While reading Rick Barry’s odd and awkward 1972 autobiography Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy, I ran into the story of Wilt Chamberlain being traded by the San Francisco Warriors in 1965 for Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann, Lee Shaffer and cash. It wasn’t just the lopsidedness of the trade that caught my attention, but the thou-doth-protest-too-much explanation from then Warriors-owner and trigger man of the deal, Franklin Mieuli (page 87):
“As great as Wilt Chamberlain was, he wasn’t a big draw. He carried a big contract with him. He forced us to play a great center, Nate Thurmond, at forward. Everyone figured we’d have to sell or trade Thurmond and bid on him. I figured maybe Chamberlain was the man to unload. If we’d have gotten off to a fast start the next season (1964-65) I might have stood pat, but we got off to a terrible start. We lost 17 straight. No one wanted to buy a ticket. The new operation in Philadelphia was willing to take Chamberlain back. I let them have him for Lee Shaffer, Connie Dierking, and Paul Neumann, plus some cash.”
There’s truth and variations, obfuscations, and alternative interpretations of what happened with the Wilt deal and much of it is contradictory to Mieuli’s retelling from 1972. Long-time sporting scribe for the New York Times, Leonard Koppett described the morass as, “Under the surface, moreover, lies such a labyrinth of interlocking interests, motivations and dependencies that even the conscientious basketball follower needs a refresher course to make subsequent conversation possible.” Here are the key characters involved in the deal:
Wilt Chamberlain – basketball player and author of Wilt: Just like any other 7-foot black millionaire who lives next door
Franklin Mieuli – San Francisco Warriors owner, purchased team with a Diners Club group in 1962. Sold team in 1986.
Eddie Gottlieb, aka Gotty – NBA lifer, Philadelphia native, described as being the “shape of a half-keg of beer.” Knew Chamberlain from his teenage playing days in Philly, pressed league hard for territorial draft (teams would get rights to college players in their loosely-defined “territory”) in order to secure the services of Chamberlain and ultimately selected Wilt after his high school graduation. Purchased Philadelphia franchise in 1952 for $25k, sold it in 1962 for $875k.
Ike Richman – described by Wilt in his autobiography as, “more than a friend and attorney and prospective employer to me; he was like a second father.” Richman purchased the Syracuse Nationals franchise from Danny Biasone (creator of the shot clock) and moved the franchise to Philadelphia.
There are a few themes in the loop of Chamberlain’s journey to San Francisco and back to Philadelphia: Obviously Chamberlain himself, the league’s walking calendar Eddie Gottlieb, and money.
The amount of speculation around why Mieuli dealt the mercurial “Big Musty” is legion. One of my favorites is NBA coach Alex Hannum’s, who says in Barry’s book, “I remember once when we had won the pennant with Wilt, Wilt suggested we be given something unusual like diamond stickpins instead of the usual rings. Mieuli gave rings. Later, Wilt got sick. When he rejoined the team, Mieuli met him at the airport with a diamond stickpin. Wilt looked at it and asked, ‘What’s this piece of ______?’ That’s why Wilt got traded, no other reason. You can win with Wilt. I did. Wilt is unfairly regarded.” (The blank is unclear in Barry’s book, but imagination can certainly be used.)
While Hannum’s explanation is the most colorful, it seems unlikely. Mieuli had killed his center’s trade value by making it clear to everyone at all-star weekend that he was available and while he was insistent on moving Chamberlain, it seems unlikely he was so insistent over a diamond stickpin and Wilt doesn’t mention said stickpin in his book. In his autobiography, Chamberlain, a frequent embellisher, describes Mieuli’s behavior at the 1965 all-star weekend: “when we all went to St. Louis for the January 13 all-star game, Mieuli told him (Hannum), ‘I’m not leaving St. Louis till I get rid of that son-of-a-bitch.’ … Mieuli wound up running around from hotel room to hotel room in St. Louis, trying to swing a deal for me, and he finally made it—at 12:30 in the morning, during the post-all-star-game party, on the winding staircase of Stan Musial’s restaurant. I understand it was one of the least confidential, most slapstick negotiations in NBA history.” This accounting is contrasted by Dave Lewis of the Long Beach Independent who wrote, “Hannum played a vital role in the deal by convincing the Warrior brass they’d be better off in the long run without him.” If there’s any accuracy to Lewis’s statement, it’s two-fold: 1) it makes the diamond stickpin story more of a tool for Hannum to absolve himself of any role in the trade and 2) Hannum had previously coached Shaffer and, according to Chamberlain, believed he could convince the AWOL player to come to San Francisco even though he was already on his way out of pro basketball.
Other explanations seek the conspiracy route and this was a thread that, given the incestuous components of the Philadelphian participants, was somewhat believable but when set alongside Gottlieb’s long-term position in the league, is ultimately unsubstantiated. From The Philadelphia Enquirer’s Fred Byrod on January 19th, 1965 (this link, and others that will appear, require subscription or free trial for access):
“A neat, three-way solution was arrived at, so the story went: San Francisco shipped Chamberlain back to Philadelphia instead of paying Gottlieb. Philadelphia gave the cash it announced it had paid for Wilt to Biasone (former owner of the Syracuse Nationals who sold the franchise to Ike Richman and Irv Kosloff). For his part, Gotty was handed a piece of the 76ers. Depending on your viewpoint, this explanation either contradicts, or agrees with, another rumor widespread ever since Richman and Kosloff brought the Syracuse club to Philadelphia—that they were really just fronting for Gottlieb, then on the coast, rolling in his new wealth, in his new role as GM of the Warriors. After a decent period of waiting on the coast, Gottlieb was supposed to reappear on the Philadelphia front and take over the reins from Richman, his longtime lawyer, and Kosloff, his one-time school pupil in South Philadelphia.”
Byrod then goes on to quote Gottlieb,
“San Francisco paid me half the purchase price ($425k) in the first place. I was to get the rest in four payments over five years, and I’ve received every cent due me thus far. I’m still a stockholder, as well as eastern consultant, for the Warriors. That’s a matter of record. The league wouldn’t let me have interest in two clubs at the same time. I’ve had three or four offers from other clubs, in case I leave the Warriors, in the last year. Don’t you think they would find out about it if I had money in the 76ers? Would they want me then? Get it straight, I never had any money in the 76ers. I don’t have any money in them now. And the way things are, I never expect to have any money in them.”
With the emphatic mic drop, Gottlieb seemed to be telling the truth. With Gotty’s role with the Warriors reduced to the vague “eastern consultant,” and the triangle of relationships (business and personal) between Chamberlain, Gottlieb, and Richman, it’s not a stretch to believe Gotty was angling for a way back in Philadelphia NBA ownership, but if so, it never materialized on paper or in any official legal capacity. He would eventually become a consultant for the league and personally created the schedule by hand up until the late 1970s.
That doesn’t fully address Mieuli’s thought process. After all, business is and always has been built on relationships. So let’s focus on the money. In my readings, it was reported that the money Philadelphia sent to the San Francisco franchise ranged anywhere from $75,000 to $300,000 (per Lewis, Long Beach Independent) and lots of observers had opinions how much money and in whose pockets it landed:
Theory #1: See above for Fred Byrod’s recapping that suggests the money went to Danny Biasone (former Syracuse owner).
Theory #2: Abe Saperstein, Harlem Globetrotter founder and one-time associate of Gottlieb, as retold by the San Francisco Examiner’s Prescott Sullivan: “Abe saw the so-called $300k deal as a cashless transaction. ‘I don’t believe any money changed hands. I think what happened was the Warriors gave up Chamberlain so as to square the books with Eddie Gottlieb who, in my opinion, has never been too far away from Philadelphia.’” (Worth noting Gotty and Saperstein, per Sullivan, “have not been on friendly terms for years” and it was speculated that this loss of friendship was a result of Saperstein’s view that Gotty had blocked his entry into NBA ownership.)
Theory #3: Terry Pluto in Tall Tales: “All that mattered was the bucket of bucks; the other guys were just bodies. The amount was $150k, which doesn’t sound like much now, but you could pay an entire starting team for $150k in 1965. Also the Warriors deducted Chamberlain’s $200k salary from their roster.”
Theory #4: Wilt Chamberlain, in his autobiography: “It was announced that Philadelphia gave Mieuli $300,000 … for me, but the figure was actually much lower—and most of it went to me, not Mieuli. He was behind in my salary, and suspect that’s another reason I was traded—I kept bugging him for my money.”
The above theories vary in their believability and when you consider Wilt frequently wrote about being paid more than his official salary, (page 172 in his autobiography, “Although I’d been making more than $100,000 for several years by then [1965 when he was traded], this was the first time any clubowner publicly admitted he was paying me that much,” and his disclosure (page 185) that Richman (friend, lawyer and “second father” Richman) “had promised me a piece of the team … Ike promised me half of his half—25 percent,” it’s difficult to sort through the murky waters of self-serving explanations and land on a definitive clarity. It’s fair to speculate that the number was well-under $300k (per Pluto and Wilt). Those funds likely went directly to Mieuli who paid Chamberlain any back payments. This corroborates Wilt’s narrative, and a degree of Pluto’s while discounting Byrod’s retelling of the cynical rumor and Saperstein’s likely uninformed and potentially jaded view (although in the same piece with Saperstein, he claims, “Wilt broke into pro basketball play for me on the Globetrotters. I have been more-or-less his advisor ever since.”).
Money was a real motivator for Mieuli who had experienced a rocky first few years as an NBA owner: the franchise bled money its first season (62-63), made the finals in its second (63-64), and had the worst record in the league its third season while trading the league’s most recognizable player in Chamberlain (64-65). In the New York Times piece linked above, Leonard Koppett wrote that “San Francisco, apparently, was not ready for pro basketball … In 1962-63, the team was a total flop financially.” This is in line with Mieuli’s statement above. The other piece, again from Koppett, that speaks to an unsustainability in the pro basketball model of the 1960s, provides this historical context, “Gottlieb (as owner of the Philadelphia franchise), under present tax laws, could not afford to go on paying Wilt’s salary, since basketball’s gate receipts have a built-in low limit. He tried to sell Wilt to New York, but the Knicks weren’t interested. So he sold the whole franchise, for some $800,000, to San Francisco.”
The notion (from Mieuli) that Wilt wasn’t a draw is likely true, but also likely rooted in the struggle of pro basketball to land in San Francisco in the early 1960s as it wasn’t a topic that I’ve seen in subsequent Chamberlain narratives. Lewis from the Long Beach Independent somewhat contextualized this, “Wilt has always been a good drawing card in his hometown,” but clarifying that, “He (Chamberlain) attracts the biggest crowds on the road and in the NBA the home teams keep the entire gates.” Mieuli took it a step further in a piece written by Roland Lazenby: “the fans in San Francisco never learned to love him. I guess most fans are for the little man and the underdog, and Wilt is neither. He’s easy to hate, and we were the best draw in the NBA on the road, when people came to see him lose.”
Despite the lack of clarity on the details of the deal and the sketchy intrigue of its Philadelphia participants, both of the principals (Mieuli and Chamberlain) agreed it was a sensible deal in spirit and concept that was ultimately a bad dead in its execution:
Wilt: “Trading me really wasn’t such a bad idea for San Francisco. Nate (Thurmond) was 23 then, five years younger than me, with his whole future ahead of him. If the Warriors could get some other good, young players for me, they figured they might have the nucleus of a helluva good team. But Mieuli was so anxious to dump me, he made a lousy deal.”
Mieuli: “I could have gotten a lot more money for Chamberlain, but I wanted the players I got … People forget that Shaffer could have been an all-pro for ten years. But he was a flake. … Shaffer never reported. That alone made it a bad deal. Still, I’d make it again.”
And ultimately, both men landed in better basketball situations. The Warriors picked up Rick Barry in the 1965 draft. Mieuli unceremoniously dumped Hannum after the 1966 season and hired Bill Sharman who pushed a fast team faster (127.4 pace) and helped elevate the young team to the NBA finals. Of the three players in the Chamberlain deal, only Paul Neumann was still with the team. He played 78 games as their point guard before retiring at the end of the season, at 29-years-old. In retrospect in 1967, Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia News wrote of the trade, “Neumann is still playing a lot of guard for the Warriors, but Dierking is playing center for Cincinnati, Shaffer is operating a trucking line in North Carolina and the cash has been spent.”
Chamberlain would be bounced twice more by the Celtics including a game-seven heartbreaker in 1965 after the trade, but he would eventually be reunited with Hannum in 1966 for what turned out to be one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Buying into Hannum’s team-centric approach, Chamberlain helped lead Philly to a then NBA-record 68 wins. They knocked Boston out in five games and in the clincher, Wilt went for 29-points, 36-rebounds, and 13-assists. Beating Boston was a special achievement in itself and made the finals against Mieuli’s Warriors something of a footnote. Philly won the series in six games.
Did some funny business happen to ultimately grease the wheels of Chamberlain’s return to Philadelphia? Between the weak ass return Mieuli got and the tight relationship between the Chamberlain-Gottlieb-Richman triumvirate, the answer is an unconfident, “probably” and that probably watered down by an acknowledgment that, if the chicanery did occur, it was likely a low level infraction at worst. I come away from the whole investigation most interested (or entertained, perhaps) by two components: 1) Alex Hannum’s damn diamond stickpin story. I love it and want it to be true. 2) Lee Shaffer. A fifth overall pick in 1960 out of UNC who was taken ahead of Lenny Wilkens and Satch Sanders, he was a 17-ppg scorer in 196 career games, appeared in zero games in 64-65 when he was traded, and vanished into the North Carolina trucking business like a non-homicidal Keyser Soze shaking off that limp. Lee Shaffer wasn’t likely a ten-year all-pro or good enough to swing the fortunes of the deal for the Warriors, but he was an effective player who retired at 24. Lee, if you’re reading this, I’d love to talk about your decision. I’m guessing it’s a lot simpler than what my imagination makes it out to be.
Epilogue (on Lee Shaffer)
Lee Shaffer did not vanish into thin air. A mild amount of research led me to this Reddit thread on r/VintageNBA which references a no-longer-available piece by basketball historian and deep well of encyclopedic knowledge, Curtis M. Harris. According to the thread, the original Harris piece, and comments on that piece,
“Lee Shaffer wasn’t hired away from the NBA to be a trucker. Lee Shaffer was hired away by Tom Kenan, whom was his college roommate. The Kenans are an old and storied North Carolina family with huge interests in trucking, oil, land and many members of the family are full time philanthropists.
Lee Shaffer retired almost a decade ago as the Chairman of Kenan Advantage Group. His son lettered in football in UNC and is now VP of operations in the trucking branch of Kenan Advantage Group, one of the largest, if not the largest chemical transportation companies in the NA continent. Quitting the NBA to go into business with his college roommate was the right call.”
I won’t presume to creep into the cranium of Shaffer and assess the rightness or wrongness or indifferentness of his decision to leave professional basketball, but I will include some anecdotes from a story by Mike White of the Post Gazette (Pittsburgh) on its unknown homegrown, Shaffer:
Shaffer on Tom Heinsohn: “We just missed out on playing the Boston Celtics in the playoffs one year and they didn’t have anyone who could guard me, either. They would put Tom Heinsohn on me, but he couldn’t guard his grandmother and you can tell him that.”
Shaffer scored 41 points in a high school playoff game as a 15-year-old senior.
Shaffer broke his leg during the 63-64 season which contributed to his premature retirement.
Shaffer claims, “Bill Russell was the best player there ever was. There can’t be an argument. But Oscar Robertson was the best player I ever saw. There’s a difference.”
1963: Lee Shaffer poses for a picture during the 1963 NBA season. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1963 NBAE (Photo by NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty Images)
We were all so much more innocent back on April 13th, 2016. A historic NBA season was coming to a close with dual games competing for the main stage of national TV hoop audiences: In one corner, the final game of Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year-career. In the other, Kobe’s antithesis, the record-setting, fun-loving, three-point-chucking Warriors of Golden State questing for their record-setting 73rd win. That sweet night back in spring may have been the end of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, but it was just the beginning of a 90-day stretch that has laid waste to forward and backward views of the NBA and culminated on July 11th with Tim Duncan’s retirement acting as an appropriate bookend to what Kobe started back in April.
It’s not a knock on Golden State that Kobe stole the show on that Wednesday night. The Warriors hosted a short-handed Memphis team they’d already whooped up on three times. The Grizz were without Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, etc. The game was a formality, a 48-minute procession that lead to crowning the Warriors as the greatest regular season team of all time. It was anti-climactic, but not without massive historical significance.
If Golden State embodied audacity in their pursuit of 73 wins, Kobe’s been radiating his own stubborn brand of nerve dating back to the first references to him in the history books as a competitive savant of sorts playing against grown men in Italy. That brashness is why people tuned in, hoping to get one last memory from Kobe – either something to solidify their notion of his greatness, reaffirm that he’s a ball hogging diva, or just say goodbye to an icon. In his most polarizing approach, he delivered to everyone.
In 25 years of watching basketball, Bryant’s final game with 60 points on 50 shots and 21 three point attempts; with his 37-year-old body gasping for air, visibly fatigued, committed to squeezing in as many shots as possible will always sit near the top of my memories. It was by turns hilarious and awe inspiring, predictable and incomprehensible. I don’t imagine I’ll ever see a player drop 60 in his last game, deliver what felt like a pre-planned speech, and un-ironically wrap it up with, “Mamba out,” but that’s what happened and it should’ve been a reminder to us all that this game, in all its beautiful bouncing and human fragility, is unpredictable.
A few weeks the collective NBA world had shifted focus to the Western Conference Finals. Some people expected Oklahoma City to beat Golden State and maybe the events of May 24th aligned with their thoughts, but I think most of us were surprised to see OKC run the Warriors off the floor in game four: 118-94 to go up 3-1. OKC was faster, stronger, longer, more confident, tougher, better. Something like 10 teams had come back from 3-1 deficits, but OKC had just won back-to-back games by a combined 52 points.
If Kobe’s last game is a shiny performance that demands a place in memory, Klay Thompson’s game six against OKC was probably more impressive given the context. Down eight heading into the fourth, a historic season on the line in a hostile environment, the future of rival Kevin Durant at stake, and Klay comes out gunning with three threes and all nine of GSW’s points to open the period. He would end up scoring 19 in the quarter, 41 for the game. These weren’t just spot up threes or blown defensive assignments, but hair trigger releases against great defense and bombs from 30 feet.
Despite Klay’s classic game, it’s fair to look back at the game six and the subsequent GSW win in game seven as critical dominoes in the Durant sweepstakes. It’s not likely anyone will ever know what KD would’ve decided had OKC won the west, but they didn’t and before game summary stories had been filed, the KD exodus rumors were already trickling out.
About a week-and-a-half after GSW had given Durant an up-close look at what he was missing out on, they took their own 3-1 lead over the Cavs in the Finals.
I don’t know if it’s the omnipresence of connected media and the Twittersphere or the sheer improbability of it all that etched it in my mind so clearly, but the Cavs comeback feels like something that’s been drilled into my memories: the Draymo suspension, Bron/Kryie going batshit crazy in game five, Bron going HAM in game six, and the unceasing rising tension of the 89-89 tie punctured and punctuated by a cascade of hugely historic moments: the block, Kevin Love’s defense on Steph, Kyrie’s shot, Bron trying to jackhammer home the final nail in GSW’s coffin by dunking on Draymo but getting fouled and maybe, possibly hurting his wrist. It’s all there, so clear and incredible, so historic and memorable, but so so foreboding as evidenced by GSW’s owner Joe Lacob’s, “All I can say is I will be very aggressive (in the off-season)” post-game comment.
When Cleveland was down 3-1 after having been trounced in game five at home, a comeback felt so out of reach and improbable. The odds were less than GSW’s comeback over OKC. After all, we’d seen the Warriors break teams and were just a couple weeks removed from Klay and Steph’s bombs away act finishing off OKC. Trading Kevin Love was inevitable, and at times Kyrie looked like a great individual talent that just didn’t comprehend the level of effort required at this level. Obituaries were drafted, LeBron’s window slammed shut, Warrior pressers were jokey events offset by obligatory “the series isn’t over” statements. A comeback wasn’t possible until it was and a month later my mind is still blown by it.
Of all these moments, maybe the most seismic was Durant’s July 4th announcement on the Player’s Tribune that he’d be joining Golden State – joining Steph, Klay, Draymo, Iggy. But what, but how? The stories and the analyses flowed out: if OKC beats GSW then he doesn’t leave, if GSW beats the Cavs then he can’t go. It’s what-if conjecture that can’t be solved any better than generational NBA debates.
In our reality, it happened the way it did and now the 6’11”, jump shooting, all-position defending, long-limbed 27-year-old from DC is joining one of the greatest teams of all-time. All the pieces had to fall just right to even allow it and when I write allow, I mean the cap, OKC losing, GSW losing, the conditions being created that made it rational and acceptable to Durant to leave OKC and join its greatest rival. Amid all this great on-court achievement and drama, the possibility that Durant brings to GSW is what makes it the greatest plot twist of all. Who’s the real Keyser Soze here?
So if Durant-to-the-Warriors is the climactic event, it’s Duncan low-key retirement on July 11th that acts as a coda for this dramatic 90 days that shook the NBA. The turnover is radical; from Kobe going out like a roman candle to Duncan fading into the cold quiet darkness of Spurs space. Two all-timers who played with their franchises for the entirety of their careers retiring against the backdrop of one of the most historic Finals and Finals performances, and all while Durant trades in the blue and orange of the Thunder for the blue and gold of the Bay.
How did we get here and where do we go? Our familiar faces are changing places or leaving us altogether. I don’t have a clue what this new NBA looks like, with the exception of a divisive CBA negotiation next summer. It feels like we’re coming out of an exhausting whirlwind, and entering what? I never could’ve expected a 90-day span like what happened from April 13th to July 11th and I don’t know what I expect the ramifications to be. But where I originally tuned in for a game played between lines drawn on a 94×50 hardwood court, I stick around as much now for the drama that unfolds off the court; in its history and operations, in the shaping of histories and futures by actors who are owners, front office officers, coaches, and self-determining players.
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.
Do you remember that stretch of games from Alvin Robertson back in November of 1986? He was a third-year shooting guard for the Spurs out of the University of Arkansas already established as being a tough defender. Hell, he’d already been named to the All-Star team in his second season when he set the NBA record for steals-per-game with 3.7. 29 years ago, starting on November 15th, 1986, Robertson came out with seven steals against the Suns, then followed it up with five more games of six steals or more with a streak-high of ten steals against the Clippers on November 22nd.
In the ensuing 29 years, the longest streak of six steals or more that any player amassed was two games. It’s not easy to do. There’s a knack to steals that’s part anticipation, part gamble, part identifying the sucker at the table. I’ve seen Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul take risks that leave backline defenders painfully naked, caught between speeding point guards on the front and soon-to-be alley oop dunking giants on the back, but hey, it’s taking the risk for an easy bucket and being a thief doesn’t always equate with being a great defender, but getting six or more steals several games in a row means you’re doing at least something right.
So it came as a surprise when the Philadelphia 76ers and their 0-18 roster produced some kind of off-kilter heir to Alvin Robertson in this kid Robert Covington. Covington was born back in 1990, a good four years after Robertson was stalking NBA teams and taking the ball from them with unprejudiced kleptomania. And with all the Stocktons, Jordans, and Pauls that have hunted the ball over the years, it’s the 6’9” 24-year-old from Tennessee State that sniffing around at what hard ass Robertson reached all those years ago.
Put the basektballs away when the Alvins and Robert come over
Unfortunately, the depth of NBA.com’s stats database doesn’t allow us to go back and scout out every one of those Robertson steals, but we can look at all of the Covington thefts over these past three games. Covington’s streak started less than a week ago on November, 25th with six steals against the Celtics. It was in a losing effort like all Philadelphia games this year, but his opportunistic instincts were on display. He was beaten by Jae Crowder on a screen, but used his long arms to poke the ball away from behind and force the TO. He capitalized on a full-court press, played help defense, stripped a defensive rebounder, and made himself a nuisance to the Celtics. Reviewing his six steals against Boston wasn’t overly impressive. He made decent plays, but I needed to see more.
Against Houston when Harden dropped 50 with nine TOs, Brett Brown got creative or desperate or something and slid Covington over to the five. In the end it didn’t make a difference, but again, the long SF/PF/C took full advantage of a Houston team (and Harden) that struggles nearly as bad as Philly does when it comes to taking care of the ball. He was directly responsible for at least four of Harden’s nine turnovers while also seizing upon young Clint Capela like the tiger on the savanna feasting on the naïve goat. Tiger Covington kicked some Rocket ass with 28 points and eight steals and broader defensive array than what I saw against Boston. Reading the passer’s eyes (in a couple cases Harden telegraphing passes) and identifying un-sure-handed opponents (Capela) allowed him to take advantage of their mistakes.
Finally, on the 29th of November, the streak continued in what was, based on the tape, his best effort yet. Instead of being the opportunistic poacher I saw against Boston and Houston, Covington swallowed defenders, poking and prodding at the ball with go-go gadget arms. He picked the pocket of sure-handed Mike Conley twice, stripped Jeff Green, and read passing lanes with eyes attached to a head that is on a constant swivel on defense. Six more steals against the Grizz, but he offset those with an ugly eight turnovers.
That’s six, eight, and six steals in consecutive games paired up with four, four, and eight turnovers for a steal-to-turnover rate of 1.3:1 (21 to 16) which is a suspect ratio for a wing.
Covington is no Alvin Robertson. Robertson averaged 2.7 steals/game for his career and we haven’t seen a guy average 2.7 steals/game for a season since CP3 in 2008-09. Covington, like the rest of these Sixers, is nigh impossible to get a true read on because the circumstances deviate so far from what we’re used to analyzing. I don’t have a clue how or what Covington becomes, but his current stretch in 2015-16 is, in its own compartmentalized way, impressive. In nine games he’s appeared in this season, he’s giving Philly 3.6 steals/night while pulling off a streak we haven’t seen in close to 30 years. On December 1st, the Sixers host the Lakers and all their on and off-court mega-circus act. I don’t have a clue what happens in this game, but it’s likely at least one of Philly’s current streaks will come to an end.