Monday, March 31, 2008

In the Beginning

It’s early September 1979, my best friend Nathan and I climbed into our brown ’72 Pontiac Le Mans, chauffeured by my Dad, and proceeded to take the 20-minute drive to Ogden’s Dee Event Center. Most likely the windows were rolled down because my Dad didn’t believe in AC, and the radio was tuned to some static-filled AM news station if he had his say. If I was the DJ, I am sure we were listening to Rock 99.5 or 103.5 hoping to catch the latest Styx block-party. Life couldn’t have been better because in a few months I would finally turn 16, would finally get my drivers license and finally (and most importantly) the girls would come in droves (or so I thought, because Le Mans means “chick magnet” in French). To top things off, we were headed to the very first Jazz game ever played in Utah.

For months I had read with much excitement of how the troubled New Orleans Jazz wanted to leave their past behind and head for some clean-livin’ in Utah. The differences were striking, for in Salt Lake you might have strangers ‘bear testimony’ to you, while on Bourbon Street strangers might bear something of a slightly different nature. Visions of Pistol Pete dribbling, spinning, shucking and jiving danced in my head. With 3 channels of splendid orange-tinted semi-Technicolor and no ESPN on our Magnavox console, the chances of seeing much NBA action in those days were fairly limited. Until then, the closest thing to getting my NBA fix live was the annual Harlem Globetrotters smack down of the Washington Generals. After seeing their shtick over and over it would take years before I would realize the old ‘throw the bucket of water’ gag was not a routine, or necessary, part of an NBA game.

The move was approved and the Jazz moved to Utah. The NBA was finally here! Jabbar, Magic, Bird, the Iceman, Chocolate Thunder. It was a league of extraordinary superheroes with extraordinary superpowers doled out in 48-minute increments. Dr. J, are you kidding me? He was the subject of my ninth grade Engllish essay and to watch him dunk would be like watching Superman fly.

That first pre-season game was against George McGinnis and the Denver Nuggets and being a 15-year old connoisseur of autographs, I wanted to add McGinnis to my sizeable collection of signatures. Sizeable meaning two: Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon and L.A. Ram Merlin Olsen. We arrived early and maneuvered our way down near the player’s tunnel to get closer. Finally we got our chance and excitedly shoved a paper and pen in McGinnis’ face and he happily scribbled out his name. We did it! We had documented signed proof that we annoyed someone famous and couldn’t have been happier.

Later on as we puzzled over the scribbled name, the “G” began to look more like an “O” and the “M” sort of resembled a “B”. Having read about McGinnis more than seeing him play we began to wonder if we had the right man. It finally dawned on us that it wasn’t the 6-time all-star McGinnis’ signature we had possession of and after much forensic work we found out we were proud owners of an Odell Ball autograph. Odell Ball, a graduate of Marquette was recently voted the 75th best player to come out of that program. He was a 6th round pick who ended up not making the team which explained why he seemed much happier to sign his autograph than we were to obtain it.

Time flies and ‘like sands through the hourglass’ the Jazz have played something like 2366 regular season games since and scores of playoff games. I recently was able to return the favor and take my Dad, now 80, to his first Jazz game since the Jordan administration. We didn’t try for any autographs (thanks again you Nazi-like ushers!) but we had a good time anyway. Somewhere in a box buried in the basement under my high-school diploma sits my prized and dusty collection. A Globetrotter, A Ram and Odell Ball.

To Live and Die in L.A.

“If Kobe would have been smart, he would have mended those fences with Shaquille, let Shaquille be ‘The Man’ and we wouldn’t be in this position. Now, after four years later, he understands that he can’t do it by himself. Now he’s blaming the organization, and some of that blame should be on him and some on the organization.”
- Ervin Magic Johnson, October 2007

Last summer, Kobe Bryant was finished with the Lakers. He had publicly ripped on his teammates one last time, the same teammates who watched him throw-up 46 field goal attempts in a 48 minute game the year before. He had publicly ripped on management one last time, the same management who traded Shaq to appease Bryant so he wouldn’t have to stand in Shaq’s shadow anymore. He was ready to trade his Laker blue and gold jersey for the Bull’s red and white. Kobe was ready to go and the Lakers were helping him pack. Nothing could stop it, except for the Bull’s brilliant GM John Paxson.

Paxson had a secret weapon called Luol Deng. The Lakers wanted him as the main part of the trade but Paxson wouldn’t budge so he told L.A. to talk to the hand. In hindsight, how did that work out for you there, John? Now the Lakers are tied for first in the tough-as-nails West while Paxson’s Bulls trail the Celtics by a mere 27 games while playing down in the junior varsity Eastern Conference intramural league. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is now as giddy as a school girl at a Hannah Montana concert with this trade of omission and is more than willing to take any and all of Bryant’s tirades with a big “thank you sir, may I have another” attitude.

Of course the non-trade is not the only reason the Lakers are back on top. If the Lakers pull off a championship with this team, then Memphis Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace should get the first cooler of Gatorade poured over his clueless bean. He was the one responsible for delivering Pau Gasol, complete with a big red bow on his head, to Phil Jackson’s doorstep. Wallace was the one who pulled the trigger on the trade that Greg Popovich called “beyond comprehension”, which sent Gasol’s 19 points and 9 rebounds to L.A. for Kwame Brown’s 4 points and 5 rebounds. This would be similar to the Jazz trading Hot Rod Hundley for Lebron James.

Maybe it is just a coincidence that it was none other than Jerry West himself, the man who built the Lakers and then moved on to Memphis, who hired Chris Wallace as the Grizzlie’s GM just last June. While West is no longer with the Grizzlies (and who could blame him?) it is just a matter of time before he rejoins the Lakers and reunites with Gasol. West has denied any link to this trade, but in the history of the NBA has there ever been a more lopsided trade?

I have never been big into NBA conspiracy theories, but it brings to mind the Mike Myers character in So I Married an Axe Murderer where he plays the dad who thinks “there’s a secret society of the five wealthiest people in the world, known as the Pentavirate, who run everything in the world.” His theory includes “the Queen, the Vatican, the Gettys, the Rothschilds and Colonel Sanders”, who “meet tri-annually at a secret country mansion in Colorado, known as The Meadows”. After this trade, I have come up with my own NBA conspiracy theory fantasy team which runs everything in the NBA. This team includes David Stern, Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Bill Walton and then a Ouija board to help contact the ghost of Red Auerbach. They meet semi-annually at Oprah’s and order trades like this one, as well as the Kevin Garnett to Boston trade, which has helped the Lakers and Boston return to their glory years.

So thanks to forces beyond our control Kobe and his Lakers are back on top at the moment but if there is such a thing as karma I just hope that Kobe gets what he deserves. And if next year we see Dwight Howard or Chris Paul or Lebron playing for the Bulls then I will know my theory is not just a theory.

Kyle Korver : The Closer

In the late innings of any close baseball game, most managers will decide to bring in the bazooka, the big-gun, the flame-throwing relief pitcher who can make opponents quake in their cleats. He is the hired-gun, the specialist and it’s his job to come in and close out the game with a wicked curve or slider or unleash the 100 mph heater. He is known as The Closer. I am not talking about the retail world’s version of The Closer. You know the slimy dude with slicked-back hair smelling of Aqua Velva that sweet-talked you into the rust-proofing and undercoating on that ’93 used Taurus or a 4-year extended warranty on a toaster. I am referring to the alpha-male man’s man with icy Gatorade running through his veins, who wants the ball in his hands in the game’s closing moments.

In basketball, usually the best players start the game and play the majority of the time and usually there has been no clear-cut basketball equivalent to The Closer, until now. For the Utah Jazz, Kyle Korver is The Closer. Instead of hurling split-fingered fastballs from 60 feet, he is dropping 3’s unconsciously from 23-feet-9 inches away. In the place of the 100 mph heat, he is sealing wins by nailing 90% of his free-throws. Even if his shot is not on, he is making the defense come out to guard him which opens up the middle for Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams. He is the zone-buster.

Although he usually plays the second quarter and helps start a few good runs, it has been the fourth quarter which he owns. Rewind back to December when the Jazz lost 11 games and I bet the Jazz only lose a few of them with Korver in a Jazz uniform in that fourth quarter. Since his arrival, the Jazz are on a 20-5 tear and he has just nailed big shot after big shot.

In Denver, he scored 5 points in the last 48 seconds to help the Jazz win by 3. Against Orlando, he dropped 5 in the last 36 seconds as Utah won by 4. Most recently against Atlanta, he scored the last 6 in a 20-second span to close out the 6-point win. If the Jazz ever win a championship, they must give Philadelphia some props because they have given the Jazz two of the best pure shooters in team history- Jeff Hornacek and now Kyle Korver. Maybe Philly is taking the ‘brotherly love’ creed a bit too far but speaking for the Jazz, we sure appreciate it.

If possible, the Jazz should borrow one more thing from baseball to raise the roof even higher in the ESA: the theme song. When Trevor Hoffman, the closer of the San Diego Padres and the all-time leader in saves leaves the bullpen and begins to head onto the field, the Padres’ P.A. announcer begins blaring the slow rhythmic gong…gong…gong from AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells and the crowd goes absolutely nuts. Mariano Rivera enters Yankee Stadium to Metallica’s Enter Sandman and the Dodger’s Eric Gagne enters the field to the Axl Rose wail that begins Welcome to the Jungle.

Korver needs a theme song, some bass-thumping, hard-pounding, blood-pumping, stadium-rocking anthem that puts the crowd over the edge and puts the sound at unsafe decibel levels. I think they could borrow from Hoffman. Just imagine the closing minutes of a game 7 with the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Jerry Sloan calls a timeout and The Closer walks slowly on to the court and it starts… “gong…gong…gong.. I’m rolling thunder…a pouring rain…I’m coming on like a hurricane…” It would be crazy.