Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Nate Robinson: Giant Killer

Nate Robinson, the springy Knicks guard generously listed at 5'9", just made the Knicks entire season when he blocked a layup attempt from the 7'6" Yao Ming. Boom. There's the season. No need to continue watching. You won't see anything better. If you think I'm wrong and that the Knicks are poised for something better this year, then it's time I cue that familiar Jim Mora rant.

I openly admit to the fact that I am a New York Knicks fan. I have been since birth. There have been some good times with the likes of Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and John Starks, and some good times with Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby and Allan Houston. But the Knicks won't even sniff the playoffs this season.

Lately, there haven't been many good times in the World's Most Famous Arena. In fact, it's been just the opposite. Since Isiah Thomas has been given a win-or-you're-fired ultimatum by owner James Dolan, it's placed us Knicks fans into an unprecedented situation. Do we root for the Knicks, root for their improvement, for the outside chance they contend or at least return to respectability? Any normal fan would.

But Isiah has single-handedly destroyed everything to do with basketball when he's not actually controlling the rock, from the Toronto Raptors to the infamous CBA collapse. So that begs the question -- should we root against our own team, against their improving at all? After all, Isiah is responsible for the Marbury deal (funny how all his former teams succeed once he's gone). He's responsible for bringing in Larry Brown, Steve Francis, and Jalen Rose, for trading Nazr Mohammed for Malik Rose, and for trading every draft pick we have through 2057 for Eddy Curry. Even President Bush is sitting in the Oval Office saying to himself, "Now that guy makes some awful decisions."

Thanks to Nate-Rob, I can call it a season. If I don't watch, I don't need to have an opinion. I can stay perfectly neutral and watch some good basketball on channels not centered on Madison Square Garden, oblivious to the train-wreck Knicks. Instead of struggling as a Knicks fan, I can flip another channel and watch ... oh, good -- the Celtics. Suddenly I don't feel quite so alone in my misery.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Updating the NBA Preseason Picks

Here's a look back at my NBA Power Rankings from the first week of the season and how they've earned the spots I gave them (or else made me look very, very bad). These rankings are in order of my preaseason picks.

1. Phoenix (3-6 through Monday)
Should be ranked: First in the college polls.
What's been right: The scoring is still there (surprise, surprise). They're behind only Utah with 107.4 ppg. And Leandro Barbosa has proved doubters wrong, averaging 19.9 points and 5.9 assists.
What's been wrong: A pretty long list. Steve Nash just sat out his second straight game with back spasms, Amare Stoudemire is nowhere near the monster he needs to be for the Suns to win in June (14.1 points, 6.8 boards in just 23 minutes per game). Raja Bell and Shawn Marion have both been inconsistent, and Boris Diaw looks to have taken a few steps backwards from last year's breakout performance. They don't defend, they don't rebound and they don't really look like a team some experts (myself very not included there) picked to win it all.

2. San Antonio (8-2)
Should be ranked: Second (to Utah).
What's been right: Tim Duncan has been great for anybody, but solid for him (22.8 points, 11.9 boards), while Tony Parker is averaging just over 20 points and has been impossible to slow in the closing minutes of games, giving the Spurs two go-to players. They're also tied with Utah for the top rebounding team.
What's been wrong: If anything, Duncan and Parker are the lone consistent threats. Manu Ginobili has been erratic, Michael Finley is quickly fading towards retirement and Bruce Bowen is a slowing defensive specialist. But having Duncan and Parker makes up for a lot.

3. Miami (4-5)
Should be ranked: In the jumbled middle, somewhere between 10-15.
What's been right: D-Wade and just about nothing else. Wade is averaging 27.2 points, 7.2 assists, 4.8 boards, 1.67 steals, and 1 block per game while averaging 40 minutes each night. His supporting cast? Aside from Udonis Haslem's double-double average, they belong in the next section.
What's been wrong: Maybe the Big Aristotle should pay Frank Thomas and rename himself the Big Hurt. Shaq has missed five of nine games for the Heat and is averaging 14 points, 7.5 boards and 1 block. Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and company have all won their rings, so nothing stands between them and a nice, easy coast into retirement. The team's behind you all the way, D-Wade. For better or for much, much worse.

4. Dallas (5-4)
Should be ranked: Winners of five straight after 0-4 start have climbed to 10th in the league. Still far from fourth.
What's been right: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and company have upped the energy lately. After averaging 89 points over their first four games, they've scored at a more Dallas-like clip (107.4) during their win streak. Center Erick Dampier is having a nice comeback year at 9.6 points and 8 boards per game.
What's been wrong: Two of the Mavericks' suprises in last year's playoffs (and valuable backups on this year's team) are having disappointing seasons. Big man DeSagana Diop's minutes have dipped thanks to Dampier, while speedy point guard Devin Harris is averaging just 2.1 assists in 25 minutes per night.

5. Detroit (5-5)
Should be ranked: A couple spots ahead of Miami in that 10-15 range. I'll say 12. For now.
What's been right: Honestly, this team bores me now. So here's the obligatory something good -- Rip Hamilton is having a solid season offensively (23.8 ppg).
What's been wrong: Rip aside, the numbers for Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess are all below their benchmarks, Nazr Mohammed has been a major disappointment at 6.9 and 6.6 per night, and 10 players are averaging at least 13 minutes a night. Something's got to give.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bobby Knight Strikes Again

Certain people have the ability to warp your expectations. LeBron James, for instance, has a so-so night if he "only" scores 20. Peyton Manning throwing for "only" 250 yards and a TD makes you scratch your head. You're surprised to see Tiger win "only" one tournament in a month. And who would call Albert Pujols a success if he "only" hit .290 with 25 homers?

Bobby Knight has also changed our understanding of what to expect and, especially thanks to his temper, what to accept. At 872 wins, Knight sits just seven behind all-time coaching wins leader, Dean Smith. Knight is indeed a legend. He's also thrown a chair across the court and choked a student-athlete in practice. So thank God he "only" struck Texas Tech player Michael Prince under the chin this time.

Should he really be excused from all punishment after he again used physical contact on a player?

Fran Fraschilla of ESPN downplayed the incident, saying that because this involves Knight, people are blowing it out of proportion. In reality, Knight needs to be punished, even if he intended to motivate rather than harass (it's funny how the line between those often blur with coaches). This was not just an act of coaching, although Fraschilla claimed otherwise. This is no slap on the butt or pull of the jersey, this is hand-to-face contact -- since when is that acceptable, no matter the severity? Even if it was in the heat of the moment? And even if, as Knight and Prince have stated, it was to encourage him?

Pat Forde of ESPN (who called for a one-game suspension of Knight, at least) stated that this was "only" a bop under the chin, not a choke-hold or bodyslam. Great. So because a man's killed in the past, he has every right to stab someone and receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

Now, that analogy might be a little extreme, but what else can be expected when Knight, after all, has redefined the player-coach boundaries? If Knight's past actions didn't come into play (a rather impossible thing to suppose), then maybe Texas Tech athletic director Gerald Myers would step up to the podium, take charge and reprimand Coach Knight when it's appropriate. If only.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Appreciating Jim Murray

Some things just need to be said loudly. When I first wrote an essay for the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation Scholarship, I never could have dreamed up the weekend it would provide me. For your sake (and my own), I won't even attempt to describe my experience in a California desert town called La Quinta at a resort fresh out of a fantasy world (think Zoro meets the Pearly Gates, and you have this Mexican-flavored paradise). The one thing which I will say, however, is this -- there are no words to describe Jim Murray, a founding writer of SI, baseball Hall of Fame writer, and Pulitzer Prize winner (among many, many other things which anyone would gladly present in a glass case to house guests).

I attend the alma mater of Mr. Murray, Trinity College in Hartford (consider that little "Mr." my small conveyance of just how much respect I feel for him ... somehow calling him "Murray" feels disrespectful). He was a pioneer of his craft, and by craft I mean both sports journalism and writing in general. If the world of sports was a novel, nobody developed its characters better than Mr. Murray. He dove into the very soul of every player, coach, manager and executive to a depth that any other writer would feel lucky to achieve one-sixteenth of.

Mr. Murray wrote, "Nolan Ryan is more than an athletic marvel. He's a medical marvel. His glove should to go Cooperstown, but his arm should go to the Smithsonian." He compared legendary athletes to legendary dancers, smooth leapers and runners to classical musicians, and Cal Ripken to Grandpa Murray. And, in every word of it, it's like watching Mr. Murray write firsthand or chatting personally with Brooks Robinson. It's that alive.

And nothing I can possibly say to you will convey just how this man wrote or changed the face of writing -- not one single word I can write will do justice to all he accomplished.

So, to a pioneer and inspiration, I'll say two little ones -- Thank you.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The College/NBA Debate

To all you NBA-haters, I have one message to you: stop hating. I know I sound like Scoop Jackson, but it's time to give The League some love. The NBA is coming off one of the most exciting playoffs in its history, and the reigns have officially been taken by young, likeable players. Led by D-Wade, Lebron and Melo, the league has a bright future. No -- a bright present.

I've repeatedly heard fans say that the college game is pure because it isn't all about the money, while the NBA features less passionate millionaires. Don't be so sure. Look at AJ Price, for example. Somehow, UConn lured the NYC guard to Storrs. Now, if you haven't been to Storrs, there's something you need to understand -- the town IS UConn. There's NOTHING around the school. Not to mention there's a 20 to 1 cow to human ratio.

But when Price visited Coach Jim Calhoun, do you honestly think he heard all those cows? No. They were drowned out by the sounds of the cash register busting open. UConn has 10 players in the leauge right now. How did the school land a guard from the streets of NY? The prospect of big bucks in the NBA. The college game is absolutely all about the money. It's just not immediately theirs yet (not counting the illegal gifts many players inevitably receive). It's sad, but it's true -- any sporting event you see on national television IS about the money.

So this year, don't only scream, "Go, Huskies!" Embrace the NBA, and shout out, "Go, Knicks!"

What? What's so funny?