SEVENTH? Really?

ESPN has been doing a countdown of greatest players in basketball history. While I knew they’d eventually draw my complete disrespect, I couldn’t believe how early they did it.

Somehow, for what must surely be considered an extreme bias toward recent happenings over history, Bill Russell, my absolute argument as #1, is ranked # 7. He is ranked 7 behind the following players, in an as-of-yet unreleased order: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and LeBron James.

A man with 11 rings is finishing behind folks who have, respectively, 6, 6, 2, 5, 3, and 2. In other words, take JUST RUSSELL, and you have to select Kareem and Jordan together to exceed his ring total. In fact, if you were to take Chamberlain, Bird, and LeBron together, you’d be four championships short of Russell.

So let’s think this over. Russell won 11 of the 13 championships he competed for. LeBron has already lost in the Finals four different times (Cavs in 2015 and 2007, Heat in 2011 and 2014), whereas Russell only lost one Finals and one non-appearance.  LeBron has lost as many championships to #8, Tim Duncan, as Russell EVER LOST.

Bird’s presence on the list ahead of Russell is obscene, given that each of the men played for the same franchise. Bird delivered three titles. Russell did that in his first four years.

Did Bill Russell hit 3 pointers? No. Did he score 100 points in a game? No. Did he win dunk contests, and shape marketing for the NBA? No. No, he just won basketball games.

Except that that’s understating what Russell was. He set the stage for the modern NBA. In the days before civil rights, he was proving to be the standard by which all other players were measured. He opened the door for African-American coaches – being the first African-American professional basketball coach, and being the first African-American professional basketball coach to win a title, and did that as a player-coach. LeBron was whining recently about wanting to play for a coach who had actually played in the NBA; he should realize that Russell is a big part of the reason for that.

Russell wasn’t a media darling. Well, neither was Abdul-Jabbar, who I have number 2 on my list.

So – in honor of Russell’s finishing 7th on the list, I’d like to announce my selections for top networks that know more basketball. Coming in at #7 is ESPN.

Coming in at 1 through 6 – in an as-of-yet unspecified order – are TNT, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and the general populace of the Internet.

There is a reason the NBA Finals MVP trophy is the Bill Russell trophy.  Not the Michael Jordan trophy.  Not the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trophy.  And DEFINITELY not the LeBron James trophy.

Note to ESPN: Winning COUNTS. And if winning counts, EVEN DOWN TO HOW HE DID IT, Russell – like in all but two years – wins.

Playing Angry

I was watching tonight’s match-up of the Golden State Warriors at the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Golden State was coming off of a bad loss;  Cleveland was coming off of some strong wins.  Cleveland was pretty much embarrassed off the court.  Cleveland called timeout less that two minutes into the game, already down 10-2 at the time.

Cleveland needed to make a statement in this game.  They needed to come out and prove that they could play with Golden State, given that these two are the favorites to repeat last year’s NBA Finals.  Instead, Golden State came out, was very loose, and played like they were the ones that needed to make the statement.

I’m reminded of the worst game I ever coached – my 2008 Heat versus the 2008 Knicks in the re-match that year.  We were coming off of a huge win, and feeling really good about ourselves.  We were expecting to play well against the opponent.  We had superior scoring, superior rebounding, and superior passing, and we were confident.

We came out flat.  Just plain flat.  We looked awful, and we were down at the half.  We had our strong line-ups coming out, and I wanted us focused and intense.  I opened fire with both barrels in the half-time talk.

You could tell that we weren’t the same team that left the court at halftime.  You could tell it from the looks on our faces coming out.  9 players coming out with upset, angry looks on our faces.  And one player – Josh Wade – who was absolutely happy to be there, playing, and no one – no coach, no fan, no older brother – who he was getting matched up against – was going to take away the joy of playing the game from him.

Three players had good games in the second half.  The first was Austin Renwick.  That’s because of all my players, Austin was the one who was most in touch with his emotions.  He knew what being angry meant, and he knew that when he was angry, he had to focus, to not let it interfere with him doing what he needed to do.

The second was Eric Abele, who the Greyhound Trophy for Hardest Worker is named after.  He played great because Eric was always focused on doing exactly what our game plan called for;  Eric was the model of consistency who never drifted off game-plan.  He came out, focused as always.

The third, was, of course, Josh Wade.  He was out there to have fun, and was going to bring everything he could.  I’ve never had any player outwork Josh Wade.  (Having Josh and Eric on the same team was amazing because of the level of hard work they both put in.)  But Josh wasn’t playing “angry.”  He was already aggressive, and already intense, and already hard-working.  He didn’t need to be “angry.”  We nicknamed him “The King of Pain,” because of how often he ended up on the floor diving and fighting for the basketball.

The rest of my team didn’t play anything like the players I had.  That’s because to those guys, “angry” was an alien concept.  They weren’t “angry” players.  Instead of fixing the focus and sloppiness and flatness problems we had, with my poor coaching, especially at halftime, I just added a new one to the load.

Needless to say, we didn’t win.

I’ve seen lately several teams trying to play “angry” rather than playing “re-focused.”  For some players – folks like Austin, or players like me – playing “angry” helps us re-focus and puts us back in aggressive, commanding mode.  But I’m growing to believe that many – if not most – players don’t work that way.  Team Carfax doesn’t play well “angry.”  The 2008 Heat didn’t play well “angry.”  And there are tons of players and friends who don’t play well “angry.”

Cleveland, tonight, should have come out focused, knowing how important of a game it was.  They came out absolutely sloppy defensively.  Cleveland, tonight, should have come out with a strong game plan.  They came out absolutely flat and confused.

And when they saw the FUN Golden State was having at their expense, THEY GOT MAD.  And sure enough, that was it for them.  They completely became unraveled.  Cheap shot fouls and scuffles.  A couple of players – players who knew how to play mad – looked okay.  But others were pretty much gone.

Part of it is the style that Cleveland plays against Golden State.  Part of it was the fact that they play so many games, that every once in a while, players are going to come out flat.  But part of it is coaching, and part of it is a mental weakness.

I’m not saying Cleveland CAN’T beat Golden State.  But I am saying that there is a significant problem that Golden State has exposed in Cleveland.  Part of it comes from the isolation-type style that Cleveland tries to play, and part of it comes from poor coaching, but more than anything, I think Golden State has exposed the fact that Cleveland don’t have the emotional control and focus to, as a team, enforce their will upon an opponent.  Pull at the strings hard enough, and Cleveland will turn on each other and unravel.  This is something that I think Cleveland needs to fix.

How did my Heat respond?  Quite well, actually.  In our next practice, we let go of the anger, and got re-focused, and came out and did some incredible things in our next game, against the Bulls.  In fact, in the fourth period of that game, we started and ended the period with long bomb inbound passes from Patrick Smith to Tate Cooper and to Eric Abele, respectively, with Tate, Eric, and Austin hustling back behind all the defenders.

Focus and playing aggressively are not the same thing as anger.  Anger allows us to come unglued, and turn that anger in all different directions – most of which do not produce good outcomes.  Some players understand how to channel anger in productive ways, but more often than not, it takes away from FUN.

Cleveland doesn’t look like they know how to have fun playing basketball.  That’s what concerns me the most about that team.


Sportsmanship Matters

I agonized over a decision this evening.  I have a bad cold, and even took a day away from work to try to get over it.  Those of you who know me know that I have a great deal of trouble breathing in cold weather, especially after playing basketball.  And the Carfax team is very important to me, especially considering the friends I have on the team.  But I decided against playing.

What wasn’t up for debate was whether or not I’d be at the game.  I was.  In uniform.  And ready to play *IF* it came to that.  I have great teammates, and they didn’t need me;  they picked up for me when my health let them down.  I didn’t face criticism, but support.  That’s what REAL teams do.  You see, sportsmanship starts at home.

The last three years have been the three best years the Carfax team has ever had.  We have better chemistry than ever.  We like each other more, and we respect each other.  I’m not going to pretend that we’re as good of sportsmen as we need to be, but we’re better than we’ve ever been about respecting our teammates.

How fitting it was this weekend in watching NFL football that we got to see the failure of POOR sportsmanship.  I watched a significant part of the Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati game – notably, the end of that game.  Cincinnati took poor sportsmanship to its ultimate conclusion – a loss.  And it didn’t take an entire team to get to that, either.  When it comes to sportsmanship, one rotten apple *DOES* spoil the barrel.

We have a saying on the teams I coach:  “Sportsmanship puts REAL POINTS on the scoreboard.”  It does it because sportsmanship allows other folks to help you along toward your goals.  Sportsmanship gets other folks to share their secrets to success with you.  Sportsmanship makes you the recipient of knowledge, instruction, inside information, and support.

Poor sportsmanship leads to resentment.  It leads to things like we saw in Cincinnati.  My personal favorite was the tirade Pacman Jones threw afterward.  He fired off a profanity-laced complaint about a coach being on the field.  And you know – he might – just might – have had a point.  But we’ll never know, because when Pacman Jones saw someone who wasn’t supposed to be where he was, Pacman Jones decided to bump them.  Apparently Jones must know some football rule that I’m unaware of, namely that “it’s okay to push someone if they’re somewhere you don’t think they should be.”

Folks today think that sportsmanship means you shake hands with the other team’s players after the game.  A few might even shake hands with referees.  It will be the rare one that thanks the folks running scoreboard and the clock.  But if that’s as far as your sportsmanship goes, then you’re not going much of anywhere.

Sportsmanship is an attitude that you adopt and wear for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (366 in leap years).  The sportsman acts as a protector and custodian of the game itself, and that’s a lot harder than people think!

Kobe Bryant recently remarked that if he had to advise his younger self, it would be about compassion and empathy.

In the meantime, the legacy Kobe Bryant leaves is one of typical poor attitude toward teammates – a franchise in decline.  By failing to have real respect for those folks he played with, the team around Bryant has declined;  those who could have stayed and helped him are long gone.

But in Golden State, they’re celebrating, being led by the 2010-11 Joe Dumars Trophy winner (awarded to the NBA’s best sportsman) – Stephen Curry.  Curry won that award his second year in the league.

The Greyhounds have a sportsmanship trophy that we call the Hamilton Trophy.  I believe it’s important for folks to be recognized for being great sportsmen, because I believe this is truly one of the notable character qualities necessary for sustained high performance.

Exercise your sportsmanship.  Accept the brotherhood that basketball offers with your fellow players, and do your part to enhance and strengthen it.  These qualities will not only make you a better player, but a better person.

Did our Carfax team win tonight?  No.

But we did score our season’s high in points.

Sportsmanship puts REAL POINTS on the scoreboard.