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Just messing around, getting triple doubles
February 24, 2014Posted by on
You can lose all sorts of things. There’s Nas’s “Lost Tapes,” the Lost Boys and the Lost Boyz. People lose themselves, lose their keys, lose games. Lost lives, lost loves. You can lose anything tangible or intangible. Then there’s the four-plus seasons Magic Johnson lost to a lack of understanding around the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Losing a few seasons wasn’t life or death, it exceeded basketball in the sense that it challenged misconceptions around HIV/AIDS and continues to do so today – over 22 years later. When I write about “lost years” here, I’m referring specifically to an on-court context as Magic’s contracting HIV had a broader, further reach than anything he could’ve done a on basketball court. To that point, the power of Magic’s very public relationship with HIV has been covered more in depth and with more consideration than I can hope to, but what I remain curious about is what would’ve happened from 1991 to 1996 when a post-prime Magic still would’ve been gliding up the court, knees braced, fingers wrapped in tape, freezing indecisive defenders will telegenic lookaways, gold jersey with big purple 3-2 shadowed in white, pumping out stats so rare that he has no statistical comparison. What would’ve been?
It was last week I stumbled across a piece on Deadspin titled “The Beautiful Infographics of Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting.” I emailed the story to a couple friends and we exchanged a few back and forths about Teddy Ballgame and the three seasons he lost in his prime to WWII service. Williams somehow won the Triple Crown both before and after his military sabbatical and, like Magic, doesn’t need any extra stats to pad his legendary résumé, but you still wonder about those three seasons and 450+ games he missed out on.
After referencing Magic in one of my email exchanges, I meandered over to Magic’s basketball-reference page and took a look at his outputs during his short return to the Lakers as a 36-year-old PF/PG: 14.6ppg, 5.7rpg and 6.9apg. The numbers on their own aren’t eye-poppingly revolutionary. 67 other times, NBA players have accomplished this line or better, but no player 36 or older has ever done it and no one else who’s posted these numbers did it while playing under 30-minutes/game like Magic did. It took most players at least 36-minutes/night to generate these well-balanced numbers.
I reached out to some of the stat guys at Hickory-High and chatted with Jacob Frankel about age-based regression statistics. Jacob explained to me that “players generally decline in everything except shooting and rebounding after 28,” but also cautioned that Magic might be a completely different animal. He offered to crunch the numbers for me using his own methodology and I was kind of excited when I heard back from Jacob a day later with the following: “I think Magic breaks the system … the system is based on similar players and Magic was so unique that it’s misfiring.”
I’m tempted to write something silly like “Magic breaks math,” but he’s just so much different from any other player that it’s difficult to systematically project his impact during those lost years. Where just a handful of players have been able to put up at least 14, 5 and 6.5 over the course of a season, Magic did it in every one of his 13 NBA seasons and the last one in 1995-96 was done after spending four full seasons away from the game and playing a career-low in minutes. His per-36 minutes that final season showed a slight decline against his career averages which is to be expected when comparing a 36-year-old with rust to a 31-year-old All-NBA first teamer who carried his team to the finals in 1991. Some other things to keep in mind: Magic split time between power forward and point guard on Del Harris’s 95-96 team. Despite playing in an unfamiliar position, he still exceeded his career average usage rate with 22.7%.
When I finally arrived at some oddball projections that wouldn’t pass muster in an elementary stats class, I found myself sort of empty. The numbers decline uniformly because my regressions are unimaginative, but the sum of what we missed out on amounts to a couple thousand rebounds, a few thousand more assists (he’d still be behind John Stockton), almost 5,000 points and a little over 10,000 more minutes. There would’ve been more memories and intrigues, battles with MJ and playoff triple doubles, but the extra codas these years would’ve added to his narrative are so significantly outweighed by his response to his own reality that I walk away from this piece with both a sense of failure at articulating any statistical intrigue and a greater sense of appreciation for the impact of the post-HIV Magic.
[POSTSCRIPT: It was eye-opening that as I sat down to write this, what is intentionally a piece focused on stats, I quickly became aware of how miniscule these thoughts are in relation to the impact of Magic’s announcement 22 years ago. What happened since then has been nothing short of world changing. In terms of bringing HIV/AIDS awareness to a mass audience and challenging stereotypes, Magic’s story is profoundly positive. In addition, his bottomless vaults of money and resources, his access to the best doctors and drugs, have cast a different-shaded light on what should be a problematic question of access and affordability of life-saving drugs. What I will continue to take away from Magic Johnson and HIV is that basketball created a platform with a massive, but relatively (on a global scale) limited audience. HIV offered a direct connection to millions of people in the same way cancer allowed Lance Armstrong to connect with people who never gave a damn about the Tour de France.
No matter how big they are, Magic’s trophy cases are overflowing with the awards and accomplishments from a life on the court. He’s on imaginary Mount Rushmores, is considered the greatest point guard to ever play the game, has the stats and hardware to back it all up. And no matter how great he was on the court, his impact off it has been infinitely more valuable to our species. Everything above, as curiosity-piquing as it may sometimes seem, is little droplets of salt water in the sprawling ocean of Magic’s life.]
February 14, 2014Posted by on
Ohh, Malik Sealy. Black skinned with occasionally unkempt hair, pride of the Bronx with lanky arms dangling. 6’8” with wiry muscles that stretched across the wings of the court. Built like a skinnier, darker Scottie Pippen. I know him as much for his city roots, for his St. Johns tenure as I do for his pro game. He was pure NYC like Felipe Lopez, Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson and Johnnies orange of the Lou Carnesecca days. He was Bronx-born, St. Johns raised and Minnesota died. I can’t expand on his basketball career without acknowledging that he was killed at 30 in car wreck in Minnesota of all places – a world away from the borough that raised him.
His pro journey was a split between the sun-faded highways of Los Angeles as a Clipper and a trans-Midwestern expedition with stops in Indiana, Detroit, and finally Minnesota. He was a mediocre shooter from distance who started less than half of his games as a pro. He was a steady pro of the supporting variety, a glue guy who averaged a hair over 10ppg for his career. When I think of a comparable modern-day player, it’s coincidence that another Minnesota player comes to mind. Corey Brewer is similarly productive, but with a completely different style and set of histrionics.
But as I’ve written this, I struggle to separate Sealy’s life from his tragic death. It’s an unfair memory that taints what would ideally be a fond, lighthearted memory with a few softball jokes. But what’s there to joke about when a 30-year-old man had his life taken by a drunk driver?
February 10, 2014Posted by on
Even though he only played there for a handful of his NBA seasons, I’ll always remember Chris Dudley as a New Jersey Net of the powdery, cloudy-blue uniform-wearing variety. The Nets that had Derrick Coleman and Chris Morris and Drazen Petrovic. Dudley was a career bad player by NBA standards. He’s one of those guys who averaged nearly as many fouls as points, but if it’s one thing we learn about usefulness, it’s that being sexy isn’t the only way to make a baby. If that doesn’t make sense, that’s fine, but just know that Dudley made a career of being physical, defensive-minded center. He appeared in 886 career games from 1987 to 2003 and made over $35-million playing basketball. One year, the loose-pocketed Knicks even gave him $7.1-million – and this was a year he averaged 1.2 points and 2.1 fouls.
Dudley, all big white man shoulders and friendly haircut. He was a Yale graduate, the only one in the NBA’s history, but where some of us make dumb assumptions like white people from Yale should be good free throw shooters, Dudley proves our ignorant bias by shooting a putrid 46% from the line for his career.
There’s a lot more to the Chris Dudley story, but in terms of basketball, this is the man I remember.
January 8, 2014Posted by on
I remember a couple things about Michael Cage:
- He was a rebounding king
- He wore a jheri curl
While the former should be the focus of this sketch, I can’t help but consider my memory of Cage’s dark skin glistening with sweat, strong stretching hands corralling yet another rebound, exhaling, sweat flying and that jheri curl resting intact, maybe bouncing ever so slightly as Cage throws an outlet pass and runs the floor. Cage’s best years were with the Clippers and Sonics and he wore the jheri until at least his Sonics days. It was sometime in the 90s that he retired that dying do, exchanging it for a more contemporary, more assimilated low fade. Cage adopted the fade sometime after the jheri was infamously mocked (and likely ruined for many) by Eriq LaSalle’s character in Coming to America.
But Cage was clearly more than a hairstyle. He was a rebounding champion (13rpg in 1988), a 6’9” power forward/center with a classically v-shaped frame prone to casual lefty dunks and an unflashy, functional style of play. The highlight video below is mostly uninspiring by today’s standards—with the exception of the last five seconds. From a purely statistical output perspective, Cage brings to mind Troy Murphy. The comparisons end there though as Murphy was an auburn-haired, pasty-colored distance shooting big while Cage was nicknamed “John Shaft.”
January 7, 2014Posted by on
You remember Aaron McKie? You do. Combo guard, Philadelphia through and through. Through to the point that he was a Temple grad. Philly to the point that he went to Simon Gratz (I just learned this). City of Brotherly Love to the point that he was black like The Roots (all the way live from 2-1-5) with a goatee, but not a beard. He wasn’t drafted by the 76ers, but somehow, through some cosmic Andrew Toneyisms and Eric Snowdens, his qi guided him back home. McKie was a big-bodied, defensive minded, role playing guard. A physical presence to counterbalance the reckless litheness of Allen Iverson. McKie wasn’t much of a jump shooter and he cut against the grain of things by wearing number eight, but he was a lunch pail and hardhat guy in a blue collar, frill-free way that Philly can embrace. McKie embodied his hometown: Philly like a cold wind, Philly like booing an injured opponent, Philly like unfair expectations, Philly like Von Hayes.
For present-day comparisons, feel free to compare McKie to a more horizontal and technical, less athletic version of Tony Allen.
January 6, 2014Posted by on
Dan Majerle was a 6’6” shooting guard with model good looks, a square jaw, a full head of brown hair, and a tan of Hasselhoffian proportions. “Thunder Dan” as he was known bombed threes before it became en vogue. In that sense, one could say he was ahead of his time. Sandwiched between a career spent in sunny Phoenix and on the sandy beaches of Miami was an out of context year in Cleveland which signaled the onset of his deterioration in which he possibly could’ve been referred to as “Cloudy Dan” by someone with a poor sense of humor. Majerle will forever be remembered for his role on the Barkley-led Suns teams and for being an object of the great Michael Jordan’s disdain in the 1993 Finals.
In the commercial below, “Thunder Dan” can be heard asking for a stat that quantifies hustle (again, ahead of his time). While this may have been one of his calling cards, it’s not one with which I’m deeply familiar. If someone was bored, they could easily sub in Shane Battier footage with Majerle’s commentary.
December 18, 2013Posted by on
Dino Radja was a 6’11”, somewhat sallow-colored offensive-minded front court player for the Boston Celtics in the early-to-mid 90s. His time with the Celtics was spent shedding defenders with his patented baseline spin move and deftly scoring in and around the hoop (he maxed out at ~20 and 10 in 1996) while assimilating into the Celtics culture by wearing bulky, bulging, inky black sneakers just as Bird, McHale, and Parrish had done before him. The black shoes these Celtics wore brought to mind something weighty like an anvil or some industrial-era workman’s footwear – not basketball shoes. Radja was also a member of the 1992 Croatian Olympic team; a group that featured Toni Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic and Zan Tabak and in another time and place, may have won gold. There’s certainly more to Radja’s story, but alas the NBA chapter is short as he appeared in just four seasons and played an average of 56 games/year. His tenure in the league, and more specifically the Celtics and then-coach Rick Pitino, ended disappointingly:
I went to Pitino and asked him if I fit into his plans. With a new coach, I obviously wanted to know what he thought of my game. I loved playing for Boston and just wanted to find out if there was any possibility I might be traded, because I had heard some rumors. Pitino looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘Dino, don’t worry. You’re going to be a big part of our offense. When we run a set play, the ball is going to go through you.’ I left the meeting feeling great. Five days later, I found out I was being traded to Philadelphia. I can’t tell you how much I felt betrayed. Either Pitino lied or something changed in a matter of a few days.
December 16, 2013Posted by on
When I picture Sedale Threatt in my mind’s eye, he’s darker than he actually was, his head is so cleanly shaved that one might wonder if it even contains hair follicles, and his hands are like knives, slicing and stabbing away at the ball from absentminded ball-handlers and clumsy clods. Even in my minimal research, it turns out he was referred to as “The Thief.” Threatt was short for a combo guard (6’2”) and spent five of his 13 seasons in a Lakers uniform, but I also associate him with the Sonics where he spent four years. If you want to consider a modern-day Threatt, look to Mario Chalmers; another thieving point guard, but on less offensively aggressive by circumstance, but superior from the perimeter.
Additional Threatt research confirmed my suspicions that Threatt had some infamous off-court issues; namely that he may “have as many as 14” children and wasn’t paying child support.
I struggled about whether or not to include the reference to Threatt’s off-court issues, but ultimately decided on adding them as they make up part of my Threatt-related consciousness. In some cases, this can be problematic as certain athletes have their on-court/on-field personas unfairly overshadowed by off-field activities. As I move through these sketches, I will likely address legal or personal issues on a case-by-case basis and strive to be unbiased.
December 15, 2013Posted by on
There’s so little I know about Mark West. He was an undersized (6’10”) starting center on a series of competitive Suns teams. He wore number 41 and was black with black moustache. He always shot well from the field (research shows he’s fourth all-time in career FG%). On first glance, without the benefit of seeing or knowing his height, he could’ve been anything, worked any job in any business or trade. Picture Mark West in a hard hat or a suit and tie and it’s the same; a trooper, a worker bee, a brick in the wall. This isn’t a slight on West by any means as the majority of us move through life as relative bricks in relative walls.
But Mark West was tall and while he may have been average by NBA standards, he had enough ability to stick for 17 seasons. Those Suns seasons when many of us probably remember him were spent in a supporting role to bigger and brighter stars and personalities like Kevin Johnson, Xavier McDaniel, Chuck Barkley, Dan Majerle, Jeff Hornacek and was even outshone by coach Paul Westphal. West also attended Old Dominion University and is profiled in a video below during his ODU days. A fair comparison in terms of present-day ability is a lesser version of Emeka Okafor – an undersized defensive center clearly attuned to his role within the team dynamic.
December 15, 2013Posted by on
Tom Chambers was an ultra-athletic white guy who played power forward for 16 seasons in the NBA and was known primarily for his time with the Suns and Sonics. At 6’10”, he used a combination of size, skill, and athleticism most effectively on the offensive side of the ball where he was a career 18ppg scorer and maxed out with seasons of 25 and 27ppg. He struggled to get notoriety against the bigger and bolder bodies of work of Barkley and Karl Malone, but make no mistake, this one-time all-star MVP was like a more fluid, less violent version of Amare Stoudemire.
My strongest memories of Chambers are dunk-related. As a kid, I played the shit out of some Sega Genesis and the pixelated Tom Chambers looked like some kind of tanned surfer-turned-basketball player with an array of dunks so unfathomable as to appear as if he sprouted from the imagination of a panel of dunk gods insistent on challenging existing dunker archetypes. In truth, his pixelated doppelganger was likely inspired by his legendary dunk on Mark Jackson in which he caught the ball on a break and used the chest of the 6’3” Jackson as a springboard to reach heights that wouldn’t be realized until the Blake Griffin/LeBron James era of dunkers.