A Season On The Links (pt. 2)

by April 19, 2007
19

by Lang Whitaker

As we do every year at the end of the season, it’s time to take a look back at the year in The Links. What follows are things I wrote and posted on The Links between All-Star Weekend and the end of the regular season. This should keep you busy for a while. Have at it.

• Vegas takes your life and makes it its own. For instance, more than once I was running around Vegas and all of sudden realized I hadn’t had a meal in about 20 hours. Or you’re sitting there having a drink and you remember you haven’t slept in two days. As the clock neared 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, my hot spell at a blackjack table at the MGM Grand ended and I colored out my chips, cashed them in and shuffled across to the elevators.

As I walked, I pulled out my Sidekick and saw that there were a few messages that had come in over the past few hours while I was playing (when I was not allowed to use my phone). I replied to a text message from a friend, noting I’d had a good night at the tables and that we could speak the next day when we were both rested. I dropped my phone into my pocket, and maybe 2 minutes later I felt it buzz upon receiving a reply back from my friend. at 5:00 a.m. Everyone’s up and at them all the time. Vegas.

(I learned later that someone was shot in the lobby of the MGM while I was in the lobby playing blackjack. That should be a pretty good example of just how huge the MGM is: Someone got shot in the lobby while I was there in the lobby and yet I had no idea until there was a shooting until I got back to NYC.)

• If you didn’t read Sam’s Vegas Odyssey, you should because it’s hilarious. We really had a great time, and it was a blast to travel with Ben, Sam and Khalid. I’m hoping the NBA gives Vegas and expansion team and allows them to add any player from any basketball team in the world to that team, just so the team will be amazing and we’ll be able to travel there as often as possible.

• While heading back out on the road so fast sucks, I’m more upset that I’m going to miss tomorrow’s annual news and rumor derby that takes place around the 3 p.m. trade deadline. I love sitting at my desk on that day, making calls and trying to get at the truth. It seems that this year, though, is different. There haven’t been nearly as many rumors as usual, and even out in Vegas things were mad quiet.

I’ve talked about this before here, but it remains true: If an NBA GM is faced with a choice of making a move or not making a move, 9 times of 10 he won’t make the move, for fear that it won’t work out and he’ll lose his cushy job. For instance, as I watched the Hawks go 0-for-The Third Quarter last night against the Bulls, I found myself sitting there wondering how in the world Billy Knight can justify not making a trade for the Hawks. You’re telling me there’s really no player available in the entire NBA that wouldn’t make the Hawks a better team? Really? Or is your franchise just paralyzed by fear and afraid they’re going to screw things up even worse?

• Look, I hate to dry snitch on Rod Thorn, but I sat behind him on the plane all the way from Vegas to Phoenix to New York City. And for him to say the Nets have “nothing, not at all” on the horizon seems a little disingenuous. That’s all I’m saying.

• I need to do a whole post on the Rockets soon, too. What a weird team that is. Rafer Alston is playing huge minutes, T-Mac is doing his thing, and then there’s Battier and about 10 complementary guys that shuffle in and out. And they just execute the heck out of you with their offense. They’ve quietly coasted to 15 games over .500, without Yao and T-Mac for large portions of the season. This is officially my darkhorse playoff team.

• Apparently everyone decided LeBron isn’t playing all-out, which is interesting since that was one of the themes in my LeBron/SLAM 106 cover story that came out a month ago. People are trying to figure out if LeBron is coasting right now…and the answer is absolutely. He said it himself.

As LeBron told me in the story, “I think we’re a team that’s gearing more toward the playoffs. That’s the first time for me that we’re geared more toward the playoffs instead of gearing towards the regular season. I think we’ve got a good enough team now that we know we can make the playoffs. We’re not…we’re not going to write it in right now, but we know we’re a good enough team where we can go out there and win enough games and make the playoffs. But we have to win down the stretch in the playoffs and win on the road. So we’re pretty much geared toward the playoffs, just like some of the better teams in the league.”

• I got a 2-way message from Russ about Shaun Livingston’s knee injury while I was in Spain, and I am choosing not to watch the Youtube clip of the incident. As a journalist I probably should watch it, to have some historical perspective and a reference point. As a human being, I don’t particularly want to see Shaun Livingston dislocate his leg “like, to Rhode Island,” as Russ so delicately emailed me.

• Watched the Hawks/Hornets game last night and cringed in horror each time Chris Paul slayed the Hawks down the stretch…which was about a dozen times. He’s no Marvin Williams, though.

• That’s where we stand right now. Honestly, considering Ron has a rap sheet as long as my…well, it’s long, it’s not that much of a surprise. (The most surprising bit may be that you can shatter a Hummer windshield with a frying pan. Who knew?)

• I went to the Sonics/Knicks game last night to catch up with a few Linkstigators on the Sonics, and one of the Seattle players — and I don’t want to throw him under the bus so I won’t say who told me this, although his name is Nick Collison — admitted that he loves “The Hills.” And so do I.

After we stood there in the Sonics locker room discussing “The Hills” for a while, the unnamed player (Nick Collison) laughed and said, “Isn’t it kind of weird that we’re standing around here talking about the lives of these teenagers?”

I thought about that for a second and responded, “No.”

And the unnamed player (Nick Collison) agreed.

(To his credit, Nick says his favorite show on TV right is “30 Rock.” Mine, too.)

• So my work phone just rang and the following conversation happened:
“This is Lang.”
“Er…um…Whitaker?”
“Yeah.”
“It’s Gilbert.”

Gotta love Agent Zero. Can’t tell you why he called, but you’ll read about it soon enough. And I can’t shake the feeling that I was Dan Steinberg, I probably could have made that previous paragraph into a 500-word blog entry.

• Was Kobe trying to hurt Marko Jaric? I don’t think so. Kobe was trying to hurt the TWolves by getting a foul called against them. Jaric’s face just got in the way.

The real question here is whether or not Kobe’s arm-swing warrants a suspension, but that’s really a bigger-picture question for David Stern and Stu Jackson. Is the League “softer” now than it was 20 years ago? Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn’t matter because it is what it is. Here are the rules, David Stern says, now you go play under them.

The rules are what they are. Kobe did it once and got a suspension, so why should the punishment be any different a month later? Seems to me this is a case not of the rules needing to change, but of a player needing to change. And in this case it’s Kobe.

• my favorite story this week is definitely the saga of Lindsey Hunter, who is out after being suspended for, he says, taking one of his wife’s diet pills. Very strange. As is his explanation:

“I took a diet pill and it had a banned substance in it. I was just as shocked as everybody else. You go to GNC, you do this, you do that and to me it wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t steroids or nothing.”

Actually, Lindsey, I don’t go to GNC. If I have a cold, I’ll probably go to the medicine cabinet and search through it until I find cold medicine. If I don’t find cold medicine, I’ll probably go to the drug store and get cold medicine. If there’s no cold medicine available, I won’t take anything at all. The last thing I would do is take a diet pill.

I guess this differentiates myself and Lindsey.

• After sounding all tough and hard after Ron Artest’s arrest, the Kings allowed Ron to return to the team after missing all of two games. In some ways, this might actually be what’s best for Ron. In other ways, this might be what’s worst for Ron. Either way, it’s definitely what’s best for the Sacramento Kings, so it’s probably not that surprising that they rushed him back. Good to see the Kings taking such a strong stand, though.

• The greatest thing about this run is that Josh Smith has quietly blossomed into nothing short of a coldblooded killer. He’s been so raw that he makes me want to use profanity to describe him.

• Love the Gilbert commercials with the self-portrait of himself on there, except the drawing looks more like Junk Yard Dawg than Gilbert Arenas.

Hey Gil, we know you’re wacky and all, but can we all please move on from the fact that nobody drafted you in the first round? Impossible is getting you to stop talking about it.

• Nash misses an elbow jumper but Marion grabs the rebound and banks it in. 129-125. 1:11 to go. Timeout. Gilbert and the JYD commercial is on again. Can’t one of these teams just run away with this game? Dallas looks so flat right now … Here we go. Dallas back and run Terry off a double screen. He collides with Barbosa, who fouls out. Dirk comes back at Marion and loops a shot 20 feet high and in. 129-127 … Nash misses a jumper and Dirk drops the ball out of bounds under duress. That call’s not going against him in Dallas, though. Dallas ball. 35.2 left. 129-127 … Nash picks Terry and throws the ball off Terry and out of bounds. Crazy. Phoenix ball. Dallas doesn’t foul. James Jones misses a three. Dirk comes down and as the clock runs out, clanks a two off the rim. Game over. Phoenix 129, Dallas 127 … Has the MVP award ever gone back and forth during a game like that? Did Steve Nash just win it? And did Phoenix just steal the Dallas swagger? I don’t know. I’m going to bed.

• This was also the kind of game where you learn to appreciate what Shawn Marion does. Like Gilbert Arenas, Marion is known for always complaining about being unknown. (Although Marion doesn’t have a commercial with a self-portrait that looks like Junk Yard Dog.) And as tiresome as it gets to listen to Marion talk about it, last night was a terrific example of why he’s so overlooked. The Suns hardly went to him at all in their halfcourt offense, but it was his hustle rebound and dish to Nash that gave Nash the three and sent the game to OT.

And then Marion made the defensive series of the game all by himself. Dallas threw the ball to Dirk in the post with Marion guarding him solo. Dirk tried to spin and dribble with no luck, so he threw the ball back out. Dallas threw it right back to Dirk, who tried again with no luck, so he threw it back out to Jason Terry and set a pick for him. Marion switched on the pick and ended up guarding Terry, who couldn’t get around Marion so he sort of drifted out to the corner, with Marion all over him. As he ran out of real estate, Marion tipped the ball from his hand and back off Terry and out of bounds. So basically, Marion stopped an MVP candidate twice and then a point guard and caused a turnover, all on one possession. (He also blocked one of Dirk’s turnarounds later.)

So, here’s your love Shawn. Helluva game.

• Our friends at dallasbasketball.com are urging everyone to hold up before writing off Dirk as the MVP, and they have a good point. There’s a reason Dallas has been crushing people all season long, and that reason is Dirk. So he didn’t play well down the stretch last night. Should this matter in the grand scheme of things? Yes, but probably not as much as we’re all making it out to matter.

To me, though, what it comes down to is this: In their biggest game of the season, when their teams needed a leader, Dirk could not step up and take control of the game. Steve Nash did.

And that’s what an MVP is supposed to do, isn’t it?

• Ben and I finally found a place to eat, then hit the Guggenheim to attend the adidas-sponsored U.S. opening of “Zidane — A 21st Century Portrait.” It’s basically a movie about Zinedine Zidane, everyone’s favorite head-butting French soccer player. Some artist set up a few cameras at a Real Madrid/Villareal match and this movie is ninety minutes of Zidane running around the field. The cameras focus on Zidane and only Zidane, while nondescript ambient music hums in the background.

One relatively attractive woman entered the museum and was quickly surrounded by photographers, snapping away at her. We didn’t recognize her. Later, we happened upon her and a friend walking through one of the museum’s upper levels, and as we passed her she dropped her umbrella. She hesitated, not wanting to bend over and pick it up for fear of falling out of her dress. I picked it up for her. She thanked me. We all moved on.

When I told this story in the office today, Susan said that I was being “a gentleman” by picking up her umbrella. Maybe so, I agreed, but it still would’ve been cool to see her cans.

• I spent almost 10 minutes in the Knicks locker room on Friday night explaining what a combover is to one of the Knicks players. He’d never heard the term before, so one of his teammates and I had to explain the concept. I found it hard to believe someone had never heard of a combover. Cultural differences can be vast, I suppose. Still, you’d think everyone would know what a combover is.

• Quote of the Day comes from Isiah Thomas, who said of Eddy Curry: “I’m not a drug addict, but he’s my No. 1 drug. If it got close or tight, that was the button I push. I can’t help it. It’s like I’m Pavlov’s dog. I’m pushing his button.”

Should we tell Isiah that Pavlov’s dogs were actually conditioned to salivate in response to various stimuli, not to push a button or insert Eddy Curry into a lineup?

• Yao Ming didn’t follow the Chinese basketball finals online because he didn’t want to shell out $10 for the internet in his hotel room. I feel you on that, big man. Here’s a little trick I’ve learned spending time on the road: Next time find a Panera Bread Company — they always have free wireless.

• When I did game notes from that epic Dallas/Phoenix game a few weeks ago, I noted that it was basically an MVP contest: if Phoenix won, Nash became the leader; If Dirk won, he became the leader. Phoenix won, of course, and Nash surged into the lead in the court of public opinion.

At some point over the last few years, the NBA’s MVP award seems to have become about rewarding the best player on the most exciting team. The name of the award is the Most Valuable Player award, which would seem to intimate, at least to me, that it should go to the player who is the most valuable to his team. You can’t really assign numbers to this—unless you’re John Hollinger—which makes it so much fun to argue about.

I understand Nash winning the award two seasons ago. Last season, not so much.

Throughout this season, I think Kobe’s value is becoming more and more obvious every day, with every pass that bounces off of Kwame Brown’s hands, with every game Lamar Odom sits on the bench battling an injury, with every brain fart from Andrew Bynum, with every jump shot that Smush Parker clangs off the rim.

This year, to me, the most valuable player in the NBA is Kobe Bryant.

• After the game, as Dwight Howard was getting dressed in his locker, a cabal of reporters circled Dwight, waiting for him to talk to the media. Dwight spotted me across the room. You should understand that for some reason, Dwight swears SLAM is out to get him. He thinks we want to show photos of him getting dunked on as often as possible. As I’ve explained to Dwight numerous times, both in person and via our Sidekicks, that’s not our goal. We want to show anyone getting dunked on, not just Dwight. Dwight just seems to be in the middle of a lot of dunks.

Every time I talk to Dwight, he brings the conversation back to this topic, because he likes arguing and he knows I’ll give it right back to him. And tonight, even though there were about a dozen reporters on deadline waiting to talk to Dwight, all he wanted to talk about was getting dunked on. So we had this give and take across the locker room, with everyone listening in and waiting patiently…

DWIGHT: [his back to the reporters, getting dressed] SLAM magazine. Why do you guys always try to show me getting dunked on?

ME: Here we go again. Why don’t you stop getting dunked on and we won’t have to show so many pictures of it?

DWIGHT: I don’t get dunked on that much.

ME: You should see some of the pictures we’ve run.

DWIGHT: I’ve only been dunked on three times.

ME: In the last month?

DWIGHT: I’ve only been dunked on three times.

ME: Well, I know Kobe got you.

DWIGHT: Yeah, Kobe did.

ME: And I know Chris Paul just got you.

DWIGHT: I didn’t know he was going to dunk that ball.

ME: [laughing] Me, either. That’s why it was so awesome. He dunked it right in your face.

DWIGHT: No he didn’t. He dunked it right next to me.

ME: Dude, that was in your grill. I was watching that game and I…

DWIGHT: You weren’t watching that game.

ME: Oh yes I was!

DWIGHT: Why were you watching us play that night?

ME: Actually, I was watching Chris Paul play. Then he dunked on you. And you know what picture I saw the other day? Remember when Marvin Williams dunked on you back in high school?

DWIGHT: Oh, come on, now.

ME: You know he did! So you’ve been getting dunked on for a minute, really.

DWIGHT: I’m going to start my own basketball magazine.

ME: What are you going to call it, SLAMMED ON?

DWIGHT: [thinks for a second] DWIGHT’S DUNKS.

ME: You might want to come up with something a little better. [Dwight is finished dressing by now and the reporters are all looking antsy.] Um, I think they have some real questions for you, Dwight.

• I learned something surprising last night while watching the game: Smush Parker has started 153 consecutive games for the Lakers. Kind of crazy, right? (And I like how half the time Stu Lantz calls him “Smoosh” and the other half he calls him “Smush.”)

Then, this morning, I read something else that I found shocking: The rock group Genesis have sold over 150 million albums.

My question is, which is the more surprising accomplishment?

• I’d never seen Lance Stephenson play in person, but man was he impressive. First of all, he’s huge, much thicker than he was a over a year ago when SLAM did that huge feature on him. He was playing the 2 all morning, and he was able to do pretty much whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. And this was against the best high schoolers in the country. I shudder to think about what he must be like against regular high school kids. During one five-on-five drill, a big man from Lance’s team was loafing down the court and his man got an easy dunk. Lance pulled the sleepy defender aside and read him the riot act. “You’ve got to play harder, man!” His ability to start up, get to full speed and then stop on a dime was crazy.

• I went over to Decatur (where it’s greater) this morning for the adidas Nations event, then headed to downtown Atlanta to see what was happening.

During the NBA All-Star Game here a few years ago, traffic was such a mess downtown that you couldn’t walk anywhere, couldn’t do anything. This weekend there’s not so many cars around as there are people everywhere.

Especially white people. Really, there’s white people all over the place down here. Suburban white people. It’s like the opposite of NBA All-Star weekend. I haven’t seen this many white people in one place since the last time I went to one of Khalid’s parties.

• Congratulations to the 2006 Women’s Water Polo Champion UCLA! That’s the kind of news we get on the scoreboard here instead of, say, shooting percentages during the biggest game of the year thus far. This is like basketball for children.

• I’m the only person wearing a backwards fitted cap in this press box. Wow. Actually, I’m the only person wearing a hat in the press box. Except for an older guy in a kufi.

• While I’m telling stories, my former roommate (both in college and after college), Mike, called me today because he was coming to the game with his wife and her family, and they’re all Florida fans. Mike and I went to Georgia and we hate Florida, but he admitted that at the behest of his wife he’d donned a Florida t-shirt. I suggested he turn it inside out and write “UCLA” on there. He agreed that he could do that, or, he said, he could just take a crap on the shirt.

• UCLA’s pep band plays a mean version of “Carry On My Wayward Son.” I don’t get to look over at him but I assume Klosterman’s pumped about that.

• Strap and Ollie check in for UCLA.

• UCLA takes the lead, 14-13! 7:20 to go. Call a timeout! Stop the game!

• UCLA band’s playing “Crazy In Love” right now. Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh…

• 25-16 and Florida turns it over, following a series of wonderfully strange plays from Joakim Noah. Someone calls another timeout. If Noah was on my team I’d probably love him, but he’s not so I don’t. He’s like a multi-culti Bill Laimbeer.

• I don’t know Joakim Noah all that well, but it seem to me that having long hair like his would be nothing but problematic, just the upkeep involved. Not to mention all the people constantly asking if you’re a member of Bone Thugz & Harmony.

• Mata just fouled out. It’s a blow for, well, interesting-looking people all over the world.

• For some reason, a lot of the fans walking around downtown Atlanta were wearing lanyards around their necks with clear envelopes at the end displaying either their ticket stubs or some kind of paperwork signaling their school affiliations. I never knew this was fashionable. If wearing credentials around your neck is cool, consider me Miles Davis.

• During the photo shoot I was at yesterday, I ended up acting as DJ and playing some songs off my iPod to kind of keep things moving. I knew what kind of stuff the NBA player we were shooting liked, and after I hit him with a few remixes he hadn’t heard before, he told me that he was going to buy my iPod. Not that he wanted to buy my iPod, but that he was definitely going to buy my iPod.

I told him no, he wasn’t going to buy my iPod not only because I hadn’t had a chance to back up my iPod on my newest laptop and I didn’t want to lose everything I had on there, but also because I had a three hour flight awaiting me later in the day, and I didn’t want to be iPod-less on the plane.

This didn’t stop him. He kept telling me he was going to buy my iPod, and that I could name my price. And he was serious.

We haggled back and forth for a while about my iPod. I told the guy that I really didn’t want to sell, but I’d be glad to burn him some CDs with the tracks he liked. Didn’t matter. He wanted my iPod. Right then. And I got a sense that he’s used to getting whatever he wants.

Then I had an idea: I could trade it for however much cash he happened to have in wallet at the moment, kind of like an audience game from Let’s Make A Deal. There could easily have been $10,000 in there. Then, after I thought about it more, I realized there could just as easily have been $3 in there — maybe he needed to go to the ATM or something. So I backed out of that plan.

Eventually we agreed upon me sending him some music, and I got to keep my iPod, so everyone was satisfied. I just can’t stop thinking about how much money I could have made. Or not made.

• There’s a lot more about Ricky the basketball player in the SLAM article, but I will say here that he was better than I expected, and I was already expecting something pretty amazing. He can defend, he can pass, he can run a team, he can rebound. The only thing Ricky didn’t do was score, but he only took four shots in the game I went to — someone told me that when Ricky’s playing with Joventut, he doesn’t really try to score because of “the hierarchy of the team.”

The game tipped off and minutes later Ricky checked in. The lead went back and forth, and Joventut would pull ahead whenver Ricky was in the game, but Joventut eventually lost.

How does Ricky play? Well, he’s 6-4 but plays longer. He’s not a speedster, but he’s fast enough. He made a crazy bounce pass off a dribble that made me gasp. An NBA scout saw Ricky play earlier this season and tabbed him the next Pistol Pete, but I think that’s mostly because of the way he looks, with his shaggy hair and prominent nose. I was really reluctant to come up with a comparison for Ricky, because he’s still so young, but the player he most reminded me of?

Magic Johnson.

• The folks at Starbury finally send me a box of gear the other day, so yesterday I rolled out a new pair of Cyclone IIs. (I didn’t realize I was also wearing a LeBron James track jacket yesterday. One of the Knicks ballboys asked me if it was my “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along” outfit. Yes, I told him, it was.)

The verdict? I liked them a lot. They were lightweight, comfortable, and a day later I don’t have a sore foot or anything like that. So I’m officially down with the cause.

• Glad to hear that Bonzi Wells is back in the news, although it’s weird that it went down in this fashion. Bonzi decided he was being a distraction to the Rockets, so he sent a text message to the trainer and didn’t show for the game. This is similar to how Ron Artest text-messaged his teammates recently to tell them that he was going to retire. Text messaging is the new press conference.

I wonder if these guys type in shortcuts?

IM BENG DISTRACTION…NT COMNG TO GME 2NIGHT…L8R…TTYS?

Do they have full keyboards? Are they really sending emails from their phones and the reporters just don’t know the difference? This might have to be the next Tech Corner column in SLAM.

• You want another funny elevator story? The other day Sam and I were heading out to lunch and we got in the elevator with a woman we didn’t know. This happens often when you work in a huge building. Sam was telling me about something or other as this woman was rummaging around in her purse.

Suddenly, something fell from her purse and landed smack in the middle of the elevator floor. We all looked down and discovered a tampon. I looked at Sam with my eyes wide open, as if to say, Keep talking! Sam started stammering and stuttering.

The woman bent over and picked up her sanitary napkin and said, “Oh man, that was really embarrassing. Did you see that?”

And before I could play it off, Sam blurted out “NO!” in a way that could only mean yes.

• As I wrote the other day, I went ahead and shut it down for the rest of the NBA season. Seeing as how I already have a confirmed Playoff spot, I really don’t want to risk a freaky late-season injury or even fatigue, which could happen rather easily with some of these crazy games that are being played right now. All the young bucks are out there running wild, trying to make a name for themselves. I just want to make it to the postseason without any sprains or strains so I can give it my all.

Check out some of the box scores from last night: Bobby Jones started for the Sixers (no, not that Bobby Jones); David Noel played 35 minutes for Milwaukee; Kevin Willis got 4 minutes for the Mavs; Linkstigator Pat Burke even got off the bench in Phoenix.

These are strange days in the NBA. So I’m just going to let everyone play out the string.