Thursday, June 3, 2010

Kobe Can’t Be The Best Ever Until He Beats The Celtics

By Mark F. Gray

To those who still want to pose the Kobe versus Michael Jordan question regarding who is the best player ever be advised that these NBA Finals are the defining moment in the Black Mamba’s career. As a lifetime Laker Bryant takes his place amongst the likes of Wilt Chamberlin, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West as players who have gotten to the NBA Finals and haven’t solved the mystery of the Boston Celtics.

Until he finds a way to slay that dragon Kobe can’t be considered the best player of all time. In fact he can’t even be considered the greatest Laker ever. No matter how many championships won if he doesn’t beat the Celtics that honor will be shared by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the pantheon of purple and gold.

Perhaps it is unfair but that’s just how it is for a lifetime Laker of Bryant’s stature. These are the two most storied franchises in the history of pro basketball. The Celtics and Lakers have combined to win 33 of the NBA’s 64 championships. However, when it comes to The Finals it has been nearly all Boston. The Celtics have won nine of the previous 11 series between the teams. Had it not been for Magic, Kareem, and Pat Riley during the mid-80’s the Celtics would still be pitching a shutout with the Larry O’Brien trophy on the line.

When you play for the Celtics and the Lakers you are defined by winning championships. There are no division, conference, or attendance championship banners hanging in the rafters of Staples Center or the new “Garden”. The Celtics have hung most of theirs at the expense of the Lakers much to the chagrin of their Hall of Fame wing that includes Chamberlain, West, and Baylor.

If you’re Kobe that’s a fraternity you would prefer not to be a part of. Each player has carved his niche in NBA lore but each looks back upon an illustrious career with an asterisk for not being able to defeat the Celtics for an NBA championship. Bryant enters these NBA Finals trying not to embrace past history but he now stands as another all time Laker great who hasn’t beat the Celtics when it counts the most.

This is bigger than being compared with Jordan as greatest player ever. While Jordan defined basketball in Chicago the Bulls were anything but a storied NBA franchise before he got there. They had never won a championship before him and were historically irrelevant. Its easier to make history where there is none as Jordan did.

Kobe, meanwhile, walks in the shadows of greatness. He is defined as much by winning championships as who he beats. Bryant’s scroll of titles comes at the expense of legendary franchises such as the Pacers, Nets, Cavaliers, and Magic who had been there before. For the record, against franchises with NBA titles Kobe is now 0-2 having lost to the Pistons in 2004 and the Celtics in 2008.

Four championships define Bryant as one of the all time greats. However, as a Laker Kobe is held to an altogether different standard. He will defined be the ghosts of the past. He has proven that he could win without Shaq but can he join the greatest duo in the history of the franchise by beating a long time nemesis. You can’t be the best player ever without being the greatest player in the history of your franchise.

Kareem and Magic earn that distinction with five titles - two against Boston. If Kobe doesn’t lead his team to victory over the Celtics his place will remain on a lower rung. Its not fair but that’s just how it is!

Monday, May 24, 2010

King James Team Good For Show Not For Championship


In the latest chapter in the book of King James today’s verse reads: “All the kings boys and all the kings men could get him back to the NBA Finals again”.

LeBron James has been given everything an athlete could want since he was anointed as the future of the NBA by Sports Illuustrated when he was a 15 AAU phenom in Akron. He put $90 million into his bank account from Nike before playing a minute as a pro and was given the keys to his own franchise before he could legally drink. Coaches, teammates, and executives have learned to bow in the presence of “The King” for fear that he would leave the majesty of Cleveland taking with him the faint hopes for a world championship.

Despite his entitlement, James has yet to deliver a championship. In fact the Cleveland Cavaliers are regressing in their quest for a title. Consider that it takes 16 post season victories to win an NBA championship and the Cavs have seen their post season win total drop from 12 to 6 since they went to the Finals in 2008. There are those who would argue that the team is making steady progress with back to back 60 win seasons. However, there are no championship banners raised for regular season dominance thus LeBron and the Cavs have grossly underachieved.

The problems with the Cavs don’t totally rest on the shoulders King James. There is an organizational issue that faces them much like the dilemma that faces the PGA Tour when Tiger Woods isn’t playing or in contention. Both organizations lose their relevance when the two ambassadors of the swoosh aren’t performing at a high level. While the PGA still hopes for a Tiger rebound this season, the NBA’s hope for the “Kobe vs. LeBron” finals have been thwarted for another year.

Cleveland’s biggest problem is that LeBron’s impact off the court is so large they have to capitulate to what he wants on it. The value of the franchise has doubled since he was drafted and there has been an economic revitalization downtown that has proprietors so nervous about his departure that many are preparing to go bankrupt if he leaves.

Those who say the Cavs don’t have a good enough supporting cast surrounding King James to win a title must realize he has to carry much of that blame. The roster is comprised of his boys who are great at dancing on the sidelines but not playing at a championship level in the playoffs. The $100 million payroll is better suited to audition for America’s Next Dance Crew. Perhaps Danny Ferry should hire Randy Jackson as his consultant because the Jabawokees couldn’t play any worse than Mo Williams has for the second straight year in post season.

Ultimately, coach Mike Brown will take the fall because James probably won’t sign an extension if he returns because they haven’t been on the same accord offensively for the last three years. James has all the leverage and holds all the cards. But leaving Cleveland won’t guarantee King James a championship until he proves he can play outside his comfort zone.

King James needs ballers and not buddies by his side in crunch time if he’s ever going to win it all. He also needs a veteran coach whose credibility is larger than the aura of LeBron and may need to bruise his ego sometimes in order for him to raised the play of those around him to a championship level. Championship teams have often lived in contentious locker rooms. Shaq and Kobe had their issues in Los Angeles but the Lakers won three titles in four years with Phil Jackson keeping them on edge.

The King also has to be honest with himself now. Is it more important to be an NBA champion or a global icon? Michael Jordan proved it could work hand in hand but he was driven to be a champion first and that’s what he is remembered most for. A change of address offers no guarantees until James zeal for a championship replaces his penchant for showmanship.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Caldwell’s Colts Key To Rooney Rule’s Future

By Mark F. Gray

Liberals and conservatives who sit on either side of the political spectrum these days don’t agree on much except for one thing. Now with an African American president the nation has finally overcome and there is equal opportunity for everyone.

Well…not exactly!

Ask the plethora of competent minority head coaching candidates who continue to be ceremoniously interviewed by teams who have already made hiring decisions and its clear that opportunities to be head coaches in the NFL still aren’t equal for coaches of color. Despite the success of the few African American coaches most owners are still genuinely reluctant to give the leadership position of their franchise to candidates who don’t resemble a character from a Norman Rockwell painting.

Who knew you still had to be Pa Kettle in 2010 to find the seams in the two deep zone?

If you are of a certain age and were a fan of the Baltimore Colts the images of the Mayflower escape still cut through your soul like a hot knife going through butter. The only redeeming quality of the Colts winning Super Bowl three years ago to those fans was that Tony Dungy broke the Lombardi Trophy barrier. That said, Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell is playing for more than just a world championship in Super Bowl XLIV this year. This is a referrendum on the merits of the Rooney Rule that some in the NFL establishment feel is a policy whose time has passed.

That Caldwell is the fourth African American coach in as many years to lead a team to the Super Bowl is the most innocuous statistic in the build up to the annual game of the century. He is a testament to the foresight of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney who graphed the rule which mandates all teams interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a head coach or general manager. It has eroded the argument that owners “didn’t know where to find viable candidates” by giving them a legitimate pool to choose from.

Three years ago Mike Tomlin validated the process by overwhelming the Steelers organization when given a fair unbiased interview and landed the job. Last year he led the Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl championship proving they made the right decision. That Tomlin wasn’t even considered a long shot going in to the interview process should have enlightened 31 other owners about the merits of objectivity when making the most critical hire for any organization.

Nonetheless, there are still owners who aren’t committed to diversity and have found loopholes in the system to circumvent the Rooney Rule and begin the assault on its viability. When the Washington Redskins interviewed Jerry Gray for their upcoming vacancy while still on Jim Zorn’s - staff as Mike Shanahan waited in the wings - it technically satisfied the rule but wasn’t good for the process. The same thing held true for Perry Fewell in Buffalo who ultimately was passed over by another retread coach in Chan Gailey.

Some critics challenge the merits of the Rooney Rule by looking at it as a form of affirmative action although it doesn’t mandate quotas for hires. Others says that those who interview but aren’t hired are better off having gone through the process because it gives owners a more diverse pool of candidates for the next round of hires. But in reality it’s a bigger list of coaches for owners to use as examples to say “we comply”.

If Caldwell’s Colts win Super Bowl XLIV it would mark the official golden age of African American head coaches. This would make three in four years who have led their team’s to a world championship. In a bottom line business where to bling is the thing if should open doors wider for minority coaches than ever.

Who dat gonna save the Rooney Rule, Caldwell’s Colts, that’s who!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Happy New Year From Wizards & ‘Skins

By Mark F. Gray
Glad to see that as the new year brings in a new decade the same old stuff remains on the D.C. sports scene. For the last 10 years the leadership at the top of the two most storied franchises in the nation’s capital has reduced fan loyalty to abject embarrassment. You can change coaches and front office executives but until ownership stops operating the franchise like Karinne Stephens trying to become the next housewife of name your big city in America failure is the only option.

Daniel Snyder and the late Wizard patriarch Abe Pollin have been committed to their franchises with unfettered resolve since the turn of the century. They have spent money and rolled the dice on what they thought were difference making players, coaches, and executives that have led to zero (as in Agent Zero) championships. The public can complain their teams have underperformed but in fairness it has not been for the lack of effort by ownership.

If the owners are to be held accountable, however, it should be for the open door policy that has allowed players to usurp the authority of their immediate supervisors (head coaches) which has led to their underachievement. Whether it’s the license that Clinton Portis has to not show up at OTA’s with the Burgundy and Gold or Gilbert Arenas manipulating the firing of Eddie Jordan (in conjunction with Ernie Grunfeld), the loyalty of ownership to players of this generation in the district is now approaching groupie status.

For two franchises in desperate need of makeovers the time has come for their ownerships to firm up the matter of loyalty to the right people. The Burgundy and Gold is banking on a second generation architect and the championship pedigree of a head coach who also wears the title of team president. Meanwhile, the Wizards are still in limbo as the cession of their day to day power waits for the NBA to assist with the selection of a new ownership group.

Six weeks ago - despite the underachievement of both teams - there was a sense of more stability in Chinatown. The biggest concern was about roster decisions and whether to the trio of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antwan Jamison would be together for the remainder of the season. Now with Arenas suspended,, the team languishing 20 games below .500, and a black eye on the character of the organization, rebuilding the image of the franchise has replaced rebuilding the roster into that of a contender.
Now with the overhaul of the Burgundy and Gold front office and the hiring of a proven championship winner, they have taken two giant steps toward regaining credibility in town and throughout the NFL.

Mercifully, at the top of the football organization there appears to be more character that will give reason for the community to connect with them so that fans can re-commit to that beloved franchise.

We learned last season that despite several prima donnas in the locker room that there is more integrity in Ashburn than there is in Chinatown. With the exception of Butler, Jamison, Brendan Haywood, and Randy Foye “Ernie’s Guys” are a roster of underperforming, embarrassing characters who have succeeded sinking the Wizards back into the abyss that was the mid 80’s through mid 90’s. Hopefully, Ted Leonsis will be able to implement the same business model that has worked for the Capitals and clean house.

This time Michael Jordan is not walking through the door though.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

No Joke: Arenas Suspended


Finally, Gilbert Arenas’ quirky practical joking side is no longer a laughing matter. The NBA slapped agent less than zero with an indefinite suspension to police a fugitive of authority who is on the verge of ruining an organization.

The Washington Wizards face of the franchise has been a train wreck waiting to happen since he came to the nation’s capital. In his rookie season he was late to the season finale and brushed it off by saying a chicken truck turned over and he couldn’t get to the arena on time. He inserted himself into the lineup without consulting his previous coach on several occasions. Arenas also created a distraction during the playoffs by instigating a beef between LeBron James and DeShawn Stevenson at Love nightclub after injuring his knee during the 2007 season. He would later tell the Washington Post you know you have arrived when you make a Michael Jackson, Prince, or Jay-Z record.

Never once did the organization wield a firm hand of justice to reign in their all star. In fact, they have been complicit in creating the Arenas monster that is so out of control he felt he could store guns in the Verizon Center. If the organization - Vice President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld in particular - had stepped in and suspended him for a series of belligerent acts in the past this fiasco may have never gotten to the point of becoming a civic embarrassment.

When Eddie Jordan hired Randy Ayers as his defensive guru the in house rumors started when Arenas supposedly asked him, “Are you an Ernie [Grunfeld] guy or an Eddie [Jordan] guy?” as he drew a battle line in the sand for commanding presence in the locker room. A former executive tells the story of how Arenas embarrassed former assistant coach Harvey Grant for not paying back a loan which ultimately cost him his job.

That’s Arenas - a immature millionaire child - who was not mature enough to handle his all star success and the responsibility that goes along with it. He never wanted to embrace being a constructive leader and seems to have taken pride leading younger impressionable players like Stevenson and Nick Young to the tattoo parlor and barber shop. At least next year at media day he won’t be a catalyst for the rebirth of the gumby hairdo.

But nothing compares to the arrogance or outright stupidity of Arenas before Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia. Barely 24 hours after giving a statement to federal and district law enforcement officials to point his fingers in a gesture where he mocks firing hand guns was the last straw for the NBA. Commissioner David Stern took the suspension power away from the Wizards and slapped him with an unpaid vacation that could be terminal.

When Arenas signed his $116 million dollar deal two summers ago - after opting out of deal with a bad knee - I remember a thought provoking sports talk host on WOL-AM in D.C. saying, “this is like giving the keys of your new Bentley to a kid who just got his learner’s permit and turning him loose on New York Ave”. This just in…he crashed and there are casualties.

If you don’t reign in a petulant child he becomes a contemptuous adult. Arenas has been giving given a pass on his defiance for too long and been able to laugh off his disruptive behavior.

This time, however, it appears the joke is on him.