Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Indianapolis and the Death of the American Game

As the Indiana Pacers heroically staved off a late Miami Heat run to tie the Eastern Conference Finals series at two games a piece, I couldn't help but reflect on what had taken place in that same building eleven years ago. Then known as Conseco ( now Bankers Life) Fieldhouse hosted the 2002 FIBA world championships, a tournament that will forever be etched in the memories of American basketball fans. For the last ten years, dating back to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, America had dominated a sport that it had practically created, though Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the sport, was born and raised in Ontario. The United States was hosting a major international basketball event for the first time since the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. Again, the Americans were highly favored to breeze through this tournament, as they had done in every major event for the last ten years, with the exception of the 1998 world championships in Athens, in which they had finished third, due to the absence of locked out NBA players. That was during the league's first major labor dispute that delayed the start of the 1999 season until February. Aside from that, the U.S. was dominant as long as it sent its NBA players to compete. In fact, they hadn't lost a game in which NBA stars were playing.

Former Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller was on the U.S. team that finished 6th at the FIBA world championships in 2002
The Americans breezed through group C, defeating Algeria, Germany, and China respectively. In the second preliminary round, the United States won its first two matches against Russia and New Zealand. It appeared as though the Americans were on pace to do what they had done in previous years, win with ease. But on September 4th 2002, the U.S. squared off with Argentina in a match that changed the sport forever. Led by Manu Ginobili, Argentina stunned the U.S. on its home floor in America's heartland of Indianapolis by the final score of 87-80. Reeling, the Americans headed into the knockout stage to face a very tough and experienced Yugoslavia team that featured Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, two players who had literally been robbed of a Western Conference title with the Sacramento Kings a couple months earlier by crappy officiating. In a closely contested game, the Yugoslavs came out victorious by a score of 81-78. The disappointing finish sent American basketball to the drawing board to conjure up a plan to bring the glory days of the Dream Team back to life. The American team wound up finishing 6th in that dreadful tournament, losing to Spain in the consolation round. The Americans would not win another major tournament until the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but it took all the effort they could possibly give to sneak by Spain in the championship game.

Fortunately, the United States has won the last two major international events, the 2010 world championships, and the 2012 Olympic tournament, thanks to the guidance of Mike Krzyzewski. With the help of Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo, and Kevin Durant, it appears that American dominance in their sport has returned, but the loss in Indianapolis was truly the death of the American game, and the reincarnation of basketball as a legitimately international sport that any country can now have a chance at becoming a powerhouse in. With the FIBA world cup coming up in 2014, we may be entering the most globally competitive era of basketball yet.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

NBA Strikes Out With Small Market Conference Finals

After the Indiana Pacers received every ounce of favoritism from the referees in order to advance past the demoralized Knicks, it  has come down to four teams left to compete for American basketball's top prize, the NBA title. San Antonio and Memphis will kick off what is sure to be a competitive Western Conference Finals series this afternoon. Meanwhile, Indiana and Miami will square off in South Beach in game one the East Finals on Monday. Despite the teams being somewhat interesting to watch, the NBA will have a major problem trying to get people to maintain an interest in these games, considering that three out of the four teams represent small markets.

Following the 2011 lockout, NBA commissioner David Stern has worked hard to make the league more competitive, and with the help of the new CBA (collective bargaining agreement) structure the league to be more small-market friendly, disallowing teams from exceeding the salary cap without paying an enormous luxury tax. One of the main causes of the labor negotiations that took place between the players, owners, and league office in 2011 was disgruntled ownership in smaller markets who felt that they had no chance to compete with the Knicks, Lakers, Bulls, and Heat. Now, small market teams suddenly have hope, and we the fans have a glimpse at what the NBA could look like in the coming years. Suddenly, its possible to envision finals between Indiana and Memphis, Minnesota and Cleveland, and New Orleans and Charlotte.

Brooklyn native Lance Stephenson celebrates Indiana's game six victory over his hometown Knicks
Although this new-found parity around the league sounds great, it also suddenly means that we can look forward to more finals match-ups that lack interest from the most important markets in the NBA, those being L.A., New York, and Chicago. Without the interest from those markets, NBA ratings will be sure to sink faster than rocks. Suddenly, teams like the Pacers and Grizzlies can think about building championship contenders year-after-year that could potentially oust teams from bigger markets. What this suggests, is that the small market teams in the league are just as important as the large market teams, and this is simply not the case. If teams from New York and Los Angeles can spend more money to make themselves better, let them do it. Those are the cities that hold the key to the prosperity of the league, not Indianapolis and Memphis.

When small market teams complain that they have no ability to compete financially with big market teams, they must consider the fact that the big markets are what drive, not only professional basketball, but America's economy in general. When ratings for these games begin to flounder, Stern can only blame himself for giving in to the whining ownership of small-market teams that claimed they couldn't stay afloat with the, then current, structuring of the league. Instead of downsizing the league, and removing some of these irrelevant cities from the basketball map, he has handed over the reins to them, and now fans in America's biggest cities must sit back and watch teams from much smaller ones battle for hoops supremacy.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Former Knick Richardson Building An Unlikely Legacy In Canada

When NBA aficionados think of Micheal "Sugar" Ray Richardson, they generally don't associate him with Canadian basketball. Richardson began his 24 year professional career with the Knicks in 1978. He was selected 4th overall out of Montana, and was proclaimed to be the next "Clyde" Frazier. Two picks later, the Celtics drafted Larry Bird. Though Richardson never fully lived up to the hype, he still managed to become the first player in NBA history to lead the league in both assists and steals in just his second year as a pro.

In 1982, the Knicks traded Richardson to the Golden State Warriors, after signing Bernard King. Golden State quickly traded him to the Nets, where he made the all-star team, and led New Jersey to first-round upset of the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers in the 1983 playoffs.

Richardson's career took a wild turn in 1986, when he was banned from the league for violating the NBA substance abuse policy three times. Richardson tried to make an NBA comeback in 1991, but failed two cocaine tests.
Micheal Ray Richardson has won back-to-back NBLC titles with the London Lightning (Photo Courtesy of London Free Press)
It was during his time away from the NBA, that Richardson truly established himself as a legendary, albeit controversial, professional basketball player and coach. After spending one season with an AAU team, and one with a CBA team, Richardson went to Italy to play for Knorr Bologna, now known as Virtus Bologna, where he played for three seasons. He then spent one year in Croatia with KK Split, two years with what is now Libertas Livorno of the Italian league, three years with Olympique Antibes of the French league, and one season with French club Cholet. He spent two more years in Italy, with the now defunct clubs of Motana Forli and Basket Livorno, before ending his career in France with a second stint with Olympique Antibes, and finally the now defunct AC Golfe-Juan-Vallauris.

By the end of his pro career, Richardson had been a four time NBA all-star, and made the all-defensive first team twice, but his legacy as a coach has been far more successful. After working briefly for the Denver Nuggets as a community ambassador in 2003, he won the CBA title twice. He then won the PBL coach of the year with the Oklahoma/Lawton-Fort Sill Cavalry. Even in the CBA, Richardson couldn't avoid controversy. He was suspended from the 2007 CBA finals for telling the Albany Times Union newspaper that Jews were "crafty (because) they are hated worldwide." Richardson made the comments after he was offered a less than satisfactory contract by general manager Jim Coyne to coach his team in the CBA and USBL. It was also reported by the Times Union that Richardson had made an anti-gay remark at a heckling fan during the first game of the championship series against the Yakima Sun Kings.

In 2011, Richardson was named head coach of the London Lightning for the inaugural season of National Basketball League of Canada, what is the country's first established professional basketball league. In 2011-2012, Richards coached the Ontario-based club to a 28-8 regular season record, before defeating the Halifax Rainmen in the best of five championship series to become the league's first champions. This past April, Richardson and his Lightning defended their title, defeating the Summerside Storm in four games in the championship series. Richardson has garnered coach of the year honors in the both of the league's first two seasons.

Though the NBLC title is far from an NBA title, Richardson has proved that he has a knack for winning, as proven by his two championships. It may not be long before we see the former NBA all-star roaming a sideline across the American border.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

NBA Must Penalize Cheap Shots More Harshly

If J.R. Smith was suspended one game for clearing the air space that he is entitled to as an offensive player by throwing an elbow into the jaws of Jason Terry, there should be numerous other plays in these playoffs that should be under review by the league offices. The fact is, what Smith did looked really bad, but for those of us who actually play the game, I think we all know that Terry deserved a shot to the chops for cutting off Smith's room to operate offensively.

After calling a timeout during game 2, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was undercut by Rockets guard Patrick Beverly, injuring Westbrook's knee. The play was clearly not accidental. Westbrook knew what Beverly had done as soon he slapped the press table in frustration. Beverly took out Westbrook's knees. It was a cheap shot, and one that could seriously dash all title hopes for the Thunder, who now must rely on the inexperienced Reggie Jackson to carry the load in the back court. It was a play that was much more condemnable than the one Smith had made, and yet there was not even a foul call, much less a suspension.
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook falls to the ground after being knocked over by Rockets guard Patrick Beverly. Westbrook is now out for the remainder of the season. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Westbrook was not the only one to be the recipient of a cheap blow. Though Carmelo Anthony stayed in the game, he was the victim of a dirty play on the part of Kevin Garnett. After setting a screen, Garnett yanked Anthony's shoulder, the same one Melo had injured earlier in the season. Carmelo was in pain for a couple of minutes, but stayed on the court. These types of cheap shots that are meant to injure other players have no place in the game. Garnett clearly intended to injure Anthony by pulling his arm. This is something that should garner a suspension. While Smith's blow to Terry's head looked bad, this act on the part of Garnett was absolutely deplorable. Further stoking Carmelo's fire, Jordan Crawford opened his big mouth and said less than savory things about Carmelo's wife. If there's any way to fuel a fire of an opposing team, it's talking about another player's loved ones.

Simply put, these cheap shots and out of line trash talk have no place in the game, and should be penalized far more harshly than Smith's elbow. The NBA needs to consider the fact that some plays just look bad, but that some really are bad, and are deserved of stiffer penalties, especially if they result in the effective injury of another player.