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Spurs Win Again. We Don’t Get It.

I expected to be watching Game Seven of the NBA Finals Friday morning — I’m in China, lest ye forget — and instead I wrote this.

SPURS IN FIVE?! WHO CALLED THAT?

Nobody. Cuz we believe “the team with the best player wins”, cuz the NBA has marketed the hell out of individualism. And MJ did, and Shaq probably was, and so was Tim Duncan, once upon a time, but even back then it was always a team deal with the Spurs.

I forecast San Antonio in seven, so I’m still not adjusted. I’m programmed for an epic climax, as games 6 and 7 in 2013 were the best pair of basketball struggles I’ve seen, what, ever? At least since the Magic Lakers and the Celtic Birds in the ’80s. With the Spurs’ early air-conditioning this year, I’m revising history: they actually won last year, too, even though LeBron James held up the trophies and preened and narcissized “I’m not supposed to be here!” (Sorry, kid king. Noticing the clay feet more than is charitable.)

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NBA Playoffs: I’ll Ask You One More Time

Well, I’ve been busy, that’s why there haven’t been more NBA cud-chewing. I had an earlier series of NBA questions about the fire-breathing, where’s-the-basketball gossip-fest that the NBA Finals have made of themselves. Anyway, been runnin’: two weeks left of school, and three weeks in this amazing country. (If you’d like a sense of what it’s like following the NBA from China, there’s this blow-by-commercial-blow account from another Miami-in-the-Finals episode of Sports TV in the Middle Kingdom.) Anyway, Game 5 starts in an hour. Here we go.

Slingshot Lewis. It goes *in*, though, and has for a long time.

Slingshot Lewis. It goes *in*, though, and has for a long time.

Can you imagine how brilliant a shooter Rashard Lewis could’ve been had someone taught him how at a younger age? What would that behind-the-head slingshot, what little kids trying to hoist a rock towards an unreachably high rim, look like if he’d been drafted by the Spurs and coached by shot-meister Chip Engelland? (Surely, not like this.)

Is it necessary to point to subterranean racism when LeBron’s cramping in game one draws the howls of Internet Toldja Boys reminding us that he’s not only human but morally inferior? (Answers, like a jerk, his own rhetorical question: Yes.)

How do the Game One officials miss that four-steps-after-the –bounce journey by LeBron – even James Harden only takes three in his chronic travels – with the change in direction after the first two? (The Jerk, again: it was the Superstar call, plus he did it so smoothly. They froze. That would’ve been an oh-s—t moment in the whistle-blower film review.) Or does the fact that I’m still harping about the best players on the planet getting away with sloppy face-ups and 2 or 3 extra steps on drives — passes that my mediocre high school players never got — a sign of rampant resentment and unresolved OCD issues? (Don’t answer that.)

Was that meaningless last-minute corner three by Kawhi Leonard actually brilliant teamsmanship by Ginobili to get him feeling good heading for game 2, or am I just too Spursy? (No need to reply to that one, either.)

When it rains in San Antonio, does it always pour? (Meteorological Heat-check – get it? tee-hee – Metaphor Alert! An MHMA!)

What in the world were we seeing in Games 3 and 4?

How did the Spurs just keep getting better when the jock punditocracy wrote them off starting, when, 2009? And especially after the Thunder threw a wrench in that dominant playoff run San Antonio was on in 2012? (Back then, it looked like the Spurs had been solved. Remember?)

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NBA Playoffs: Just Asking

Both the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs have won two games in their respective Conference Finals of the NBA playoffs. WARNING (to my mother-in-law and other unwary wanderers into this Sweaty Sporting Space: this post really is about the National Basketball Association, though it inevitably tries to wring Significance and a few drops of Societal Relevance from the perspiration-soaked towels waving as the NBA season begins to climax. (Eww!)

Names are dropped, but this isn’t TMZ. I’m just asking. So, here’s what I was wondering during the pair of off-days leading up to this weekend’s Games Three. They’re on Chinese sports television at 8:30 a.m. The Heat outpaced Indiana this morning (our Sunday), and the Spurs try to rope the Thunder into three-zip submission first thing Monday morning. I’ll be on the edge of my couch, thanks.

Dad, Blake, Mom.

Dad, Blake, Mom.

My Everything’s Coming Up Sterling Question: Race being such a, well, such a black and white thing in North America, I ask you – since we all have opinions on people we’ve never met – would Blake Griffin of the Clippers be on Donald Sterling’s no-fly list? Would Jason Kidd? Stephen Curry? All are quite confidently and curiously labelled “black”. (Or even  Steven Adams, that New Zealander with

So much younger looking as Nets coach than as Knicks player. But that wasn't the question.

So much younger looking as Nets coach than as Knicks player. But that wasn’t the question.

the massive brow ridges from the Thunder who looks like he might have some Maori blood?) Do you remember the old idea of people of colour who could “pass”, not for easy points in the paint but for being white?
(Does this still happen?)

 

My Hail to the First-Round Vanquished Questions:

Is it too soon to say that the Houston Rockets’ Grand Gamble won’t work?

How does Damien Lillard get that open for a three when Houston’s up 2 in the final moments of Game 6? (Old coach insists on answering his own rhetorical question: It’s about unselfish talking on the court, and defending during the regular season as if it matters to develop good habits. I was a big Kevin McHale fan when he played, but as a coach? Yeah, but could I get those guys to defend? Pretty darned doubtful.)

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Steve Nash and Morrie Schwartz

Steve Nash isn’t dying. He’s fantastically fit, a young man of 40 who would have his best years of productivity and accomplishment ahead of him if he wasn’t a professional athlete.

Fun! Oh my goodness, was it ever not! The SI cover jinx has rarely been more evilly effective.

In the NBA, of course, he is a dinosaur, and a tiny one at that (at 6’3”, such is relativity), and no amount of his considerable brainpower or his incredible competitive drive is making a damned bit of difference. Less than two years removed from a Sports Illustrated cover – shared with Dwight Howard, the two newest Lakers! – the former point guard maestro is pretty much forgotten, except for Laker fans who snipe bitterly about his injuries, his team-hampering salary and his “selfishness”.  At his uselessness, and worse. He’s played twelve games this cursed season, out of 72.

Grantland editor and Fan-in-Chief, Bill Simmons, had been talking book possibilities with Nash for awhile, but the man’s still playing (well, occasionally; actually, not much at all, but he’s still a Laker). He’s still a colleague, a peer, and he quickly realized he couldn’t write it the way he wanted, and wouldn’t be interested in doing so if it ignored all of his best insights. Besides, he is not only a certifiable Canadian sports hero without skates, but he’s already produced and/or directed documentaries and will continue to do so after his retirement from the hardwood. His own agonizing grind toward the end of his basketball career, he thought, might make a pretty good film, something that hasn’t been done before; Simmons agreed, but convinced him to do it in three short installments, and to do it NOW, in vivo, a Portrait of the Athlete as an Old Man, a peek behind the curtain of a sporting hero’s struggle to prove that I can still do it!

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T-Mac III: McGrady is Finished. HoF Speculation Begins.

Tracy McGrady has announced his retirement, and it’s a black-armband day

Despite years of mediocrity, it was still a story. He was exciting, and such a perfect foil for “what if”s and “if only”s.

for Chinese basketball fans. (Some NBA snobs would say it’s his second retirement, the first being when he came over to Qingdao to play for the Double Star Eagles in the short Chinese Basketball Association season. I would not say that, as I need all the Chinese friends I have.) I’m certain that tears were shed in more than one Middle-Kingdom man-cave, though T-Mac also had a surprisingly big fan-club of starry-eyed young women, too. For a North American, the scenes of his arrival in and departure from Chinese airports were astonishing to watch, even in small doses. “TracyMania”, it was.

While he doesn’t inspire that sort of devotion in America, and certainly not among most Canadian ball-watchers, there’s no time to wait. Like greedy relatives who want to know the contents of the will before the deceased is even cold, writers and fans in the West vault instantly past any of the routine thoughts we have when someone we care about retires. So, what are you looking forward to? Does it feel good to be done? (When it comes to thirty-something men who have been incredibly well-paid for playing games, this would seem like a silly question, though I’m not sure it is, always.) And maybe we’d be bold enough to ask, Are you well set-up financially? How will you fill your days? What gives you a sense of purpose now? None o’ that, in the case of athletes we allegedly love. We are patently uninterested in any of those things. We don’t care a lick about what life for the famous dude will be like. The writers and fanboys go straight at the only question, it seems, that matters to us: is T-Mac a Hall of Famer?  

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Learning Danny Green

Although my teaching schedule has blissfully allowed me to watch every minute of the NBA Finals — the games are on at 9 am here in Dalian, and my classes are mainly in the afternoons — it’s also June: time to make up for past marking sins, time for administrivia and visas and social obligations, time to prepare for a Canadian summer. I haven’t written a thing about the Spurs versus the Heat, and Game 6 is already upon us. Xiaoqiang is here, and the TV is warming up. I’m thinking about Danny Green.

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Praising the Bull, Savouring the Curry

There were no great surprises in the first round of the NBA playoffs, though two series rose above the others for interest and flavour. I would cheer for the laundry of the Golden State Warriors – their regular duds, not the short-sleeved jerseys with the weirdly non-matching pinstriped shorts – even if they didn’t have Stephen Curry and several other players I find easy to like. Meanwhile, what the Chicago Bulls did in taking a seven-game series on their opponents’ court was heartening evidence that coaching matters. (Thibodeau may not lead the most balanced of lives, but his Bulls teams are superbly prepared.) Character matters, even in the star-tossed salad of the National “Big is Here” Association.

Derrick Rose, Chicago’s dynamite point guard, hasn’t played in a year. (Loved his teammate’s sincere “shaddap” to Mr. Rose’s couch-bound critics.) His backup, Kirk Hinrich, missed the last two games of the Brooklyn Nets series with a bum leg, as did their Mr. Everything small forward, Luol Deng, who has been

The little fella has driven coaches nuts, but he’s been clutch. Boozer and the young kid, Jimmy Butler, have been aces, too.

seriously ill. Third-string point guard Nate Robinson is shorter than me, though he is a mighty mite and an absolutely conscience-free scorer. Centre Joakim Noah has been gutting out his minutes because of plantar fasciitis (sore feet). I hadn’t seen much of the Nets/Bulls collision, the only first-round matchup to go seven games, but I’d read most of the fairly astonishing accounts of how the Chicago men were getting by on focus, cohesion, toughness, and last-ditch defensive efforts that lasted entire games.

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The Rich, the Poor, and the Playground

I have known for most of my life, at least in a shallow way, that extremes of wealth and poverty are toxic to world unity and peace. The Baha’i teachings have insisted on their elimination for something close to 150 years. I accepted the tenet as fact – alongside the necessities of defusing all prejudices, widening all loyalties, and rethinking all assumptions – as an idealistic young man, no more than a boy, really.

During my privileged, Canadian-born lifetime, the gap between rich and poor has only widened, and now I live in a country hell-bent on leading the world in this dubious marker of development. (My understanding is that the Excited States of America is still in front by a nose, but China and Brazil are

Sorry, this is a bit graphic. Yes, that is Chairman Mao on the 100-yuan note, China’s largest denomination (about seventeen bucks Canadian). Families live on that for a month.

closing fast. To the winner goes the spoiling, the rot, the instability, but the runners-up will know it, too.) Lately, I’ve been  brooding on the reasons for my steadily – sometimes violently – growing disillusion with sports, at least at the pro level.

Stratospheric salaries for the best horse-hide whackers and roundball  bouncers (and all their sweaty peers) are, of course, a cliché these days. Spaniard Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers will make $19 million next season, and he’s far from the highest-paid jock. I made a good and steady North American income for nearly 30 years, and my take was somewhere between a mil and $1.5 million, I figure. Such comparisons are so banal that nobody really talks about it anymore, which is why I just did.

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CBA Stars versus The League

The opening of the Chinese Basketball Association All-Star game saw Yi Jianlian fed the ball deep in the left block on the South squad’s opening possession. He operated crisply: baseline shake, one-bounce and a drop-step to the middle, and a sweet little leaner off the board. He was a man with a plan – one that included courtesy to his North opponents when they went inside, by the way – as the Guangdong Southern Tigers star notched 34 points and 8 boards on his way to a South division victory, 120-117, and MVP honours for himself. All this, of course, in front of his hometown fans in Guangzhou, where the prodigal son had come home.

Huge man, big cheque. (About $1600 bucks. I hope there was a charity.) Yi takes the prize.

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Better Read Than Never: Yardley’s BRAVE DRAGONS

Reviewed: Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 304 pages)

[A slightly different version of this review also appears at www.Niubball.com, the best English-language look at all things basketball in China. It was published Feb. 22, just after T-Mac’s apparent farewell to China. Grown men cried in the airport as he left.]

I still remember that raised eyebrow, when I said, “It’s not really about basketball!” I was trying to convince my mother-in-law – potter, BBC-watcher, library ghost, someone for whom the Canadian Broadcasting Corp’s Radio 2 has gotten too damned poppy – to watch the superb documentary Hoop Dreams, a window into poverty, race, sport and education in America. This was a few years ago, and I was a new-enough son-in-law that she was still willing to give me the grudging benefit of her considerable doubt. She did finally watch it, and the review was fairly brief: “My dear, that most certainly was about basketball! But there were some interesting parts.”

So let me be clear. Brave Dragons by the American journalist Jim Yardley,

Jim Yardley, second-generation Pulitzer winner, hoops fan.

really is about the Shanxi (Taiyuan) Brave Dragons, their unpredictable owner (Boss) Wang Xingjiang, their 2008-09 season in the Chinese Basketball Association, and about Bob Weiss, the first former NBA bench boss to work in China, and the very mixed bag of players he had to work with. (I remember the chronically slump-shouldered Weiss, with a pained expression on his face, imploring referees or his Seattle Supersonics players to listen. Were I older, I’d remember him as a resilient, nothing-keeps-me-out-of-the-game player for the Chicago Bulls. Both of these qualities made him the perfect person to try to

Weiss, who came back for ANOTHER year (though not in Taiyuan).

coach in Taiyuan under Boss Wang.) It spotlights the babes-in-the-Chinese-woods that wide-eyed young Americans, imported for their superior skill, are in adjusting to hoops with Chinese characteristics. If you like basketball and find the idea (or the reality) of living in China fascinating, you’ll love Brave Dragons, but neither condition is necessary.

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