Andre Curbelo is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds of point guarding mastery from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, a municipality on the northern coast of the island. He arrived in the US at age-13, in Long Island to be specific, to play basketball to be more specific and to carry on some kind of basketball-playing legacy that began with his father, Joel, also a 6-1 point guard who played professionally for 18 years and was a reserve guard on the Puerto Rican Olympic team in 1996.
While Curbelo arrived in the states in 2014, I first saw him when he was 17, in April of 2019 playing with the world team at the Nike Hoop Summit where he was the second-youngest player in the game. His stats in a limited 16 minutes were pedestrian and don’t bare repeating, but he popped in a way that caught attention with an easy-to-remember and recognize name. So often teenagers imprint basketball games with athleticism that overwhelms or size and skill combinations that exceed their peers. For Curbelo, it was heady basketball and feel: a timely recognition on a give-and-go, drive-and-kicks to the corners, effective screening, textbook fast breaks, and occasional touch.
As I’ve seen and learned more about Curbelo, the 16 minutes at Hoop Summit foreshadowed an impressive development that bloomed throughout his senior season at Long Island Lutheran (LuHi) and flourished into something like a low key cult among some weirdo high school hoops followers on Twitter – a group I possibly belong to.
That play was from July of 2019 when Curbelo was, in my eyes, still going through growing pains which, as a just-turned 19-year-old, there are plenty more growing pains to come, but the leaps he made from July to February of 2020 when I last saw him, were significant.
There is an innateness to Curbelo’s game that is dazzlingly magnetic. His combination of anticipation and awareness make him a highly effective highlight reel despite lacking the requisite size and vertical athleticism so popularly associated with basketball highlights. As I stacked up his game tapes, and saw him repeatedly puncture defenses and beat them with wrong-footed layups, drive-and-kicks, and drive-and-dish, my brain, in its bad habited manner, defaulted to a Steve Nash comparison which is not the same as me suggesting Curbelo will become a two-time MVP who evolves into the engine of a prolific NBA offense. It’s merely a recognition that aspects of Curbelo’s game resemble the great Nash’s and when I think about how a teenage basketball player develops a low-calorie cult following, it’s because there are more than just dashes of greatness in his game.
Of course, where I thought I was semi-original with my Nash comparison was quickly smote as the announcer of his New Year’s Eve day game against St Francis and Dwon Odom said, “I compared him to Steve Nash with how he plays … his game’s a lot like Nash’s.”
If you don’t trust my highly-amateur assessment or that of an announcer from the Beach Ball Classic, perhaps Illinois’ coach Brad Underwood’s comments will come with more credence, “He is an elite passer. I compare him, and it’s unfair because he’s a high school kid, to Steve Nash in terms of his ability in ball screens to make his teammates better.”
High school seniors just weren’t seeing or imagining this pass when I played 20 years ago:
That type of pass is much more a product of a game with an open, spread floor, but to even execute from that angle takes exceptional strength, balance, and awareness. This is normal from Curbelo. In the same piece I linked above, Underwood also said, “I think he is, without question, the best passing guard in the country.”
I’ve seen most every guard in the RSCI top-100 and think the only one who can compare with Curbelo in terms of passing is top-ranked Cade Cunningham who may have an edge that’s based mostly on his height although at six inches shorter, Curbelo is able to sneak and slither into spaces the 6-7 Cunningham can’t. The innateness I referenced above in no way diminishes the work Curbelo’s put into becoming one of the top passers in his age group on the entire planet, but speaks to something flowing through his basketball brain and its articulation through playing the game: this shit is natural for him.
People who are great at their chosen endeavors tend to talk about their talents in matter of fact terms which makes complete sense because it’s their normal, their routine. Curbelo’s discovery, his ability to adapt his game to a successful output and receive praise and attention, his incentive so to speak, gives me Good Will Hunting vibes. When the young prodigy and Southie tough, Will Hunting is sitting with the esteemed Professor Lambeau in the middle of a particularly intense exchange, he shouts at Lambeau, Lambeau the genius, the MIT professor, the Field’s Medal winner, “You know how fuckin easy this is to me? This is a joke!”
In a paraphrase that makes me feel like the scarf-wearing professor: discarded, incapable, unable to see the full chessboard of the basketball court with the same clarity and ease of a young man not even half my age, Curbelo described arriving in the US and realizing the power of his pass:
I knew I was able to pass. Then when I got here, I kind of didn’t know I had that on my game. When I realized I was like, ‘Damn, this is working. I’m getting scholarships and everything. I’m going to keep playing the way I am because the coaches like it, college coaches like it, I like it. I feel great.’ I’m telling you, every time I get an assist, I feel better and happier than when I score myself.”
“Damn, this is working.”
It works for Curbelo because of an interconnectedness of skill, anticipation, and physical ability. His passing happens to be the most obvious output of a hyper awareness that fuels his other strengths: off-the-ball defense, off-the-dribble attacking, and rebounding.
Curbelo is at his best on the offensive side of the court with the ball in his hands. For a player whose jump shot is still in the work-in-progress stages, he’s remarkably able to marshal that entire side of the floor with the aforementioned interconnectedness. The reason he can beat defenses is his wild array of avenues for attack.
In the half court, he made a habit of exploiting the hell out of klutz-like defensive coverages in pick-and-roll, most frequently with Ohio State commit, Zed Key. Pick-and-roll coverages, even when drilled effectively, create decision points for defenders that involve the whole five-man unit and Curbelo, at 17 and 18-years-old, made it a point of manipulating, reading, and reacting to these coverages and the gaps they created.
It’s not just that he makes the right pass out of the P&R, but his ability to process when to make the pass versus attack the rim versus just pause and make the defense make a damn decision. The first clip here is my favorite of his P&Rs because he’s simultaneously improvising and dictating. As he comes around the screen, he intentionally gets his man stuck on his hip, the two help defenders pause when he pauses and uncertainty descends as the roll man keeps moving and his defender is compelled to drop with him (never mind the baseline defender is at least aware of his help role). In dropping, the help man fails to recognize Curbelo’s man is still in jail on his hip. But Curbelo reads the opening and drops in a floater. I’m not sure I agree, but speaking about that floater, one announcer said, “He may be as good as any point guard in the country at the floater, that’s his go-to shot.”
If the P&R is a scripted run-pass-option of sorts, Curbelo is equally adept attacking on the fly in the half court where he uses a blend of head and eye fakes, quick burst attacks, and change of direction to get into the teeth of defenses. It’s these unscripted scenarios where highlights emerge and cult fandoms are created.
Against Compton Magic in July of 2019, he effectively sold a fake dribble handoff no less than three times – two of them resulted in layups while the third, the clip below, was most impressive because the head/eye fake he put on the sell (I recognize this is an open court move, but it doesn’t diminish the effectiveness):
In this second version, the exaggerated head turn is all he needs to freeze the defender. Once the defender lets up for the slightest moment, Curbelo hits turbo, gets low and turns the corner. In July of 2019 at least, him finishing at the rim over a contest was the exception and not the rule.
And while adding a third variation of the fake DHO is probably overkill, the best he had (and he had a lot in the 10 or so games I watched) was against Walker Kessler’s Game Elite squad where the sell is so exaggerated that he runs the defenders right into each other while taking an easy stroll to the rim:
Alas, we’re talking about a maestro and focusing on just a portion of his oeuvre – the half court and just P&R and fake DHOs so far. These are bread and butter plays/moves that help to lay a pragmatic foundation on which Curbelo’s handle, passing, and processing can excel. As fun as they are, and seeing defenders bite his head fakes is pure entertainment, his improvisational game has touches of flair and proficiency that potentially open NBA avenues.
The sense of audacity and willingness to push passes through tight windows is part of the fun and his effectiveness. But for Curbelo, that audacity extends beyond the pass and into some wild, and occasionally suspect, realms of imagination. Here he is with the baby T-Mac off the glass:
It’s fun to ooh and ahh at these plays and while I have my doubts that he’ll try or be able to execute a pass to himself off the backboard in the Big10, the bulk of his highlights are functional plays executed with panache.
In the sample size that makes up this writing, Curbelo had an expectedly high usage rate and played primarily on-ball. In off-ball scenarios, he was quick to use the set of skills he uses to set up a dribble drive to set up backdoor cuts. Despite being a non-shooter, defenders across multiple leagues deny him the pass or overplay and Curbelo is adept at setting up defenders with hard moves towards the ball before a quick plant-and-burst for the backdoor. As much as the primary action, be it backdoor cut, fake DHO or crossover, takes center stage, Curbelo excels as the setup and the sell.
If we stick in the half court, but shift focus to his shot and finishing, the otherwise radiant aura of his game loses some of the sparkle.
Maybe I made a mistake in looking backwards with Curbelo, but in my tape review, I went from his 2020 high school season where he was, far and away his best, to his 2019 Adidas league and then FIBA games. This does bode well in the sense that he showed significant improvement from summer 2019 through winter 2020. What stood out in the summer of 2019 that was, to memory and notes, was a real and genuine struggle to finish against size and length. This challenge happened most frequently in Adidas and I attributed it to a few key weaknesses:
Lack of hangtime – Curbelo is average as a vertical athlete with his leaping most effective rebounding the ball. He has (had?) a tendency to leave his feet around the rim, run out of airspace and outlets and be forced to fling up a shot that would miss wildly or get blocked.
Rare use of jump stops – getting downhill, Curbelo’s instinct is to attack off of one foot and leave the ground. While finding effectiveness with this approach, he was frequently off-balance or, as mentioned above, ran out of air.
Judgment – I put judgment last, because as he progressed into the high school season, his judgment was much more reliable and consistent. Against Wasatch Academy in December, he struggled against their size and was somewhat in a funk, but it’s the only high school game I saw where I felt like he wasn’t himself.
Curbelo’s shot demands our attention as well and this attention, for me, boils down to a few sources: FIBA and Adidas stats, my own completely unofficial and occasional tracking, my notes, and conversations with other people who may have a better developed eye for this sort of thing.
Within these sources, there are three additional components I want partition: Touch, mechanics, jump shot.
In 60 games worth of stats I have on Curbelo across FIBA (22 games) and Adidas (38 games), Curbelo shot as follows:
It’s not exactly inspiring any Mark Price comparisons and it’s why you can say he reminds you of Steve Nash, but caveat the hell out of it.
The above generally lines up with what I’ve seen from Curbelo which included an unofficial 1-8 or 1-9 on jumpers against Compton where the only make was a head-on unintentional banker from just beyond the free throw line. And while I don’t go too deep tracking pull-ups versus catch-and-shoots, the bulk of Curbelo’s jumpers are pull-ups. The form and release are consistent: he plants hard with his left foot and the bulk of his elevation comes from that foot/leg while the right kicks out and he drifts (typically from left to right) with an ever-present slight recline so his shoulders are always behind his hips. If he’s dribbling forward and stepping into the shot, think pull-up-three-in-transition, the drift is reduced. The release, from my view, is consistent and serviceable. And yet, his jumper is nowhere near reliable through February of 2020. In the clip below, he’s totally in-rhythm, and while the characteristic movement (kicking out right foot, drifting, leaning back) is all there, the mechanics aren’t faulty. (Also, please note how he sets up the crossover with his head/eyes – sheesh):
I’m not sure I believe there’s a disconnect between Curbelo’s mechanics and his shooting percentages, but as friend-of-the-blog, Ross Homan discussed with me, given the non-dumpster-fire state of his mechanics, combined with his free-throw percentages (consistently high-70s to low-80s with volume), relatively low-volume threes attempted, and, finally, his touch, the shooting should be expected to come around. The touch is the key and particularly on the floaters. The floater, combined with touch off the glass, has been a consistent staple of his scoring attack across competitions and acts as an alternative to (currently) less-efficient attempts at the rim.
This portion will be much, much shorter than the previous section. All the smarts and processing power Curbelo applies to the offensive side of the floor exist on defense as well. He’s a cheater, an opportunist, a sneaker who’s better defending off-the-ball than on it. Through some likely combination of preparation and pattern recognition, Curbelo drifts and rotates to general areas one or two passes away. By positioning himself towards the potential pass and interception, his closeout time is reduced and by anticipating where the pass will go, he’s often more ready for the ball than the opponent for whom it’s intended. And while not being a quick twitch athlete, he’s remarkably quick in his reactions and closing on passing lanes.
The same stalking mentality applies to dig downs on opposition bigs. He uses the element of surprise to feint-feint-dig-strip from angles that the big can’t see a la MJ’s immortal strip of the Mailman from the blindside in 1998.
Depending how you feel about lumping in rebounding as a defensive skill, I’m somewhat indifferent to. For his size and stature, Curbelo is a plus-rebounder. His hyper-awareness and focus allows him to have a nose for the ball and he’s fearless in its pursuit, never shying away from contact and showing strong hands on 50/50 contested boards. Despite not presenting as a leaper in rim attacks, off two feet for rebounds, he shows more functional lift.
A couple years ago when I started writing about high school players, one of the first I wrote about was an incoming freshman named Andrew Nembhard who I referred to as a “savant,” which is the same term I’ve applied to Curbelo which makes me think that it’s time to invest in new ideas and a new vocabulary. Self-critiques aside, Nembhard and Curbelo are dissimilar as players, but I’m drawn to them for the same reasons: beyond-their-years feel for the game of basketball expressed through the pass – basketball’s single greatest action. And I don’t denote it as such because there’s some relationship to selflessness and the Judeo-Christian tradition in the western world, but because the best passes, through slivers of space and mazes of giant limbs, are fucking dope and poetic like Walt Whitman’s best poetry and not his shitty racist ideas. Conveniently, both players are also possessed of inconsistent jumpers which lumps them into an odd family of non-shooting floor generals that includes Avery Johnson, Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, and my favorite, Omar Cook, among countless others. At similar stages, based on my unreliable recall, Curbelo’s form is the best of this collection of point guards.
About Nembhard, I wrote, “I don’t know if he can think his way into the league, but he can damn sure pass his way into it.” And in hindsight, I think I had that backwards: He can pass his way into it, we know that, but through his beautiful basketball mind, can he think and process ways into the league?
The same questions come to the surface for Curbelo even if, in this moment of appreciation for the pure craft, imagining a singular destination (the NBA) in such absolute terms seems simple in the extreme, the question, in its simplicity, remains: Can Curbelo reach (and survive) the NBA? I know he can pass his way in, but can the same brain/mind/body being that titillates with eyebrow-raising passes and okie-doke fake DHOs affirmatively answer the looming question of his shot and solve the riddle of giant athletes who only go under screens and don’t bite on the fake DHOs because it was clearly called out in the scouting report? In time, it will all be revealed but the answer really doesn’t matter. Curbelo is and will remain a master of his craft, be it in the NBA, the G-League, Spain, Croatia, Crete, Germany, or Puerto Rico.
Addendum of sorts:
The University of Illinois presumably is set in its starting back court with senior Trent Frazier (started 76 of 95 games at Illinois) and pre-season All-American Ayo Dosunmu although Curbelo fits the traditional “point guard” job description better than the upperclassman, Frazier.
Dosunmu will spend extended time on-ball and initially projected as a point guard. Thinking and looking long-term, Dosunmu, who dipped his toe in the NBA draft this past extended off-season, can likely develop more playing off of Curbelo, but it remains to be seen if that’s in the best interest of team-success in this basketball year of 2020-21.
Illinois ranks 8th in the AP poll as of this pre-season writing. Covid disruptions not accounted for, they will play Duke and Baylor before the Big10 season.
I first saw Naz Reid sometime back in March or April of 2018 during the McDonald’s All-American scrimmage which takes place a day or two before the actual event and might be more a competitive exhibition. Reid, a 6-10, 250-some pound teen from New Jersey was chucking threes and asking for lobs. He was graceful on his feet the way offensive lineman are and took up the same kind of space. He stole my attention by snatching the ball off defensive rebounds and gallivanting down the right side of the court, his shortish braids blowing in the Philips Arena breeze and then, when a defender had the nerve to impede this graceful giant’s progress, instead of a cartoonish collision or some uncoordinated big man bumblefuckery, he channeled an internal 6-4 Dwyane Wade and swiftly, balletically sidestepped the challenger for a soft lay in. I don’t think I took my eyes off him the rest of the game.
There are hints of Andray Blatche in Reid: near 7-feet, a bit soft, with an unexpected lightness of foot. One of his coaches at Louisiana State compared him toChris Webber, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant saying, “He’s not at that level yet but he’s got that size, he’s got that athleticism, he’s got that mind to him.” It feels a bit hyperbolic to make those connections, but Reid inspires hyperbole.
At the McDonald’s game, the official one, Reid led all players with 11 rebounds while pitching in 15 points and despite the shift in formality from scrimmage to game, his open court ball skills were still at the fore. There were pull up threes (missed), spin moves, finesse layups with both hands. He’s proven to have a penchant for showing up on the biggest stages like he did in the New Jersey state Non-Public B state title game against Ranney which featured two five-star 2019 recruits in Scottie Lewis (Florida) and Bryan Antoine (Villanova). He rejected a shot from Antoine which triggered a fast break that led to a hard-running Naz catching a game-winning lob. Reid’s Roselle Catholic won their state class and went on to win the state’s Tournament of Champions. It helps to have multiple high-level D1 players like Kentucky’s Khalil Whitney, South Carolina’s Alanzo Frink, and UNLV’s Josh Pierre-Louis, but Reid was the straw stirring Roselle’s beverage.
Sometimes it’s a player’s stats that overwhelm you. When I was a youth in Iowa, I remember seeing a then-high school junior named Raef LaFrentz on the All-State team and he averaged roughly 36 points, 16 rebounds, and six blocks-per-game. He played in one of Iowa’s smallest classes, but with numbers like that and a commitment to Kansas, he had cache and credibility. Reid couldn’t be further from LaFrentz’s statistical supernova. As a senior he averaged around 15 points and eight rebounds. His assists, threes, and defensive stats are far from overwhelming and even reviewing Roselle’s clips on Youtube, there are developmental warts. Reid’s concepts of rim protection vacillate between statuesque, entertaining (wild swipes for shot blocks he could never get), and motivated (usually in the form of weak side blocks against smaller players). His knees aren’t always bent which leaves him unable to react, his arms are prone to dangling at his sides, and his ball awareness is inconsistent. Maybe this is just youthful inattention and lack of discipline, or maybe it’s Reid carrying an extra 10 to 15 pounds. It’s hard to say, but trying to map out some kind of developmental trajectory, defensive effort is the primary point of concern.
So his stats are pedestrian and his defensive intensity is lacking. And yet, he still finished 12th on ESPN’s Top 100 recruits for 2018. LSU’s head coach Will Wade was quoted as saying, “Naz Reid, 6-10. Best way I can put it would be, is wait till you see him. He’s something else. He’s like having Tremont (Tremont Waters, LSU’s point guard) at the center position. He can pass, he can shoot, he can do everything. Enjoy him, you won’t see him long.” Way back in 2015 when Reid was just a sophomore, Stephen Edelson of the Asbury Park Presswrote, “Reid is clearly positioned to be the Garden State’s next Karl-Anthony Towns.”
I don’t see KAT or KD or Webber or Draymond in Reid, but it’s striking that others do. My first thoughts when I saw him at McDonald’s was touches of Lamar Odom’s game in Blatche’s body, but the more I think about it, the more he has shades of present-day perimeter player Boogie Cousins including the willingness to bully opponents. The touch and offensive IQ are bursting are like rainbows trailing behind the cross-court passes he whips with NBA velocity. In the clip below, he sticks a heavy-footed, outmatched defender with a lefty inside out that a lot of NBA big men would bounce off their feet. Effortlessly exhibiting pro level abilities as a soft-bodied teen sparks imagination and allows seasoned eyes to draw connections to all-time greats. And for as much as his defense is a royal mess, the Baton Rouge-bound Reid easily runs the floor with long strides and is a bludgeoning weapon filling the lanes with or without the ball. The motor is there, it just appears to be selectively utilized.
Reid’s not the only high-profile recruit heading to LSU this fall. Their 2018-19 class is ranked 4th in the country by 247sports.com and includes Emmitt Williams (26th), Ja’Vonte Smart (35th), and Darius Days (62nd). Being surrounded by this much high-level talent should create some familiarity for Reid who’s been playing with elite teammates dating back to his freshman year at Roselle when Isaiah Briscoe was his teammate. Whether Naz’s optimal set of teammates, the hardcore backing from his coaches, or his own copious talents lead him to a one-and-done college career and springboard him toward pro success is hard to say. He could be a beefier Odom, a taller James Johnson, or an American Kevin Seraphin. That his future paths are so undefined doesn’t unnerve me, but of course I have nothing at stake. Rather, not knowing what will happen, but knowing something magic could happen on any defensive rebound is at the crux of sports as entertainment and at the core of why Naz Reid is the player I’m most intrigued by in college basketball this season.
Kawhi Leonard is 6’7” and weighs somewhere around 230 pounds. He wears his hair in cornrows and attended Riverside King in Riverside, California where he won a state championship and was named California’s Mr. Basketball. Since 1980, over 83% of the California Mr. Basketball recipients have been drafted into the NBA.
At San Diego State University, Leonard played for coach Steve Fisher who famously took over as interim coach at the University of Michigan in 1989 with just a week left in the regular season. The details of the previous coach’s dismissal are inconsequential, but entertaining. As interim head coach, Fisher led the team to the NCAA Championship which was played in the Kingdome in Seattle against PJ Carlesimo’s Seton Hall Pirates. Fisher’s team won the game 80-79 on a pair of Rumeal Robinson free throws in overtime. At the time of Robinson’s greatest basketball triumph at the Kingdome in 1989, Kawhi Leonard was not yet born. Carlesimo went on to win three NBA championships as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, Fisher ran into Kawhi at SDSU, the Kingdome was blown to bits, and Robinson spent six-and-a-half years in federal prison.
While at San Diego State, Kawhi Leonard listed his hobbies as “grinding.” The three words he chose to describe himself were “It’s grind season!” (That is the first time I’ve seen a Kawhi Leonard quote with an exclamation point.) Speaking of grinding, the hip-hop duo Clipse released a hit track called Grindin’ in 2002 when Kawhi was probably 11 years-old. One half of Clipse is Pusha-T. Push recently had vicious rap beef with hip-hop recording star and Toronto native, Drake. In addition to the money and fame afforded to Drake as a rap star, he’s well-known as a Toronto Raptors superfan. On July 18th, 2018, Kawhi Leonard was traded to the Raptors. In an Instagram post, Drake referred to Kawhi as a “poised clinical warrior.” Kawhi recently turned 27. He set all kinds of records in his two seasons at SDSU, but ultimately could not overcome Michael Cage’s rebounding records. Cage notably wore his hair in a jheri curl while in the NBA and is presently a broadcast analyst for the Oklahoma City Thunder where he offers insights with a shorn skull.
Kawhi has said he chose SDSU because he “wanted to go with who loved me first.” When he signed with the Aztecs, Doug Gottlieb, then of ESPN said, “one Pac-10 coach told me (Leonard) is better than anyone else who signed in the Pac-10.” 83% of California Mr. Basketballs make the NBA. Gottlieb played high school basketball at Tustin High School in California in the mid-90s when Leonard was probably in kindergarten. Tustin High is about 39 miles from Kawhi’s high school. Gottlieb did not win Mr. Basketball, Paul Pierce did.
Before he played an official game at SDSU, Coach Fisher, who also coached Michigan’s famed Fab Five group, said, “Kawhi has long arms and big hands and can be disruptive on the defensive end. He can play multiple positions and is someone that we believe can guard anybody from the one through four positions and eventually will be able to play all of those offensive positions.” In a story written by Tom Haberstroh for ESPN in February of 2016, it was revealed that Kawhi’s “hands are bigger than Anthony Davis’ … Of the active players who’ve gone through the combine since 2010, he has the widest hands on record, at 11 ¼ inches.”
Leonard is currently under contract with Nike’s Jordan Brand and “designed the Brand Jordan logo that appears on the back of his personalized sneakers. It’s 9 ¾-inch hand with the fingers forming ‘KL’ and his No. 2 jersey number notched into the index finger.” As of March of 2018, negotiations between Jordan Brand and Kawhi had “broke down abruptly.” Kawhi was 26 then and is now 27. (Personally, I dig the logo.)
On January 18th, 2008, Mark Leonard was shot multiple times at or around 6:15pm in Compton, California. He was pronounced dead at 6:44pm. Kawhi was 16 at the time and played in a high school basketball game the following night at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. Denzel Washington claims to have attended that game and recently told Bill Simmons that Kawhi “had about 29 points and 27 rebounds,” but the Los Angeles Times recorded Leonard had 17 points that night. The film He Got Game was released on May Day of 1998 when Kawhi was just six. In that movie, Denzel’s character Jake Shuttlesworth dons a pair of Air Jordan XIIIs as he embarks in a high stakes game of hoops with his son Jesus who’s played by NBA legend, champion, and amateur golfer, Ray Allen. The “He Got Game” XIIIs will be re-released by Nike this year to celebrate the movie’s 20th anniversary (Where does the time go?). On July 23rd, 1993, when Kawhi was two years-old, James Jordan was robbed and murdered. His son Michael didn’t play another basketball game until March of 1995. Kawhi and Jordan are two of three NBA players to win Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP. At the time of this writing, Kawhi is still 27.
JJ Redick once said of Kawhi, “More than his length, his strength, his quickness, that motherfucker is so … locked … in … I have no idea what scouting report they give him, but he knows every play, and takes no breaks.” JJ Redick won the Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year Award (a variation on California’s Mr. Basketball) not once, not twice, but thrice. 70% of Virginia Players of the Year since 2000 make it to the NBA though that number is skewed by prep basketball factory Oak Hill Academy which has accounted for half the Mr Basketballs to make it to the NBA. Kawhi Leonard did not attend Oak Hill Academy, he attended Riverside King where played Milwaukee Buck Tony Snell and won a state championship before going to SDSU, being drafted by the Pacers, traded to the Spurs, winning an NBA title, and then being traded to the Toronto Raptors on July 18th, 2018.
On November 1st, 2016, Ray Allen announced his retirement from the National Basketball Association, but way back in June of 2013 when I was a wee lad of 32, I was in my living room watching game six of the Finals with my guy Zach, an unabashed LeBron James non-fan. We both claimed indifference to the outcome, but as the series progressed, it became evident that I was outwardly pro-Heat, and he was low-key pro-Spurs – or maybe just anti-Heat. I think our lines of division were cut primarily along a Lebron-drawn border and of course it was the King who lost his headband and went HAM, but it was Ray Allen in his most particular attention to detail who attempted the improbable, impossible, iconic corner three while backpedaling, squaring his feet, catching, rising, and with a posture and form that has always been the envy of jump shooters around the world, actually made one of the greatest shots in pro basketball history.
If I remember nothing else of Ray Allen, that shot will forever be seared in the part of my memory that houses basketball. It’s up there with MJ’s shot against the Jazz and Dave Newman’s shot against Valley High School in 1998 as my trinity of greatest shots of all time experienced live in the moment. (This list is subject to change at the author’s own whims and as memory affords.)
In as much as Ray’s basketball excellence can be boiled down to a single shot that articulates and expresses everything about his basketball greatness, the breadth and depth of his career is vast.
My own personal relationship with Allen dates back to his Big East days where I have recollections (and maybe even a VHS recording) of UCONN battling Allen Iverson’s Georgetown squad and Ray going by the nickname The Candyman which, whenever I’m reminded of this, I hear the refrain from the song, “The candyman can because he mixes it with love that makes the world taste good,” which is fraught with awkwardness. This is back when I was 14 or 15 which means I’ve been conscious and aware of the being called Ray Allen for over half my life.
While his Milwaukee and early Seattle years established him as top-tier and probably the top shooter in the league, my own fondness for Allen developed when I moved to Seattle in August of 2004. Up to that point, I’d never lived in a city with an NBA team. The Sonics were gone four seasons after my arrival, but in my time here they were an ok-to-good team with Allen and Rashard Lewis as their go-to guys and took the eventual champion Spurs to six games in 2005. The game three atmosphere in Key Arena was beautiful, moving enough that my mom, always good for an emotional release, had recently become a US citizen and cried through the rousing national anthem. It’s strange, but my memories of Allen are not profound and certainly not as moving as my mom’s experience during that playoff game. During the three years I watched him at Key Arena (attending roughly 5-10 games/season in-person), he experienced his statistical peak with a three-season average of 25-points, over 4 rebounds, nearly 4 assists, with 3 threes-made-per game and made the All-NBA Second team in 04-05.
There was something rote or maybe even boring to his excellence. That’s not to imply there’s something less valuable about a versatile two-guard with a well-rounded game and the prettiest jump shot of all-time and an incomprehensibly quick release. It’s not to discount the nuance of his footwork curling around a screen and lining his feet up perfectly while catching and shooting in one motion. There was something almost in the vein of Floyd Mayweather; the technical genius who is indisputably great, but semi-predictable and at worst taken for granted. I enjoyed his game most of all when he was acting as a playmaker as he was capable of expanding his game beyond the shooting and attacking style he was known for up to that time. His handle and playmaking ability were given short shrift, but I always wondered what type of ceiling lay lurking beneath that jump shot.
Stylistics aside, my strongest memories of Allen in a Sonics jersey are conflict and performance-related. First there was the long-simmering beef with Kobe Bryant, encapsulated so beautifully by Kobe reportedly calling Ray-Ray before a pre-season game to notify him of a pending ass busting and then telling reporters, “Don’t even put me and dude in the same breath.” How could I forget that kind of old school inter-positional shit talking? Allen was always a yin to Kobe’s yang; an ultra-talented player, athlete and shooter, but all business which isn’t to say without ego. Where Kobe couldn’t coexist with Shaq or be a part of a big three, Allen just went about his craft scoring 20-25-points while setting NBA 3-point records and eventually filling roles on championship teams in exchange for his own individual stats and accolades. Even to the end, Kobe couldn’t share the spotlight with anyone else while Ray was more than comfortable receding without fanfare. One isn’t better than the other, but their contrasting styles and personalities create a natural rivalry that Kobe, for his part, seemed comfortable exploring.
On a winter night in January of 2006, the Sonics hosted the Orlando Magic with reserve combo-guard Keyon Dooling. I was somewhere up high in the rafters of Key Arena watching with my wife. Early in the second quarter, Dooling smashed into Allen with an intentional forearm shiver. From my vantage point, all I saw was the aftermath which was the flurry of activity that accompanies a fight. Allen lifted Keyon and drove him into the front row and from my seat so many hundreds of feet away, I still had that prickly hair-on-end feeling that accompanies live, physical violence. As someone who’s attended 30-some-odd NBA games in person, it’s strange to me that the one fight I’ve witnessed included Ray Allen.
On the performance side, the evening of Sunday, January 22nd will always belong to Kobe and his 81-point game, but it was a game in Phoenix that’s often added as a footnote to that day in NBA history and is my Ray Allen ideal. In a double-overtime contest, Allen led the Sonics with 42 points and 67% true shooting. The final score was a ridiculous 152-149, but Allen was quintessential Ray-Ray late in the game. Maybe it was exploiting the occasional mismatch with Steve Nash or maybe he just put the team on his back like Greg Jennings. Whatever the case, Allen scored 10 through three quarters and went bonkers in the 4th with 21 points on 6-6 shooting including 5-5 from 3. If you watch the clip below, the threes are contested, but Allen, in all his obsessive compulsive nuance, maintains the same form, same footwork, and alignment on every shot. His ability to run in a straight line at full speed or go full speed, curl around a screen, situate his feet just behind the line and catch and shoot with defenders rushing at him like barbarians at the gates is makes him a stylistic father to Klay and Steph. It’s the kind of skill that requires its own targeted defense. The broadcast is comedically highlighted by one of the announcers (Craig Ehlo?) saying, “You know what his mama always told us? ‘Don’t worry about Ray, he’ll get his shots.’”
As if his flawless fourth quarter and a 138-138 tie through four periods and one overtime wasn’t enough, the Suns had the audacity to lose Allen on the final play of the game. Tied up at 149 with 2.5 seconds on the clock, he caught the ball probably 40-feet from the hoop, took a big dribble and stepped in a game-winning shot from somewhere around 30-feet out, nothing but net just for good measure.
Raja Bellsummed it up nicely, “How do you explain a guy knocking down a 30-some footer to win a game? It’s not really luck, but it’s a tough thing to explain. It just happens.” Meanwhile, announcer Kevin Calabro held it together, but somehow got stuck repeating, “Break on through to the otherside!”
Through a combination of national exposure, NBA championships, the evolution of the internet and a vociferous online basketball-loving community, Allen’s peak popularity came after his peak as a player. The Boston Big Three was a collection of first-ballot Hall of Famers on a mission – and they delivered. I hated this Celtics team with a passion I’ve reserved for Curry’s Warriors and the “if it ain’t rough it ain’t right” Pistons. Kevin Garnett had evolved into a bully with Kendrick Perkins as his henchman. Paul Pierce was a shit-talking heel. Rajon Rondo was sullen, too big for his britches or something. And they embraced it all! How dare they! But then there was Ray Allen, a steady Eddie if ever there was one. And even though his temperament was the calm day to KG’s tempestuous night, he was perfect for the Celtics model. Unlike KG, he wasn’t angry or demonstrative. He assimilated into the Boston culture without nonsense, without pretense or personality sacrifice. By being his uncontroversial self, he differentiated from his bombastic teammates which also speaks to why Allen’s departure from Boston was met with acrimony by KG and Pierce. Ray went about his business, KG caught feelings.
We finish where we began, in Miami, in his late-30s as a reserve, comfortably and quietly in the background as LeBron, Wade, and Bosh absorbed all the attention. Ray Allen spent his career as a constant, always conforming to roles his team required; be it as an evolving young star with the Bucks, face of the franchise with the Sonics, critical component of Boston’s Big Three, or floor stretching reserve with Miami. His conformity to role and commitment to regiment is the gateway through which his greatest individual play as a basketball player passed. At 37, with any hope for any NBA championship resting on his ability to place a basketball in a rim while opponents distract him, Ray Allen did what he’s done more than any player in NBA history: he made a three. The rest is just epilogue.
A great chapter closed, an era ended, the ink is finally dry on the career of Tim Duncan. Of course, we’ll be arguing legacies and positions played until time immemorial because that’s what we do, but there is no next with Tim Duncan. In the early morning when I found out about his retirement, my mind was clear, not yet polluted by the noise of the day and corporate worries. I trust my morning mind and for some reason, my first thoughts of Duncan were his failures.
Back in 2013 when the Heat battled back from a game six fourth quarter deficit and eventually won the series in game seven, a major footnote of the series happened in the fourth quarter of game seven with Miami up 90-88 and less than a minute remaining in the game. Duncan, guarded by 6’7” Shane Battier, caught the ball on the left block and dribbled across the middle of the lane where he attempted and missed a driving layup. He perfectly timed his miss and used his great length to tip the ball back up, missing that as well. Miami rebounded the ball and went on to win the game. Duncan and the Spurs got the shot they wanted, but he missed. For a guy who’s considered by many to be the greatest power forward of all time, this was a low point.
“To be at this point — with this team, in a situation where people kind of counted us out — [it] is a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7,” Duncan said. “Or to be in a Game 6 up one and two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it, that’s tough to swallow.”
But now that the world has turned and left Duncan here, so close and yet so far away from the fifth title he so desperately craves, the Game 6 meltdown isn’t what he’ll remember most.
“For me, no. Game 7, missing a layup to tie the game … Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron [James]. Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
Tim Duncan’s greatness has never been up for debate. Since he stepped onto the court as a rookie and averaged 21-points with 12-rebounds and 2.5-blocks, he’s been firmly entrenched as a top player in the league. And yet, I’ll always remember his early career bugaboos from the free throw line. He never reached Shaq-level struggles, but battled the yips on multiple occasions over the years; most notably against the Pistons in game five of the 2005 Finals when he went 0-6 from the line in the 4th quarter including 0-3 in the final minute. It was remarkable to see a player who was otherwise so fundamentally sound lose focus or over-focus at critical points in big games. He was a 7-foot expressionless (except when disagreeing with calls) tactician with his own flaws and struggles.
I assume I’m attracted to Duncan’s failures in part because as a Lakers fan during the Shaq/Kobe era, Duncan and his Spurs were a fear-causing foil. If Shaq was a human wrecking ball patrolling the paint, Duncan was the Excellence of Execution, a player whose overall game was so refined as to appear pre-programmed, Terminator style. Some guys are so great that you that their success is assumed. If you root against these players or their teams, you become conditioned to them snuffing out your hope by just doing what they do.
But it was never just about Duncan. In some ways, Duncan and the Spurs were too good to be true, too good to resist. Part of the indelibleness of his and their failures is rooted deeply in the 19-year-long crush of a narrative that trails these Spurs around as a model of virtue and righteousness. It’s this unbudging narrative (and lack of questioning it) that pushed me to write this in 2014 and drove my friend Jacob Greenberg to write this a few months later. Duncan isn’t guilty of crafting these narratives, but Spurs and Popovich exceptionalism have always generated incessant storylines that made any deviation from the flawless particularly enjoyable.
But as I look back and re-watch some of these old misses, there’s no longer any joy. Removed from the passion that accompanies being a fan fully engrossed in the live moment, it’s empathy and feeling that stand out. For all the descriptions of being a stoic and being a robot, Duncan is composed of the same moondust that makes up all of us. And in seeing his failure and the weights of those disappointments, I can’t help but feel some of what he feels even if I only ever hoped his team would be defeated.
So in my pettiness, it’s failure that stands out and it isn’t just the free throws I remember. As has become a theme of this blog, my own personal fan experience is one that relishes the defeat of true foes as much as it celebrates my own team’s victories. May 13th, 2004 delivered an iconic basketball moment and Duncan was a significant figure in the memory. I was at my apartment in Iowa City, a fifth-year senior grinding through his final classes, watching a Lakers/Spurs Western Conference Semifinals grinder from bed while my wife (then my girlfriend) studied or worked or just chilled next to me. The game unfolded on my crappy 19” TV, a low-scoring affair in the 70s of which I remember little except two shots.
With just over five seconds on the clock and a 72-71 Lakers lead in San Antonio, Duncan caught Ginobili’s inbounds at the right elbow and with a 7’1”, 350lbs-plus Shaq draped over him, took a couple hard dribbles to his left and elevated with his momentum carrying him that direction and flung a shot at the basket. He didn’t follow-through, it was just a quick trigger of a line drive that seemed to be magnetically pulled into and through the hoop.
The Spurs, their fans, and of course Duncan erupted. The camera zoomed in on Kobe, on Shaq. They’re stunned, disbelieving. The clock read 0.4 seconds and in my room as a 23-year-old, I am deflated. Even re-watching it now, a stain of disappointment is still there, just barely, but there it is; knowingly bested even if by a fluke shot. Even if it didn’t play out that way, the likelihood of defeat was all too real to the point I still carry it with me more than 12 years later.
The Lakers come back down with Gary Payton inbounding. Shaq peels back checking for the lob, but Rasho Nesterovic denies it. Kobe tries to break away north of the three-point line, but it’s Derek Fisher making a hard cut to the ball, catching and barely turning and shooting all in one motion. From a sitting position, I jumped off my bed, nearly hitting my head on the ceiling. I shrieked or screamed or yelled and my wife nearly had a heart attack. And all those Spurs, Kevin Willis, Bruce Bowen, Hedo Turkoglu, and of course Tim Duncan are struck down by their own incomprehension which is only made more agonizing by the review process that confirms it all: shot is good, Lakers win.
That the most controversial aspect of Duncan’s career is whether or not he was a power forward or center is the vanilla of NBA controversies. He made no waves, just dominated. He won two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, an All-Star MVP, and five NBA Championships. I guess people want to debate if he’s the best power forward ever or how he stacks up against Kobe as the best player of their shared generation, but there’s not much to argue for me. I’ll always remember the failures and even if I understand how and why my memories drift that way, I can’t help but feel that in relishing the losses, I missed out on some great moments from one of the greatest basketball players of my lifetime.
As a kid in junior high and high school, I was a basketball fanatic. College, pros, high school, didn’t matter. Late summers and early falls were for consuming glossy-covered pre-season hoop publications like Athlon and Lindy’s, and less aesthetically attractive magazine covers like Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, I was source agnostic. Growing up in the not-so-fertile basketball world of Des Moines, Iowa, I was partial towards the hoop prospects my state produced and none had me as giddy as Raef LaFrentz. A 6’11” knee-knocked kid from some foreign outpost of school called MFL Monona-Marmac. The first I’d heard of Raef was in the Des Moines Register when he was named to the all-state team as a junior after averaging 36-points, 16-rebounds, and six blocks. His senior year was waylaid by a bout with mono, but seeing him at the State Tournament that year, I knew he’d be legit, unlike his fellow big man from the class of ’95, Iowa-commit Greg Helmers.
So it was that in 1996, I was riding a wave of anticipation when my parents picked up tickets to see LaFrentz’s Jayhawks in Ames, Iowa against Iowa State. After all, Kansas wasn’t just LaFrentz. There was Scot Pollard and Jerod Haase, Jacque Vaughn and Billy Thomas, and a talented freshman from Inglewood named Paul Pierce.
At the time I was a skinny fifteen year-old freshman with a full head of short brown hair and round glasses. During a grab ass game of gym class basketball I managed to break my arm and leg, a hideous and painful calamity of injuries that landed me in the hospital hopped up on drugs, constipated and completely incapable of attending of a college basketball game. My buddy Hamilton ended up with the tickets and took another high school buddy of ours, and meanwhile I was bed ridden and crippled, unable and uninterested in some basketball game.
Young Paul Pierce in a giant t-shirt
Back then Pierce was a curiosity. My affinity for the Jayhawks started with LaFrentz and ended with the team. The other guys were supporting characters, but characters nonetheless with their own stories on the periphery of my own basketball experience. For me Pierce maintained this role for much of his career before evolving into a hated villain when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in Boston.
It’s weird, but before KG and Ray showed up, my most memorable Truth-related tale was his brush with death in a scary off-court stabbing in 2000. I was a college sophomore at the time and too busy being a 19-year-old idiot to fixate on the day-to-day comings and goings of the league, but even though the game was less of a priority, Pierce’s stabbing rose above the socio-academic cacophony. Looking back over the story, he “was stabbed 11 times in the face, neck, and back.” In some versions of the story the only reason he survived was the thick leather coat he wore at the time. Something about that always stuck with me and probably always will. He probably should’ve died, he probably should’ve been a tragic story in the wrong place at the wrong time, but instead this leather coat was his body armor and saved his life.
Then there was the oddball improbable chase for the finals with Antoine Walker and Coach Jim O’Brien in 2002. These Celtics won 49 games and had a 2-1 lead over the Jason Kidd/Kenyon Martin Nets in the conference finals before the Nets won three straight. Even though Boston lost, game three was another in a career of big Paul Pierce moments. The Celtics, down 19 points heading into the fourth, outscored New Jersey 41-16. Of course, the big game bonafides which were so clearly on display in 2015 against the Hawks had already begun taking shape: Pierce keyed that comeback by scoring 19 points in the final frame. And with a hint towards what would grow into a legendary swagger, after the game Pierce had this to say:
If I was on the other end of this, I would be hurting right now. I think this is a chance for us to gain momentum and take control of the series and not look back.
In a diluted, post-Jordan/pre-LeBron east, I thought the Pierce/Walker Celtics were maybe, possibly onto something following that conference finals appearance. It’s also possible my basketball analysis was rudimentary or confused. But whatever my shortcomings as a prognosticator, the ensuing five seasons were lean with Boston missing the playoffs twice and winning a total of seven playoff games in five years. With the Bron/Wade/Melo group emerging as torch bearers for a new generation, Pierce receded further away from the NBA’s mainstream superstardom. From 2002 until 2007, he continued his elite, if unspectacular role as an NBA all-star, but struggled to compete with the better players and storylines of his contemporaries like Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, KG, Dirk, Iverson, and Nash. He was likely overlooked and underappreciated, but fair or not, indicative of individual ability or not, the NBA has historically reserved its ink and camera time for winners, good guys, and players who score 81 points in a game. Pierce wasn’t as good as Kobe, didn’t win like Duncan, wasn’t a media darling like Nash, and didn’t have the culture-challenging chops of Iverson.
After all those years with Boston, the patience finally paid off in the summer of 2007 when Garnett and Allen joined the 30-year-old Pierce and second-year wunderkind Rajon Rondo. Pierce didn’t become a different person with his new team, but rather the cameras and mainstream just started paying closer attention and captured something of a Barkley-lite charisma. Great Celtic teams pull in the media like flies to shit and this was no different. Beyond the feel good story of these three first-ballot Hall-of-Famers finally rendezvousing, a narrative of villainy and bullying accompanied them. What made it all even more compelling was a reborn east with good teams and rivalry. The Celtics, with Pierce and KG as their joint mouthpiece, were front runners. Kendrick Perkins was perfectly cast as an enforcer, KG as the bully known for targeting European-born players and youngsters, and Pierce, the old school crusty veteran chomping at the bit to prove he was every bit the class of LeBron and Kobe.
I hated these Celtics. It wasn’t just because I’m a Laker fan. The best teams are often the easiest to dislike and these Celtics were no different. In retrospect, this was likely the best group in the league for a two-to-four year span and it’s surprising they only squeezed out a single title. Pierce had always been some sort of modern madcap iteration of Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley, a great player outshined by better peers. Like Chuck and Clyde, his emergence onto center stage brought with it ample opportunity to re-assess his place in my fandom and whether it was easier to lump him into the unlikable whole that was the Celtics or maybe just the ridiculous, if overblown, wheelchair incident, I loathed this new Paul Pierce. But the wheelchair thing didn’t help and it was less about Pierce than the hero narrative the media or Mike Tirico attached to it. With Pierce going down and returning, the theater of the game and the Pierce narrative along with it grew out of control like an ugly media-created Frankenstein. On one hand, Tirico (or a Tirico-type) lionized the event. Meanwhile the public was right to troll it. The disparity between the two views was drastic and while my disdain should’ve been reserved for the media, Pierce was an easier target at whom I could direct my venoms.
From 2007 to 2011 or 2012, the Celtics were my least favorite team in the league. It’s more than likely a telling trait of my personality, but the players I loathe the most are the ones for whom I reserve much of my time. There’s a dark intimacy to embracing the characters you hate. In the same way I looked forward to Joffrey’s death in Game of Thrones, I relish the defeat of my least favorite teams in any sport. This deep loathing lives somewhere in my bones and in the pit of my guts and has been with me since the Pistons were walloping Michael Jordan back in the late 80s. What’s twisted about this relationship is the need for villain to be not just talented, but to be dominant. In order for any level of sustained sporting hatred to develop into anything worth remembering, the opponent needs to leave you salty, almost rub your face in all the things you can’t stand about them. At this point, the fan (me) can start seeing beyond actions and into intentions. Whether real or perceived, the fan who gets his or her money’s worth will have their suspicions validated by facial expressions imagined as arrogance, bumps misconstrued as flagrant shoves, injuries as fakery. I remember these teams and players as well as I remember my favorites over the years. Jordan’s Bulls aren’t Jordan’s Bulls without those Pistons, the Patrick Ewing Knicks, or even the Malone/Stockton Jazz. The Fab Five wasn’t as interesting without Duke as a contrasting foil – and I hated some Duke. For Pierce, with KG by his side, to attain this level after years of middling existence in my fan world is no small feat and for those four or five years he was at the top, I despised him.
But like everything else, nothing lasts forever and with the decline of the Celtics, the most beautiful part of fandom occurred for me: the great thaw. For most (all?) players I’ve despised, after a time, when they are no longer a threat to my team or my existence, the dark frost melts away from me and I can embrace the player with a sense of respect and appreciation. It’s almost sad to see an old foe no longer capable of eliciting the same anger in you, but unless you’re truly hardcore it’s simply not possible.
Before he was even traded to Brooklyn, Pierce was transitioning into this phase for me, but it was the most unfortunate part of the phase, the one where the former foe is an empty shell like Ewing in Seattle or Ewing in Orlando. In Brooklyn, it was boring with LeBron trouncing his old enemies in five games like an in-prime Larry Holmes pounding an outclassed Muhammad Ali into the canvas and that was that. It’s easy to forget and let memories go with a whimper or a fizzle, a something to a nothing without much reason to pause and reminisce.
Cue 2015 and the playoffs. Cue a throwback Paul Pierce, still rocking that pearish-shaped body, but now making appearances at the power forward spot in Randy Wittman’s offense. And suddenly Pierce wasn’t just an old man, but a queer specimen of the Hollywood variety. Our own Crash Davis as a colorfully crustified veteran oozing with savvy and audacity. He shot 52% from three over ten playoff games and that was while taking over six threes per game. As the Wiz scrapped and clawed through their series with Atlanta, a series they would lose in six games, it wasn’t Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer or even game five hero Al Horford that would be deemed “winner of the series” (assuming such an award existed), but it was Pierce. With his game three buzzer beater for the win, his wide open game four miss, his game five clutch three that should’ve won, and his game six three that was late by the slightest of milliseconds, Pierce breathed life back into the character he’s always played, the character he’s always been and in the strangest of plot twists managed to temporarily snatch the spotlight from young bucks 10-15 years his junior. I watched all four of those final games and for the first time in my relationship with Pierce, I rooted for his slow-mo form to be perfect and on point, I sat at home trying to will his shots into the hoop and experience the other side of watching Paul Pierce.
It feels strange that my consciousness has known the human called Paul Pierce for nearly twenty years. The Pierce I missed out on in Ames back in 1996 is fundamentally the same person I hated for five years in Boston and the same guy I cheered for a week ago. Circumstance thrust him in and out of various roles and he’s the rare character fully capable of existing as hero or heel. With his one ring and incomplete splotchy facial hair, he’ll never be Kobe or Duncan, just an infinitely more colorful character who calls his own shots and hits them.
Lindsey Hunter spent his off-seasons boxing and was a prolific scorer at Jackson St in the early 90s. The Pistons drafted the lean, but strong 6’2” combo guard from Mississippi with the 10th overall pick in the 1993 draft then took Allan Houston as his running mate, probably with some hopeful notions that the wiry Hunter and sweet-shooting Houston could/would catch the torch being arthritically handed off from Joe Dumars and Isiah.
Hunter was a part of one of my first real draft lotteries where I comprehended what the hell was going on. Before that, it’s impossible to know where my thoughts were placed or what they were incapable of grasping, but once I could associate college players with basketball cards and a televised event, it all came together so symbiotically. [Side note, the 1993 draft can be found in its mostly entire form on Youtube, but inexplicably the footage skips from Vin Baker at eight to Doug Edwards at 15, skipping all the way over Hunter and Houston and the new Detroit narrative.]
Hunter though, was an OK NBA player with a career that stretched nearly 1,000 games (937 to be honest, good enough for second most games out of his class). He gave capable effort on defense, handled the ball well, and was a volume three-point shooter before it became the lynchpin of the game that we know it to be today.
To my mind, he’ll always be a Piston (12 of his 17 seasons were spent in Detroit), but sandwiched between spells in the Motor City was a title-winning season with the Lakers in 2002, the same year Robert Horry hit the immaculate Divac tip out to complete a comeback against the Kings. Two years later, back in Detroit, he played a supporting role in helping the Pistons beat those same Lakers in the finals.
Two-time titlist, long-term pro, NBA lifer …. Oh Lindsey Hunter we can live without you, but your consistent professional presence over the years has added quality to our collective experience and we didn’t even realize it.
Jump to 1:43 to see a young Lindsey toss an iconic alley-oop to Mr. Grant Hill:
Where oh where have the biographical sketches gone? If a man could tell you, that man would be me, but since I don’t have the answer, we’ll turn to that whale of a man known as Jahidi White.
Reaching into the recesses of my mental filing cabinet, I see the ominously large White during his Georgetown Hoya days as a 6’9”, 290lbs (listed) tank with a shaved head and maybe a barely-menacing goatee. He played alongside the great Allen Iverson at G-Town, but was more bodyguard than sidekick.
White was blessed enough to get seven seasons out of the NBA which is more than most of us could even dream. His time there is best remembered as a member of the Wizards and his best season in 2001 when I was a 20-year-old sophomore in college. That year White gave the Wizards a productive 8.5ppg, 7.7rpg, and 1.6bpg – all in under 24mpg. But it was all for naught or at least all for very little as the Wiz won just 19 games.
Over his seven seasons, White never sniffed the playoffs and never played on a winning team. He played alongside an over-the-hill Michael Jordan, shared a front court with Kwame Brown, spent a few games with the Bobcats and Suns, and retired with over $25-million made as a pro basketball player.
I don’t remember much about Jahidi White, but here’s a clip where someone says “He puts the fear of God in the opposition.”
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?
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.