Tag Archives: LeBron James

On Trayvon Martin and the Unfinished Business of Freedom

“If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon,” a somber President Barack Obama said Friday, in his first public comments about the shooting death last month of unarmed Trayvon Martin, 17, in an Orlando suburb.

With those nine words, the nation’s first black president projected the honor roll student as a member of his family.

He claimed him.

And, based on that claim, he called for all Americans to do some soul searching and to give the matter the seriousness it deserves.

Obama’s comments stood in stark contrast with those of Geraldo Rivera, who placed the responsibility for the death not on George Zimmerman, who remains at large a month after the murder, but rather on Martin’s choice of dress: a hoodie.

They also are an indication of how the magnitude of the case has grown.

Huffington Post commentator Mari Fagel, among others, has highlighted the role Martin’s family’s use of social media has played in helping to spread the word:

When I first heard the name Trayvon Martin, it was not on a news site or on television. It was on Facebook. And last night, walking up 6th Avenue with a sea of people in the Million Hoodie March, the name Trayvon Martin could be heard for blocks and blocks. Hundreds of people marched in their hoodies, chanting “We are Trayvon Martin” and holding signs calling for justice and for George Zimmerman to be arrested. Everyone was united, fighting for one cause, all because news of Martin’s death went viral and people felt compelled to take action.

Indeed, people have converged on major cities around the country to show support for Martin’s family, demand justice for Zimmerman and push for the removal of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

This may prove harder than it might initially seem, according to Andrew Rosenthal of The New York Times:

Stand Your Ground laws do away with the longstanding legal concept that there’s a “duty to retreat” – that the sane and sensible thing to do when confronted with a “suspicious” situation is to get the heck out of there. In Florida and a number of other states, if running for safety is an option you don’t have to take it. You can meet perceived danger with deadly force; and if you end up making a dodgy situation worse, you can fire your gun and claim self-defense. Then it’s up to the prosecution to disprove that claim.

Others from the Miami Heat to Sinead O’Connor have taken pictures or written a letter, respectively, to express their dismay and concern over the senseless death.

Obama’s election, according to some, heralded the inauguration of a “post-racial” society.

This shooting is only the latest piece of evidence-last week the bumper sticker “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012″ topped the list-that this is not so.

Indeed, as friend and Dominion of New York founder Kelly Virella pointed out when we worked together, every day of Obama’s presidency has brought to the surface the racial tensions that lurk so little beneath the surface of the country.

Yet many seem to share the perspective of this commenter on an article about Obama’s statement today that he is fomenting racial division (The bold emphasis is mine):

Why is this so called President getting involved in an ongoing investigation of a bungled unfortunate incident? Jesus, why does B. Hussein Obama needs to stoke race riots? He and we don’t know what happened? Was Trayvon completely innocent? Was rent a cop blood thirsty? Jesus, people in this country will believe anything the media reports? All media have agendas. People do some thinking for yourself!!!

To me, one of the more hopeful signs out of this has been the role young people have played in calling for change and speaking out on this issue.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Friday that students from Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College and other local schools, will rally on the steps of the Capitol at 5:30 p.m. Monday to protest the shooting death of the Florida teen and to call attention to a law that some say has allowed Martin’s shooter to remain free. Georgia has its own version, known as the “Stand Your Ground” law, the paper said.

In so doing, these young people are joining a line of protest that in the 1960s saw them play a critical role in the triumphs of the modern civil rights movement.

The indomitable Ella Baker was a key figure for many of those young people, encouraging them to start their own organization and to resist incorporation in the older, more established, more clergy-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Sweet Honey in the Rock founder and leader Bernice Johnson Reagon came of age during those years in the same Georgia where those students will now be protesting.

“Ella’s Song,” written to honor Baker, is one of my favorite of the group’s songs.

Taken from Baker’s words, it talks about the need for ceaseless struggle until full equality is reached.

As the president did today, Baker defined that equality by the standard of family.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” she said.  “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons.”

Read the lyrics.

Hear the song.

Decide for yourself what you must do.

And do it.

Heat-Mavs or Celtics-Lakers, circa 1984?

An almost impossibly athletic and heavily favored team loaded with future Hall of Famers and headlined by a 6’8” prodigy from the Midwest whose passing skills are redefining his position.

A gritty squad lead by a blond superstar with slow feet, a high pain threshold, and sweet shooting touch who unafraid to call out his teammates for a lack of clutch play in the first three games.

Sound familiar?

If you’re thinking Heat-Mavs, think again.

This year’s series, which is already shaping up to be a classic, bears an increasing resemblance to the 1984 battle between the Celtics and the Lakers.

that went a full seven games before the Larry Bird-led Celtics prevailed at the Boston Garden.

Comparisons between Bird and Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki have been made with increasing frequency in the past few weeks, and, while I agree with Greg Anthony in finding them overstated, the look at the two teams may be more apt than one realizes.

Think about it.

Among their supporting casts, the Celtics and Mavericks both had a light-skinned, poor-shooting Hall of Fame point guard with a history of domestic violence.

The series’ ebb and flow mirror each other, too.

In both series, the faster squad won Games 1 and 3, and could easily have swept the first four games.

In both Games 2 and 4, a mental error and passive play by the smooth-passing Midwesterner-LeBron James now, Magic Johnson then-led to rounds of harsh criticism (James is being asked constantly about shrinking in the clutch, while Johnson was briefly given the name, “Tragic.”).

Game 4 in both cases was a tight defensive battle that featured a comeback by the underdogs and the leader delivering the key basket in the clutch.

In the earlier series, Bird took over in Game 5 with a vintage shooting performance, while Magic continued his sub-standard play.

The Lakers rallied to win Game 6 before the Celtics held off a late Game 7 charge to win their 14th championship.

My brother Mike and I were in attendance, in what remains one of my life’s greatest sporting highlights.

Of course, much is different now, and the past does not in any way determine the future.

Still, it’s intriguing to think about what will happen next.

Game 5 is tomorrow night.

I know I’ll be watching.

How about you?

Phil and Kobe return to the NBA Finals, Russ and Red’s friendship.

 

Bill Russell pays tribute to his coach, mentor and friend in this book.

Bill Russell pays tribute to his coach, mentor and friend in this book.

 

 

 

They’re back.

Just one year after losing Game 6 to the Boston Celtics by the largest margin in NBA Finals history, the Los Angeles Lakers returned to the finals last night by routing the Denver Nuggets, 119-92, on Denver’s home court. 

The Lakers put on an impressive display of team basketball.  

Center Pau Gasol put the full range of his considerable skills on display last night, dropping in left handed hooks and bank shots to the right, hitting outside jumpers and making probing passes to the healed and bulked up Andrew Bynum. Trevor Ariza continued his impressive playoff run, getting the Lakers off to a strong start with 10 first quarter points and dropping in wide open trifectas.  Lamar Odom was stroking the ball from inside and outside, and Luke Walton maintained his strong play off the bench.

Then there was Kobe

The ruthless, driven remarkably talented Bryant poured in 35 points on 12 of 20 shooting, driving, hitting outside shots with defenders draped on him and generally directing his team. 

This will be Bryant’s sixth trip to the finals, and Phil Jackson has been on the bench for all of them.

The nattily dressed Zen Master will be trying for the third time to break Red Auerbach’s record of nine NBA titles.  He and Bryant appeared to have ironed out the problems that existed during the tumultuous Kobe-Shaq era, which culminated in the 2004 defeat in the finals at the hands of the Detroit Pistons, whose triumph was heralded by many as teamwork trumping superstar talent. 

Jackson chronicled what was then his last year with the Lakers in The Last Season: A Team In Search of Its Soul, and the picture he painted of Bryant was not a pretty one.  While Jackson does show that he believes the conflict between his two megastars was unnecessary and drained the team’s effectiveness, he leaves little doubt that his sympathies were with his big man.

At one point, in fact, he tried to have Bryant traded to the New Jersey Nets for point guard Jason Kidd

Still, time off, winning and Bryant’s assuming full control of the team on the floor after Shaq’s departure does appear to have healed those wounds and differences, and Bryant and Jackson appear to be operating harmoniously together. 

If the Lakers defeat the winner of the Cavs/Magic series-NBA executives have probably secretly hoping for, and advertisers have been hyping, a LeBron/Kobe finals matchup for months-Bryant will have four titles. 

The man atop the championship summit, and arguably the greatest winner in American team sports history, is Bill Russell

Russell’s University of San Francisco teams won 55 consecutive and back to back NCAA titles before he joined the gold medal-winning Olympic team in Melbourne and then lead the Celtics to an unprecedented and unmatched 11 titles in 13 seasons.

 Auerbach was involved in all of them, either as a coach or an executive. 

Russell writes about Auerbach in Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend, a slender and heartfelt meditation on the bond that grew between these two fiercely proud and competitive men. 

Visually, the two made an unlikely pair.  But the lean, proud Russell, who hailed from Louisiana, and the short, feisty Jewish coach from Brooklyn were an enormously effective tandem on the court.  

Russell makes it clear that the bonds were not forged instantly, but rather they took years to build.  He acknowledges that he did not instantly trust Auerbach and that the two had to figure out how best to work with each other and their teammates.  Russell writes forthrightly about times when he disobeyed his coach’s instructions, yet part of Auerbach’s genius was that he could maintain one set of rules for his center, another for the rest of the team, and maintain team cohesion.

The trust that became the bedrock of the friendship was forged through adversity.  During one memorable brawl against the Philadelphia 76ers, behemoth center and Russell archrival Wilt Chamberlain threatened Auerbach.  

Russell had Red’s back. 

Readers of many basketball books, including John Taylor’s The Rivalry, which I blogged about in December, will recognize much of the on court material. 

Red and Me is about more than basketball, though.  

Russell says that he and Auerbach left things unsaid between them, but is confident that the deep respect and love he felt were mutual.  He shares how touched he was that one of Auerbach’s daughters phoned him shortly after his death in 2006 so that he wouldn’t learn of it through the media.  

And he talks about the people who formed his strong sense of self, of his gun-toting grandfather who refused to kowtow to white men in the Jim Crow South, of his father, who he knew only as “Mister Charlie,” and of his mother, who taught him never to back away from who he was and what he wanted. 

There are tender moments, too.  

Russell shares that Auerbach felt demeaned and stripped on his entree to returned phone call during the ill-fated Rick Pitino era when his title of president was removed.

In the end, the two men connected by watching the game that had brought them together and provided the basis for their bone deep friendship.  The book’s final photograph shows Russell sitting a row behind Auerbach in the stands as they take in a game. 

I wrote yesterday about my father turning 75 years old.  Russell, too, was born in 1934, hitting the same milestone in February.  One can sense in the book an impulse toward reflection and sorting out his life journey-forces that have motivated him to pay tribute to the man who influenced him mightily on and off the court. 

As great as Kobe’s skills are, and to whatever degree his relationship with Jackson has healed, it’s almost impossible to picture him writing a book like that. 

Will the Lakers win the championship?

Is Jackson a greater coach than Auerbach? 

Was Russell a greater player than Michael Jordan because of his 11 championship rings?

Celtics’ rally, Marbury’s redemption?

Stephon Marbury keyed a Boston Celtics' comeback last night that led to a stirring victory.

Stephon Marbury keyed a Boston Celtics' comeback last night that led to a stirring victory.

Down 14 points with less than nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the situation looked bleak for the Boston Celtics last night.

Hedo Turkoglu was alternately hitting improbable shots and dishing to open teammates like Dwight “Superman” Howard for three-point plays.  The Celtics’ offense was like a buggy mired in a ditch.  The anxiety in the crowd at the TD Banknorth Garden-having grown up in the area, I still have to fight my impulse to write ‘the Garden’-was palpable.

The game, and very possibly, the season, hung in the balance.

Enter Stephon Marbury.

Hitting a combination of jumpers, a three-point shot from international waters and a conventional three-point play in which he attacked the Defensive Player of the Year Howard in the lane and threw the ball off the glass for a layup, Marbury scored all of his 12 points in the fourth quarter and provided a much-needed spark to the Celtics’ offense.

Marbury’s play was a key element in a comeback that culminated in a gritty92-88 victory and gave the Celtics a 3-2 lead heading back to Orlando.

The undeniably talented Marbury-even with his declining output during the past four years, he still sports career averages of 19 points and 7.7 assists per game- has often been pilloried as the embodiment of the self-absorbed, me-first player whose teams inevitably improve after he leaves them. 

Here in Chicago, Youtube video sensation MrChiCity3 recently mocked the tattoo on Marbury’s head, and STATS Inc. noted recently that his time with the Celtics marked the first time in his career that his team had advanced past the first round of the playoffs. 

By all accounts, Marbury has been a solid citizen in his stint with the Celtics. Since joining the team in March, in fact, he has been more notable for his reluctance, rather than willingness, to shoot. 

I wrote at that time about two books in which Marbury figures prominently: Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams; and Ian O’Connor’s The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball.

Both are worth another mention.

In The Last Shot, Marbury is an entering freshman at Lincoln High School, on the cusp of continuing the line of New York City high school point guard legends-a lineage that includes Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, and Mark Jackson,  among others.  Frey focuses his attention on three other, less gifted players from Coney Island, showing at base how these and other young men have concluded that basketball, rather than school, is the only viable option for them out of the community.

Up to that point, no basketball player from Coney Island had hit the big time.

O’Connor’s book picks up the story years later with Telfair about to enter his senior year at Lincoln High School and vacillating between declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft or running the point for Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals.  Telfair’s cousin, Marbury is portrayed as petulant and jealous, even as he and “Bassy” do have a reconciliation late in the book. 

In March, I wrote,

“While The Last Shot is a better written book, The Jump sheds more light on Marbury’s adult personality.

Taken together, these works would appear to offer little reason for optimism that the Celtics have made the right decision in taking on Marbury.

And yet they are banking on the locker room leadership of Garnett, CaptainPaul Pierce and Ray Allento hold Marbury to account as well as Marbury’s knowledge that, for him, this could easily be his last shot.

The last quarter of the regular season starts today.”

Marbury and the Celtics still need another win to advance to the conference finals for the second consecutive year.

The young and hungry Orlando team will unquestionably be looking to make a statement that last night’s victory was a fluke.   Led by recently crowned MVP LeBron James, the well-rested and undefeated Cleveland Cavaliers await the certainly weary victors.   The West will certainly bring a worthy opponent, too.

In short, the transformation for Stephon Marbury from NBA miscreant to role player on a repeat champion is uncertain and far from complete.

And yet, hoops lovers across the world would be remiss if they did not stop for a minute and notice the budding change in the Coney Island native that occurred on the Garden floor last night.

Game 6 tips off tomorrow night.

Story Behind LeBron James and the Cavaliers’ Resurgence

Brian Windhorst and Terry Pluto have great material that they don't completely utilize in The Franchise.

Brian Windhorst and Terry Pluto have great material that they don't completely utilize in The Franchise.

Life is good for the Cleveland Cavaliers these days.

Coming off a franchise-record 66 wins in the regular season, the 2007  Eastern Conference champions have earned the overall top seed in the league and accompanying home court advantage throughout the playoffs.

In the first round, they are on the verge of sweeping the once-mighty Detroit Pistons, with a possible collision against the battered but proud defending champion Boston Celtics looming in the conference finals.

Attendance has continued to climb since the beginning of the decade, and superstar LeBron James’ jersey is the top selling item in the league.

It has not always been this way.

Despite a solid period in the early to mid-90s, where the Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Larry Nance, Ron Harper and Hot Rod Williams-led teams coached by Lenny Wilkens gave fans plenty to cheer about and Michael Jordan’s Bulls a worthy adversary, the Cavaliers had generally had a dismal history.

As anyone who has ever heard of a pick and roll knows, the Akron-born James is at the heart of the Cavaliers’ improvement, popularity and championship prospects.

Just 24 years old, the muscle bound MVP favorite continues to elevate his game and to add previously unseen dimensions to his seemingly limitless abilities.  This year, he has gained mention for Defensive Player of the Year after having a more casual approach to defense earlier in his career.  

In The Franchise: LeBron James and the Remaking of the Cleveland Cavaliers, sportswriters Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst chronicle the Cavs’ history, how they landed James, and the process by which general managers Jim Paxson and Danny Ferry and owners Gordon Gund and Daniel Gilbert assembled the team that challenged the San Antonio Spurs for the 2007 NBA title.

For hoops fans, much of the information contained in The Franchise will be review-the Cavaliers’ dark years under owner Ted Stepien, the bright spot in the 90s, the questions about whether they tanked during James’ senior year so as to get a high position in the lottery and thus have a better chance of landing-and there is some new material. 

The negotiations with Nike about a contract that eventually totaled $100 million was informative and entertaining.  So, too, was reading about Gilbert’s 21 aphorisms for business success that he initially struggled, but ultimately was able to apply to the basketball. 

The book falls flat in its writing.  

It opens with what to this point has been James’ defining performance-his “Jordanesque” performance against the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals in which he scored 29 of his team’s last 30 points on an array of dunks, drives, three-pointers and jumpers to lead his team to an overtime victory.

James’ performance is a gift to any sportswriter. 

Not only was it one for the ages, not only was it his official emergence as a transcendent superstar, not only did it bring his team all the way back from an 0-2 deficit, and not only did it show the team surpassing its former tormentors, but James scored his points in the flow of the game. 

Little of this comes through in The Franchise.  Instead, the description of the action reads more like the recounting of a box score than providing the color, drama and excitement that the moment created.

Still, if you are looking for a quick informative read rather than on a search for inspirational writing, The Franchise could be the right read.  It will take most readers about as much times as James and the Cavaliers will need to dismantle the Pistons this afternoon.

Basketball playoffs, five love languages of teenagers.

Gary Chapman's book about parenting teens has a surprising connection to the NBA playoffs.

Gary Chapman's book about parenting teens has a surprising connection to the NBA playoffs.

The NBA playoffs began yesterday, and already there are a number of intriguing plot lines.

From Derrick’s Rose’s spectacular debut to LeBron James’ dominant performance to Yao Ming’s efficiently perfect shooting day leading the Houston Rockets to a route over the Portland Trail Blazers and their newly re-energized fan base, yesterday’s games were full of action, excitement and drama. 

Dunreith and I walked to our local Borders book store last night, where I read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages of Teenagers.  And, while the connection between basketball playoffs and parenting approaches may seem tenuous at best to all but the most fanatical parents, hoopsters, or both, I believe it is real nonetheless.

Both are about getting people the ball where they want it.

This is what makes basketball teams run smoothly and effectively and this is what works with teens, according to Chapman.

In basketball, each player has certain spots where they feel more comfortable and are more likely to receive the ball and deposit it in the basket than others.  For defenders, the key is to study their opponents, identify those spots and push them out of their comfort zone as regularly as possible.  William Goldman wrote about this with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his legendary skyhook, making the point that the difference between a player’s comfort zone and an area where he will not perform as well is often just a couple of inches.

Conversely, for teammates, and especially point guards, it’s critical to understand each player’s idiosyncrasies and to supply them with the ball in their preferred places on the court as often as possible. 

It’s the same idea with teenagers, according to Chapman, the bestselling author of The Five Love Languages, which deals with marriage, and The Five Love Languages of Children.  He identifies five different types of communication and action-words of affirmation, quality time, touch, service and gifts-that parents can use with teens to show them they are loved.

The key for the parent is to identify which type works best for his or her teenager and to provide them that kind of connection as regularly as possible.  Chapman notes both that the preferred love language should not be the only use the parent uses, but rather that people have different and dynamic tastes, and that, at times, expressing love in a language the teen does not prefer may lead to unnecessary and counterproductive conflict.

I have not read Chapman’s earlier books, but he seems to distinguish this book from the others by spending some time at the beginning talking about the evoultion in America of the concept of a teennager and how this generation’s teens differ from previous one n their exposure to sexuality, violence,  fragmented families, and neutral value systems from parents, among others. 

Chapman peppers the book with specific suggestions about how to approach conversations with teens and includes the voices of teens at the end of each chapter.  He does occasionally drop in a Biblical verse or reference, and readers may have a range of feelings about his overtly religious orientation.   Chapman also includes a poem his son wrote about his parenting, which to me felt a bit self-congratulatory, but others may enjoy.

Whatever one thinks about that specific choice, the underlying point between successfully parenting teens and LeBron, Kobe, D-Rose or any of the others leading their teams to the coveted NBA championship is clear.  The playoffs continue today, while parenting teens will go on for the foreseeable future.

Little known hoops hero Melvin Juette

Melvin Juette lost his ability to walk in a gang-related shooting in Chicago, but his basketball career was just beginning.

Melvin Juette lost his ability to walk in a gang-related shooting in Chicago, but his basketball career was just beginning.

The NBA has already seen plenty of highlights and exciting plot lines, ranging from the Boston Celtics’ emphatic answer to the question of whether they would have a letdown  after they won their 17th championship to equally decisive responses about whether LeBron James and Chris Paul are the best player and point guard in the game, respectively.

Hoops junkies looking for an unusual fix should consider reading Melvin Juette’s memoir, Wheelchair Warrior: Gangs, Disability and Basketball.

For those of us in the Chicago area, Melvin is a local boy who came up on the South Side.  He grew up in an intact two-family home, but started to run the streets during his teen years. 

A bullet shot during a dispute between two other young men ripped through Juette’s spinal cord when he was just 16 years old.  While he was not killed, he would never walk again.

Despite this devastating loss, Juette says that his paralysis was both the “best and worst thing that happened.”  In addition to keeping him alive and out of prison, Juette’s participation in wheelchair basketball is a major factor in his paralysis being the best thing that happened to him.

He has had a distinguished career. 

From not initially knowing what to do on the court, Juette quickly dedicated himself to the game and saw significant success.  Eventually, Juette played for the U.S. National Wheelchair Basketball team in many tournaments, winning gold on numerous occasions.

The books is slight, but powerful.  People unfamiliar with wheelchair basketball will recognize the same passion they see in a college basketball game while reading Juette’s description. 

He also talks forthrightly about social challengese with women, the politics of interracial dating and marriage-Juette is black, while his first and second wives have both beenn black-the difficulties he encountered in school, the need he felt to leave Chicago in order to reach his potential and the bitter disappointment he felt falling just short of the gold medal twice in the Paralympic Games.

Juette writes very much as if he speaks, which allows the reader to feel as if he is part of a conversation.  His story is sandwiched by introductory and summary comments by social professor Ronald Berger.  Berger’s essays frame Juette’s experience in more academic terms than Juette’s straightforward language.

The book has some weak points 

Juette’s account is a bit sparse in talking about his and other family member’ gang involvement, and, while the book is long in honesty in many areas, it is a bit thin on reflection and emotional insight.   The contrast between Juette and Berger’s writing style  also can be a bit jarring.

These flaws are not fatal, though.  For people who love hoops, disability or both, Wheelchair Warrior is informative, inspirational and worth the time.