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Before LeBron there was Chuck

7 Jun

It’s hard to know exactly when Converse’s star lit up.

In the eighties, when everything that matters in basketball’s evolution coalesced, Converse was already on the map, etched into sneakers and balls as if it always had been. If you fell in love with hoops culture back then, as most of today’s NBA fans did, then you could be forgiven for believing that Converse All Stars were as fundamental to the modern game as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Because they were.

It took decades of favourable endorsement to reach such lofty heights though, because let’s face it, it’s rare for any brand to transcend its industry in rapid time. Not Apple, nor even Facebook conquered the world overnight. Sure, a few people liking you is one thing, but cultural impact truly needs time to, well, click.

Marquis M. Converse confidently opened the doors to his “rubber shoe company” in small town Massachusetts in 1908, but even he had little indication an American and eventually global icon was on his hands. He started with basic rubber-soled footwear and soon followed up with a rudimentary tennis sneaker. But destiny, spurred by Dr. James Naismith’s new basket and ball game, certainly had grander visions for Converse.

Basketballers needed better tread and support. So Converse combined his rubber sole with an ankle-high canvas upper. Known as the All Star, the shoe was soon adopted by an All-American high school phenomenon, Chuck Taylor, who would later suit up with the original Celtics, Buffalo Germans and Akron Firestones. Taylor was essentially America’s first sneaker endorser, and his belief in the shoe made him even more than that: by 1923, Chuck literally signed-off on the footwear, and an icon was born.

Taylor’s signature was the start of something big. The famous New York Renaissance, the country’s first all African American team, took to the All Star shortly after. It was a partnership that further boosted Converse as product for genuine hoopsters, as the Rens’ innovative and quick passing style wowed fans and propelled the sport forward. But perhaps more importantly for Converse, the team justified their flair with success, compiling 2,588 wins and 539 losses in their short history.

The look now had credibility.

On the back of these early milestones, basketball began its ascent in popular culture in the 1930s. Converse penetrated the US pros, then the Olympics and college ranks, and of course, New York City’s most famous outdoor court, Rucker Park. But ultimately it was Hollywood and celebrity culture that catapulted “the star” into the commercial stratosphere and embedded its image into the social consciousness. From James Dean to John Travolta’s Danny Zuko, from almost every kid in John Hughes’ movies to Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, and later Kurt Cobain, U2’s The Edge, Jack Black and Katy Perry – the All Stars became all purpose for the hot and the hip.

But in truth, Chucks, as they are affectionately known, are not for everyone. They fit a type. They’re the shoe of choice for the free of spirit, innovative, independent minded, and perhaps rebellious. And because basketball sneakers have morphed into something far more sophisticated, multi-coloured and multi-tiered, the All Star remains understated and undeniably cool.

There aren’t too many shoes that have performed such a feat.

How the Mavs can beat the Heat

31 May

There were some interesting trends in LeBron James’ offensive strategy during the recent Eastern Conference Finals, some of which may provide opportunities for the Mavs these NBA Finals.

Firstly, consider that James likes to shoot from the left side of the floor, and in that mid-range area between about 15 and 21 feet. He’s prone to pulling up here but with far less poise than Michael Jordan, though his 46% field goal percentage these playoffs indicates otherwise. It’s misleading because James pulls up his average by bulldozing into the paint from time to time. The truth is, he likes the pocket on either side of the foul stripe perhaps more than he should because he often misses from there, especially at key moments in a game.

In Game 4 against the Bulls, for example, “The King” missed a number of mid-rangers in the third and fourth quarters and in overtime. Yes, he also made some, but not enough that Dallas should fear it. If the Mavs can utilize their zone defense by sitting back on perimeter ball handlers – and therefore James – they should be able to tempt the big fella into popping it from those  spots, preferably foul line extended.

This will have a secondary benefit for Dallas, playing to one of its major advantages – height. With Tyson Chandler anchoring the baseline defense, together with Nowitzki and Marion on the edges, Miami won’t have it so easy driving inside. So in protecting the key and asking the Heat to shoot 15-footers, Dallas plays a low risk brand of defense that should also better position them for rebounds. And defensive rebounding is certainly a task they’ll hope to execute well to have any chance of winning. Chicago, of course, struggled offensively against Miami, but Boozer, Deng and Noah owned the defensive glass, stifling second chance shots for the Heat’s Big Three.

James made a few more left side midrange jumpers in Game 5 of the Conference Finals, with more misses coming from the right. Ideally you’d like to see a greater number of clankers from the left if you’re Dallas because that means he’s preferring to drive that way. For what it’s worth, it’ll be easier to stop those dribble drives toward the hoop against his off hand.

Some questions have been raised about Jason Kidd’s ability to stay with Dwayne Wade, and those doubts may be fair given that Kidd’s motor has slowed. But realistically, who can defend Dwayne Wade one on one? As long as Kidd directs Wade around the key instead of allowing him through it, the Mavs should be able to rotate and help their point guard. Wade will both get his shots off and draw fouls, so it’s just not worth worrying about that. Both he and James each shot 11 free-throws in Game 5 against Chicago, and 17 charity shots between them in Game 4. The chief issue is containing them – being fleet-footed enough to push them into those mid-rangers and tough enough to bang them when they come inside. And don’t discount Kidd’s quick hands. He can still rattle ball handlers, especially ones like James who tend to fumble around the three-point line in the final minutes.

Offensively, Dallas need to simply hold the pedal down. Nowitzki has been on an attacking tear recently, not only shooting sharply but opening the floor for teammates like Kidd, Barea and Stojakovic to knock down threes. He went 10 of 17 for 29 points in Game 2 against the Thunder, 12 of 20 for 40 points in Game 4, then 8 of 15 for 26 points in Game 5. That’s Bird-like and we all know what Bird did supposedly great defenders during his Finals appearances.

look, this will be a tough out for Dallas, there’s no question of that. They’ll need to move the ball faster than the Miami defense’s feet and make the best of their superior shooting skills. Their size should also provide them a distinct advantage on the boards, especially at the defensive end.

Lastly, they have the smarter, more experienced Big Two in Nowitzki and Kidd. Sure their knees are creaking and at times they’ll need oxygen to keep up with their energetic opponents. But these guys have superb basketball IQs, won’t be overwhelmed by the occasion, and are quite possibly looking at their last hurrah. These three factors could go a long way to determining who’s still standing at series end.

How the Grizzlies made the NBA fun again

16 May

The Grizz’s stunning playoff run that ended Sunday against the slightly more experienced Oklahoma Thunder, threw us back to the basketball of our youth the way the DeLorean provided Marty a cooler version of his parents.

So here’s how the Grizzlies have made the NBA fun again:

They share the ball

It’s a novel idea, I know. On the break, the rock travels from sideline to sideline, or down the middle with a single bounce, or over the defense with a lob. Bottom line, it changes hands, and it’s so very refreshing.

They defend as a team

It’s not about attention-seeking spikes into the front row or two-armed roughhousing across the body of the scorer. They step into charges, scrap for loose balls and flush dribblers into turn overs. They crowd the key, disrupt the flow of perimeter attackers and jab their paws into the flight of passes. And it works because everyone buys in.

Their guards play guard, not hybrid ball

Mike Conley likes to shoot, sure. But he balances it by looking for open teammates, hitting the entry pass into the post if it’s there, or if not, bouncing it to the wing. He’s getting better at these decisions. Meanwhile, Vasquez is an effective slasher and Tony Allen’s size rattles opponents into submission. He also charges the floor and finishes with flair. Then there’s OJ Mayo who leaps into a fray and somehow leaves with points.

Z-bo is playing like Bird

Zach Randolph has, after years of frustration and futility, turned into a guy you can root for. He catches everything in the post. He spins by, steps past, and head fakes defenders with McHale-like pedigree. He drops in short corner fades, usually, when they’re most needed. And he forces the defender into committing and fouling when nothing else is working. His offensive onslaught these playoffs has been nothing short of Larry-esque and you can’t help but cheer.

The Memphis crowd love their guys

It’s a passionate and raucous clientele at Fed Ex Forum, even when the scoreline looks bleak. They wave towels, wear playoff white and yell their lungs out to a Memphis Beat. Who said this would be an unsuccessful NBA market?

They have energy

The Grizz never settle. They anticipate steals and visualize fast breaks. They scurry and scuttle plays, sapping the clock and the strength of their opponents. Perimeter defenders shift with urgency. Forwards throw themselves into the key, eager to collect a pass or find a rebound. It’s high energy, Red Bull-infused sort of stuff.

This team is likable

These big Bears play more like bats out of hell. They’re fast and furious, without Diesel’s extra bulk and Walker’s distracting looks. They have fun, and it all starts with Randolph being at ease and loving his job again.

Grizzlies logo in honor of Game 7

15 May

 

 

The current Grizzlies logo is reminiscent of the Chicago Bears, which is why it’s so cool. Now the older logo from the Vancouver era isn’t altogether bad, but would be better suited to a minor league baseball club. Certainly in the battle of logos, Memphis sweeps OKC 4-0.

Why American sports need to stay American

12 Mar

The Big Four sports leagues thank you for your support over the years  – you’ve been great!

But out of interest, have you got any wealthier, better looking, easily pleased friends – preferably with a cool foreign accent? Just a little routine check – the head honchos back at league HQ are putting out the feelers because while things are extremely good right now, well, you know, they can always be better.

Contrary to what you might think, multiple revenue streams in the billions, enormous fan bases, mass cultural appeal, and the general economic influence that comes with being one of the primary entertainment products in North America, just isn’t enough. No way. Not in this restless, attention splintered era of BlackBerry and Twitter.

For the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL there’s always the prospect of more. They suffer from a serious George Clooney Complex: there’s a leggy Italian brunette in the bed (the current fan base), but she’ll never be wife material. After all, nbody’s wife material when your always dreaming about the next conquest (the potential global fan base).

Like our pal George, the Mega Sports Brands have another customer around the corner, up the street, across the border or over the ocean, in somebody else’s bed. As far as they’re concerned, people around the world are so dissatisfied with their own local sports entertainment that they’d be crazy not to fork out money for a piece of the American sports pantheon. It’s this arrogance and sense of entitlement from pro sports big cheeses that threatens to ruin the very thing that makes American sports leagues so great…they’re American!

The perpetual journey of major sports leagues in the United States reminds me of the early settlers who were determined to expand, no matter the cost. Their desire not only built a prolific and powerful economy but redefined the term “superpower”, to the point that global competitors started looking meek.  This drive began to shape the nation’s psyche. It became in essence, what is to be American, and set apart a burgeoning nation from all others forever.

But let’s get some perspective: we’re not talking about a something as admirable as the birth of a nation. We’re talking about expanding pro basketball or football competitions, simply because capitalism calls for it.

It all begs the question, at what point does this hunger for sporting monopoly – to acquire more than your share, and to conquer the global market – start becoming, well, something akin to the mission statement of a Bond villain?

Sure, there’s always room to improve or tweak even the very best products. I mean Halle Berry didn’t really start flooring the greater male population – and I mean Johnny Gill type leveling – until the mid-Nineties. It only happened for Team Halle when she cropped the hair and leveraged the assets. It’s now safe to say that her level of market penetration has maxed out.

The Big Four aren’t far behind Halle. While they may not have reached global market saturation, they’re still world beaters. They’re the sports industry’s version of BMW, Apple and Coke. In other words, the benchmarks in their field.

So why risk such unparalleled success?

Come on. It doesn’t matter how many new types of Cokes you concoct, or whether you sell 53 different colors of the iPod, the original offering is still leaps and bounds ahead of anything else. The product at its height, is like Halle in Swordfish – it doesn’t get any better.

But sports commissioners always stare beyond the horizon, don’t they. Forget steady growth and maintaining customer satisfaction; they view sports administration with a sort of Starbuckian principle of multiplication. More locations = more customers = greater market share = another house in the Hamptons.

But how do we the fans see it?

Two ways:

1. We don’t want more teams or more games

The trouble  is, many of the Big Four’s potential fans – the ones they’re targeting in places like London, Mexico and Beijing – simply aren’t interested. They’re just not. You only needed to see the ho-hum Nets – Raptors extravaganza that recently played out in London’s O2 arena to realize that. And when it comes to more games, the reasons have been covered ad nauseam – chief among them the risk of increased injuries and therefore a weakened on-field product.

2. International fans don’t need more sports

The mere assumption that foreign fans are desperate for more American sports, or at least should be, only deters them further. It’s the Krispy Kreme Donuts effect: it doesn’t matter how many dozens of stores you open in North America, the desire for heavily glazed donuts doesn’t necessarily translate outside of the country. That’s why you’re seeing stores close up shop in other regions.

The same thing goes for NBA basketball. Many foreigners are intrigued – even in awe of the NBA and its many talented stars. But they won’t return to the game with the same commitment as American fans because they don’t have an appetite for it. They already have soccer, rugby, cricket, handball, motor racing, golf, tennis, table tennis, surfing, field hockey, their own versions of football and yes, even their own basketball, hockey and baseball leagues.

Where does it end? Does it end?

The entrepreneurial egos of pro sports tycoons won’t relent. In true corporate fashion, they see more jersey sales, bigger stadiums and whopping TV deals in their futures. They won’t be satisfied until every last suburban duplex, high-rise one-bedder or island retreat around the globe has the tube locked into their games and the Twitter screen ticking over with news from their leagues.

Planetary sports dominations is not unique to the US of course. England’s been flogging its Premier League overseas for years. As such, the EPL has registered and succeeded in all corners of the globe. The major difference, however, is that we’re talking about soccer, a sport that appeals to, and is played by all levels of society on just about every continent. It already has a ground swell in the allies of Naples or the ghettos of Argentina. And perhaps more to the point, soccer doesn’t face the issue of teaching new fans the merits of going for it on fourth and one with the game on the line. Nor does it depend on specialized facilities like basketball courts or ice rinks. Soccer broke down borders, overcame language barriers and thrived without infrastructure a long, long time ago.

More simply, I want the big sports leagues to stay North American because globalization is watering down cultural independence. Case in point: when I was growing up I loved watching Magic and the Lakers, despite living outside of the US. He was perpetual motion – freewheeling and thrilling. Watching a Lakers – Bulls game was about the best thing I could imagine taking place in the sports world at that time. Heck, at any time.

But what made it so attractive to my ten-year old eyes, thousands of miles away from the Great Western Forum, was that Magic was a Hollywood basketballer. He was an untouchable American superstar, like Arnie or Sly diving from a giant explosion across the silver screen. It was, and still is, the best reality TV ever. Magic belonged on my crappy 16-inch NEC  or recorded to on one of my dusty VHS tapes – a sporting fantasy, a legend. That’s what made him so appealing to me as an outsider. He wasn’t in my backyard and thus, I had even greater appreciation for his hardwood exploits.

Listen, international fans are well-versed on US pro sports. We read Sports Illustrated, we watch Stuart Scott. We know what “booy-yah” means. We don’t need to be pandered to by the respective league commissioners with their grandiose ideas about expanding brands abroad. We don’t want the NBA to include a London Rain, or a Shanghai Surprise. Why should it? It’s the National Basketball Association. If I want to watch international basketball, with its plodding pace, inordinate amount of perimeter shooting and remarkably flat inside play, then I’ll tune into the Olympics.

Further, why would I want to watch NFL football, which is so intrinsically American, being played by Germans? Or Brits? Or in Britain, even? If I’m a Packers or Niners or Chiefs fan, why do I want my club to travel over an ocean for a single game, turning up bleary-eyed, uninterested and struggling to digest a duck confit, in front of a vaguely interested group of foreigners – most with no emotional connection to the team?

I don’t.

Americans don’t want it either. And any well-informed, self-respecting fan abroad is okay with that. Give us the Seattle Seahawks against the Oakland Raiders at Quest Field, snow falling like it’s the apocalypse, Collinsworth riffing about perfect routs and some crazy local flashing his frozen belly to the nearest camera and onto my cable-burdened flatscreen, any day of the week.

That’s the product. That’s what makes it work. Leave it the way it is – and where it is – and stop trying to mix in vanilla flavoring and shipping crates of it to places and people who are too busy absorbing a five-day cricket match.

You’ve already bedded the leggy brunette, isn’t that enough?

Baron Davis isn’t Lebron, so what?

6 Mar

The thing is, I like Baron Davis. He’s one of my favorite NBA players and I’m pretty tired of everybody ragging on him. Yeh, you heard.

After some erratic play, interspersed with regular injury periods, supposed issues with weight, and or fitness, and finger-pointing from the media that the guy has no heart, B-Diddy finds himself in the latest NBA wasteland, Cleveland.

So is this move meant to be punishment for the former all-star, the player that so often reminds me of a smaller – albeit heavier – Magic Johnson? Or rather, as many will have you think, was this the NBA’s way of kicking the Cavs while they were down?

Believe it or not, Davis still has some petrol in the tank. No, he’s not LeBron James, but by blowing up the New York Anthonies last week – something James can’t seem to do – he showed the so-called experts he still has some moves. More moves than the so-called King, anyway. He took over in the fourth at MSG and in just 26 minutes of play, dismantled the NBA’s newest triumvirate. (It’s all about triumvirates these days. Triumvirates win championships, haven’t you heard?)

Davis is only 31 for crying out loud! Are we already putting him out to pasture because of one or two bad seasons? Have we already forgotten the scintillating playoff work he logged for the Golden State Warriors in 2008? The man single-handedly turned Oracle Arena into a crazed, cultish stupor with his dazzling flips, behind the back deliveries and ridiculous baseline jams.

How did “Recent Achievements” so easily slide into irrelevancy on the NBA resume? Wouldn’t you be mildly agitated if a potential employer today shrugged off your best Powerpoint deck from 2008? “Ah, sorry Mr. Johnson, we’re only interested in what you’ve done in the last sixty seconds. That’s as far back as our brains will compute, I’m afraid.”

To all those who aren’t convinced, who think Davis’ is unreliable and overpriced, maybe his 18-point surge last Friday, which included 4 of 7 three-pointers, three rebounds and five assists, will make you reconsider. Maybe the old man and the beard has some juice left.

Sure, there’s only a slim chance we’ll see the freewheeling Golden State Baron in Ohio, but the Buckeye State Baron may just find a golden opportunity on his new team to prove the columnists wrong, one last time.

I’m rooting for you Diddy.

New York’s in a Carmelo state of mind

18 Feb

So Carmelo wants to be a Knick.

The Knicks want high-scoring small forward – preferably one that wears a headband.

And coincidently, the Nuggets wants to ship a dissatisfied star and an ageing point guard for some high quality players.

All of the stars are aligning.

Problem is, Denver’s playing hardball and their price is much too high. The New York Times reports that the Nuggets want Raymond Felton, Landry Fields, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari for Melo and Chauncey Billups. Sheesh. Should the Knicks throw in Jerry Seinfeld, Mr Met and a sandwich from Katz’s deli just to even it up a little more?

Surely, New York is not about gut its team for a single star.

Or is it?

There are so many reasons team president Donnie Walsh and the Knicks should reject such a proposal. Chief among them is that they’ll lose the young nucleus of their team which has provided an energy and scoring punch the club has lacked for years.

Let’s face it, sharp-shooting bigs don’t exactly grow on trees like they once did, and Danilo Gallinari is one of the sharpest marksmen on the NBA court today. His recent 17-point performance against Atlanta, which saw him hit 5 of 12 from the field, 3 of 8 from 3-point range and 4 of 4 from the charity stripe, is testament to that. And in case you’re making notes, he also hauled in 9 boards that night.

Then there’s Fields, who is such a well-rounded player for a rookie that it seems ludicrous to let him go. The lively Fields can do it all, including rebound. Wouldn’t you be reluctant to see this kind of potential walk out the door?

But, this is New York, where nothing is done by inches. It only took a year to build the Empire State Building and at great sacrifice too. Why do even dare question how long it’ll take the Knicks to build a contender again? If they can acquire the missing champion-caliber piece, smart money says they’ll do it.

But perhaps fueling the Knicks’ decision-making process even more than Carmelo’s stats is his star power. Despite playing above .500 ball and sitting in sixth in the Easter Conference, the Blue and Orange still lack pizazz. Sure, they have their $100-million-center-piece, Amar’e Stoudemire, who to his credit has lifted his scoring further of late.

But Stoudemire, even by Coach Mike D’Antoni’s assessment, is a finisher. And while he’s one of the best in the game at that, he isn’t Patrick Ewing. He might not even be Latrell Sprewell.

Madison Square Garden and the historic Knickerbockers need a Ewing-sized superstar to carry the legacy forward. And it seems many in the Big Apple are unsure Stoudemire fulfills that duty. He needs help.

That’s why we’re hearing the “We want Melo” chants and why this saga persists. The management, the fans and the city smell a contender. They thirst for a contender. And they know that even if Melo brings just half the juice he brought to the Pepsi Center over the years, the Empire State will not only be quenched, but actually, really start believing in its basketball team again.