Who was the player on the Atlanta Hawks who smelled so badly, nobody wanted to guard him? Are the Nets ever going to move to Brooklyn? How much will that decision influence LeBron in 2010? After the jump, an interview with stubbornly nostalgic Star Ledger NBA writer Dave D’Alessandro, one of the best daily reads in hoops.
Q: We’ve been avid readers of your work for about eight years, since moving to the NYC area after college. Fill us in on all that fun stuff like where you grew up, writing influences, college, where you picked up that dry wit … you know, the stuff that might appear in your wikipedia entry.
Sorry, what’s that you said about dry rot? No, you are very kind – cheers for that – but I doubt I’d qualify for a wikipedia entry. I am bereft of interesting qualities, and thankfully free from peccadilloes. I would sail through a congressional hearing unscathed. Just ask my parole officer, who would also tell you that I’m from Elmwood Park, New Jersey, which was known as East Paterson before they changed the name to protect the innocent. I attended Fordham University, though you’d have trouble convincing the professors of that time that I attended actual classes. And I didn’t become a reader or a writer until my late teens, when I began devouring everything by Chandler, Hammett, and John D. MacDonald. I didn’t know I was going to enter this demented business until after reading Breaks of The Game, which I assume is a common mistake many of us made in 1979. I mentioned this to Halberstam himself, when he was visiting SUNY Purchase, the Knicks’ old headquarters, about 20 years after that. His response is tattooed on my memory: â€œI’m very sorry to do that to you.€ Great man. And his storytelling skill — it was like somebody kicked open the door to your mind. That led me to people like McCullough, Caro, et al.
Q: You’ve been covering the Knicks and Nets, seemingly forever. In that time, more than a handful of NBA writers – Sam Smith of the Tribune and Peter May of the Globe, just to name two – have either been bought out or left newspapers or drfted to TV or the internet. Have you noticed the fraternity shrinking as more and more newspapers seem to focus less on the NBA? How much does this hurt the readers? Do you see this trend reversing at any point? Has it given you any pause to cover a different sport?
Well, most people who do this for a living now pop Xanax like they’re chiclets, so that should tell you something. Our august journal just parted with nearly one-third of its editorial staff. And yes, I’m losing too many friends, which is personally dispiriting. I’m not attuned to whether the readers actually notice what’s happening in our business, and I’m not even sure they care – we are living in a time when PhDs are driving cabs, so people have enough to think about. As for covering a different sport, I have neither the breadth nor the proclivity, because I don’t watch or read about any other sport. My friends have stopped being surprised by this: I’m not a sports fan, really – I haven’t rooted for a team since the Holzman Knicks or an individual since Ali. I just happen to like one sport a great deal, and the only one I actively participate in is backyard bocce.
Q: At first, the Josh Childress move seemed random, but from the sounds of it, it could make a ton of sense for mid-level guys in the future. Though we’re not buying the Kobe-to-Greece business, should we? And do you think this is good for the league in that competition for players is more challenging, or bad for the league in that there’s a chance the NBA could be stripped of a star? And even though David Stern is putting on a brave face, he’s got to be at least mildly concerned, right?
There aren’t many midlevel guys to be arouse mild concern anymore – your average GM isn’t handing out the MLE to single individuals, because the owner’s accountant asks him the same thing every July 1st: “When you say this guy could be the difference between 47 and 50 wins, you know that’s a stupid way to get me to invest another $30 mil, right?” As for those residing in upper echelons, I thought Kobe’s latest kibosh was pretty convincing. I doubt we’ll see any superstar follow the wave of Euro-jumpers. There will always be economic concerns, certainly, but we’re a few years away from getting a vivid picture of where this is going. Still, we know this much: The stars get paid in Stern’s league. And frankly, I don’t care if Olympiacos throws 3-and-80 at somebody, the best players know they’ll never be taken seriously if they don’t play in the world’s greatest league, which is why we had a flood of Ã©migrÃ©s in the first place.
Q: Will the Nets ever make it to Brooklyn? The delays have us thinking no. If that’s the case, then do you think LeBron stays in Cleveland, or winds up with the Knicks? Or can you imagine him playing in New Jersey? Is there even a darkhorse for his services, or is he the type who bigger-than-sports star must be in one of the NBA’s major markets, like LA, Chicago, or NY?
The political momentum is such that there may be no turning back at this point, and the linchpin in this deal – sharp guy named Brett Yormark – asserts that the financing is there, and that his partners are content to see it through. Even Barclays, which actually turned down Gordon Brown’s handout, seems to be hanging in there. Maybe that’s just a company line, but the signs are that they’re still going to break ground. . . . uh, some time in the coming century. And yes, it would appear silly for LBJ to make the leap without a guarantee that he’ll be out of Jersey within weeks after signing any deal with Team JayZ, unless it involves a secret chunk of the equity that would get him to cool his heels for a while. Otherwise, how can anyone seriously be sold on playing in Jersey? That’s not a knock. It’s just the opposite. Full disclosure: I’m the most provincial SOB you’ve ever met. I’ve been in Jersey all my life and cannot live or work anywhere else, with the possible exception of Tintagel or Chipping Norton. When Emma Lazarus wrote â€œher mild eyes command…the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,â€ I don’t give a damn what anybody says, she was referring to NYC and Jersey Freakin’ City, not NYC and Brooklyn. But I also know Jersey isn’t for everybody. Certainly not for a global-icon-cum-supreme-lord-of-Indonesian-sweatshops. So until I hear different, I think we can assume his preferences are Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Cleveland – though not necessarily in that order.
Q: Baseball has become a stat-driven sport in recent years. It seems like some folks who cover the NBA are trying to do the same, although it is a team sport, whereas baseball is largely one-on-one. When you’re breaking down on evaluating teams and players, how reliant are you upon stats? Because with so many new NBA stats emerging, you can find wacky things – like Chuck Hayes of the Rockets being invaluable or Adam Morrison being the worst starter in the league.
I can appreciate the occasionally oddball stats, especially if they’re used as a coaching tool, but I have limited patience with that formulaic stuff used in rankings. One reason, basically: You can’t quantify defense, and last I looked, that’s still half the game. I have an old friend who makes his living in stats named Jimmy Stamos – brilliant statistician, which is why ESPN makes him fly all over the map like a rabid bat – and he said it first, when this stuff started showing up 10 years ago: Baseball is a static game, but basketball is a co-dependent, fluid game, and the system-oriented structure of the latter makes it far more complicated than the baseball model. That’s why it’s a more compelling sport, frankly. The sabermetric stuff can work only if the guy doing the digit-crunching is basketball-savvy and has a clear understanding of what the objectives are in a particular defensive gameplan – matchups, success in fronting or three-quartering the post, double schemes, rotations, helps, where to send the handler off screens, missed box outs, sinks, all of it. At least every coach I’ve spoken to thinks that way.
Q: It seems to us like the extended runs of three teams are on the verge of ending: Detroit, Dallas, and San Antonio. They’ve been a staple in the playoffs for what seems like forever. We’re not saying either of these teams will fade away, and the Spurs probably could get to the Finals. But can you identify any teams who maybe could “take their place” because they have formed a strong nucleus and locked up top talent for a long time?
If you’re talking about a title contender with a decent shelf life, we’ll probably see less of that in the foreseeable future. We’ve already had eight different teams in the last five NBA Finals. It’s just too damn hard to keep a great team together nowadays, even with home rule in free agency. But the Lakers look like they’ll be around for a while, given that they have just one guy on the wrong side of 30 (Fish), and I choose not to count Kobe because he’s ageless. As for the others. . . .We’re all intrigued by Houston’s potential, but too much can go wrong there – some of it physical, some of it mental. Utah may not win a title, but it can be a special team because of its balance, and because the old coot still runs the most beautiful conventional offense in the league. And you have to applaud how Portland is stockpiling its assets. The Eastern team that has the strongest long-term potential could be Orlando, but they’re too weak at the most important position right now. And all this will be moot once we see how people like Riley spend their money in the 2010 market.
Q: The internet can at times be dangerous for athletes – your paper did a huge story on how athletes fear cameraphone, and NFL players like Vince Young and Matt Leinart have been caught in uncompromising positions, so-to-speak. It happened recently with Josh Howard, and to a much lesser extent, Michael Beasley and Devin Harris. Do you see this trend getting worse for the NBA? For all sports? Are front offices and players talking about this? Are players worrying that some groupie they spend the night with will go and blog about it?
Not in my purview, exactly. I think gossip is a waste of time, and I don’t really have an appetite for the seedy, intrusive slop pertaining to someone’s personal life — unless it has something to do with a bathtub, 40 cans of whipped cream, and a member of Congress.
Q: Because it is our favorite question: Confrontations. Had any good ones with players or coaches? What’s the best one you’ve witnessed? Charles Oakley and Tyrone Hill seems to be the gold standard, but we hope you can top it.
Some time ago – this is going back 20 years – the Nets were very late in returning to the floor after the halftime break. The reason was that chaos had erupted in the locker room – not fists or tirades, but a very heated argument over who had to guard a certain Eastern European forward from the Atlanta Hawks whose body odor was such that nobody wanted to be stationed in the same zip code, much less touch the poor guy. It was my understanding that one player eventually paid an intrepid teammate a large sum to perform this task without the coach’s knowledge or consent. I still don’t know whether the story is 100 percent accurate, and I don’t condone sharing half-truths. I just repeat them in the public interest.
Most underrated player in the league who has never been an All-Star. Deron, probably. Not to be contrarian, but the All-Star Game is an unbearable drag, and I speak of it as rarely as possible. I’d just as soon give you one guy I consider vastly underrated – Brevin Knight. (Told you I was provincial.) But the most underrated player of all time — if I am to believe those sages who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know — was probably Maurice Stokes, an All-Star in each of his three years, but decades ahead of his time and sadly unnoticed in the fog of history.
Player in the league most likely to eventually fill Shaq’s void. Won’t happen, at least not in my lifetime. I’m not in the business to feed his ample ego, especially now that he really needs it, but he is the MDE. Nobody — not Wilt or Kareem or even Henry Finkel — could touch him in his prime years.
Team that didn’t make the playoffs last year, but will definitely this year. Boring answer, Portland. They should win 50-plus if the big kid stays upright.
Best basketball movie ever made. Double Indemnity, with Fred McMurray and Edward G. Robinson. No, wait — that was about murder and life insurance. I often get those things confused. Did Hitchcock do any basketball movies?
First pick in the League, any player, for a season: Bill Walton, as long as that season is ’76-77. Or Willis Reed, 69-70. Because there’s nothing more gratifying than learning that your boyhood idol ranks among the finest people you ever met.
First pick in the League, any player, one game. You mean, if I had a rooting interest? Probably Shaq, circa 2000-03. But I’d much rather pick a good matchup. Clyde vs. Randy Smith. DeBusschere vs. Gus Johnson. Bird vs. Worthy. Jordan vs. Dumars. Reggie vs. anybody in the postseason. More recently, Nash-Bibby. Pierce-LeBron will be a compelling study for the next three years. Odd, I know very well that today’s player is substantially better than those of my childhood, and by and large, the league can be immensely proud of the 400 kids they employ today. But I tend to be stubbornly nostalgic (OK, sappy) when it comes to this stuff. Yes, it’s a problem, but admitting it is the first step.
Team with the best pregame spread: Not that old chestnut! Put me down for Phoenix and Milwaukee. But this is a pot-luck business, and you occasionally encounter something that could poison a toad. On the flip side, the chicken cordon bleu in East Rutherford is as good as anything, but given that I am not particularly choosy, I suggest you have someone taste it first.
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