Archive for the ‘Crammed-On Chronicles’ Category

April 25, 2005

Dropping 34 on the host Dallas Mavericks in the opening game of their first-round playoff series, the Rockets’ newest star, Tracy McGrady, announced his intention to cement himself as a bonafide NBA superstar. With the recent expectation of a second child and a 1-0 playoff lead on the road, certainly his spirits were as high as ever. But as Game 2 approached, one could envision McGrady searching for something a little extra special to bring home to Houston.

What might his future kid see when he (if it’s a ‘he’) opens his eyes to the world every morning? How might Tracy show Junior how Daddy takes care of business? Certainly, the 6-foot-8 superstar has basketball accolades galore in his award room but let’s face it, toddlers love pictures. They gawk at posters, not trophies. After Game 1, you can imagine McGrady exploring Dallas’ Academy Sporting Goods for posters of his current stardom, only to find glossies of Kobe dunking and Dirk Nowitzki launching jumpers. If they had any Rocket posters, they’d be of Yao Ming, or, worse, Steve “The Former Franchise” Francis.

Tracy knew that if he was going to find a worthy poster of his likeness in a Rockets’ jersey, he’d just have to make one himself. He couldn’t throw down on Yao, now that he’s a teammate. But maybe he could get a little help from him.

Game 2, first quarter. While Dirk is riding T-Mac’s back in the left corner trying to strip the ball, Yao Ming is strategically backing the straw-legged Shawn Bradley into the paint. Trying to deny the toss-in to Yao, Dirk swipes at the ball on the left, leaving the baseline to the right exposed. In a burst, McGrady is gone, leaving Dirk in the vapors, and Shawn Bradley is out of position.

Bradley tries to swim around Yao’s shoulders to meet McGrady at the baseline. But Yao continued to back into Bradley, until the 7-foot-6’er was stuck at ground zero, directly in front of the hoop. The Mavs’ center leaped feebly in an attempt to meet McGrady at his apex. But with McGrady’s outstretched right arm elevating the ball high above the white rectangle, Shawn had never been this high. Not without a ladder and an oxygen mask.

T-Mac shook the Texas boomtown with a boom of his own, arguably the biggest of his career, screaming as he crushed the rim, ricocheting the ball off a cowering Bradley’s shoulder. The echo from this boom could be heard as far as the Salt Lake City office of the AARP. A stunned Rick Kamla explained, “This is what they call ‘dunkin’ on your whole family.’ And he’s from Utah, he’s got a lot of them!”

Climbing down from Mount Bradley, oblivious to teammates rolling on the floor and tossing towels, McGrady turned his attention to photographers behind the basket, as if to ask, “Did you get that? Did you get THAT?”

Meanwhile, you could look at Shawn and sense the exasperation, probably what Roberto Duran looked like when he begged, “¡No más! ¡No más!” Flash back to a career of getting punked by everyone from Shaq to Robert Pack, from Mo Taylor to Keon Clark, from Chris Webber to Ed O’Bannon, from Earl Watson to Mark Davis. An 11-year career with over 2,000 blocks, brought to an unfortunate end with one devastating “punk-tuation.” Mr. Bradley, you have AARP on line two.

McGrady’s best Game 2 highlight actually came when he brought the ball down the court with just nine seconds left in a tie game. Seven seconds and one jumper off a Yao screen later, he had his 2-0 Rockets lead to bring back to Houston. But at T-Mac’s triumphant postgame press conference, he revealed his ulterior motive, to send something better than a postcard back to Clutch City.

“That’s a poster for my kids,” McGrady said. “I was hoping he was going to jump.” Now with one glance, Tracy’s kid will wake up every morning without any doubt that he’s got quite a legacy to uphold. Keep drinking your milk, son.

Dallas would come back to bring down the Rockets in the series, solving Yao and Tracy’s two-man game and shutting down the whole team in a convincing Game 7. But for most people outside the Metroplex, the series will be remembered for the moment Tracy McGrady rode Shawn Bradley into the sunset.

~iyf

December 20, 2006

Chris Paul just wants a little space. Despite his Rookie of the Year accolades, every time he drives in the lane, opposing teams treat him like Earl Boykins, cutting off passing lanes, daring him to lay it up. Opponents know the guard will drive the lane since he can’t hit threes. They also know with Peja and David West out, he’s got no passing options, unless you consider Desmond Mason or Tyson Chandler from 10 feet out an “option.” So “crowd the paint and dare Chris to lay it up around the post men” is the one-dimensional defensive game plan, and so far it has worked. Going into the matchup with the Magic, the Hornets have won only two of its past 12 games. But opponents didn’t plan on another dimension to this six-foot guard’s game.

Dwight Howard recognized Chris Paul’s man was lost on the pick – from the very same spot on the floor that Kobe beat his man before making a shorts ornament out of Dwight two years ago.

But at least Kobe could dunk, Dwight thought to himself. As CP3 flew past him to the hoop, the 6-foot-11 center waited patiently for the layup attempt so he could go for the swat, maybe intimidate the little guy enough that he could add to his league-leading rebounds total. This time, though, there would be no layup.

Dwight was curious about the message on Chris’ yellow wristband. And Chris was more than happy to share it with Dwight as he neared the rim, offering him a point-blank view. Much to the Manchild’s dismay it didn’t read, “WWJD?” or “LIVESTRONG.” Instead, in very small font the wristband displayed the message Chris Paul offers to all future big men who dare to challenge him at the rim.

“IF YOU CAN READ THIS… YOU ARE ABOUT TO GET DUNKED ON!”

~iyf

One young player makes the spectacular slam that heralds his entry into stardom, while another witnesses the event up-close-and… way too personal.
January 11, 2001

Four-on-one fast break… and to your dismay, you’re the “one.” Every one of your teammates has left you hung out to dry, at the mercy of your opponents. Defenders wake up in cold sweats at night after nightmares like this. The guy with the ball might dribble it right at you and challenge you to make a play, or he and his teammates play keep-away and leave you awkwardly out of position as the ball approaches the rim.

When a player gets stuck backpedaling like this, there’s only two legitimate choices. Fight or Flee? It can be a tough dilemma. Experienced NBA veterans know how to get out of Dodge gracefully if the prospects for disrupting the play are low. But every once in awhile you get somebody who strives to be a hero, willing to risk taking one for the team as the foil on some opponent’s highlight reel, hoping he’ll produce his own. Often it’s someone who’s young, impressionable, not nuanced enough to know how to slide out of the paint without looking like some frightened rabbit and getting chewed out by his coach for lacking courage. Rather than a hare, envision a squirrel that sauntered into the street and is suddenly beset by an oncoming Winnebago trailer. Lacking the instincts to know exactly what to do or which way to run, instead it’ll often choose to simply freeze up and hope for the best.
Fight or Flee? On this warm Arizona night a young, impressionable Indiana Pacer named Al Harrington is caught in just such a predicament. After two years of riding the pine since coming fresh out of out of high school, he’s displayed enough tenacity and athleticism that the coach (at the time, a still highly respected Isiah Thomas) has just begun awarding him starter’s minutes. As the Suns retrieved the ball, he stuck with his assigned man, the supremely underwhelming Chris Dudley. But his lethargic Pacer teammates seemed to be stuck in tar while their respective opponents zipped across halfcourt without them.
From Harrington’s position, approaching at twelve o’clock was Jason Kidd, the Suns’ star point guard who was fully capable of finishing a fast break with a well-timed pass or a crafty lay-in. To Kidd’s left was a coming-of-age forward named Shawn Marion, only in his second year and quietly filling up stat sheets, but a player like Harrington still striving to make a name for himself in The League. To the far right with the ball was Penny Hardaway, a past-his-prime wing player who, when healthy, was still able to produce highlight plays in clutch situations. The slowest man to get to the defensive end, suddenly it’s Dudley in prime position to be rewarded as the player ahead of the entire pack once the Suns got the ball back. Abandoned by his teammates, only Harrington can thwart an easy field goal by Dudley.

Penny lasers a bounce pass across the court just beyond Harrington’s fingertips into the waiting upper limbs of Dudley, reaching down nearly seven feet to gather the ball at his ankles. In the middle of the game and holding a comfortable lead, a savvy veteran who did his homework would have immediately dived in to hack Dudley, then the NBA’s reigning poster-child for missing free throws. Even Shaq cringed every time this cat got to the line. Dude spent the previous twelve seasons never shooting above 56 percent (his rookie season), and the season before broke an NBA record with thirteen consecutive bricks-slash-airballs. Now the seven-foot Yale graduate possessed the ball just feet away from the basket and was intelligent enough to know immediately what to do… get rid of it before he screws it up.

Harrington scrambled behind Dudley and, rather than draw the foul, reached around him in a vain attempt to dislodge the ball, thinking Dudley would instinctively spin and try to lay it in. He was then caught dumbfounded as Dudley shoveled the ball from his ankles toward a charging Shawn Marion. Here comes the trailer…

Fight or Flee? The question seemed pretty simple for Harrington to answer when it was the plodding Dudley he was dealing with. But now it’s the lightning round and as he turns to face Marion, who’s about to take flight, he has a split second to decide what to do. Jump into attack mode and go for the swat? Slide to the side in hope for a missed lay-up and rebound? Or jump right under the basket, toes just beyond the restricted area, and hope for a sympathetic charge call? Played out of position, he hops into the squirrel approach. Sorry, Al, wrong answer. VRROOOM.

Back at the TNT studios, the NBA crew scrambled to find words to describe this breakout player with the breakout play of the season. Kenny Smith already had the words. Enter “The Matrix,” the name he dubbed Marion during a preseason game in his rookie season. Scouts knew and, eventually, fantasy players would know the man with the classic “tweener” build could do literally anything with his multifaceted game. Pass, shoot (awkwardly, yeah, but the ball still seems to go in), board, block. But few who failed to watch him at UNLV knew he could do what he just did, until now. The New York Times would even pull out the anatomy book to explain Marion’s exploits, asserting he was blessed with “fast-twitch” fibers in his legs that were superior to most athletes… the “American Jumping Bean,” a nickname that thankfully never caught on.

Anatomic explanations were certainly no salve for the unfortunate Al Harrington, destined for SportsCenter, YouTube, and poster-making infamy. Harrington would go on for years without a popular nickname, unless you count, “the poor fool whose forehead got tied up in Matrix’s drawstrings.” Trying futilely to draw the charge, he managed to go from Hero-to-Zero in less than two seconds. The lessons were there in plain view for all ballers to see… four-on-one fastbreaks rarely end pretty when you’re the one. So if you value your teammates at all, don’t leave them hanging, and stick with your man when the ball’s in transition.

Fight or Flee? Years later, Harrington’s recovered from this split-second embarrassment to become a starting forward and make a decent free agent pay-day for himself. And if you ask him that question, he’ll be glad to let you know he’ll still fight. Only this time, opponents flying into the lane had better protect themselves, because now Al’s armed with a stiff right jab. Now a crafty veteran, he’s smart enough not to be caught defenseless under the rim any more. No matter what teams they’re playing for, anytime The Matrix unleashes another aerial assault, Harrington ought to be giving his teammates a heads-up. “C’mon Mickael, don’t you watch YouTube?”

~iyf

February 11, 1996

Long before Tim Duncan roamed the Texas plains, if you asked San Antonio hoop fans who was the greatest ever to play in their city, you’d get a couple of nostalgic George Gervin responses. More often, citizens would stand at attention to salute “The Admiral,” David Robinson.

But between the reigns of the Iceman and the Admiral, there was one baller who totally dominated the hardwood, losing just one game in two years, ripping down rims and leaving opponents dazed, coaches cold-sweating and fans in a state of shock and awe.

Then he left Cole High School. And conveniently, San Antonio forgot all about Shaquille O’Neal.

Shaq bailed the Lone Star State in 1989 to play with then-proud American Chris Jackson and the LSU Tigers. Although he wound up toiling in his initial NBA years with Orlando, he never lost his affection for the Mission City and the people there. Always donating back to Cole High with hoop gear, he even offered his high school math teacher his Orlando condo for her honeymoon. He would leave scores of tickets at the Alamodome for local friends anytime his team came to play.

But San Antonio’s fans and small-town media could care less. To them, basketball was all about Mr. David Robinson, the man who saved the Spurs from getting moved out of town, who led the team as a rookie to what was the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history, who made the Spurs and its city relevant again. The Admiral was a patriot, a gentleman, a statesman, a scholar. Ostensibly, to his core, he was a really swell guy. At least, that’s what they’d tell all of you. Not a thug, they’d say, like that Shaquille O’Neal.

Well before he became a brash rapper, B-movie headliner and can’t-miss future Hall of Famer in his years with the Magic, the young Shaquille was a gentle teenage giant who absolutely adored and emulated David Robinson’s game. In the summer of 1989, the city’s best high school player saddled up to the soon-to-be NBA rookie at a bible college’s basketball event, and pleaded for an autograph.

“He wrote his name real quick and was like, ‘Yeah, come on, hurry up’,” Shaq penned in his 2001 memoir Shaq Talks Back. Robinson didn’t engage in any constructive dialogue, and declined to make any eye contact. “He kind of dogged me out. He was my favorite player. That’s OK. I said to myself, ‘when I see you, I’m gonna get you.’”

Once in the League, Robinson gave O’Neal something more to stew about. In 1994, well behind O’Neal in scoring on the final day of the regular season, Robinson, his teammates and the hapless Clippers colluded to allow him to drop 71 points and wrest away the league scoring title. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, the adulating media wrote, and Shaq was miffed. The vilified Shaq knew that had he done this to Robinson, the columnists and talk show hosts would have strung him up.

Cut to February 1996, in San Antonio at the Alamodome, site of the 1996 All-Star Game. A total bore by most accounts, until the final minute. Spurs teammate Sean Elliott fumbled the ball trying to dribble it around his waist, and Robinson sauntered back on defense from halfcourt. Grant Hill brought the stolen ball up the court on a 4-on-3 break. Hill made eye contact with Shaq at halfcourt, leaving you to wonder if Grant knew of the grand plan to lay down some Shaq Fu.

You could read Robinson’s face as Shaq gathered the ball from Hill’s pass, just one foot in the paint. “He’s just gonna try to lay it up past me, I can deflect it,” he probably thought to himself. “Surely, he’s not gonna try to crown me, the All-Star Game’s host, not from way out there. For goodness sakes, this is just an exhibition game! Right?” Indeed it was an exhibition, only he didn’t know his hometown humiliation would be on display.

Robinson tried to keep altitude with the soaring Shaq, but the two shoes of Mr. Goody Two Shoes didn’t have the lift of his determined opponent. With no defenders to his left, Shaq could’ve easily slammed the ball through with his left hand. But Robinson was on his right, and Shaq would not miss this last-minute opportunity to upstage the reigning MVP on his home floor with the world watching. His right hand and the Spalding hovered well above and beyond the leaping 7-foot-1 center’s outstretched fingertips. Some would argue a 320-plus pound man had never gotten that high off the ground. Not without a forklift, anyway.

O’Neal leaned into Robinson’s chest in mid-air and in a split-second… Kazaam! The Admiral’s ship was sunk by a tomahawk explosion. Quoth the Diesel:

“I got some revenge… dunking on Robinson as hard as I’ve ever dunked and knocking him to the ground. That was a message. I wanted to show him that he’ll never be able to stop me, especially when I’m coming like that. I kind of showed the rock to him, then had to bring it back a little bit, and I just threw the thing down, right on him. Wha-pah! And when he fell, I just looked at him. ‘Stay down, don’t get up.’ It was a knockout.”

Propelled by O’Neal’s sheer power, the ball came down faster than The Fu-Schnickens’ careers. Thundering through the net, it ricocheted off Shaq’s size-22 EE sneaker. While still clutching on the rim, he booted the ball Pele-style over Robinson into the press row, as if to say, “Write about THAT, punks.” Forced to bow down to Shaq’s prowess as he stumbled out of bounds, the faithful Robinson realizes this was a moment of almost Biblical proportions. For once, Goliath slew David.

O’Neal had dunked on D-Rob before, and would continue to for seven more seasons, even more so once he moved out west to ball with the Lakers…

…but never before had he put the punk-tuation on a posterizing dunk like this one. The Alamodome crowd went from “ooohs” to “aaahs,” then to “booos” when they suddenly remembered they were supposed to be mostly Spurs fans. Shaq glared at the crowd as if to ask, “Wow! Was that YOUR all-star?” The boos intensified as he saluted a howling Michael Jordan and teammates on the East bench. Despite Shaq’s East-leading 25 points and 10 boards, MJ would get the game’s MVP trophy. But that was okay, because Shaq got the play of the game, possibly the season.

In San Antonio you’re constantly reminded to “Remember the Alamo.” Almost exactly 160 years after the epic battle ending with a fallen hero, Shaq gave San Antonio one more thing to remember. San Antonio disowned Shaquille O’Neal, but he put the world on notice that from that day on, he owned San Antonio.

~iyf