The Lost 1998 Dunk Contest, The 2Ball Competition, And How It Shaped Kobe Bryant

If you're like me and started watching the NBA in the early 90s, you had no reference for top NBA players actually participating in all-star Saturday. Jordan vs 'Nique in the dunk contest or Larry Bird guaranteeing a win in the 3 point shoot-out were simply myth. I grew up on Harold "Baby Jordan" Miner and bought a J.R. Rider poster after he blew my mind with a between the legs mid-air dunk. Neither player would ever reach their potential as a pro but they always had that moment of glory during all-star weekend, surpassing the always forgettable Sunday game. However, the majority of NBA fans soured on watching one too many Brent Barries taking off from the free throw line and the NBA abandoned the dunk contest in 1998.

Instead, a new all-star Saturday competition debuted in 1998 called "2ball", which was also made into a Playstation game that was given out to fans that weekend. There are now only 2 copies of this game left in existence, which leads me to believe those discs were about as popular as free AOL CD-ROMs. For those who forgot, here is how 2ball was played:

In 2ball, players alternate shooting from their choice of seven locations on the floor during the sixty second competition. Players must shoot from one of seven locations marked on the floor. Each location is worth a different point value (2-8) based on its distance from the floor. A 10 point bonus is given to the team that scores from each of the seven shooting spots. A 1 point violation is deducted when any team began before the official whistles, and a 10 point violation happens when any team finishes their 60 seconds without shooting from each position.

America had only previously witnessed this type of scoring in MTV's Rock N Jock B-Ball Jam. Bill Bellamy was a particularly good 25-point shooter which I believe was what his movie "How to be a Player" was about. Dan Cortese, on the other hand, was more of a 50-pointer specialist.

Clyde Drexler and Cynthia Cooper ended up winning the first annual competition, but the more interesting result was the team of Kobe Bryant and Lisa Leslie finishing last, and decidedly so. Kobe, still only 20 years old at the time, was probably upset that he didn't get a chance to defend his slam dunk title from a year earlier. He may have thrown the competition, foreshadowing the later instances in his career where he would refuse to take shots to prove some sort of point to his teammates or the coach, most famously in game 7 of the 2006 1st round playoff series vs the Phoenix Suns.

The 2Ball Competition ran until 2001, and would eventually be replaced by the equally banal "Haier's Shooting Stars". Vince Carter single-handedly brought the dunk contest back in 2000, until it was ruined again by the WWE antics of Nate Robinson and Dwight Howard. For the sake of dunk contest connoisseurs, let's hope Blake and company can revive it once more on Saturday, because if you thought 2ball was a bad idea, imagine what the NBA would come up with as a replacement in 2012.

(Click here to read more Negative Dunkalectics!)

In Which the L.A. Lakers Lose Their Jacket, Then Their Minds, at a Celtics Game

As everybody knows by now, the Lakers got bombed out of Cleveland last night, after a pretty amateur outing which led the Zen master to say, “I think they took the break before the game started.” Ouch. Honestly, I think that the media is probably taking it a little too rough on the Lakers, who – from everything I've ever seen – have struggled since Andrew Bynum returned. Despite the ridiculous differences between myself and the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, I think I felt yesterday what the Lakers are going through this season.

Arriving at our seats for the Celtics/Nets game shortly before seven, I found myself feeling pretty under the weather, so my partner in crime and I got up and shuffled towards the concession stands. I picked up a drink to temper my aching throat, and we walked back to our seats. Shortly after sitting down, I noticed that my jacket, which I had foolishly left under the seat when we left, had disappeared into the vapors. Having a cold, I was especially bullshit to lose it, or worse, let it be stolen. I told the concierge about the situation, and I left to talk to guest relations, who informed me that I was screwed and would die in the cold streets outside.

For maybe the next quarter of the game, when the Celtics were doing their best to destroy the Nets’ confidence, I suspiciously leered over the crowd, scoping out any sketchy looking kids in our section that could've done the deed. I honed in on this kid in a Pierce jersey who really didn’t seem to be enjoying himself, but was sitting in the adjacent row and had an identical jacket tucked under his chair. Honestly, I gave him the stinkiest eye I possibly could, almost constantly, for like twenty minutes. It was all, “get fucked,” and I meant it. A few minutes later, our waitress came over with the jacket, which somebody had turned in (!) and I felt like an asshole for judging this kid who was probably not stoked on watching Quinton Ross play for 26 minutes.

You probably just stopped reading, but hear me out: this is exactly like what the Lakers are going through. They had an outstanding jump-off at the beginning of the season (kind of like how I had an awesome breakfast of corned beef hash and eggs), and were playing close to out of their minds even with Kobe limping around and Bynum out (I was still amped about getting linked on SI and BDL in the last couple days). Pau Gasol was the most likely suspect in their rise to awesomeness, but Lamar Odom, perhaps still stoked about his basic cable celebrity and endless weird love, was playing some of the best ball of his career (I was invited to an NBA game by somebody cool).

But even as they played well, the cracks started to appear, like how Ron Artest got psyched into forgetting that he was one of the best all-around players in the league and still only 31 (and like how I ordered the wrong thing at Tacos Lupita in Somerville before the game and got like ten huaraches instead). Gasol started to get tired from playing 40 minutes a night, and Bynum wasn’t that much help (I got sore tonsils).

When they hit the skids with this Grammys road trip, just think about my stupid coat getting stolen; as a result, I was pissed off and suspicious of every technique in which this could’ve gone wrong. But there are deeper seeded things at work that have nothing to do with basketball that are definitely affecting them: ESPN and Chris Broussard’s constant hounding of their star center; playing five games in seven nights across the country; self-doubt; the psychological effects of aging on their leaders (Jackson, Bryant).

If Lakers management pulls their shit together and decides that they have a good team going and that their body of work deserves to be reconsidered in the 25 games they have left, they should pat themselves on the back. But if they rush themselves into a hasty, ill-considered trade to overhaul their "stale" roster, they’re making a mistake: this team is deep, strange, and dangerous. Yo, Matt Barnes.

One of the loudest cheers in the Garden last night was when the PA announcer revealed the final score of the Lakers/Cavaliers game. I clapped with the other fans – after all the senseless anxiety earlier in the night, everything started to be logical again and this was a pleasant feeling. Unfortunately for Celtics fans, eventually (probably over the All-Star break) their rivals will let go and allow reason take over again too. ESPN will probably still hound them, like they did the Heat earlier this year, but its to no bother. Can you imagine what is going to happen when the Lakers realize that they’ve become underdogs?

I Want To Feel Free Again!

When I was growing up, I was petrified by the thought of drowning. I had a reoccurring dream when I was in elementary school that the Dodge Caravan that my mother drove would, for some reason, careen off the side of the Piscataqua River bridge which connects Maine and New Hampshire through an interstate highway. For a little while, I was terrorized by this deep, unfeeling thought of water flooding my lungs.

Probably because of the dream, I was also sort of horrible at swimming, which increased my paranoia about going over the bridge. It was a classic catch-22. I only cured myself of by throwing myself into gradually larger bodies of water with terrible reasoning: girls liked dudes who could swim. Eventually, I was able to conquer my fears and calmly dive into the swarthy depths of municipal pools and minor lakes and ponds. My worries are gone, and now I can swim with the best dogs, turtles and underwater creatures.

In a couple of days, or maybe even today, there is going to be some sort of trade rumor that will shock the blogosphere to its very core. Maybe the Mavericks, who have been surging as of late, will move Caron Butler’s contract to get another quality player into their rotation. Because of the short news cycle, ESPN still desires a hungry need for Andrew Bynum to get traded. Possessed by a demonic being, there’s a good chance that Carmelo Anthony will be shipped to the Russian national team in exchange for four suitcases of rubles.

What I would propose to all of us who are occasionally obsessed with intentionally headline-grabbing trade rumors and other bullshit is: forget all that stuff, and let whatever happens, happen. We need to leave our worries about our favorite teams behind and jump into the weird, seemingly scary future. Are potential trades and free agent signings really changing the players that we love? Look at Chris Bosh: after moving to Miami, he’s still Chris Bosh!

Things are going to change eventually and if we’re scared of what happens, we won’t be able to enjoy what happens when they do transform into new, explosive demons. Face the facts: we are going to live in a future where Ray Allen has retired, where J.R. Smith and Anthony Morrow are two of the best shooting guards in the league.

I’m actually extremely excited to just get on with whatever the future will bring us. For the first time in years, it seems like the bottom three spots in the Western Conference playoffs are wide open. If Carmelo gets traded before the deadline, the Nuggets might not make the playoffs. In its current placement, the Jazz would miss the playoffs for the first time since the year before Deron came to Zion. Believe it or not, Memphis, Phoenix, Golden State and Houston all stand a chance to make the playoffs. We shouldn’t be scared, and we shouldn’t immediately judge this teams as also-rans right now: we should embrace this sexy chaos and throw our hearts into it.

(Click here to read more Negative Dunkalectics!)

What's Better for the Union: Lebron's Presence or Kobe's Absence?

This weekend the NBA Player’s Association is hoping management will sit down with them for some informal talks about the upcoming CBA negotiations. This wouldn’t be an official, on-the-record bargaining session.  But the union sees the all-star weekend as an opportunity to fold many high-profile players who don’t sit on the union’s negotiating committee into the talks.  This tactic serves two purposes: show management that the stars support the union’s bargaining position and won’t break ranks, and to expose those stars to management’s intransigence and hopefully move them further towards the union’s position. 

The NBAPA pulled this same tactic during last year’s all-star break, during which they had an actual on-the-record bargaining session.  The session was reportedly pretty heated.  The league put a proposal on the table that would gut most of the gains the union has made over the past 15 years, and reduce the players’ share of revenues by around 20%.  James, Anthony, and Wade all attended this session.  And then again this past fall the NBAPA brought James, Anthony, and Wade to negotiations. 

The tactic doesn’t seem to be working, however.  Anthony’s comments after negotiations were mostly neutral, imploring both sides to come to a “mutual agreement.” When asked about his involvement in the negotiations, he basically just claimed to have an interest in them as a “face of the NBA.” 

Lebron James went even further.  Just this past December Lebron got caught telling reporters that he thought the league needed fewer teams, specifically calling out the T’Wolves and Nets, and saying that superstars needed to team up on fewer teams to improve the league.  Derek Fisher, president of the union, was quick to say that he totally disagreed with James and that the union didn’t support contraction, one of management’s proposals.  Many other players and even some coaches came out against James’s comments, much to his surprise.  He quickly issued a statement claiming he had no idea what the word “contraction” even meant.  I’m sure he’s telling the truth, but even in this embarrassing revelation, he never actually apologized or retracted his comments.  He was still on record as supporting contraction. 

The problem with Anthony and James’s comments are that they show that this tactic of bringing superstars to bargaining hasn’t really accomplished anything vis a vis these players’ vocal public support for the union.  Even now as James gears up to attend the informal meeting in LA this weekend (if the owners even agree to it), he has issued mealy-mouthed explanations for his attendance, saying that he has a business interest in the outcome of negotiations.  (perhaps he is bringing his rabbi with him)  When all we hear from players like James and Anthony are either neutral “can’t we all just get along” statements or flat-out pro-management statements then the union has done itself no favors by dragging these guys to the table the way they have.  If anything they are helping management by highlighting their inability to move these superstars to their position.

Then there is Kobe Bryant.  Easily the most valuable player in the league from a financial point of view, Kobe has much to lose in these negotiations. Here’s a guy who should by all accounts be the poster child for management’s position.  They would love to pay him twice as much money as they currently do, while paying the majority of players in the league far less. And Kobe has a lot to lose from a lockout, given that he may not have many more chances to surpass Jordan’s record for championships. He could easily be out there chirping about contraction and the salary cap restrictions for the league, or some “mutual agreement” noise at the very least.  Here’s what he’s saying on the record, though:

“I think the owners need to look in the mirror,” Bryant said to CBS Sports. "They need to make the right judgment themselves and stop trying to force us players to be the ones to make adjustments. They’ve got to look in the mirror and decide what they want to do with the sport, and we as employees will show up and do what we’ve got to do." 
“It’s about making sure we have the best deal going forward,” Bryant said. “That’s my stance and that’s not going to change. I’m not going to waver. It’s about taking care of the generation that’s coming after us. That’s what the guys before us tried to do, and that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m not going to waver from that.”
“The deal that they have on the table is crap, simple as that,” Bryant said. “It’s just principle. We make a lot of money regardless. It’s always frustrating when they try to pit us as selfish or greedy or whatever. We make a lot of money as it is. A lot of it is principle to me.”
“We’ll stick to our guns, and hopefully we’ll learn a lot from what baseball has done and the great union they have and how they take care of their players,” Bryant said. “Hopefully, we’ll have the same situation.”
“You have to take responsibility for the contracts that you pay, and for the players that you pay.”

So Kobe’s obviously going to be at the table this weekend in LA, right?  Nope.  He says "I'll leave it to the lawyers and those people that know what they're doing to handle those situations."

Given the union’s tactic of showing the league’s biggest stars shoulder-to-shoulder at the table when they meet with management, isn’t Kobe’s absence conspicuous?  Perhaps.  But given his public comments, and paired with the comments we get from James and Anthony, even Kobe's absence feels more like an unambigous show of support for the union than a snubbing.  And Melo and Lebron’s presence is a very public demonstration of their lack of confidence in their union to advocate on their behalf.

Perhaps Billy Hunter ought to figure out how to get the union’s secretary-treasurer, James Jones, to play Martin to Lebron's Malcolm  Union president Derek Fisher almost certainly isn't up to the task. When asked after Lebron’s contraction comments if he planned on dealing with James about it after their matchup on Christmas Day, Fisher said "I guess it depends on if we win or lose.  The conversation will go a certain way based on that, I guess."  Chances are they didn’t get around to it.

For Valentine's Day, Give Your Love an Inconsequential D-League Game

For most of my life, I figured that I would die alone, or at least stumble through a series of inconsequential relationships in my middle and late twenties until falling into the arms of some unfortunate woman who could inherit all of my flaws, much as my mother inherited the ones I had yet to grow when I was born. But through a mutual friend, last summer I found somebody who seems to share all of the precious weirdness that I consciously have seen in myself for years.
On our first date, I pretty much knew I could never do any better than her, because amongst things, she mentioned her love of several lost years of the Boston Celtics that most people would rather forget. It was her nature and this discussion (almost like a namedrop but like if somebody mentioned loving obscure artist’s shittiest record instead?) which probably made more interested in her than any other jerk I know. She loves basketball more than I do.
A couple months later, we went to our first Celtics game together, and while it was pretty great to be there with her, the lopsided finale (the home team won by fifteen or something) made for an unexciting finish.
But yesterday, we went to a Maine Red Claws game up in Portland courtesy of the friend who introduced us, who had received four tickets as a Christmas present. The afternoon before, we had gone to the Toboggan National Championships in Belfast, which she had been twice before but I’d never seen such glory. It was, according to another friend who attended, “the most Maine thing [we’d] ever done.” There was a guy dressed up as Elvis drinking a Four Loko standing next to an ice luge.
But when we walked into the Portland Expo, a sturdy building typically used in the past for high school games, liquidation sales and city voting, it was like we had entered the chaotic, delicious spell of not-Maine America again. People were drinking domestic beer in the early afternoon, dragging their small children around by arm or foam claw (they have foam claws instead of fingers at Red Claws games; you can buy them from a young man dressed as a fisherman walking around with a lobster trap attached to his chest). It is very similar to going to a minor league baseball game, in that everybody is trying to sell you shit in a brusque fashion.
The tickets for the Red Claws game were a couple rows up from the floor on the baseline on the home team’s side, across the court from Maine’s players and coaching staff. I expected that we would be able to move around a little bit and get a little better angle of the court, but the early start time on a Sunday had encouraged a lot of families and season ticket holders who wouldn’t normally show up to give it a chance, so there weren’t many empty seats. We stayed put. Either way, we had great seats for entertaining first half dunks by Mario West, three technical fouls (including West, who was burned about something), as well as several sloppy Tiny Gallon turnovers.
Because of the closeness of the court and its players to the fans in the seats around them, there is an intimacy that influences your actions when you’re watching a D-League game. Even more so than at an NBA game, it is hard to not be affected by the performance aspect of what you’re seeing so closely. At one point, I remember seeing the opposing team’s head coach and realizing quickly who he was: 1991 NBA Dunk Contest Champion Dee Brown. To my right, my partner was overjoyed, saying that her sister would be even more ecstatic than she was. I found it difficult to believe her. We both wondered how plausible it would be to walk up to him and get an autograph for her sister, but as the game went on, she focused in on abrasive "defense" chants.
While the game clock was running, the crowd was mostly attentive, and almost quiet, unless there was a flashy pass, three pointer or dunk. I guess we’ve been trained to be exhilarated by cheap thrills, but in such a small venue it reminded me of going to a several Xiu Xiu shows by myself years earlier, being one of maybe a dozen or two dozen people at this snowed in venue, and feeling thrilled by the delicate art that was being displayed by just a few performers. Of course, that feeling can only last until the score gets very close, and then I was very aware of how I was watching sports.
One of the things that has always made me weary of D-League games is how focused their entertainment is. For instance, between every quarter, there was a pretty extended dance routine, and they were pretty boring. The most notable dance routine involved perceivably the creepiest shit possible, between the third and fourth quarter, as these awkward preteens went onto the court and did whatever over some pop song. But mixed in with all of these gawky children, there was this outstanding redheaded goofball, and he was easily the highlight of the afternoon’s entertainment for several reasons. First, dude looked like a Tiny Scalabrine, in both color and moderate girth. It ruled. Secondly, he was the best dancer of anybody there, according to the people I trust for dance quality assurance (dunkalectical girlfriend and our mutual female friend). Thirdly, he was dressed like a referee. It was awesome. I had one chance to give him a high five when I was coming back from getting a soda as his dance crew exited the stage, but I was bashful and embarrassed.
Despite his rough start, which included the aforementioned sloppy turnovers, Tiny Gallon played significantly better as the game went onward. His replacement on the court, the awesomely named Bamba Fall, fouled out after eleven minutes of sterling play, so Gallon seemed to be there for most of the fourth quarter. When he plays, by the way, Tiny Gallon has a sort of casual roughness to his game, real raw potential mixed with sloppiness, packaged in what could’ve been the largest human being I have ever seen that close. Jamar Smith, who looks and plays basically exactly like Brandon Jennings, also performed very well: he seems to be a master of the corner three, which I appreciate.
As the fourth quarter went on, the Springfield Armor closed a six-to-ten point lead that the Red Claws seemed to have for the entire game. At one point, ties began to start accumulating, along with fouls, etc. During timeouts, the Kiss Cam and Child Basketball Dunk Contest was gone, replaced by defense chants and an assurance that there was a basketball game actually happening. There was a sense of urgency that the Tiny Scalabrine couldn’t deliver with his moves. The announcer told the crowd that down in Boston, the Celtics/Heat game was basically tied, to which the crowd groaned in response.
Oddly, Tiny Gallon seemed to be the spark saving the Red Claws at the end of the game. He performed magnificently during the closing stretch of the fourth quarter, racking up several consecutive three-point plays in the post. When they went to him in the closing seconds for a game-winner, his endurance seemed to have maxed out, and his layup bounced off the rim. Through and over what seemed like four Armor defenders, Mario West jumped for the rebound and delivered a thunderous dunk to tip-in the missed layup. In celebration, he did a cartwheel on the court (there was still a little time left on the clock) and received a technical foul as a result. We had already been standing for several minutes, but that was fucking crazy, and it might’ve been the coolest thing I have ever seen up close in a basketball game.
We filed out of the Expo, and eventually set back to our homes south in Boston. She told me that her mother was going to be in town the next night, and I told her it would probably be prudent for her to go out with her and her sister instead of trying to do something with me. It’s been a very long time since I have had somebody to be with on Valentine’s Day, and I don’t really mind that instead of corny, clich├ęd gestures to analogize my affection, I’ll make her dinner tomorrow or something.