maybe it’s just his angular frame but there’s something distinctively Constructivist about it, a pure expression of a utilitarian game that produces results, if not always fodder for highlights. He often uses it to set the defense churning, not seeking his own opportunity so much as looking to open a door for a teammate.
L: Alexsandr Rodchenko’s “Construction 2.” R: Andrei Kirilenko’s “Pump Fake.”
The highlights happen, but to focus on Kirilenko during a game is to see the little things done right: the way he bounces on the balls of his feet on defense, staying low and watching his man’s hips; the way he anticipates passes along the baseline for steals, then exploits a gap in focus on the other end to cut on his opponents’ baseline and drop in a reverse layup; the way he rarely takes a bad shot. Even when they’re not dropping, his shots still feel like a good thesis, well-argued and backed up with clear support.
But that approach isn’t for everyone, nor does he think it should be. “I think some of the guys feel that if they missed three shots, they have to continue shooting,” he said. “I played with Kyle Korver and I’ve seen him miss three shots in a row and I would say, ‘Keep shooting.’ Because if it clicks, you’re going to make like five or six shots in a row. Everybody has to know their weakness and their strength.”
From both watching him play and speaking with him you begin to understand that he sees that weaknesses are not just obstacles to be torn down, but things that have to be gone around, over or under. The ups and downs are not there to be defeated, but negotiated. When he talked about his reputation as a defender, he demurred, saying, “Some of the games, everything falls in the right place and you get steals, but some of the games you’re horrible on defense. I mean, you can tell. I can tell. Some of the games I’m like, ‘They call me a good defensive player but I’m ashamed of this.’ And same with the offense. Some of the games you have a great performance. Not scoring-wise but being an offensive threat, being active, being aggressive. And some of the games you’re just running on the side watching the game like a spectator.”
Kirilenko has gotten good at taking the games as they come. Observing, assessing, understanding that there’s a balance to be struck between what we’re good at and what challenges us. Like a text, he reads them, finds his place and slips in. He doesn’t keep a classic in his stack of reading just for show — he wants to be able to make an informed judgment, even when it’s negative.
Toward the end of the interview, I mentioned that I’d given serious thought to learning Russian just so I could read Dostoevsky in the original.
“It’s not gonna help you much,” he said with a laugh. “It still sucks.”
Last week I went on vacation with my family, and apparently some guy named Jeremy Lin became fairly popular in my absence. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of the guy. Back before his name was more (or less?) than the principal element of a headline pun, or a part of any headlines at all, Lin was rumored to be an NBA prospect after four strong if unspectacular seasons at Harvard. He was never the Ivy League MVP, but his quickness, efficiency, and yes, his race, was turning heads nationally.
Around that same time, I had just started HoopSpeak and did an interview with Cornell’s Chris Wroblewski and Aaron Osgood, two rotation players on Cornell’s 2010 Sweet 16 team. As a toss-in question that went unprinted, I asked about Jeremy Lin. The two players clearly saw Lin as a rival and enemy, and though they respected his game, they didn’t think he was an NBA player.
Almost two years later, Jeremy Lin is on top of the NBA following a blistering five game stretch. Aside from the underdog story, what I’ve found so compelling is that before this moment, Lin gave little evidence that he was “undiscovered.” He just wasn’t that good. Some combination of very hard work and enough royal jelly to drown Shamoo and we’ve got ourselves a starting point guard playing All-Star caliber ball.
I circled back to Wroblewski, who is finishing his senior campaign with the Big Red, to get his impression on Lin’s fantastic rise.
I’m the first to say that I am not the quickest of foot or even that long or athletic enough to disrupt anything defensively. I was given the task along with a couple other of my teammates to shadow Lin all over the court, and my sophomore year when we played Harvard at home we held him to 16 points on an awful shooting night and 8 turnovers in a 30 point rout. Judging the kid based on that game and our other encounters, which to be honest he didn’t have a ton of success against us, I did not think he was going to be able to compete at the sport’s highest level.
The concerns I had were that he wouldn’t be able to take the best athletes in the world in the NBA off the bounce and get to the basket like he did in the Ivy League. I mean he could barely shake me or the other Cornell defenders, and we’re nowhere near NBA athletes. The other concerns I had included his inconsistent shooting and the fear that he wasn’t a true point guard and couldn’t guard NBA 2 guards.
These criticisms mirror the outlook of scouts around draft time; Lin doesn’t even merit a scouting profile at Draft Express. What’s so impressive is that Lin has come to embody the proto-point guard of coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense, one the thrives on multiple closeouts created by a crafty distributor. But like Iman Shumpert, Lin emerged from college a “guard”– not necessarily a point guard, and certainly not the type of player we’ve seen in the last week or so.
Like everyone else, Wroblewski is blown away by Lin’s emergence:
He has clearly made the transition into a point guard role and has excelled. He noticeably makes the Knicks a better team, and it is obvious the team moves the ball a lot better and all of that is because of Lin’s impact on the game. Any concern of mine about his ability to get to the hoop was erased quite quickly, as he is making a lot of NBA guards look bad.
Clearly, Lin put in work. As Wroblewski notes, Lin has shored up his shooting a bit and has been able to wind his way to the basket (almost always going right) at will. Lin has developed valuable skills and instincts through dozens of D-League games and his own relentless training.
If Lin was this good last year with the Warriors, he failed to show it in ample opportunities. Had he played one game as well as his last five with the Knicks, there’s no doubt he could have avoided couch-crashing with his brother.
So along side all the smart discussion over mainstream perceptions of Asian-Americans, there’s also a lesson to be learned here about opportunity in the NBA. Mike D’Antoni’s system combined with an improved Lin on a hot streak at the perfect time to rescue the Knicks season and make Lin a household name. But one suspects that Lin is hardly exceptional in this sense, and that there may be something to all those stories about very good players who never made the big time because they just never got the right opportunity.
Just look at some of Wroblewski’s Cornell lauded teammates from his Sweet 16 season, who Wroblewski says he “would take on my team 7 days a week over Lin,” though none of whom are in the NBA today: Louis Dale (Ivy MVP 2008) is averaging 13 points and over 30 minutes a game in Germany, Ryan Wittman (Ivy MVP 2010) has bounced around the Italy, Poland and the D-League, and seven footer Jeff Foote almost made the Blazers in December and now averages 15 and 8 for the Springfield Armor.
Says Wroblewski, “I guess this is just a testament to the fact that a lot of players have this kind of potential, they just need the right situation and environment to thrive.”
That may be selling Lin’s acheivement a little short. If–after his moment as a flaming, catapult-flung stone smashing through Asian-American stereotypes–Lin doesn’t amount to much more than an average NBA starter, he’ll still be considered one of the best 30 point guards in the world. And it won’t be because he was just in the right place at the right time, but because he became the right player at the right time.
If you haven’t already watched this Magic Johnson mix, watch it now. And if you’ve already watched this Magic Johnson mix, watch it again. Because Magic manipulated space and time with the panache of a dough-flipping pizzaiolo. Because this footage is evidence of basketball genius, a portal into history that reveals brilliance too incandescent for mere description. Seeing is the only understanding, here. Though your understanding is elevated for having these visual epiphanies set to Chick Hearn’s manic hosannahs. Hearn never quite captures what the hell Johnson’s doing, but the revved joy in Chick’s cadence testifies to just how special the indescribable is.
So thank you to NonPlayerZealot (NPZ is keeping his true identity hidden) for letting us see, understand, and relive. He’s the one who rescued so many of these Magic Johnson highlights from oblivion, he’s the one who worked so hard to orchestrate the best highlight mix I’ve seen. And despite the limitations of words, I do have questions for this anonymous mix maker:
ESS: You certainly curated an amazing digital museum with this Magic Johnson mix. Who are you and why did you do it?
NPZ: I’m just an average Laker fan from Southern Calif and I enjoy watching old NBA games, even during the regular season. Though I enjoy all eras of Laker basketball, I consider Magic to be my “sports idol”. I grew up watching that era of the Lakers and his personality was always endearing to me. He was a very inclusive, friendly person who felt his job was to get everyone involved and his great passing and “2-steps-ahead” thinking were what made that visible to the fans. He and Bird made sharing entertaining and other teams tried to mimic what LA and Boston were doing. That was inherently good for the league. I very much miss this era of basketball. I don’t criticize Jordan for spawning a generation of volume chuckers. The problem is that the great majority of them can’t do what he could on the basketball floor and no one can convince them otherwise.
I made this video as an homage to Magic and Chick Hearn in particular, but also as a nod to the best aspects of the league as it used to be. I have a secondary interest in history, basketball or otherwise, and I feel there should be a chronicle of past players available for newer fans to learn from and for older fans to revisit. That duty falls on the shoulders of the fans. There are decent Magic “mixes” and more talented video editors out there, but I didn’t feel there was a compilation/mix/reel devoted to Mag with highlights that we haven’t seen a hundred times.
ESS: How the hell did you plumb this Magic Johnson footage from the depths of 1980′s regular season obscurity? Sorcery? Paleontology?
NPZ: It’s kind of a sick-sad hobby, but there are a number of olde tyme sports junkies who “tape trade” and buy old games. I’ve been recording and “surfing the net” for years trying to find people who recorded back then. I was at the right place at the right time to receive some early 80s footage (at the start of the video). Local LA feeds of early 80s games are the rarest things to find. If you want a reason why, it’s that many VCRs in 1981 costed over $1000 and blank tapes were upwards of $10 apiece. The more tedious thing than finding the games is editing them. It took months of work during free time just to get those clips to look and sound like halfway decent standard def footage. That is incidentally why a lot of mixers hide the audio with music and don’t bother trying to beautify the video content. In addition, clips plucked from premade highlight packages often don’t contain the play-by-play. To do something like “The Magic Man”, you must first have a shoebox or two of original broadcasts. It’s distracting to see a mix that contains clips that were recorded from ESPN, including the news crawl at the bottom of the screen.
ESS: Loved how you went minimalist here, choosing to use Chick Hearn’s voice as a natural soundtrack. Do you think mixmakers often err in ladening their highlights with music and graphics? Do you think your video would have gotten such a positive response had you set it to say, “Hard in da paint”?
NPZ: Yes, to the first question. NO!, to the second question. You can’t go wrong with the announcer who coined the term “slam dunk” and “airball”. Chick had a warmth of voice and personality that we Laker fans could listen to all day. The crescendo he could reach during great plays gives you goosebumps. Chick is about the only constant for a fanbase so spoiled that we sometimes rip our legends for stupid things they say on TNT. The only clip I deliberately used instead of the Chick version, which I also have, was the very last clip, the 80 foot shot. That was a tip of the hat to Skip Caray, the longtime Atlanta Braves and Turner Network broadcaster. I enjoyed his sense of humor and sarcasm. He was one of those old school multi-sport announcers like Chick was decades ago. RIP Skip.
If I had used a rap song to back the video, I would’ve gotten nasty replies. The only rap or hip hop which is era specific would be something along the lines of RUN DMC or similar acts (I’m thinking “Run’s House” or “It’s Tricky”). I can tolerate mixes that use old songs, but it depends on the music. At least tie the era in with the songs you’re using. However, if given a choice, I’d prefer the commentary over any music at all. Some mixes which use mood music with commentary of the announcer peeking out from behind it can be enjoyable if they’re very well produced. There’s a Pippen superfan on youtube named Scottie33Pippen who excels at this. I’m hoping that I have sparked an NPZ minimalist movement, though. I’d like to see a comment like, “Hey, I rly like how you NPZ’d you’re mix, d00d!!1″
ESS: If you HAD to set these highlights to music, what CDs/songs would you pick?
NPZ: There’s a vid made by expiredpineapples (one of the oldest mixes on the web) featuring the Showtime Lakers that was done the way I would do it. He used a handful of 70s and 80s grooves such as “Love Come Down” by Evelyn King and “The Midas Touch” by Midnight Star. Those feel appropriate and the kind of music that Magic himself probably listened to. I would probably look into Lionel Richie or Kool N The Gang to see if anything of theirs would mesh. ”Give It To Me” by Rick James has a beat and a lyric hook that I’m surprised no one has used for any mix at all. There was an old NBA bit from the early 80s of Magic that repeated the hook from “You Can Do Magic” by America. It worked well enough for a non-dance, non-”jam”. I’ve also seen an inspiring montage by KCAL 9 that featured Steve Winwood’s “Back In The High Life” in reference to Magic’s 1992 comeback attempt — the lyrics of which fit perfectly with the situation. That one’s an example of how the mood of the video should dictate the song that’s used.
ESS: For years, I worshipped at the alter of the four-ish Magic Johnson fastbreak passes that were replayed again and again. Your video revealed how much I’d been missing. Prior to making this, did it bother you that our collective picture of his greatness was so incomplete?
NPZ: It did. We all have seen the same 30 or so Magic highlights over and over, even from NBA-produced vids. Here’s the thing with Magic, though. These clips were culled from about 75 games give or take. I knew some plays that I wanted to put in there for sure, but one could take any 75 game sample and come up with a different batch of highlights of the same basic quality. His routine stuff was the nightly highlight for many reputed passers who came after him. No offense to Bron, whom I admit is a good passer, but I cringe when I read one of his fans call him a Magic Johnson-like passer. Nope. Not in terms of quantity for damn sure. I have multiple gms where I had to make a choice between 3-4 different plays and a number of Magic passes that were astounding, but didn’t result in a basket. There are some that Mychal Thompson screwed up that pained me. Myc was a highlight assist killer.
ESS: Does your heart pang at the thought of how many great athlete highlights will never surface?
NPZ: Yes. The NBA did a horrible job of recording for posterity even in the late 70s and early 80s. Horrible. There is practically nothing of Baylor and West to give fans an appreciation of their titles as all-time greats. Baylor was the MJ of his era and there’s almost nothing. No footage of Wilt’s 100 pt gm exists even though he was leading up to something that special on a nightly basis. The one definitive compilation that needs to be made is Julius Erving’s. I don’t think it’s feasible, however. He not only played in the ABA (I wouldn’t doubt if they only filmed games on 8 mm home movie reels), but his most entertaining NBA years were late 70s, early 80s. A 15 minute compilation of Dr. J’s great moves would shatter some younger fans’ belief that the 70s and 80s NBA didn’t have any athletes who could dominate today. Erving could do some ridiculous things with those meathooks he had for hands and with his swivel shoulders. It’s a sad indictment that he had to sell his memorabilia.
In a gym forty five minutes from Washington, DC, University of Washington alumnus Justin Holiday has just finished his second workout of the day with Pro Training Center’s Anthony Macri. After two days spent preparing for the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, Holiday and his 14 year old brother, Aaron, play a pseudo competitive game of one-on-one. It’s a classic big brother versus little brother scene. Aaron goes hard on offense, attacking his NBA hopeful brother off the dribble, then climbs on his wiry brother like a jungle gym when Justin returns the favor by trying to dunk on him.
Their father, former Arizona State standout Shawn Holiday is sitting next to me. Smiling like only a proud father can, he says “Jrue used to be just like that with [Justin].” But unlike Aaron, who is yet to enter high school, Jrue, 14 months younger than Justin, moved past his big brother two years ago, and as a Philadelphia 76er is already one of the top young point guards in the NBA.
That’s what many people know best about Justin, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s a fact I’m reminded of by Justin’s workout wardrobe: University of Washington shirt and Philadelphia 76ers shorts.
When a player like Justin enters the draft, he battles not only the other players in his pool, but the perceptions and assumptions of evaluators and scouts. Like most players who stay through their senior season, Justin was not considered ready for the NBA until now. Finally, after four years, two Sweet Sixteen appearances and graduating early with a degree in American Ethnic Studies, Holiday is entering the draft and trying to establish his own brand.
A month into his final season, the Justin Holiday brand was hot. At 6-6 and sporting an expansive 7-1 wingspan, the small forward had always impressed scouts with his ability to defend multiple positions using his length and quick feet. But by the end of November he was also wowing with improved 3-point shooting (53.8%) and displaying some previously absent scoring skills in the half court. Holiday was seen as a late bloomer, and his brother’s success buoyed theories that he was at last “coming around.”
At that point, DraftExpress speculated that Holiday could become a Trevor Ariza type sleeper prospect in the 2011 Draft. But Holiday’s stroke cooled off over the second half of the season, and he finished the year with somewhat pedestrian averages of 10.5 pts/gm and 5.2 reb/gm while shooting only 36% from deep.
As a result of his up and down season, and his advanced age (being 22 actually makes him old as draft prospects go), Holiday needs to prove that he’s ready to contribute at the NBA level. As it stands now, he’s projected to go in the mid second round, but his status could still drift up or down.
Heading into his first post college career showcase at the Portsmouth Invitational, a tournament that pits top college seniors against one another, Holiday seeks to dispel doubts that the things he didn’t do in college are things he can’t do as a pro. That’s where his trainer, Pro Training Center’s Anthony Macri, comes in.
Holiday will likely work on augmenting and altering his game with Coach David Thorpe and his trainers in Florida this summer. But for now, Macri’s goal is to prepare Holiday to get off on the right foot in Portsmouth. He counsels him to use his length and quickness to deny his man the ball all over the court. Against teams lacking cohesive offense, Holiday can make eye catching plays by playing aggressively in the passing lanes. “We’re going to establish the idea that you’re a physical defender,” Macri says as they work through a closeout and denial drill, “use the pointy parts of your body!”
Justin Holiday with the Washington Huskies
Holiday wants to establish his well-known defensive prowess, but perhaps the most important thing he can do starting this weekend is show off an expanded offensive game. Macri, who didn’t see much of Justin in college, is caught off guard by his smooth midrange game. Then again, the way Holiday glides from the NBA three point line to his high release pullup probably would have surprised Macri anyways.
Holiday has excellent shot mechanics, but rarely used his dribble to find his shot in college. As he explains, “A lot of times I was shooting outside shots [in college]. I mean we had Isaiah [Thomas] on our team, so it was easy for him to penetrate and kick it to me, so it was easy for me to just knock down shots.” He knows the rap on him, and wants to use the next couple months to prove that he has the ability to get to the basket and hit the midrange pull-up.
So that’s what Coach Macri and Holiday work on, reinforcing his confidence in the skills he already possesses. Liberated from Washington’s team dynamic, he’s playing for himself for the first time in four years.
Macri focuses equally on what to do and what to think about on the court during the upcoming tournament. To convince scouts that the new and improve Justin Holiday is legit, he needs to go through a little internal re-branding as well.
He provides Holiday with simple mental cues to help him be more active on the offensive glass, attack effectively off the dribble (“baseline is death!”), and seek out midrange scoring opportunities. Macri wants Holiday to slightly shift what he focuses on while playing at Portsmouth. If Justin wants scouts to see him in a new light, he has to pay attention to the mental blind spots, what Macri calls scotoma, in his own game. The drills don’t build muscle memory as much as mental habits. Holiday won’t catch many rebounds at the free throw line, but practicing scoring without a dribble from that spot will help him take direct lines and long strides to the basket.
He looks good today, easily knocking down NBA threes without wrecking his smooth shot mechanics. Of course, no one is guarding him. Will the confidence he exudes today stand up in the heat of intense competition?
A pack of fifth graders invades the gym for after-school basketball, prematurely ending Aaron and Justin’s half-serious game of one-on-one. A boy in matching Under Armour swag circuitously wanders over to inspect the conspicuous Holiday and finally asks, “do you, like, play basketball?”
It’s somehow an odd question to Justin, who has spent most of his life working towards an NBA career. He responds, hesitating a moment, “Yeah, I’m uhm, training to be in the NBA.”
“Thought so,” says the kid, knowingly.
Holiday has him convinced, but will NBA scouts by willing to buy that his game is ready for League?
Striding out of the gym with his family, Holiday flashes his disarming smile and tells me he feels great, that this little tune-up was just what he needed. That’s good. It always helps to believe in what you’re selling.
Every now and again, we’ll steal post an email from a noted sports philosopher. This week, it’s King Kaufman from Salon.com, writing about parity and its discontents.
Re: On parity, sent by King
Baseball doesn’t have parity. There’s obviously a correlation — though hardly 1:1 – between payroll and winning. As you would expect. There’s a correlation between salaries and success in most business, I would gather. Look at the top newspapers, for example. The NY Times pays a lot more than the Oakland Tribune. The problem in baseball is the differing ability of different teams to afford a high payroll over an extended period. That’s an issue that needs to be addressed, but the problem it contributes to — competitive imbalance — is vastly overstated. And it was way, way overstated during the labor wars of the late ’90s early ’00s, when Bud Selig would talk about little else but how unfair baseball’s system was, and the steno pool known as the baseball press dutifully wrote it all down and repeated it. I’m guessing the height of this, around the turn of the century, is roughly when you turned away from baseball because it’s so unfair.
As I showed in this piece, baseball’s competitive balance is roughly on par with the other major sports. Part of that is that the other sports seem more balanced than they are because of the big playoffs. Your team gets a reward fairly often, even if, especially in the NBA, it has virtually no chance of a championship. And what’s funny is the NBA NEVER gets heat about this, the fact that only a small handful of teams, maybe five at the most, have a shot at the championship on opening day, and that pool of teams rarely changes.
Look at the last 10 years in the NBA: Five teams have won the championship. In the last 20 years, only seven teams have. The Lakers, Spurs and Bulls have won 15 of the last 20 titles.
In baseball, eight teams have won the World Series in the last 10 years, and 13 teams have in the last 20. The Yankees have 5 titles, and nobody else has more than 2. Whenever people are arguing for a salary cap, or railing against baseball’s competitive imbalance generally, they run out Selig’s turn of the century line about how fans can *no longer* have any hope of seeing their team win the World Series. The argument was/is that baseball is in some kind of crisis because some teams have no chance. This implies, even when it’s not stated outright, that there was some earlier time when this was not true. But in earlier times, it was way worse. You know the Yankees won 29 pennants in 44 years from 1921-64? They won 14 in 16 years in 1949-64. I could go on at some length about this. The Giants, Cardinals and Dodgers, serially, ruled the NL in similar fashion from 1905-1966, each winning about half the pennants in their two-decade period of dominance. It’s better than it’s ever been to be a fan of everybody that’s not this handful of teams, and still pretty good to be a fan of those four.
The tweet conversation (that sparked this email exchange) started with my friend Patrick saying there was no point rooting for his Cleveland Indians because of the unfair system. The Indians are in a rough period. They’ve only been to the playoffs once in the last nine years. But before their mid’90s run — coinciding with the period when “competitive balance” supposedly became a problem — they hadn’t been to the playoffs in 41 years. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers went 33 years without winning their division, though they went to the playoffs 15 of those years so everything seemed OK. Before the LeBron improvement kicked in, they went 12 years never finishing higher than third, usually lower. But they made the playoffs four times so it didn’t seem so bad till the seven years when they sank to the very bottom. And yet this guy’s talking about how baseball’s too screwed up to follow in Cleveland.
So why don’t the rich teams just rig it? Well, poor management comes into play at times, witness the current Mets and Orioles and, until the last few years, the Phillies. And good management by some teams that are less rich, such as the Twins and even the middle-class Cardinals, who for a long time managed themselves into looking like a rich team. Also, it’s much harder to project performance in baseball. Players in the NBA/NFL drafts are ready to go, and there’s a lot of correlation between the top of the draft and professional success, though even that’s imperfect. In baseball, these guys are years away. Even Buster Posey, a polished college player, took two years to get to the bigs, and everyone’s surprised at how quickly he’s succeeded once there. The top of the baseball draft is littered with failures. There’s a Sam Bowie/Michael Jordan story every year. Several of them. Buster Posey was the 5th overall pick. The top guy that year is stuck in A ball. That’s not at all uncommon. Add in injuries and off years and fluke years and the relative similarity of good and bad teams in the majors — .400 and .600 winning percentages are the rough boundaries, much closer than in the other sports — and there’s a lot of variance. It’s why a team like the Padres can make a run like they did this year. A lot of fun.
I can’t blame my Sports Business professor, Scott Rosner, for not remembering me. We hadn’t spoke in nearly three years, and before that our only contact was when, in a 75 person lecture, he regularly assured me that my Sonics were as good as gone. I bristled at his certainty during fall of 2007, but it turns out he knew a thing or two about the business of the NBA.
In addition to teaching at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Rosner is a principal at Hudson Sports Consulting and author of the (text)book on sports business, descriptively titled “The Business of Sports.”
Though Professor Rosner doesn’t have the faintest memory of my mediocre performance in his class, I often draw on his course to help explain the business side of the game I love. I got in touch with the ol’ Prof to pick his brain about the upcoming NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement and the league’s financial doings. I’m hoping he’ll be available to talk hoops as the season rolls along and the CBA negotiations near.
Here are some highlights from our first conversation:
On the general dynamic heading into the negotiations between the NBA Players Union and the NBA owners:
SR: Within the league you have these thirty teams that are very different from one another. They have a lot of issues that they have to work out internally. They have to make decisions about revenue sharing, they’d like to lessen their risk by having a shorter commitment on player contracts. Right now the max is 6 years and 5 if you move on a sign and trade, I’m sure that the owners would like to lower that. The salary cap is meaningless because of the exceptions that have come into play, but at the same time, Bird rights are essential to NBA players and it’s hard to imagine NBA players giving up their Bird rights very easily.
Will we see a hirsute Stern again in 2012?
On Stern’s infamous assertion that the NBA loses $400 million dollars:
SR: Did they loose $370 million did they loose $270 million? In a way it’s sort of irrelevant how much they lost, they lost well into the 9 figures. And obviously your main cost is your labor, and the question is how do you get that labor cost under control?…
The NBA is totally transparent. There seems to be very little dispute over the fact that the league is losing money, it’s just a question of how much. In other leagues it’s like “you’re lying to us!” In the NBA, they’ve opened their books. Then the question shifts a little bit to what’s the exceptional margin. They’ve opened their book and my sense is that there is a perception amongst the owners that they need to change the game, they need that sea change [which could require a work stoppage]. And the players would like to keep the status quo, I mean why wouldn’t they, it works very well for them. Then it’s how many concessions are you willing to make if you’re the players association.
On the NBA’s involvement in foreign market, specifically NBA China:
SR: The NBA launched this entirely separate league, NBA China, a few years ago. They’ve sold an 11% stake in the company and a few other companies for a number that values about $2.25 billion at launch, so clearly they’ve got a vested interest there.
I think this is an area in which the NBA has been the most successful of all the sports leagues. Some of it is a bit of good fortune: the fact that basketball is immensely popular in China and has been for some time. But at the same time they’ve made tremendous inroads there and a lot of this is the result of the Dream Team in 1992, the rest of the globalization of the sport. If you remember in 1992 they clobbered everybody and the world caught up very quickly. And that has had a profound impact on the game.
The NBA has done an amazing job, better than any other league–they’re the best at this–at making basketball a global sport. And ultimately that will result in greater dollars coming in to the league than would otherwise be possible. [Foreign markets] represent the biggest growth area for the league. You can do a bit better domestically but really you’re very mature in North America. Then the question is where are you globally? And you’re very much in the infancy there. [The NBA] devoted a lot of resources there and they continue to do so. They’re well on their way in India, but these things take a generation not one or two years.
These last words remind me of a sentiment I’ve run across a few times in the last year, this idea that Stern will cement his legacy through the 2011 CBA. First, I wouldn’t put it past Stern to go to the grave as the NBA’s commissioner. But even if he does retire in the next five years, it’s unlikely that any gains won for the league in this CBA will be more than a footnote in his biography. It’s the cultural and financial benefits of his decision to doggedly pursue foreign markets that will not only live on but continue to grow, and long after his tenure with the NBA ends.
Barring a lockout, it’s unlikely that we’ll be still discussing the 2011 CBA with any frequency in a decade. But with every foreign player that joins the ranks of the NBA, and with every dollar that foreign market investments return, we’ll be reminded of Stern’s indelible impact on professional basketball.
Thanks again to Scott Rosner for the academic (read: informed) perspective!
Most people think that when Cornell takes the court tomorrow, they will have 40 minutes to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament, and maybe the universe. Watch out, MonStars!
The Slam Magazine cover says it all: Cornell is an outstanding college basketball team, but Kentucky will come loaded with four future NBA studs. It will be the ultimate test of Cornell’s disciplined, the-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts style of basketball.
But don’t let the SATs fool you. Cornell was one of the only teams in the country that played multiple number 1 seeds heading into this year’s tournament. Trust me, Kentucky is going to have its hands full guarding the four shooters orbiting around Jeff Foote.
Just how brightly Foote shines may determine the winner. Then again, is there a game plan for this guy?
We’ll find out Thursday night.
Without further ado, here is what Cornell’s players are expecting going into the biggest game of their lives.
HoopSpeak: You guys are a senior loaded team. You’re going up against Kentucky, with of course the headline freshmen and then Patterson. How do you think that your experience as a group and as a group playing together will benefit you in this game?
Aaron Osgood: I think that with the senior group we have, I think we are going to stay real poised. A game against Kentucky can really get out of hand quick. We could start turning the ball over and they can get buckets in transition, and then we’re really, you know, playing from behind. And that’s what we don’t want to happen. I think with this experienced group we can stay poised and stick to our game plan and not fall into theirs.
HoopSpeak: Is there any team you’ve seen this year or maybe in the last couple years that kind of gives you an idea of what to expect? I think Kentucky is kind of the epitome of that high major school that is going to have the dribble drive and kick offense. They really want get after you on defense and get a lot of one-on-one out of their sets. Is there a team you’ve seen recently that you guys have talked about to kind of prepare?
A.O.: I guess off the top of my head the only team that really wanted to dribble drive against us was UMass who we played this fall [and beat 74-61], early in the season. And we did well because we really focused on team defense rather than just playing one-on-one, and I think that helped us. And obviously this Kentucky team is a step above UMass but I think our defensive plan is pretty solid. You really have to dig in against those guys.
HoopSpeak: You are going to be matching up with one the very quickest backcourts in the country. What are your thoughts on that prospect and have you seen some players in AAU or coming out in high school that give you an idea of what to expect?
Here is part two of my interview with Cornell reserve forward Aaron Osgood and starting shooting guard Chris Wroblewski. In this excerpt we talked about how Cornell has been able to separate itself from the rest of the Ivy League over the past three years, and their formula for success against traditional powers like Temple and Wisconsin.
HoopSpeak: This is your third year in a row playing in the tournament. When you guys had the Ivy League locked up and knew you were going to the tournament again, what sort of things did you talk about to ensure you would be ready mentally to play and not get knocked out in the first round?
A.O.: We had to realize there’s a big difference between the Ivy League opponents we had been playing the past seven weeks and the teams we’re going to face in the tournament. We had a real tough preseason schedule and we really started practicing more on different things, we would scout differently.
With the Ivy League you deal with a lot of smart basketball players who are kind of crafty, whereas with these high major teams we knew we would be playing there’s a lot more one-on-one, a lot more dependence on athletic ability, getting to the rim type of thing. It’s two different types of play and we definitely focused more on the preseason type of game rather than the Ivy League.
HoopSpeak: You guys got to play against Syracuse, and their coach Jim Boeheim was really complimentary of you guys. What was it like to see that 2-3 zone in person?
A.O.: It’s surprising. We’ve played Syracuse three times in a row, and this year they were definitely the best. Two years before this year they were a lot slower, but this year they are really quick, really quick to close out on the shooters.
You would think there would be a lot of open shots and stuff but really we didn’t get a lot of good looks from three. The threes that we made were highly contested and good shots, but [the zone] definitely moves really quick and they have a great front line with [Brandon] Triche and [Andy] Rautins and the backline of course with [Arinze] Onuaku holding down the middle, its real tough to get into.
HoopSpeak: You guys are down 1, on Thursday, you’ve got the ball, 20 seconds lefts, shot clock is off. What play is Donahue drawing up in the huddle?
A.O.: It’s something for Wittman, for sure. Anything to get Wittman the ball. Probably run him off a couple staggered screens, maybe get a hand off from Jeff Foote. Something like that to get a good look. Jeff Foote is a great screener, he just swallows guys up, and I think definitely something like that for Wittman.
HoopSpeak: Is that how you see it going down?
C.W.: That definitely wouldn’t be a bad play. I think a luxury about this team is we have a few guys who you would trust with the ball in that situation. I think that we would maybe do a high pick-and-roll with [Jeff] Foote and Lou [Dale] up top and maybe some sort of down screen for Witt while that’s going on. So, you know, Lou if he can get something off the screen, he can take that, or if Foote winds up being open on the roll, or, you know, Witt coming up top, open for a shot. Anything that involves those three we would be fine in that situation.
HoopSpeak: So in that play are you just standing in the corner waiting to get the kick?
C.W.: In that situation I will act as a decoy (laughs). No really, the other two guys on the court would probably be shooters and I would probably be standing in the corner as the fourth of fifth option.
HoopSpeak: What makes Wittman such a difficult guy to cover?
This story cracked me up. I think Cornell Forward Aaron Osgood summed up his team’s experience with the line “things have been pretty crazy around here for the last week.” Here’s a great nugget from HoopSpeak’s interview with A-RO:
HoopSpeak: Now that you are back in Ithaca, what is the funniest thing someone has said to you?
A.O.: Here in Ithaca we have a lot of interesting people. Just like today, there was a guy with a big white beard, I would describe his as a hippie pretty much. And he told me that we should win the national championship because every time that he’s moved to a new city, that team has won the national championship.
He was saying that in 1999 he moved to Detroit and Michigan State won the national championship. Before that he had moved to Arizona and Arizona had won the national championship. So according to him and his methods, we’re on pace to win the national championship. So that’s going for us, I guess.
Welcome to life on ESPN. Check back tomorrow morning for Part 2 of my interview with Osgood and Wroblewski in which we discuss what makes Cornell so tough to beat.
As a Penn alum, seeing an Ivy League team make it to the sweet sixteen has me feeling both pride and envy. Cornell has owned the Ivy League for three straight years and replaced my Quakers atop the league. But despite their dominance over the nerdlings, they hadn’t won a game in the NCAA tournament until this year. In fact, no Ivy League team had won one in more than a decade. Suffice it to say, this year is different.
Powered by ginormous Jeff Foote, speedy Louis Dale and can’t-stop-won’t-stop scoring from Ryan Wittman, the Big Red have become the first Ivy League team to advance to the Sweet 16 since Penn did it in 1979. This Thursday they will travel the short distance to Syracuse to face the lightning quick, tradition rich, Kentucky Wildcats. (They have this guy).
I remember the last time I played with Aaron Osgood, who now is a reserve Forward/Center for the Big Red. In my last high school game, Aaron, then a wild-limbed sophomore, broke his hand on the backboard while blocking a shot. Seven years, a couple inches and about 80 pounds later he playing for a team heading to the Sweet 16.
I talked with Aaron and his teammate, sophomore shooting guard Chris Wroblewski, about being Ivy League ballers, taking down the big boys, and why the Big Red aren’t done yet.
I’ll be posting pieces of the interview over the next couple days leading up to Thursday’s match-up with KU.
HoopSpeak: So, how far did you have yourself going in your bracket?
Aaron Osgood: Ha! Honestly I have not made a bracket in a few years, it just seems weird to put myself in there.
HoopSpeak: You guys saw Kansas early in the year and almost beat them if not for some Sherron Collins heroics. Did you suspect that they might be vulnerable to upset?
AO: No, not really. If I had made a bracket I definitely would have put Kansas or Syracuse as the #1 seed and put Kansas in that national title game, or at least playing Syracuse for it. We definitely think they are a great team and we played extremely well in those games. They’re both great teams. I don’t think they were vulnerable but with KU losing to UNI, it just shows you that anyone can lose.
HoopSpeak: For people who haven’t seen your team play yet—I imagine that number is pretty small at this point—but for people who don’t know your team at all, how would you describe the way you play?
Aaron Osgood: I would say that we have a ton of options. We’re not a team where you can just shut down a shooter, because we have three other guys who shoot just as well. We move the ball so well and we’re very, very unselfish. We’re going to work as hard as we can to get an open shot every time. And I think that it’s the cohesion that we have between all the guys that makes us play so well and get good looks and all that.
[….There was a noisy pause as some of Aaron’s teammates were distracting him…]
(Laughing) A big reason we are so good is because we get a long so well. I’m on the phone and four guys want to see what’s going on; we all live in the same house here.
HoopSpeak: Does living together have an effect on the way you guys share the ball and are unselfish on the court?
AO: Ya, you know, I think that’s a big part of it, we all trust each other, we’re all like brothers. There’s no like competition between us, no guys going to be mad at another guy for taking his minutes type of thing. We all trust each other and know that if you pass the ball out, the other guy is going to make the right decision and I think that’s a big part of why we’re successful.
HoopSpeak: So who cleans the Dog Pound? (Where Aaron and 12 of his teammates live)