Sunday, July 18, 2004

Holy Prosperous Pairings!

Dynamic duos, pairings of people who, together, accomplish more than they could as individuals. But it's more than that. Dynamic duos often accomplish more together than many more people could accomplish. Abbot and Costello, Bausch and Lomb, And of course, the original dynamic duo, Batman and Robin, have become cultural icons, recognizable to anyone who has they're contacts in. But what happens when these duos split up? How much success can one member have without the other?

Before meeting up and establishing a peroxide empire Bausch was a failed chemist best known for developing an unpopular brand of edible silly putty, while Lomb was trying to sell people on the idea of cleaning they're glasses with steel wool. Most people would rather forget the films that Abbott and Costello released as individuals, after they're messy break up in which Abbott said he didn't appreciate Costello coming in to each scheduled shooting fat and out of shape, unable to fulfill the rigorous duties required of slapstick comedy, while Costello claimed that Abbott was a "gag hog." Occasionally, one partner goes on to continued success while the other fades away to less embellished glory. Thus was the case of Batman and the original Robin, Dick Grayson. Grayson, for reasons of his own decided to leave Wayne Manner for a crime fighting life of his own, first as Robin, and later as Nightwing. After his own comic book venture failed he was forced to join the moderately successful New Teen Titans, once again forced into an ensemble role. Meanwhile Batman enjoyed continued success, proving that he had in fact been the main draw and the pillar behind the dynamic duo's longevity. Of course this success was not without its difficulties. Batman went through three more Robins and became a darker and darker Knight as time went on.

With all of these examples close at hand it is surprising that the lessons they teach us are so often ignored by professional basketball players. Recent NBA history is full of examples of successful dynamic duos and the results of they're parting. Yet, as the break up of the Lakers shows, players are still more concerned with proving that they are The Man, than with putting themselves in position to win championships. Shaq didn't like "the direction the team was headed" and "didn't want to be a part of it." Meanwhile, common opinion holds that Doc Buss fired Phil and traded The Diesel in order to appease Kobe. All of this a result of two star players wanting to be acknowledged as The Man, rather than admit how much of they're success depended on each other. By doing so they ignored recent history that shows how a team with two superstars can dominate the league, while a team with one is usually bounced early in the playoffs.

Exhibit One: Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury.

Teammates from 1996 to 1999 (3 seasons) Garnett and Starbury were being hailed as the duo that could make the T-Wolves a force in the West. This was before Kobe blossomed and while the Lakers were going through Del Harris, Magic and Kurt Rambis on the bench. While together Garnett averaged 18.8 PPG while Star averaged 17.0 PPG and 8.6 APG. Star left because he didn't feel that he and Garnett could coexist, saying that he had to be able to score more and have the offense run not just through him, but to him. Since then Star has improved his scoring average by about 3.5 PPG but has never again met the career high 9.3 APG he had his last year in Minnesota. Garnett has also raised his PPG by about 3.5. Neither player has been to the finals, '04 was the first time Garnett had been passed the first round, and Star has been traded twice. Garnett's recent success didn't come until the emergence of Wally Sczerbiak, another good young scorer with whom Garnett has had a rocky relationship.

Exhibit Two: Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady

Two more guys who couldn't agree on who was The Man. T-Mac and VC were in Toronto together from 98-00 (2 seasons) and were on they're way to challenging the Knicks and Heat for dominance in the East. Again, McGrady left because he couldn't share the spotlight with VC, he wanted go out and be the guy who got the credit. Of course at the time T-Mac was a guy who averaged 7.0 PPG as rookie before VC arrived, and then 9.3, and 15.4 PPG while VC came in as a rookie and hit for 18.3, and then 25.7 PPG. T-Mac felt like he was being overshadowed so he left for Orlando where his PPG average shot up more than 11 points. During that same stretch VC's PPG average dropped as knee injuries and media controversies robbed him of his explosiveness and sunny demeanor. As with the Garnett and Marbury neither player has been to the finals and T-Mac's Magic were dismal last season.

It should be noted that T-Mac thought he was going south to pair up with Grant Hill, and at a time when The Magic felt like they were on the verge of signing Tim Duncan. Things didn't work out as Duncan stayed in San Antonio (where he won another title as part of the "Twin Towers" dynamic duo) and Hill never played more than a few unproductive games per year due to an ankle injury similar to the one suffered by Garrison Hearst.

Exhibit Three: MJ and Pippen

No one needs to mention what these two accomplished together. Also, there was never any doubt about who was The Man on this team. Mike was the boss. Always. But the fact remains that Mike never won without Scotty and Scotty never won without Mike. Not even when Scotty went to Houston with Hakeem, Sir Charles, and The Glide.

Here, the circumstances of their parting was due to more than just ego or a failure to coexist. The first time they split it was because Mike thought he could play baseball. The second time it was because the Jerries thought they could win without anyone ("organizations win championships").

Which brings us to Shaq and Kobe. When the Diesel went to LA as a free agent it was on the heels of first losing to Houston in the finals and then watching MJ return to begin a second run at the top of the heap. Shaq was coming out of a dynamic duo situation in Orlando where he was teamed with a rising star in Penny Hardaway. The year they went to the finals Shaq averaged 29.3 PPG and 11.5 RPG, Penny averaged 20.9 PPG and a career high 7.2 APG. The year before Shaq left his PPG slid to 26.6, while Hardaway's rose to 21.7 with his APG fell to 7.1. The difference was enough to send The Daddy to Los Angeles.

Shaq’s first year So-Cal the Lakers drafted a high school kid from Philly named Kobe Bryant who averaged 7.1 PPG and did nothing to threaten Shaq's standing as The Man. This was the case, by and large, through the first championship year of 99-00. That year Shaq hit a career high 29.7 PPG while Kobe contributed a then career high 22.5PPG to with 4.9 APG. That off season things began to go down hill. The rift between Kobe and Shaq, and Kobe and Phil, and Kobe and the rest of the team, came light and began to take over as The Story surrounding the Lakers. The rumors flew, Kobe for J-Kidd and Shawn Marion, Kobe staying, Shaq wanting out etc. Shaq complained about Kobe being selfish, Kobe complained about Shaq being fat. Shaq responding with is famous "If you don't feed the big dog, the big dog won't guard the yard." Yet through it all they managed to win two more titles while Kobe's APG actually rose each year until this recent season.

This recent season, the one that ended it all. The Lakers brought in two aging former stars who were supposed to return the Lakers to their perch atop the NBA world. It didn't happen. Instead The Glove looked old and confused, the Mailman got hurt, and the Shaq/ Kobe/ Phil feud blew up. Now, the Lakers are back to square one and I don't see a title in the near future for either Shaq or Kobe. I've seen analysis that says the Heat got a great deal, that they become the favorites in the East, that the Lakers could end up as a lottery team, that Kobe made a mistake by alienating Shaq and Phil, that the basketball world is now up for grabs.

So, will Shaq/ Kobe be another Abbott and Costello? Or will one be Batman while the other goes on as a moderately successful Nightwing?

A lot of folks seem to think that the Heat will run away with the East based on the idea that Shaq will be angry and motivated to come to Miami in shape, that Pat Riley will be able to get out of Shaq what he got out of Kareem, and that, as the only truly big center in the conference, that The Daddy will be able to dominate the paint as he had in the past. I disagree.

First off the people who say that the Heat are now the favorites in the East seem to be forgetting how the smaller but quicker and more motivated Wallace and Wallace held Shaq in check during the finals, how Shaq has been slower and less dominate in each season since 99-00 when he went 29.7 PPG, 13.7 RPG, and 3.0 BPG. Shaq's numbers since 99-00:

PPG: 28.7, 27.2, 27.5, 21.5
RPG: 12.7, 10.7, 11.1, 11.5
BPG: 2.8, 2.0, 2.4, 2.5

Shaq has also hinted at retiring to become either a cop or a fireman, and got off his "company time" line when asked why he waited until training camp to have surgery. Also, while Dwayne Wade is a nice player, he's no Kobe. Time will tell whether he and Shaq will become a dynamic duo. One thing's for sure, Shaq and Eddie Jones couldn't do it in 96 and they won't do it alone now. Also, people seem to be banking on the idea that a healthy motivated Shaq is the same as 28 year old Shaq. It's not. Shaq, at 32 is beat up more than he was five years ago when the Lakers began their run. While Shaq may get the Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals, and possibly the NBA Finals, I can't see them beating the Rockets, Mavs, Kings, or T-wolves in a seven game series.

As for Kobe, well, now is the time to make good on all the MJ comparisons. The one thing that MJ had, which Kobe has yet to show, is an ability to be a respected leader. Everyone fell in line with MJ because they knew he made them better. They knew that even though the plays at the end of the game were drawn up for MJ, even though MJ carried the team, he trusted his teammates (Steve Kerr, John Paxon etc.) enough to go to them and help them succeed. Look at all the big contracts signed by former Bulls after the team was blown up (Luc Longley, _____) simply because Mike made these guys play better than they actually were. Kobe has shown brief flashes of that (hitting Big Shot Rob in the corner to beat the Blazers) but not enough. Also, Kobe has yet to win the respect of his teammates in a way that allows him to be a leader because people want to follow him.

One positive for Kobe, and another MJ comparison, is that the current wisdom that you need a dominant center in order to win, is belied by the fact that MJ never played with a dominant big man. MJ had a great second banana in SF Pippen, and Kobe has a good second option in SF Lamar Odom. MJ had a good PF in Horace Grant, Kobe could have something similar if Malone returns. (Of course if Malone comes back why not join Shaq in Miami?) If Payton can be as good as BJ Armstrong (not a lofty goal, but questionable based on GP's performance last year), and Slava, or Divac can be as good as Bill Wennington then the blueprint is set provided that Kobe can be as good as MJ. All long shots, but the precedent is set for a team to win with a great 2 guard and no center to speak of.

That said, I don't think Kobe will lead the Lakers to the finals any time soon. Of course it depends on how Rudy T can bring along guys like Luke Walton and Kareem Rush. The rest of the West was already catching up with LA and I don't see the current team beating Minnesota, Sacramento, San Antonio, Dallas or Houston in a seven game series. Also, Houston has a potential dynamic duo in T-Mac and Yao, and another in Minnesota with the afore mentioned Garnett and Sczerbiak.

What should have happened? If I were Mitch Kupchak, or Doc Buss I would have traded Shaq for T-Mac straight up, let Kobe walk and go after a center next year. After all, if you're going to blow it up, blow the roof off and get rid of all the residual bad karma. T-Mac would have had a fresh start on a big stage, which might have energized him and the franchise. The Lakers could have had a fresh start and some cap room to go after a big man later on, after all if they make the playoffs this year it'll be a miracle.

So there it is. T-Mac and Yao should see this before McGrady goes into free agency next year. Rasheed Wallace should see this before deciding to leave Detroit. But if we diverge from NBA logic and decide to use history as our guide, we shouldn't expect them to. Instead players will keep chasing money and cred rather than rings.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Dem Bums

Pessimism. It's a disease, an affliction of the soul. It rears it's ugly head for countless people, in countless places across the country, many of them in Boston between the months of April and October. Sports pessimism was large part of my later childhood. My stepfather is the ultimate sports pessimist. During tight games he would mime throwing heavy objects at the television, every once in a while he would launch a baby toy or a balled up sock. Though I will not discount his influence on me, by the time I was 18 I had surpassed him in both rabid fandom and sports knowledge on every aspect of the game save whether to take the Knicks and the over parlayed to Tampa Bay-Baltimore with teased to the final goals against average between Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek, I did become a sports pessimist, primarily on my own. Ever since the Niners refused to resign Ricky Watters and Eric Davis, ever since Don Bebee jumped up and ran for a score on a muddy Candlestick Monday, ever since I saw Big Mac traded for Blake Stein and TJ Matthews, I have been a sports pessimist.

It used to kill my friend, the estimable DMJ, who was, at the time, the ultimate sports optimist. I tried to teach sports optimism in my brother, hoping that if I taught him well my own dogma would rub off on me. "Never leave before the final out. Especially in baseball, because you never know when you'll see something amazing." I told my brother this many times. Then, one night, we went to see the A's play the Giants in Oakland. Down two runs, with two on and one out, Tony Phillips was thrown out on the back end of a 6-5-3 double play. As Phillips got up to argue we started packing up. The scoreboard showed three outs in the ninth inning, game over. We paused and watched Phillips argue with the ump when the he got the thumb, PA announcer, "Tony Phillips has been ejected from the ballgame." "That's odd," I said, "why eject a guy when the game's over?" We were standing on the BART platform when we heard a cheer rise from the stadium. Then the station agent made the following announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, Olmedo Saenz has just hit a three run homer to win the ball game." And we missed it. All because I lost track of what inning it was (and the scoreboard operator changed the inning graphic before the outs graphic). The point being, I've never left a game early since. You never know when Cleveland will come back from 20 some runs down to win in the ninth, when Buckner will let one slip through, when Kirk Freaking Gibson will hobble off the trainers table with no knees and one elbow to hit a game winning jack off the Eck. You never give up, you never leave early, especially in baseball where there is no clock, but even in football, because Garcia to Streets became the second biggest comeback in playoff history and I've met people who left in the third quarter.

Things have changed somewhat in the past couple years. DMJ has now become a sports pessimist while I have renewed faith. It started with "The Redemption Reception" (ridiculous name), and was bolstered by the "Botched snap, pass interference that wasn't." It was rooted in "90-O," and sprang eternal when Olmedo Saenz sent a Clemens slider deep into the Bronx October night.

Still, I will say that in May of 2002 I called for the A's to "trade everyone." The shake up that came in June did turn the team around. Strangely enough, the most optimistic sports fan I know is from Boston. I get to hear all about it when his Bo-Sux beat my beloved A-mazing-'s. Boston's sux-sess in the recent series against Oakland has not been at all tempered by the fact that his team is 6 games out of first. Still, despite the sweep, despite the fact that the A's are behind Boston for the wild card, despite Barry Zito's 4-6 record and 4+ ERA, despite Chavey's injury, despite the low OBP being masked by a higher-than-recent-years team BA, despite all this, I believe the A's can make the playoffs. I do not believe Texas can do it for an whole year (see KC 2003), I do not believe the collection of mercenaries in Anaheim can come close to the magic of 2002. I believe the West is there for us to win. Sure, Hudson, Chavez, and Harden have to get healthy. Mulder has to stay healthy. Zito needs more scented candles or pink pillowcases or teddy bears or whatever it takes to get him going again. Scoot needs to stay in the nine-hole, Karros needs to figure out what's wrong, Rhodes needs to dominate as a set up man as he has in the past. But I still believe the A's can make the playoffs. I say this despite the fact that I predicted early on that this would be the A's team to finally not make the playoffs after four consecutive trips.

Sure, my new found optimism has taken some hits. Jeter's shovel pass to nail a (still, no matter how many times I watch the replay) not sliding Jeremy Giambi, the inability of a pinch hitter to swing the bat, bottom nine, down one, with the bases loaded, the 49ers constant cap woes, the hiring of Dennis Erickson, all of these have dampened my enthusiasm at times. But I still have Josh Beckett in 2003*, Ramon Hernandez's surprise bunt, Billy Beane's constant genius. I still have the knowledge that there's 80 some odd games left, that the Sux will eventually Buckner their way out of the hunt, and the knowledge that there's always, always, next year.

* See the archives, I predicted Beckett would be the MVP of that series and that the Marlins would win in seven. I was close, they won in six.

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

What About Your Friends?

My mind has been dulled by prime time. I sat down, I tried to write, I had a beautiful and terrible story to share. Then it happened, Eric and Donna were having problems again, with hilarious consequences. A lot of things have been getting in the way of writing recently.

I thought the end of school would bring on more time to write. It is only now that I see that my initial claim, that I only started writing for fun in order to put off the things I was supposed to write for others, was true. I was trapped. No friends close at hand, no place to go, no money, no car. Now, all that’s changed. For one, nothing gets in the way of writing like reading, which I’ve been doing a lot of. Reading for fun is wild. I have a job that keeps me busy. It also provides money with which to go out and do things. Which brings up another distraction, I now have people to go out and do things with.

The people I’ve met over the past six months have become actual friends. The kind you see outside of the context in which you originally met. This belies my previous theory that it’s impossible to make friends as an adult. Of course at that point I thought I was going to be married, with kids, and a job and a life other than the one I have now. The theory went something like this:

“Once you become an adult you simply don’t have the time to make new friends. You have school, you have work, you have your significant other. Then, later, you have kids. Next thing you know your friends are the parents of your kid’s friends. It seemed to me that you don’t have the same opportunities to make friends as an adult that you have as a kid.”

Until recently, I had made exactly one truly close friend after the age of twenty. Almost everyone else had been a friend since high school or before. The rest, even the people I have been close to, and keep in touch with, people I cherish, even those relationships a accompanied by a tinge of transience.

Now my perspective has changed. I feel like I’ve made friends. Friends I’ll have for a while. People I can open up to. Friends. Which got me thinking, what is it that creates friendship? The old theory was based on the idea that after high school you simply don’t have the time required to establish a friendship. Think of all the time that goes into becoming friends, you have to hang out a lot, especially at first, in order to become more than mere acquaintances. But it can’t be just time. So it must be something else.

I think it’s adversity. Adversity, real or imagined, is the mulch from which friendships poke their little shoots. As teenagers we have plenty of adversity. It’s us against the world, against our parents, against school, and often, against each other. But we do it together, we go through it together, we make it out together, even if we don’t all make it out alive. In the years between high school and grad school I didn’t face a lot of polarizing adversity. The closest I came to similar experience was with the woman who would become my wife, which helped bring us together, and then my ex-wife, and lo, another bout of adversity.

On the first day school one of my classmates mentioned that there had been a catastrophic event that had brought the previous year’s classes together first the Gallaudet murders, then 9/11. She urged us not to give up if we didn’t gel right away, it sometimes took a tragedy to bring people together. That first year we had The Sniper, but we didn’t need it. Well, they didn’t anyway, they became fast friends, I was wrapped up in my impending marriage. We went through the hell of the dreaded “third semester” together, but it wasn’t until my divorce that I really found friendship with my classmates. All of a sudden they were there for me. I didn’t know they cared that much, maybe they didn’t, but when I needed friends, when I needed support, they were there. If not for them I wouldn’t have made it through the semester or school. I know how it reads. I’m a terrible user. I didn’t appreciate these people until I needed something from them. That’s partly true, but on top of my personal adversity we all went on through school, and, despite what some of us feared at various points, we all graduated, together. We pulled each other through, just like we did when we were kids. At the time I attributed the strengthening bond to having more time. After all, the time I had been devoting to my ex was now being dispersed among my friends.

Perceived adversity can also foster friendship. I always liked my teammates, but we weren’t friends. I saw them at practice and games. I saw them for beers, after practice, and games. Then we went to London. It is here that time and perceived adversity took hold. Us against the world. Us drunk in a hotel room talking shit, philosophy, and nicknames. Coming back, I had friends. People I see outside of team functions.

Finally, I recently found that shared adversity doesn’t have to be experienced together. This may not seem like a revelation to some of you. I guess it’s not really one for me either except in the context of approaching the enigma of friendship from this angle. I have a friend with whom I have only recently crossed the event horizon moving from people who hang out to real friendship. The point where you talk about more than the mundane and superficial. She’s also been through an extremely difficult break up. Sharing our tales of woe, examining the differences and similarities, produced the same effect as shared adversity. I don’t know a lot of people who can relate to what I’ve been going through the past six months. Of course people understand, and sympathize, but few actually know the feeling as intimately. That feeling, being able to provide comfort born of experience brought us closer together in two days than we had been in six months. Our friendship, which had been based going out drinking, reached a new level when we were able to finally convert our common experience into shared adversity. What really lent power to the situation is that the conversation was brought about by trust rather than alcohol.

So I was wrong. It’s not time that forges friendships, though it’s still needed. It seems you need something else that binds. You need to face something, overcome something together in order to forge a friendship. I don’t mean to devalue the other friends I’ve made. The people in my life are important to me, and of course I got through the last six months with the help of people other than classmates. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ll bet that if you examine your close friendships, your long-term friendships, you’ll find some truth in what I’ve written here.