Ghosts of Basketball Courts Past

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Every so often I drag my old bones out to a basketball court and try to relive the glory days. I tell myself I’m just going to shoot around since I’ve got a fragile back, but inevitably someone asks me to play a game. Hoisting an orange ball toward a metal rim you find yourself in the company of people you might never talk to. Now I’m an elder statesman, but it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was one of the young whippersnappers.

Those years when I spent every possible moment on a basketball court, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, most of the regulars were my age or a few years older, but there were a few oddball adults. There was Jerry who must have been six foot six and looked like an eagle and John Lithgow had a lovechild and there was Paul, a foul mouthed guy who if you left him open long enough would pretend to pick his nose before he took the shot.

As the years passed and basketball went from an obsession to a hobby to something I rarely do, I can’t say I thought too much about either of them. But not too long ago I heard that Paul had passed away.

Hearing he died kind of jarred all these conversations over the years we had loose. I think most of this dialogue was after my first year of college. I was supposed to have gotten a job that summer, but I was thrifty enough to avoid one and spent the afternoons playing basketball. Paul who had kids just a few years younger than me felt comfortable giving me advice beyond putting more arc on my jump shot. I remember him telling me (his fellow Jew) that Miami would be a great place to live if it weren’t for all the Jews and Cubans. I also remember him telling me it was better to live in nature than in the city, because cities you eventually get bored of, while in nature there’s always something new, a new swimming hole, a new trail to walk.

I remember us making a bet about the NBA Finals. The Chicago Bulls had just won a record number of games and I bet him ten dollars that the Bulls would win the best of seven series in five games or less. The Bulls won the first three games and my bet looked good, but then somehow lost the next two games, before closing the series out in six. In other words I lost the bet and as a thrifty guy without a summer job, I wasn’t too unhappy that I didn’t run into him at the courts before I went back to school.

When I made it back the next summer he was never there. I don’t know if I asked what happened to him or it just came up, but the story was he got in an argument when he called a foul. The opponent disagreed about the call and punched Paul square in the face. I had seen Paul get obnoxious in games, one time he didn’t like a call and punted the ball fifty feet away, but as an eccentric character he could get away with it. This time that wasn’t the case. He didn’t fight back, he left the game and walked off the court never to return. There were disputing stories of who threw the punch. But I’d like to think it wasn’t one of the regulars.

That was almost twenty years ago.

Now when I go out to the courts and I’m the one dispelling wayward youths unsolicited wisdom, I kind of marvel at however slow the days might go, how fast the years pass. Off the top of my head I don’t have too many regrets, but one is that I skipped out on the ten bucks I owed Paul. Now I’ll have to wait until the game in the big basketball court in the sky to pay my debt.

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The Great Whiteside Hope – 2015-2016 Miami Heat Season Preview

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As a fan of the Miami Heat since their inception the stakes and my expectations always seemed to rise. When the team first started in 1988 I was happy for them to beat anybody. When we got a few decent players like Glen Rice, Steve Smith, and Alan Ogg my expectations at the start of the season were that we would make the playoffs. When Pat Riley came in 1995 I expected a lengthy run in the playoffs.  When we got Shaquille O’Neal I expected a championship and in 2010 when LeBron, Bosh, and Wade joined forces I expected solar eclipses of legendary hoops.

Now that a year has a passed since LeBron James, Ray Allen, and any realistic hopes for a championship left Miami I’m still numb. It was annoying to watch last year’s Finals and know a Miami Heat team with LeBron and Ray Allen would have clobbered the champion Golden State Warriors.

But without a realistic hope for greatness it’s hard to feel anything with a new season upon us. After going four years where every Miami Heat game beckoned with the possibility of athleticism and skill that had never before been seen on a basketball court, where every playoff game had the pressure often reserved for the fate of civilizations, I’m left wondering now what’s the point of watching? To hope and pray they win 49 games and get home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs?

I got spoiled.

And if the Miami Heat fans feel ennui toward the upcoming season how must the players and the coaching staff who were along for the epic four year ride where they went to the Finals every year feel? If last year is any indication when Dwyane Wade decided to sit out every other game, Birdman cut off his mohawk, coach Erik Spoelstra made player substitutions like he wanted to be fired, and Chris Bosh made up some auto-immune disease so he could take the second half of the season off, they were also in a state of existential crisis.

Now it’s year 2 post-LeBron. Dwyane Wade is back. Chris Bosh has recovered from his fictional illness. We have Goran Dragic as a point guard, who is an offensive upgrade from Norris Cole. Rookie Justise Winslow was by most expert’s opinions a top five player from the draft who somehow fell to the Heat at #10. Gerald Green is an athletic shooter even though he has only nine fingers and Amare Stoudamire is instant offense who bathes in red wine.

But our only true chance at greatness lies in center Hassan Whiteside. Last year the  seven footer had a triple double of over ten points, rebounds, and blocks. It’s a feat that hadn’t been done in the NBA in years and it took him less that half a game to accomplish that. He had more 20 rebound games in his first 50 games than any player since Shaquille O’Neal.

In a league that is over reliant on shorter perimeter players, having a true beast in the center like Whiteside often was last season, could be a chance to stand out. Under coach Erik Spoelstra I am a little concerned that won’t happen. In this year’s first game he benched Whiteside four minutes into the game. Whiteside only took four shots and had a sorry stat line of four points and six rebounds. Perhaps our coach thought that would motivate him and maybe it will, but Spoelstra’s track record of getting young players to reach their potential has not been solid, he gives up on them fairly quickly.

But if the Heat are going to go for greatness or at the very least have us spoiled Miami Heat fans care about this upcoming season, it’s Whiteside or bust.

More Misery – Your 2015 Miami Dolphins Preview

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It feels like a lifetime ago, but I think it was just 2003 when I walked into a Los Angeles sports bar and sat next to a bitter guy in a Dan Marino jersey to watch the Miami Dolphins game. He was bitching and moaning every chance he had about how much he hated the Dolphins quarterback, Jay Fiedler, and the coach, Dave Wannstedt. His hatred for them was so absolute, I had to ask, “If you don’t like the coach or the quarterback, then why are you rooting for the team?”

He couldn’t come up with a good answer.

Now a dozen years later I am the bitter man in the Dan Marino jersey without a good reason for why I should be rooting for the Dolphins every Sunday except for out of a sense of habit, and maybe a dose of self-hatred. We are now entering year four of the failed Ryan Tannehill/Joe Philbin experiment with no end in sight. Both the quarterback Tannehill and the coach Philbin have this past year been granted contract extensions, without a single winning season in their three forgettable years together.

If I’m forced to say something nice about quarterback Ryan Tannehill, it’s that he is tough. No matter how hard he gets hit he always gets back up for the next play. Unfortunately that next play is most likely a three yard pass when the Dolphins are eight yards away from a first down. You could blame coach Joe Philbin for his unimaginative play calling (a short screen pass followed by another short screen pass), but the times he would ask Tannehill to throw deep, the ball would end up far from the receiver’s grasp.

The only thing that gives idiots like me hope for the Dolphins to have a winning record this upcoming season for the first time since 2008 is the schedule. It’s as forgiving as you could hope for. Of the 16 games the Dolphins play, only five are against teams that made the playoffs last year, and four of those games are at home where theoretically the Dolphins should have more hope (though Dolphins owner Stephen Ross continues to ignore that by begging the league not to give the Dolphins early afternoon games, he kills Miami’s home field advantage where the South Florida heat has traditionally slowed down opponents not used to Florida’s oppressive humidity). Most positive about the schedule for the Dolphins is after November 29 in New York there are no cold weather games where  for the last few years Dolphins playoff dreams have frozen into ice cube shaped tears.

But looking at the lack of talent on the Dolphin’s coaching staff and offense, it looks like more December tears are in our horizon. While our defense anchored by the addition of Ndamukong Suh should be powerful enough to keep the Dolphins respectable, there are no threats on offense in an era where teams are scoring a historic number of points.

Which leads to my prediction of  7 wins and 9 losses.

I can only imagine how angry that Los Angeles fan of the Dolphins is right now. With each passing year of Stephen Ross’s reign as owner those Jay Fiedler/Dave Wannstedt Dolphins teams feel like the glory years.

Not a 2015 NBA Playoffs Preview

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It’s late April and for the first time in years I couldn’t care less. I have no anticipation, nor dread for the NBA playoffs. I only feel indifference.

Partly because I know only one of two teams can win the championship this year, the Cleveland Cavaliers or the San Antonio Spurs. This conclusion comes from looking back at the last 35 years of NBA history. The only championship team during that span that did not have a truly transcendent otherworldly all time great player are the 2004 Detroit Pistons. Every other team from Magic Johnson and Kareem’s 1980’s LA Lakers to Dr. J’s Philadelphia 76ers to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks all had a player that was impossible to stop. With Kevin Durant injured the only players that qualify are LeBron James with Cleveland and Tim Duncan with San Antonio. The media has tried to portray Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors as just such a player, and he is a hell of a shooter but I’ve seen his story before in another Stephen who was too short to come up big in the playoffs in Steve Nash. These Warriors remind me a lot of Nash’s Phoenix Suns and are destined when a bigger defender like James or the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard guarding Curry at the end of games to have their hearts broken in the playoffs.

But the main reason I don’t care about the playoffs is I have no dog in the race. My Miami Heat stunk it up this year, leaving me with only two options of who to root for in the playoffs, whoever is playing against LeBronedict Arnold James’ Cleveland Cavaliers or the New Orleans Pelicans since they feature the only ex-Heat player not playing for Cleveland, the young fella, Norris Cole.

When I look at teams that made the playoffs instead of the Miami Heat like the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks and I see how much more talent the Heat roster had my immediate reaction for this year’s failures is to blame the coach, Erik Spoelstra. For years I hated on the guy, but after coaching Heat teams that won two championships I started to believe he wasn’t as stupid as he seemed. After this past trainwreck of a season where they could only win 37 games to 45 losses I wondered if Spoelstra’s previous incompetence lowered my expectations. Looking back at The LeBron years I still believe an excellent coach should have led that team to 4 championships during the 4 years as well as every regular season winning 60 games. Those Heat teams did the exact minimum not to look like underachievers through the lens of history with 2 championships and a single 60 win season.

But God, I miss that team.

Every game was an adventure, each quarter assuring a jaw dropping play of athleticism. This season’s Heat roster did not have a savant like LeBron James, nor a 3 point marksman like Ray Allen. From the start of the season  you could see this Heat team was not a championship contender. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade had their moments, but the off-season acquisitions like Josh McRoberts and Luol Deng were bums. Everyone could see it, which is why I’m willing to give Spoelstra the benefit of the doubt this season because there’s a good chance the Heat were intentionally awful.

See, in order to sign LeBron James to a maximum 6 year contract many moons ago, the Heat had to give up a first round draft pick. Little did the Heat know, that James would break out of his contract after 4 years and the Heat would be giving up a draft pick for nothing. There was one caveat, if the Heat were one of the league’s 10 worst teams they could keep the pick. And what do you know? With 37 wins the Heat are one of the 10 worst teams. So perhaps what looked like terrible end of game play calling and substitutions that made no sense were actually building for the future. Maybe this mysterious season ending ailment that forced Chris Bosh to sit out the last half of the season was caused by Draftitis. Now the Heat have what seems like a Hall of Fame center in Hassan Whiteside, an all-star point guard they traded for in Goran Dragic, along with a top 10 pick (previous #10 picks include all-stars like Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Caron Butler, and Paul George).

Hopefully next year will be brighter. Wake me up when it comes, cause this year’s playoffs looks like a snoozer.

Low Expectations- 2014-15 NBA Season Preview

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I recently saw the above image posted on the internet with the caption, “Be quiet Larry Bird’s peepee is sleeping”. So now whenever I feel down I can look at this and get a chuckle imagining Larry Bird dressing his penis in pajamas and a nightcap and laying it on a miniature pillow.

That’s the only basketball related smile I can muster these days. In the 25 years I have been obsessed with the NBA this is perhaps the least I have ever looked forward to a season.

After four years of hard-core partying for Miami Heat fans, we are now in the hangover stage. LeBron James, the man who one Cleveland writer dubbed the whore of Akron has come back “home” to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Every time I open up my closet and see that #6 LeBron James Miami Heat jersey hanging I don’t know how to react. Should I burn it? Ignore it?

Mostly I just cry into it.

The Cleveland Cavaliers should win the NBA championship this year. They have the best player in the world in LeCarpetbagging James who manipulated the roster to get Kevin Love a top rebounder and kidnapped former Heat three point shooters Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, and James Jones. If the Cavaliers manage to convince Ray Allen to join them, then they might as well not play games this season because the Cavs will run away with the championship.

Of course the Heat should have won the last four championships with their rosters, but came away with only two.  While James is undoubtedly the most physically gifted specimen to ever step on to the basketball court, I find myself now agreeing with his critics that for some reason he’s a mental midget who cramps up when the games matter most.

Or at the very least I’m hoping what they say is true.

Because the only thing worse then having someone leave you is seeing them leave you and succeed. After this betrayal I will find myself rooting for the Bulls and Spurs against LeJerk. I will find myself nodding my head every time Skip Bayless criticizes the self-appointed chosen one and I will probably call him a flopper every time he gets to the free throw line.

Up is down. Down is up. LeBron is LeBum.

As for my Miami Heat, I will still be rooting for them. I’m very appreciative and feel a kinship for the guys who did stay like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Birdman, Udonis Haslem and (hopefully) Ray Allen, but my expectations have to be tempered. The games are going to be boring. No more otherwordly passes or dunks that made every Heat game must see viewing the last few years. Hopefully, the Heat will try harder without the crutch that is LeCoward. So while the games won’t have the euphoric highs, hopefully they won’t have the frustrating lows of utter laziness as they’re no longer guaranteed wins simply by stepping on the court.

There are two teams in my lifetime the Heat can emulate as their ceiling for the upcoming season. In 1993, the three time defending champion Chicago Bulls saw the LeBron James of their era, Michael Jordan abruptly retire to play baseball. Somehow the 1994 Bulls managed to win only two less games then they had the prior season and would have made the Eastern Conference finals if not for a bogus call against Scottie Pippen in the second round of the playoffs.

The other team was the 2001 Miami Heat who after adding Brian Grant and Eddie Jones to their roster discovered the previous year’s defensive player of the year, Alonzo Mourning, would have to retire due to kidney disease.  Somehow that Heat team won only two less games then the previous season before getting clobbered in the opening round of the playoffs.

The link between those two teams is they had two of the best coaches of all time in Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. After being one of Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s biggest critics, I’ve been impressed with his work the last two years. If he can inspire this Heat team to win two less games than last year’s 54 win team he will deserve to me mentioned in the same sentence as Jackson and Riley.  But the thing about the NBA that Chicago Bulls fans know is that great coaching can only take you so far. Hard scrabbled defense and supreme effort in rebounding  can make you a top team in the regular season, but in the playoffs talent always trumps effort and intelligence. Much as I’d like to believe in miracles, the second round of the playoffs is the best I can hope for in this roster that will more likely be a 40 win team that loses in the first round of the postseason.

On a positive note Jordan returned to the Bulls and Mourning to the Heat. LeCreep only signed a one year contract with the Cavs, so maybe he’ll be back with the Heat after a sabbatical.

If not I still have that Larry Bird picture.

Glengarry Stephen Ross – Your 2014 Miami Dolphins Preview

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INT. MIAMI DOLPHINS LOCKER ROOM – DAY

The Miami Dolphins football team is horsing around in the locker room. Offensive linemen are snapping each other with wet towels, quarterback RYAN TANNEHILL is in the middle of popping a pimple, coach JOE PHILBIN is trying to figure out how to program his iPhone.

Enter STEPHEN ROSS, the elderly bespectacled owner of the Miami Dolphins followed by DENNIS HICKEY, the team’s general manager.

STEPHEN ROSS: Let me have your attention for a moment! Let’s talk about something important. Are they all here, Ireland?

DENNIS HICKEY: You fired Jeff Ireland, sir. I’m Dennis Hickey, the new general manager.

STEPHEN ROSS: You want to waste my time with details? Answer the question.

DENNIS HICKEY: Yes, all the Miami Dolphins players and coaches are here.

STEPHEN ROSS: Let’s talk about something important! (to Philbin) Put that coffee down!! Coffee’s for closers only. (Philbin scoffs) Do you think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Philbin?

JOE PHILBIN: Yeah.

STEPHEN ROSS: You call yourself a coach, you son of a bitch?

JOE PHILBIN: I don’t have to listen to this.

STEPHEN ROSS: You certainly don’t pal. ‘Cause the good news is — you’re fired. The bad news is you’ve got, all you got, just one season to regain your jobs, starting tonight. Starting with tonight’s game. Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. ‘Cause we’re adding a little something to this season. As you all know, first place in the AFC is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone want to see second place? Second place’s a set of steak knives. Third place is you’re fired. You get the picture? You’re laughing now? You got players. I paid good money for Mike Wallace. You can’t win with the players you’re given, you can’t close shit, you ARE shit, hit the bricks pal and beat it ’cause you are going out!

JOE PHILBIN: The players are weak.

RYAN TANNEHILL: Uh, coach we’re standing right here.

JOE PHILBIN: Like I said the players you got us are weak.

STEPHEN ROSS: ‘The players are weak.’ Fucking players are weak? You’re weak. I’ve owned this team six years and we never have a winning record.

RYAN TANNEHILL: You own the team? What’s your name?

STEPHEN ROSS: Fuck you, that’s my name!! You know why, Mister? ‘Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I flew a helicopter. That’s my name!! (to Philbin) And your name is “you’re wanting.” And you can’t play in a man’s game. You can’t close them.  And you go home and tell your wife your troubles.  Because only one thing counts in this life! Win some damn games.

RYAN TANNEHILL: You’re such a hero. Why you coming down here and waste your time on a bunch of bums?

STEPHEN ROSS takes off his gold watch.

STEPHEN ROSS: You see this watch?

RYAN TANNEHILL: Yeah.

STEPHEN ROSS: It doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked in years, but I keep it cause I paid a lot of money for it. Just like I paid a lot of money for you to be the quarterback Tannehill and I paid a lot for you to be the coach Philbin and I can’t stand to admit I made a mistake and have to pay twice for something whether it’s a watch, a coach, a general manager or a player.

JOE PHILBIN: You could have come in here and said that nicely instead of cursing at us.

STEPHEN ROSS: That watch cost more than your car. You see, pal, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you — go home and play with your kids!! (to everyone) You wanna work here? Win! You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this —  You don’t like it — leave. I can go out there tonight with the players you got, make myself twelve wins! Tonight! In two hours! Can you? Can you? Go and do likewise! The wins are out there, you pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t, you’re going to be shining my shoes. Bunch of losers sitting around in a bar. (in a mocking weak voice) “Oh yeah, I used to be a coach, it’s a tough racket.”  I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it.

Stephen Ross exits the locker room with Dennis Hickey steps behind him.

RYAN TANNEHILL: That was harsh. You think he means it this time?

JOE PHILBIN: Nah, both our contracts go through next year. We’ll go 7-9 again this year and he’ll come back next September with the same speech. Hey you got an iPhone? You know how to get Siri to call plays for me?

 

LeBron James Breaks Miami’s Heart For Cleveland

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After four beautiful years of making sweet love to Miami LeBron James left for his ex. He couldn’t even tell us to our face he was leaving, instead hiring some PR firm to write a letter about why he was leaving the Miami Heat to play basketball for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

I want to scream, “You have no future with Cleveland. The team’s owner and the city’s fans don’t really love you like we do. They called you all kinds of abusive names and didn’t appreciate you enough to surround you with complimentary talent. They won’t be as nurturing and supportive. We kept every promise to you. Selling out every home game and providing two championships.”

But like any jilted lover as LeBron James moves further and further away, we start to see all the flaws everyone warned us about. Sure, he’s the greatest basketball player who ever lived at the peak of his power, but he is awful narcissistic and a tad cowardly not to be upfront from the start that he was going to leave and he does tend to cramp up at the worst possible times…

But who are we kidding? We’re not ever going to do any better. He was way out of our league and might in fact be too big to be in a committed relationship with any one city.

So what does Miami do now? First we cry on the bathroom floor as we try to come to terms that the best thing that ever happened to us dribbled away, but it’s also time to appreciate what we do have. We still have Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem who while not as spectacular or gifted as LeBron, did show integrity and devotion to the team and its fans by offering to renegotiate their contracts in hopes of convincing LeBron to stay. Most importantly we still have Pat Riley.

A lot of people are blaming Riley for in his news conference a few weeks ago calling out LeBron and saying it would be cowardly to quit on the Heat after losing in the Finals. I thought it was a hell of a speech, but I’m a fan of theater and enjoy hearing motivational speeches from sport figures, LeBron it seems prefers authority figures to kowtow to him.

Times have been tough for Riley’s Heat teams before and he always reconfigured them for the better. In 2000 center Alonzo Mouring had to temporarily retire due to kidney issues, six years later the Heat were rebuilt to win their first championship (with the help of Alonzo Mourning with a transplanted kidney).

In 2008 Shaq quit on the team and the Heat’s record bottomed out at a league worst 15-67. Four years later they won the first of two more championships.

So how can we get there again?

It will take a few years of shifting players around, but I’m confident Riley can. As for now the Heat will have no pressure on them and should get 40-45 wins which in a weak Eastern conference could be enough to win their division and possibly get to the second round of the playoffs.

There is one direction that Pat Riley does seem to be heading the Heat towards. Two players he has already signed are Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts, both players have committed vicious flagrant fouls on LeBron in past playoffs. Wouldn’t the most Pat Riley thing Pat Riley could do be to sign all of LeBron’s enemies to join the Heat? Lance Stevenson, Nazr Mohammed and Paul Pierce are all free agents and would agree that if you can’t beat them, beat them up.