Tag Archives: Larry Bird

5 for 5: The Rivalries

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5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

For the third part in this series, I wanted to focus on the rivalries. Sports are only as good as the competition they incite. Playing driveway basketball against your kids when they are 5 years of age can quickly get boring (although palming misdirected shots in midair like you’re Serge Ibaka can be entertaining for at least an hour or so). But, try playing your kids when they are 18 years old and have had 12 years of playing experience. Then it becomes an entirely different ballgame.

When it comes to competition, I’ve always looked at the career of Floyd Mayweather Jr. with a sliver of disappointment. That he’s a great boxer with arguably the best defense in the history of boxing is without question. The issue that I’ve had with his career has been the level of competition of his opponents. Now, I’m not saying that falls squarely on Mayweather. The guys in his weight classes have not been particularly consistent in the past decade. He’s also “luckily” scheduled the right fights at the right times, choosing to fight boxers that were either on the downward slide of their career (Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley) or fighters that were too inexperienced to compete with him at the time of their fight (Canelo Alvarez and Victor Ortiz). He’s never had that one opponent that defined him. Mike Tyson had Evander Holyfield. Arturo Gatti had Mickey Ward. Mayweather has…… (and therein lies the problem with his career).

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If fans are the life blood of sports, then rivalries are the engines that keep them running.  You naturally root against your opponent because they are competing against you and you want to win. Pretty simple concept. But if you add something more to that competitive fire, it can act like an accelerant, creating an even bigger blaze. Rivalries, and the differing reasons for them, can be that spark. When it comes to the Thunder, I’ve categorized their rivals under 4 different categories.

1. Regional Foes

Geography and competition are probably the easiest ways to breed a rivalry. Whether it’s an intracity game between two high schools or a game between professional sports teams 200 miles apart, that desire to be superior to those closest to you is an innate characteristic of the human psyche. Even if the two teams aren’t on equal footing at the time of the game, the rivalry aspect of the game often lends it to be a close affair. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Rivalries

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Oklahoma City Thunder: Ballin’ on a budget

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Growing up, there were two things I was heavily into other than girls: hip-hop and basketball. I grew up in a time when hip-hop was having an internal war within itself. What started off as a rebellious outlet of expression for the poor and struggling turned into an over-expression of opulence and decadence. Hip-hop went from being mostly underground in the 80’s to completely mainstream in the 90’s. That entrance into mainstream pop culture led to many rappers getting rich quick. But as quickly as the money came, it left, leaving many rappers bankrupt and back to where they started.

During this same time period, many of my friends and I were just starting to work. And work means money management, right? Considering I have no idea where my teenage money went, I would say I did a poor job of managing my money. But it’s funny what sticks with you from your teenage years. One of my real good friends, Ryan Rivera, came up with a phrase that still resonates to this day, not only with myself, but also with my team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The phrase was, “Ballin’ on a budget”.

Basically, it’s finding ways to live good without destroying your bank account or credit score. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of work. A person wanting to ball on a budget has to have patience and self control. The urge to “keep up with the Joneses” can completely destroy any plan to stay within a budget. Many people in the world live outside of their means in order to put on the face of success. Nice shiny things equates to success in the minds of many. Ballin’ on a budget also takes a lot of work. You can either go to Dillards and pay $80 for a Gucci shirt, or you can bargain hunt at Ross and pay $14.99 for the same or similar looking shirt. The work comes in looking for the right bargain. You almost have to become a hustler to succeed in this venture. Bargain deals may not be sexy, but they’ll get the job done with less overhead.

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It’s the position where the Thunder find themselves at this juncture. With two trips to the Western Conference Finals, one trip to the NBA Finals, and one number 1 seeding in the Western Conference within the last 3 seasons, this team is definitely ballin’. But they’ve been doing it on a budget to this point. Thunder GM Sam Presti has built a championship contending team through great drafting, salary wheelings and dealings, and difficult decision making.

The current collective bargaining agreement has made things a bit difficult for small market teams that are toeing the line between being tax payers and non-tax payers. What was intended to be a punitive rule to defend against overspending by big market teams, has turned into another instance of “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. The Brooklyn Nets have gone into this offseason acting like a cancer patient that just won the lottery screaming YOLO! at everyone he sees. The Nets are projected to pay upwards of $80 million dollars in luxury tax this season, but they have an owner who seems hellbent on winning a title, no matter the cost. The Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Miami Heat have also been consistent payers of the luxury tax for the past 3 seasons.

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This brings up the difficult question: How are small market teams supposed to compete? In a recent interview with Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird made no qualms about the state of his team and how it compares to the Oklahoma City Thunder,

“Our owners went out and have done everything they could this year so we could be up close to the tax. We just can’t fight the tax. It’s always going to be a disadvantage for us. I feel bad for Oklahoma. They had a great team and they had to make a trade (James Harden trade). They were right there. But we’re going to have to do the same in the future. We’re always fighting an uphill battle with revenues. But that’s part of who we are. And we do the best we can with what we have.”

The key to competing in sports as a small market is to remain patient and look for the right deals. The goal of a big market team is to win at any cost. But the goal of a small market team is to remain consistently sustainable. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Pacers, and Thunder thrive on being able to compete year in and year out. I believe that’s part of the reason why the Spurs, who have won 4 championships since 1999, have never been able to repeat. They’ve remained consistently great, but have never been able to consistently spend like the bigger market teams to continuously improve their team on a yearly basis with no regard for payroll. There comes a point every couple of seasons where the Spurs have to retool with younger, less expensive players. Eventually those younger players gain the necessary experience to perform in pressure filled moment, but the team suffers in those “learning seasons”.

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That’s what I call last season for the Thunder. It was a learning season. After the Harden trade, the team didn’t really hit a consistent rhythm until the end of the season. And with all that, they still ended up with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and were probably a Russell Westbrook knee injury away from making it to a 3rd consecutive Western Conference Final. Next season will probably be another learning season, as the bench lost its leading scorer when Kevin Martin signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves. With many fans clamoring for the Thunder to make a move to replace the scoring lost by Martin’s departure, the team has remained steadfast in trusting the young players they already have. Reggie Jackson showed last year in the playoffs what he is capable of after replacing Westbrook when he went down with his injury. Jeremy Lamb has performed well in Summer League and is expected to be a key contributor off the bench next season. And centers Steven Adams and Daniel Orton have performed surprisingly well in Summer League as rim protectors and, dare I say, offensive threats.

To many, this may seem like a cheap move by the owners of the team. With how good the team looked at the end of the regular season, it seemed like they were a resigned Martin and another bench scorer away from being an even stronger contender than they were when they made it to the Finals. With Martin’s bird rights in hand and the full MLE at their disposal, many thought the Thunder were finally going to jump into the deep end of the pool and join the other tax-paying teams. Instead, they allowed Martin to go to Minnesota in a sign and trade (that netted the Thunder a $6.6 million dollar traded player exception) and haven’t touched any of their available pre-tax cap space, which comes out to about $1.28 million dollars. That’s at least enough to sign someone to the veteran minimum. While the pool of free agents has gotten significantly smaller since July1st, there are still viable players available for the taking. So the question becomes: What are the Thunder waiting for?

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That is where the virtue of patience comes into play. For one thing, it’s only July. Many fans are panicking because of the moves made by other organizations, especially within the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Clippers resigned Chris Paul, traded for Jared Dudley and JJ Reddick, and hired a much better coach in Doc Rivers. The new “it” team, the Houston Rockets won the Dwight Howard sweepstake and landed a couple other veteran free agents. But, championships aren’t won in July; they are won in June. A team can stack a roster full of great players in July that may amount to nothing more than a first round exit the next April. Secondly, the organization has never said that they won’t pay the tax. They know that to be competitive, you may have to eventually pay the tax. But if you don’t have to pay the tax yet, why pay it? Along with more punitive luxury tax restrictions, the new CBA also instituted a repeater tax for teams that have paid the luxury tax for 3 consecutive seasons. With the escalating salaries of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, the longer you can hold off on being a tax-payer, the more financially competitive you’ll be. And lastly, you still have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. As long as those three guys are healthy, I think the Thunder have a fighter’s chance in any game.

The Thunder aren’t cheap. They’re just smart about how they manage their money. They already have a large percentage of the cap space allotted to the 3 players they deem the most important to the franchise. The reason the Thunder are perceived as cheap, though, is because they never had to “buy” any of those players in free agency. They drafted and developed them, and luckily, they turned out to be superstars. But sometimes, difficult decisions need to be made in order to maintain the financial flexibility that is tantamount to small market team success. That’s what happened in the Harden trade. The Thunder had 4 great players, but couldn’t pay 4 near max to max contracts. Ibaka helped the team by taking what is perceived to be a less than market value contract. Hoping that Harden would do the same, the Thunder drew a line in the sand, and said “here’s our final offer, take it or leave it”. When Harden rejected the offer, the team made the decision to move Harden to Houston. The situation was never a choice between Ibaka or Harden. But to make the numbers work, the team needed Harden to leave some money on the table, and for a young guy heading into his first foray into free agency, he just couldn’t do that.

Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant

Being a money conscious team is not sexy at all. Following a team that is run on the principles of patience and bargain shopping is not for the faint of heart. You watch other teams stack their teams with what you perceive to be good to great players, while you’re constantly having to hope that your players continue to improve in the offseason and that the veteran minimum center you signed actually can play the game of basketball. It’s a tough life, I know. But I wonder how Miami Marlins’ fans really feel about their two championships. The Marlins organization went all in for two runs at a title, and then completely dismantled the team after each title. While the feeling of winning a championship can never be replaced, I wonder what the feeling of watching your championship team be completely dismantled the following offseason feels like. Luckily, I don’t think I’ll ever have to know what that feels like.

Kobe Bryant’s Impact on the Thunder

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There’s something to be said about big brothers. I never had one growing up, and, honestly, most of the people I associated with while growing up were the oldest children in their families. But in the examples that I did see while growing up, big brothers can help shape and mold younger brothers into something better than what they themselves are. As we’ve seen with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, big brothers don’t even have to be related to their younger brethren to have an impact.

Big brothers serve two purposes in life: to frustrate and to motivate. The frustration part comes from the big brother’s ability to dominate over the little brother due to being older, bigger, and wiser. The motivation part comes from the little brother wanting to be better than the big brother. The thing about this big brother/little brother dynamic is that the little brother is able to take notes on how to best his big brother, while the big brother just has to wing being a big brother.

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In a lot of ways, with all due respect to Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed, Royal Ivey, Kevin Ollie, and Desmond Mason, the best example of a big brother to the Oklahoma City Thunder has been Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. With his recent season-ending (and hopefully, not career ending) Achilles tendon tear, I was forced to evaluate Bryant’s legacy when it comes to the Thunder.

If there is one word to describe my feelings towards Bryant’s basketball ability, it’s respect. Off the court, though, Bryant is one of those people that I would try to avoid like the plague. His arrogance and A-type personality, combined with a penchant to place blame on others when things don’t go his way, would be a package that I would completely avoid, if possible, in real life. But on the court, those personality traits, and the fact that he plays for the most polarizing franchise in NBA history, make for must see TV. Bryant is a five tool player that has a lethal 6th tool: the overwhelming need to completely decimate his opponent night in and night out, year after year. Michael Jordan had this 6th tool. Larry Bird had this 6th tool. Bill Russell had this 6th tool. Russell Westbrook HAS this 6th tool.

To view Bryant as an opponent is to respect someone out of fear. Fear for what he could do against your team. Fear that he’ll conjure up some bulletin board material for his mental bulletin board, and go off on your team for no particular reason. Fear that he could miss 10 shots in a row, but the 11th shot, with the game on the line, will go in without hesitation. That’s the kind of respect that Kobe Bryant garners. And yet, it’s a fear that keeps you staring in awe. He’s the type of player that fans say, “I hate what he does to my team, but I love to watch him play.”

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Every successful up and coming team has that one hurdle they set their sights on. If you’re a team that is coming out of the dredges of the draft lottery, you mark successes in increments. First step is to be competitive on a nightly basis. Then the next step is to get into the playoffs. Then the next step is to be successful in the playoffs. You keep going until, hopefully, eventually, you win a championship. But along the way, especially in the early stages of the success journey, you always target that one team that’s been there and done that. For the Chicago Bulls in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was the Detroit Pistons. For the Orlando Magic in the mid 90’s, it was the New York Knicks. And for the Thunder, it was the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

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As fate would have it, that 2010 playoff series that pitted the No. 1 seeded Lakers vs. the No. 8 seeded Thunder was probably the best thing for the development of the Thunder. The fact that they were able to give the eventual champion Lakers a fight in the first round did wonders for the confidence of the young Thunder. But if you broke it down to its simplest form, the Thunder didn’t give the Lakers a test. They gave Kobe a test. They planted the seed in Kobe’s head that we would be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future. When the crowd would chant, “Beat LA”, they were actually chanting “Beat Kobe”. Nobody feared Pau Gasol. Or Andrew Bynum. Or Derek Fisher (hehe!). We knew that Kobe had received the message. And that was both awesome and fearful (respectful) at the same time.

As the Thunder’s two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, progressed in the NBA world, they would eventually come in contact more often with Kobe Bryant. On Western Conference All-Star teams and, most importantly, the Olympics, Thunder fans can only hope that our superstars soaked up any of the psychological warfare that Bryant uses on a daily bases. Those blurbs that you hear from media members about Bryant talking trash to Durant, Westbrook, and at the time, James Harden during the Olympics, when they heard that the Lakers had acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, is just classic mental warfare from Bryant. It’s the equivalent of how the military drops leaflets into countries they are warring with stating how their government is endangering them, the common citizen.

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So with that, I say, thank you to Kobe Bean Bryant. He has as much a stake in the Thunder’s ascension and success as does any of the veterans that played for the team. He was the target that we went after when we wanted to be successful. Much like an older brother, he frustrated us. But he also motivated us. And we learned much from facing him and defeating him. Here’s hoping that Bryant does come back, while, realistically realizing, that the Bryant we knew, may have gone down in a heap in the Staples Center on Friday night. Whatever the future holds for Kobe, just realize that the future of the Oklahoma City Thunder was shaped, in part, by the man in the Lakers uniform that we feared and respected the most.

Westbrook and The Boost

This past week, Russell Westbrook signed with Jordan Brand, after being with Nike for the first 4 years of his career. While Westbrook has carved out his own following of fans, he’s always been known as Kevin Durant’s sidekick. The Robin to Durant’s Batman. This generation’s ultimate second banana. There hasn’t been a sidekick this good since Scottie Pippen. But, Pippen never received the boost in popularity that Westbrook is about to receive.

What qualifies for a sidekick? A sidekick has to be a rookie or a very young player that is brought in after the primary player is established to specifically fill the needs the team is missing. Another qualification is that the pairing has to be together for 5+ seasons. For example, Scottie Pippen was obtained by the Chicago Bulls in a draft day deal, while already having an established superstar in Michael Jordan. Russell Westbrook was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics (Oklahoma City Thunder) after they already had an established young star in Kevin Durant. Anfernee Hardaway almost made it to great sidekick status, but injuries and Shaquille O’Neal’s departure to the Los Angeles Lakers negated that possibility. The Lebron James/Dwayne Wade/Chris Bosh mash-up wouldn’t qualify as sidekicks because they were all alpha males on their respective teams before they joined forces. Kobe Bryant and the aforementioned O’Neal made a great duo, but they were brought onto the Lakers the same year and often quibbled over who was the alpha male. 

To understand the road Westbrook is on, it is important to see what happened to Pippen throughout his career. When Pippen first started college at the University of Central Arkansas, he was a 6’1” walk-on that needed to moonlight as the team’s manager to pay his tuition costs. After 3 more collegiate seasons, a 7 inch growth spurt, and consensus All-NAIA player honors, Pippen was drafted with the 5th overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft to the Seattle Supersonics (who subsequently traded him to the Chicago Bulls). The scouting report on him read as follows:

  • 7’4” wingspan and a 41” vertical
  • Strong outside, but needs work inside
  • Not bad driving to the hoop, but doesn’t look to drive
  • Good foul shooter
  • Can make a three
  • Terrific passer at that position
  • Won’t give you much of anything on the offensive glass, and is a so-so defensive rebounder
  • Excellent defensively and a disruptive force in the passing lanes
  • Good ball handler, but commits a ton of turnovers
  • Could start on most teams

Not necessarily the sexiest of scouting reports for someone who would eventually become one of the top 50 players in league history. While Pippen built his legacy on defense, he was also an apt offensive player, becoming the archetype for the point forward position. During his prime (1989-1999), Pippen had per game averages of 19.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.2 steals, and 0.9 blocks. Not necessarily the offensive prowess that Larry Bird possessed, but with a stat line like that, Pippen should have been heralded as his generation’s defensive Larry Bird. Instead, he was teamed up with arguably the greatest player of any generation in Michael Jordan. There usually isn’t a lot of spotlight left when you are playing with the greatest. Ask 100 people who the lead singer of Aerosmith is, and most will answer Steven Tyler. Ask them who the drummer is, and not many will know the answer.

Pippen’s play on the court should have spurred him to more shoe deals, more advertisement contracts, and more widespread popularity. And yet, when his career was all said and done, you couldn’t help but wonder whether Pippen got everything that was owed to him. There were the stories of how Pippen felt he wasn’t getting paid what he deserved (which he wasn’t). There were the rumors that he felt slighted being outside of the limelight, when he provided so much to the team. While he did have his own shoe line (the PIPs) from Nike, they only lasted about two series. So, needless to say, not many companies bought into Scottie Pippen.

It wasn’t Jordan’s fault, though. Most of the blame lies squarely on Pippen. He didn’t have the same tact with the media that Jordan did. He was dismissive and defensive at times with reporters. Then there were the crunch time situations. Those critical times in games that live in lore and become mythologized. It’s not that Pippen didn’t perform well during those times. On the contrary, he performed great during crunch time. But he’s instead remembered for the times he quit on his team in the most critical of moments. There was the time he sat out Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons with a migraine headache. The Bulls eventually lost that game. Probably the most damning, though, was the one where he sat out the final 1.8 seconds of Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks because Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc to take the final shot, instead of Pippen. To make matters worse, Kukoc actually hit the game winner. This one was the most damaging because it came at a time when the Bulls were his team due to Jordan’s hiatus into baseball. When you are known to quit on your team during crucial periods, your popularity takes a big hit.

Which brings us to the best sidekick of this generation, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Like Pippen, Westbrook was not highly decorated coming out of college. Like Pippen, Westbrook was drafted by a team that already had a young star in Kevin Durant. Like Pippen, Westbrook is seen as not being very media friendly. Coincidentally, Durant, much like Jordan, is viewed as a media favorite. And, while not by his own doing, Russell was also involved in a critical game snafu, when Thunder coach Scott Brooks sat an ineffective Westbrook for the entire 4th quarter of Game 2 of the 2011 Western Conferences Finals.

But, not everything is negative when it comes to Pippen and Westbrook. Both of these players are insanely loyal to their teams and teammates. Pippen had a couple opportunities to seek greener pastures during the championship run, but decided to sign for less to stay with the Bulls. Westbrook could have done the same last season, but decided to sign for the allowable max. Both players are highly competitive, with possible chips on their shoulders from being labeled second bananas. Both players are very team oriented, as evidenced by them sacrificing a little of their own games to coexist with two great players. The good severely outweighs the bad when it comes to Westbrook and Pippen, but the bad usually has more advertising power.

Which is why I found the signing of Westbrook to Jordan brand to be a bit ironic. Not ironic in the sense that he doesn’t deserve it. But ironic in the sense that a move like this will probably propel Westbrook into superstar territory, as far as media exposure goes. Into a territory that Scottie Pippen unfortunately never reached. With an endorsement team that includes Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter, Chris Paul, and Michael Jordan, himself, Russell Westbrook will have plenty of opportunity to expand his brand. He already has a slogan in place (WhyNot?), and already has a following outside of basketball because of his unique fashion sense. In a way, Jordan is helping this generation’s top sidekick become what his sidekick should have become.

Alternate Reality – Dream Team vs. 2012 Team USA

In collaboration with Akeli Jackson of DYST Media, Steve Person of Hooptalk365.com and Jon Midget of SLCDunk.com.

The debate has been raging all summer long about which team is better: the 1992 Dream Team or the 2012 US Men’s Olympic basketball team. Members from both teams have spoken publically and most have said that the Dream Teamers would be the victors. But the tally hasn’t been 100% on the side of the Dream Teamers. Kobe Bryant, in an interview, stated, “If you’re asking me, ‘Can you beat them one game?’ Hell yeah, we can beat them in one game. You didn’t ask me if we could beat them in a 7-game series. In one game, we can beat them. No question about it.” This discussion was presented for each of the subsequent “Dream Team” teams after the ’92 team, but the discussion usually died down pretty quickly. For some reason, though, the debate for the 2012 team has lingered on longer than it did for any of its predecessors. Maybe it’s Twitter, where the in your face, non-stop commentary sometimes leads to a paradigm shift in thought, even if it’s just for a moment. Maybe, people see a 2012 team that is loaded with a combination of great players and potential great players. Sadly, though, these types of debates usually remain as they are….figments of our statistical imagination. 

 

Fortunately, I have more money than I know what to do with. So I decided to call a buddy of mine who works at an anti-aging clinic. He told me he would be able to revert the older Dream Teamers back to their 1992 form using hormone replacement and gene therapy. Of course, the players on the ’92 squad would have to agree with this. So, that’s where their ego and my money came into play. I got all the players from the Dream Team to sign on by offering them $10 million each and telling them that the 2012 team would wipe the floor with them. Christian Laettner even asked my buddy if he had anything that would bring his “Duke-swag” back. My buddy told him he didn’t have anything to cure failed potential. Surprisingly, Larry Bird required the least amount of work. His body is basically in the same physical shape now as it was then. Unfortunately, the anti-aging clinic didn’t have anything to bring Chuck Daly back from the after-life, so Lenny Wilkens, who was an assistant on the Dream Team, agreed to be the coach. The fine folks at Coachella kindly declined when we asked them if they could have Hologram Chuck Daly walk back and forth on the Dream Team sideline. 

 

After 2 weeks of intense anti-aging therapy, and a month of “training camp”, the Dream Team was looking like its old self again. Magic Johnson was passive-aggresively talking trash, Larry Bird was sinking flat footed 3 pointers, and Michael Jordan was dunking on Patrick Ewing. The game was set up to happen the night before the gold medal game of this year’s Olympics. Only a few writers were privy to the game. Everyone who was witness to the game was CIA-scanned for electronic devices, meaning no photos or video of the game would ever exist. The 4 writers who were invited were each assigned a quarter to write about in detail. No one was allowed to release any information until after the gold medal game. This, is what transpired: 

Pre-Game 

The game would be played using a mixture of FIBA and NBA rules. The quarters would be 10 minutes in length to maximize the athletic potential of all the participants in the game. The FIBA 3-point line would be used, and the painted area used was the standard rectangular NBA format. Players wouldn’t be able to touch the ball on the rim like in international play. It would be counted as a goaltend, if the ball is touched while still on the rim. A team would have 8 seconds to bring the ball up past the half court line. The style of refereeing would be more international, allowing the players to be a little bit more physical on the perimeter and on the inside. The officials would be Ken Mauer, Dan Crawford, and Dick Bavetta. And, finally, a game like this wouldn’t be right without the use of an official David-Stern signed, NBA Spalding ball.  

One of the most amazing sights to see on a basketball court are the pre-game antics of the different players. Some have customary handshakes and dances that they do. Some have a specific routine of stretching and warming up. One thing that stood out while watching these two teams warm up was the gawking and wide-eyed fandom that was apparent on the 2012 team’s side of the court. It is easy to think of athletes as robotic in nature, while forgetting that they were once young fans wanting to be like they hardwood idols. Especially when their idols are on the other side of the court with their deity-like skills on hand for display. But, just as quickly as they were star-struck, they were just as quickly snapped back into reality by Kobe Bryant, and, surprisingly, by Russell Westbrook. The Dream Team squad was all business on their end. 

The referees called out the captains of each team (Johnson and Bird for the Dream Team and Bryant and James for Team USA). The Dream Team was in their classic whites and the 2012 squad in their new look blues. They all shook hands, the referees explained their expectations of the game, and each team went to their sidelines. Game time!!! 

1st Quarter

 Coach Lenny Wilkens trotted out Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, and Charles Barkley as his starting five. Coach Mike Krzyzewski countered with Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Tyson Chandler, Lebron James, and Carmelo Anthony. And, just like that, 10 of the greatest basketball players were on the court exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands. Chandler and Ewing would be jumping at center court. Bavetta tossed the jump ball, and it is controlled by Ewing. Both teams started off by missing their first shot attempts. On the Dream Team’s 2nd trip down the floor, Kobe snuck into the passing lane and intercepted a pass from Pippen to Jordan leading to a breakaway dunk by Lebron James. The first two points were officially on the board. On their next trip down, Magic Johnson found Ewing on a no-look bounce pass for an and-1 layup. The teams exchanged makes and misses pretty consistently for the first 5 minutes. 

After a timeout, Wilkens substituted Larry Bird and David Robinson for Pippen and Ewing. For Team USA, their first substitutions saw Kevin Durant and Deron Williams coming in for Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. On the first trip down for Team USA after the timeout, Durant made a 3 pointer off an offensive rebound from Chandler. Barkley gave Durant a shoulder check as he turned to go to the other side of the floor. Durant pushed Barkley and both players were given a double technical. On the next possession, Pippen, playing point guard, found Michael Jordan on the baseline for a jumper. 12-11 Dream Team at the half way point of the 1st quarter. After a Deron Williams layup, the Dream Team went on a 10-2 run, with Larry Bird supplying two 3-pointers and Tyson Chandler picking up his 2nd foul during that run. 

After a run-stopping timeout, Coach K trotted out a line of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Deron Williams, and Russell Westbrook. Wilkens brought in Bird, Karl Malone, Robinson, John Stockton, and Clyde Drexler. Anthony and Malone exchanged buckets in the next two possessions. On the next Team USA possession, Westbrook lost possession of the ball, which was stolen by Stockton, who found a streaking Drexler for an easy 2. Another turnover, this time, by Kevin Love, led to a mid-range jumper by Malone. 28-17 Dream Team, with under two minutes left in the quarter. After a missed jumper by Durant, the Dream Team brought the ball up the court looking to add to their double digit lead. Stockton passed it to Bird, who is wide open for a corner 3, but missed it, leading to a transition 3 by Carmelo Anthony. On the next Dream Team possession, Williams poked the ball from Robinson as the shot clock expired, which led to a thunderous (pun intended) dunk by Westbrook on the other end. After a Stockton miss, Williams brought the ball up for the final possession of the quarter. Durant got the ball above the 3-point line, dribbled a little while jabbing towards the basket, and let loose a 28-foot dead on three that splashed through the net as time expires. 28-25 Dream Team, after one quarter. 

2nd Quarter 

The Dream Team came out to begin the 2nd quarter with Stockton, Drexler, Mullin, Bird, andEwing. Team USA squad went with Deron Williams, Kobe, Durant, Lebron, and Love. Team USA took advantage of the Dream Team’s limited defense, and scored on their first four possessions. However, the Dream Team extended their lead at the same time with three from downtown: two from Bird and one from Mullin. 

On the Dream Team’s fourth possession, Lebron nearly steals the ball by knocking it out of Ewing’s hands, but it goes out of bounds instead. In a surprising display,Ewing thumped his chest several times, telling everyone in a loud voice, “I am a WARRIOR!” over and over. Mullin looks stunned for a moment as he wonders what his team would actually be like if Ewing really were a (GoldenState) Warrior. The Dream Team inbounded it toEwing, who immediately shows off his WARRIOR-ness by throwing up a running 18-foot fadeway that clanks off the rim (he was, admittedly, intimidated by the perpetual shut-down defense of Kevin Love). 

Still, the Dream Team led 37-33 as Team USA calls a timeout. 

Out of the timeout, The Dream Team came out with the same lineup. The 2012’ers let Lebron rest a bit and replaced him with Carmelo. Williams drove past Stockton to get an and-1. Stockton, one of the better defenders in NBA history, takes it personally, scowls, and on the next inbounds, rushes up the court and dropped a pull-up 3 right in Deron’s face. Realizing that Carmelo had Bird and Mullin taking turns “guarding” him, the 2012 squad goes to him on the next three trips down the court, with Carmelo hitting a 2 and a 3 (and having a missed 3 tipped in by Love). During that same time frame, the Dream Team goes on a bit of a cold streak from the field, and Team USA takes the lead 41-40, prompting the Dream Team to call a timeout.

One of the most amazing things to witness in a game like this is the interactions in the timeout huddle. While Team USA was all high-fives and laughs, it was all business in the Dream Team huddle. Lenny suggested putting in Laettner, but nobody even blinked. The players all knew they were old enough and wise enough to be coaches themselves. They noticed the 2012 squad trotting out Paul, Williams, Carmelo, Lebron, and Love. In response, Pippen tells Wilkens he’ll guard Carmelo so “they won’t have to worry about him touching the ball again”. Jordan says he and Stockton can take Paul and Williams. One of the funnier moments was when the Dream Teamers decided to put David Robinson in on Love, knowing that the Admiral would completely take advantage of the shorter, less athletic Love. The only person left to guard was Lebron, so they decided that, even though he can’t match LeBron’s total athleticism, the Mailman is the guy who can best match his speed and strength. So in came Malone. 

On the first play, Pippen ran Carmelo through a beautiful “elbows-out-I’m-going-to-send-you-to-the-floor-weeping” screen set by Stockton. Anthony gets up a little wobbly and goes back to the bench, replaced by Durant. Pippen smiles. 

At this point in the game, the Dream Team asserted themselves offensively and defensively. They continuously went inside to the Admiral, who routinely dunked it, probably wondering whether it was Kevin Love or a fruit fly he felt along the way. On the defensive side of the court, Chris Paul could barely make it past midcourt with Jordan hounding him. Paul passed to Deron Williams, who was being bumped and maimed by Stockton. Williams probably began to wonder why his team only had four guys on the court since he could not find Durant under that Pippen defensive blanket.   

On Team USA’s next possession, Williams found Love with a nifty pass. Unfortunately David Robinson shoved the layup down Love’s throat. It seemed for a moment, while Love looked at Robinson in awe, that he was wondering if he was looking at a Greek God incarnate, or just the most ripped athletic specimen to ever walk the earth. Fortunately, Lebron wasn’t as impressed with Robinson’s physique, as he picked up the loose ball and put in the score. 

The Dream Team continued to put on an offensive clinic in the next few possessions, going inside to David Robinson and running the 2012 defenders through a series of cuts and screens that sends everybody on Team USA into at least one Stockton screen. Chris Paul and Deron Williams, taking the brunt of the physicality, start to vehemently complain about the screens. As a writer, it’s crazy when the crowd noise is taken out of the equation and you can hear almost every conversation on the court. In response to the complaining about the screens, Dick Bavetta told the two 2012 guards, “Hey, if you want to try to knock down guys 50 to 100 pounds heavier than you 10 to 12 times every game, I’ll let you do it too.” Paul and Williams suddenly realized they were nowhere as tough as the guy with the short shorts.   

On the other end of the floor, Paul and Williams were getting picked apart by Jordan’s defense and Durant was made to seem like he didn’t even exist on the floor anymore. Love kept looking to the bench, wondering why Coach K hadn’t noticed that David Robinson has 5 more inches and 8 times the athleticism on him. Lebron, realizing that he is only player that can do anything at this moment, begins to try to take over the game. He got past Malone on a couple of occasions, but the veteran power forward either stripped Lebron or knocked him off balance on his jumpers. 

In all, it was a 16-6 run by the Dream Teamers that put them up 56-47 with two minutes to go in the half. 

Time out for Team USA.   

The 2012 team put in their small ball line-up for the final two minutes of the half: Chris Paul, Deron Williams,Kobe, Durant, and Lebron. The Dream Teamers decided to show the young guys that they can also go fast AND big at the same time. They trotted out Magic, Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, and the Admiral.

 After the timeout, the 2012 squad looked to take advantage of their small ball lineup, especially at point guard with Magic being in the game. Heading into the game, one of the main headlines was the Kobe vs. Michael matchup. How would the player most compared to Jordan fare against him? In a couple words, not very well (in the first half, at least). Kobe tried to challenge Jordan in the final two minutes, but instead ended up costing his team.Kobe went 0-2 with two turnovers during that time-span.

 Those turnovers and missed jumpers allowed the Dream Team to basically turn every defensive possession into a fast break opportunity. Magic was at his “Showtime” best, setting up Jordan, Pippen, and Robinson for dunks. On the final possession of the half for Team USA, Pippen deflected a Deron Williams pass that ended up in the hands of Charles Barkley who had a full head of steam with 5 seconds left. The only person back for the 2012 squad was Lebron, but even he realized that he’d rather fight another day than try to challenge Barkley with a full head of steam. Two-handed slam, buzzer, and that was the 1st half. 66-51 Dream Team.  

 3rd Quarter

 Coming out of halftime, the 2012 squad looked to get back in the groove, down by 15. Coach K decided at halftime to throw caution to the wind and go with a more assertive lineup to combat these NBA greats. He turned the reigns of point guard over to Lebron, with Kobe alongside in the backcourt, Durant and Carmelo on the wings, and Chandler in the post. The Dream Team decided to start the 2nd half with Stockton, Jordan, Pippen, Malone, and Ewing in the paint.

 Again, one of the great things about eliminating the crowd noise is that you can hear the different conversations going on between the players and coaches. At the scorer’s table, Jordan walked up to Kobe and tells him, “You may be able to sit at many players’ tables, but you still can’t sit at my table, rook.” Kobe, in turn, responded, “We’ll see about that. I still got a couple years left”, while he powdered his hands. On the sideline, Ewing, looking as refreshed as someone with a jersey soaked in sweat could look, barked at Chandler, saying “this my paint, you ready to bang?” Chandler responded with a smirk as Dick Bavetta handed him the ball. Chandler passed it toKobe and the second half began. 

With Lebron controlling the ball at point, Team USA jumped out on a 6-0 run. On their first two possessions, on what looked like to be the same play, Lebron found a wide open Anthony who connected on back to back 3’s. Kack kaack!! “String music” yelled Carmelo. Jordan, disgusted by Pippen’s defensive effort, screams at his Bulls teammate, “get your man, Scottie!!!” Immediate timeout called by Coach Wilkens in an attempt to get the Dream Team’s focus back. The run, got the 2012 squad within single digits early in the 3rd quarter. 

After the timeout, the Dream Team makes the necessary defensive adjustments. The two teams continue to battle back and forth throughout the quarter. Jordan would score, then Lebron would respond. The two teams began to trade baskets in an offensive display like none other. The 2012 squad continued to hang close, only down by 9 points. On the next possession, Kobe swiped the ball from Stockton with a chance to cut the lead to 7, but inexplicably dribbled the ball off his knee. From that point on, the Dream Team turned up their defensive intensity, which seemed to stifle Team USA’s offensive production in the middle of the 3rd. Jordan was all on top of Kobe, giving him a real headache. When Kobe drove left, Jordan was there. When Kobe drove right, Jordan was there. It was his Airness at his defensive best. Malone and Ewing were being savages in the paint, giving Chandler and Carmelo more than they could handle. But no one was stopping Durant, who kept the 2012 team treading water with a couple jumpers. The 2012 team remained down by 9, midway through the 3rd quarter, heading to an officials’ timeout. 

The two teams made line up changes and exchanged baskets and misses for the next 3 minutes. With only a minute and a half left in the 3rd, the lead for the Dream Team was still 9, at 82-73. Lebron knew if something was going to happen, it had to happen now. One of the things that he learned in his championship season was to pick and choose when to take over, especially on a team full of superstars. It was go time. He knew it. Coach K knew it. Everyone on that 2012 bench knew it. After exchanging misses, Lebron drove to the basket using his strength to get an and-1 lay-up after a hard foul by Malone. After sinking the free-throw, Lebron blocked a last second shot attempt by Jordan to end the quarter. As the clock expired, both team walked to their respective sides knowing that the 4th would be a pure dogfight. With three quarters in the books, the Dream Team led 90-84.

 4th Quarter 

At the beginning of the 4th stanza, both teams decided to rest their main guys knowing that in order to win this dog fight, sustaining energy for the long haul was absolutely paramount.  The Dream Team entered the quarter with Stockton, Mullin, Drexler, Malone, and Robinson, while Team USA countered with Williams, Westbrook, Iguodala, Carmelo, and Love.  Team USA wasted their first two possessions on ill-advised 3-pointers by Russell Westbrook, while the Dream Team played much more efficient basketball, getting two easy buckets inside from Karl Malone. With that, the Dream Team took back control of the game, pushing their lead to 10, 94-84, a minute and a half into the fourth quarter. 

On their next possession, Iguodala lets a tipped pass get by his finger tips out of bounds, leading to a turnover. On their way back to the other side of the court, Barkley gets up off the bench and starts barking at Carmelo, “You can’t hold the Mailman!” Carmelo looked back, replying, “Don’t talk too soon Chuck, still a long way to go.” Not even a minute later, Williams was able to strip the ball from Drexler while he was driving to the basket, leading to a 3 on 1 fast break which Williams converted to a layup to cut the lead down to 8. With that, Coach K got off the Team USA bench with two clinched fists in the air, signaling for a full court press. Realizing that Stockton was the only legitimate ball handler on the court for the Dream Teamers, Coach K put Westbrook, and his ravenous ball pressure skills on Stockton, while the other four Team USA defenders went into heavy man to man denial mode. Westbrook’s defensive pressure works as Stockton picked up his dribble near midcourt. Chris Mullin comes to the half court as a pressure release as Stockton passes the ball, but Iguodala is a half second quicker in the passing lane, leading to a fast break opportunity for TeamUSA. Iguodala got the ball to Westbrook, who penetrated to the basket only to have his shot rejected by David Robinson, who came from the other side of the court. Kevin Love (as always) was in the right position to corral the loose ball, drop step, and finish a layup to bring Team USA within 6 points, 94-88. 

With 8 minutes and some change left in this heavyweight matchup, Dream Team coach Lenny Wilkens inserts Scottie Pippen in place of Mullin, while Coach K completes the chess match by substituting Durant and Paul for Iguodala and Williams. Before play begins, Krzyzewski calls Love over and whispers a brief 2-3 second order into his ear, to which Love gives a nod of agreement. After the teams exchange misses, the Dream Team was looking to utilize their advantage in the post. Stockton brings the ball up and passes it to Drexler on the wing. Drexler takes one dribble to the right, but passes it to Pippen who is coming off a Malone screen. Pippen zips a pass into the post to Robinson who has positioned himself for a quick shot. The Admiral goes up for a 3-foot hook shot, but is immediately fouled by Love. Coach K’s message to Love was to foul Robinson on his next shot attempt and make him earn those points due to the fact that Robinson was a 59% FT shooter in the ‘92 Olympics. The plan works as Robinson misses both free throws. Carmelo grabs the rebounds, dribbles up past the half court line as Coach K calls timeout with Team USA down 6. The coach knows that the next few minutes could be very important and wants to discuss strategy with the team.

 And so it begins……. 

6:43 left and both teams bring back their heavy hitters. The Dream Team 5 consists of Magic, Jordan, Barkley, Malone, and Ewing, while Team USA counters with Lebron, Kobe, Durant, Carmelo, and Chandler.

 As expected, Jordan comes out of the timeout hitting a 2 pointer off a flare screen by Barkley, which, in the NBA, would’ve been illegal, but since the refs are allowing a more physical game, it was allowed to happen. On Team USA’s next possession, Lebron, using Kobe as a decoy, was able to complete a give and go in which Lebron backdoors Magic for the 3 point play, giving Team USA a chance to cut the lead to 5.  Lebron completes the 3-point play with the free throw and cuts the lead to 96-91 with 5:44 to go in the 4th quarter.

 After a failed possession by each team, and a costly turnover by Chandler in the post, the Dream Team has the ball with 3:37 to go. Kobe gets a ticky tack foul called on him, as he slightly bumps Barkley while attempting a double team. Barkley looks at Kobe and yells, “I know you’re not double-teaming me with the guy that is guarding Michael!” Barkley gets the ball out of bounds and gets it to Jordan, who raises up for a 17 ft jumper that bounces off the back of the rim. Durant grabs the rebound and quickly gets the ball out to Kobe. Kobe gets the ball up the court and quickly passes to Lebron who finds Durant trailing on the play for a wide open 3….good!  Team USAonly down two, 96-94, much to the dismay of Coach Wilkens. 

 With 2 minutes to play, Coach Wilkens makes what is perhaps the coaching move of the game. He substitutes Pippen for Barkley, whose defensive lapses on the perimeter had cost the Dream Team most their lead. That move pays dividends as the defensive pressure from Jordan and Pippen limits Kobe to 1-4 shooting in the final 2 minutes, and keeps the ball out of Lebron’s hands by double teaming him every time he caught the ball in the perimeter. On the offensive end, the veteran leadership of the Dream Team took over. Magic Johnson showed poise in running the point, managing the shot clock, and finding Karl Malone for two back breaking 20 footers as the shot clock was expiring. The perimeter-oriented offense of Team USA proved to be their demise as they could not get anything easy going late in the game. When the final buzzer sounded, it was 100-96, Dream Team.

 Both teams hugged and congratulated each other like it was the end of a hard fought playoff series. All the Dream Teamers were grabbing their younger counterparts and dispelling small nuggets of wisdom. And, of course, the Team USA members were all ears, soaking it all in like sponges. At center court, Michael Jordan hugged Kobe Bryant and talked with him for about a minute. What was said? Only those two know. But I would bet it would have something to do with respect and love for the game, for these two teams exemplify what being a basketball player and being a basketball team is to us fans. In a game that would seem only to occur in the imagination, this was an incredible display of basketball at its finest.