ESPN tabs 450-pound Comedian as Celebrity Face of the Razorbacks

Part raptor, part Arkansan ... all Hog fan?

Part raptor, part Arkansan … all Hog fan?

Every major program has a legitimate celebrity fan. While that doesn’t mean everybody is blessed with an Ashley Judd, big-time schools can always produce, at minimum, a Marco Rubio by sheer dint of a humongous alumni base. For many Arkansans, President Bill Clinton has become the torchbearer of SuperFan Number One-dom. And, in my mind, if it’s not Clinton it’s John Daly decked in cardinal red and strutting into mass cultural consciousness, snout held high.

Turns out I’ve been hopelessly out of the loop.

An upcoming ESPN documentary has tabbed Razorbacks’ signature celeb fan as a Los Angeles-based comedian who, according to Pandora, is characterized by the following attributes: “anectodes,” “surprising misdirections” and “jokes about handicaps.”

Yes, it’s 450 pound Ralphie May of Comedy Central fame. He is clearly famous, and will become even more so on August 14 when the SEC Nework airs a documentary that profiles 14 famous figures — each representing a different SEC college — who “spill their emotions and explain why they’ll never forget where they came from.”

My first question after reading the press release: “Vanderbilt has a celebrity fan?”

Apparently, yes. The statement goes on to list some of the potential candidates: Charlie Daniels, Amy Robach, Jonathan Papelbon, Melissa Joan Hart, Emmitt Smith, Shepard Smith, Darius Rucker, James Carville and Governor Rick Perry. You tell me who wins the lucky prize, though, because my Googling finger is tired right now.

Second question: “What are Big Boy’s Hog bonafides?”

May was born in Tennessee, but he was reared in Clarksville and spent some time in high school in Winslow and Fayetteville. Both his sisters are UA grads, as are his mom and dad. Wait, it gets more impressive: Mommy May was a UA homecoming queen and at one time dated the former All-SWC Billy Ray Smith, Sr. And dad is fraternity bros with Jimmie Johnson and Don Tyson, May said on this Ugly Uncle Show interview,

Some time around 1990, the comedian Sam Kinison encouraged the teenage May to move to Houston for more exposure. But before he left, he did things like “kill” an air conditioner with a crossbow. Listen to the interview for more stuff like that. Definitely check out the 20:35 mark, where May unleashes a nugget that has an approximately 0.00% chance of being repeated on the upcoming SEC Network special.

It happened in the early 1980s, at a Razorback home game, and features a young May spying a young state governor in the stands: “Bill Clinton has got two hot, hot girls from Fayetteville with him, drunk and pawin’ em,” May recalled. “It’s weird because later his inclination was toward fat girls … We were like ‘That’s the governor of the state of Arkansas right there, making out with two chicks. Oh my God!’ It was hilarious. Everybody got up to call the Hogs and Bill Clinton was making out with these girls… I never wanted to vote for a man more in my life.”

That day, May took delight in more than Clinton’s deft political touch and the game, which the Hogs won. He also recalled  post-game visits to Mr. Burger, where he was able to use ticket stubs to buy a cheeseburger, coke and fries for a mere $1. “Man, we’d go and knock them out. Oh God. That Mr. Burger was so good gettin’ into my mouth, ohhh.”

Let’s say, hypothetically, you wish ESPN Films didn’t broadcast this man unto the rest of the world as the Face of the Razorbacks. Who would you prefer? Any other non-politician/non-former UA athletes* out there who are legit national celebrities and have publicly shown love for the Razorbacks?

You'd be throwing up, too, if your mom dated a Billy Ray Smith.

You’d be throwin’ ‘em up, too, if your mom dated a Billy Ray Smith.

*Here’s an at-times preposterous, but lengthy, list of candidates via Hogville.

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Holland: Greatest To Never Win a World Title in any Team Sport?

I’ve gotten on a bit of a Netherlands kick lately after finding out one of Arkansas’ best young soccer players will soon have a tryout with that nation’s esteemed Ajax club youth academy. The Dutch have amazed me in their ability to come so close to winning a World Cup yet consistently fail.

They have finished second three times, and tomorrow in a third-place match with Brazil will again have a shot at finishing high. The Dutch have 26 World Cup wins, by far the most by any team to have never finished first. As ESPN announcer Ian Darke said, “they’re the greatest team to have never won a World Cup final.”

Hard to argue.

But what happens if we compare Holland’s success/lack thereof to the best (of the rest) from all major team sports? Are there other national teams out there who have been just as consistent in getting thisclose to winning a world title, but amazingly, mysteriously, fall short of the ultimate prize every single last time?

Yes, it turns out. Here Holland has some serious competition.

There are other national teams awesome at being second place in their respective sports. The U.S. women’s volleyball team grabs all kinds of silver, but they just can’t get over the hump most often called Brazil. Same for France in rugby, where other Southern hemispheric titans lurk.

Below is a list of contenders for my all-sport “Best of the Rest” gold medal. I’ve drawn records from each sport’s biggest four-year competition. These are world championships, Olympics or world cups.

 

France (Rugby) 

Rugby World Cup

# of Competitions: 6

# of 2nd Place Finishes: 3

All-time Wins-Ties-Losses: 30-1-12

Win %*: 70.1%

 

The Netherlands (soccer) 

FIFA World Cup

# of Competitions: 10

# of 2nd Place Finishes: 3

Wins-Ties-Losses since 1974, when Holland starting being good: 26-12-9

Win %: 68%

(All-time Wins-Ties-Losses: 26-12-11 [adding two losses from two World Cups previous to 1974])

 

Read the rest of this entry »


Pay You, Pay Me: Buy Out Clauses in Arkansan College Coaching Contracts

The below article originally published in the June issue of Arkansas Money & Politics 

When it comes to big-time college sports, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas rarely operate on a level playing field. The Razorback athletic department pulls in nearly seven times more total revenue than the ASU Red Wolves.

There is one place Arkansas’ largest sports programs stand on equal ground: each school’s head football coach has a contract demanding the same amount of money for cutting out early. If the Hogs’ Bret Bielema had decided to break his six-year contract last year — his first on the job — he would have owed the U of A $3 million. Three million is also what the Red Wolves’ new coach Blake Anderson would pay to leave ASU during his first year. This symmetry is all the more striking because Bielema’s and Anderson’s salaries aren’t even close: Bielema makes $3.2 million a year, Anderson makes $700,000.

Conversely, if they leave at the behest of the schools, the coaches can look to pocket some walking-away money.

It’s all a matter of strategy and context, a common game played by universities across the country. Still, fans can be certain of one thing: in the world of coaches’ contracts, terms for parting ways matter every bit as much as the salary.

In the biggest conferences, a $3 million buyout provision isn’t all that large. In a conference as relatively small as ASU’s Sun Belt, though, this kind of number is almost certainly unprecedented — much like the situation in which ASU football finds itself on the whole.

“When you’ve gone through what we’ve gone through the last few years,” ASU athletic director Terry Mohajir said, “you learn a little bit.” 

Since 2010, ASU has hired four different coaches. The first — Hugh Freeze — had a first-year buyout of $225,000. For his successors, that figure jumped to $700,000, then to $1.75 million, and now to $3 million. Where it ends, nobody knows.

Decades ago, things were simpler. Major college football coaches typically signed one-year contracts, which would roll over to the next year if they did a good job. Things started changing in the 1980s with the advent of bigger broadcast deals and the proliferation of cable sports programming. As multi-year contracts prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s, “the institutions began looking for a commitment from the coach,” U of A athletic director Jeff Long said. At first, “it was really a one-way street and now it’s evolved into a two-way street on the contractual buyout terms.”

In business terms, the institution is looking for security after investing in a risky asset — the head football coach — that can either add or lose a great amount of revenue. Perversely, either one makes the coach more likely to leave. A chronically underwhelming coach is likely to be fired by the school, while star performers are lured away by institutions with more elite programs.

Buyout contracts therefore typically work in two ways. If a university fires the head coach “at its convenience,” legalese often translated to “too many games were lost,” the school usually gives the coach a ton of money to go away. Bielema, for instance, would be paid $12.8 million if he were fired in this context in his first three seasons. For Anderson, the number is $3 million if he’s let go in his first year. The University of Central Arkansas’ Steve Campbell would be paid $7,000 a month for the remainder of his contract ending Dec. 31, 2017, if he were fired; and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Monte Coleman would get his annual base salary of $150,000 paid to him over 18 months.

In the 21st century, major college coaches’ salaries — and attendant buyouts — have grown hand-in-hand.

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Can Arkansas’ Best Young Soccer Players Tap Into Some of that Clint Dempsey Magic?

Thank you, Clint Dempsey.

Thank you for making me look a fool.

Mere hours after I wrote that the U.S. soccer would not win a World Cup until its best players could score with flair and panache, the American forward goes out and pulls off a masterpiece of footwork, leaving multiple Ghanian defenders flailing in his wake as he hit the ball off the far right post and into the history books. The goal, a mere 29 seconds into the U.S.’s 2014 World Cup debut, was the fifth-fastest in the history of the tournament.

It was also very much out of character for our nation, which has traditionally been most adept scoring off set pieces and direct-line sprints to the goal (think Landon Donovan v. Algeria circa 2010). Dempsey’s technical skill with the ball, the way in which he brashly let the ball roll through his feet before juking past two defenders, was the kind of improvisational flair so rarely pulled off by Americans in the World Cup.

Dempsey grew up in a trailer park Nacogdoches, Texas, about an hour
outside of Dallas. He spent his childhood years playing pickup playground soccer against Hispanics, and as a teenager traveled to Dallas to play in more structured league play. This combination of unstructured play and rigorous training – combined with the great coaches and multi-ethnic talent pool of north Texas – proved to be an outstanding incubator of Dempsey’s genius.

Many of Arkansas’ best soccer players have also headed to the Dallas area to develop their talents. One of the most promising young ones is Thomas Roberts, a 13-year-old who like Dempsey honed his talents as a child in daily, unstructured play (in this case, at Little Rock’s Anthony School). As a young teenager, he’s been making frequent 4.5 hour trips to Frisco, Texas, to play with an MLS academy team. That is an advantage players of Dempsey’s generation never had, as I detail in Sporting Life Arkansas:

“Thomas Roberts may already be the most accomplished 13-year-old soccer player in Arkansas history. In four months, the rising eighth-grader will almost certainly be the first to try out for a European club academy that has produced more elite soccer players than any other in the world. He’s been training against teens three years older in the Arkansas Rush program “and could still be considered the best player on both teams,” says Rush technical director Nathan Hunt.

A year and a half ago, Roberts started training in the youngest age level of the FC Dallas youth development system. He has emerged as one of the best players on one of the nation’s best teams in his age group. “He’s a very special player,” says Chris Hayden, Vice President of FC Dallas Youth. “Highly gifted technically and very savvy.” Hayden plans to recommend Roberts to join a pool of players who by late fall will try out for the U-14 U.S. National team.

While Roberts ascends to heights no Arkansans have touched before, the Little Rock native is also playing a part in a major upheaval in the way future American national teams are being trained. His FC Dallas academy began seven years as part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a project funded by the game’s national governing body that attempts to emulate the multi-team, age-divided structure of the top European clubs. The change has streamlined and accelerated the progress of the country’s brightest young talents. “Before 2007, [US Soccer] was categorized as a free-for-all—we lacked focus, and everybody’s goals and agendas were so varied and different,” Tony Lepore, director of scouting for U.S. Soccer, told si.com last week. “But now everyone’s in line with trying to develop a world-class player.”Thomas Roberts may already be the most accomplished 13-year-old soccer player in Arkansas history. In four months, the rising eighth-grader will almost certainly be the first to try out for a European club academy that has produced more elite soccer players than any other in the world. He’s been training against teens three years older in the Arkansas Rush program “and could still be considered the best player on both teams,” says Rush technical director Nathan Hunt.

A year and a half ago, Roberts started training in the youngest age level of the FC Dallas youth development system. He has emerged as one of the best players on one of the nation’s best teams in his age group. “He’s a very special player,” says Chris Hayden, Vice President of FC Dallas Youth. “Highly gifted technically and very savvy.” Hayden plans to recommend Roberts to join a pool of players who by late fall will try out for the U-14 U.S. National team.

While Roberts ascends to heights no Arkansans have touched before, the Little Rock native is also playing a part in a major upheaval in the way future American national teams are being trained. His FC Dallas academy began seven years as part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a project funded by the game’s national governing body that attempts to emulate the multi-team, age-divided structure of the top European clubs. The change has streamlined and accelerated the progress of the country’s brightest young talents. “Before 2007, [US Soccer] was categorized as a free-for-all—we lacked focus, and everybody’s goals and agendas were so varied and different,” Tony Lepore, director of scouting for U.S. Soccer, told si.com last week. “But now everyone’s in line with trying to develop a world-class player.”

For the rest of the article, go here.


If Derek Fisher Had Been a Razorback: Insight from Nolan, Corliss & Derek Himself

Courtesy: Ferris Williams, Sync magazine

Courtesy: Ferris Williams, Sync magazine

There aren’t many blank spots on former NBA player Derek Fisher’s resume: five world titles, an AAU National Championship, a high school state championship, six years as National Basketball Players Association President, now New York Knicks head basketball coach. On every big stage the Little Rock native played, he left his mark.

Yet there’s the stage he never played on.

It doesn’t matter how many big-time events Fisher was a part of in his 18-year pro career. Nothing will erase the memory of how close he got as a college senior to making his sport’s most dramatic competition: the NCAA Tournament. His University of Arkansas at Little Rock Trojans were up 56-55 in the 1996 Sun Belt Conference Championship game with four seconds left.

The University of New Orleans had the ball. Fisher closed out quickly on the opposing guard with the ball, but he spun past Fisher’s outstretched arms and drove to the basket, lofting a teardrop shot that resulted in an upset win.

Despite a 23-6 record, UALR would be left out on the doorstep on Selection Sunday. Fisher’s final shot at the Big Dance was gone.

It could have been much, much different.

What if instead of leading UALR, Fish had helped steer the Razorbacks? “I think he could have played at Arkansas, but coming out of high school, he just wasn’t ready,” said Razorback All-American Corliss Williamson, also one of Fisher’s best friends. There’s a strong chance Fisher was ready for Arkansas halfway through his college career, though, and he was closer to making that jump than many people realize.

As a Hog, Fisher likely would have helped stabilize the state’s flagship program during one of its most tumultuous periods and provided guard depth in a season in which it was sorely needed. In the 1995-96 season, for instance, the Hogs at times started four freshmen, including guards Pat Bradley and Kareem Reid. That team ended up making Arkansas’ fourth consecutive Sweet Sixteen, but how much further could it have gone with a seasoned leader like Fisher?

All aboard the speculator, folks. Alternate history isn’t just for Civil War and JFK buffs any more…

FOCUSED ON THE FUTURE

Before delving into conjecture, let’s look at the facts: Fisher grew up in Arkansas basketball’s 40 Minutes of Hell heyday of the early 1990s and, like so many other young ballers in Little Rock, would have loved to join in on the fun. As a Parkview High School student, he looked up to the Hogs’ All-American point guard Lee Mayberry.

Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson knew about Fisher. He and his assistants had seen him play plenty of times in the summer circuit while scouting Arkansas Wings teammates like Corliss Williamson and Reggie Merritt. Fisher, never the most talented or most athletic player on his AAU or Parkview teams, didn’t yet shine like he would a few years down the line.

Instead, he was grinder. “He has one of the best work ethics I’d ever seen, at that age or even now,” Williamson said. “You know how a lot of us are as teenagers,” he added. “We want to hang out and do different things, whereas Derek was more focused. He was always trying to go out and lift weights or get up extra shots.”

Still, Richardson didn’t offer him a scholarship. He said the six-foot, 173-pound Fisher was then more of a shooter than pure point guard and wasn’t yet a player who could compete for playing time in a deep backcourt. In hindsight, though, Richardson said he considers his decision not to pursue Fisher as one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

STEPPING UP

Fisher, who grew up west of Boyle Park, landed near home at UALR. It wasn’t easy. The Trojans’ head coach Jim Platt doubted he was worth a scholarship, according to Fisher’s autobiography Character Driven. But a couple of assistant coaches (he had played for one on the Wings) convinced Platt otherwise.

Fisher earned the starting job a few games in, and as his stock rose over the next couple of seasons, so did that of the team he’d so wanted to join in Fayetteville. From 1992 to 1994, the Hogs made the leap from national contender to national champion. Fisher often visited Fayetteville to see his Razorback friends, hang out and go to dinner, recalls one such friend Reggie Merritt. In the summers, they played pickup together in Little Rock.

Fisher was familiar with Arkansas’ program and its players. That’s a main reason he briefly considered transferring there, said Merritt, recalling a conversation he had with Fisher in the spring of 1994.

Over the preceding seasons, Fisher and his teammates had gotten progressively more fed up with the attitude of Coach Platt. By January, they were ready to go public with their grievances, according to Character Driven. They chose the even-keeled Fisher as unofficial team spokesman: “It was really something that came from my teammates,” Fisher said in a telephone interview in early October. “It wasn’t something I assumed would be my responsibility.”

It became his charge when he and other Trojans boycotted a practice by taking a trip to the mall instead. An ad hoc summit was called. Assistant coach Dennis White visited him at his apartment along with UALR’s former athletic director, Mike Hamrick.

Teammates wanted Fisher to request a meeting with the entire staff, minus Platt, to air concerns — that in preceding months he’d become too negative, too sarcastic, crossing the line between barbed motivation and verbal abuse. They had Fisher voice an ultimatum: Either fire Platt, or we won’t play in an upcoming rivalry game against Arkansas State. “Once I was asked by my teammates to fill that role, at that point I embraced it 100 percent and really immediately took on that leadership and protector mentality of looking out for what’s best for my teammates, even more than for myself,” Fisher said.

LEADING THE TROJANS

At the meeting, Fisher explained the team’s decision to boycott the ASU game unless Platt was immediately replaced. Hamrick explained contractual terms made this impossible, but did promise to investigate the complaints and evaluate the situation at season’s end, Fisher wrote in Character Driven.

The players decided to keep playing but, predictably, UALR sputtered, dropping nine of its last 14 games. At season’s end, Platt was let go. New coach Wimp Sanderson had work to do. “When I got there, it was chaos, kind of,” Sanderson recalled. “It was just a bad situation.” All of his players were quitting the program and looking into transfer possibilities. Indeed, shortly before Sanderson was hired, standout freshmen Malik Dixon and Muntrelle Dobbins had entered Hamrick’s office and requested transfers.

They eventually stayed, as did Fisher. I asked Fisher if he considered transferring to Arkansas, as Merritt had recalled: “Once I was at UALR I don’t think I had any questions about wanting to be there but I do recall the uncertainty of the situation requiring me to look at what else may be possible,” Fisher said. “But I don’t think those thoughts ever went to a place where I formally thought I would transfer from the university.” Fisher is careful not to slam the door on the possibility of a consideration, though: “Reggie’s memory may be better than mine.”

Trojan fans have no problem recalling the accomplishments of Fisher’s final two seasons on campus: Sun Belt Player of the Year honors as a senior and a career that left him second on UALR’s all-time lists for scoring, assists and steals. Yet the question remains: What if he’d packed his bags for the Ozarks after that sophomore year?

IF HE’D BEEN A HOG

Almost certainly, Razorback Fisher wouldn’t have put up as big of numbers playing in the SEC as he did in the Sun Belt. He likely would have sat that first year — 1994-95 — per NCAA transfer rules. Still, he would have scrimmaged with Williamson, Scotty Thurman, Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel and Al Dillard, keeping his game plenty sharp.

And he would have absorbed lessons from those veterans that would have proved immensely valuable in the following two seasons.

The 1995-96 team started off with so much promise, yet ended up with so many question marks. Yes, the ‘96 Hogs lost nine scholarship players from the year before, but were also prepared to welcome in the nation’s top recruiting class — including junior college players such as forward Sunday Adebayo, center Kareem Poole, point guard Marcus Saxon and shooting guard Jesse Pate. Saxon and Pate had formed the nation’s best JUCO backcourt at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College.

Academic issues prevented Saxon and Poole, however, from ever making it to campus. The team’s depth was further depleted when freshman guard Marlon Towns had to sit out the first couple months as an ACT score eligibility issue was cleared up. This meant almost the entire bulk of the point guard duties fell on the shoulders of 5-10, 165-pound Kareem Reid. “He’s got to be the man right off the bat,” Richardson told theArkansas Democrat-Gazette in October 1995.

Fisher, who’d put on significant muscle since Parkview, would have alleviated Reid’s burden while providing more size against opposing guards. Fisher’s role would have increased even more when the team’s leading scorer, Jesse Pate, was ruled ineligible to play in February 1996 because the NCAA said his transfer grades had not been certified properly.

Despite all the flux (Adebayo was also ruled ineligible), the team managed to finish 20-13 while leading the SEC in rebounds, three-pointers and assists. But Fisher would have helped do more than anchor the backcourt; he also would have provided much needed maturity, especially for the young guards. In the summer of 1996, Reid was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana in a dormitory room along with Marlon Towns. “I think [Fisher’s] leadership would have benefited our team,” said shooting guard Pat Bradley, “We were immature, but talented.”

The actual ‘95-‘96 team lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Massachusetts 79-63. Center Marcus Camby was UMass’ star, but the team’s engine belonged to its Puerto Rican backcourt of Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla. Against UMass, Reid and Bradley had to log 37 minutes each. Fisher would have allowed them to stay much more fresh while likely chipping in 13-17 points of his own. It would have been a nailbiter, but it’s possible that these alternate history Hogs would have beaten UMass, then taken down an Allen Iverson-led Georgetown in the next round. They likely still would have lost to eventual national champions Kentucky in the Final Four, but making it that far would have been plenty impressive. Granted, Arkansas fans at the time wanted more, but in the last 16 years they have learned how rare Final Four berths are.

For Fisher’s part, he doesn’t dwell on all these what-ifs. He insists he’s a Trojan, through and through. I asked him during that pivotal spring of 1994 if he’d ever imagined how he would do playing with the likes of Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel and Kareem Reid. “Not really,” he said.

Instead, he was out to prove himself from Little Rock. “Had I had the opportunity to play at the SEC level or ‘big college’ level, I could have been as or more impactful as those guys were. And I had a lot of respect for what those guys accomplished in their years at Fayetteville — no question about it.”

But he was also driven to carve out a career that would also be worthy of much respect, “to work as hard as [he] possibly could to put UALR on the map.”

 

The above is an update of an article that originally ran in 2012 in Sync magazine

 


New Financial Disclosures for Arkansas’ Division I Athletic Programs

USA Today just released the most up to date financial reports for all 230 Division I athletic programs in the nation. In terms of total revenue, the University of Arkansas sits 14 spots from the top. Ten spots from the bottom you’ll find the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff (the nation’s largest intra-university system disparity). In between sit three other Arkansas schools.

I’ll break down these numbers later, but for now, let’s simply celebrate in the splattering of them on the wall.

Take what you will:

No. 14 nationally ($99.77 million revenue)

arkansas

No. 131 ($16.28 million revenue)

A State

 

No. 194 ($10.77 million revenue)

UCA

No. 206 ($9.4 million revenue)
UALR

 

No. 220 ($7.1 million)

UAPB

(PS – Notice how the total revenue plummeted from 2010 to 2011. That’s what an NCAA Tournament appearance and win will do for you.)

 

How about you, cherished reader? Any numbers jump out as significant or worth extra scrutiny?


LeBron James’ Playoff Worst is Worse than Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant & Larry Bird’s

Tim Duncan and LeBron James are both jostling for G.O.A.T. status.

Tim Duncan and LeBron James are jostling for G.O.A.T. status.

On Wednesday night, LeBron James had unquestionably his worst playoff performance as a Miami Heat. He bricked eight of his ten shot attempts, turned the ball over three times and mustered only four assists and two rebounds. According to a measurement devised by John Hollinger, the O.G. of basketball advanced statisticians, it was the second-worst playoff performance of James’ career. Not surprisingly, the four-time MVP’s struggles were a big reason Miami lost 93-90, failing to close out Indiana on the road.

This dud, of course, was an exception. Heading back home for Game 6 tonight, Miami is still a 7-point favorite according to the top books at sportsbettingpal.com. James, who has for the most part been superlative throughout the prime of his career, is still expected to emphatically did lead them to a fourth straight Finals appearance. His success in May and June is a big reason the two-time NBA champion is at age 29 already considered one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

But is he the best?

We’ll have a good answer within a few years, and along the way every piece of evidence will add or subtract from that final verdict. So far, James’ career highlights have been just as impressive as other G.O.A.T. candidates. But lowlights should count, too. Here’s how James’ Hindenburg of a night compares to the worst playoff performances* of his rivals to the all-time throne:

 

Larry Bird

Date: May 19, 1985

Line: 14 PTS (27% FG), 8 TOs, 7 REBs, 6 ASTs

Game outcome: Boston 104, Philadelphia 115

Series outcome: Celtics Won 4-1

If LeBron is to one day be widely considered the game’s greatest player, he needs to first lock down the all-time first team small forward spot. That means pushing aside Larry Bird, who won’t go down without a fight in more ways than one. LeBron already has more overall MVPs, but this season he failed to be the first player to pull off an MVP three-peat since Bird did it in 1984-86.

The worst game of Bird’s playoff career in his prime years wasn’t as bad as James’. Both men have excuses. On Wednesday night, James couldn’t stay on the floor and get into a rhythm, not with the refs blowing the whistle on him five times and a certain “Ron Artest-Stephen Jackson-Jamaal Tinsley Molotov cocktail” blowing into his ear. In 1985, with Boston up 3-0, Bird showed up for Game 4 with his right index finger badly swollen. The official stance was it happened in Game 3, but an unidentified eyewitness claims Bird injured the hand while throwing a haymaker in a barroom fight a couple nights before.

Whatever the case, the injury might have cost Boston a title. Bird shot 42% from the field after the apparent incident and in the Finals the Celtics fell 4-2 to the Lakers.

 

Michael Jordan

Date: May 11, 1989

Line: 15 PTS (41% FG & 25% FT), 1 TO, 8 REBs, 3 ASTs

Game Outcome: Chicago 97, New York 114

Series Outcome: Chicago Won 4-2

 

You can’t blame Knicks point guard Mark Jackson for sticking it to the crowd. He was feeling good. In Game 2 of a series in which New York was favored, he’d just stolen the ball from his Airness – so why not have a little fun and mock Jordan’s signature gesture? M.J., after all, was looking human as Jackson and “Jordan stopper” Gerald Wilkins were en route to limiting him to a career playoff low 15 points with their full-court press. Jackson couldn’t help but stick that tongue out.

Oops.

Chicago head coach Doug Collins showed Jordan the tape of Jackson’s jauntiness, and that was all she wrote. Chicago wiped New York out 111-88 in the next game, and despite that Game 2 statistical black eye, Jordan ended up averaging 35.9 points, 9.5 rebounds, 8.4 assists and shooting more than 52% on field goals in the 6-game series. Talk about a bounce back.

The next series against Detroit saw Jordan’s second-worst playoff performance thanks to a famously aggressive Pistons defense that left no shortage of bruises.

How tough was the defense Jordan had to score on?

Fast forward to the 52 second mark in the following film. Watch Detroit’s Dennis Rodman literally push Jordan to the ground after a shot attempt:

Jordan just lays there, becoming at one with the pain, while nobody seems to notice. No complaining. It’s playoff time – pain is to be expected. Contrast this with the way James tried to bait a foul from Lance Stephenson at the end of Wednesday’s game and instead ended up flailing wildly while airballing a three-point attempt that could have helped Miami knock Indiana out. James is a better passer than Jordan ever was, yes, but he’s also a far superior flopper.

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Date: April 5, 1973

Line: 18 PTs (50% FT); Other stats N/A

Game Outcome: Milwaukee 97, Golden State 102

Series Outcome: Milwaukee lost 4-2

The nearly 7’3” Abdul-Jabbar is the most prolific scorer the league has ever seen. And with a baseline sky hook extending to 18 feet, he had the most unstoppable go-to move known to man. All the same, Abdul-Jabbar had his spots – and he usually preferred them to be closer to the basket. A defender who could push him off those spots gave his team a chance.

That’s exactly what happened during the 1973 Playoffs when Milwaukee, led by Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, were upset by a balanced Warriors squad featuring Rick Barry, Cazzie Russell and the 6’11” Nate Thurmond.

Throughout the series, Thurmond continually beat Abdul-Jabbar to his favorite spots on the floor and worked hard to to cut down on entry passing angles. As a result, he held Abdul-Jabbar to an “unheard of” 42% on field goals, 11 percentage points below his norm, according to Bob Ryan’s 1975 book “The Pro Game.” Abdul-Jabbar, who averaged at least 32 points a game in three of his first six postseasons, averaged only 22.8 in this one (along with 16.2 rebounds). After the series, the Bucks’ Jon McGlocklin said: “I think it’s disgusting. To me, we’re a better team than they are, but they played harder as a team. They were smarter in the playoffs than they had been in the regular season, and we weren’t nearly as smart or as hungry.”

Abdul-Jabbar said Thurmond was the best defender he ever faced.

 

 

James must leapfrog two active players in achievements before he is widely considered the greatest of all time. They are:

 

Kobe Bryant:

Date: June 10, 2004

Line: 11 PTs (31% FG), 4 TOs, 5 ASTs, 3 REBs

Game Outcome: Los Angeles 66, Detroit 88

Series Outcome: Los Angeles lost 4-1

 

After winning Game 2 of the Finals, Bryant and the Lakers arrived in Auburn Hills three games away from winning their fourth title in five years – a stint of success that would have surpassed even the Chicago dynasties of the 1990s. In a pivotal Game 3, though, Kobe didn’t exactly grab the bull by the horns. Instead, the long-armed Tayshaun Prince harassed Bryant into missing all four of his first half shot attempts. Bryant didn’t score until connecting on a third-quarter jumper to close Detroit’s lead to 54-42.

“He had a hard time shooting,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said afterward. “This is a tough background to shoot in, it’s a different one, and the basket, he had a few things that didn’t go down for him; didn’t get to the line too often.”

This game was the start of a miserable stretch run for the most talented NBA team to not win a title. The Lakers featured four future Hall of Famers, including Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone (who was hobbled by a knee injury in the series). The coaching staff featured two Hall of Famers in Phil Jackson and Tex Winter.

 

Tim Duncan:

Date: April 30, 2005

Line: 11 PTs (26% FG), 11 REBs, 3 TOs, 2 ASTs

Game Outcome: San Antonio 86, Denver 78

Series Outcome: San Antonio won 4-1

 

 Of course Tim Duncan would manage a double-double even in the worst playoff game of his prime. What more would you expect from a player who puts up excellence with such predictability that he’s bestowed the nickname “Death & Taxes”?

Like James in Indiana, Duncan was shackled by foul trouble in this one – a Game 3 on the road. After playing five first half minutes and scoring four points, Duncan was absolutely atrocious in the third quarter. The Nuggets’ Marcus Camby played a role in his missing all eight of his shots. In the end, though, Duncan’s teammates (i.e. Ginobili) picked up the slack and the Spurs rolled, winning the series and eventually the 2005 title.

While James never had the opportunity to lock horns with Bryant in the Finals, he and Duncan have gone at it twice. Both all-time greats have notched their belt at the other’s cost, and it looks like a deciding Series III could be in the pipeline for this June. Whichever player leads his team to victory in that series would have a big leg up on the other in future G.O.A.T. arguments.

******

In the end, even if Indiana shocks the world and wins the series, James’ Game 5 clunker will be tiny asterisk on a glorious career. Even if he were to never play another game, James has already become a legit contender in the Greatest of All Time conversation.

Still, his accomplishments from here on out could clearly push him to the front of the line. Those achievements will boil down to the cold numbers: number of titles, gold medals and MVPs won; total number of points, rebounds and assists, as well as win shares and true shooting percentage.

As fans of certain players, we love to fixate on the good. But we should look at their worst of times along with the best when trying to paint a complete picture of that player’s overall greatness. Just because the lowlights are scarce doesn’t mean they should go unexamined.

It’s evident James’ playoff lows are worse than his rivals for greatest of all time status.

 

*I only looked at performances from ages 25 through 29. These are prime years in most players’ careers. Plus, I didn’t want to extend points of comparison past LeBron’s current age (although he has played more NBA playoff minutes than most other 29-year-olds).


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