Interesting look at the national team of Finland, where Scottie Pippen played a few games after his NBA retirement: “Their collective decision-making has become automatized to a degree that will not be achieved by any other team in the World Cup. There is no hesitation, no delays, no second-guessing.
That’s the reason why rumors about NBA veteran Drew Gooden joining the Wolfpack in the last minute never sounded plausible to me. I thought Gooden would have damaged the collectivism of the team, and the net gain would have been negative. “
Originally posted on HoopChalk:
By Harri Mannonen (@harrimannonen)
If ever, a Rudyard Kipling quote is now called for: “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of Wolf is the Pack.”
The obvious reason is that Wolfpack – the nickname of the Finnish national team – are the first opponent of Team USA in FIBA World Cup 2014. The game takes place on Saturday August 30 in Bilbao, Spain.
The less obvious reason is that the Kipling quote describes aptly what’s great about the Finnish Wolfpack. In that team, the strength of wolf quite literally is the pack.
When it comes to the sum of its parts, the Wolfpack are one of the weaker teams in the World Cup. They only have one player who currently plays in the NBA (Erik Murphy of Cleveland Cavaliers) and another one who has formerly played there (Hanno Mottola
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As you know, Hamburg native Scottie Pippen made the original Dream Team in 1992 and the 1996 Olympic team which grabbed Gold in Atlanta. Pippen made by far the greatest splash of any national team Arkansan, but he wasn’t the first to do so in an Olympics. That honor goes to Gordon Carpenter, native of Ash Flat in northeast Arkansas. And there are plenty others who have made national teams for other competitions. Below, I present the first (and I will bet you $25 only) comprehensive list anybody has ever bothered to assemble on the topic:
1. Gordon Carpenter
Carpenter, a 6’6″, 200-pound big affectionately known as “Shorty,” was one of Arkansas’ first great basketball players. He led Ash Flat in northeast Arkansas to the 1939, upsetting much bigger teams in Little Rock and Pine Bluff, and then went on to star on the University of Arkansas’ first Final Four team in 1941. He led the Hogs to their first undefeated SWC record and ended his college career on the All-SWC team.
He then played for the Phillips 66 powerhouse basketball team, which was technically amateur and allowed him to retain eligibility for international play (the Olympics were then off-limits to paid professional athletes). The Phillips 66 team was on par with the best professional teams of the era, and Carpenter helped lead them to six straight national titles. He made the AAU All-America team each year from 1943-1947 and helped his team qualify to represent the U.S. in the 1948 Olympics by beating the University of Kentucky in a Madison Square Garden (weird, I know).
In those London Olympics, Carpenter had a turn as hero, according to this book. In a game against Argentina, the U.S. was trailing by six points with four minutes to go. Coach then inserted Carpenter and he scored 10 points in two minutes to help the Americans turn the tide and win. The final score of the game was 59-57, according to linguasport.com.
Two years later, Carpenter became head coach of the national team at the first basketball World Championship (now called the basketball World Cup) in 1950. The host nation, Argentina, took Gold and the U.S. took Silver.
A native of Tuckerman in Sharp Co., the 6’8″, 240-pound Barnes trumps Corliss Williamson, Andrew Lang (and so far Bobby Portis) as the most dominant collegian big man the state has produced. He was dirt poor as a child, often playing in socks because his family couldn’t afford shoes. Around 18 years of age, he moved to Oklahoma to finish high school. Barnes then dominated junior college competition for two years, and then did the same at Texas Western. He averaged 29 points and 19 rebounds his senior year, and a few months later became the first of two Arkansans ever drafted #1 overall in an NBA or NFL draft.
Before his pro career, though, Barnes traveled to Tokyo with other top collegians like Larry Brown and Bill Bradley. He was the fifth-leading scorer on the Gold-winning team. In the Finals, the U.S. squared off against the U.S.S.R. Barnes’ speed and agility, like center Bill Russell’s four years before, was a big reason the Soviets could not hang with the Americans.
That team’s head coach was Henry Iba, who happened to the mentor of Barnes’ college coach Don Haskins. Coincidentally, Haskins became the mentor to Nolan Richardson, one of Barnes’ Texas Western teammates. Richardson thought highly of Barnes’ character: “Jim was one of those men who was thrilled to play for their country. He took the opportunity seriously and played every possession hard.”
3, Sidney Moncrief
When it comes to Moncrief and Larry Bird sharing the same court, the headliner will forever be their legendary showdown in the Elite Eight of the 1979 NCAA Tournament. Before these two All-Americans clashed in front of a national audience, though, they had two summers before joined forces to topple other countries.
In 1977, the Little Rock native represented the U.S. in the World University Games (similar to what would be a U-21 competition today). Moncrief helped the U.S. tear through the event, in Bulgaria, with an 8-0 record. He led the Americans with 16 points in the finals against the U.S.S.R.
Undoubtedly, Sid shot the ball at a high clip that tourney. It’s amazing to think that as a freshman, the 6’4″ forward led the entire nation in field goal percentage, as this July 26, 1977 article points out:
NB: You’ll notice one of the assistant coaches was none other than Bill Vining of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. The national team program wanted coaches from all levels of college basketball, and Vining, being the small college level bad-ass he was, was selected to rep that segment.
4. Marvin Delph
Another one of Arkansas’ famed Triplets, Delph was a part of a wonky 1978 World Championship team made up of neither college or professional players. College players should have filled out its roster but by October – when the event occurred – they were already in preseason and prohibited from competing.
So the U.S. sent a squad made up mostly of Athletes In Action (a religious organization) ballers, and finished 6-4. This isn’t all that bad considering many of the communist national teams were made up of essentially professional players who had state-provided sinecure jobs.
Delph, a Conway native, averaged only 5.5. points in the six games he played. But hey, the U.S. was 5-1 in those games (losing only to the U.S.S.R.), so that’s something.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
Injuries are a major story-line in the semifinals of this year’s NBA Playoffs. Miami and San Antonio have been able to prevent significant injuries to their aging stars, Indiana rolled the dice by letting Paul George return to action after suffering a concussion and Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka has unexpectedly bounced back from a plantaris strain that was expected to keep him out for the rest of the postseason.
As a result, the newly inspired Thunder have won two straight games in dominant fashion against the Spurs to tie that series 2-2.
Injuries are big news; They make or break champions and bank accounts. And whenever that news is broken in today’s mainstream media, it’s more and more likely that some of the analysis behind it comes from Little Rock resident Jeff Stotts.
Stotts, whose day job is athletic trainer for Mount St. Mary Academy, also works as the go-to injury analyst for RotoWire, a major player in the multi-billion-dollar fantasy sports industry. Stotts is likely the nation’s foremost injury analyst in fantasy football, basketball and baseball. In the last eight months, though, he’s started publishing analysis from his own NBA injuries database. The timely stats spewing from his spreadsheets are making him a go-to source in the world of real sports news as well, as I note in my most recent Daily Beast piece:
The 31-year-old Dallas native, after all, chose a hobby in injury analytics that just happens to be the next big thing in sports. “Injury is kind of the golden question that everybody wants to answer,” sports scientist Michael Regan told ESPN’s TrueHoop. “Because when you look at analytics in sports, the only thing that correlates consistently with elite performance and championships, is number of games played by your best players.”
Stotts calls his year-and-a-half-old database a “random, crazy idea,” but its premise is simple and straightforward. Each game night during the NBA season—often after watching some Mavericks basketball with his 3-year-old daughter and tucking her into bed—he fires up Excel. He then notes which players that night suffered an injury (or were kept out because of an injury) and what the injury was. Sources include news articles and databases and archives available through Rotowire, the fantasy sports company for which he writes. So far, he’s tracked the entire injury histories of 866 players dating back to the 1984-85 season.
The key, as any advanced statistician worth his spreadsheet knows, is to look beyond the box score. The official game report may list the reason a player was kept out as “Did Not Play—Coach’s Decision” but Stotts knows there’s often more to the story. After a little patience and some Googling, he’ll usually discover in news accounts a minor injury like a sore hamstring was the real culprit. “Well, it should have been noted as sore hamstring, but in the box score all it says is ‘DNP-CD.’”
Stotts attention to detail helped spark a friendship with national sportswriter Will Carroll, a Bleacher Report columnist who specializes in baseball injury reporting. The two writers have teamed to present an annual award for the best medical staff in Major League Baseball. Stotts said he also hopes to launch similar awards for NFL and NBA medical staffs, with his database helping decide the latter. Before getting to that point, though, he’ll need more data to track year-to-year improvement trends. “You don’t want to reward a staff for getting lucky. You want to make sure this is a little bit of a trend.”
To that end, Stotts plans to keep working on his database, hopefully adding three seasons’ worth of player histories this summer. The time won’t be as intense as it is on the busiest game days of the regular season— when his news scouring and recording takes about an hour per night—but it’s still an investment for a busy family man with a day job as an athletic trainer at a Catholic high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. He tries to work on his hobby when nobody’s home, but that’s not always possible. Occasionally, his wife Emily* will tell him “Are you really seriously getting on that computer again?” he said, chuckling.
I asked Jeff to what extent his work as an injury analyst influences his job at Mount St. Mary. “It’s made me a better athletic trainer,” he said, “because I have to stay up to date on all the info – not only statistically speaking, but the treatment options that are available.”
Nobody is tracking injury statistics for Arkansas’ high school programs, and it’s a safe bet that such a development is still many years away. But Stotts has been on the forefront of grading the performances of NBA medical staffs. He noted that Ibaka’s quick return is in line with Oklahoma City’s training staff reputation as one of the best in the league. The Thunder, for instance, have “only” lost a little more than 22.2 million dollars in the last five years because of injured players (Contrast that with the Lakers’ 28.24 million dollar loss due to Kobe Bryant’s season-ending injury – the highest single season loss to injury in NBA history).
Given Ibaka’s play in the last couple games, it’s whatever magic OKC’s trainers worked on his upper calf has hurt the Spurs’ title hopes. Whether Ibaka’s health ends up breaking those hopes altogether is yet to be seen.
*Stotts’ wife actually works in the same office at Arkansas Children’s Hospital as my wife, Susan. And before we’d met each other through company picnics and parties, Jeff and I played pickup ball together at Pulaski Heights united Methodist Church. He’s got a solid floor game.
Yesterday, Miami’s Shane Battier shed insight into the difference between the two best small forwards in New York City:
“There’s not a lot you can take away,” he said of Joe Johnson’s offensive ability. “I’m not saying you can take away…but Carmelo Anthony, he’s so left-hand dominant. So if you make him put it in his right hand, he really struggles. Joe, you can’t really do that. You really just have to fight him, play him honest, make him work for catches. Don’t let him get any free catches, because once he gets a free catch, he’s got multiple options.”
Battier isn’t the only Heat player praising Johnson’s abilities as Johnson’s Nets get set to clash with the Heat tonight, according to Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report. Dwayne Wade first realized just how talented Johnson was in the 2006, when the two players joined a star-studded cast including Anthony, LeBron James and Dwight Howard in Japan for the FIBA World Championships.
From afar, I knew he was good,” Wade told Bleacher Report after Wednesday’s Heat practice. “But we were practicing, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know he was this good.’ And we were all, like, ‘Joe, you know how good you are?’ He was like, ‘Whatever.'” That team didn’t win the gold medal, falling to Greece and settling for bronze. But Johnson won the respect of his peers, tying with Howard for fifth on the team in scoring.
That trip was likely also the start of a close power circle that almost made Johnson a teammate of Wade four years later. Johnson, James and Wade planned to discuss their free agency plans in spring of 2010. Fast forward yet another four years, and Wade and James, of course, have gone on to win two NBA titles together and establish one of the great mini-dynasties in NBA history. Johnson, meanwhile, has lost 13 of the 16 second round games he has played in and has yet to deliver a signature NBA playoff series win. Beating his old friends would certainly qualify.
“He’s talented, man,” Wade told Skolnick as Miami prepared for Game 2 of the Brooklyn-Miami series. “But his personality, he’s so quiet. And no one’s ever pushed him.”
Johnson must push himself if his Nets will have any shot whatsoever of dethroning the champs.
For more on Johnson, check out my Sporting Life Arkansas article comparing his playoff plights with Sidney Moncrief.
The greatest Razorback NBA player of the 20th century never made it to the Finals. Blame injuries and the best small forward of his era. By 1986, 28-year-old Sidney Moncrief had transformed his Milwaukee Bucks into perennial Eastern Conference contenders who won seven straight divisional titles. But they got over a hump in the 1986 playoffs only to run into a mountain.
In the second round, the Bucks won that franchise’s first seventh game of a playoff series, beating nemesis Philadelphia 113-112 at home. Moncrief, who had missed four games in the series due to plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the foot, gutted it out for 35 minutes in the pivotal contest. He “played as brave a playoff series as anyone since the Knicks’ Willis Reed hobbled onto Madison Square Garden floor against the Lakers in 1970,” Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum wrote.
Moncrief’s left heel and chronically sore knees weren’t the only ailments afflicting Milwaukee heading into the next round. Its other star, Terry Cummings, had a dislocated finger and scorer Ricky Pierce had sprained his ankle. But the Bucks’ most formidable obstacle came in the form of their next opponent’s 29-year-old, six-feet-nine small forward. Larry Bird had already won two consecutive MVP awards and led his team to two NBA titles. What resistance could Moncrief and the Bucks hope to put up as he steamrolled to another?
Fast forward to 2014, and now Joe Johnson – this century’s greatest Razorback NBA’er – faces another 29-year-old, six-feet-nine force of nature.
In the story on which the movie 300 was based, King Xerxes sat on top of a mountain to watch his Persian army lose scores of men at the hands of resolute Spartan warriors. Xerxes is portrayed as a towering rule, well over eight feet tall, who spared no expense in decorating his palace, body or the mobile throne. During campaigns, slaves often carried that throne on their backs; when Xerxes spoke to you, you always looked up to him. Mark Cuban is in some ways the Xerxes of NBA owners. Unlike the Persian “God-king”’s character in 300, Cuban likes to cover his upper torso, but both rulers are extremely rich and known for extravagant spending. Xerxes paid for an army of 250,000 to march across the known world and invade Europe through Greece.
Nearly 2,500 years later, Cuban paid for an opulent locker rooms stocked with designer robes and video game systems, all in the hopes of seeing the best free agents march toward the Mavericks’ palatial American Airlines Arena. Cuban, by himself, stands a mortal 6’3”. But, like Xerxes, he finds ways to get well above the hoi polloi. Instead of merely standing behind a podium to address the media before games at American Airlines Arena, Cuban often does while using a StairMaster. “You stand on one side of the machine, its whirring rising up and bleeding into your tape recorder, and thrust your arm as close to Cuban as you can,” Jake Appleman wrote in his 2014 book Brooklyn Bounce.
“ As the stairs continue to to rotate through one continuous loop, as he continues to push himself – because that’s one of the seven habits of highly effective billionaires, you lazy, fucking sportswriter – he slowly begins to perspire. His hands are red from gripping the sides of the apparatus, elbows about seven and a half feet high in the air, ready to smash an imaginary Shawn Bradley across the face.” “Soon he’s sweating more than you realize you’re in the line of fire. He’s got a towel at the ready, but who’s to say if he’ll spare you by using it; he’s Mark Cuban, he chose filming an episode of Shark Tank over showing up to his free-agency meeting with Deron Williams.”
In the movie 300, Xerxes’ main foil is King Leonidas of the Spartans. Leonidas led 300 Spartans against an army of 250,000 Persians at a Greek mountain pass called Thermopylae. Predictably, the Spartans were slaughtered, but it amazingly took a few days. Their brave resistance in the face of massively superior numbers is remembered to this day. Thermopylae was essentially the ancient Greeks’ Alamo. Two thousand four hundred and forty four years later, we have a group of NBA warriors hailing from San Antonio who like the Spartans eschew individual flashiness and laud cohesion and dedication to craft. Today, the Spurs will battle Cuban’s Mavericks in a decisive Game 7 at home. Their situation isn’t nearly as dire as it was for the Spartans, but if the San Antonio Spurs lose, this showdown may end up being the last stand for one of the greatest core group of players in league history.
Technically, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the second black player to sign with an NBA team. He was also the first black player to play in the NBA Finals, as well as being the oldest player in NBA history to make an All-Star game debut (at age 34).
Technicalities aside, it should be obvious Clifton’s place in sports history is significant. Basketball, after all, is the world’s second most popular sport primarily because of the exploits of African-American players. There is no Julius Erving, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan without the efforts of Clifton and his contemporaries.
This is why, come August, Clifton will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame alongside Nolan Richardson. It will surprise some to learn Clifton was born in central Arkansas in the early 1920s and spent the first six years of his life in England, Ark. He and his family then moved to Chicago’s South Side, where he starred in baseball and basketball for DuSable High School. He landed in New Orleans for college, then served three years in the U.S. Army before bouncing around a few pro leagues. He wasn’t exactly a scrub journeyman, though: In 1948, Clifton signed a $10,000 contract to become the world’s highest paid black pro basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters (which featured fellow Arkansan Goose Tatum, considered by many the greatest Globetrotter ever).
In 1950, he signed with Knicks, where he became one of the franchise’s most popular players and helped lead New York to three Finals appearances. According to the Chicago Tribune, Clifton was primarily a rebounding forward and center, who at 6-foot-6-inch, 200 pounds averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds a game in eight NBA seasons.
A tenacious defender, Mr. Clifton was called on night after night to guard some of the league`s toughest players, including George Mikan, Dolph Schayes and Ed McCauley.
Following his retirement from professional basketball in 1958-seven years before the league instituted a pension plan-Mr. Clifton played two seasons for Globetrotter spinoffs, the Harlem Magicians and the Harlem Americans. After injuring his knee in 1960 while playing with the Magicians, he began driving a Chicago cab.
`I might not be, but I think I`m the best cab driver out there,“Clifton once said. “The way I look at it, if you`re gonna be something, be good at it.’ ‘
Indeed, at age 63, Clifton died of a heart attack at the wheel of his Chicago taxicab.
The story of Sweetwater’s life appears to be adventuresome, inspiring and possibly sad. It’s remarkable he lived in a world – the pro basketball circuit of the late 1940s and 1950s – that as far as I know hasn’t yet been portrayed in a major motion film.
Others have noticed this too. That’s why spring 2015 is the scheduled premiere of “Sweetwater,” a biopic featuring stars such as Nathan Lane, James Caan and Brian Dennehy. The film’s currently in pre-production, and appears like it will exercise some creative license to widen its appeal. As an example of how this could happen, look at this character outline (which is six years old and could have changed in the meantime).
In it, we see Sweetwater has the ambition of the becoming the “Jackie Robinson of basketball” and is disappointed when the distinction of being the first black to play in the NBA goes to Earl Lloyd. I haven’t yet researched Clifton’s life in detail, but I would guess this distinction wasn’t so important to Clifton. For starters, the NBA had just started a few years before and was nowhere near as established as Major League Baseball. At that time, there was no guarantee the NBA would even survive and one day become a league as important and influential as it is now. I could be surprised, though. Obviously, Clifton was a competitive man and Jackie Robinson was still on everybody’s mind.
Another likely history twist: Clifton had a blues-singing white woman lover soon after arriving in New York City . I’m 99% sure this didn’t happen, but injecting this affair and blues singing will definitely help at the box office. Romance or not, I’ll be fascinated to see how the movie actually comes together. I certainly salute its producers for seeing it through despite complications over the last six years.
My goal in the coming months is to learn as much about Clifton’s Arkansas years and family as I can. There’s scant info out there now. It’s been said his grandmother apparently used snuff, and young Nat – who loved sweets – put cocoa in his cheeks to emulate her and get a bit of sugar rush. We know he lived with his mother and an aunt in Chicago, and that’s about it.
It’s unclear what year he was born, although the best guess is 1922. It also appears he was born as “Clifton Nathaniel” so now the task is to find any Nathaniels who used to live around England, Ark. (Lonoke County). If you have any tips, please reach out to me.
More than six decades after he became a pioneer, Sweetwater will again make headlines in the coming year. Help me make sure his life’s full story is told.
The above is Part 2 of a series about Chicago and Arkansas sports ties.
Is it in the least surprising that a city known for its wind should have so many interesting people floating in and out of it, seemingly carried aloft by the currents of fate?
When I heard Nolan Richardson was being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this August, one of my first thoughts drifted northward to that great city on a lake. Ten years ago, Richardson’s reputation in Arkansas was marred after an ugly firing from, and lawsuit of, the university with whom he’ll always be linked. The idea of enshrining Richardson seemed far-fetched in that period.
In the last five years, though, we’ve seen a whole-scale rehabilitation of Richardson’s image in the state and nationwide. Much of this, of course, has to do with the passage of time. It also helps Richardson that none of his successors have achieved anything near the same level of success he did in Fayetteville. An ESPN documentary, released in 2012, also helped Richardson by essentially canonizing his “40 Minutes of Hell” style among the great strategies in basketball history.
But I think one of the most important reasons for Richardson’s resurgence into the public’s goodwill has been his biography, written by Chicagoan Rus Bradburd. Bradburd’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” published in 2010, is a must-read for all fans of college basketball and students of the race relations in the South. It goes back to Richardson’s west Texas background to explain the complicated roots of his anger, and it lays bare the knarled relationship between he and former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles. It shows, in a way no mere article or documentary could, the extent to which the passion that led to the 1994 championship and the frustration that led to the 2002 meltdown were two sides of the coin.
I’ve talked to Bradburd in person and over the phone a few times about Richardson, Arkansas sports, the craft of writing and more. He’s a fascinating person in his own right, a creative writing professor who’s also spent a year coaching professional basketball in Ireland while learning how to play the fiddle. Oh, and this: He was also a Division I assistant coach who “discovered” a largely unknown point guard named Tim Hardaway in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.
In the early 1980s, while a teenage Hardaway walked to courts to hone his craft, there would have been at some point a large, 6-7 heavyset older man driving a cab by those same courts. Perhaps, they knew of each other. Likely they didn’t. The man’s name was Nat Clifton. He is one of the most significant figures in NBA history, a man who will posthumously be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Richardson.
And he grew up in Arkansas…
Click here for Part 2 of this series.
Big nationally televised game tonight in Brooklyn.
The NBA’s third and fourth most winning teams since the New Year – Brooklyn and Houston – are squaring off. The Nets, led by recent Eastern Conference Player of the Week Joe Johnson, have won 13 games in a row at home and could win a franchise record 14 tonight.
Unfortunately, my TNT game feed is inexplicably en Espanol tonight.
Fortunately, the funniest GIF of the night doesn’t need a translation:
— Evin Demirel (@evindemirel) April 2, 2014
— Evin Demirel (@evindemirel) April 2, 2014
Arkansas freshman big man Bobby Portis earned a pair of SEC postseason honors on Tuesday, as the Little Rock native was named to the All-SEC second team and the SEC All-Freshman team..
According to the UA sports information department, the Hogs have landed 15 players on the SEC All-Freshman team while Portis is just the sixth freshman in program history to earn All-SEC honors. During his standout rookie campaign, Portis also collected three SEC Player of the Week accolades, which equaled the record previously set by current Houston Rocket Patrick Beverley in 2007.
One of Portis’ weekly honors came on the heels of breaking the Arkansas freshman scoring record with 35 points against Alabama on Feb. 5 at Bud Walton Arena, dethroning current Director of Student-Athlete Development Scotty Thurman. The 35-point night was the most by a Razorback since 2002, and the third-most points scored by an SEC player this season. Portis accounted for 29 of the team’s first 35 points, while also adding nine rebounds and a season-best six blocks.
Portis enters the SEC Tournament averaging 12.4 points and 6.6 rebounds, ranking second and first on the team, respectively. The 6-foot-10 forward has reached double figures in 20 games with a team-best three doubles and is the only Razorback to start all 31 games. Portis ranks 10th in the SEC in rebounding and tied for fifth in blocks (1.6), while also showcasing his all-round skill with 46 assists and 35 steals.
The first Arkansas signee since 2004, and the 13th overall, to play in the McDonald’s All-American game, Portis has lived up to the hype and has a chance to become the first freshman in program history to lead the team in scoring and rebounding in the same season. Portis also needs just 12 rebounds to break the freshman record of 211 set by Marshawn Powell in 2010.
Fifth-seeded Arkansas (21-10) will begin play at the SEC Tournament on Thursday, taking on the winner of Auburn/South Carolina in a 2:30 p.m. CT game on SEC TV. The Razorbacks earned a first round bye and head to Atlanta with wins in eight of their last 10 games.
So when and where will Portis end up going in the NBA Draft?
NBA Draft Express has him at #19 in the 2015 Draft, one behind Kentucky’s Dakari Johnson. Curiously, NBA Draftnet doesn’t have him listed at all. But at least one member of the drafterati – Dean Demakis – in February made a strong case for Portis one day being worth high first round consideration. Especially when compared to SEC Freshman of the Year Julius Randle, an apparently surefire Top 10 pick this year.
They are both skilled 5 star freshman PF’s who play in the SEC. Their tools are not far apart, as Portis has more length (7’1.5″ vs 6’11″ wingspan), Randle has more strength, and their athleticism and mobility appear to be similar (although perhaps Randle’s spryness would stand out if he trimmed down). Their offensive ratings adjusted for SOS and usage is close with Randle having a slim 1.8 point advantage. In a world that interprets draft related information with reasonable efficiency, a Portis vs. Randle debate would be raging right now….
Portis has superior defensive awareness and his length enables him to make more plays. I believe he clearly projects to be better on this end in spite of inferior rebounding. Offensively, Randle is a superior offensive rebounder and gets to the line far more, but Portis has a considerably lower turnover rate.