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June 29, 2007

Draft day questions, unanswered

Honestly, now, would anybody have bet that once all the madness of the NBA draft last night was over, Kobe Bryant would still be a Laker and Kevin Garnett would still be a Timberwolve? (Or Timberwolf -- we need a ruling on this.)

There were so many assurances that, at least, Garnett would be traded by draft time, it was a shock to have combed through all the deals and never see his name. Bryant was a little less of a surprise, mainly because outside of that original four-team deal that bubbled up and evaporated earlier in the week, there was nothing the Lakers, as inept as they are, would have been pressed to rush into.

The worst news of the day concerning Kobe is that the vaunted premiere of the amateur cellphone video, scheduled for today (for a fee) hasn't happened yet. Unless someone has found it -- supposedly, it's at www.kobebryant24.com -- and can pass it along, it still hasn't been seen publicly yet. Meanwhile, Kevin McHale would make no further assurance about Garnett than that he "assumes'' he will be around at season's start.

Meanwhile ...

* Marylanders who had already settled for Kevin Durant playing 3,000 miles away, now have to resign themselves to Jeff Green playing there as well. But now that they're together in Seattle, it'll be worth anticipating them coming back to the area next season.

* Nevertheless, nobody seems happy that Ray Allen is leaving Seattle to go to Boston.

* The New York crowd -- including Spike Lee -- loved the announcement of the Zach Randolph trade last night, and for good reason (other than the fact that they're rid of the suddenly radioactive Steve Francis). Otherwise, Knicks fans would be sour over the fact that the Bulls took Joakim Noah with the pick given away in the Eddy Curry trade. At least it didn't turn into Greg Oden or Durant, though.

* Anyone have a real problem with the Wizards taking Nick Young? No, it didn't address the fact that Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas are still listed at center on the roster, but taking a center there -- like Jason Smith, who ended up in Philadelphia a few picks later via trade with Miami -- would have been a reach. And stop right now: it's not  a safety net in case Gilbert Arenas leaves after next season. You think they'd replace him with the No. 16 overall pick? Give Ernie Grunfeld more credit than that.

* Can we go back to trying to figure out what the Celtics were doing? Is this the best they could do with the fifth overall pick of a pretty good, plenty deep-enough draft -- a 31-year-old former All-Star coming off ankle surgery, and Big Baby Davis?

* Taking the draft by itself, there's very little chance that the East-West imbalance was resolved. Among the contenders, only the Bulls notably improved themselves, and none of the bottom-feeders helped themselves enough to make a huge move up. The Nets are the closest, with Sean Williams, if he stays clean. The Wizards will be better simply from being healthier.

On the other hand, Portland and Seattle got much, much better, and none of the contenders fell off, although Phoenix not getting Garnett could be considered a disappointment. Then again, they also kept Amare Stoudemire. And they got D.J. Someone has to guard somebody out there. I'm not sure if Golden State got better, moving Jason Richardson and his contract to Charlotte for Brandan Wright, who looks like he will be great one day but seems to have a big learning curve ahead of him. I definitely think the Clippers are better for getting Al Thornton; a lot of teams are going to be sorry they let him go by.

* As their first act as his new employer, someone on the Bulls should take Noah clothes-shopping.

 

June 15, 2007

A pioneer passes away

The plan was to use this post to determine, once and for all (or not) what constitutes a dynasty and what doesn't. That will have to wait.

Larry Whiteside, a longtime baseball writer for The Boston Globe, died this morning after a long illness. He was 69.

From the Globe Web site: "One of the first African-American baseball reporters for a major daily newspaper, Whiteside wrote for the Globe sports pages for parts of four decades after stints in Milwaukee and Kansas City. He was instrumental in starting the careers of many African-American sports journalists around the country and was a tremendous role model for young reporters he took under his wing.''

That last sentence would include me. My second year in the business, in 1988, I attended the annual convention in Miami of the National Association of Black Journalists, an organization I'd never heard of before then. At that convention, a group of sportswriters got together in a hotel meeting room late Saturday afternoon and talked about ways to keep our small numbers in contact with each other, to know who was where, and to get and give help and support when needed. It was informally named the Sports Task Force. Whiteside was one of the founders.

The year I first became a columnist, 1999, was also the same year the Task Force was honoring him at the convention in Seattle for the work he's done mentoring and opening doors for us. He was as happy about my achievement as he seemed to be about his own.

This is from the task force's Web site; it points out that when Whiteside started at the Globe in 1973, there were no other blacks covering major league baseball for a major daily paper.

According to the Globe, the Red Sox will observe a moment of silence in Larry's honor before tonight's game at Fenway against San Francisco. It's a sad day for sports journalism and for the people he has influenced in his life.

Dynasty? Uh, slow down, there

Time to give credit where credit is due. As of 9 a.m. ET, there have been no reports of civic unrest in the home of the NBA champs. This is their fourth time around, and San Antonio has NEVER rioted. You'd think that's not something to heap praise on; it's kind of like that Chris Rock routine with the guy bragging about how he's never been to jail. But we remember Detroit, and I was in Chicago a couple of times and was stuck in Staples Center with the rest of the media in 2000 while a police car burned on the street. Never take these things for granted. Two years ago when the Spurs beat the Pistons in seven, San Antonio staged the most civilized celebration I'd ever seen; I didn't see as much as a newspaper rack overturned. Just people yelling, dancing and honking horns.

Also, I will make my annual plea for Robert Horry to go to the Hall of Fame. All he's done is alter the course of NBA history. With all the big shots he's made over the years, maybe someone should start calling him Jordanesque.

And a little love for Gregg Popovich. Did anyone really see him as a Hall of Fame coach back in 1996, when he pushed Bob Hill overboard and took over the Spurs the year David Robinson got hurt and the team was headed for the Tim Duncan lottery? Hey, he's won a title with Stephen Jackson as one of his key performers.

Having said all of that ... let's cool it on the dynasty talk. Sometimes this business rakes my nerves, because it's evolved to the point where everything is discussed in extremes. Either you're the greatest thing since cable, or you're complete garbage. (Ask LeBron James about that; apparently, he's now a total scrub, and his team is no better than the bottom-feeding Celtics because they got swept IN THE FINALS.) And whatever point you take, you have to take it at the top of your lungs, and you have to belittle the other point so mercilessly that the opposition is either left in tears or purple with rage.

Are we allowed to call the Spurs a great organization and a worthy champion without linking them to the old Celtics? Even Popovich a few days ago said the word "dynasty'' doesn't fit the Spurs, that it should be reserved for "UCLA and Bill Russell.''

Thank you. Four titles in nine years is amazing in an era when holding a team, its stars and its coach together for more than four or five years is a miracle.

But ... can you talk about a team being a dynasty if, in the early stages of it, another team won three championships in a row? What, the Lakers three-peat and it's no dynasty, but the Spurs wrap titles around that run and they qualify? And the Lakers regularly spanked the Spurs in the playoffs during that run, and did it again in '04, when the Spurs were defending champs and the Lakers were on their way to a Finals in which they lost to the Pistons.

And I do believe you should win in consecutive years before the topic even is discussed. Dynasties don't get knocked out in the second round the year after they win. It goes against the very meaning of the word, yet that's exactly what has happened after titles No. 2 and 3.

It is possible to praise this franchise for always being in the mix, even after other contenders fall by the wayside, without resorting to exaggeration. Dallas hasn't been able to hang, nor Phoenix, nor the Lakers. What  the Spurs have done is a unique achievement, which probably deserves another word to describe it. But "dynasty'' isn't it. We need to expand our sports vocabulary.

It doesn't take away from what they've done to bring this up, although I know it'll take just a few seconds for someone to get highly and profanely offended. It absolutely shouldn't take away from their accomplishments that they rampaged through a bizarre maze of a postseason, one of the weirdest ever. They won 10 of their last 11 playoff games and went 16-4 overall.

Just because the last two opponents were as overmatched as championship contenders could be, that is no reflection on how good the Spurs were. They could only beat the teams they played, and the Cavs could only do the same. Let's bury the topic of where the Cavs would finish if they played in the West, unless you know of a way to lift the entire city and move it across the Mississippi.  You might as well argue who would win between the Spurs and Patriots, or the Spurs and Duke. When we run out of things to talk about that easily and resort to dumb arguments like that, then it might be better to just not talk at all.

More later ...

June 14, 2007

All wet

Not to make excuses for myself, but most of the morning is gone and I'm just getting around to the painful rehashing of last night's events at Camden Yards. One semi-plausible reason: the late night and the quick change in plans, from this column about the trial and tribulations of Daniel Cabrera, to this one, about the trials and tribulations of the entire Orioles organization. The other reason: DirecTV has a Tiger-cam going at the U.S. Open (coverage, of course, by ESPN). I have to presume that Comcast has one, too, but if not, let me know, or, I'd suggest, let Ray Frager at Medium Well know.

The last couple of posts from last night concerned the awful weather yesterday afternoon. A few people did, as it turns out, stay home, or turn around. But an announced crowd of more than 21,000 did make it, braving terrifying conditions that had all the TV stations go into full weather-catastrophe mode. It ended up being a clear, cool night. It also ended up wretched for Orioles fans, and very joyous for Nationals fans who came up the parkway in the cruddy weather and ended up gloating.

O's fans who did make it to the game: does that make you even more mad than you otherwise would have been? You made the conscious decision to come to the ballpark, gambled that the weather would cooperate, and that the home team would reward you with something other than the usual fold-up at the end. Even if they had simply lost, it might have been just another soggy night at the Yard. But no, they teased you, then served up more of the same that's made you sick for the past couple of months.

For the effort the hardy fans made to get there, couldn't the O's have chased down a pop-up or laid off walking the bases loaded? A lot of you bolted after the eighth inning, so you missed the ninth-inning rally, and then a whole bunch more threw in the soaked towel after the top of the 11th. The mass exodus while Felipe Lopez' triple was still rattling around in the right-field corner was pretty dramatic.

If you suffered getting to the game in the midst of area-wide tornado warnings and flash-flood warnings and then sat through that disaster, let me know.

June 13, 2007

Yup, game on

As you probably have noticed, the game started on time. It was a miracle, and a testament to the ground crew, who saw the first window of opportunity, yanked off the tarp, squeegied the puddles and got the field in shape.

As you probably also noticed, my wireless signal went out for about an hour and a half. And finally, you probably noticed I gave the wrong time for the start of the game. Forgive me, I've been watching the NBA Finals and expect late starts.

Anyway ... sorry, Brian, who replied to the last posting by saying he was staying home. Who knew? I was expecting an old lady pedaling a bike to go flying by during that storm. Yet there's a nice crowd here, and it started streaming in as soon as they started taking up the tarp.

Oh, one more thing worth noticing: Nationals 3, O's 1 in the fifth. Ryan F. Langerhans and his .154 batting average just took Steve Trachsel out to dead center. Tomorrow you will read that under the circumstances - and you actually might not know this, but Adam Loewen's season-ending surgery is official and will take place tomorrow - the starting pitching could be a lot worse this season. Feel free to skip over that and read about the Ravens' minicamp.

 

Game still on?

The rain has slowed dramatically in the last 15 minutes or so at Camden Yards; it was pounding onto the seats and tarp for at least 40 minutes before that. The sky is still dark, but not pitch-black as it was then. All the TVs in the press box and near the clubhouse (probably in the clubhouse, too, by now) are tuned to the weather reports, and the maps they're showing are still all red.

But no word on whether the game tonight between the Orioles and Nationals will be played. The tornado warnings, as of this writing, were to expire at 6 p.m., but the roads are in horrendous condition apparently. From my perspective, it would be very dicey to even leave the option open for people to drive in these conditions to get to this game. Still, first pitch is a good 90 minutes away.

Are any of you still thinking about coming? Or have you changed your minds already?

 

No call, no title

Two things are obvious after last night's Game 3 of the NBA Finals: 1) the Spurs can plan their victory parade; 2) that was a foul.

OK, one more thing: 3) it was very magnanimous and classy of LeBron James to decline his constitutional right to rip the officiating on the Cavaliers' final possession.

Go figure: After some pretty lengthy contemplation, I can only think of one time, in all the playoff games I've watched, in which a clear-cut star player took a clear-cut foul and did not get the whistle. Last year, it was Game 4 of the first round between the Suns and Lakers, when at the end of regulation, Steve Nash, the reigning and soon-to-be-two-time MVP, crossed halfcourt and basically went into a tuck position, as a Laker defender (I'm thinking it was Smush Parker) slapped and raked him all over his upper body. Nash, having picked up his dribble, clung tight, expecting the whistle. It never came, and he got stripped, leading to a Kobe shot that sent it into overtime, setting up another Kobe shot to win it.

Last night, Bruce Bowen not only fouled LeBron, he fouled him intentionally, trying to send him to the line for two shots in a three-point game, and he fouled him with an official looking dead at the entire play. And you can make a reasonable assumption that LeBron would have been given the continuation -- a lot shakier continuations have been handed out in playoff games before (1999, East finals, Larry Johnson's four-point play that took place about four seconds and a couple of steps after he was fouled and before he actually shot). Yeah, laugh if you want about LeBron likely missing at least one of the three free throws he was entitled to. Doesn't matter. They blew the call. This wasn't even a case of a star's entitlement, getting calls just because of who they are (not that anyone ever has, not anyone with the initials M.J.). Bowen fouled LeBron behind the line while he was shooting, period.

Nevertheless, it's over, and so is this series. LeBron took the high road after the game and called it "incidental contact,'' making everybody who stayed up long enough to hear that stay up a couple of minutes more to make sure they hadn't been struck blind in the final seconds, or hadn't been hallucinating. In real time, my first reaction was, "That's a little fast and far-out for him to be shooting.'' The next thought: "He must have been pushed.''

Understand, of course, that the non-call didn't take that game away from the Cavs. Sideshow Bob's horrendous decision to drive on Tim Duncan and shoot on the possession before, that's what lost them the game. Again, LeBron made the right play; he spun into the lane, an extra defender came up, Sideshow Bob showed up to his left and LeBron gave it to him -- but LeBron immediately stepped back, held out his hands and asked for it back. But no. Sideshow decides he wants to be Magic or somebody, goes one-on-one against the best defensive player of this generation and, while actually making some room for himself in the lane, gets so out of control in the process that he can't get off a shot that has even a remote chance of going in. With the one and only teammate on the floor who had shown any semblance of an offensive game standing by himself at the top of the key, still waiting for that return pass.

Anyway ... horrible offensive game, or impressive defensive game? Well, the Cavs D'd up in a big way. The Spurs did what they usually do. The Cavs had the better defensive performance. They also had the far worse offensive performance. After last night, LeBron has my permission, and should have everyone else's, to shoot 40 times in Game 4, because, particularly in the second half, his teammates shriveled up.

And let's not hear another word about how increased playing time for Boobie Gibson (2 points, 1-for-10 shooting, 1 assist) was going to change everything; talk about one good game, against the Pistons in the clincher, being blown completely out of proportion. People were acting like he was the next Jerry West after that game. While we're at it, no more about how LeBron made the smart play back in Game 1 of the Detroit series by passing to Donyell Marshall, who, if I'm not mistaken, hasn't hit a shot since the East semifinals. In retrospect, Larry Hughes playing on one foot was a better option, after all.

There really is no reason to criticize LeBron for this series, even though it appears to be the fun thing for everybody to do, to remind everyone that he's not Michael after all. And by now, ripping Mike Brown's coaching is gratuitous; clearly, he's no Red Auerbach, but he made tons of adjustments last night, tried to win with defense and would have gotten away with it had anyone besides LeBron been able to hit a jumper. The Spurs won't play worse than they did last night. Manu Ginobili looked lost the whole night. Tony Parker suddenly couldn't get into the lane at will. Tim Duncan got into foul trouble and missed a surprising number of point-blank shots, and in another nice move by Brown, throughout the first half the Cavs went right at him. All for naught.

There's really no reason to think the Spurs can't close them out Thursday. The Bulls, with St. Michael at the controls, routinely toyed with teams on the brink of elimination and got burned a few times. We all forget that the dramatic steal and jumper in Utah at the end of Game 6 in '98 would never have happened if the Bulls had not taken Game 5 at home so lightly; they also made more work for themselves than they should have in '96 against Seattle after going up 3-0, and in '93 when they won the first two in Phoenix and then lost two of three in Chicago and had to get the John Paxson jumper in Game 6 in Phoenix to save them. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers also struggled to close teams out in the first title year of 2000, but not afterward.

The Spurs aren't the type of team to do that. If they could win last night when almost everything pointed to them letting the Cavs back in by letting them dictate the pace and flow of the game, they're certainly not going to let the Cavs sneak up on them and extend the series any further.

One more point. If I hear one more person whine about how lopsided the Finals are and demand that the playoffs be re-seeded, I'm going to pin him down and give him a Drew Gooden haircut. The Short Attention Span Theater is back to standing-room only. The same whining went on not only a mere decade ago when it was the East that was dominant and their conference finals were deemed superior to the league finals, it goes on every time one conference or league gets on a run in any sport. Remember when everyone wanted the AFC banned from the Super Bowl because the NFC was pounding them every year? The AFC eventually got better. The NBA West eventually got better. That's how it works. No cheap fixes, no short cuts, no rules-bending, no amnesty for teams with lousy front offices, no rigging the lottery or manipulating one-sided trades, no altering practices that have worked for 30 years. Don't bitch at David Stern for not "giving'' us the Mavericks and Suns in every playoff series from first round to the Finals. Go after the Celtics and Knicks for running those cornerstone franchises into the ground, go after the Magic for letting Shaq get away, go after the Pistons for replacing Larry Brown with Flip Saunders, go after the 76ers for wasting 10 years of Allen Iverson's career. Heck, go after the Wizards for having the rotten luck of getting Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler injured right before the playoffs. We might be seeing a completely different series right now if not for that. Same thing if Dwyane Wade doesn't get hurt and if Shaq didn't have 78-year-old knees.

From the moment the Mavs choked away their chances in the first round, the Spurs have been the better team, by a wide margin (even being smart enough not to let its first-team All-NBA players jump off the bench during an altercation), and they're the better team now. Making fun of the Cavs is pointless. They are what they are, a one-man team, and that one man can't beat eight or nine. Get them close, yes, but can't win. Give LeBron a Scottie and a Horace Grant and a Dennis Rodman and a John Paxson and a Steve Kerr, instead of Boobie and Donyell and Sideshow Bob and a guy with a soul patch on the back of his neck, and you might have a real contender. Then tell me if he's "Jordanesque.'' No one was elevating Michael to the heavens when he was playing with Ennis Whatley and Dave Corzine and getting whipped by the Celtics and Pistons every year.

This was the Spurs' year; it just took us until now to realize it.

June 11, 2007

The LPGA loves Tony

Another reason why the McDonald's LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock is one of my favorite events to cover: Someone on the organizing committee arranged to have the final episode of The Sopranos shown on a monitor inside the media center last night.

If you think that's no big deal, check out what writers covering last night's NBA Finals game in San Antonio had to go through. Basically, they were out of luck and probably had to really hustle to find the show before they heard everything about what happened.

Even worse, they had to watch the game.

So a handful of writers and officials at the LPGA -- including our own Don Markus, who I hope doesn't mind me exposing that fact -- watched, then ran to our computers, cell phones and whatever communication we had at hand to get the Spurs-Cavs score. 49-27, late in the second quarter, we were told. That made the respective drives home safer for everybody involved, because there was absolutely no urgency in making it in time to see the second half. In fact, full disclosure, I missed all but the final minute, because when I got home, AMC had the nerve to be showing Young Frankenstein, with DVD extra-style commentary at the bottom of the screen. Sorry, you won't get any Game 2 analysis here.

This all brought a thought to mind: Sometime soon, maybe today, ratings numbers for both The Sopranos and the NBA Finals are going to become public. It will be based on sets in use, the way ratings have been judged since the time I Love Lucy was on the air. But ... at least five people watched The Sopranos on a widescreen inside a tent next to a golf course. Probably hundreds more watched in a room inside AT&T Center in San Antonio (I'm guessing some arrangements were made by the NBA, which is also very good at that sort of thing). More at the various sports events that kept people away from home until after the episode was over -- Turner Field, where the Cubs and Braves played the ESPN Sunday Night game, the Poconos, where the NASCAR race was held, and so forth. There surely were a few newsrooms that aired the show for the editors working on today's paper.

You know people had Sopranos viewing parties at homes and offices and other places, and some bars and restaurants likely showed it to people there. And, of course, it aired later on the West Coast feed, and on HBO2, and will keep on airing on the stations and definitely is on On Demand. And, finally, it was TiVo'd, so there are people who haven't watched it yet, but who bought TiVo specifically for times like this.

So how exactly is the audience for this episode really going to be measured honestly?

And, for that matter, how can anyone truly measure the audience for the NBA Finals games, or any other major sports event, for that matter? I can tell you I watched Game 1 from a sports bar in Laurel (this one, in fact; I recommend it highly, and it's owned by a couple of Morgan State graduates) with five friends. That kind of viewing is taken for granted, it's all over the place, but unless there's something I'm missing, there's no real way to count that in the ratings.

So much has changed in the way people watch TV, but the way it gets counted really has changed very, very, VERY little. (In its June 1 issue, Entertainment Weekly magazine broke this all down succinctly and fairly thoroughly.)

One reason this crosses my mind is because at this time every year, there's a huge story about how that particular year's NBA Finals ratings is down some steep percent from the days of Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

C'mon. Has the way people watch TV changed at least a little bit since 1993 (the last of the first three-peat), or even 1998 (the last of the second three-peat)? There probably is evidence to prove that the Spurs really are less of a draw than teams like the Bulls and Lakers. But raw numbers like the traditional set of TV ratings are a pretty poor way to measure this.

What's for certain is that whatever the ratings say about last night's Sopranos, the ratings didn't count the one set on which a bunch of people were watching at Bulle Rock, and whatever the Finals ratings measure, it won't measure us at the sports bar. That tells me that we shouldn't believe those numbers all that faithfully.

What's also for certain is that the Cavaliers are in completely over their heads. So who's going to measure how many people aren't going to watch Game 3?

June 5, 2007

C.J.!

It slipped under the radar here, but an important player in Bullets history died over the weekend. Important in Washington Bullets history, but still.

Charles Johnson came off the bench for the 1978 championship team after being traded from the Warriors in midseason and played a huge role while Phil Chenier battled injuries (8.3 ppg in the regular season after joining the team, 10.2 in the playoffs, in about 20 minute a game in each). He died Friday of cancer at age 58. He's the first of that team to pass away (in an unfortunate coincidence, he's also the third player to go from the Warriors team that swept the Bullets in the 1975 championship).

If you rooted for those Bullets, you remember the way both the P.A. announcer at Capital Centre and the Bullets' play-by-play man would yell "C.J.!'' when he'd hit another long jumper from a crazy angle. The man loved to shoot, no question, and he did it well.

Here is a very nice tribute to C.J. (who was a Bay Area guy) from my old S.F. Chronicle colleague, Ray Ratto. This one is from the Oakland Tribune. This recollection, from a longtime friend and fellow player, was in a blog on the San Jose Mercury News Web site. The most common theme: he was a quiet yet intense player who poured all of himself into his play during his career, and when he left the game, he kept any problems he had - including his illness - out of the conversation. Sounds like he lived a full life, as brief as it was, and the two championship rings were only part of his legacy.

June 3, 2007

Just call me Nostradamus

I get so many predictions wrong, I feel perfectly entitled to gloat when I get one right. So ...

I refer you to the blog post of October 31, 2006, I love this game, noting the opening night of the NBA season. Will the witness please read from the marked passages:

"Last but not least, predictions. San Antonio wins the West, in revenge for blowing Game 7 of the conference semis at home against Dallas, and for being so banged up by the time they got there.

Cleveland wins the East. It's LeBron Time.''

Thank you. Nothing further.

OK, a couple of things further: "Spurs win it all. LeBron is the MVP.'' I stand by the first part, and propose that the second part would be right if they voted for MVP after the postseason.

 

June 2, 2007

What might have been

Game 6 of the East final between LeBron and the Pistons in Cleveland is tonight. But a couple of things I've noticed the last couple of days made me think of another city that could be the center of the sports universe tonight.

First: the original Charlotte Coliseum is going to get blown up (kind of like Sgt. Hulka) tomorrow morning. The building opened in 1988, the Hornets and their knuckleheaded owner moved to New Orleans in 2002, and the city built a new arena for the expansion Bobcats that opened in 2005 - because the other one was considered obsolete.

To repeat: two arenas in less than 20 years for Charlotte, N.C. Which, we recall, was once considered a better NFL market than this one, too. History has made it clear who was right on that score. It's also told us that "obsolete'' has different definitions to different cities.

On to current, active arenas. Cleveland now not only is home to one of the biggest names in sports right now, by late tonight it might be home to an NBA Finals team. That arena is downtown, as are the baseball stadium and football stadium, and it's been proven that when any of those teams are winning, downtown Cleveland comes completely alive. Someone there decided that it was OK to have three new buildings to host three pro teams right downtown, and apparently it's working.

Now, on to last night. I was walking around the Inner Harbor, literally all around. It was very hot and humid and everybody was out - there was a concert at Pier 6, another in front of the Power Plant, and a steel-drum band was playing for tips in front of the Pavilion. All those areas were packed. The weekend before, same thing - but because the Orioles and the lacrosse final four were in town.

So business is good, no matter what. The Orioles, of course, are out of town.

But imagine how much downtown would be hopping this weekend if there were an arena there, hosting a game in which the home team was one win away from the NBA Finals.

Cleveland fans don't have to imagine, because someone decided that it was feasible to put an arena there. At the time, of course, they had no idea that one day, some teenage phenom from Akron, Ohio might play there and take them to the brink of a championship. But that's called having vision. Or having commitment, as they seem to have in Charlotte, which, for the next 15 hours or so, has two NBA-sized arenas. Even though it was believed that the pro game couldn't succeed there because it was considered college basketball country, and even though a rich owner from out of town had to come in to take the expansion franchise.

That owner (BET founder Robert Johnson), by the way, was once very interested in investing in hotels and convention space right by the Harbor.

Seriously now. Are either of those cities better basketball cities than this one is?

Doesn't matter now.

 

June 1, 2007

Not Jordanesque, just LeBronesque

Here’s why we should now, at this moment, and forever more, stop comparing LeBron James and every other player who ever will play in the NBA to Michael Jordan. Not because it’s ruining the enjoyment of otherwise exemplary players, and not because it’s applied too easily and ripped away so tauntingly from inferior players.

But because of all of Jordan’s classic, unforgettable playoff game-winners and clutch baskets, to my recollection none of them was a dunk. Or a layup.

Last night against the Pistons in Game 5 at Auburn Hills, pretty much all of LeBron’s huge last-second, game-extending or game-clinching baskets were right at the rim, accomplished by him taking the ball at the top and blasting through and past one of the very best defensive teams and most playoff-hardened units in the league as if they were your kid’s CYO team down at the community center.

That was the player we saw last year, in his first-ever playoff seriesIf that player had been around for the first two games of this series – instead of the one who passed up an open layup to pass to Donyell Marshall and the player who tried to draw a foul in the lane, the one every said didn’t have the heart to play at this level, the one people said was a fraud – an awful lot of people would be trying to find direct flights from Cleveland to San Antonio today.

Most telling moment of that game, an instant classic, a text-your-friends, wake-em-up epic? It was after the game. Craig Sager of TNT recited to an exhausted LeBron his stats from the game and asked, “Did you know you were that good?’’ LeBron gulped and said, “No.’’

I believe him. I don’t think he figured it out until Game 3, and maybe not thoroughly even until last night. I thought that at the time he was passing up that Game 1 layup: He was surprised that he got so close to the basket so easily. He never expected it. He never intended to shoot at all. He’d better straighten that out and recognize what all he can do.

Back to the MJ comparisons: ESPN has been running a graphic all morning listing the five players who have scored 48 or more points in a conference final or NBA Finals game on the road. LeBron did it last night. Guess who wasn’t on the list? I mean, by law, aren’t Jordan and Wilt required to be on every most-points list, regular season and playoffs, in the league record book?

And he had nine rebounds and seven assists. Many of the assists were absolutely breathtaking. None of them took place in the two overtimes, because LeBron scored every single point for the Cavaliers, their last 25, and every basket from the middle of the fourth quarter until the end.

One more Jordan check: at age 22, he was finishing his rookie season and going down in four games of a best-of-five first-round playoff series. OK, so he went to college for three years. After four years in the NBA, Jordan was getting out of the first round for the first time in his career, losing in the second round to, of course, Detroit in five games.

At age 22, and in his fourth NBA season, LeBron James is one win from reaching the NBA Finals. From a wretched conference, yes, but he has the lead on a team whose core players went to two straight NBA Finals and won one and is in its fifth straight East final, and his own “supporting cast’’ (to use a phrase Jordan himself coined) stinks compared to Jordan’s back in the championship and pre-championship days.

This is not to say LeBron is better than Michael. It’s just to say he’s different. Unique. Himself. His own creation.

So for everybody’s sake, particularly LeBron’s, let’s end the Jordan comparisons and let him be who he is, because if this is who he is, we should all be perfectly content, and at this point, downright giddy. And yes, tired, because that game and that performance were worth staying up late for.