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.