The NBA Finals start tonight. I am rooting for the Cavs because I’d like to see Cleveland celebrate a championship. But I also really enjoy watching the Warriors play and will not be sad to see them win, which I think they will do handily (say in 5 games). The Cavs just have too many injuries. Yes, they’ve got the best player in the world–and of his generation–in Lebron James, but the rest of the team just isn’t all that great and without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving far from healthy, I just don’t see how they could pull it off.
Here’s hoping it’s a good, entertaining series.
[Photo Credit: David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images]
This piece was originally published in the Dec. 1995 issue of Esquire. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Escape From New York
It is early morning in Miami, still dark, black water lapping at the dock overlooking Biscayne Bay. But here in this cold, cranky bloodshot hour that so injures a sportswriter’s metabolism, Pat Riley is undaunted, optimistic. “Fresh as a fucking daisy,” his forlorn assistants used to grumble as they disembarked from all those red-eyes. Riley’s come to chase the dawn. He sits on the concrete dock, not his dock, but a backdrop he’s chosen to heighten the dramatic effect, anticipating in his own supercharged way the new day, the new season. He’s maximizing the metaphor. There will be sunrise, rebirth, even redemption. “Gonna be great,” he says.
I groan, as enthused by all this predawn energy as by the headless, hardened baitfish on which I’ve been sitting.
Almost two decades have passed since Pat Riley chased the dawn with such purpose. That was back on State Beach in Santa Monica. Riley was morose and mournful, an exile wandering the beach with a bushy beard. He was 31, at the end of a nine-year career in the National Basketball Association, a journeyman who lacked a guard’s skill and a forward’s size, a 6-foot-4 white guy who had to bust his ass just to stay around, whose greatest talent—no, make that virtue—was to beat the shit out of Jerry West in practice. For Pat Riley the ballplayer, everything came the hard way, even the belated discovery that the game he loved was a cruel mistress. She didn’t say thanks. Or goodbye. And she really didn’t care how much you busted your ass.
“I was hanging out, all pissed off, writing everything down on legal pads,” he says. “600 pages of verbal diarrhea blaming everybody for my… demise.”
He winces with the remembrance. He and his wife, Chris, had driven to the beach in a ‘76 Chevy van with chrome pipes snaking out from under the chassis. For three days, husband and wife huddled under blankets, waiting for dawn’s early light. And for three mornings, Santa Monica remained shrouded in fog.
“Everything happened so quick,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as old, but here I am, 50. And I gotta deal with that. 14 years ago, I walked into the Laker locker room as head coach. Today, my daughter is seven. It’s like you wake up and say, What the hell happened? How did Elisabeth get to be seven? I do think I missed a lot, living in this game. But I’ll tell you what, I’ve never been around anything that made me feel so fucking alive.”
He spits into the wind. Like a ballplayer. Like his father, the baseball minor-leaguer, must have once spat.
“If my dad were alive, I could see him taking out a bucket of range balls—you know, he never played a course, but he kept a bucket of these old cut, beat-up range balls in the car—and he’d just hit ‘em into the water. Plop. Plop. Plop.”
Riley recalls the dapper manager of the Schenectady Blue Jays, the “hard-ass dad” to whom he so often refers with rage and rebellion, regret and respect. “I think I’ve come to terms with that. With him,” he says. But the voice of Lee Riley is always there, like a rude wind in his ear, even at the edge of this tropical metropolis, at the outset of yet another season. The son can imagine him turning from the tee, spitting, looking him in the eye, telling the youngest of his six kids: “You don’t know how good you got it, Pat.”
With all these years between father and son, between State Beach and Biscayne Bay, Pat Riley is someone his old man could never have imagined. He stands to make almost $40 million in his new job, running the Miami Heat. Amid a culture of mutinous millionaires, he’s kept his authority intact, almost unchallenged. And in doing so, he’s become the best coach in professional basketball, maybe any sport. He’s the winningest, the richest, the coolest. As his coiffure went from Sonny Bono to Gordon Gekko, Riley metamorphosed into a star, the guy who gave coaching some sex appeal. Corporate honchos pay $45,000 a pop to hear him lecture about his book, The Winner Within. He’s the new-age Lombardi, a salesman with a fanatic heart who speaks in dialects that seem derived in equal measure from General Schwarzkopf and Shirley MacLaine. Still, he’s just a few months removed from the first great wound to his image—inflicted, perhaps self-inflicted, during his acrimonious parting from the New York Knicks. Pat Riley left town tagged by the sporting press with a designer label of his own invention: “The Disease of Me.”
The horizon is transforming now, from black to light. Riley sips an herbal mint tea. I’ve finished my coffee but still struggle to wake. It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the sour taste of last night’s seminar at the sports bar is grabbing at the clench in my throat. This is not what I had in mind for the High Holy Days, watching Riley worship the sun at the crack of dawn.
“Shana tova,” Riley says haltingly.
“What priest taught you that?”
“My lawyer. He says, ‘Riley, shana tova.’ I say. ‘What’s that mean?’ He says, ‘It’s gonna be a happy, healthy new year.’ I figure, Damn right. It’s gonna be a helluva year.”
At 12 minutes past seven, the sun erupts against the horizon, beginning its skyward sprint.
“Wow,” says the coach. “Look at that sumbitch go.”
* * * *
On the morning of her seventh birthday, Elisabeth Riley is presented with strawberry pancakes topped with whipped cream and a batch of cupcakes to be shared with her classmates. She has a new hat, which she uses to hide her eyes and her smile. Daddy wants a birthday kiss, but Elisabeth won’t budge. It’s all very cute, but also enough to make you feel for the poor guy who’ll show up at the door one day and say, “Coach, I’m here to take Elisabeth to the prom.”
“She gets kind of shy,” Riley explains. “She doesn’t want to kiss Daddy in front of a stranger.”
There’s a tug at my arm. James Patrick Riley, age 10, wants to show me his room, his dazzling array of on-line electronics beneath an autographed picture of Macaulay Culkin. There are laptops and PCs, digital games and a synthesizer. The boy is already fluent in the language of computers and music. There’s an awkward moment as Riley enters. It’s one thing to answer questions about rebounding and defense; it’s another to allow the interrogator into your home.
As James explains his place in the World Wide Web and his designs for computer chips, Riley makes his way to the synthesizer, touching the keys gingerly. I’ve never seen him so close to awe. When he speaks, it’s to no one in particular: “James has a different thing than his daddy. James will be different than I am. But that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s good.”
Somehow, Riley’s been made to feel grateful, maybe even liberated. This slight, sandy-haired boy has, in his own way, broken the chain, the tug and the tether that existed between the fathers and sons in this coach’s clan.
I see a different Riley in his son’s room that day. It reminds me of what a friend said about him, someone who had known him as both enemy and ally. “What you don’t understand about Pat,” the friend said, “is what it was like to be poor and Irish in the 50’s, what it was like if your father drank too much. You only showed your best face to the world. Whatever happened in the home stayed there.”
Leon Francis Riley was a ballplayer, too. In 1944, in the middle of a war, the Philadelphia Phillies finally brought him up to the bigs, where he hit a double in 12 at bats. He was already 38. But he still stayed around. “In 22 years, he gets a cup of coffee and a promise that they’d give him the next coaching job that opened up in the big leagues,” says Riley. “He gets passed over, and he just says, ‘That’s it.’ He went home and burned everything that had to do with his baseball career. I never got a fucking thing.”
It wasn’t long before the old man was full of drink and despair. “The 50’s,” says Riley, “were hell.” But the hellishness remained behind closed doors.
Riley was nine, hiding in the garage and weepy from a schoolyard stomping, when the old man demanded that his kid return to the park, that he learn “not to be afraid,” and that he learn it the hard way. So began his apprenticeship as a tough guy and a small-town basketball star.
The old man wouldn’t sit in the stands to watch his son play for Linton High School in Schenectady, New York. Rather, he’d peer through the crack in the gym door. Riley never even knew he was there until the day a ref whistled him for a charge. All of a sudden, his father staggered out onto the floor. He’d been drinking. Turned out the ref used to umpire games in the old Can-Am League.
“You son of a bitch!” the father screamed. “When you were calling baseball games, you were trying to screw me, too. Now my kid… you son of a bitch!”
“I guess it just kind of crashed for him,” says Riley.
Eventually, the father sobered up and came to gentler terms with his son. But the dapper Irishman of Riley’s youth finished as a janitor at Bishop Gibbons High School. At Pat’s urging, he coached the school baseball team, but only on the condition that he take the field in the green custodial outfit he wore to swab urinals and scrub toilets. “Years later, a lot of those kids he coached told me how much he did for them,” says Riley. “But I think they did something for him, too. Those last years he spent managing in his janitor’s outfit, I think those were the happiest in his life.”
He died in 1970, as Riley was desperately trying to hang on with an expansion team, the Portland Trail Blazers. The way he remembers it, the last thing his father told him was: “Plant your feet, and kick some ass.”
Riley would go on to kick a lot of ass. But no matter what—the accumulation of championships or money or fame—it was never enough to silence the voice that kept telling him, Go back to the park.
“I guess all that has a lot to do with how I am, the Irish part. I guess that’s why I have a hard time letting anyone in,” he says. “We kept it in the family. Whatever problems we had in the family didn’t go out. And it should be the same way with the team.”
Riley guards the interiors of his life in ways both Nixonian and noble. His is a necessary strategy for the rich and famous. But more than that, he considers his family a team and his team a family. Riley, of course, would be the patriarch of both. If this coach had theme music, it would be “We Are Family” set to bagpipes. He divides the world into friends and strangers, us and them. “It’s okay to hurt,” he says. “You just can’t let them see you hurting.”
* * * *
For the first time, though, you can sense the wound. He’s still in control, as it were, but ill humors now surface when he speaks of them back in New York. His feelings are hurt.
“In 28 years in this game,” he says, “I had never been tainted. Now I don’t care how they finish me off in New York. But questioning my character? That pisses me off. I’m embarrassed by what happened. As a coach, I’m embarrassed.”
Yes, it ended badly for him in New York, and, yes, most of us in the press box will be finishing him off for some time. But to understand how bad the end was, understand first how well it began.
The Knicks had spent too many years as a tired joke in a city whose fans still reveled in their belief that they were the game’s true connoisseurs. Now enter the coach with the hair and the clothes. That’s how it started. Riley had won four championships with the Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but no one understood how good he was. And if it weren’t for the Knicks, no one ever would.
There was a particular type of ballplayer—hungry and a bit angry—who blossomed under Riley. There was Anthony Mason, a rebel bruiser who’d grown up in the cracked-up, 9mm culture of southeast Queens and served his basketball time in such remote purgatories as Venezuela and Turkey. And there was John Starks, not far removed from a stint bagging groceries at a Safeway in Tulsa. The Knicks would never be the Lakers, but by unleashing the snarling talents of guys like Mason and Starks, Riley got them good fast.
The Knicks went at other teams the way their coach had gone at Jerry West. Just as Riley once jumped center for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, for a team known to posterity as Rupp’s Runts, the Knicks could be considered Riley’s Runts. What they lacked in talent, they made up in heart, hustle, and hard work. At the same time, the Knicks evolved unlike any other pro team, their identity derived not from their star players but from their star coach.
There were more than a couple of guys in the pressroom who didn’t buy into it, who privately regarded Riley in terms that ranged from suspicion to contempt. They had their reasons. As Riley defined the world, sportswriters were not only “them,” but part of a subspecies he called “peripheral opponents.”
We’d gather as inbred rivals, a caravan of harried, overworked typists in various states of dishevelment, a profane chorus of beat writers and opinionists (the louder, the better), professional exaggerators hyperventilating for pay, more than willing to spin prowess into virtue and mere flaws into evil.
The sportswriter endures myriad minor indignities. But Riley made them all worse. He didn’t give out his home number, didn’t do golf outings, didn’t kill anyone off the record. His band of monosyllabic millionaires would stay at the Four Seasons while the rest of us were consigned to Marriotts for the bonus points and those less-than-dirty movies known throughout the profession as Spank-O-Vision. Riley’s guys dined on silver and china like knights at his round table while we hustled chicken fingers on the buffet line. Riley closed practices, making us loiter in the parking lot so that we might catch those pearls from Starks (“We have to focus more”) or Patrick Ewing (“Most definitely”) or Charles Oakley (“Whatever, whatever”) as they made their way to their Mercedeses and their all-terrain vehicles.
Riley stood in stark juxtaposition to the whole sports culture, and for that alone I wanted to cheer. He kept his distance from the hangers-on, the autograph seekers, the ticket scalpers, and all those guys screaming on the radio. We suffered from bellies and baldness and nose hairs. But Riley was pressed perfect. He took not a step on the StairMaster, and he never got old.
If you only knew our resentments, the smell of that sweaty serum as we’d gather for his postgame press conference, full of deadline dread. There’s some maniac cursing you back at the office, there’s an asshole TV guy probing your vertebrae with his microphone. And here comes Riley. You ask him X’s and O’s, he gives you the philosophy of “Force.”
And he’s fresh as a fucking daisy.
Eventually, the nerds would exact their revenge. But during the honeymoon, who cared? Riley may have been a bit—how to put it?—extreme, but he had his own lunatic virtues, which was a lot more than could be said for some of the tobacco spitters and two-bit felons we glorify. Of course, I could hyperventilate with the best of them. And by the time I got through with Riley, he wasn’t a basketball coach. Hell, no! I’d turn that sumbitch into Henry V and every playoff game into another Agincourt.
* * * *
Honeymoons always end, though, and badly in a town like New York. The Knicks finished the 1993–94 season—Riley’s third with the team—just seven points shy of a championship. But we spent most of the playoffs bashing them, mouthing the displeasures of the connoisseur fans whom we both pandered to and served. Along the way, another perception had been born: If the Knicks represented Riley’s virtues, they also epitomized his faults. They could be dogmatic bullies, predictable, plodding, even paranoid.
Paranoia was all the rage in the spring of 1994 as Madison Square Garden was being sold from Paramount Communications to Viacom, which in turn would sell it right off to ITT and Cablevision. Life in the Garden became Machiavellian—full of intrigue, subplots, and treacheries. All that, and Riley—who had just taken his Knicks to the finals—wanted a new deal.
He wouldn’t come cheap, either. He wanted a five-year, $25 million extension. He wanted a piece of the team. He wanted to be president of the New York Knicks. He wanted a lot of things.
The Knicks were offering five years, $15 million.
And it never really got closer than that. Just nastier. This last season was hellish—for the coach and the team. The Knicks were still tough, but Riley called them “cream puffs.” They worked their asses off, but Riley called them “unprofessional.” He had his annual blowout with Anthony Mason, suspending him for five games. The strain was showing. And yet, somehow, they regrouped from a lousy start to finish with 55 wins, just two behind the Orlando Magic, a young team but also the most physically gifted ensemble since Riley’s Lakers.
On May 21, the Knicks were eliminated in the seventh game of the second round by the Indiana Pacers, as Patrick Ewing’s last-second finger roll bounded off the back of the rim. On June 15, Riley faxed his official letter of resignation. Then, in an absolute bonehead move, he skipped town, leaving nothing but a statement saying he wanted “ultimate responsibility for all significant aspects of the ball club.” For Riley, it was all about control.
But for Dave Checketts, the Garden boss, it was all about money. Checketts—a bright, ambitious executive who had prospered in this concrete Kremlin, becoming president of both the Garden and the Knicks—was calling Riley a pig without saying as much.
Later, The New York Times would report that on June 5, ten days before he faxed his resignation, Riley’s friend Dick Butera passed the coach’s “wish list” to Miami Heat owner Micky Arison. Among other things, Riley was asking for $15 million in salary, immediate 10 percent ownership of the Heat, another 10 percent over the life of the contract, loans, limousines, credit cards, and $300 per diem in expenses. The memo became the basis for the deal, which, depending on how long Riley stays with the Heat, approaches a worth of $40 million.
So we all got out our book of Rileyisms, The Winner Within, and started quoting. The guy was a liar, a phony; it was about money, greed…. It was about the Disease of Me, the Disease of Riley.
Eventually, Riley would say that Checketts—his erstwhile ally, the guy who brought him in—had used him and lied to himself. He said Checketts had promised him an unconditional release in return for his silence as the Garden was being sold from Viacom to ITT and Cablevision. He said that he needed to be president of the Knicks to insulate him from the corporate intrigue that had doomed so many other Knick teams and coaches. He said they could have cut a deal for about $20 million and the title, but that Checketts refused to budge. He had a lot to say. But by then, it was too late for Riley to repair his reputation in New York.
* * * *
We’re in the limousine heading for practice, rolling down Palmetto Expressway, discussing The Winner Within. Published in 1993, it was a best-selling primer that grew out of his motivational lectures. Only Riley could write a book with motives as mercenary as they were sincere. The Winner Within was dedicated to his father.
But for my $22.95, it was the worst thing the guy ever did. The world no more needed a how-to on leadership, teamwork, and success from Pat Riley than a beauty book from Cindy Crawford. The Winner Within demystified his charisma. It came off like a preachy infomercial. Riley may have been image conscious (he’d sneak a smoke, though never in public), but he was dismal at PR. Now you could read all about “The Core Covenant” and “Core Cracking,” about “Thunderbolts” and “Moving On,” and, most of all, about “The Disease of Me.”
“That book is for people like you,” he says, “for cynics.”
“C’mon, how do you expect—”
“No. I laugh when guys like you roll their eyes; I laugh at the writers and maybe even some of the players who mock it . They can roll their eyes all they want, looking for something to get me on. They don’t understand: It inspires me. It clarifies things for me. I believe that stuff. I live it.”
I ask if he lived it during his departure from the Knicks.
“Have you read the book? I mean, have you sincerely read it?”
“I kind of, you know, went through it….”
“Well, I did exactly what it says. We reached an impasse, and I planted my feet. It was either time to go home or time to go on. I went on.”
We’ve hit traffic. Riley checks his watch and gazes out the window. “I was miserable in New York,” he says quietly.
“Why is it,” he asks, “that no coach lasts more than three or four years in that town? Why are they always looking to get you? Maybe that’s the difference. Look, I am who I am, but I don’t try to get anybody. I don’t go off the record. I don’t leak stories.”
“TEAM TURMOIL,” I blurt out, referring to one of the better back pages at the Daily News, players bitching off the record that the offense sucked, that Ewing took too many shots. “Good story.”
“The Rule of the Gutless,” he says. “I mean, you got something to say, put your name on it. How many unnamed sources lied and ruined people?”
Too much talk of getting and they for my taste. I knew he cared, but not this much.
“Damn right I care. Shit, I was coaching in a city where tabloid and mainstream have come together, where perception is reality. You want a good quote, well, I’ll tell you what, gimme the name of the guy who said it, and I’ll give you a helluva quote.
“Guys would question my character in the paper. But not ever to my face. No, they’d come to practice and ask me about rebounding. Well, ask me to my face. Call me gutless to my face. I mean, what would you do?”
“I don’t know. I’d probably—”
“Damn right. I’d put ‘em on their ass.”
We’ve broken through the traffic now, a little behind schedule, It’s not yet 9:00 a.m., but Riley will still be the first guy in the gym. He’s already choreographed every moment of the day’s two practices. It’s all committed to his blue index cards. He’s got a lot of rookies coming in today. They’ll be hungry. They’ll listen. And he can’t wait. He’ll run them as they’ve never been run before. He gets cheerful quickly.
“I love going to practice,” he says.
* * * *
By noon, about two dozen reporters and cameramen have gathered outside the gym to cover the big event, Riley’s first day. They’re not accustomed to this ritual: waiting. Closed practices are one thing, but this is just a bullshit minicamp for the game’s minor-leaguers, none of whom even figure to make the squad. Still, Riley’s taking his time, looking for a practice player, someone like the guy he used to be.
A few of the writers are thumbing through The Winner Within. They’re rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, reading aloud from page 144: “Riles’ Rule for Kicking the Complacent Ass.”
They’re just beginning to learn about us and them. Soon they’ll discover the Gaelic Bushido. And eventually, “The Disease of Me.” They won’t write it that way, though. Not for some time. And maybe never. It’s different down here. Honeymoons last longer in the tropics. And Riley’s the hottest guy in town. There’s a story in the morning paper about the slick hair and the expensive suits, the caricature. That’s always how it starts.
* * * *
Midnight approaches at Don Shula’s All-Star Cafe, a standard-issue backdrop in the society of sports, a blur of autographed memorabilia, a Bennigan’s on steroids, and just a mere piece in the Dolphin coach’s empire: There’s also Shula’s sports bar, Shula’s steak house, Shula’s fitness center, Shula’s golf course, Shula’s tennis facility, and Shula’s hotel, all of which goes to show how far we are from New York. The instinct of this town, a whiff of boosterism in the humid air, is to deify its coaches.
It’s been a long day for Riley. He ran two practices, had a meeting with his assistants in the car, and another with his son’s principal at the new school. He taped a series of TV spots for the Heat, negotiated his release from Elisabeth’s birthday party in return for the promise of a big family dinner next week. Then he took another round of meetings with his assistants. And here he comes, round midnight, fresh as a daisy.
“Well, Kool Moe Dee, there go the coach,” says a waitress. “I love coach. Coach got it all goin’ on.”
Riley excuses himself for a quick call on his cellular. He wants to check on the kids, the birthday girl in particular. “She understands Daddy,” he sighs. “She understands how he is.”
It’s the children, both adopted, who’ve helped temper his obsessions. “We tried to have kids for 15 years,” he says. “Then they came along and changed our lives.”
The night wears on, a conversation moving toward confession. He tells me that he’ll play golf but only on the rarest of occasions, only with friends, and only if someone cracks a six-pack and heads for the clubhouse on the back nine. He says he wants to drive a black 1949 Mercury, the one from Rebel Without a Cause, that he wants to hear “Chapel of Dreams” by the Dubs, and that he can’t fathom Magic Johnson dying of AIDS.
“He’s special,” Riley says quietly. “I just believe it’s all gonna turn out good. They’ll find something…You know, I remember being with the Lakers, I never thought it would end. But here we are….”
Here we are, all these years later, and I’m wondering what happened to the guy in L.A. who used to drink beer and bullshit with the reporters in the pressroom.
“I used to do a lot of things I don’t do anymore,” he says. “Hell, I was a broadcaster, a traveling secretary. I used to hand out boarding passes to the players for the planes. But that was all before I became a coach.”
I remind him of something he told me: “I’m still the same guy I always was—a prick.”
Riley snorts a laugh. “Look, I drive players. Just like I drive myself. But if I’m a prick, I’m more of a prick to myself. As far as the control thing, people just embellish that. I want to treat my players to the best. If I’m having a team party, I want white tablecloths, I want china, and I want silverware. I don’t want fuckin’ plastic plates. And I want a flower arrangement in the middle. And if the towels are hotel white, hey, put some color in there, I don’t give a shit. I want my team to fly first-class, to stay in first-class hotels. I’m gonna ask them to do a lot. So tell me, is that wrong, wanting them to have the best?”
In Riley’s world, coaches can be pricks, but they can also be patriarchs. He speaks of coaching as if it were theology.
I ask him about Adolph Rupp.
“I knew he would make me better. He was a little like my old man,” says Riley. “He was the only coach who ever scared the shit out of me.”
Rupp was also the game’s last unabashed segregationist.
“He was a great coach. Period. I learned more about coaching and detail and organization from Adolph than I learned from anybody…. Look, was he a hard man? Yes. Was he a disciplined man? Egocentric? Powerful? Yes, he was all those things. But racist?” A pause now: Riley trying to reconcile his loyalty with the facts. “When I was there, I never once once sensed he was racist. It was the Southeastern Conference in the early to mid-60’s. There weren’t any black players. Just weren’t. Wasn’t until we got beat by Texas Western and Big Daddy Lattin dunked on my ass that we even started thinking about it.”
Texas Western—now the University of Texas at El Paso—an all-black team of transplanted city kids, beat Rupp’s Runts for the NCAA championship in 1966. Then Riley watched Rupp walk off “holding a brown paper sack by the throat.”
It brings a grimace to his face. “Hell, I didn’t care. I mean, I was raised in a family where my old man would do the same thing…. Anyway, years later, Bob McAdoo told me that was the game that changed everything. He said it made it okay for black players to go to school in the South.”
McAdoo, the great scorer, played his last best days in the NBA for Riley’s Lakers. Now he’ll be one of his assistants.
I ask if McAdoo got the job because he’s black.
“I would never hire anyone for that reason,” he says. “I’ve only hired coaches because they’re the very best.”
It’s been years since Riley had a black coach on his staff. That said, he’s almost never kept a white guy at the end of the bench. And it occurs to me now that Riley—a great general but willfully ignorant of such political arts as compromise—is doing the only job for which he’s temperamentally qualified. Coaching is the last accepted American autocracy. No need for PC. Just win, baby.
Which could be a problem down here. The Heat have never been hot. Theirs is an inglorious history, a grand total of two playoff wins. Last season’s record: 32–50. Cell phones could be heard ringing during home games. As a bunch of losers, this team is only flattered by comparisons with the pre-Riley Knicks.
“Well, we’re gonna have to do something,” he says. “Something dramatic.”
He takes a small sip of beer and declares: “This is my last run, without a doubt. I’m gonna coach like hell to try to win it. I’m committed to that goal. But if I don’t ever win it again, well, I’m not gonna chase that dream into my sixties or seventies. That’ll kill you.”
So that’s it. The show closes in Miami. There’s only one thing left to ask, an intrusion into his most private sanctum, the secret life of Riley:
“What’s that stuff in your hair?”
“Little gel, little water. Takes two minutes.”
“Nah, what kind of gel?”
“We gotta give someone a plug?”
Finally, reluctantly, he says: “Sebastian.”
And the clothes?…They’re really all Armani?”
He looks at me with disbelief, even irritation, squinting until the hint of a grin forms at the corners of his mouth. “’Cause it’s good shit, that’s why.”
He pauses again, tripping through his own chapel of dreams. “My father was a dapper guy, swept his hair back, used to wear these shirts back in the forties, gabardine shirts—big collar, big pockets. My dad was dapper. He wouldn’t let you out of the house unless you were groomed and clean and looking good. I was taught to peg my own pants in second grade. I only had one pair. Washed them every night. Put ‘em in the stove to dry ‘em for the next morning. Then l’d iron them before I went to school. And one time, I left ‘em in the stove too long and they got griddle marks. The kids teased me, ‘Hey, Riley, what’d you do, cook hamburgers on your pants?’”
Last call is long gone by the time we get up to leave. Riley stops in front of a men’s store in the lobby, pointing to a shirt in the window.
“See,” he says. “That’s like one of those gabardine shirts.”
He gazes at the shirt in much the same drifting, awestruck way he considered his son’s electronic piano.
It’s late. The sun will be up in just a few hours. I tell him goodbye.
But he’s still lost in some recollection that gives the cloth form, animation, even life.
I’m almost at the door when he calls back. “Hey!… Shana tova.”
And a top of the morning to you, too, Coach Riley.
[Photo Credits: AP and Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images]
Sometimes a story comes along, jumps out at you, and won’t let go. Such was the case last year with Jeremy Collins’ beautifully-rendered memoir piece, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux.” It took a long time for the story to come together for Collins and when I finished my only concern was, “Maybe that’s all he’s got.”
Then he let me reprint an earlier variation featuring Sly Stallone and Rocky. It doesn’t have the same polish or control as the “Maddux” story, but it’s still really strong, proof that perhaps Collins is more than a one-trick pony.
Now comes his latest for SB Nation Longform, “The General Who Never Was,” a profile of the scoundrel Bobby Knight. It’s another beaut–told with precision and care:
What were the obstacles standing in Knight’s way of creating an enduring legacy? It wasn’t complicated. Zero-tolerance? Try common sense. All Knight had to do, in the words of former Indiana Trustee Ray Richardson, was “stop being a jerk. Try being a decent guy.” Or in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, a Hoosier who had seen war: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
In the end, I’m not sure what Knight saw when he looked out into the faithful crowd of fans and followers. Maybe in the blurry smokescreen of self-regard he didn’t see us at all. Not once did he mention the power of reading or wish the high school students in the stands well. Barely once in the onslaught of self-sentiment could he even speak the name of our shared motherland: Indiana, In-dee-anna, Indiana.
Instead, he put his hand up in an oddly formal gesture of farewell and held it there. Just like at Dunn Meadow back in 2000 after he asked everyone to bow their heads and observe a moment of silence in honor of himself and his family.
Never good at goodbye, I shouldn’t have expected more.
My pal Glenn Stout, series editor of the Best American Sports Writing and longform editor at SB Nation, has done a stellar job of shepherding young storytellers these past few years. So far–at least to my mind–Collins is his best find, a true breakaway talent. Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
[Photo Credit: Zach Long/AP]
He said, “Rob someone of a homer.”
That hadn’t occurred to me.
I was reminded of this yesterday when Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry’s shot in the final seconds of Game 7 in Toronto. It was a clean block. If the shot went in, the Raptors would have won. But Pierce blocked it–with his left hand–and the Nets won.
What a Boss way to end an opponents’ season.
[Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin/N.Y. Daily News]
On March 26th, the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers clashed in their ongoing battle for the first seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and the home-court advantage that comes with it. Indiana was not letting Lebron James get near the basket unmolested, and the officials didn’t see anything wrong with the extra attention beyond the nominal foul call here and there.
Lebron James, perhaps frustrated by a perceived lack of protection from the refs, rushed the basket in the fourth quarter with intent to make contact with whatever got in his way. Specifically, Roy Hibbert’s head got in the way. Lebron’s elbow felled the big fella. Hibbert crashed to the floor, attempted to get up, and promptly crashed down again.
Hibbert went to the locker room after the fall, but, by rule, was forced to re-emerge to take the foul shots resulting from Lebron’s flagrant. (The rule, Jeff Van Gundy instructed, was that Hibbert had to take the free throws or else he would be unable to return to the game.)
A few days later, April 2nd, he fell to the floor after a flagrant foul from Charlie Villanueva. He went to the locker room, receiving attention to his head and neck. He returned to that game as well.
Up to March 26th, Roy Hibbert had played in every Pacer game of the season. He shot .459 from the field, grabbed 7 rebounds and scored 11.3 points in his 30 minutes per night. Though not the most efficient big man around, this year’s numbers were in line with a career shooting percentage of .473 over 295 games through last year.
After March 26th Hibbert played in nine games, shot .272 from the field with 3.4 rebounds and 6.8 points in 26.4 minutes per game. In five more playoff games, he’s shooting .313 from the field and down to 3.4 rebounds and 4.8 points in just 21.9 minutes.
Indiana did win the coveted first seed and home-court advantage, but they now face elimination by the lowly Hawks. Hibbert’s play has been so putrid, many have taken notice. Other pundits have gone so far to say his career may be over. Here’s one of many things Bill Simmons noted about Hibbert’s recent decline:
The Law of Mutombo tells us this: You never know when a tall center is about to lose it, but when they lose it, you know right away. Artis Gilmore gained the nickname “Rigor Artis” in the mid-’80s. Shaq turned into Mummified Shaq somewhere between Phoenix and Cleveland. Dikembe was kicking ass and wagging fingers right until the 2001 Finals, when Shaq turned him into a lumbering, uncoordinated, elbow-laden mass of uselessness. Even if Hibbert is only 27, what if this wasn’t a slump? What if the Law of Mutombo struck him early?
It’s been reported that Hibbert passed concussion tests on both March 26th and April 2nd. Still, statistcal collapse such as Hibbert’s demands that we consider the possibility of severe and sustaining injury. It appears further investigation to his condition is warranted – whether the man is jacked up or not, he’s playing jacked up.
Photo by Brent Drinkut / Indy Star
Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce weighs in on the many problems with Donald Sterling:
But there is one problem that never can be solved. This is because what is a problem for you might not be a problem for the good old boy network of plutocrats that actually own the games into which you pour your devotion and your money. And, even if you decide to stop spending the latter to satisfy the former, it may not really matter. The odds are that, through the largesse of television and the legerdemain of modern accounting, you can’t solve it that way, either. There never has been anything you can do about a bad owner. That one is out of your hands.
Which is where we find ourselves today in the case of Donald Sterling, the alleged racist slumlord owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was an alleged racist slumlord, and a confirmed terrible owner, for three decades before audio surfaced of a conversation that was reportedly between him and a woman named V. Stiviano, who appears to have James O’Keefe’d him. (Is there more? Of course there is.)
The league is investigating the audio, but by now, half the world has already weighed in, including the coach of his team, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, LeBron James, and the president of the United States. All of them agree — as does any advanced carbon-based life form — that if the recording is authentic, the comments show that Sterling is undeniably racist, undeniably revolting, and undeniably rooted in the mind of a man who would have to yield his moral pride of place to algae. There have been a number of calls for the league to strip Sterling of his franchise. This, I confess, makes me more than a little nervous. Taking someone’s assets because of what they think and say, no matter how grotesque it is, sets off all kinds of alarm bells in my First Amendment conscience. The league certainly is within its rights to suspend him, for as long as it wants to suspend him. There were also calls for the Clippers players to make some kind of public statement. Before Sunday’s Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors, they did just that, when they removed their shooting shirts at center court and turned their red warm-ups inside out.
NCAA Hoops tonight and all weekend.
Have at it.
[Photo Credit: Joel Zimmer]
I’m a casual fan of the NBA. When I want to know the skinny I like to read Zach Lowe over at Grantland. Here’s his take on Phil Jackson and the Knicks.
I recently had the chance to catch up with him and chat about Phil Jackson and the craft of writing a biography.
Dig in to this holiday Banter treat. Then go pick up the book.
It’s a good one.
AB: This is your sixth book and second biography—the first was on Peggy Lee. What was it like writing another biography?
PR: It was terrific because the first one taught me that to be a biographer, you’ve got to be a very different kind of writer.
AB: Different from being a newspaper or magazine writer?
PR: To write a biography, you have to become something of a different animal. You have to become a PhD in your subject. When Peggy Lee died, and I was asked to write her bio, I said to the editor “Thank you, it’s flattering but maybe you should get someone who knows the music of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s.” But he said, “No, we want you to come in from the outside. We think you’re a good enough writer to come in and surround the subject.” And that’s the only good book I’d ever written. When I was approached to write a Phil Jackson biography, and figured I wasn’t going to get him to cooperate — he was writing his own book — it freed me to surround his life objectively.
AB: He’s got a library of books he’s written himself.
PR: If you go into Barnes and Nobles to the sports section there’s seven categories – baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, boxing and Phil Jackson. Maverick and Sacred Hoops are worth reading. Mine might be, too.
AB: Don’t be so modest. It is. What have you learned as a writer since the Peggy Lee book that allowed you to do the Phil Jackson story in a way you might not have previously?
PR: That you should never judge anyone, or their actions, or their legacy, before doing everything you can to try and see the events of their life through their own eyes, from their own perspective–but then use that perspective as only one of your lenses. Phil had left behind his books, and gave his approval for friends to talk to me. I’d interviewed him several times in the past and we were cool. I had every lens available to see the guy’s life objectively and thoroughly.
AB: What was the difference between writing a bio of a dead singer, whose career arc had already ended, and someone who’s still got a few chapters left to go in his career?
PR: Peggy’s role in history had been predetermined. She was the only white top 5 jazz singer of all time. With Phil, everybody had ideas about him, but nobody had out them all together for an objective portrait. Some think he’s overrated because he coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. Then there are those who say, “No, the man is a genius.” Nobody had ever gone in and found the middle ground, the third space. The truth is never black or white. And freed of his subjective perspective, I was able to enter this gray Twilight Zone where I could assemble the pieces that led to assembling the puzzle of the most successful coach in the history of sports — if you go by numbers, anyway, which I do. As Earl Monroe says in the book “Sports is a strange animal, in that you can make all the money in the world, but if you haven’t won the championship, you don’t have the same respect.”
AB: At the same time, Jackson briefly played with a guy named Neal Walk who was comfortable with himself even if he didn’t win. If he lost, he was like, “Oh I’m the first place loser.” Wouldn’t you believe that Neal Walk was a guy who was happy even though he didn’t get a ring?
PR: Oh, God yes, absolutely. Neal Walk and Eddie Mast were his blood brothers on the Knicks, and neither put all their stakes into winning. Those were the people who were saying to “Phil, dude, cool out, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the game. You’re a Buddhist. It’s the journey not the destination.” Phil seems to be possessed by an almost surreal degree of competition. He needed Walk and Mast as early role models to temper that mania.
AB: But he was able to combine the two.
PR: You got it. He managed to incorporate and meld all of those ingredients. Here’s the bottom line: He never stopped questioning what’s real and what counts in this very short lifetime. Native American Indian culture, Buddhism, Christianity, mysticism — he kept exploring and he kept questioning.
AB: And that’s authentic right? That’s not an act.
PR: Completely authentic. None of his former players that I spoke with said it was for show. Burning sage in the locker room, giving his players books. Every one of them was affected. Whether it was 10% or 90% they were affected.
AB: I thought it was interesting that for some of them, the gesture was enough, it didn’t even matter if the book spoke to them or not. It was the act of him being thoughtful in that way that did have a certain meaning for them.
PR: Exactly. For a few it was both of those things. I’m thinking Craig Hodges, the three-point shooter who was showed up at the White House after the Bulls’ second championship and chastised George Bush and was blackballed from the game — until Phil Jackson brought him back to be the shooting coach of the Lakers. Hodges told me that the book Phil gave him—The Passive Warrior—changed his life. So yes, it was all authentic — and that’s why I actually wrote the book. I would never have written this book if I thought that Jackson was inauthentic in any way shape or form.
AB: You write about Jackson as a teacher, a searcher, and a survivor. How much of that resonates with you at this stage in your life?
PR: It felt as if it were time for me to write a biography of a guy who, in a weird sort of way, was paralleling my own life, at least in terms of trying to never lose curiosity about everything when you reach Act III of your life. In a way, as I wrote, I sort of thought that not talking to him almost didn’t matter, because the more I read his books and interviews over the last 40 years, and the more people I talked to, the more I recognized this innate need for searching, the more I seemed to understand him. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself to him in terms of career success, but I came to quickly sense that we shared a few psychological things in common, both on the ultra-competitive side and the intellectual-searching side. Which gave me the confidence to write the book authentically and truthfully.
AB: Would you have had to force this book had you written it 15 years ago?
PR: Absolutely. It would have been forced even five years ago, truth be told. But now, somehow, researching his life not only vibed with some of the exact questions I was asking myself, but I was finally mature enough to accept the validity, the intent, of some of his teachings and searchings and questions. That’s not to say I lost objectivity; just that, in a way I was finally receptive enough to learn from his philosophies — which only enhanced the book.
AB: Speaking of teaching, one of Jackson’s most important teachers was his coach with the Knicks, Red Holzman.
PR: Absolutely. Red taught Phil just about everything he ever learned about coaching, on the court and off. Phil couldn’t be on that first championship team because he had had back surgery that season, so he was Red’s defacto assistant coach—back then you couldn’t have an assistant coach. Red knew Phil had something going on, intellectually. In the locker room after games, after Red had given his post-game talk, he’d turn to Phil and say, “Did I do alright tonight?” Red knew.
AB: Now, you first covered Jackson when he was coaching Albany in the CBA.
PR: And before that, when I was a weed-smoking teenager and lover of sports, a rebel without a cause, fan of the Knicks, I just loved Phil Jackson. I loved the way he looked, I loved the way he tried so hard, I loved that he was clumsy, I loved that he was different. I’d read those same New York Post columns that I quote in the book. Everyone was so attracted to this guy who clearly didn’t fit the paradox. Fast forward to 1986 when he was coaching the Albany Patroons and I was working for the New York bureau of the Miami Herald. So we met for a column, and I could immediately sense that he was just a normal guy. Unlike any pro coach I’d ever covered. He was so normal, I became normal — not a writer, just a guy I was talking with. I wasn’t there as the sports writer trying to get something and he wasn’t there as the coach trying to give the right answers. It was like a couple of hours “Let’s talk about stuff.” I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool. I hope it works for him.”
AB: Was it that he was necessarily charming?
PR: Oh no, he wasn’t charming–I mean unless we’re all charming, unless you and I are being charming. He was being human and social and friendly.
AB: Did you ask him how come the Knicks hadn’t called on him after he’d won a CBA championship?
PR: Yes. He said, “I don’t know. I’m not political enough, I guess. I don’t say the right stuff, But hey, do you want a chocolate chip cookie?” He was getting ready to leave the CBA, and had no idea what he’d do next, which happened to be opening a health club in Montana. He was thinking of the law, or the ministry. Then, a few months later, the Bulls called. A few years after that he was the head coach. So I profiled him again, for the National Sports Daily, during his first season, and hung around Chicago for a couple of days, and wrote a piece whose gist was basically, “How bizarre! An actual person is a really good NBA coach. A real person you could have a conversation with about philosophy or the triangle or Bill Bradley or Wounded Knee was actually a good coach.” You could tell, just from the way Jordan and Pippen were listening to him.
AB: One of the things that’s interesting to me, you alluded to it already, here’s this guy, he’s a seeker. He’s a curious guy and he’s interested in all these different kinds spiritual pursuits. But the other part of him enjoys throwing quips and keeping people — essentially the press–off balance, as if even that were a competition.
PR: I came to understand him as a man trying to reconcile those two pulls, the pull of the peaceful “mindfulness” and the pull of the competitor. I think he was smart enough to see that when he was questioning all of reality — spiritually, intellectually, philosophically — he also had to succeed in a corporate world, and the fact that he was able to reconcile the two to the degree that he could is what really intrigued me. I think he knows that there’s a third space where it can all work out. Ultimately, the he was able to incorporate that corporate trope, that philosophical trope, that spiritual trope, and communicate it all to his players. He coached hundreds and hundreds of players for many years and every one of them, with a few exceptions, would say “Phil looked at me as if I was an individual” — and that, for me, is the road map for success in life. My guess is that Phil would say he’s a teacher. Not a coach but a teacher.
AB: You didn’t talk to some of the superstar guys, though. Before we get to that, I want to know why you didn’t speak to Jackson’s children or the women in his life.
PR: I didn’t want to.
AB: Why is that?
PR: Because I’m not a writer first, I’m a human being first and I just don’t want to go places where I’m not invited. I wrote a book about Phil Jackson because it seemed like the right book to write and I got offered money for it. But I have rules. I don’t compromise humanity. There’s something in me that just doesn’t allow me to step from person into journalist. I just can’t do it. I’ve been told that it has hurt my career. Somebody once told me, “Oh man, you’re such a soft core journalist, can’t you be a hardcore journalist?” And I said, “No I can’t because I’m a person, period.” If I can make money writing books about Phil Jackson and the other people I’ve written books about, that’s really cool, but don’t ever ask me to stop being who I am. Phil Jackson doesn’t want me to find his first wife. I could have tracked her down but I wasn’t going to find her because whatever happened with Phil and his first wife is between them. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson? Yup. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson on my own rules? Yup. Does that mean my books aren’t going sell as many? Yup. Do I care? No.
AB: As a reader, do you like reading those biographies that are lured in that kind of person detail?
AB: So this is about knowing who you are as a writer?
PR: How old are you?
PR: Alright. I’m 60, so when you get to 60 you’ll realize what I mean. There comes a point later in life where you realize that exploiting somebody else’s life for your own advancement is not only stupid, it’s destructive. I have my agenda, the reader has their agenda, but in between, there is a space where you can tell the truth and when you do that, people are going to buy your books, people are going to give you advances to write your books, and you don’t have to break news or have sensational stuff. There’s a point where if you’re just telling somebody’s truth or maybe your own, it works. I really feel as if I surrounded Phil Jackson. I really feel as if I understood him and could show the readers why Phil Jackson could be both a Buddhist, spiritualist, off-the-wall guy and the most competitive insane asshole ever and therefore won 11 rings–the combined total Vince Lombard and Pat Riley. I feel as if I am the first guy to tell it right but I don’t think I compromised any of my inner ethical rules writing the book.
AB: How much of an obstacle was it that you didn’t talk to Jordan, Pippen, Shaq or Kobe?
PR: The two best stories I ever wrote for GQ were about Ray Carruth, who took out a hit on his pregnant girlfriend, the number one pick of the Carolina Panthers, and Jason Williams, the former Net who shotgunned his driver to death. Neither of them talked to me. What I was able to do was approach their stories without them and that’s the best way to approach any subject. To answer your question, at the top, I had an editor who didn’t care that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin wouldn’t talk to me. “This is your book,” he said. “I don’t care about what Scottie Pippin thought about him or John Paxton or Kobe, just tell me what the hell is going in Phil’s brain.”
AB: Stars don’t generally give the most insightful interviews, either.
PR: You’re exactly right. In this case, none of the superstars would have told me anything about Phil that they hadn’t already told a hundred other writers. The last guys on the bench are often more valuable for a writer. They’re all looking at their coach to see what they could learn from the guy — about the game, about what it is to be successful. They take notes in their head. I could go on and list the number of people who have been his 11th and 12th player who have gone on to tremendous success as athletes, as athletic directors, as high school coaches, as really enlightened individuals. Unlike Michael Jordan, who is clearly the unhappiness man on Earth. Do you think we’ll ever be able to talk about how happy Kobe Bryant is? I don’t think so. But talking to those who had seen him through a truly authentic lens—and that includes Diane Mast and his old friend Charley Rosen—I think I was able to get to why he was the most successful coach ever. Anybody who is truly a success is a guy who inspires people to follow him and I think every guy Phil ever coached was willing to follow him. They wanted to follow him out of the foxhole because he treated them as equals.
AB: There’s a great story you tell about Jud Buechler. Jackson asked him how his wife was doing and Buechler was blown away because no coach had ever asked him anything personal about himself. It seems like such a common gesture. It made me think how impersonal and screwed up the world of professional sports is.
PR: If you get a new job at Wall Street at Morgan Stanley, does somebody sit you down and ask you if your wife is happy that she’s moved from Indiana to Manhattan and Westchester, and how’s the school district? Phil did, and he didn’t do it because that’s what you’re supposed to do — because clearly that’s not what you’re supposed to do. He did it because clearly that’s who he was. That’s the point of the book. Phil was a guy who was guided by what you and I are guided by, which is that we’re all part of the same social fabric. If Jud Buechler becomes the 12th man on a team that includes Scottie and Michael , Phil wanted him to know not only that it’s important that he knows his role on the team, but to know that I consider him an equal as a person. That’s a gift, a gift that most people in charge of corporate entities never consider bringing into the equation. I’m not sure that’s why he won 11 rings, but I can’t think it wasn’t part of it.
AB: How did Jackson grow in his second go around with the Lakers?
PR: I’d like to think the time off made him examine how he fucked it up the first time around. He had great players and everything fell apart. He understood when he came back that teaching is a two-way street, and I think Kobe was finally willing to listen to someone who could teach him. He’d grown up, too.
AB: And Shaq was gone.
PR: I don’t think its coincidental that once you lose Shaq, you’ve got to completely reconstruct the entire paradigm. The second generation of Lakers he took over wasn’t as stable as his first go-round but he had Kobe. He needed Kobe to be the guy to hold the shit together. Phil went back in after writing a book that ripped Kobe as uncoachable. But when the two of them came back together, and then produced more championships, that was an example of both of them learning and both of them growing up. The two of them had an understanding and got to a place and that to me is what is great about Phil Jackson. He’s still willing to learn.
AB: I love the thing from the Lakota Indians, where one of the guys said, “Phil saw that for us, spirituality is everything in life — that spirituality is everyday life.” That sort of spoke to me about what Jackson seems to be about.
PR: The difference between Vince Lombardi and Phil Jackson is that Lombardi would wake up every morning thinking, “How do I game plan to win next week?” Jackson wakes up and asks, “How can I understand why I’m here?” Weirdly enough, the guy who asks “Why am I here?” every day winds up statistically a greater winner than Lombardi, Joe McCarthy, Red Auerbach or any of them.
AB: That’s funny.
PR: This guy whose entire life who has been built around non numbers, about how you cannot quantify success, happiness, whatever, ends up statistically winning more championships than anyone in professional sports history in the United States of America. At that point you say to yourself, “Why is it that a guy who can’t even show up on the radar of all the barometers and quantifiers of coaching success in American sports, how is it that a coach who doesn’t need any of those things turned out to beat everyone at the one statistic we worship? Is it a coincidence that Phil’s thinking outside of the box and treating his players as people as opposed to product resulted in him winning the marathon? Is that coincidence? That’s why I wrote the book. The guy never stops thinking. He simply doesn’t close his mind to anything.
Go here to order Phil Jackson: Lord of the Rings.
[Photo Credit: N.Y. Times, Albany Times Union, L.A. Times, SI, ESPN. Drawing by Michael Pitts]
Even with a Harvard-educated black man occupying the White House, the conception of black masculinity still revolves around the primal, not the intellectual. The first skill any African-American man learns in navigating the white world is how to make white people comfortable. He must be nonthreatening. Before he can profit from the snarl, he must first soften them with a smile. These tactics predate Matt Barnes’ tweeting of the N-word; they predate the NFL, Jay Z and the Civil War.
Yet no matter the tactic, no matter how powerful or savvy a black man might be, manipulation of his image remains a shadow currency. LeBron James was the first black male to gain the cover of Vogue, in 2008. His portrayal conjured images of King Kong — it was him roaring at the camera with a white woman, Gisele Bundchen, in his arms.
These old constructions, very much alive, were returned to light by Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. Here was a case in which a white man used racial slurs to a Stanford-educated teammate who comes from a two-parent, Harvard-educated home. And more than anything else, the root issue was the eternal difficulty this country has in allowing black men to live in full dimension. Martin didn’t look the part. He didn’t conform to the accepted code of black masculinity, exposing the fault line that has always run underneath the American soil, transformative president or not.
On the Dolphins, Martin wasn’t seen as a real man. Uncomfortable with the strip clubs, he wasn’t trusted as one of the boys. And because he represented the images of scholarship and manners, of dignity and higher education — reputable qualities generally associated with white mainstream America — he was inauthentic in the eyes of black players, but no more authentic in the eyes of whites. His teammates preyed on Martin’s economic class and demeanor, viewing each as weakness, his education as a mimicry of whiteness. (It’s telling that John Elway and Andrew Luck, also Stanford grads, have never been accused of being soft.)
[Image Via: The Starting Five]
I remember coming home from school for lunch the day Len Bias died. I fixed myself something to eat, turned on the TV, and heard the news.
Bias would have been 50 today. Here’s Dave Zirin.
Well, Game 1 was revolting now, wasn’t it? Cards win tonight and they’ll have taken care of business. But they were shook last night and dammit if this whole postseason doesn’t have a bad vibe about it.
[Photo Via: Gu Photography]
Is there any good reason for anyone to believe anything Dwight Howard says at this point?
He’s on the market again. On Monday, as the bell announcing the opening of the free-agency market was still pealing, he was being romanced by Houston and it was said that the Rockets were attractive to him at least in part because Texas has no state income tax. (This is a nice perk if you’re Dwight Howard the ballplayer, who will be making a gazillion dollars and can afford your own private police force. It’s a bit of a drag if you’re Dwight Howard from the Third Ward who’s trying to get him some public services.) Yao Ming Skyped in to pitch the team, and Howard’s also met with Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, as well as with James Harden, who likely will not be joining them in Springfield. He’s going to take the grand tour. Howard will be meeting with Golden State and Dallas, too, before deciding whether he wants to pick up the great burden of being a celebrity athlete in L.A. again.
Is there a bigger fake in this league? Seriously, the guy came into the NBA with a smile on his face and Bible verses on his shoes, and there hasn’t been a player in my memory who’s dived for every nickel with the enthusiasm this guy has demonstrated. (Dwight? Rich man. Camel. Needle’s eye. Google these terms along with “New Testament” and get back to me.) He can’t help being injured. He can help being miserable, though, and this guy is simply never happy. He wasn’t happy in Orlando. He wasn’t happy in L.A., and he’s not going to be happy wherever he ends up next. This would be tolerable if he brought championship ball with him. (Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t always a field of buttercups, either.) But the guy doesn’t necessarily help you win. He looks great — not good. Great — in the uniform. At the baggage carousel, there’s nobody more formidable. On the court? Not so much. He couldn’t really mesh with Kobe Bryant and he never really got along with Mike D’Antoni, and now he’s back running the grift again. Please, Houston, sign this guy. Moses Malone will come back from retirement just to kick his ass.
Then there’s Chris Paul, who has condescended to return to Los Angeles now that the Clippers gave him 107 million good reasons to be coached by Doc Rivers. This is another guy with a costume-jewelry résumé whom the league nonetheless slobbers over. You have your analytics and I have mine, but if you’re a big-money point guard, the basic metric is whether you can get your team to win anything and, right now, Paul’s got one division title with L.A. He, however, has fewer rings than Rajon Rondo or Mario Chalmers. But he gets to hold up the Clippers to the point where they raid another team for its coach, throw the league into an uproar, launch a brawl between my favorite person in the NBA and my, uh, boss, and all so that Paul won’t take his stylish, couldn’t-beat-the-Grizzlies-with-a-hand-grenade hindquarters somewhere else in the league. The barstools are full of point guards who guided their teams to a loss in a six-game playoff series.
[Picture by Greg Guillemin]
The Knicks, essentially, not only took a contract albatross off Toronto’s hands — new GM Masai Ujiri was desperate to rid himself of the failed first overall pick — they paid the Raptors for the privilege. If the trade were just Camby and Novak for Bargnani, it would be a wash, two teams handing over each other’s soiled linens. But the Knicks threw in three draft picks because … well, because in New York, the future isn’t just something that doesn’t matter, it’s something to be actively avoided.
This has always been a thing in New York. For whatever reason, there is this sense among sports owners in New York City that rebuilding — or, rather to say, the process of compiling and amassing talent and resources that can be used to sustain perpetual success — is something that the fanbase will just not stand for. If your team is not competing for a championship that very year, obviously your franchise is a failure and unworthy to wear the words “New York” on the front of your jersey/uniform/sweater/hot pants.
This mindset leads to lunacy like just about every free agent acquisition the Mets have ever made — with the ironic exception of Carlos Beltran, the one many fans were the most angry about — or the Yankees giving Alex Rodriguez a 10-year contract or the Knicks trading for someone like Andrea freaking Bargnani. The logic behind the Bargnani trade, behind so many New York sports teams’ moves, is that if the move makes the team even slightly better today, it’s worth mortgaging whatever possible future there might be. Is having Bargnani on the team for the 2013-14 season better than having Camby and Novak? I find that an arguable point, but if the Knicks think so, and they do, then why not throw in three draft picks do make sure the deal goes down? We weren’t using them anyway! They’re draft picks!
So should the Yankees trade Robinson Cano, or what? They won’t but it’d be the ballsy move.
[Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images]