Centers' Little Helper

Dennis Hans, unrenowned former adjunct professor of mass comm and American foreign policy, relentlessly exposed the Bush administration’s “techniques of deceit” BEFORE the Iraq war, when it could have made a difference (see links). For decades he has fought baseball’s discrimination against lefthanded infielders and promoted his ingenious clockwise solution. A lifelong advocate for a flowing, non-brutal, flop-free NBA, he now champions the cause of its second-class citizens: the centers.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Steve Nash, SI’s Chris Ballard, endorse my expansive view of athleticism
Appropo my 2001 essay on athleticism in the April 18 post, which elicited a bunch of comments courtesy of a link by ESPN NBA blogger Henry Abbott, here is Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard, along with Steve Nash, discussing Nash the athlete:

Which brings up the biggest misconception about Nash: that he is an overachieving nonathlete who has made good mostly on smarts and hustle. But to suggest that Nash isn't a good athlete is to define athlete in the narrowest fashion. In many ways Nash is one of the best athletes in the NBA. He probably could have played professional soccer (his brother, Martin, does), and he was an excellent youth hockey player. "He wins at pretty much everything he does," says Whitley, who lists arm wrestling and beer chugging as the only two events in which he can take Nash. "He won't pick up a golf club for nine months, and then he'll shoot in the low 80s. His hand-eye coordination is amazing."

To Nash, the rap on him is a matter of semantics. "In our business people always equate athleticism with explosiveness, not with coordination, agility, footwork or creativity," he says. "I know I could learn to do anything, basically. I've always been able to pick things up athletically, even though I might not be dunking the ball." Even that last statement is not entirely true. At a practice two months ago Nash surprised teammates by dunking twice, once with his left hand off his right foot and once off two feet on an alley-oop from Raja Bell. Neither dunk, Nash takes pains to point out, was what one would call thunderous. "But," he says, "just barely still counts."

Back in 2003, long before Nash earned his first MVP, I wrote about his underrated athleticism — and the woeful lack of athleticism of some of his Mav teammates — for Inside Hoops and Mike Fisher's DallasBasketball website. Here’s a sample:

NATURAL NASH: How Steve Nash Ranks as an NBA Athlete
By Dennis Hans

April 29, 2003

As the Dallas Mavericks trounced the Minnesota Timberwolves on ABC March 30, Bill Walton observed that Mavs point guard Steve Nash has “as little physical ability as any player in the NBA.”

Wake up and smell the incense, Bill. Nash is fast, quick, elusive and super-coordinated. He’s got great hands and a soft touch. He’s one of the top penetrators in the game, and even though he’s a righthander he can drive and finish with his left hand as well as or better than any natural lefty.

Like everyone else playing point guard in the NBA, Nash has labored long and hard to master the many skills his demanding position requires. But so did tens of thousands of college playmakers who never reached the NBA, let alone started, let alone earned a spot in the All-Star Game. Many of those NBA wannabees had the the requisite smarts and dedication, but they lacked that other indispensable quality possessed by Nash and every other standout NBA playmaker: oodles of talent.

Like most point guards, Nash is considerably shorter and lighter than the average NBA player. Perhaps that explains Walton’s confusion: The big redhead appears to believe that tallness and poundage — both of which he has in abundance — are “abilities.”

Sorry, Bill. Although your 84 inches and 250 pounds place you in select company, those measurements tell us nothing about your past abilities (in Walton-speak, “the impeccable footwork, the pinpoint passing, the Russell-esque timing as he swats shot after shot”) or present liabilities (“the bonehead proclamations, the nonstop mouth, the annoying habit of expressing everything in groups of three”). If height and weight were “abilities,” Chuck Nevitt and Felton Spencer would be NBA legends.

Walton’s confusion on this point explains his failure to notice that most of the players in the Target Center March 30 had considerably less “physical ability” than Nash. If we judged the players on how well they moved and how effectively they performed a variety of skills with and without the ball, those with the most ability were named Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Nick Van Exel and Troy Hudson. The least able were named Evan Eschmeyer, Reggie Slater and Marc Jackson. No one in the latter group remotely resembled anyone in the former. . . .

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Jon Barry for Commissioner; Sam Mitchell imitates idiotic Larry Brown
Glad to hear Jon Barry express his disgust with the escalating number of charging calls — particularly on plays where the contact occurs AFTER the guy has already passed or shot. In the Jan. 31 entry below, I note that 35 years ago refs.tended to ignore such contact, which occurred rarely because only Dick Motta’s Bulls played D in this revolting and dangerous manner, though that soon changed. Today’s Bulls and Heat are mirror-image teams, so be prepared for a ton of block/charge collisions and foul trouble as the series unfolds. The NBA, in its infinite stupidity, continues to make life easier for charge-seeking stiffs and non-stiffs. I’ve been writing about this for a long, long time; you’ll find some links to the right, including the Letter to Ronnie Nunn.

Sam Mitchell lost Game 1 today by sitting Bosh for long stretches with just two fouls. This is really dumb — Larry Brown dumb — and doubly so when one takes into account Bosh’s very low fouling rate. Bosh ended the game with three fouls. Mitchell should have given him every chance to play 40 to 45 minutes, which you can’t do if you sit for 14 first-half minutes.. Here, Sam, is the advice I offered Larry Brown.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Amaechi, Hardaway and the vexing question, Are pro hoopsters “athletes”?

Back in 2001, I posed that question in an essay that ran in the online edition of the Sporting News. That may well have been the only occasion when Tim Hardaway and John Amaechi were mentioned in the same essay prior to Hardaway’s ignorant rant about gay athletes and gay people in general. My essay had nothing to do with sexual orientation (Amaechi was still in the closet), dealing instead with the ludicrous claim that NBA hoopsters are “the greatest athletes in the world.” Many, including Tim Hardaway in his younger days, are. But the league is so overrun with mediocrities (such as Amaechi and several of his 2000-01 Orlando Magic teammates) that the claim, as a generalization, is laughable.

On a side note, I was pleased to hear Amaechi’s Magic coach, Doc Rivers, and former Magic teammate Grant Hill say recently that they would welcome and be publicly supportive of an openly gay teammate. That said, I think Amaechi is off-base when he suggests that Jazz coach Jerry Sloan had it in for him because Sloan suspected he was gay.

The impression I got from Amaechi’s book is that Sloan was rightly disgusted with Amaechi’s lack of commitment. Due to Amaechi's limited athelticism, he was always a pathetic defender and rebounder (by NBA standards). But he did have a well-rounded, ambidextrous offensive repertoire (developed at Penn State). For him to be effective as a Jazz reserve, he had to keep that repertoire razor sharp, and that meant lots of extra work. Otherwise, you end up shooting 32.5 percent, which is what he shot his first season with the Jazz.

It's perfectly fine for a brilliant guy like Amaechi to have interests beyond b-ball, but Sloan is fully justified in expecting a highly paid professional to act like one. Alas, by the time he joined the Jazz Amaechi had lost the work ethic that enabled him to make it to the NBA in the first place. Then again, perhaps if Sloan had been more open to Amaechi's ideas on tweaking certain plays to enhance his effectiveness, his attitude and dedication would have been better.

Amaechi completely misses Sloan’s REAL bias: He actually likes slow dudes with limited talent (e.g., Jarron Collins), because he knows they won’t freelance on offense; he can always count on them staying within the confines of his system. Hard as it is to believe, Amaechi’s slowness and lack of jumping ability explain why Sloan’s Jazz was willing to give a fading, 30-year-old stiff a fat 4-year contract. And remember, this was toward the end of the Stockton-Malone era, when the only chance for the Jazz to make another title run was to surround their slowing but still highly skilled all-star tandem with active, athletic youngsters who would improve over the course of a long season if given playing time. Collins or a dedicated Amaechi might help you win a few extra regular-season games, but they're of limited value in the REAL season, the playoffs. Sloan made the same mistake in the middle of Amaechi's first Jazz season by signing Rusty LaRue to back up Stockton. LaRue was a very slow white dude who wouldn't make mental mistakes but also couldn't make plays. Giving the likes of LaRue and Amaechi playing time or, years later, letting Mo Williams get away because you prefer the much slower but slightly more polished point-guard tandem of Carlos Arroyo and Raul Lopez are coaching "mental mistakes." Better yet, it's a coaching "mindset," one that limits Sloan and prevents me from ranking him among the elite coaches.

Anyway, here’s that Dec. 21, 2001 Sporting News piece.

Many pro hoopsters are mediocre athletes
By Dennis Hans

Here’s a variation on the popular question, Are pro golfers “athletes”?

Are pro basketball players athletes?

The question seems sacrilegious. For years we’ve been told that professional hoopsters are “the greatest athletes in the world.” But the evidence is underwhelming.

Consider first the countless skyscrapers drawing fat NBA checks who are plagued by some combination of slow feet, bad hands, little agility, no rhythm, poor timing, bricklayer’s touch and other deficiencies. Last season [2000-01], nearly half the roster of the Orlando Magic -- a playoff team -- was filled with such people.

When I think “great athlete” I don’t think Michael Doleac (nice touch, but slow reflexes and can’t run or jump), Don Reid (can run fast in a straight line and can jump; can’t do much with the basketball), Andrew DeClercq (ditto), Pat Garrity (good hands and great stroke; sub-par quickness and jumping ability), or John Amaechi (brews a mean cup of pre-game tea; Brit’s other abilities less apparent). All are respected, intelligent, hard-working pros. But well-rounded, world-class athletes? Hardly.

What if we asked them to do something outside their sport that posed a modest athletic challenge, like making the routine plays of a shortstop? Garrity is the only one who could reliably field grounders (if hit directly at him) and make an accurate throw. But turning two with a baserunner bearing down would be a near-death experience.

Imagine this quintet trying to hit a 90 mph fastball -- or a 75 mph one, for that matter. Or throw a curve for a strike. Not a pretty picture.

Rest assured, Omar and Nomar (Vizquel and Garciaparra) would be dazzling at basketball with just a little practice. That’s because they’re among the greatest of the real world’s “world’s greatest athletes” -- guys under 6-2 who look good playing any game you can name.

Not persuaded? Let us turn from basketball’s mediocrities to Charles Barkley -- purportedly among the all-time greats in a profession of “great athletes.” But can you be considered a truly great athlete if you devote most of your non-drinking spare time to a game that, to be adequate, requires a modicum of arm-hand-eye-leg coordination, yet you remain light years away from attaining adequacy? Of all the non-disabled men in the world under 70 who play golf regularly, Barkley is the worst. His disjointed, hitch-ridden swing is the most unintentionally hilarious sight in sports.

Consider the greatest of the greats. Michael Jordan was a devoted baseball player from his youth right through high school. Later, he re-dedicated himself to the game while still in his athletic prime, hoping he could make the majors. Alas, even by minor league standards he was pathetic. Scrawny backup infielders barely out of high school hit the ball with more consistency and authority.

[WARNING! Inexcusable cheapshots in next paragraph. What I should have said back in 2001 is that the very-tall demographic is fairly small, so that when you reserve a few hundred NBA jobs for the really tall, you run out of great athletes much quicker than if those jobs were reserved for guys between, say, 5-8 and 6 feet, who comprise a much greater share of the population.]

Lucky for Jordan, as a young man he stumbled upon a sport that, at the professional level, limits four of the five positions (all but point guard) to a tiny slice of the population: tall people -- the world’s least coordinated demographic. For every man over 6-4 who can walk and chew gum at the same time there are ten who can’t.

Nitpickers will shout, “What about Allen Iverson? He’s barely 6 feet, yet he plays shooting guard, one of the positions you say is reserved for the tall.” Yes, I admit that Iverson is an exception. It’s probably just a coincidence that the league’s most electrifying performer -- and MVP -- is a man of average height.

The NBA’s powerhouse propaganda machine has persuaded the world that the most meaningful test of athleticism is the height you can reach from a running or standing jump. Thus Greg Ostertag is an athlete, Lee Trevino is not.

In reality, Trevino has much in common with veteran playmaker Tim Hardaway, who meets most any definition of “athlete.” Both are short, stocky and incredibly strong. Both have great hands, a million shots, and the imagination and moxie to pull them off when it matters most.

There’s more to athleticism than touching the rim with your forearm. Among other things, athleticism encompasses timing, rhythm, speed, strength, reflexes, agility, dexterity, quick hands, soft hands, touch, quick feet, quick “first step,” jumping height, jumping quickness, jumping rapidity, hand-eye coordination, foot-eye coordination, leg-arm-hand-eye coordination, and throwing and kicking power and accuracy.

Different sports -- and different skills within a sport -- require different combinations of athletic qualities. That explains why Jordan is a well-rounded superstar on the court and an easy out at the plate. It is why he whips Barkley on the golf course and is whipped by his pals Davis Love III and Tiger Woods.

Some guys look like a great athlete at first glance but fade upon close inspection. Seven-footer Darryl Dawkins could run faster than Larry Bird and jump higher (once he gathered himself) than Magic Johnson. But when we factor in reflexes, coordination, hands, agility and touch, it’s clear why Dawkins had a mediocre career: He couldn’t hold an athletic candle to Magic or Bird.

Magic and Bird were rare big guys who could do many of the things a million or two little guys can do. Half the NBA players are 6-8 or taller, and if most of them had half the abilities of Magic and Bird, the claim that the NBA is home to “the world’s greatest athletes” would merit debate.

Given the reality of NBA rosters, that claim is a crock. With the possible exception of football (which features skill-position marvels and a smattering of agile giants, but too many guys whose best attribute is size), no other pro sport -- not soccer, baseball, tennis, golf or bowling -- has as high a percentage of so-so or woeful athletes as the NBA.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to watching some real athletes. John Daly and Vijay Singh are going for the green.