by Lang Whitaker

As 2007 fades into 2008, like we always do at this time, let’s go over the year in The Links…

Jan. 3
Two weeks ago I was in the Cavs locker room in New Jersey when someone with an impossibly deep voice said from behind me, “Hey, do you work for the Nets?”

I turned and found myself facing Zydrunis Ilgauskas, a.k.a. Zzz. No, I said, I don’t work for the Nets. Why?

“I just had a question,” he said.

Well, maybe I can help you out.

“OK,” Zzz said, “what’s the deal with Jeff McInnis?”

Now, newest BETcat Jeff McInnis is in Charlotte and ready to roll. He’ll always have a special place in the collective heart of the SLAM Dome because of his page years ago in the Portland media guide, which said: “BIRTHPLACE: N/A”

Jan. 9
So…notice anything new around here? Yeah, we had a little nip/tuck on the front page of the site. This will be an ongoing process, as we occasionally shake things up a bit and try to keep everything fresh. There are still a few wrinkles here and there. Over the weekend, whenever you clicked on Sam’s column archive button on the main page, it took you to the website for our company’s King magazine. So it looked like Sam’s latest column was about how big girls are the popular thing right now.

Jan. 18
Got a new mouse today for my computer, and it feels like I got an entirely new computer. My old mouse was like a bad relationship that I was stuck in, and I really didn’t know how much I was missing by using the old mouse. And why don’t they market mouses? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV commercial or ad on a webpage for a mouse.

Jan 19
Rasheed Wallace apparently flipped after practice yesterday, shouting expletives at Chris “The Machine” Sheridan from ESPN. The Machine has now had expletives hurled at him by Sheed and Sprewell, which is quite a twosome. Sheridan adds that Sheed pointed a bottle of orange soda at him. The post-practice drink of champions!

Jan. 23
A couple of weeks ago I was talking with someone familiar with the inner-workings of the NBA and was told that Dwane Casey probably wouldn’t last much longer in Minnesota. I was told he was nearly released a few weeks back, but then the Wolves went on a 10-3 run to ring in the New Year. But since then they’ve lost four straight games, although that includes losses to Detroit, Phoenix and Utah, which can’t be games they expected him win outright.

Anyway, while with Minnesota, Coach Casey was never known for his ability to make in-game adjustments. But when a team (like, ahem, the Hawks last week) is raining outside jumpers all over your team, and a fan sitting at home watching on TV (like, ahem, me) is wondering why you’re not switching into a man-to-man defense, maybe it was time to make some changes.

Jan. 24
For the first time in my life, last night I received three text messages all at the exact same moment. Why? Dikembe Mutombo was on the State of the Union address. I think it was something about senior citizens and healthcare. I didn’t see it — was watching Howard Stern On Demand.

Jan. 24
On the LeBron 106 cover…
From the time I knew I was writing the LeBron story to the time I went out to Cleveland to talk to him, I DVR’d and then watched a ton of Cavs games with a notebook at my side. And the one thing I kept noticing over and over was how big a part LeBron’s patience plays in everything the Cavs do offensively. At the time, the Cavs were really struggling offensively. So that became a big part of the story, as well as a lot about how the Cavs use LeBron. Mike Brown told me he’s calling about 30 percent fewer plays for Bron than they used to call, which seems impossible because he still gets touches nearly every time down.

The other thing that jumped out at me was how the team didn’t seem to be putting much stock into the regular season games. You’d read in the papers about the players joking around after losses, and Mike Brown would get wildly fired up after random games, which seemed like a way to try to keep the team focused. After spending some time in the Cleveland locker room on the road, it became obvious to me that they’re coasting a little bit right now, waiting for the postseason to try and turn it up a notch. And LeBron didn’t exactly discount that theory. (Although Mike Brown nearly had a heart attack when I asked him about it.) That’s all in the story as well.

One last thing: LeBron is really frigging good. We’ve all watched him play for a while now, but I’d never really immersed myself in all things Bron. And when I’m working on a story on a guy, that’s what I try to do. So I spent one entire Saturday watching tape, from morning to night. And I kept finding myself going “Oh!” or “Ah!” out loud. (I’m pretty sure my wife thought I was watching a different kind of tape.)

My outbursts weren’t from dunks or wildly physical plays (though there were plenty of those) so much as the little things. More than once I saw LeBron, in the middle of running a wing on a break, shift himself over left or right by a couple of inches. It was a miniscule amount of movement, but once he got to the basket he was zipping in at the perfect angle. He’d noticed this 40 feet earlier and made the adjustment.

Jan. 25
Went to the Suns/Knicks game last night, which wasn’t much of a game. The Knicks kept it close but it never felt like the Suns were going to lose. Jake posted notes, and he ran the picture I sent him of our press table when a huge glass of coke got loose up there. Khalid, Ben and I were all sitting in the upper press box, way up high. And next to us at the table was a guy and a girl, who looked like they may have been on a date. The guy looked almost exactly like Hawks GM Billy Knight. Anyway, the guy went to the concession stand before as the second half started, and then he came back and set his food down and the coke — a huge, huge glass of coke — immediately fell over and went gushing all over the place.

It spilled away from us and toward homeboy’s date. Homeboy immediately took off running, we assumed to get napkins. (It’s even funnier if you imagine Billy Knight doing all this.) The coke started settling and then started rolling down the table toward us. We grabbed our bags and phones off the table and scooted away from the press table, and some man behind us handed us a ton of napkins that we used to attempt to blot everything up.

About ten minutes later, homeboy returned with another huge coke and about three napkins. He handed the napkins to his girl and she said, “This is all you brought?” Yep. But at least he got another 200 oz. coke!

Later, Khalid pointed out that if they were on their first date, it wasn’t a very promising situation.

Also, today’s must-read story is this feature about Hornets center Marc Jackson and his love of horses. He describes horses as “a fantasy.” Is there anything else I could say to get you to read this? How about when Jackson says, “It’s hard to explain the feeling you get when you’re on a horse. I just get a true pleasure, a sense of being at peace. No matter if the horse is having a good day or a bad day, I really feel at peace with him.”

Jan. 26
For the first time in a while, there’s no Vince Carter as a starter on this year’s All-Star rosters. Vince has always had such overwhelming popularity, which I never really understood, considering that he usually looks so sour when he’s on the floor.

Actually, I sort of understand his popularity, because the way he played his first few years in the NBA was so exciting. But as an NBA insider noted to me last week: “Vince has never really improved from his rookie year on.” And I knew exactly what he meant.

Vince came in so reliant on dunks and high-flying action, but once his body turned brittle and that threat in his game was removed, Vince didn’t have anything else to rely on. He can fire up jumpers with the best of them, but his shooting percentage is a thoroughly average 45 percent. When the clock fires down, all he can do is shoot fadeaway jumpers. At the Nets/Knicks game last week, twice I watched as the Nets ran last-second inbounds plays for Vince that consisted of throwing the ball to Vince, everyone getting out of the way, and then Vince settling for a long fadeaway jumper.

An All-Star player takes it to the basket, creates contact, makes something happen. Vince is no longer an All-Star.

Jan. 29
How about last night’s NBA Fastbreak show (or whatever it is ESPN calls their NBA highlights program). Last night’s show was hosted by one of their interchangeable anchors, and the lone analyst was WNBA superstar Swin Cash. Look, I’m all for gender equality, but can we get a WNBA player who can tell us something we don’t know?

For instance, after a clip of Amare dunking off a nice pass from Steve Nash, Cash said something like, “If you’re a big man, you love playing with a guard who can get you the ball, so I know Amare loves playing with Steve Nash.”

Yes. Great.

Speaking of ESPN NBA people, I can’t tell you how I know this, but Stephen A. Smith has his name embroidered in red on the inside pocket of his heavy winter coat. I don’t have my name sewn in any of my clothes.

Jan. 31
In between proofreading and scheming up hilarious headlines for stories, I’ve been thinking a lot about blogs the last few days. I have a blog. You probably have a blog. We all have blogs. Blogs are no longer cool or cutting edge — now they’re just there, a modern innovation we all take advantage of. I rarely read web pages anymore, now I probably read more blogs than anything else. I used to write a column on a website, but we switched everything here at SLAMonline over to blogging software just because it’s so much easier for everyone involved. AOL wanted themselves a piece of that blog advertising money so they went out and got a bunch of the best sports bloggers to write for them. Even ESPN is about to get into the blog game.

This is mostly a great thing. I love reading what everyone has to say, because you, our readers, are the people we’re trying to please here at SLAM. And now it’s easier than ever for us to converse with you and kind of get an idea of what the critical mass is talking about.

I’ve mostly been thinking about NBA blogs because there’s a ton of really good NBA stuff out there, and I want The Links and SLAMonline to stay good and new and fresh. I don’t know exactly how to do that, but that’s why I’ve been thinking about basketball blogs.

All of that got me thinking today about Gilbert Arenas, and I came to this conclusion: Gilbert is the internet’s first Blog-fueled superstar.

Feb. 1
This lack of San Antonio center help wouldn’t bother me so much if Robert Horry wasn’t breaking down before our eyes. I know some people thought he was finished last year, but he played well until everyone else went small and just outran the Spurs. Last night, Horry looked like he had a pegleg out there, hobbling around. There was an inbounds play late in the game where Horry had to shoot a running three-pointer, and he caught the pass, ran a few steps, threw up the shot and then nearly tumbled over backwards into the crowd. Nobody hit him, nobody bumped him, but he just couldn’t keep his balance. He’s not totally done — he did nail a huge three down the stretch — but he’s not going to be able to keep up with Dallas or Phoenix during the Playoffs.

Feb. 7
The best hoops game I saw over the weekend was the Hawks/Nets game. I didn’t attend in person because it tipped at noon on Sunday, when I’m usually just waking up. Also, wanted to save my energy to review Superbowl commercials. But I watched the Hawks/Nets from start to finish on TV, and I got to see Joe Johnson carry the Hawks (and kill Eastern Conference All-Star Jason Kidd) throughout the second half, finishing with 37 points. When Ty Lue sank that three to win at the end of overtime, I was up off my couch, furiously pumping my fist. Wifey saw the Hawks players celebrating wildly and said, “Look how happy they are!” It’s because they never win, I told her.

Feb. 8
Someone commented on yesterday’s Links post and asked why I hadn’t made any statement about John Amaechi yet. Specifically, reader Tom Jackson (probably not NFL Primetime’s Tom Jackson) wrote…

“Strangely silent from SLAM on the John Amaechi front. What’s up with that, Lang? A 6Åå10Åç British guy who began flaunting his homosexuality on Jerry Sloan’s watch in SALT LAKE CITY? Where’s the rapier wit?! This is the best story since Handlogoten, maybe better.”

I didn’t comment on it because, to me, there’s really nothing worth joking about there. A guy announced that he’s not straight. OK? Everyone good with that?

So why can’t we just move on? Because ESPN wants to make more money off John Amaechi’s sexual orientation.

Last night during that great US/Mexico soccer game on ESPN2, they kept running across the crawl on the bottom of the screen something like: “Former NBA player John Amaechi announces he is gay, making him the first NBA player, active or retired, to announce he is gay.” I’m totally paraphrasing there, but the thing I’m verbatim on is the closer…

“…making him the first NBA player, active or retired, to announce he is gay…”

How ridiculous is that? Sheryl Swoopes already came out, ESPN, so we know basketball players can be gay, too. You don’t have to promote that Amaechi is the first NBA player to publicly admit he’s gay. Isn’t that a little bit like saying: “Lang Whitaker is the first person from his apartment building, currently or formerly, to work at SLAM magazine.” Does it really matter?

We know he played in the NBA, and I’m sure he had a tough experience, but at this point I don’t really care that he was a passable NBA player. In fact, if I was a Jazz fan, I’d probably ticked off that he signed a big contract with the Jazz and then stunk it up for the next two seasons.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad that Amaechi is able to be himself. I’m glad that he’s able to be honest with everyone.

But do I care that John Amaechi is gay? Not particularly. And I have a feeling that many of you are had a similar reaction. We’re not living in the 1950s anymore. Many of us have gay family members, gay friends, have known gay people. So to hear that a former NBA player is gay isn’t really a shocker. We hear the news, we process the news, we move on.

Unless, of course, you’re ESPN.

In which case you milk it for every penny it’s worth.

Feb. 9
I got a call earlier this week from a radio station in Cleveland asking if I could come on the air and talk about the LeBron cover story I wrote in the current issue of SLAM. “I just read your story,” the radio producer said, “and it’s funny how the stuff you wrote about a month ago is still an issue with the Cavs right now.”

What this brilliant producer was specifically referring to was the chunk of my story that deals with the Cleveland offense. Here’s a direct quote from the story…

Last season the Cleveland Cavaliers finished 50-32 and made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they pushed the Pistons to 7 games before ultimately getting sent back to Ohio. For the regular season, last year’s Cavs averaged 97.6 points per game and gave up an average of 95.4 points per game. But this season, through early January, the Cavs were 24th in the NBA in points per game (94.4 ppg) and 26th in field goal percentage (44.1 percent), and they’d tallied a 4-9 road record through their first two months. Moreso, LeBron’s numbers have dipped significantly, from last season’s 31.4 points per game to this year’s 27.1 ppg.

I wrote that over four weeks ago but it’s all still an issue with the Cavs. For whatever reason, they can’t find a groove on offense. It’s become frustrating enough that earlier this week LeBron spoke out and crapped on Mike Brown, saying the Cavs need to run more to get more easy baskets.

Coach Brown, meanwhile, is holding the Cavs back a bit, but he’s doing it for a reason: To make sure the Cavs will have an effective halfcourt offense come Playoff time. LeBron talks about Cleveland’s playoff ambition in the article, while Mike Brown tries not to talk about it, but that’s basically that this whole thing is about. The Cavs want to go all out, but Mike Brown is still tugging on the reins a bit. Everyone will start to sleep on them, and eventually Brown will let the team loose.

I just don’t know what’s going to happen when he lets them all go. Will the Cavs respond? Will they fumble about? I just don’t know, and that’s the key question for the Cavs right now.

Feb. 12
Wednesday, Jan. 31:
SLAMonline on how blogs have helped make Gilbert Arenas an internet-fueled superstar.

Friday, Feb. 9:
Wall Street Journal on how blogs have helped make Gilbert Arenas an internet-fueled superstar.