Black Mamba, Big Fundamental, Big Ticket and Rudy T

By Peter Vecsey

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2020 enshrinement is set for Saturday evening, with honorees reminded to keep those acceptance speeches short as not to interfere with the start of the play-in playoffs.

The fact the long-delayed shindig is being held in a casino with Michael Jordan as a (Kobe) presenter is nothing if not coincidence.

     ‘Ahmad [Rashād], take my luggage to the room while I find a blackjack table.’

     Think Jordan had anything to do with Isiah Thomas being snubbed as a serial presenter? 

     Am I the only one to notice presenters for each inductee are about to outnumber team assistant coaches?  

   Before Jerry Colangelo steps aside for Junior Bridgeman, or John ‘Why’ Brown, perhaps he’ll consider using play-in presenters for the 2021 class, to be announced May 16th.

     In the meantime, a reminder that no inductee becomes officially legit until he/she is exonerated by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

    The smart money is betting big on Bill Russell gaining entry as a coach despite the fact his record was 179-207 (6-9 in the playoffs) when he wasn’t coaching himself with the Celtics--three seasons, two titles. 

     It’s worth mentioning K.C. Jones managed to do okay for himself once he left Russell’s domain (522-252, .674 regular season; 81-57, .587 playoffs). Calmly and cunningly, he channeled the Bullets and Celtics to five Finals. 

     FYI: Jones and Russell are the lone African-American coaches to have won multiple (two) championships. One is being accommodated by the HOF. The other continues to be obtrusively overlooked by its unidentified cluster of committee members.  

    Therapy has alleviated my affinity for anonymity. Rick Adelman, Paul Pierce, Jay Wright, Marques Johnson and Michael Cooper were prominently printed on my uncounted absentee ballot. Since Satch Sanders’ initiation in 2011, I’ve rehabilitated my repentant judgment and converted to a passionate proponent of rewarding vital role players, and coaches who make a meaningful difference in developing players. 

     It says here, Springfield should’ve embraced Paul Silas five years after he retired from playing in 1980, certainly in combination with his later contribution/impact as an assistant/head coach wherever he went. 

    And who won more playoff games with last-second stilettos than Robert Horry? 

      I won’t even try to regurgitate my argument for Willie Wise, James Jones, Mack Calvin, Freddie Lewis, Ron Boone and Donnie Freeman, whose glory days were mostly served in the ABA. Colangelo snobbishly told me years ago, after Louie Dampier was voted to the HOF by his appointed seven-person ABA Committee, he doesn’t believe any others have HOF credentials. 

      I ‘decorously’ dissented. 

     Colangelo took exception. “If it weren’t for me, none of the players who played almost exclusively in the ABA (Roger Brown, Mel Daniels) would’ve gotten Hall of Fame recognition.”  

      “You mean, I’m supposed to thank you for doing what’s right?”

     Clearly, none of the above will reap definitive respect until Chairman Colangelo relinquishes his pompous command post.      

     As for this weekend’s revered group, Kobe and Garnett are the reason the NBA required a high-school diploma to seek employment, and I was forced to take an equivalency exam. 

     Almost from the jump, Bryant, an all rookie choice and an All-Star his second season, was well worth the price of admission, even for those of us who weren’t obliged to pay.

      So many subplots to sift through: 

    —Fans’ hostility/ harmonic convergence with Kobe; 

    —his love/hate/love connection with the Lakers; 

    —-his adulation/aversion for Jerry West;

    —his affection/disconnection with Phil Jackson; 

    —his feud and arranged TNT settlement with Shaquille O’Neal; 

    —his breakup and makeup with his parents, Pam and Joe;

    —his sexual assault arrest; 

    —his marriage separation and reconciliation with Vanessa; 

    —that 60-point unearthly grand finale;

    —and those five titles in 20 seasons, augmented by a procession of trappings, marvels and myths.

      Allow me to dispel a couple. Don’t ask me why I choose them exactly, except it’s interesting how Kobe was the same person at 18 as he was at 28 and 38….and how details get distorted. 

      As a rookie Kobe had improved significantly from training camp when he showed up limping from an ankle sprained playing pickup in Venice Beach. It kept him from seeing any daylight in his first game and limited him to five minutes in Game 2. Hence his first pro point occurred against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. One and done.

     Kobe remained an irregular throughout the season, but earned important minutes closer to the playoffs while chomping for additional responsibility. By the last month, he’d become a crucial component.

   In the final stages of their-win-or-get-wasted Game 5 of the ‘1997-98 Western Conference Finals against the Jazz in Utah, Kobe, by default, received an on-court commission. Shaq fouled out at the 1:46 mark, LA up 87-84. Horry had been ejected for allegedly swinging a fist at somebody (horrible call). Byron Scott was injured in Game 2 and Nick Van Exel-who’d downed 7-7 from beyond the arc in Game 2-hurt his foot with about four minutes left, now having trouble overcoming John Stockton’s defense. 

    Their bench depleted, the Lakers still hung tough to deadlock matters, 89-89. After Stockton tied it, Karl Malone missed a jumper from 15 and Greg Ostertag committed a turnover. Eddie Jones appeared to have an open layup to put LA up two, but Greg Ostertag came off Elden Campbell and snuffed Jones for his ninth block.

     Van Exel’s strip of Ostertag gave the Lakers the last possession. A time out was called with 11.3 seconds remaining. Kobe came straight to Del Harris and avowed, “Coach, if you let me have this shot, I’ll drain it for you.”

      What coach wouldn’t want to hear that! 

     “The thought that went through my mind was this,” Harris told me the following season. “I said, ‘the kid’s 18. This is a moment here. He is either gonna make it or miss it. If he makes it, it’s gonna do a lot for him. If he misses, he’ll at least know there was a white-haired guy who I thought didn’t know anything, believed in me.’

     “And I believed him. And I still believe him. And I’d give him that shot again. I just wanted to make sure we’d get the last shot of regulation. And I wanted a good shot. I knew Kobe could get one off and we’d have a chance to tip. Thing is, he waited too long and missed a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer from 14-15 feet .”

      The Jazz prevailed in overtime. 

     Decades later, memories fogged, people claim that shot by Kobe was an air ball and that he aired out four treys in overtime. 

     “Fact is, we got behind and Kobe rushed two but also scored our only basket (a layup) in the final five minutes.” Harris remembered recently. “He only aired two but was 0-6 for the game from 3-point range.”

     Legend contends, according to countless reports over the years, Kobe and his father found a gym after the season-ending loss hoisting hundreds of long-distance springers.

      That might’ve happened when the Lakers landed in Los Angeles (I never remembered to ask him), but there was no gym visit in Salt Lake City. There was a charter to catch. To this day, Harris doesn’t know if Joe attended Game 5 or met Kobe at the airport.

    On to Garnett, who toiled for years doing superior work with suspect support, not unlike my ‘staph’.

    I’m pulling punches, as the Counterfeit Ticket well knows. However, his acting was so real in ‘Uncut Gems’, I’m gonna momentarily bypass his grievous faults.

    Traded by Minny HaHa to Boston after 12 seasons, Garnett had a bit more success than Joe Kapp, winning one title. 

     This just in: Billy King believes Garnett should go into the Hall as a Net.

     Tim Duncan, as the standings bear out, made Gregg Popovich the smartest man in the room by being the smartest man in the room.

     Proof that a college degree is actually worth something, he hung around Wake Forest in time for the Spurs to win the lottery, lose Bob Hill and give Rick Pitino a valid excuse to return to college coaching.

    Here’s Duncan’s career in a nutshell: No words, no tats, no errors.

     The guy killed opponents and closed captioning at the same time.

    Between the three of them—Kobe, Garnett and Duncan--that’s 48 All-Star Games, or about the same number I’ve avoided watching.

     Which brings us to Rudy Tomjanovich — in under the radar as a coach, but a five-time All Star as a player (17.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) as well. 

     Won those two Chris Christie ‘bridge’ championships while Jordan was telling people to go fungo yourself.

     Had Tomjanovich actually coached Charles Barkley to a title, he would’ve been elected via Vatican white smoke.

      Contrary to common credence, Tomjanovich’s most impressive coaching did not occur in 1994 when the Rockets beat the Knicks in seven games after trailing 2-3. Nor in 1995 when they short-sheeted Shaq and the Magic, 4-0. Did not happen in the 2000 Olympics, when the United States won the gold in Sydney, Australia, though, granted, Rudy did have to overcome the incessant meddling of assistant Larry Brown. 

     It says here, and I underline, Tomjanovich long ago deserved to make the Hall of Fame off his National team’s third-place accomplishment in the 1998 FIBA World Cup of Basketball in Greece. 

    Because the NBA was in lockdown, the USA was prohibited from using its players. Rudy volunteered to coach and was joined by Del Harris and Lon Kruger. Tryouts were held in Chicago. With one exception (David Wood), those selected were exclusively former college players whose pro experience was gained in the CBA and Europe. Brad Miller, undrafted out of Purdue, turned the opportunity into long-term profitable NBA career. 

   The high scorer (10.7) was Jason Sasser. Last week, he competed at the highest level in a Masters Tournament (64 teams from all over the country) in Miami and Deerfield; his team, the Raiders, won the Over-40 tournament.

      Syracuse’s Wendell Alexis-who I favorably compared to Chris Mullin when they battled in the Big East-Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy King, Trajan Langdon & Co. won seven of nine, losing by two points to both Russia (on a controversial call, of course) and Lithuania. Yugoslavia (9-0) triumphed, Russia was second and Rudy’s 7-2 outfit convincingly beat the host Greeks for the bronze medal. 

        USA Men’s Basketball decision makers were so overwhelmed by Tomjanovich’s achievement, they put him in charge of the men’s team at the Games of the XXVII Olympiad. It was undefeated, 8-0. 

Thank you to Frank Drucker for his contributions to this post.