Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Worm's Turn: Rodman's Number Retirement As Improbable As It Gets

Somewhere, there’s a broken mold of Dennis Rodman.

Never again will we see someone of his ilk, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

Rodman tended to do that, you know. He tended to spawn confusion—in emotion, to his opponents, to his teammates, to his fans and to his coaches. He was a bemusing fellow.

But this much is true—since Rodman retired from the National Basketball Association in 2000, I haven’t seen anyone close to who he was on the basketball court. Certainly not off it, as well.

Again, not sure if that’s good or bad.

Rodman played basketball with the grace of a baby eating strained carrots. He was a freak, seemingly playing the game on his own personal pair of pogo sticks, springing from the floor to grab rebounds as if everyone else was nailed down.

The program stubbornly listed him as 6’8”, but that was when he was at rest, which wasn’t often. When he was in motion, Rodman became 7’8”, or taller, depending on how high he needed to leap to snare a wayward basketball.

Watching Dennis Rodman from the start of his NBA career, with the Pistons in 1986, and following it through to his retirement, was like watching a Fellini film—it got weirder the longer it went on.

He arrived in Detroit as a 25-year-old, drafted out of a college called Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and to this day for all I know, the Pistons made the school up.

Somehow Pistons GM Jack McCloskey found Rodman, most likely by looking toward the gym’s ceiling. I’m still impressed that Jack found the school, let alone its gym.

What McCloskey didn’t know when he first laid his eyes upon the leaping, rebounding Rodman was that the kid—who really wasn’t a kid anymore according to his birth certificate—already had a life better prepped for the Jerry Springer Show than the NBA.

Where shall we begin?

Rodman’s dad left his mom when Dennis was three years old. The old man would go on to father 27 kids with four different women. You heard me.

The Rodman household in Oak Cliff—a rough and tough section of Dallas that would become infamous for being the neighborhood of Lee Harvey Oswald—was all female at that point, other than Dennis, who lived there with his mom and two sisters.

You want more?

Rodman became so withdrawn in the all-female house, so awkward and unconfident around girls in school, that in his mid-teens, he actually believed he might be homosexual. His first sexual experience was with a prostitute.

As for basketball?

Rodman tried it, but kept getting cut from teams—both in middle school and high school. He was a 5’6” freshman who couldn’t hit a layup. He tried out for football and they didn’t want him, either.

He worked as a janitor at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport after high school, but after another growth spurt he gave hoops another shot.

Keep in mind he played little to no high school basketball.

Turns out Rodman could play the game, after all, mainly because he had a fetish for rebounding. He played a semester for some place called Cooke County College in Gainesville, Texas, averaging over 17 points and 13 rebounds per game.

From there it was on to SE Oklahoma State, an NAIA school—which was not exactly the career path of choice if one hoped to crack the NBA.

Jack McCloskey couldn’t have known this history when he first watched Rodman sky for rebounds as an NAIA All-American.

The Pistons are going to do something on Apr. 1 that, had you put money down on it in 1986, you’d be breaking the bank right about now.

On that date, Dennis Rodman’s No. 10 Pistons jersey will be raised into the rafters, which is appropriate because that’s often where you could have found Rodman himself, in his salad days as the league’s most ferocious rebounder.

Rodman will then join the likes of Dave Bing, Bob Lanier, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson, all of whom have their jersey numbers hanging over the Palace floor.

But Rodman was the most unlikely—to have an NBA career, period.

I remember Rodman’s arrival in Detroit.

He had big ears, gangly arms and his shorts were too short. And too tight. He ran up and down the court like a distance runner—arms pumping with loping strides. He had no offensive game that was apparent. He couldn’t shoot free throws.

Based on first blush alone, I might have cut him on the spot.

If Rodman’s book had been judged by its cover only, he’d have never made it as a pro basketball player, because he didn’t look like any pro basketball player you’d ever seen before.

Rodman was no more than a curious, second-round draft pick when he first started getting playing time in 1986 for the Pistons. He was the guy who looked funny—the guy who couldn’t throw the ball into the Detroit River, even if he was standing on the deck of the Bob-Lo Boat.

But he could rebound, as we all began to see in relatively short order. He was like a specialist on the court, a jack of one trade. He gained a nickname—The Worm—which I found ironic because worms live underground and Rodman made his living soaring above it.

It was uncanny, the way Rodman would rise above the other nine players on the court, and either grab the basketball after its carom, or tip it to a teammate for a fresh 24 seconds of shot clock.

But rebounding alone won’t keep you in the NBA, so Rodman focused on playing defense, which would.

All he did was become the best defender in the NBA, a two-time winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award.

When he first won the award, in 1990, Rodman wept openly at the press conference announcing his honor.

“I wanted bad,” he said through tears, sobbing.

I think what might give some people pause in light of the news of Rodman’s number being retired by the Pistons is that, after he left the team, he became a sideshow.

The hair became dyed, the tattoos became more prevalent, the behavior became more bizarre. He made a movie or two. He even “married” himself in a display that made normal people squirm.

Rodman won two championships with the Pistons, and three more with the Chicago Bulls. He captured seven straight rebounding titles (1992-98). He made the first team of the All-NBA Defensive squad seven times.

Not bad for a kid who couldn’t make his high school team and who played at an NAIA school, and who lived a tumultuous life as a child.

Rodman wasn’t drafted by the Pistons. He was rescued.

Congratulations, Worm. You done paid them back with interest.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

To Rebuild Correctly, Dumars Can't Bring Back Tayshaun Prince

In retrospect, the Detroit Pistons' knack for reaching the Eastern Conference Finals was probably the worst thing that has happened to them in the Joe Dumars Era.

Not that it wasn't a terrific feat. Anytime you're reaching the Final Four you've had a good year, and to do it six times in a row, as the Pistons did (2003-08), is nothing less than impressive.

But that sword has two edges.

First, the Pistons only parlayed two of those Final Fours into NBA Finals appearances (2004 and '05). In the other conference finals, the Pistons were only moderately competitive.

They were swept in 2003 by New Jersey, blasted out in six games by Miami in 2006, in six by Cleveland in 2007 (punctuated by the Pistons' inability/unwillingness to stop LeBron James in the lane in Game 5), and in six by Boston in 2008.

President/GM Joe Dumars had, as it turns out, some Fool's Gold on his hands.

The Pistons were good enough to survive two playoff series in the traditionally weak Eastern Conference in those four years when they were eliminated, but when it came time to play the elite---or in the case of Cleveland, the up-and-coming---in the Final Four, the Pistons wilted under the pressure.

Dumars was teased into thinking he had a title contender in Detroit, when in fact he had nothing of the sort.

That kind of thinking, in concert with poor draft choices, questionable contracts and odd coaching hires, have put the Pistons where they are today: among the dregs of a still-poor Eastern Conference.

Now it comes out that Dumars not only doesn't plan on dealing forward Tayshaun Prince by tomorrow's trade deadline, the GM wants to explore re-signing Prince, who will turn 31 on Monday.

This is a disturbing thought that Dumars has rattling around in his addled brain.

Dumars has been slow on the take in massaging the Pistons' roster, even when they were going to Final Fours. The great executives in sports don't rest on their laurels, and aren't afraid to upset the apple cart.

After LeBron James torched them in the 2007 ECF, the Pistons were ripe for change. That made two straight years of being bounced out in the Final Four, and that was the moment Dumars should have seized.

It was evident that the Pistons' surprise championship of 2004, achieved without the quote-unquote superstar player that most champions have, was an aberration. And it should have occurred to Dumars, who isn't a dumb-dumb, that his team simply wasn't good enough to make it past the conference finals.

The summer of 2007 was when Dumars should have been aggressive in changing the dynamics of the Pistons roster.

The Pistons' appearance in the 2008 ECF wasn't much to shout about, either. The Celtics took them to the woodshed in the Pistons' own building in the pivotal Game 3, after the Celts were stunned in Boston in Game 2. After tying the series in Game 4, the Pistons went down meekly---and in Rasheed Wallace's case, shamefully---in the next two games.

Dumars sacrificed coach Flip Saunders after that, and hired the neophyte Mike Curry to coach. Then Dumars saddled Curry with the high maintenance Allen Iverson and left his coach to deal with the tempestuous Rip Hamilton, whose little world was upset when AI joined the team.

From 2004 to 2009, the Pistons didn't make any bold moves, personnel-wise---with the exception of bringing in Iverson, which was just plain wrong---and they are now paying the price.

The free agent signings of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon in the summer of 2009 were suspect when they occurred, and they are no less so today.

Now Dumars is talking about signing Prince to an extension?

The window of real opportunity for tangible, successful change has closed. Now all that's left for the Pistons is a blow up and a total rebuild. All connections to the "good old days" of the mid-2000s must be done away with.

It's not an easy thing to keep a franchise winning, year-after-year, for a decade. The Pistons almost did that, posting winning seasons from 2001-08. But it can be even harder---and gutsier---to tweak personnel when the wins are outnumbering the losses.

Joe Dumars isn't a bad GM. But he's not one of the best, either. It's one thing to take a loser and take it upward when there's nowhere to go but up. It's an entirely other to keep the team in contention when there's a target on its back---especially when there's virtually no help from the draft.

Provided he's asked to stay by new owner Tom Gores, Dumars must do what he's done before, thanks to his own lollygagging: rebuild a Pistons team that is a conference bottom feeder.

Bringing Tayshaun Prince back flies directly into the face of that task.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

As Playoffs Approach, Time to Worry About Red Wings Goaltending (Again)

The most recent men who’ve tended goal for the Detroit Red Wings and led them to the Stanley Cup don’t have much in common except for being stark raving mad.

I’ve always felt that way about hockey goalies.

Terry Sawchuk was the maddest of them all (he played mostly without a mask), and the most tormented.

It reminds me of the great comedians throughout history—the men and women who’ve made us laugh so hard but who themselves were among the saddest of folks.

Sawchuk, the legendary netminder and Hall of Famer of the 1950s and ‘60s, was the best goalie the NHL has ever seen, but if they gave out awards for self-fulfillment, old Terry would have come away empty-handed.

Sawchuk rarely smiled, and when he did, it was brief and forced. He was almost a goaltending savant who didn’t really like what he did, but he did it because he had to.

His teammates on the Red Wings tried to get close to him, tried to engage him, tried to get him to lighten up. But Terry always seemed so sad, which in turn saddened them. How much more enjoyable the Red Wings' Stanley Cups of the 1950s would have been, had Sawchuk only been able to relax.

Sawchuk was dead by age 40, after a tragic bout of rough-housing with New York Rangers teammate and roommate Ron Stewart over some unpaid apartment bills.

Sawchuk’s brief life, in my opinion, was among the saddest in all of sports.

It was 42 years after Sawchuk and the Red Wings raised the Cup when the team finally did it again in 1997, behind the clutch goaltending of veteran Mike Vernon.

Vernon was a Cup winner once already, leading the Calgary Flames over the tradition-rich Montreal Canadiens in 1989.

In 1996, you could have driven Vernon off the Ambassador Bridge and no Red Wings fan would have trolled for his remains.

After a brilliant 62-13-7 regular season in 1995-96, Vernon and Chris Osgood’s shaky play against the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals helped drum the Red Wings out in six games.

The Cup-less stretch reached 41 years, and counting.

But one year later, as the confetti flew inside Joe Louis Arena and the Red Wings skated around the ice with hockey’s silver chalice in tow, Mike Vernon was back in the city’s good graces.

Some fan had made a sign out of poster board and pressed it against the glass.

It read, “Vernie: I’m sorry!”

In a postgame interview on the ice, Vernon was asked about the sign.

He chuckled sheepishly and said, “What can I say? Apology accepted, I guess!”

A year after that, with Vernon banished to the San Jose Sharks, it was Chris Osgood’s turn to be the madman in goal who’d lead the Wings to another Stanley Cup.

It was a playoff run with more twists and turns than a corkscrew, and with surprise endings to games that would have made O. Henry proud.

Osgood caused almost as much anguish as he provided joy, making things more interesting than they should have been, usually due to his penchant for failing to stop shots fired from beyond the blue line.

Three times Osgood surrendered goals that came off shots originating in Timbuktu. All three times, the shots either tied the game late or won it.

But Ozzie persevered, and as the champagne flowed in the Red Wings dressing room in Washington following the Cup clincher, Osgood’s mother found him and hugged her drenched son.

“You did it, Chris! You did it, baby!” she cried.

In 2002, the Red Wings goalie was another savant, the 36-year-old Dominik Hasek, the human Slinky.

Hasek was an amazing netminder but a baffling person. You could say that he marched to the beat of a different drummer, except that it was a drummer no one could hear but him.

The Red Wings of 2001-02 were teeming with future Hall of Famers, and Hasek tended goal in the playoffs with a pure brilliance befitting the team’s roster of greatness.

As the final horn sounded on the season, the Red Wings had captured another Stanley Cup, with another goalie.

Six years later, Osgood did it again, rescuing the Wings when the 43-year-old Hasek faltered in the first round. Another Cup won.

And in 2011?

It’s getting closer to playoff time, which means it’s time to trot out the usual blather about the Red Wings goaltending situation heading into the postseason.

The doubters are out, once again.

Other than Sawchuk, who was born to win Stanley Cups, the Cup-winning goalies for the Red Wings all beat back the doubters.

Vernon, despite a resume that had “Stanley Cup Champion” on it, had to win back the fans after the disappointment of 1996.

Osgood alternately made friends and enemies in Detroit in 1998, sometimes shift by shift.

In 2002, Hasek had to overcome an 0-2 hole in the first round against Vancouver, when the fans were about to declare him a fraud in pads.

And Osgood was a 35-year-old backup when he replaced Hasek after four games of the first round in 2008. You could cut the doubt with a knife.

Currently, Jimmy Howard’s ability to lead the Red Wings to the promised land is being seriously questioned, and not just by the hockey denizens around town.

A couple weeks ago, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN, splashed on its website that the Red Wings were in big trouble and delusional if they expected the second-year goalie Howard to make like Sawchuk, Vernon, Osgood and Hasek.

The talking heads pointed to the numbers, which place Howard toward the bottom of the league in things like save percentage.

Apparently, allegedly so wise, has forgotten that the NHL has two distinct seasons: the regular one in the fall and winter, and the other one in the spring.

Like it or not, Howard will be the target of the springtime doubters, for as long as he shall live—in the playoffs.

It’s understandable, really.

Howard won a playoff series and lost one last year, his rookie campaign. In real plain terms, he hasn’t won diddlysquat for the Red Wings.

So naturally, people are going to say that he can’t. Until he does.

Because this is Detroit, and these are the Red Wings, a premier hockey team that has been typecast as one that has to win championships in spite of its goaltending, not because of it.

History doesn’t really bear that out, but why let facts ruin a good myth?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mysterious Babcock Knows Just What to Do

Of all the coaches in all of the four major sports, you'd have better luck putting a sawbuck down on "00" on the roulette wheel than be able to accurately guess what a hockey coach is thinking.

The other coaches don't hide their feelings or thoughts so well.

You know what's running through the mind of the football coach.

In fact, they make it easy for you to guess.

Clutching those laminated sheets of plays, color coded for every possible situation, it doesn't take a soothsayer to surmise what the football coach is thinking on third down and six.

The basketball coach is easy to profile, because he's a raving lunatic, stomping his wing tip shoes on the floor, his face looking like he just drank sour milk.

His thoughts are easy to guess, and can be summed up in three letters, courtesy of the text messaging age.


The baseball manager sits in his dugout, chews sunflower seeds, and you don't have to be the Amazing Kreskin to figure him out, either.

Should I hit and run? Is it time to pull my pitcher out of the game? How come we can't move the runner from second to third with nobody out?

Good luck mentally undressing the hockey coach.

I've been watching the sport for 41 years and I still don't really know what those guys are thinking behind the bench.

They all have the same looks on their faces, like they're trying to remember whether they turned the iron off at home.

They look up at the scoreboard a lot, which is funny, because you don't need a calculator to keep track of a hockey score, like you do in basketball.

Either that, or they're the most obsessed clock watchers you'll ever meet, like they're afraid they're going to be late for a plane.

Scotty Bowman, Hall of Famer, never changed his expression once in the nine years I watched him coach the Red Wings. If you had to rely on Scotty's face to tell whether the Red Wings were winning or losing, you were in trouble.

He would have made a hell of a poker player.

Mike Babcock, coaching today's Red Wings, doesn't change much either, facially. His look is more of confusion mixed with a mild headache. He looks up at the scoreboard a lot, too.

But don't you dare think that Babcock doesn't know what to say, or when to say it.

Babcock's brilliance as the best coach in the NHL was on full display this past week.

His team, so rich in talent and rarely in need of their coach's size ten boot delivered to their pants, was in the throes of a two-week stretch of un-Red Wing-like play.

Turnovers. Bad special teams. The startling inability to win at home consistently. Suspect goaltending, even more suspect play in the defensive zone.

Very un-Red Wing-like.

Babcock, after last Wednesday's 4-1 shellacking at home at the hands of the Nashville Predators---the Preds' second win over the Red Wings in five days---had seen enough.

After that game, Babcock used the word "unacceptable" a lot in describing his team's play. He questioned his players' work ethic. He not only had no problem with the fans' booing the Red Wings off the ice, he wanted to join in, during the post-game meeting with the press.

Babcock then did something he's rarely needed to do since arriving in Detroit in 2005: he delivered his size ten shoe square between the players' back pockets.

Babcock skated the Red Wings hard Thursday during practice, gathered them together Friday morning in Boston for a talking to, then waited to see how they'd respond that night against the high-flying Bruins.

The Red Wings, themselves disgusted with their subpar play, stepped onto the ice at the TD Garden and destroyed the Bruins in front of their home fans, 6-1.

Less than 48 hours later, in Detroit, engaging in one of those rare and glorious home-and-home series with an Original Six team, the Red Wings took care of the Bruins again, 4-2.

Those two games should be Exhibits A and B if you ever needed to make a case before the judge as to why Mike Babcock is peerless as an NHL coach.

The Red Wings are filled with veteran leadership, but even the vets need an old-fashioned butt kicking from time to time.

Babcock keeps this method in a glass case at Joe Louis Arena, labeled, "Break in case of emergency."

It worked, perfectly.

Don't be surprised if the Red Wings continue their roll, especially with Brad Stuart and Mike Modano close to returning to an already deep lineup.

We may not be able to figure out what Mike Babcock is thinking on a nightly basis.

What shouldn't be a mystery, is why he's such a damn good coach.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ed Sabol's NFL Took On a Life Of Its Own

Before Ed Sabol started documenting it, pro football was canned as newsreel footage, shown in two minute increments in the movie houses across America.

It was filmed in black and white, always from the same high angle with the camera perched at the 50 yard line.

The images were sterile, the music usually a cheesy version of some college fight song.

There was nothing about pro football on film in the 1940s and ‘50s that was compelling. You’d find more drama looking at a fish tank.

Then along came a 46-year-old Jew from New Jersey with a 16 millimeter camera, owner of a small company called Blair Motion Pictures—named after Blair Academy, the school he attended.

Ed Sabol and his camera landed a whopper of a contract in 1962: filming every play of the ’62 NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium in New York, pitting the Green Bay Packers against the New York Giants.

In 1964, Blair Motion Pictures became NFL Films.

And just like that, the NFL became more than a league—it was mise-en-scène, played out in slow-motion with close-ups and reaction shots. And in living color—the blood was red.

Sabol bought more equipment once he started cashing the checks from the league, so that every game every Sunday could be documented.

One of his first cameramen was his son, 22-year-old Steve.

Sabol’s NFL Films brought the league to life. His company began producing mini-documentaries and team highlight films.

But as enthralling as the images of Sabol’s NFL were on celluloid, they doubled in their drama when Sabol brought in a former Philadelphia newsman named John Facenda to voice the pictures in his trademark stentorian baritone.

The two men met in a tavern.

It was Lana Turner being discovered at that malt shop, sort of.

So Facenda is at this tavern called the RDA Club, near Philadelphia, and some NFL Films footage is being shown on the TV. I’m not making this up.

Facenda gets interested in the slow-motion images adorning the TV screen, being drawn to them like a bug to a porch light.

Here’s Facenda, telling the story.

“I started to rhapsodize about how beautiful it was. Ed Sabol, the man who founded NFL Films, happened to be at the bar. He came up to me and asked, 'If I give you a script, could you repeat what you just did?' I said I would try.”

That was in 1965. Facenda was hired on the spot, and would remain the voice of NFL Films until his death in 1984.

Sabol had his images. He had his voice. All he needed was the music.

Running beneath every great film is a gripping soundtrack.

What’s a thriller without the music building to a crescendo, warning the heroine to LOOK OUT!!—if she could only hear the strings and horns of doom?

Sabol knew that his NFL was richly documented, but signature music would be the pièce de resistance.

Enter Sam Spence.

Spence was a former music instructor at USC who Sabol brought into the fold in 1966 to score some NFL Films documentaries and shorts.

The combination of Spence’s music cues with Facenda’s “Voice of God,” as it had been nicknamed, was the best thing to hit film since emulsion.

The tunes Spence composed aren’t known by name, but they have given football fans goose bumps for over 40 years.

They do have titles, of course.

“West Side Rumble.”

“Ramblin’ Man from Gramblin’.”

“Salute to Courage.”

Head over to YouTube, type the above in the search box, and it’s impossible not to visualize Joe Namath throwing a perfect spiral to Don Maynard, or Dick Butkus slamming an unsuspecting runner three yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The NFL before and after Ed Sabol got his mitts on it is like a caterpillar before and after pupal transformation.

That 22-year-old cameraman son, Steve, gradually took over his father’s business and became synonymous, facially, with NFL Films.

We marveled at the images, listened delightfully to Facenda’s voice and Spence’s scores, but the films needed to be introduced once they began being shown on television.

Steve Sabol became the face of NFL Films, the last piece of the puzzle.

The younger Sabol, with his handsome face and in his Philadelphian dialect, became the Rod Serling of sports films. He was there to usher us in and out of each segment, teasing us with what we were about to see.

Ed Sabol is still around, thank goodness. He’s 94 years old.

I say thank goodness because only last week did the powers that be deem him worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

You heard me—it took them nearly 50 years after he fed his first footage into his 16 mm camera to put Ed Sabol into the Hall of Fame.

This is more overdue than a cure for the common cold.

Ed Sabol doesn’t just belong in the Hall of Fame, he should have his own wing. This is like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame realizing it hadn’t yet inducted the electric guitar.

But at least he’s in. At least Ed Sabol—God willing—will be live and in person when it comes time to call his name in Canton this summer.

They flirted with doing this posthumously, and that would have been a disgrace.

Ed Sabol, and his son Steve—who should probably go in, too, someday—rescued the league from black-and-white conformity and whisked it into a world of color and drama.

The Sabols breathed life into the National Football League with their expert photography, gripping music, and the “Voice of God” telling the stories.

Steve Sabol once put everything his dad started into perspective.

"The only other human endeavor more thoroughly captured on 16-mm film than the National Football League is World War II,” Ed’s kid said.

Those Hall of Fame voters have bad clock management. They damn near let the time run out on Ed Sabol, who was powerless to stop it.

I wonder if he’ll walk up to the podium in slow motion.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Pistons Need Another "Black Hole" Scorer

They used to call it, both in jest and with some annoyance, "The Black Hole."

The Pistons were the team, and they sometimes ran a funny kind of offense.

The basketball would get dumped into the low post---an area that today's Pistons are totally unfamiliar with---and then it was like someone pressed pause on a DVD player.

Three, four seconds would go by while the recipient of the ball decided what to do with it.

Passing the ball to Adrian Dantley was akin to tossing it into a black hole. Hence the nickname.

The reference was made also because once the ball went to Dantley, no one else was getting it back, except for the other team.

Dantley was 6'5", a Lilliputian among the giants who played in "the paint," basketball for "I can see the basket without binoculars."

The Pistons got Dantley from the Utah Jazz in the summer of 1986 in pretty much a 1-for-1 swap for Kelly Tripucka, though there were supporting players involved in the trade.

Dantley was a scorer, through and through. Defense was a dirty word to A.D. He was as one-dimensional as a toenail clipper.

But oh, how he could score---and in different ways.

Sometimes Dantley would be given the ball on the wing, some 18-20 feet from the basket. Point guard Isiah Thomas and the rest of the Pistons would gather in another area code on the floor, partisan observers, waiting for Dantley to make his move.

Dantley would look at the basket, look at his defender, look at the basket again. The ball was held to the side of his body and away from the defender, like a child with a cookie playing keepaway with his mother.

As the shot clock drained, Dantley would pump fake a shot, sometimes twice. Then, it was time.

The choices were: set shot (not a jumper), or drive to the hoop.

That was it. One or the other. Notice that "pass" wasn't on the short list.

But it worked a lot. Dantley could hit that 18-footer. If he didn't shoot, he drove, and he had the uncanny ability to either lay the ball into the basket or get fouled. And Dantley was a superb free throw shooter.

OR, Isiah or some other bit player would lob the ball to Dantley, planted just outside the key in the low post.

Again the other Pistons beat it, some to fetch a drink of water.

Meanwhile, Dantley, his back to his defender and the hoop, evaluated his options.

A turnaround jumper from 8-12 feet?

A spin move and a drive to the basket in the paint?

A spin move and a drive to the basket on the base line?

Once again, "pass" not an option.

The Pistons adjusted to Dantley pretty well at first. Where Tripucka had been an up-and-down the court guy who relied mainly on jump shots, Adrian Dantley lumbered, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Often 10 seconds of the shot clock was gone by the time Dantley reported for duty on offense.

The Pistons went to the Eastern Conference Finals in Dantley's first year with the team. Had he not infamously butted heads with Vinnie Johnson diving (!) for a loose ball in Game 7 against the Celtics, knocking both Johnson and himself unconscious, the Pistons might have made four straight trips to the NBA Finals instead of three.

In Dantley's second year, the Pistons lost to the Lakers in a heartbreaking Game 7 defeat in the Finals.

Midway through Year 3, the marriage between Dantley and the Pistons became strained.

Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and others grew tired of the offense coming to a grinding halt just because Dantley was given the basketball.

Dantley, in turn, became paranoid and felt everyone was out to get him. It was hardly the first time in his long NBA career that he had become a distraction for his teammates and coach.

GM Jack McCloskey told me last year that, in early 1989, he tried to encourage Dantley to talk to coach Chuck Daly.

Dantley wanted no part of a meeting with Daly.

So McCloskey traded Dantley in February, to the Dallas Mavericks for Mark Aguirre, straight up. I maintain it was the gutsiest trade in Detroit sports history---because of its timing, mainly.

There was tremendous pressure on the Pistons to finally win an NBA title. After the near misses of 1987 and 1988, and with their sparkling record of 1988-89, nothing less than a championship was deemed acceptable.

Yet McCloskey made the trade anyway, dealing for another player for a reputation of petulance---Mark Aguirre.

The trade could have torpedoed the Pistons' chances for the brass ring, but McCloskey made it. Few GMs, if any, would have pulled the trigger. They would have kept Dantley in Detroit, in the hopes that things could be patched up come playoff time.

The Pistons won the next two championships.

The Pistons of 2004 had Rasheed Wallace, the combustible power forward/center who could score from just about anywhere, though the three-point shot was his dagger of choice.

But Wallace could also post his man up, near the spot where Dantley had his office. Wallace scored many a point with turnaround, fadeaway jumpers after he got the ball in that area.

The Pistons won the title in 2004 and came close to winning it again a year later.

My impression of today's Pistons, after watching them give the San Antonio Spurs a good effort but losing Tuesday night, 100-89, is that they play offense as if there's a force field surrounding the key.

They have no player who can post up. They don't seem to even have any plays designed to score from in the paint.

No one flashes across the key. No one looks for the ball down low.

The Pistons take jump shot after jump shot. Statistics show that you're going to miss at least 55% of those shots in any given game. On average.

The missed jump shot killed the Pistons last night, as they struggled to stay close to the 43-8 Spurs. The game situation cried, at times, for the Pistons to lob the ball inside and let someone do their thing.

The ball stayed on the perimeter, where the Pistons live and (mostly) die.

The rookie Greg Monroe might be that down low guy someday, as he works on his game. But Monroe might be better suited to be a big man with big range, making him that much tougher for other big men to defend.

The lack of inside scoring is killing the Pistons.

Where is today's Adrian Dantley?

Monday, February 07, 2011

Rodgers Likely a Super Bowl Repeat Offender

The young quarterback had just finished one of the greatest seasons of all-time for a passer. It might have been the best ever. He was just in his second year and already he was tearing up the NFL.

Yet he was no regular season wonder. He loaded his team onto his golden right arm and marched them right into the Super Bowl, against the squad that would come to be known as The Team of the '80s.

The Miami Dolphins lost Super Bowl XIX, but their brash young quarterback didn't fret all too much.

"I figured we'd be back---again and again," Dan Marino said.

After the third or fourth year of NOT being back, Marino started to rethink that assertion.

Marino never did get back, despite a 17-year career.

Brett Favre was in his fifth season as the Green Bay Packers' starting QB when he went to the first of two straight Super Bowls (he went 1-1).

Favre never got back, either---and he played for 13 years after that.

As wonderfully gifted as Aaron Rodgers is, as on top of the football world as he is this morning, and as young as he is, he plays in the National Football League, where the smart money often turns dumb in a hurry, and unexpectedly.

You'd like to think that the rest of the NFL ought to look out, that Rodgers will be set loose on the opposition. You might believe that he is the new Bradshaw, or Montana, or Brady---making several pilgrimages to the Super Bowl.

Or he might be another Marino, or Favre---sparkling passers, terrific leaders who found a return trip to the Big Game to be mighty elusive.

I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade today. This isn't me portending doom and gloom.

But we'll see how Rodgers fares. We'll see if he's ready to join Brady, his contemporary in the AFC, and become the preeminent quarterback of the NFC.

Care to wager on whether we'll see a Rodgers-Brady matchup one Super Sunday in the near future?

Rodgers was brilliant yet again yesterday, as he's been all season, and as he was throughout the post-season. His numbers would have been even more gaudy were it not for all the dropped passes.

Still, he threw for over 300 yards, tossed three TD passes, and turned three Pittsburgh Steelers turnovers into 21 points.

Rodgers is elite now. He's the poor man's Steve Young, in that he has, in one fell swoop, escaped the shadow of a legend and won a championship. Two gorillas removed with one stone.

Young never got back to a Super Bowl, either, after beating San Diego in 1995.

It would seem that Aaron Rodgers' football world is his oyster. He's still young, he's on top of his game, and he has equally as young teammates who are key contributors.

There doesn't appear to be any serious contender for his status as the best QB in the conference, other than maybe Drew Brees.

Brady is still the best quarterback in the league, because he was just named its MVP---unanimously.

Rodgers seems to be on the verge of greatness that would eclipse even that of Bart Starr and Favre, his two Green Bay co-superstars.

But the NFL doesn't play that game, all the time. It doesn't anoint so easily.

Rodgers should get back to the Big Game, maybe as early as next season. Regardless, he ought to be back, more than once.

He should.

We'll see.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Brett WHO?; Rodgers Running With the Torch in Green Bay

For three years, Aaron Rodgers did what all quarterbacks for the Green Bay Packers do who wear No. 12: he stood on the sidelines and backed up a legend, knowing full well that none of the fans wanted to see him enter the game, unless his team was ahead by five touchdowns.

The original No. 12 was Zeke Bratkowski, and the only way you’ll find him on NFL Films is if you catch him standing next to coach Vince Lombardi.

Bratkowski backed up Bart Starr for six seasons, which was not unlike being Shakespeare’s ghostwriter.

Rodgers is today’s No. 12 for the Packers, and for three seasons he wore a baseball cap, not a football helmet. For ahead of Rodgers was Brett Favre, who started his first NFL game in September 1992 and didn’t stop starting until a month ago.

Rodgers caught Favre at the end of his Packers career, which meant there were yearly questions every summer about whether or not the latter would retire.

Favre played in 2005 and he played in 2006 and in 2007 and Rodgers was the only Packer who didn’t have to tip the team’s laundry guy.

But Rodgers was a first-round draft pick, the 24th player selected, a 6’2”, 220-lb. specimen from Cal, and he was drafted for a reason.

One day, Packers management knew, Brett Favre wouldn’t be around anymore, and so there needed to be a capable young guy to take over the quarterbacking business.

I wonder if even the higher-ups in Green Bay knew what they’d be unleashing on the rest of the league when they drafted Aaron Rodgers.

The Packers finally lost Favre, but not to retirement—to the New York Jets in 2008.

That’s when someone cleared his throat, tapped Rodgers on the shoulder, and said, “Coach McCarthy will see you now.”

Rodgers would finally get a chance to wear a helmet.

But this wasn’t just any quarterback Rodgers was replacing. He’d be following Favre, the only signal caller in franchise history who you could even place in the same sentence as Starr, let alone dare a comparison.

Favre led the Packers for 16 seasons without missing a start. Then, just like that, he was gone.

Enter Rodgers, which at the time was like saying, “Introducing New Coke!”

Everyone felt sorry for the kid.

You want to be the guy to follow Brett Favre?

It was like performing on stage after they announced that Elvis had left the building.

Normally, a sports legend is followed by a guy or two (or more) who are place-setters—transitional players who are merely there until the team finds the next superstar at that position.

After Starr retired in 1971, the Packers didn’t have a decent quarterback until Don Majkowski lit it up in 1989. And it was Majkowski’s injury, ironically, that paved the way for Favre in 1992.

So it wasn’t expected that Favre would leave and the Packers wouldn’t miss a beat, despite Rodgers’ status as a first-round draft choice.

What Rodgers has been able to do in three seasons as the Packers’ starting quarterback is nothing short of amazing.

A legend left town, and the denizens don’t miss him.

This isn’t to say that Brett Favre is forgotten in Green Bay—far from it. But Rodgers has performed so brilliantly, he’s been able to let the Packers fans down gently in the wake of Favre’s departure.

Let’s wind the clocks back to the summer of 1999—when Barry Sanders abruptly retired from the Lions.

The team was left scrambling for a capable running back, and wound up with Greg Hill, which is someone you end up with when you have to scramble.

Now imagine if the Lions had an understudy waiting in the wings, and that running back stepped in and played so well, the sting of Sanders’ retirement would have been deadened as if the whole town was shot up with Novocaine.

That’s what Rodgers has done in Green Bay. He’s done the improbable: he’s made the transition from the Favre Era virtually seamless.

It’s almost unprecedented, I tell you.

If not for Steve Young taking over for Joe Montana in San Francisco, it WOULD be unprecedented—where a legendary quarterback has been followed the very next year with someone as good as Rodgers has been for the Packers.

And that’s not even a fair comparison, because Young was no unproven, unknown entity; he’d been a capable NFL quarterback for a number of years before landing with the 49ers.

So here comes Rodgers, and in his first season as the Packers starter, he throws for over 4,000 yards, has 28 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions. His quarterback rating, that convoluted statistic that they came up with at NASA, was a healthy 93.8.

And he was just getting warmed up.

In 2009, Rodgers threw for 4,434 yards with a TD-to-interception ratio of an unworldly 30-to-7. The QB rating rose to 103.2.

This season, Rodgers missed the 4,000 yard mark by 78 because he missed a game due to the effects of a concussion. Still, he tossed 28 touchdown passes, threw just 11 interceptions, and had a QB rating of 101.2. The performance earned him the FedEx Air NFL Player of the Year Award.

In three seasons as The Man Who Replaced Brett Favre, Rodgers has thrown for 12,394 yards, 86 TDs, and just 31 interceptions.

There is only one thing now that excludes Rodgers from Starr and Favre in terms of Packers quarterback greatness.

On Sunday, Rodgers will get the opportunity to be the third Packers QB to win a Super Bowl. If he does so, the duet of Starr and Favre becomes a legitimate trio.

What I’m about to suggest would have been so unthinkable in 2008, you’d have me fitted for a straitjacket.

The way Aaron Rodgers is going (he might be the best player in the entire NFL), maybe Brett Favre’s 17 years in Green Bay merely formulated the longest opening act in football history.

Elvis left the building, and the Beatles took the stage.