From Dr. J to Kobe Bryant

By Michael Tillery

I have to admit, I’ve had this concept of linking Dr. J and Kobe in relation to the evolution of slashing NBA players for at least two years now. Many of the people I spoke to for this piece were physically affected when I mentioned the topic, I surmise they were so enamored with the title, considering every era is focused on the present instead of objectively connecting the past while being able to visualize the future. This sentiment was more pronounced with the basketball historians I spoke with because they’ve seen multiple generations of the “best this” and the “best that.” They were downright giddy to elaborate on the game’s progress, which we don’t allow ourselves to do that often.

This brings me to a special night I recently experienced that I will cherish forever, not only because I learned a lot about the game of basketball in a couple hours, but because the fan in me was exposed (even if that’s generally a professional faux pas). This job obviously has its perks, but the field has also become numb to the very reason writers were attracted to sports in the first place; because we love them.

Anyway, it’s December of ’07, Kobe Bryant is in Philly and the 76ers are honoring Julius Erving. Dream night, being that I’m from PA.

Two of the most dynamic forces to ever lace them up are in the same building which sparks something carnal in the fans. They know this night is special. I could see many couples on their first date. Mad props to the fellas because I see nothing but smiles on all the ladies faces before the game. I made sure to get here early tonight and as I’m walking through the innards of the Wachovia Center, I see Phil Jackson is setting up for a press conference outside the visiting locker room. The writers clamor for position and because I’m not part of the Philly beat, I relax and pick my spot to ask Phil my question for the piece. They tear into Phil as soon as a cameraman pops on a light about how the hateful boos might affect Kobe Bryant: “I’m always worried when he comes back home to Philadelphia,” Phil calmly states. “Don’t want him trying to do too much..Just staying within the system and do things on the floor naturally.” Someone asks if the boos motivate Kobe and Phil shrugs the question off, saying, “I don’t know. If I looked at his statistics for his games here I don’t know what they stand up to be. There was one overtime game where he had a big game. It wasn’t 50, but it was quite a few points. He made a bad decision down the stretch and took a long shot that he didn’t have to and changed the concept of the game a little bit. It gave them an opportunity to get back into it. There’s some things—pressure things naturally.”

On pressure on the organization to keep winning to keep Kobe happy: “Well I hope they don’t feel that way about me. [Laughter] We don’t like to lose and it makes it difficult.”

On if the team winning has stabilized Kobe’s confidence with the Lakers: “As far as the team’s potential, Kobe sees the big upside to this team.”

OK, all the predictable line of questioning is out of the way and it’s time for me to do my thing. I jump in: “Since they are honoring Doc tonight, in an evolutionary sense, are there any similarities in Doc and Kobe’s game?” Phil responds: “No. Doc had those great hands. He had the ability to do a lot of the stuff he did with one hand out there. He had that sweeping move where he would hook and drive to the basket. Kobe has been more of a slasher and more of a shooter perhaps than Doc was. The three-point line has changed a lot of that.”

Damn! I thought for sure there was a true lineage and before the night was out, I was determined to find someone that would give me the answer I was looking for. I walk in the Lakers locker room and immediately spot Brian Shaw. A couple of years back at Chris Webber’s Bada Bling, and hanging out with Jimmy King and Juwan Howard while Common and Talib were on stage (what a night that was), I clumsily mistook Brian for Jason Terry the next day. I went as far as prefaced my question on the red carpet to Brian about Arizona’s ability to send a line of guards into the NBA. Every time I see him he brings it up. Mad embarrassing, but in the two years since, I’ve learned to laugh at myself.

MT: When you think of Kobe and Doc what comes to mind?

Brian Shaw: “All the guys that are high flyers that came after Doc at some point assimilated his game.
His style. The flamboyant palming the ball…Taking off from a distance and the dunk.”

Kobe walks into the room and answers everyone’s question before it’s asked: “Doc’s the pioneer. He is the first player in the NBA that transcended the game—also in the ABA. He took it and gave it a broader appeal so it just wasn’t mainstream purists and fans watching the game. I wish I had his hands. He could just pick up the ball, go and do so many creative things. To be compared to somebody like that is such a tremendous honor—as well as the others who are compared to him.”

The question was raised if Kobe patterned his game after Doc and Kobe, with a smile, states: “I studied him a lot. He had a long first step. He had a lot of moves when he got around the basket. He knew how to use his body to create contact and still be able to get the shot off. As a kid you don’t know what you are doing, but you just try to mimic what he’s doing.”

Hmm, those one-game suspensions acquired for elbowing opponents in the act of shooting make a little more sense now, as does his proclivity for getting to the foul line for so many and ones.

Someone then asked if Doc were playing tonight could Kobe have his way with him and he jokingly offers: “If he’s not hitting his jumper, I gotta good shot.”

You have to be quick in these instances, because your question will not get answered for you. It was time for my poke out the chest question. A question I’ve always wanted to ask Kobe and one that would make all the writer recorders move a little closer to Kobe’s face: “Since your dad wore 23 and played with Julius, was the emulation of Michael natural?” Kobe, appreciating the question, flashes another smile: “Wow it’s never been put to me quite that way before. I just grew up watching everybody. I was drawn a little bit more to Michael once I saw my dad stole all my height and I couldn’t be Magic. Being 6’ 6’’, I was able to watch players like Michael, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson—guys who were closer to my stature. I could study how they got shots off and things of that nature. “

“I would love to catch up with Doc. This was a dream come true for me. We spent some time together during the All-Star break. It’s always good to have the Doctor in the building.”

Kobe commenting on the season: “I think we are doing extremely well. We’ve made the progression to being a solid team—a team that plays consistently well. Even when you have bad games, you have an opportunity to win the game. Last night we shot 2-18 from the three-point line and still had a chance to win the game. That’s a solid team. Now we have to make the transition from being a solid team to jumping up to that elite level. That’s the hardest step of them all.”

Kobe commenting on playing in Philly tonight and actually for the Sixers: “It’s always special here. Every time I come back, I realize just how much I miss it. It’s always fun. Oh sure. Absolutely. Coming out of high school, that’s all I thought about. Back then the big deal for me was to be able to leave my house—my parent’s house—go home after shoot around not having to do home work, and then play the game. That would have been awesome to me, so yeah I’ve thought about it.”

On being a champion: “For us, it’s a day to day thing. If you want to get to that championship level, you can’t skip steps. You have to stay in the moment, take each game as it comes and work at that. We haven’t had any problems adapting to that philosophy. We have great chemistry amongst ourselves. I think the turning point was when I went to the guys and talked to them about how the business side of basketball can mess things up. I wasn’t the only player being talked about in trade discussions. Lamar has been talked about in trade discussions as well as other players. It’s appropriate that you have to separate the business from the game, still come out giving maximum effort and focus on doing what you have to do as a professional to move along for us. This was before the season started.”

On what affect his off season comments have had on Andrew Bynum and what type of confidence he has in the budding star: “Well it definitely lit a fire under his ass! [Laughter]. I have the utmost confidence in him. He just has to continue to work. I was in the same place he’s in right now and no one waited for me.”

The time has come for us to get some words from the man of the hour, Julius Erving. Doc spoke with the team earlier and commented on what he said to the Sixers: “You really can’t say anything to men that they haven’t heard at some point in their life. Sometimes you have to consider the source. I remember when I was very young, Bill Cosby came and spoke at my University. I had one on one time with him. He said some things that I still remember to this day. Bill Russell did the same thing within a two year period. They were guys who were icons and are still icons in America. Anytime I talk to people there are hopes of passing some of that stuff along.”

On being honored tonight: “This feels good. It feels like we are really welcome here. Anytime I come to Philadelphia, I’m more welcome each and every time probably because I don’t live here. I’m treated like a guess in some capacity, but in other capacities, I feel like a family member.”

MT: Is there a natural basketball link between you, Michael and Kobe?

Doc: “Yeah, I would add a few other guys to that at the beginning.”

MT: Who? Connie Hawkins?

Doc: “Yeah, Connie and Elgin Baylor. I felt as though I followed Connie and Elgin. Then you had Michael, a little bit of Dominique in there and some Vince Carter. I see where you are going with that. Those are the names.”

On the first thing Doc thinks of when referencing that 1983 championship squad: “How relieved I was at the end of the season. I had a moment with Bobby Jones and it was almost a teary moment because we just felt relieved. We had chased it so hard for so long and now we had it. We just wanted to relax and enjoy it. Everybody else was going crazy throwing champagne on each other—hootin’ and hollerin’. We just went of in the corner and said everybody here didn’t know how hard it really was. It was hard”.

On speaking to the Sixers about this season: “We didn’t have the time to go over everything, but I think somewhere in there they did understand the difficulty of winning a basketball championship or being a successful team. It’s not something you can take for granted. You can’t take for granted being a player or even a professional athlete period. We are a rare breed and people would trade places with you in a heartbeat.”

On being the last team in Philly to win a championship: “I’m away from the city so it’s not something I have to deal with everyday. Obviously as each year passes, you move farther and farther away from ’83. How long does this go on? There are quality teams here and ownership is determined to win. You have talent and we’ve had opportunities. It’s a matter of capitalizing and putting it all away. Maybe there are a few things that can be extracted from the 83 season as they see us celebrating this year that will help this franchise and the other franchises here. Enough is enough. After 10 or 15 years, it’s not cool anymore.”

MT: Could you reflect on walking down the tunnel with the ball held high. It’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you.

Doc: “It was relief that we got it. I don’t know if we could ever climb the mountain again, but we really don’t have to—that this team as a group doesn’t have to. The franchise has to move on. We needed to keep our goals as a family the same. Everybody has to start at 0-0 the following season. That reality is there and it just felt so great knowing that we won the last game. Only one team can win the last game.”

Speaking of the game, I saw Andrew Bynum score a career-high 24 points and grab 11 rebounds, while Lamar Odom had 21 and 11 to lead Los Angeles to a 106-101 win over the Sixers. The win was the Lakers first regular W in Philly since Feb. 2000. Kobe was booed unmercifully every time he touched the rock and was held to 19. I thought the Sixers did a good job on Kobe and asked Andre Iguodala if he agreed: “You are not going to shut down guys like Kobe and LeBron. You have to make them work hard for their points.”

This is my opinion, but I think the hometown boos affect him regardless of what he says: “Boo who? [Laughter] It wasn’t anyone from Lower Merion (Kobe’s high school), I know that.”

After the game Mo Cheeks was a little despondent because of the loss, but lit up when it came to Doc.

MT: Mo, could you reflect on honoring Doc and your ‘83 squad?

Mo Cheeks: “That’s special. Anytime I see anyone associated with that team, it’s a special moment. We had a lot of struggles up to that point of trying to win a championship. We had a lot of committed guys and when I see those guys it’s always a moment. We had one of the best years in the NBA.”

MT: What did Doc say to the fellas today?

Mo Cheeks: “He talked about just being on an NBA team. I thought it was a very important point. Guys forget that having an opportunity to play on an NBA team is something to be relished.”

I wanted to get the opinion of Philly authorities for this piece. It just wouldn’t be complete without that Philly swagger.

I’d spoken with Jimmy Lynam on occasion over the years and knew he would give me something nice.

Upon explaining my hypothesis on the evolution of the slasher, now including Elgin and Hawk before Doc, Michael and Kobe, Jimmy exclaims, “Wow! Without question. I saw parts of Elgin and obviously I saw Hawkins and Doc. You are right on it. Doc took the game above the rim. When you see the plays these guys make today…Before Doc came along—in that time frame—guys were capable of making those plays, but there was no imagination to think. All of the sudden this guy comes along and does what I call, fallin’ from the roof. Hawkins with Doc showed these guys what doing with the ball one handed athletically—moving the ball away from the defense and what not. Doc changed the game in playing off the floor.”

There is no greater authority on Philly basketball than Sonny Hill and if you get him talking, he will open up and give you a multitude of basketball knowledge. He’s known Kobe Bryant before Kobe was born and Kobe played in one of his youth leagues. I knew I hit the jackpot when Sonny offered to give me some words after doing the same for Newsday’s Ken Berger.

Sonny Hill: “Evolution of the slasher? Whew! That’s pretty nice terminology. C’mon! All of them come out of Elgin. If you talk to Hawk, he’ll tell you he got his stuff from Elgin. Julius will tell you he got stuff from Connie. Later on, Michael comes along, then Vince Carter and guys like that—the sky walkers. In my opinion, there’s not a connection in style. I wouldn’t put it that way. I think there’s an evolution of how the game has evolved. I don’t see it with Kobe from the point of view you speak of. Kobe is a unique player. Kobe is not competing against guys of this era. He’s competing against the legacy of the game. He’s competing against the guys on Mount Rushmore and he’s playing in that direction. When you see him play, you see a guy whose style is closer to Michael Jordan than a Julius Erving type player. One, because he’s a dynamic force on both ends of the floor. When you think of Connie and Julius, they were not dynamic on the defensive end. That’s where the comparison to Michael more accurately comes in. He takes a lot of pride in playing defense and locking people down at that end, then taking you down the floor and punishing you on the offensive side.”

MT: Do you see a player eventually even greater than Kobe?

Sonny: “Yeah, because rules of the game change. As the rules change, it allows players to evolve. It’s like saying how good would players like Michael Jordan, or Larry Bird, or Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James be in an era where you could two hand check? How good would they be when you could one hand check? You can’t touch a guy today. If Oscar Robertson could play today when you couldn’t put your hands on him, how good would he be? Could he be better than he was? I would say yes. Elgin Baylor would have been better than he was. Earl Strom once said to me that there were two sets of rules when you referee Wilt. You can’t call all the fouls. The game loosens up as each era goes by. If you look at the game twenty or thirty years from now you’ll say guys couldn’t play in this era here because of the style of play. Maybe the rules will loosen up even more.”

MT: When I interviewed Spencer Haywood…

Sonny: “I know Wood well.”

MT: The guy he said reminded him of Elgin was LeBron—physically.

Sonny: “LeBron is closer to Oscar Robertson in style because LeBron is a pass first shoot second.”

MT: Do you think he is capable of averaging a triple double for the season?

Sonny: “In this era? Yeah. The rules are so different. Oscar averaged a triple double his first five years. What would happen if Oscar could pass the ball out there (for an open jump shot) and get an assist? Back in the old days you make a pass, it goes directly to the basket and you get an assist. Now you get these jump shot assists. I call them John Stockton assists.”

MT: Is Doc properly revered? When I was coming up, all you heard about was Doc.

Sonny: “Mike that was your era, so it’s the truth.”

MT: Then Magic and Larry came along and kind of diluted Doc’s reference—from the fan’s perspective—because of the advent of ESPN.

Sonny: “Here are eras again. Julius Erving is one of the most unique players to play the game. Elgin Baylor is unique. Connie Hawkins? People didn’t see the real Connie Hawkins in the NBA. There are only a select few of us who saw Hawk when he was young and he could do all the things he could do. Connie Hawkins was like a taller version of Oscar Robertson on the offensive end of the floor. What he did was put everybody in the game early. When the game was on the line, he had this thing he called “Hawkins time”. Everybody get out the way. Let me put this big hand behind my back and let me make the play—and not just to score. Each era develops uniqueness in itself. Dr. J was the stepping stone to a Magic Johnson and a Larry Bird. If Doc wasn’t there, I don’t think Magic and Larry could have had their success because the game was waning in its popularity. Magic and Bird were the stepping stones to Michael Jordan. Michael was the stepping stone to Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bryant is the stepping stone to LeBron James. We’ll always get those players that will step into that chasm and bring uniqueness that changes the game.”

I’ve developed a couple of go to guys when needing a rich historical quote and one of the best for doing so is the aforementioned Spencer Haywood. His tie in to this story is his unstoppable turnaround jumper that you see so many players use today. One perfected by one Michael Jeffrey Jordan and passed to Kobe. This is where the evolution of the game truly started. In Doc’s time, there were specialists. Doc was the scorer—period. He could take anyone off the dribble and didn’t have to use his jumper until the latter stages of his career. When Julius passed the torch to Mike, this is where the game changed. Jordan implemented a deadly jumper into his already vast arsenal of offensive moves and became arguably the greatest player ever. Spencer disagrees. We get into this all the time, even though I agree with him–mainly because of my interview with outgoing Temple University coach and college basketball icon, John Chaney. I was Chaney’s last interview before he retired.

Spencer Haywood: “It goes back to Elgin Baylor and the Boston Celtics back in the 60’s. All those guys were slashers. They made moves to the basket. They revolutionized the game as far as teams going to the basket. Bailey Howell was one of the Celtics. Chet Walker was one for the Sixers and Bulls. Kobe Bryant is the most complete player I’ve ever seen. He has taken Michael Jordan’s game…
Michael was not the best player ever. I know you all think he was, but…”

MT: We’ve already had this discussion…

Wood: [Spencer laughs] “Anyway Wilt was far greater. Kobe has taken the games of Michael, Julius, Connie, myself (the turnaround jumper) and some others and implemented them all into his game. He’s without question the best player in the NBA right now. His game is very, very deep. It’s complete defensively, offensively, passing, awareness and he has a deadly shot man.”

MT: Sonny was telling me you are familiar with each other.

Wood: “Very much so. When I first came into the league, I went over to New York. Lenny (Wilkens) told me since I was going to New York, I should take advantage of it. So I stayed in the Hotel Squire on 7th Avenue to play in the Rucker League. Lenny told me it was just a show and not really the art of basketball. I played there for two weeks. I told Lenny he was right because they didn’t pass. You didn’t see cutting. You didn’t see backdoors. It was all a show—like And1. He told me to take a trip down to Philadelphia. I played three weeks in the Baker League and that’s when I went to school. That’s when class started. Those were the professionals. They had guys like Sonny Hill. They had guys like Hal Greer, Chet “Jet” Walker, Luscious “Luke” Jackson and just players that could ball out the wazoo. I looked at the game differently. I saw they played ball like we did in Detroit. These guys are serious ball players. This is not a show. This is real basketball here. I’m not putting down the Rucker. I just wouldn’t go there to learn the game. If I wanted to be a Stephon Marbury, then I would do that. I thought the players that everyone was speaking of being the greatest players ever, were a joke. This is in 1971 after coming out of the Supreme Court case. I’m a Jazz cat so being a Jazz cat, I always wanted to sharpen up my act. I circled back to Detroit and then to Seattle and said here I am. I called them The Professors in Philadelphia.”

MT: You brought up something earlier with Wilt Chamberlain. Tell the folks why Wilt was a better player than Michael Jordan.

Wood: “Wilt was…Man please! [We both laugh]. There is no comparison. Michael’s game was made more fantastic in ’85 with the advent of massive television coverage. His game was beautiful, but it was not going out there and scoring 100 points. It was not going out there and averaging 50 points and 35 rebounds. That’s a whole another level man. People forget about Wilt and what he and Kareem were doing. They forget about what Oscar Robertson did. You can’t put these young cats in the mix yet and people are. Oscar did 30, 12 and 10 for ten years! That is not no baby triple double like you see players today get. People get all excited when they see 10, 10 and 10, like, “Wow you got a triple double!”I’m like wow don’t these people know their history? But, I know they don’t.”

MT: It’s crazy hearing you and Sonny speak. You reference the same names—which add validity to this piece.

Wood: “Well I’m just saying…Wilt used to walk out on the floor and intimidate an entire team. How do you measure that? How do you measure Russell’s eleven championships?”

MT: Do you see LeBron being mentioned in the pantheon of who is considered the best?

Wood: “Yes. I like his game, but there’s time available.”

MT: There’s a whole lot of time available. Goodness. [Spencer laughs]. My oldest is 17, so it’s quite possible that I’ll have grandkids around when LeBron is still playing.

Wood: [Joking] “I wonder why he came in so early. I wonder if he knows how he got there.”

MT: Let me say something that needs to be said. For all these folks out here who think Kobe Bryant is an asshole, he’s not an asshole. He handles himself very professionally when speaking with publicly and has a great relationship with the media collective.

Wood: “Kobe Bryant is probably the most straight up gentleman—along with Kevin Garnett—in the game today. He is a gentleman of the game. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and I’ve met some assholes that fans think are really cool. Kobe greets me like a man and an equal when he sees me and I have nothing but respect for him for that. They’ll learn one of these days that he’s the man.”

There you have it. The history of the game and its scorer evolution references many names. Go through this and count how many names have been mentioned. The evolution of the slasher began with the uniqueness of Elgin Baylor and ends with whom some consider to be Elgin’s clone physically, LeBron James. Kobe and Julius Erving happen to be just two names in the pantheon of slashers who have made the game the most exciting athletic spectacle on the face of the earth. One night gave me all this. Naturally, the next night will be when Michael Jordan is honored and LeBron happens to be playing—or better yet when Kobe is being honored and the next great iconic slashing entity is in the lay up line.

My, what a day that’ll be.