Tag: Hoop du Jour

Trailblazers

By Peter Vecsey

Since this is Black History Month, what better time to offer some prehistoric history?

     The Pride and Prejudice (more of the latter, unfortunately) of Chuck Cooper, Nathanial ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, Earl Lloyd and Hank DeZonie have (finally) been revisited and revered.

     Cooper (2019) and Clifton (2014, players) along with Lloyd (2003, contributor) have each been summoned to Springfield.

     While these fine gentlemen were indeed the league’s Black forefathers, they were not the first players of color in professional basketball.

     Allow me to introduce the forefathers of the forefathers (the eightfathers?).

     If the names William ‘Pop’ Gates and William ‘Dolly’ King do not resonate with the readership, well, that’s why I’m here.

     In the primordial period before the NBA, there was the NBL (National Basketball League), formed in 1937, and the BAA (Basketball Association of America), which began in ‘46.

     The latter consumed what was left of the former, eventually morphing into the NBA after the 1948-49 season.

     Gates, a New York City (Benjamin Franklin) star, made his pro reputation for the badass barnstorming New York Renaissance...Rens for you harried headline writers out there.

     All the Rens accomplished was a pre-UCLA 88-game winning streak, against all teams, black or white, in 1932-33.

     Though a bit underaged to participate in that pillaging, Gates’ exploits were nonetheless so explosive, both he (1989) and the Rens (1963) were also given Hall passes.

     Do yourself and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar a favor. Get a hold of his ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ tome to learn a whole lot more about the Renaissance and their impact on, and contribution to, the game.

     After the Rens, Gates, according to his Naismith bio, ‘played for a handful of teams and helped to integrate the National Basketball League in 1946 as a member of the Buffalo Bisons/Tri-Cities Blackhawks’.

     Coincidentally (or not), the NBA chose the 1946 birth of the BAA for the start of its version of pro basketball, hence a 75th anniversary commemoration planned for sometime soon, I gather. My ballot for the Top 75 is in the mail (or not).

     Gates’ two NBL seasons saw him average 7.6 and 11.2 points per game, but his contribution, it says here, filled up a more important stat sheet.

Gates passed away in December of 1999, at the age of 82.

     King was also a NYC (Alexander Hamilton) high-school stalwart. A three-sport (basketball, baseball, football) threat at Long Island U.—where Naismith Hall of Famer Clair Bee coached basketball and football—Al Gore’s internet swears King played full games of both. The Very Same Day!

     The late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s saw LIU as the gold standard of college cage, well before the scandal (but we’re leaving that alone here).

     Back to King, who left LIU hoops (where he teamed briefly with a pretty fair baseball player, Larry Doby, the American League's first black player in 1948), making his mark with the Rens before another Hall of Fame coach, Les Harrison, signed him for the NBL’s Rochester Royals in 1946.

     His numbers (four ppg in 41 games) belied his bigger-picture benefaction of helping to integrate (there’s that word again) the game.

     King died in January, 1969, age 52.

     If you haven’t figured out today’s lesson plan as of yet, ponder this...

     With all due respect to the Fearsome Foursome firm of Cooper, Clifton, Lloyd and DeZonie, shouldn’t Gates and King have been ordained as the professional’s first African-American players? 

     I mean, they participated in a pro league during the same season (1946) the NBA has recognized as the beginning of organized, play-for-pay basketball, yet there’s nothing in the way of remembrance or remuneration-- statistical inclusion, pension, whatever.

     The overdue acknowledgment doesn’t have to come during Black History Month. Any month is fine by me.

     Afterthoughts: 

      Dolly King used to referee in the CHSAA. Once I distinctly remember, he officiated a JV game of mine at Archbishop Molloy.

     Pop Gates and I spoke often during my six years coaching at Rucker Park. Told me many stories about the Rens, and took me to meet their founder, Bob Douglas, at his Harlem apartment in 1972, the year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Douglas was born in Saint Kitts (Gates in Decatur, GA), but moved to New York at a young age. Nicknamed the "Father of black Professional Basketball", he owned and coached the Rens from 1922 to 1949, guiding them to a 2,318-381 record. 

     "What was Harlem like when you were growing up?" I asked Douglas, who died in 1979.

      "There was no Harlem when I was growing up."  

Nick Curran

By Peter Vecsey

There’s nothing I like better than telling an untold story… other than to hear stories unheard. 

Like the ones below from Nick Curran, who was the NBA’s director of public relations from 1969-‘76. Walter Kennedy, the league’s first commissioner, (predecessor Maurice Podoloff was actually its president from 1946-‘63) hired the 28-year-old whose ambition was to become a major league broadcaster, but instead became a sportswriter. 

     Though having known Curran since the mid-70s, when I began covering the NBA full time after a half dozen seasons of profusely bleeding red, white and blue, I didn’t find out until yesterday we shared the same smudged profession. Both began our careers at 16. He wrote stories (“Someone quit and I told the sports editor I could do the job.”) and handled racing agate for the Worcester Telegram, New England’s sixth largest newspaper. 

     As a high school junior, I lucked into a job as a statistician in the New York Daily News (largest circulation in the country) sports department during the entire baseball season; five days a week, the 3-11 shift. It took me 12 years, two as an Army draftee, to attain status as a sportswriter.  

     Curran grew up in Norwood, Massachusetts and attended Boston University; its radio station was run by students. By senior year, he’d become sports director. Meeting Jesse Owens was a big thrill . Interviewing Ted Williams in 1961, the year after he’d retired, left him in a trance. It took place before an exhibition game at Boston University Field, the home of the Braves before they moved to Milwaukee. 

     “I brought along a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder,” Curran recalled with delight. “I was hoping for a one-minute answer to use on the show that evening. I asked Mr. Williams to talk about the science of hitting. He gave me 30 minutes.”  

     Upon graduation, Curran went from chronicling schoolboy sports and Worcester Tech College for one year to covering the Celtics. Highly regarded Phil Jackman left to join the Baltimore Sun, thus creating the coveted assignment. It culminated with Boston’s 7-game Finals win over the Lakers in 1966. 

      Curran remembers calling Red Auerbach to ask if K.C. Jones, who had defended Jerry West as well as humanly possible, would play in Game 7.  K.C. had hurt his knee, necessitating a brace, made by the team doctor. 

     “If he can walk, he’s gonna play!” Auerbach growled.

      “Sounds a little bit like Red, huh?” Curran noted.  

      How did Curran feel interviewing Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and the rest of Boston’s Hall of Fame cast at such a young age and with so little experience? I wondered. 

     “It was a joy talking to them one-on-one, and writing stories I knew people would be reading the next morning over a cup of coffee. I usually had about 45 minutes to organize my thoughts and knock out a story in time for the last edition. It taught me discipline.” 

     Nine seasons later, the Warriors upset the Bullets in the title round, beating them four straight. The two head coaches, K.C. and Al Attles, were black. What’s more, so were their assistants, Bernie Bickerstaff and Joe Roberts? 

     In 2017, Curran interviewed Attles for an online story. “I asked him if he remembered the reaction, if any, when he coached against K.C. in the 1975 Finals, making history? It was the first time both head coaches in the Finals were black. Al said, ‘Nothing happened. It was no big deal. No one asked me about it.’” 

     I can vouch for that. I covered that series; I didn’t hear a question about it, or see any mention of it in the papers. To the credit of everyone on the scene, four-for-four black coaches on the sideline went unreported, if not completely unnoticed. 

When Kennedy hired Curran June 1, 1969, there were six people in the league office: the commissioner, assistant to the commissioner Carl Scheer, who left in 1970 to run the ABA Carolina Cougars (replaced by Simon Gourdine), office manager Connie Maroselli, Helen Marie Burns, Kennedy’s secretary, and receptionist Gail Davey. 

     Dolph Schayes was the part-time head of the referees; he had no office. There was no security; it was farmed out to different agencies. There also was no licensing or marketing departments/employees.

    “We would do whatever it took to get the job done,” Curran said. The NBA had six lines. “You’d think the number would have a few zeroes at the end, but that would’ve cost extra. I love Walter, but he was very frugal ‘cause he didn’t have a lot.”

     When Kennedy left in ’75, he was given a ten-year, $500,000 severance package, 50G per year, Curran said. “When he became commissioner in ’63, he made $35,000. My salary was $15,000. I made $88 a week in Worcester.”

     Kennedy and Gourdine were lawyers. Both were involved in the authorization of trades, which meant understanding the language of contracts. Larry O’Brien took over June 1, 1975. He wanted nothing to do with approving trades, turning over full responsibility (almost) to Gourdine. Moreover, trades were restricted to business hours, and not on the weekend. 

      Gourdine happened to be on the west coast when Bucks’ GM Wayne Embry frantically called the league office Monday, June 16, 1975. He insisted on executing an immediate trade that would send Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--who’d covertly demanded a trade early in the ’74-75 season to either the Knicks or Lakers--and Walt Wesley to Los Angeles for Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers and Elmore Smith. 

     The reason for Embry’s heated rush to make the trade official: Bucks beat writer Bob Wolf was about to break the news that afternoon in the Milwaukee Journal. 

Curran and the receptionist were the only ones in an office that had tripled to 18. “I told Wayne I had the authority to sanction the trade.” Gail Davey was instructed to retrieve the contracts of the six players. A conference call was then convened. Embry was on the line for the Bucks to discuss the condition and salaries of each player, whereas play-by-play celebrity Chick Hearn, also a part of the front office, represented the Lakers.

    “My head was throbbing and I was sweating like never before,” Curran recounted. “I knew I was doing all the right things, but I was still scared to death I’d be fired.” 

     Curran made sure there were no hidden clauses, like a no-trade or bonuses. Physicals were required in case a team was trying to pawn off damaged goods. It couldn’t become legal until each player signed three copies before the trade, one for the team, one for the agent and one for the player.

     “When we announced it to AP and UPI, our six lines lit up and stayed lit. The reaction nationwide was identical: How can the NBA allow Milwaukee to destroy its team?” 

                                     *****

     A fundamental function of Curran’s job was visiting teams and speaking to front office personnel, as well as the local media. Often that meant being on radio before a game or at halftime. Sometimes it meant doing a post-game show. 

     In 1972, Curran was in old Chicago Stadium. Six minutes into the game, Norm Van Lier got assessed two technical fouls within seconds of each other as a result of cursing out the refs, slamming the press table with his hand and generally being out of control. 

    Following the Bulls’ loss, famed play-by-play announcer Jim Durham invited Curran to be a guest on his two-hour studio call-in show. The first voice on the line was Van Lier, who, not profanely, aimed his wrath at the officials, in great detail, for close to 15 minutes. 

     The lingering suspicion is Durham’s producer reached out to Stormin’ Norman. For the remainder of the show, Curran had to endure verbal attacks from an amped-up audience regarding the whistle blowers and the league for its alleged horrible hiring and training practices.

     Curran flew to New York the following day and reported what had happened to Kennedy. A tape was secured from WIND radio, and Van Lier was suspended one game and fined $500, the most allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement at the time. 

      The next time Curran ran into Van Lier, Norm got back his money’s worth. 

      “He reamed me good.” 

                                      *****

      In 1969, Curran attended a Christmas party hosted by Dave DeBusschere at his Garden City home. He was standing near the door when Bill Bradley rang the doorbell. He was wearing a roman collar and a black suit.

     “Confessions will be held downstairs,” Bradley notified DeBusschere….”for the ladies.”

     Where would Bradley get a Roman collar and black suit like priests wear, you might wonder? Curran did. “He said he went to a supply store on Madison Avenue behind St. Patrick's Cathedral, and bought it just for the party.”

       Life after the NBA for Curran encompassed 28 years as a financial adviser with Dean Witter and Morgan Stanley. In 1975, he was ordained a Deacon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC. In 2014, he earned a  Masters Degree in Journalism from the University of North Carolina.  

    During my educational conversation, he alerted me to his age (80) by stressing he was born in the same year and same month as DeBusschere. 

     He and Eileen live in Santa Barbara. She grew up in the Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium. As mentioned, he grew up in Norwood, MA, a short drive from Fenway Park. 

       “I married her anyway, 47 years ago. Best thing I ever did.”

                                *****

      From Hang Time to Prime Time, written by Pete Croatto, the NBA’s growth in the mid-70s to the mid-80s (Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA), reaped so many rave reviews from those eminently more eligible to recognize what’s worthwhile and worthless, triggered me to order a copy. 

     It’s meticulously accurate and detailed, friends testify, the product of interviewing 315 people, including this correspondent. 

      While I impatiently anticipate the mid-February delivery date, Croatto kindly advanced me some David Stern anecdotes.   

     It's Fantastic was based on...a joke:

     Most basketball fans of a certain age know the NBA's "It's Fantastic" ad campaign to promote the league. What was a staple for 1980s NBA fans was David Stern's creation, according to Barbara Ward, an administrative assistant in the league's office in the early 80s.

     Stern had a go-to joke: A man is asked how he's doing. The man replies, "I'm doing faaan-tastic." Again and again and again. Finally, he delivers the punch line after his go-to phrase: "That's what I say when I'm bullshitting you."

     Ward left for Harvard Law School after the inside joke became a national ad campaign. When she ran into Stern, she mentioned the commercials.

     "David, pretty funny."

     Stern winked.

     Saving a television deal: 

     In 1978, then NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien had reached a handshake deal with CBS Sports president Bob Wussler on a new television deal. Everything was fine--until Bob Wussler resigned. New president Frank Smith did not share Wussler's enthusiasm. In fact, he wanted the NBA off his network. 

     A meeting was arranged. O'Brien and his trusted number-two man, Stern, met with Smith and Neal Pilson, director of business affairs at CBS Sports. Wussler delivered the news to O'Brien, who was agog. We had a deal with Wussler. What's going on?

     Shortly after the verdict was dropped, Stern asked Pilson to meet him outside. Stern proceeded to get into Pilson's face, and put a finger in his chest. "You can't do this to Larry! You can't do this to the NBA. You had a deal. You have to stay with it. We need to continue on CBS!"

    Pilson walked away on Stern's side. Wussler's decision was tabled, and Pilson convinced Smith to keep the NBA on CBS--and away from national irrelevance. Stern's plea for mercy bought the NBA time that it desperately needed. 

     The soft side:

     Much has been written about David Stern's tenacity and his combativeness, but what really surprised me was how devoted he was to his employees. 

     Stern and Don Stirling, a longtime employee at NBA Properties, had stayed late at the NBA offices before they were picked up for a flight to Los Angeles. It was the kind of day that demanded rest at any possible moment. Stirling and Stern got in the car. Stern started calling doctors; he wanted to help an NBA employee who had been diagnosed with serious illness. 

     Rick Welts, now the president and COO of the Golden State Warriors, saw the kinder side of David Stern when he started at the NBA in the early 1980s. He'd spend hours chasing down corporate sponsors for the league only to be told no repeatedly. Hard days led to nights where he arrived home in despair. But "Uncle David" would inevitably call, offering encouragement and care. The next morning, Stern would have more leads, more enthusiasm. 

     Compassion and combativeness defined David Stern, in my opinion, underlines Croatto.  

 

A Game Grows in Brooklyn

By Peter Vecsey

After being interviewed last week by Craig Boothe regarding his documentary ‘Ball Side Middle,’ I decided to bequeath him today’s space.  

   Boothe, who proudly possesses a journalism degree, explains where he came from and what he wants the doc to achieve.

   Below are the 33 players, many household names, who expanded on their schoolyard, high school and college reputations by joining NBA rosters for a year, part thereof or much more. The accounts, assessments and stories regarding their games are the upshot of what I’ve seen over the years or been told in the last 24 hours. 

    “As a young man growing up in Brooklyn, I was introduced to the game of basketball at the age of seven,” Boothe begins. “The place was Flatbush, home of fabled Foster Park, which was highlighted in “Heaven is a Playground,” a book written in 1976 by Rick Telander. It received national acclaim and was considered one of President Obama’s favorite reads.

   “Early on,” Boothe continues, “I was attracted to the game’s demanding competition and was fortunate to travel throughout the boroughs while representing a P.A.L. team until 11. At 12, my life radically changed, as I was bussed from my predominately black neighborhood to Roy H. Mann Junior High. Numerous young black teens experienced the same plight as they sometimes were attacked, or had to run for their lives in these communities of hate.

   “High school was no different, as I was bussed from East New York, Brooklyn to South Shore High School, in the Canarsie neighborhood. Despite the daily racial episodes, many of us who traveled from East New York, Brownsville and Bedford Stuyvesant, focused on basketball. It became our gift. The gift of distraction and survival! The gift that kept giving! We learned under duress and through commitment to contend and thrive at the highest level.

   “From the period of 1974-86, Brooklyn, by all versions and visions, was considered the world’s epicenter of basketball. During this time, we produced some of the top high school teams in the country, Lafayette (1974-‘75), Canarsie (1975-‘76), Boys and Girls High School (1978-‘79), Nazareth High School (1978-‘79), Xaverian High School (1980-‘81) and Alexander Hamilton (1980-‘81). 

   “Albert King led the way early in the decade. He was named national Player of the Year in 1976-‘77, and was a 3-time All-America. Chris Mullin, Class of ‘81 and Pearl Washington, Class of ‘83 became McDonald’s All-Americans as well.

   “Brooklyn’s greatest accomplishment during this cross-over decade was the 32 players who made NBA teams. With all of this success, history somehow skipped over that outstanding era. There was very little film documentation of this rousing realization. 

   “As someone who played and was intimately involved during this era, I fervently feel now the time is ripe to transmit the story. A story crammed with challenges and adversity young black males confronted. A story about how the gift of basketball existed for all to seize, and how it shielded many from drugs, gangs, racism and socio-economic environments designed for us to fail,” Boothe emphasizes. 

   “Ball Side Middle is a drill learned by many of us in Brooklyn, in my case, St. John’s Recreational Center.  It metaphorically describes how the ball saved our lives. The side were our supporters. In the middle is where it remains in our core.

   “The documentary is a four-part series that escorts viewers through our Brooklyn journey. As the narrator, storyteller and executive producer, I have been blessed to partner with James Rapelyea, filmmaker and editor, as well as Melanie Boothe and Eric Short, assistant producers. Our passionate project is scheduled for completion in early spring of 2021.

  Those who played at Brooklyn High Schools from 1974-1986 and wore an NBA uniform:

   1. Chris Mullin (Xaverian): Indoors or outdoors, day or night, put a ball in his hands and he was ready to score at will. “He was so good, he got me a scholarship,” Mark Jackson went on to explain. Lou Carnesecca and his top assistants came to eyeball Mullin when the senior played at Bishop Loughlin. Jackson started as a sophomore but was un-recruited until that night. In the midst of Mullin’s domination, Jackson caught the attention of St. John’s contingent. “Chris was the best the city had to offer and he toyed with us the whole game.”

2. Bernard King (Fort Hamilton): High school was no different than college or the pros. The original ‘Game Face’ played like a gangster. He didn’t back down from anybody. He knew what he wanted to do and did it without a hitch. When King scored he took it right to you and then look at you like, “Don’t you know better?” And he got fouled, he’d street-walk to the free-throw line. Like walking down the street with a swagger. Two guys might be thinking of mugging him, see that walk and say, “No, not that one.” It was that intimidating attitude that carried over to the court. 

“My older brother, Kevin, took me to some court when I was about eight or nine,” Jackson vividly remembers. “Bernard, Fly (Williams) and (World B) Free were playing. I stayed glued to the fence the entire afternoon. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Couldn’t believe there was better talent in the entire world.” 

3. Albert King (Fort Hamilton): He was good so early he was far above everyone his age and way ahead of his time. All the hype he got was deserved. He handled the ball so well he was a like a 6-6 center playing guard. It was impossible to sustain that level of dominance and stand out every time he jumped a level. Had he flaunted his brother’s air of confidence, Albert could’ve taken a hit one night and come back the next day and given what he just got and more. 

4. Vinnie Johnson (FDR): Maybe the all-time most unappreciated player, and might very well be the best sixth man in the business. Overshadowed by Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars on two Pistons’ championships, Vinnie had opponents quaking when he replaced one of them. That’s how good he was. That’s how quickly he could impact a game as soon as he entered it. He sacrificed a lot to help the team win and was not the type to complain. He just got it done! Nicknamed ‘Who’ by his teammates, Vinnie would show up at practice and exclaim, “Who am I gonna fuck up today, you Isiah, or you, Joe? 

5. Eric Johnson (FDR). Long arms like his brother, he was a solid defender and shooter, but didn’t have Vinnie’s unshakable assurance. 

6. John Salley (Canarsie): Regardless of what level, he’d run the floor and finish, then sprint back to the other end and punch a shot into the stands. Rebounding repute suffered playing alongside relentless retriever, Dennis Rodman. As an NBC colleague of mine, John’s work ethic was not exactly exemplary. A month or so into his rookie year as an ‘Insider’, he was told by producer Ricky Diamond he needed to prepare more for telecasts. “You gotta make more phone calls before coming to the studio,” Diamond admonished. John’s response was landmark. “You don’t pay me enough to make phone calls!” he declared. Thereafter, I referred to him as ‘Long Gone Salley.’

7. Geoff Huston (Canarsie): He was the real deal! When he played in the Pro Am League one summer with Wes Matthews, Sam Worthen and Hollis Copeland, Geoff averaged 63 points. He knew how to score and, at the same time, knew how to get everyone involved. What’s more, he boasted the kind of maturity only gained from playing with older players from an early age. 

Afterthought:  The Mount Rushmore of Knicks/Cavaliers guards, along with Butch Beard, Jim Cleamons and some guy named Clyde.

8. World B Free (Canarsie): Had to be the highest leaper when taking a jump shot. A lot of people thought he was selfish, but was a true professional and easy to get along with wherever he played, which is why he’s still working, still smiling and still saying funny things for the 76ers after all these years. Free’s game was different than anyone you can name. Everything about him represented Brooklyn. The way he carries himself, you know right away he’s not from Philly.

Afterthought: Free’s trade from the Sixers to the then-San Diego Clippers for a No. 1 pick that became Charles Barkley, earned him eternal gratitude from every Atlantic City pit boss.

9. Mel Davis (Boys): An enforcer until he reached the pros, then lack of size for the macho power position betrayed ‘Killer.’ More of a defender and rebounder than a scorer, a go-away-from guy, if you will.          

10. Lenny Wilkens (Boys): If not for a New York City Jewish couple, Gloria and Shelly Kaplan, he may not have gone anywhere worthwhile as a Hall of Fame player and coach. Played very few games as a HS senior as the team’s star was Tommy Davis, who’d win two National League batting crowns with the Dodgers. Shelly Kaplan, a Holy Cross roommate of Joe Mullaney, pushed the Friars’ head coach to give Lenny a scholarship after seeing him in a playground tournament, warrants HOF honorable mention as a scout. Wilkens always got into Bob Cousy harder defensively than any other opponent and felt slighted because Cousy got far more recognition. 

Afterthought: His career was so distinguished, he gets a pass for coaching the Knicks during Anucha Browne Sanders/Sexual Harassment Hacienda halcyon days.

11. Connie Hawkins (Boys): Paved the way for Julius, MJ and LeBron. For those who weren’t lucky enough to see the Hawk play, check out his highlights and you get his whole game over his whole career. Only Walter Kennedy knows how magnificent Connie would’ve been had the NBA commissioner not shamefully banned him from the league for seven seasons due to gambling blather. 

Afterthought: He’s the reason I swore unwavering allegiance to the Pittsburgh Pipers.

12. Pearl Washington (Boys & Girls): People still talk about a game at ‘Sole In the Hole’ in which he snared a rebound, dribbled the length of the blacktop through everyone except the opposing center, who was waiting above the rim…and Pearl dunked on him!! “Game Over!” Sam Worthen, who was pro age at the time, excitedly recounted yesterday. Washington was in high school. “The fans ran onto the court and went wild, as if it was the last shot of the game. It was the second quarter. They wouldn’t stop celebrating, high-fivin’ and dancing, wouldn’t leave the court. Like a shot at the buzzer. We stayed half an hour and finally gave up and went home.”

 ‘Pac Man’ ate up everyone in high school and college, but didn’t work nearly hard enough on his game and body as a pro. Hence, his career was over after two seasons with the Nets and one with Miami. Pearl admitted as much to me years later when we met to discuss his book he wanted me to write. 

“Pearl was an incredible talent, absolutely could do it all in high school and college,” Mark Jackson lauded. “He broke Georgetown’s press singlehandedly!!” Jackson’s first college choice was Syracuse. The thought of playing before 30,000 fans was a decisive factor in that decision. On his visit to Syracuse, he told Jim Boeheim and Brendan Malone he was prepared to accept a scholarship. “I wouldn’t come if I were you,” the head coach replied. “We have Pearl coming.”

Before Pearl had even enrolled, Jackson said, “He had a book and sneaker deal. That’s how good he was.”

13. Larry McNeill (Westinghouse): The Roadrunner did everything easily and briskly. He could get you 20 points and ten rebounds in 14 minutes, but not often enough to keep him from shuffling from team-to-team (12 pro outfits in and out of the country) during his 11-season career. Though McNeill still owns the playoff record for perfect field-goal attempts (12) in a game as a Kansas City-Omaha King in 1975, his defining moment, it says here, was representing the New York Post in the 1976-77 dunk competition. He had been cut by the Nets, but was still very much alive in the NBA’s first (shabbily managed) jamboree. I arranged for him to wear a Post T-shirt for two rounds, at which time the Warriors signed him as a free agent. Darnell Hillman, also functioning as a free agent, beat McNeill in the finale, staged at halftime of Game 5 (June 5) between the Blazers and 76ers. Hillman won $15,000. The Post paid McNeill 15G as well. For all the publicity I got the paper, I also should’ve pocketed 15G. 

14. Jim McMillian (Thomas Jefferson): All you have to know about him is the day he replaced Elgin Baylor in the starting lineup as a rookie, the Lakers started a 33-game win streak, still an NBA record, and went on to win the ’71-72 title. Pat Riley had to guard the bigger, stronger McMillian in practice throughout that season. At the outset, he figured it wouldn’t be that bad because Jim was playing so many minutes. He figured wrong. “He beat the shit out of me every time.” Riley related. 

15. Sidney Green (Thomas Jefferson): Had the whole package—muscle, hustle, rebounding and scoring—yet never attained star status. My theory? He was too nice.

16. Phil Sellers (Thomas Jefferson): Definitely big-time pro material but it never materialized.  He had no foreseeable flaws and was enforcer-tough. His game translated from playground to high school to college. Why did it stop abruptly in the pros? Was it lack of work ethic? Commitment? Was he married to the fellas? The street? The nightlife? Had/have no idea. 

17. Leroy Ellis (Thomas Jefferson): Enjoyed a long pro career, topped by his role backing up Wilt Chamberlain for the ’71-72 champions. Interestingly, Bill Sharman gave him decent daylight in the 33 straight victories, then kept him buckled to the bench the day it was snapped by the Lew Alcindor’s Bucks. The very next season, Ellis played for the 9-73 Sickers. Talk about career whiplash!

18. Billy Cunningham (Erasmus): There will never be a higher-caliber crew of forwards to play high-school ball at one time than Hawkins, Roger Brown and Billy C. Anyone who leapfrogged leagues twice—NBA to ABA and back to NBA--gets a presidential pardon in this space.

19. Armond Hill (Bishop Ford): Hard to find someone smarter Attended Princeton and eight seasons with four NBA teams despite averaging a mere 6.9 points and 4.7 assists. Coached Columbia for eight seasons without a single winning season (72-141), then accepted a scholarship as Doc Rivers’ assistant, which just ended after 17 years. 

20. Ken Charles (Brooklyn Prep): Played under control. Cool. HiQ. Oozed confidence. Remindful of a three-piece solid blue suit Walt Frazier. Replaced surgically-impaired Ernie DiGregorio in the Braves‘ starting lineup alongside Randy Smith. Loved coaching Earl Foreman, Sam Worthen and him at Rucker Park and value their friendships to this day.

21. Mike Dunleavy (Nazareth): A sixth-round draft pick (No 99) by the 76ers, he stuck around because Gene Shue probably liked the way he stuck his nose into tight situations knowing he was going to pay for it. Moreover, Mike played like a coach and became a poisonous three-point shooter.

Afterthought: Lone person to coach Lakers and Clippers [though Joe Mullaney coached LAL and Buffalo Braves]. If and when he takes over the LA Kings, Dunleavy will get a statue erected outside every Staples in North America.

22. Steve Bracey (Midwood): Know very little about him other than he won a title with the ‘75 Warriors, and thus a lifetime pass to the Cow Palace.

23. Stew Granger (Nazareth): He came to work every day, played like an underachiever, and proved he belonged he got as far as he got.  

24. Jerry Reynolds (Alexander Hamilton): Similar to Scottie Pippen, as in able to play 1, 2 or 3, great vision. Smooth as anyone you’ve seen come out of NYC. He was a successful pro, but I expected stardom. 

Afterthought: Ice was the third-leading scorer with ‘89-‘90 expansion Magic, and the only one who knows seamy underbelly of Matt Guokas.

25. Carey Scurry (Alexander Hamilton): A high riser with serious hops. Some blocked shots, his chest seemed like it was at the rim. Not much of a shooter. Nicknamed Moet. Bad habit earned him early exit. 

Afterthought: Scurry was Utah’s  second-round choice in ‘85, behind Karl Malone. One of them turned into a decent role player for few seasons.

26. Lorenzo Charles (Brooklyn Tech): A great team player. Would command a double team on the block. His ‘right place, right time’ tourney winner in ‘83 (North Carolina State over Houston) proved NCAA was both unscripted and unscrupled, if there is or isn’t such a word. 

27. Sam Worthen (Franklin K Lane):  Magic before Magic, as in heat size and understanding of the game. Extreme peripheral vision.  And1 dribbling and passing skills long before And1. “Me and Kenny Smith went up against his team in a summer tournament,” said Mark Jackson. “Neither one of us wanted to guard Sam.” Only flaw? People claimed he couldn’t shoot. I saw him shoot over many defenders from mid range. Worthen’s actual flaw was infrequently looking to shoot. 

28. Rolando Blackman (Grady): Just got better and more dependable every year, at every pressure level. Could not be outworked. I would applaud his Hall of Fame induction. 

29. Mark Jackson (Bishop Loughlin): Worthen says there are very few guys he would pay to see play and Mark’s one of them. “I loved watching his advanced passing and how he saw the floor. I would be in the stands and see what he saw, but he would do it.”

30. Sam Perkins (Tilden): Despite being drafted No. 4, one pick behind his North Carolina teammate, he was a very underrated talent. Bulls’ GM Rod Thorn told em, had Michael Jordan been picked No. 1 of 2, he would’ve selected Perkins No. 3.  One of the first big forwards you had to guard beyond the 3-point line.

31. George Johnson (New Utrecht): Played like a point guard as a center. Directed traffic. Offensive flowed through him. Posted up and made the correct play. Had the whole package. If only he’d been bad to the marrow like Bernard King. Thought he was much better all around than Bernard. But for what Bernard did, he didn’t have to be all around. “We don’t go to the Final Four if we don’t experience what he was giving us in scrimmages going into that season,” Jackson stated. “He’d show up at St. John’s and dominate Walter Berry and Bill Wennington.”

32. George Thompson (Erasmus): By far, he is the most overlooked player in Marquette (20.4) basketball history despite holding the school’s scoring record for 40 years while playing but three seasons. Teammate Dean ‘The Dream’ Meminger got all the headlines when Al McGuire’s squads were contending for titles, but the smart money wanted the ball in the sure hands of Thompson, who finished his pro career with the Bucks, with court about to be adjourned. His five ABA seasons (15.6) went equally unnoticed, basically because he had the misfortune to play for losing outfits. Still, when the ABA All Stars evenly battled the NBA All Stars at Nassau Coliseum in 1972, coach Al Bianchi made sure Thompson was in uniform.  

33. Larry Fogle (Boys): Had a lot of Bernard King in him. They were very similar. People distinctly remember him cutting out the number on his jersey, front and back, in a Citywide Tournament. The commissioner told him he couldn’t play. “If I don’t play, nobody plays,” Fogle threatened. He played the whole tourney. Guys like Bernard and Fogle let you know they ain’t backing down.

In honor of Fogle, we just cut the number at 33.

www.ballsidemiddledoc.com

HARTHORNE WINGO

By Peter Vecsey

     I covered the Knicks part-time for the New York Daily News when the unheralded but hardly unforgettable Harthorne Wingo first joined the team in 1972. He had played for New York’s unofficial Eastern League affiliate, the Allentown Jets previously after being ‘discovered’ at Holcombe Rucker Park by Dave Stallworth. The majority of prominent Knicks broke a sweet summer sweat in Harlem in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and Stallworth, later part payment to the Bullets for Earl Monroe, was one of them.

     Thus, I was completely unacquainted with Wingo, who appeared on a bus out of nowhere (otherwise known as Tryon, North Carolina) or his capabilities in the summer of '72 when he competed against my Julius Erving-led fantasy team I organized and coached for six seasons (four titles; two dominated by Doc, two by Sam Worthen) beginning in ’71. I also played sometimes early on, usually at garbage time, but once for more than a half pitted against Earl Manigault.   

    A few teams, like Tiny Archibald's squad and Dean Meminger's outfit, were loaded with pros, collections of former college players, here a Globetrotter, there a Globetrotter. My team was stacked three deep with boldfaced names; most religiously showed up Saturday or Sunday, depending on the schedule. Still, every once and awhile, I'd feel the need to import out of town hit men (Chicago, naturally) to further increase our prohibitive favorite status. 

    One weekend, I shelled out money to fly in Bulls forward Bob Love. He stayed at my downtown apartment, and we drove up the RDR, onto the Harlem River Drive Sunday to Rucker Park and got off at 155th street & Eighth Avenue. At the time, the 6-6 'Butterbean' already was an NBA All Star (three times total), All-NBA Second Team (twice), and later made All-Defensive Team three straight ('74-76) seasons. The Bulls ultimately retired his No. 10 jersey; for some unreasonable reason, managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf resists retiring the uniform of Love’s leather-bound book end partner, Chet ‘The Jet’ Walker. 

    Love was salivating to show up and show out at Rucker. Bob McCullough, a brief Cincinnati Royals teammate of his when both were aspiring rookies, had spun mesmeric yarns about the insane outdoor atmosphere, the tournament’s outrageous talent--much of it anonymous outside Harlem--and the freaked out fans who found unimpeded sight lines on tree branches and on the edge of a school building when the overflow crowds spilled into the street and they were left with nowhere else to squat.

     Both Love and McCullough, who had averaged 36 points for South Carolina's Benedict College, were high Royals draft choices. Both were also cut in training camp. Love later hooked up with the Bulls. McCullough returned to Harlem where he earned a bunch of Science degrees, continued to strut his stuff on the blacktop until his knees gave out, and became commissioner of the Harlem Professional League, aka the Rucker Tournament, after Holcombe Rucker died at 38 of cancer. 

     McCullough had hipped Love to everything Rucker. Exempting Wingo! Butterbean got a harsh taste of him that afternoon between the indistinguishable lines. 

     For the most part, players basically didn't guard anyone in particular at Rucker. The run-'n-stun pace was too hot 'n hectic to stick with visualized assignments. After the opening tip, players promptly learned to attack the ball carrier on the break, and still got burned above the basket. 

     Known for his head and shoulder fakes, Love compensated for his lack of lift with cunning and confidence. 

      At Rucker Park, that rarely paid off. Numerous times that day, Love found himself worn and worn out by Wingo, who could not be picked off or faked out. When Love, back to the basket, finally elevated, Wingo suffocated. 

      After receiving several resounding rejection notices, Love returned to a huddle convened by me, his speech impediment (long since conquered) was beyond his control. 

   "Bingo!, Ringo! Dingo! Who the f-f- fuck is this guy, Wingo!?”

                                 *****

     Would love to hear from retired players about their own pet superstitions while active, or rituals staged by teammates, opponents, referees, coaches, writers, trainers, cheerleaders or anyone associated with the game you think are worthwhile and sanitary enough to share.

     While you’re compiling elongated lists on short pieces of paper, here are some of mine that came to mind:

Hubie Brown: he’d hold an object, could be anything, sheets of plays, a program, towel, discharge papers of conscientious objectors he was about to cut, in his hand the entire game.

Jerry West: he’d never sit in a seat when he was the GM of the Lakers and Grizzlies. Instead he could be spotted standing at a half-court exit, fidgeting fretfully. Many GMs adopted similar stand up routines.

Stan Albeck: he prohibited anyone on his team from getting a hair cut the day of the game.

Truck Robinson: during games he’d incessantly pull on his wristband.

David Greenwood: when he missed a shot, he’d adjust the tape on his finger as if it were responsible.

Larry Bird: he’d frequently wipe the bottom of his sneaker with either hand. Larry Legend only did two things exclusively with his right hand, write and eat.

Michael Cooper and Bob McAdoo: the strings on their shorts were always out dangling in front.

Dominique Wilkins: he always seemed to look over at the coach after doing something good. Or maybe that was his brother Gerald, I’m confused. Just as I’ve never been able to decipher l who Gerald’s son looks more like, his father or Anthony Mason. 

Dennis Johnson: while on the free throw line, before shooting, he’d bounce the ball the number of years he’d been in the league.

Cedric Maxwell: he’d habitually visit the locker room before the national anthem.

Otis Birdsong: each time he’d visit the welfare line he’d pull on his knee brace.

Paul Westphal: time spent on the bench resulted in a towel being draped over his legs.

Bill Walton: he’d repeatedly re-tie his sneaker laces during games, whereas Chris Morris would repeatedly untie his on his bench. 

Gene Shue: he’d walk backwards along the bench when making substitutions.

                                     ****

      During the 1984 All-Star break, Connie Hawkins and I dined together in Denver. Although there was plenty of room downstairs where the masses were congregated, the maître d’ escorted us upstairs to a deserted area. “Is this where you put your mixed couples?” Hawkins wryly wondered. 

     An hour later it became evident Connie had nearly figured out the seating arrangement. As the room filled,  we realized we were surrounded by gay couples. Connie leaned over and whispered, “I didn’t know you cared.” 

                                    *****

     After playing at Louisville, and helping Denny Crum achieve the Final Four in 1972, Ron Thomas, a 6-6 serial air ball jump shooter, muscled and hustled for five seasons with the ABA Kentucky Colonels, one the ’75 championship. 

     Teammate Dan Issel calls Thomas an enforcer. Maybe so, but I never felt he was mean enough to merit such a confrontational badge. Not in a league bloated with brawlers and bullies who’d stomp a mud hole in your ass and walk it dry… for fun. 

      Safeguarding their team’s stars, or getting even with a cheap shot artist was a contemptible excuse by those bad-to-the-bone boys to impair and immobilize indiscriminately. 

      Maurice Lucas, John Brisker, Warren Jabali, Wendell Ladner, Rich Jones, maybe Tim Bassett, were excessively qualified intimidators. What most outsiders don’t know is that the two toughest ABA players of all time were Neil Johnson and Mel Bennett.

     Lucas ran ten rows into the stands to distance himself from Bennett. Johnson beat up Jabali on the court, tried to get to him in the opponents’ locker room, and finished him off on the team bus.

     Hubie Brown’s ’75-76 Colonels flaunted two bodyguards: 

     Lucas prosecuted trespassers and went after cursing coaches who directed their profanity and disrespect at him, something that began at Marquette when he’d exchange post game punches with Al McGuire.  

     Thomas’ full-length function was to protect Hubie from Lucas whose threats of violence were taken enormously serious.

      While listening to Hubie’s color commentary, my mind cannot help but wander to the following Bluster Brown installment. 

      On February 4, 1983, I strolled into Boston Garden, the NBA’s all-time mangiest and most beloved building, and scaled its soiled stairs to courtside where bombastic union guys who change the floor after events would sideswipe visitors on their iron carts if given an a clear path opportunity, then spew smack if they missed.

     On this particular night, such belligerence led to a hostility involving Hubie and an innocent bystander, me. Never the best of friends when he coached, we were USA Network colleagues that evening. As we left the locker room area ten minutes after the game, one of these sadistic hobos came rumbling around the corner on his tomblike toy and nearly took our toes off. 

     It wasn’t the play Brown had diagrammed. And he let the guy know about it in unbiblical terms, with typical Hubie histrionics. 

     He had no sooner gotten some nastiness off his chest, than three or four of the guy’s co-workers, one as aggressive and profane as the other, circled us. Like it or not, I had been chosen into the episode.

     ‘Inciteful’ as always, Hubie naturally refused to back down.

      All I could think of was, “I can’t believe I’m going to get my ass kicked holding down Hubie.” 

      Where was Ron Thomas when Hubie (we) needed him? 

     Just then Rick Robey came around the curtains from the Celtics’ locker room area, and, fortuitously for us, intervened. Using his 7-story, 265-pound frame as a buffer, we rapidly retreated without losing too much face. 

K.C. JONES

By Peter Vecsey

On September 25, 2019, John Purcell received the highest honor a street baller never imagines receiving. The outdoor courts he called home (familiarity with half moon baskets provided a distinct advantage over non- residents) would now bear his name.

     Playground 9, near the First Avenue Loop, across the street from where he lived, became officially known as The John “Butch” Purcell Playground.

     In 1968, Butch and his wife, Mary, became the sixth black family (I’d thought mine was the first) to break a hardcore racial barrier that existed since the Stuyvesant-Peter Cooper community—stretching from New York City’s 14thstreet to 23d, and First Ave to Avenue C--was built almost exclusively for returning white World War II servicemen.

     An estimated 350 friends and neighbors, many whom ran the court early on with Butch and later matched basketball and baseball trivia wits with him, turned out to express their reverence. 

     I’d driven from Arizona explicitly to show ultimate respect for my co-coach of our deified Dr. J-Rucker Park team that won two out of four summer flings in the early-to-mid ‘70s.

     I got to Long Island the day before, caught a 6 a.m. ferry from Shelter Island the next morning, and figured I’d have no problem making it on time for the 9 a.m. ceremony. But traffic was terrible. I panicked. Though alone, I veered into the HOV lane, and was pulled over almost immediately.

     “I gotta hear this,” the policeman said sarcastically as I rolled down the passenger side front window. “What possible excuse do you have for pulling into the express lane with me in plain sight?”

     I tried the truth. 

     Told him about driving back from Arizona (had the plates and the papers to prove, so far, no lies) to celebrate a playground being named after a friend of plus 50 years. Told him I was scheduled to speak and had to be on time. The risk of being ticketed overweighed the price in terms of license points and a stiff fine. 

     The policeman took my license and registration and went to his car. A couple minutes later, he was back at the open window. “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt,” he said, returning both. “Congratulate your friend for me.”  

    Eight paragraphs into today’s column, I’m finally ready to make my point, the same one numerous friends made to Butch during the weeks that followed the dedication; about 30 of us had thrown him a surprise tribute at Walt Frazier’s Restaurant months before that. 

     “Amazingly, you’ve been honored twice while you’re alive and still coherent. So many others are honored posthumously.” 

       Today is the first anniversary of Butch’s sudden death. I spoke to him the day before as he watched the NFL playoffs. He was 74.

                                       *****

        I can’t think of a more empty feeling than being honored posthumously. Family and friends may savor a belated salute to some degree, but who cares?! There’s only one appropriate time to acknowledge a person’s abundant accomplishments and that’s when they’re able to bask in the glory and enjoy the renown.

      I felt strongly about that in 2014 when I was part of a Naismith Hall of Fame committee that voted for ABA candidates. George Gervin, David Thompson, Rick Barry, Hubie Brown, Bob Costas and the column’s staph writer, could have elected any number of players, coaches or executives. I pushed to pick Slick Leonard, 82 at the time, because he was in piss-poor health. Six years later, he’s still toasting his induction.

     Conversely, K.C. Jones, 88, died Christmas Day following an unbearably long ordeal battling Alzheimer’s. Inducted into the HOF as a player in 1989, K.C. also warranted enshrinement as a coach while capable of comprehending the standing ovations were directed at him. By any scale and statistic known to voters, he deserve should’ve been the fifth to double dip, joining John Wooden, Bill Sharman, Lenny Wilkens and Tommy Heinsohn. 

     Has anyone ever demanded an explanation from HOF czar Jerry Colangelo why K.C. isn’t in Springfield as a coach? Has Jones ever so much as been nominated to the point where the Hall’s initial 9-member committee votes on him? 

     If so, has he ever reached the final plateau, which I’m informed now consists of seven anonymous electors as opposed to 24, the number for decades?

     If not, pray tell me what could possibly be the rationale? 

     Before concentrating entirely on K.C. Jones as a coach, who reading this realizes he’s the owner of more championship rings (a daunting dozen) than anyone in NBA history? That’s right; he flaunts one more than Bill Russell and Phil Jackson, 11 with the Celtics (eight as a player), two as their head coach (‘84 & ’86), and two as an assistant, one with the Vitamin C’s in ’81, and one as a Laker in ’72.

     Following that fabled season in Los Angeles under Bill Sharman whose Lakers conquered 33 straight opponents, still a league record, and captured the NBA championship, their first such success since relocating from Minneapolis in 1960, spanning seven consecutive calamities in The Finals, K.C. became the San Diego’s Conquistadors’ original head coach in August ‘72.

     Pay strict attention now; after a losing season with the Q’s (30-54), K.C. never suffered another losing season, three with Washington, five with Boston and two with Seattle. 

     His Celtics’ teams attained The Finals four out of five seasons, the Bullets one out of three. 

     His NBA regular season career winning percentage was .674 (522-252). His playoff percentage was .587 (81-57).

      Until 1996, when Pat Riley pulled even, K.C. was the lone coach in NBA history to win 60 or more games four times…yet never once won coach-of-the-year. The media determined award was inexcusably given to coaches with far inferior records. Prime examples are Phil Johnson (44-38) with the Kings in ’74-75, and Frank Layden (45-37) with the Jazz in ’83-84. 

     K.C. also was the lone coach to win 60 plus games with two different teams—Bullets and Celtics--until Riley did it with the Lakers and the Knicks.

    Jones’ disdain for the voting process was registered May 14, 1986 in a Knight-Ridder article by Jere Longman.

      “When Lenny Wilkens took over in Seattle (‘77-78) the Sonics were 5-17. They finished with the second best team in the league. He got one vote. It’s all politics.”

     Warped judgments regarding how easy it is to coach top talented teams is much more responsible, I submit. 

 How often are we subjected to alleged experts of the round claiming anybody can coach superstars?

      “You always hear stuff like, ‘My mother could coach the Celtics.’ Hey, why fight it? You can’t do anything about it,” K.C. sighed. “As long as we win games and the guys perform to their abilities, that’s enough reward.” 

     At the same time, candid coaches will own up in a jiffy it’s as hard to coach a great team as it is to coach a poor team. “The hard thing about coaching a great team is not over-coaching…” Dave Wohl stressed in the same article.

     That requires the laid back personality of a coach comfortable with himself. K.C. Jones’ sphere, in other words.  “He doesn’t try to force his ego on the players,” Larry Bird praised in an ancient Hoop du Jour column. “We already have enough egos around here.”

     K.C. was a master of managing egos, impeccably illustrated by the manner in which he dealt with Dennis Johnson, whom the Celtics had acquired from the Suns for Rick Robey. 

     Decades later, Bird revealed his initial reaction: “We heard what people said about D.J. in Seattle (Wilkens branded him a cancer a couple seasons after he’d won Finals MVP when the Sonics won the ’79 titles). 

     “We heard there was friction (with coach John MacLeod concerning D.J.’s practice habits) in Phoenix. 

     “We heard he was difficult to get along with. Heard he was moody. So when we made the deal, I wondered how he’d fit in with us. But I figured if he couldn’t get along with K.C. Jones, he must really an asshole.”

      D.J.’s bad practice habits continued to be a coaching challenge as a Celtic, but were counterbalanced by his demonic defense when the score was kept. Already a 4-time All NBA First Team defender upon arrival, he added two more in that category with Boston, and made All Second Team another three times.

      The situation was win-win for player and coach. D.J. found himself idyllically relocated under the auspices of a man whose college, Olympic and NBA playing days were spent alongside revolutionary rim protector, Bill Russell. The same man--pay strict attention now—who was frequently given scrimmages off by Red Auerbach.  

    D.J. (like Russell) wouldn’t want to practice the day after playing a lot of minutes, Bird said. “When we wanted to run hard, K.C. would isolate him, tell him to take a seat on the stage. Otherwise, he would’ve disrupted practice. D.J. would be laughing, thinking he got over on us. But we were a step ahead of him.”

    Call it superior, egoless, winning! Which is what K.C. Jones was all about his whole life as a player, a coach and a person! 

     Shamefully, such a realization never dawned on Jerry Colangelo and the anonymous acolyte Hall of Fame voters—and still may not—while K.C. Jones would’ve been around to appreciate the accolades. 

      I’m publicly putting them on notice not to be that erroneously egregious in the future. 

PAUL WESTPHAL

By Peter Vecsey

Peter Vecsey, Jerry Colangelo and Paul Westphal at GCU vs California Baptist (2/21/2019)

             To laugh often and much;

             To win the respect of intelligent people

             And the affection of children;

             To earn the appreciation of honest critics

             And endure the betrayal of false friends;

             To appreciate beauty;

             To find the best in others;

             To leave the world a bit better

             Whether by a healthy child 

             A garden patch

             Or a redeemed social condition;

             To know even one life has breathed easier

             Because you have lived.

             This is to have succeeded.

               Ralph Waldo Emerson

                       (1803-1882)

    Paul Westphal’s astonishing dismissal as Suns’ coach 33 games (14-19) into the injury-pockmarked 1995-96 season was unreasonable to all, exempting decision makers, Jerry Colangelo and Cotton Fitzsimmons. His previous three ascendant productions had resulted in 177 regular season victories (59 average), 25 playoff wins and five series successes, bejeweled by an introductory excursion to The Finals in 1993 versus the Bulls that dissolved in six games. 

     Abruptly!

     Less than one minute away from defying the defending champions to beat them in Game 7 before their howling homers, the Suns’ 4-point lead was halved when Michael Jordan appropriated a Frankie Johnson aborted jumper, weaved the length of the court, and logged a strikingly uncontested layup-line-like basket. 

     “Wasn’t anybody ever taught to stop the dribbler?” I couldn’t resist texting Westphal upon seeing the replay of Jordan’s unruffled jaunt in ‘The Last Dance’ May 4, 2020. He had to be watching, I figured. 

    Correctly! 

    “Sigh,” he responded.

    Almost instantly!

    In real time, that ill-fated evening, Westphal had jerked backwards on the bench and manifestly moaned. 

    On the Suns’ ensuing possession, Scottie Pippen caught Dan Majerle’s short-armed corner catastrophe. Down two, the Bulls had the ball with 14.1 seconds left. During the time out Westphal was heard commanding that Jordan, and everyone else, be stopped from penetrating. 

    Jordan inbounded to B.J. Armstrong from the end line who rapidly returned to sender. The ball crossed midcourt in three seconds. Suffocated, Jordan passed to Pippen who promptly passed to Horace Grant. Though covered, Grant was within ten feet of attempting to tie matters. He never so much as gave the basket a shooting glance. John Paxson was by his lonesome above the 3-point equator. Grant found him for the flushed finish. 

    Years later, the summer of 1994, to be exact, during my exclusive interview with Jordan in his Orlando hotel room following his Birmingham team’s baseball game, Michael mocked Grant’s hot potato moment. “Horace always complained about not getting enough shots and then passed up a chippie.” 

      Not surprisingly, Jordan conveniently failed to give Grant credit for stripping a driving Kevin Johnson on the Suns’ last second gasp. 

      Westphal’s soaring credit rating lasted a whole two seasons, fertile ones, I again stress, before being appallingly discarded after several essential players had the audacity to get hurt. 

    Nobody hurt more than Westphal. He’d been guaranteed security. Fitzsimmons promised he was not in job jeopardy and swore, contrary to faint rumors, he had no intention to replace the 4-year assistant he chose to succeed him on the sidelines. 

    Westphal contended Cotton’s coaching ensembles had been taken out of the closet and dry cleaned in anticipation of his hostile takeover.

     Fitzsimmons, an all-time favored friend, finished 40-42; but lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Sonics, three games to two. 

     FYI: It took the Suns until 1999 to win a series, beating the Spurs, 3-1. Prior to that, they’d been eliminated four straight times in the opening chamber, and captured a grand total of one series victory over eight seasons, coached by Cotton, Danny Ainge, Scott Skiles and Frankie Johnson.

    Westphal felt so bitterly betrayed he abandoned Arizona—returning to his home state of California--and severed relations with a Suns organization…a franchise he exceled for five straight Hall of Fame seasons (‘75-‘80), averaging 22 points and earning First Team All-League three times and Second Team once.

     Paul Westphal was the Phoenix Suns!

     Knowing how much I loved the area, he offered me sweet deals on his home in Paradise Valley, as well as one of the last, if not the last vacant lot on the Marriott Camelback Inn golf course. I already had a holy home on Long Island. But shame on me for not concocting a plan to buy the lot. It sold for 500G. A house was built on it within a year and sold for $4 million.

     Naturally, we stayed very much in touch over the years, closer, of course, when he coached the Sonics and Kings. Both jobs presented insurmountable problems—Gary Payton and Vin Baker in Seattle, and DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento. 

    Westphal knew he was in acute trouble the first time he met in private with Baker. Vin vowed there would be no reoccurrences of previous incidents. He pledged allegiance to his new coach. Then broke down weeping. 

     Paul went home that day and told his wife, Cindy, this would be a short tour of duty. “When you look up power forward in a basketball dictionary, I doubt there’s a photo of one crying.”

    Still, Payton proved to be far more difficult to deal with than Baker, Westphal told me long after being terminated following two seasons and 15 (66-61) games. He often showed up late for practice, disrupted it frequently by playing half-assed, provided backtalk from the backcourt on a regular basis, and persistently presided over Disorder on and off the Court. 

      “How Gary says things in the parameters of his personality is not always going to remind you of Henry Kissinger,” Westphal wryly noted in Hoop du Jour in mid-madness. “But, we wouldn’t trade him for Henry Kissinger, either.”

     In mid-January 2019, I drove from New York to Phoenix with my dog, Oliver Twisted. The notion was to rent for several months, get to know the present-day Suns, dine with Legends-turned-TV commentators (Dominique Wilkins and Walt Frazier, for example) when they came into town with their teams, and very possibly bed down for the duration. 

      Revitalizing my relationship with Westphal, who’d returned to North Scottsdale for winters not all that long before, was something I looked forward to doing more than any of the above. 

      Soon after arriving, I received the following text from Westphal, who had no idea I was in Phoenix.

      “If you get this, thanks for all your HOF mentions over the years. Looks more possible than ever now. Best regards, Paul.”

     I apprised Westphal of my situation and asked about dinner and a Suns game. Because he was away for a couple weeks, we didn’t meet until Feb. 21. He chose the Texaz Grill, where he pigged out once a week, he confessed, to compensate for eating wholesomely the rest of the week.

     “The place is OK if you don’t mind comfort food. If you want something healthier we can pick a different spot.” 

     Westphal also elected to eyeball a game involving Grand Canyon University, coached by him to the ‘88 NAIA title. Majerle was now its coach. When Dan spotted us walk in, he greeted me with a Thunderous handshake and shit-eating smile. The last time I’d seen him was years before at his restaurant nearby the Suns’ arena; he and radio analyst, Tiny Tim Kempton, sprung, sorta, from our table to break up a brawl.

     As I learned at our pre-game meal, Colangelo maintains a forceful connection with GCU, and had advocated Majerle for the position after the Suns bizarrely bypassed their ultra popular assistant for the head job vacancy. I’m not even sure he was granted an interview.

     Westphal told me he’d reconciled with Colangelo. The truce paved a friction free relocation to North Scottsdale. 

     Having informed Westphal I was pissed off at Colangelo for too many reasons to explain here, he impishly asked during halftime intermission if I wanted to accompany him to see Jerry at his half-court seat. 

     A few minutes later, I look up and Colangelo is standing in front of me. “Paul tells me you don’t want to see me because I’m angry at you.”

     “Paul’s got it wrong. I’m angry at you.” 

     Next thing I know, Colangelo is sitting alongside me and we’re making small talk, laughing for no good reason about who knows what, and participating in a photo shoot. At one point, Jerry wondered if I’d be interested in teaching a Sports Journalism course at GCU. I was. So he took out a little pad and diligently jotted down my pertinent information. The call from a school official has yet to come.

     The game was lots of fun. Additionally, the college kids in the stands staged extremely entertaining rhythmic shows throughout. The evening’s highlight, however, was hanging on Westphal’s every word; absorbing his stories as an active player, coach, peripheral observer and astute analyst of today’s strategies and rules vs our younger days when everything was infinitely better, if no other reason than we were younger.

      I wondered why Tommy Heinsohn didn’t give him more minutes subbing for JoJo White and Don Chaney the three seasons he played for the Celtics. Apparently, it was because he wasn’t deemed fast enough by Heinsohn to run an accelerated break. Hence, the Celtics’ motive for trading Westphal to Phoenix for Charlie Scott, advertised as speedier than amphetamines. 

     “I couldn’t guard JoJo in practice,” Westphal volunteered. “Nobody I ever went up against was quicker than JoJo. I just couldn’t do anything with him.”

     Meanwhile, Westphal stole the ball from JoJo in the closing seconds of regulation in Game 5 of Boston’s epic triple overtime win in the ‘76 Finals…stole it, got fouled and completed 3-point play that tied the score at 94. In OT, he also made a crucial theft at John Havlicek’s expense with mere seconds to go to give Phoenix a 1-point lead. 

     On June 15, 2004, The Finals opener between the Lakers and Pistons was held in Los Angeles. Rather than scrutinize the game on site, I flew to Phoenix to watch it at the home of JoAnn and Cotton, who’d been diagnosed months before with lung cancer. Nurses told him he was the first person ever to show up early at the hospital for chemotherapy. 

     Good food was delivered. The conversation was upbeat. The fact we hardly looked at the TV did not prevent me in any way from imparting expert testimony about Game 1 in my next column. Before the month was out, he’s suffered a critical setback. 

     By then, the Pistons had been crowned champs and Dwight Howard was selected No. 1 by the Orlando Magic. In early July, I flew from New York to Phoenix to be close to Cotton in his final days, which turned into weeks. As ghastly as his condition was, his remarkably strong heart obstinately refused to stop beating. 

    Each day a new group of visitors representing every component of basketball, rushing in from surrounding states by the caravan. And each would get the okay to file into Fitzsimmons’ bedroom, monitored by JoAnn and nurse Georgia Johnson, Kevin’s mother, to voice quivering goodbyes. 

      I stood frozen at the top of the bed, powerless to reach out and touch Cotton. I thanked him for his friendship and expressed my love for him. He dimly nodded recognition.

     On July 23, Fitzsimmons unmistakably was approaching death. Charles Barkley made a command decision and called Westphal in Southern California. “He told me I should hurry here before it’s too late,” Paul recounted at dinner. “I believe I was the last allowed inside his room to see him alive.”

      Cotton was comatose when Westphal arrived on the 24th. His left hand was limp. Paul knelt beside the bed and held it. “I prayed for him not to be afraid, that his pain was ending, that he’d soon be with Jesus.” 

      Paul then told Cotton “I forgive you.” 

     Cotton softly squeezed Paul’s hand. 

     Westphal got exceptionally emotional reliving that vision. “It was the most impactful moment of my life.” 

                                       *****                   

      Westphal died Jan. 2 from brain cancer. I urge anyone who hasn’t heard his Hall of Fame speech to do so on YouTube.

     “What’s better than a person rooted in humility and gratefulness?!” writes Maureen Andariese, who placed Emerson’s above essay on a mass card for John, her husband-broadcaster when he died four years ago. 

     “The essay is about a person like Paul (John). He no doubt got ‘it’. I love when any human being can ultimately have the pleasure of arriving at the doorstep of truth and understanding about what is important in life, what matters most, what we’re here for. Whatever the question, love is the answer. 

     “God rest Paul’s beautiful soul and may his family find comfort and peace in every happy memory of him.”

By Jerry Milani at The Daily Payoff

The National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) announced today that veteran NBA columnist and renowned basketball insider Peter Vecsey has joined its content team, sharing his thoughts via his popular Hoop du Jour platform each week. Hoop du Jour will be featured content for Legends Media & Entertainment (LME), the multifaceted story-telling platform producing, distributing and quantifying the wide-reaching stories of many of the NBA and WNBA’s biggest stars that was launched in September and has seen record growth since launch. Athletes First Partners represents the NBRPA in its marketing endeavors and is working on engaging with brands on the platform as well.

Vecsey, the long-time columnist for the New York Post and analyst for TNT/TBS, NBC and NBATV, is one of the most connected and engaged media members in the sport. His opinions, insights and quips about the game–both past and present–have long been required reading for anyone involved or interested in basketball.

The native New Yorker has been enshrined in four Halls of Fame, including Naismith Basketball (Class of 2009), NYC Basketball, Rucker League and Archbishop Molloy.

“If there is any media member who knows our players and our audience, it is Peter Vecsey,” NBRPA President and CEO Scott Rochelle said. “Hoop du Jour was a business and lockerroom must read for decades. Peter’s ability to tell stories in his own style will certainly resonate not just with our current audience, but with a growing number of new fans who love basketball and its personalities. We are confident it’s going to be a must-read and must-follow as our other content has become this fall.”

“The men and women who make up the NBRPA were, and are, the most engaging and interesting athletes anywhere,” Vecsey said.  “I’m looking forward to having some fun with them, telling and retelling their stories, and showing a new (and not-so-new) audience just how much noise we can make in this space.”

The first Hoop du Jour can be seen here: https://www.legendsofbasketball.com/hoop-du-jour-2-0/

The NBRPA represents over 1,000 former NBA and WNBA players, making it the largest agency of its kind in basketball. In three months LME in both audio and video has drawn almost 600,000 views and listens, more than three times the combined numbers of audio and video around the players in the previous nine months. Viewers and listeners have come from over 20 countries, and have enjoyed content from some of the most unique storytellers in the history of professional basketball. The key unified elements of LME include: Legends Magazine, Legends Live, the All-Access Legends Podcast and the NBRPA’s social media strategy and content.

Hoop du Jour 2.0

By Peter Vecsey

I've been referred to as many things and in many ways over the decades. 

     Shockingly, some of the things that were said, written, threatened, intimated, deposed, attached to a brick, contract hit, etc., were not always warm and fuzzy...

     ...and that was just from friends and family.

    I've been given names that wouldn't cut it in the family hour, not even if the family was Manson.

    What I've never answered to, however, is the nom de plume I'm now giving myself...

     ...Lazarus of the Laptop, because I've returned.

     In a year where nothing's gone right, allow me to multiply the misery.

     Displaying marginal sense, the good folks at the NRBPA and I have decided to dust Hoop du Jour for prints, reprising all the wit, wisdom and snark, though now with 40 percent less cholesterol.

     Knowing where my whole grain bread is I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Buttered, I'm gearing this incarnation of HDJ to the NRBPA's rank and vile.

     Toward that end, Uncle Petey wants your stories, your ideas, your pickpockets of knowledge.

     Gimme the funny, the frivolous, the poignant, the pithy, either from yesterday or yesteryear.

    I don't care if your ankle bracelet now matches your MedicAlert bracelet. That's not what I want to write and that's not what your brethren want to read.

     Reach out me at pvecsey@legendsofbasketball.com.

     Together, we can make this go-round of Hoop du Jour something truly worthwhile to write and read.

     First time for everything.

                                              *****                                     

    Looking forward to receiving updates on your lives after active pro duty, preferably by phone, so we get to know each other better, or for the first time. I want this blog primarily to tell stories you’re comfortable sharing, short or long, sad or upbeat, old or present. 

     I want young fans to recognize your names and discover how your careers began, at a time (for many players above 60) when there was maximum competition for a minimum amount of jobs…when players needed off season work to stay one step ahead of bill collectors.

      I want young fans to understand what they’re witnessing in wonderment, for the most part, is nothing new. 

      I want young fans, and the portion of the media that seemingly believes the NBA started in 1979 when Magic Johnson and Larry were drafted, or in 1984 when Michael Jordan was a rookie, or, more troubling, when Kobe Bryant (1996) and then LeBron James (2003) arrived in force, to acknowledge and appreciate your contributions to the game… for building its current financial and global success. 

      In the meantime, until this blog gains momentum, I offer some stories to give an idea of what I’m hoping to harvest. 

                                     *****

        Dave DeBusschere was one of a limited number of exceptional athletes to play professional basketball (Pistons & Knicks) and baseball (White Sox). After he retired, No. 22 would occasionally participate in evening pickup games at assorted borough gyms. 

     One night, an elderly janitor was sweeping up at one end of the floor while six of us played at the other. 

     “I know who you are,” the janitor, pointing at DeBusschere, suddenly shouted, 20 minutes into the workout. “I know who you are.” 

      This went on sporadically for about ten minutes. Finally, DeBusschere turned toward the guy and said, “OK, who am I?”

      “You pitched for the White Sox,” the janitor replied. 

     I laughed out loud when Phil Jackson referred to Dennis Rodman as a maverick in a segment of The Last Dance. Who else remembers that ‘Maverick’ was the title of Jackson’s first book of many authored by Charley Rosen? Though I covered the Knicks for several seasons while Jackson was still active, my last name was butchered in the book. Not to mention my street cred was seriously questioned. Jackson accused me of thinking only black players could play. 

     When Willis Reed was Nets GM, I surprised him after a game with a framed photo of him sitting alongside Jackie Robinson. They had been judges at a beauty contest. Reed got emotional. He had never seen the photo. Naturally, I had a duplicate on hand and asked him to sign it. That photo is part of my photo shrine to Jackie, whose treasured autograph was placed in the frame along with two 1956 World Series tickets. 

     When southern born and raised Larry Kenon turned pro after Bill Walton destroyed Memphis State (44 points on 21-22 from the field, plus 13 rebounds) in the NCAA title game won by UCLA, he came to New York for the summer and played for my team at Rucker Park. We were walking in my downtown neighborhood one day when Kenon stopped at a blacktopped playground to watch a softball game. He was both hypnotized and mystified. What’s the matter, I asked. After a couple second pause, he replied, “How do they slide?” 

     If not for Super John Williamson’s second half exploits in Game 6 of the Finals (16 of his 28 points were amassed in the fourth quadrant; Julius Erving did not score a field goal in the 12 minutes), the series would’ve shifted to Denver and the Nuggets very likely would’ve beaten the Nets. 

     As a rookie, the self-anointed ‘Super John’ beat out George Bruns (based on a one-on-one match, arranged by Kevin Loughery) for the fourth guard spot on the roster. Following a 9-game losing streak, which followed four wins to start the season, Loughery replaced John Roche with Williamson in San Antonio. At some point during the first quarter, Rich Jones, a certified rough customer, welcomed Super John to the league by ‘bowing him in the back of the head. A few minutes later, the 6-9 forward got worse from the 6-4 Williamson. The losing streak ended. “What goes around, comes around,” Super John said in the locker room. It was the first time I’d heard the biblical expression. 

       After Rod Thorn, a Nets assistant under Loughery, had been Bulls GM for a while, he hired his long time buddy (they’d also played together in the NBA) to coach. The previous season, Reggie Theus had averaged 23 points and made the All Star team. Chicago fans adored him. Loughery immediately benched him, thus terminating his consecutive-game playing streak at 429. Except for a couple minutes here and there, until the mid-February trade deadline nearly expired, at which time he was shipped to the Kings for Steve Johnson, Theus was kept in dry dock. 

     To this day, nobody (other than Loughery) knows a reason for the coldblooded decision. Was it because Reggie held out for two weeks? Was Theus’ defense deficient? Was it because ownership interfered by expressing disapproval to the media? Or were the fans responsible for constantly chanting, “We want Reggie”? 

     “What a shame,” Theus told me recently. “I was fifteen minutes away from playing with Michael Jordan the next season. Hey, I could’ve been John Paxson.” 

     When Rick Barry played for the Warriors, his four sons often got to be ball boys. It was Brent’s turn on this particular night when Rick became outraged about something or other and got ejected. As he was leaving the court he grabbed Brent around the waist and carried him toward the locker room. Brent, eight or nine, loudly protested. “Put me down! You got thrown out of the game, not me!” 

     Billy Paultz once told me that when Wes Unseld turned his back on him under the basket it was like playing against a handball court. In 1978, the Bullets beat the SuperSonics in seven games. It was the franchise’s one and only championship. Unseld converted a crucial missed shot of his to take the lead and iced matters with two critical free throws after missing a pair shortly before. Brian McIntyre, the league’s PR director, asked me to vote along with four other members of the media for the MVP award:

     Unseld and Elvin Hayes both had two votes when I verbally cast mine for the handball court. 

     Years later, Unseld, one of two players ever to win the NBA’s top rookie award and MVP in the same season (Chamberlain is the other) told me he didn’t feel appreciated. “But I stopped trying to please people long ago. All I cared about was that I was making a living.”

    In that case, I informed the captain of the All Worst Interview Team, you owe me a few good quotes because my vote broke a 2-2 deadlock in Sport Magazine’s MVP balloting in the 1978 playoffs. “You got a new car and a better contact.”

    “Owe you? I’m mad at you!” Unseld retorted. “Because of you, I’m in a higher tax bracket.”