Basketball

Connie Hawkins: Playground Hard Court Wonder

Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, basketball was a winter staple. For me, I loved basketball as a young kid. Hawkins_350_111004Growing up in Northern Illinois, the winters were rough and the Nerf hoop in the basement was the perfect antidote to a boring winter day. My early idols were Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. I was a huge Lakers fan through the late 1960s. But then someone caught my eye. At 27 years of age, he was a NBA rookie and he was unlike anything I had seen at that point. His name was Connie Hawkins and he played for the Phoenix Suns. At 6’8″, Hawkins did things with a basketball that would reshape the game, influence Julius Erving, George Gervin, Magic Johnson, and through them, Michael Jordan. He would palm a basketball and hold it away from his body and use it to lull the defender into not paying attention to the rest of his body. He would then swoop into the lane dunk, finger roll, or whatever was needed to put the ball in the basket. For that rookie season in 1969-1970, the “Hawk,” as he was affectionately known, averaged 24 ppg and 10 boards a game. But to get to that rookie season, Hawkins lead a life of myth, magic, wonderment, and woe unlike any player of his generation.

Born in 1942, Hawkins grew up in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. By the age of 11, he was dunking the basketball. He became a playground legend defying gravity and word spread of his talent. Hawkins said of his physical gifts to break the laws of science and gravity, “Someone said if I didn’t break them, I was slow to obey them.”

He spoke of his influences in Slam Magazine,

 I was so young when I started. But I’ll have to say that going down to Madison Square Garden, I used to watch Elgin Baylor. I watched him play, and I think he was the first guy I’d ever seen who had that certainflair for the game. I adapted my game after his. See, once you learn to play in the schoolyard, you can almost adapt your game to anything. So naturally, with Elgin having that type of skills, I adapted my game to what he was doing on the court.

Connie Hawkins attended Boys & Girls High School in New York City and was an All-City player his junior year averaging in double figures while leading the team to a Public School Athletic championship. His senior year saw Hawkins at 6’6″ average over 25 points a game and the team captured a second Public School Athletic championship. At the time he was hailed as the finest basketball prospect to come out of the city. Connie was also named a Parade magazine High School All-American, the only national honor for high school players at that time.

Hawkins parlayed his fame and talents into a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa. At the time, freshman were not allowed to play varsity basketball in the NCAA. At practice, Hawkins legend grew as he continually outplayed future NBA legend Don Nelson. It was there as a freshman that Connie’s world began to fall apart. A point shaving scandal broke out back in New York City. Connie was implicated by name.

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Connie always claimed his innocence. He was not arrested nor indicted. He did acknowledge borrowing $200 from a man, Jack Molinas, implicated of fixing games, but it was also acknowledge his brother had paid Molinas back well before the scandal broke. The resulting backlash saw Hawkins dismissed from the University of Iowa. After he became of age to be drafted in the NBA, Hawkins went undrafted in 1964, 65, and 66. He would later be barred from the National Basketball Association  – all despite never even being charged in a court room with any crime.

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At the age of 19, Hawkins began what best could be described as a barnstorming lifestyle. He played for semi-pro teams including one in Hawaii just to live there. He spent four years as a Harlem Globetrotter traveling the world. It was with the Globetrotters that Hawkins claims his game was transformed. He states,

If I didn’t have the basic skills to handle the basketball, I never would have been able to adjust to playing four years with the Globetrotters. That’s what turned me and my game around. I was able to incorporate their skills into my game because we played eight days a week, twice on Sunday. Because of that, I was really able to familiarize myself with the basketball. I’m not talking about shooting the ball with a string or anything. I’m talking about having total confidence with the ball and being able to do anything with it. At 6-9, there weren’t too many people able to do that. But because I’d learned the basics, and gaining the confidence of not being afraid to dribble between my legs, or dribble behind my back, you perfect another level of play. Like you and the ball become one.

He added the finger roll during this time,

I started out as a Harlem Globetrotter, playing for Abe Sapirstein in 1964, when I came out of college. Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, Geese Ausby. We toured all over the world. And I’m also an ex-ABAer. But what people don’t know is that me and Wilt started the finger roll. We just didn’t call it that. Wilt used to call it the “dipper.” Now I look on TV, at these commercials, and I see George [Gervin] talkin’ about [imitates Iceman’s voice] “the finger roll.” I love George, but he got that from me. I need to start seeing some of his checks. I should be getting some of that money.

In 1967, the big break for Connie Hawkins came. It was a new league called the American Basketball Association. At 25, Hawkins took the league by storm. He averaged 26 points and over 13 rebounds a game. That year, he lead the Pittsburgh Pipers to an ABA championship over the New Orleans Buccaneers. He was named the leagues Most Valuable Player. The next year, the team moved to Minneapolis. Connie averaged 30 ppg and 11 boards in 47 games.  Hawkins became such a draw that his warmup jersey was an advertiser who’s who in a league short on cash.

1968PipersWarmup2 Oaks 67-68 Road Gary Hadnot

In those two years, Connie’s future was changed thanks to a Life magazine article by author David Wolf. The article turned into a book called Foul. It changed everything for Connie Hawkins. Hawkins filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NBA and won! Thanks in part to the book, but more so, the facts spoke for themselves including an affidavit from Molinas stating Hawkins’ innocence. In addition, Hawkins received a $1 million cash settlement to begin paying at age 45.

Chicago Tribune article

Chicago Tribune article

The 1969-1970 saw Hawkins drafted second by the Phoenix Suns, a one year old franchise. The signing of Hawkins instantly legitimized the team. Hawkins said, “I was so happy to play, I didn’t have any problems with animosity or bitterness at all. As soon as I got that Phoenix Suns uniform, I just wanted to play.” At 27, Hawkins had a great season for the Suns. The team went from 16-66 before Hawkins to 39-43 only to lose in the Western Conference semifinals.

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Hawkins would have three more good seasons for the Suns, but the wear and tear on his legs began to show. His rebound totals began to drop as did his points. At 31, he could not jump as he once did. He would play for three more years for the Lakers, and, fittingly, the Atlanta Hawks.

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For Hawkins, his imprint on the game is clear. He said,

I’d have to say Doc and Jordan just took my game to another level. Elgin pioneered it, I came after him, and then after me, Doc. Man, Doc took it to a different level. I mean, I used to dunk and do all types of fancy things, but Doc came in and started doing 360 dunks and taking off from the foul line, and all those types of things. Then Michael Jordan just took it to another level. He’s just a phenomenal ballplayer.

Despite his brief NBA career and his ups and downs, Hawkins is not bitter knowing he did reshape the game. Because of this, the Hawk has no regrets.

People always say that they never saw how good I was, really was, because they stole my best years and all that. That bothers me because I look at it like, my first year I made the NBA All-Star team, I made the All-Pro team too. So what did they steal? I showed my capabilities, what I could do, but all most people think about is what was taken from me. Look, I’m in the Hall of Fame. That’s the pinnacle. They saw the best of me. I was fortunate enough to play against the top players in the world. And I know what I did against them.

Sources and Additional Reading

Foul by David Wolf

Connie Hawkins Quotes by Scoop Jackson available online at: http://www.slamonline.com/online/nba/2010/06/original-old-school-new-york-undercover/2/

Additional Information

http://www.nba.com/history/players/hawkins_bio.html

http://espn.go.com/classic/s/addhawkinsconnie.html

Chicago Tribune newspaper articles

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1086325/index.htm

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From Minneapolis to LA: The Birth of the Lakers

By Lamar Hull

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Lamar Hull is a former NCAA college basketball player who also played on the European professional circuit. He now writes for Direct2tv.com. He loves researching and discovering new things about the game of basketball and sports. You can also follow Lamar at inspirationalbasketball.com

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The LA Lakers, now considered one of the NBA’s best teams, began their history as the Detroit Gems, a team in the National Basketball League which was disbanded in 1947 after just one season following what many consider to be the worst record of any professional basketball team in existence at the time, with a win-loss record of only 4-40. At that time three men from Minnesota, movie theater owner Ben Berger, local sports writer Sid Hartman and Sports promoter Morris Chalfen, bought them for $15,000.

When they bought the Gems, all they had was the team’s equipment, as all of its players had gone to other basketball teams. So they had to rebuild the team from scratch, getting first choice in the League’s Draft that year, they managed to get famous 6’10 center George Mikan, a college basketball star from DePaul University, who had just recently defunct on a PBLA team, the Chicago American Gears. When both the team and the league folded, Mikan was selected to be the newest center for the Lakers. The team was renamed the Lakers after Minnesota’s nickname, the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

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George Mikan

With this new team, including coach John Kundla who was from St. Thomas College in St. Paul, general manager and future founder of the NFL Minnesota Vikings Max Winter, legendary forwards Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard, as well as Bob Harrison and Slater Martin-and Clyde Lovellette joining in the 1953-54 season, they would become a powerhouse in the first years of the NBA, with a team that would be full of players that would later become hall of famers. They won the NBL championship in the 1948 season, which was their very first season, and the following year they moved to the Basketball Association of America along with three other teams. The Lakers would remain there until the National Basketball Association was formed out of a merger of the two leagues in 1950. As the NBA considers the BAA their direct predecessor, the 1948 NBL championship is not recognized as a victory by the NBA today.

In ’49 and ’50 they won the Championship again with Mikan scoring a 27.4 point average in the ’51 regular season and 31 in the playoffs, and then lost in the 1951 Western division playoffs to the Rochester Royals(now the Sacramento Kings) 4 games to 1. The NBA tried to slow Mikan down by doubling the foul lane’s width to its present width of twelve feet in the 1951 offseason, which actually made his game better, and the Lakers won the championship again from 1952-54, making them the first of the NBA’s true dynasties and the first NBA three-peat championship winners. But that was the last of the Minnesota Lakers’ heydays.

After the 1954 season Mikan retired due to knee injuries, and also due to disagreements concerning the new players’ contract, replacing Max Winter as the Lakers’ new General Manager. That same year the NBA introduced the 24-second shot clock partially in response to a 1950 game that the Lakers played against the Fort Wayne Pistons that still ranks as the lowest scoring game in NBA history with a score of 19 to 18. This a now a key component of the game, but at the time these changes forced the Lakers to play their game in an entirely new and alien style to them.

In 1955, the Lakers had their worst season since coming to Minnesota, losing the Western Division playoffs to the Fort Wayne Pistons, and combined with the age of the teammates now averaging between 26 and 30, making them some of the oldest in the league at the time, George Mikan was convinced to come out of retirement for the next year while Jim Pollard retired.

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Elgin Baylor

The injuries he had sustained to his knees and his ankles during his glory days had taken their toll however, and his play wasn’t what fans expected or hoped for. So, in 1956, Mikan retired from the sport in the midst of the season, never to return as a player. Attendance at games dropped sharply and never recovered, worsened by the fact that there wasn’t a single home venue for the team. Instead, they leapfrogged between two coliseums in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In 1957 after the team lost the playoffs twice to the St. Louis Hawks, the team was nearly sold and moved to Kansas City, and was only kept in Minneapolis after a group of roughly 100 Twin Cities area businessmen, led by trucking executive Bob Short, bought the team from Berger for $150,000. Short himself became the Team’s president and owner.

George Mikan did return however as head coach in 1958 while Kundla became Manager for the team, but it wasn’t long before both the team and Mikan himself discovered how completely unsuited he was to the task. He quit midseason with a dismal win-loss record and Kundla returned, too late to keep the team from suffering a crushing 19-53 record, putting them in last place in the NBA standings and giving the Lakers their worst seasonal record in Minnesota. This last place finish however turned out to be a lucky break, as it gave them first pick in the following year’s NBA Draft, and they were able to pick up 6’5 Elgin Baylor as their new star forward.

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In 1959 with his help, they made it to the playoffs, and Baylor himself became the NBA Rookie of the year, but they were beaten by the up-and-coming Boston Celtics in the league’s first four-game sweep, starting a classic rivalry that lasts to this very day despite the Lakers’ change of address. In 1959, Kundla retired as head coach and was replaced by Elgin Baylor’s old coach at Seattle University, John Castellani. He left mid-season because of his lackluster win-loss record and was replaced by former player Jim Pollard, who himself fared any better. 1960 was their last season in Minnesota, and although they made it to the playoffs with a 25-50 record and Baylor continued to be the team’s shining star, they were once again beaten by the St. Louis Hawks.

During this last season in Minnesota, Short noticed how well the Brooklyn Dodgers did after becoming the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958, the first Baseball team on the west coast. Their attendance was higher, the team played better than they had done in years and the team was consequently making money, a sharp contrast to the Lakers at the time. The Twin Cities were turning toward professional Hockey as their sport of choice. With low attendance (despite Baylor revitalizing the team) and severe and worsening financial problems in the Twin Cities, Short tried to move the team to either Chicago or San Francisco before moving the team in Los Angeles in 1961 making them the first NBA team on the west coast. Despite the lack of natural lakes around the city, Short decided to keep the name Lakers. Minnesota, meanwhile, would have to wait 28 years before they got another NBA team of their own, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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Spencer Haywood v. NBA – A Turning Point for the Draft

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At the 1970 ABA All-Star Game

The names echo like a who’s who of the NBA – Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Besides being basketball players, they all have one other thing in common. They all should thank Spencer Haywood. It was Spencer Haywood who sued the NBA to gain early entry into the NBA. His legal action transformed the game and made it possible for all of the above names to leave college early to partake their craft in the National Basketball Association. Haywood’s lawsuit was a turning point for the NBA and the lawsuit would change the game and how talent would be chosen in the NBA draft.

For Spencer Haywood, life was not easy. First growing up in Mississippi, and then later Chicago and Detroit, life dealt him several harsh blows before he even hit high school. Near destitute, Haywood’s mother struggled to find work and to provide for her ten children. Spencer, at the age of 14, moved in with his brother in Detroit. It was there that Haywood found his salvation – basketball. At 6′ 9″, the game came easy to Haywood. It was not because of his height  Rather, Haywood had a gift of being a great athlete. He had great hands, could dribble, pass, spin, and shoot with ease. Spencer lead Pershing High School to the 1967 Michigan Class A Championship his senior year.

After high school, Spencer met another roadblock.  At the time, freshman in college were ineligible to play for the varsity in NCAA basketball. Hehaywood1 had to go someplace else to play. He wound up at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado. Haywood was dominant averaging over 28 points and 22 rebounds a game. His play caught the eye of US Olympic Coach Henry Iba. The summer of 1968 was not kind to the team as they struggled playing together in Europe before the trip to Mexico City. The US was not the favorite going into the tornament. Someone did not tell the youngest US Olympic player, Spencer Haywood. In Mexico City, Haywood, along with JoJo White, led the team to a 9-0 record and a gold medal. Haywood averaged 16.8 points a game to lead the team in scoring and shot 71% from the field.

At 19, Haywood’s future looked bright. He enrolled that fall at the University of Detroit. He was an unstoppable force as a sophomore at 32 points and 21 rebounds a game. However, forces were at play that changed his future. Haywood felt he could not continue to play basketball at the college level. He decided to go professional. The National Basketball Association (NBA) forbid any player from playing until after his college class graduated. On the other hand, the American Basketball Association (ABA) had no such restraints. The league that brought the game the 3 point shot, the dunk contest, and the red, white, and blue ball, had no qualms about signing a 20-year-old. The league needed attractions and Spencer Haywood was an attraction. Haywood signed with the ABA’s Denver Rockets for the 1969-1970. In his first year in the league, Haywood was the league He averaged over 30 points and 19 rebounds a game while also being named Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.

Rockets 69-70 Road Spencer Haywood, Pacers 3-18-1970

Haywood, dissatisfied with his contract, jumped ship to the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics in the fall of 1970. This was against the NBA’s own rules. The league sued to stop Haywood. Haywood sued to stop the league. Haywood was granted an injunction that year to play. He only played in 33 games. He was spit at and  booed throughout the year.

The court case made its way to the Supreme Court. At its heart was this concept:

      ‘If Haywood is unable to continue to play professional basketball for Seattle, he will suffer irreparable injury in that a substantial part of his playing career will have been dissipated, his physical condition, skills and coordination will deteriorate from lack of high-level competition, his public acceptance as a super star will diminish to the detriment of his career, his self-esteem and his pride will have been injured and a great injustice will be perpetrated on him.’

Haywood wanted what every American wanted. He wanted to make a living albeit playing basketball. Similar to Curt Flood’s landmark case (which Flood lost), Haywood’s case could reshape the sports landscape and the dreams of inner city athletes everywhere. Justice William O. Douglas wrote for the majoritydouglas-william

To dissolve the stay would preserve the interest and integrity of the playoff system, as I have indicated. Should there not be a decision prior to beginning of the playoffs and should Seattle make the playoffs then the District Court could fashion whatever relief it deems equitable.

In view of the equities between the parties, 28 U.S.C. 1651(a), I have decided to allow the preliminary in- [401 U.S. 1204 , 1207] junction of the District Court to be reinstated. The status quo provided by the Court of Appeals is the status quo before applicant signed with Seattle. The District Court preserved the status quo prior to the NBA’s action against Seattle and Haywood. That is the course I deem most worthy of this interim protection. The stay will issue.

Stay granted.

Haywood got to play. Future players, although, had to show an economic hardship to the NBA first to be drafted. By 1975, the ABA-NBA rivalry lead to the “Early Entry” player being allowed to enter the draft with names like Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone leading that forefront.

Haywood’s career took off. In 1971-72, he averaged 22 points a game and increased it to 29 the next year. He was an All-Star and one of the marquee players in the league. Soon after, he was traded to the Knicks in 1975. Haywood began to live the life of a rock-star instead of an NBA player.  He married super model Iman and then drugs and alcohol took over his career. He was later traded to the New Orleans Jazz and then Lakers before he washed out of the league including being kicked off the team during the 1980 NBA finals. Haywood, to his credit, cleaned himself up, played in Italy for a year, and returned to play for the Washington Bullets for two years.

Haywood went on to a successful post-career in real estate and construction and helps youth with drugs and alcohol dependency. Today, the NBA has set an age limit of 19 to enter the NBA. Spencer Haywood’s case had a lot to do with that. In a 2011 Interview, Haywood reflected on his case. he said,

I took on the NCAA, ABA and the NBA. People were hitting me in my stomach, hitting me in my face, sucker punching me when I was going through this whole court case. Throwing bottles at me when I would walk on the floor during games. They would be like: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an illegal player on the floor and he must be escorted off!” Because the NBA got an injunction. All kinds of Spencer-Haywood-Seattle-SuperSonicsthings would happen. They put me out in the snow with just my uniform. Come on Black man! We need to know this! I’m not discrediting Jackie Robinson or anyone, but I know what I went through! […]

Because the NBA is still a predominantly Black league, the brothas need to understand our history. Don’t go to baseball and just celebrate what Jackie Robinson went through without knowing the total history of basketball and other sports. I’m the guy here! Get to know me, research me! […] It was very difficult to go through, but I used to just think about my mother and my brothers and sisters picking cotton down in the Delta, in Mississippi all day in the hot ass sun for two dollars a day! From sun up to sun down. So all the people–including myself for the fifteen years–picked cotton. My mother, her mother, her grandmother and so on. I had to pick through trash to find shoes so I would have shoes for the school year. I would put cardboard and other stuff in them to doctor them up so they would last. And you talk about me facing the league! My upbringing was hard enough. I was fighting for everyone before me and everyone after me.

For his great play and trailblazing lawsuit, Haywood’s number 24 was retired by the Sonics. In 2011, he was recognized by the NBA during All-Star weekend. He is also a member of the Hall of Fame and his lawsuit marked a turning point in draft history.The hardship, and later early entry players, reshaped the NBA game in the 1970s and 1980s. Had it not been for his rough childhood and dire financial conditions, Haywood would not have taken the chances he did to play professional basketball.

For further reading and viewing
Spencer Haywood: The Rise, The Fall, The Recovery

Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association

For the full Interview – go here: http://thestartingfive.net/2011/02/20/spoken-word-the-starting-five-spencer-haywood-interview/

Web Sites

NBA Biography

NBA Reference

Olympic Basketball

The 1992 Lithuanian Basketball Team: Not Too Far From Me

I grew up idolizing 1970s basketball players like Gail Goodrich, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, David Thompson, and Julius Erving. They were my dream team. When it was announced that the 1992 US Olympic Basketball team would be made up of American professional athletes, the press immediately labeled it “The Dream Team.”

The root for the change was that in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, the USSR team defeated American college (amateur) team 82-76. This was the second in three times the USSR had won the basketball gold. In 1980 and 1984, the two Cold War enemies did not meet due to boycotts. In Barcelona, the world would see American basketball at its finest. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson headlined the roster.

But the team that won everybody’s hearts at the tournament was not this collection of millionaire athletes. Rather, it was a rag-tag group of athletes from a tiny new country that had been under the thumb of Soviet control since the end of World War II. The 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Basketball Team captured the Olympic spirit. To get to the Olympics almost did not happen.

A poster for the documentary on the team

A poster for the documentary on the team

The country of modern Lithuania was born during the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. During the 1920s and 1930s, the country experienced a brief period of freedom. Then Stalin came. In 1940, the tiny country of only 65,000+ square miles was overtaken by Stalin. The next 50 years were not kind. First Stalin’s iron grip over thought, the economy, and any freedoms was more like strangulation. It continued long after Stalin’s death in 1953. The world of control continued long into the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. It was in this world that Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis were born.

In their teenage years, the young Lithuanians discovered basketball and they discovered they were good at it. They began their professional careers playing in Soviet leagues in the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, the two were part of the Soviet National Team. The team, however, was strictly controlled by the USSR. Every movement, every word spoken was under strict

Sabonis in the mid 1980s playing for the USSR national team. At 7'4" he dominated the floor.

Sabonis in the mid 1980s playing for the USSR national team. At 7’4″ he dominated the floor.

control of the Soviets. Sabonis was first drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the 1985 NBA draft. This pick was voided when it was found he was under 21. It did not stop the Portland Trailblazers from drafting him the next year. Marčiulionis was drafted in 1987 by the Golden State Warriors. The picks were controversial because they were considered wasted picks because there was no way to get the two men out from under the Soviet thumb.

In 1988, the two represented the Soviet Union in the Summer Olympic Games in Seoul where they defeated a group of American college all-stars to advance to the gold medal game where they defeated a loaded Yugoslavian team. For Sabonis and Marčiulionis the victory was bittersweet. They were happy they won the gold, but they were not playing for their homeland of Lithuania.

In 1989, everything changed. The USSR was beginning to crumble. Travel restrictions were being lifted by some Eastern European Communist States. Marčiulionis, with his sweet left-handed moves, came to the NBA that fall. At 6’5”, Marčiulionis flourished in the NBA averaging 12 points a game his first year. In the 1991-92 season, he averaged 18.9 points a game.

Šarūnas Marčiulionis  playing for the Golden State Warriors

Šarūnas Marčiulionis playing for the Golden State Warriors

1992 also saw Marčiulionis began trying to assemble a team that could compete in the Barcelona games. The problem was his brand new country was broke. He called on the 7’4″ Sabonis to help assemble the players. With the help of the Bay Area band the Grateful Dead, the team traveled to Barcelona to represent their country. A George Shirk article spurred the aid and the band stepped up. They held a concert to raise funds for the team. The band also supplied the team with some tie-dyed shirts and shorts. The apparel became the must have attire of the games.

The two dream teams in one photo

The two dream teams in one photo

Lead by Marčiulionis and Sabonis, the team went 4-1 in group play and advanced to the medal rounds. In the semifinal round, the Lithuanians went up against the Americans and lost handily 127-76. But for Lithuania, their gold medal game was the bronze medal game where they took on the Russians (aka Unified team), their former masters. Marčiulionis lead the team to victory over the Russians 82-78. At the medal ceremony, the team wore the tie-dye shirts and shorts that had become their signature off the court look as a thank you to the band.

The team marked the beginning of freedom for many people in the country and still serves as inspiration and a source of pride. For Sabonis and Marčiulionis, their careers as basketball players would soon be on the downhill side. Sabonis eventually played for the Trail Blazers in the mid-1990s and averaged 16 points a game but he was well past his prime physically. But you could still see the skills evident. The deft touch around the basket, soft hands, and an intensity to win still remained.

1992 LOBT

Today, both men live in Lithuania still involved with basketball. Their drive to represent their country is the Olympic Spirit and inspires many of Lithuania’s 3 million inhabitants to pick up a ball and find a hoop. It is sad how for most of my childhood, I was taught to hate the Soviet Union. To come to find out, they were just like us. Both Sabonis and Marčiulionis could have idolized Gail Goodrich, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, David Thompson, and Julius Erving, just like me had they been free.

*A special thanks goes out to Andrew Rehn for suggesting this post*

Lithuania Bronze Medal Game Recap

The 1984 NBA Draft: Drafting Jordan – Not a Done Deal

MJ at his signing press conference

MJ at his signing press conference

On September 12, 1984, Michael Jordan signed his first NBA contract with the Chicago Bulls. It was a 5 year guaranteed contract with two option years. The whopping total was for a little over $6 million and that included a $1 million signing bonus. At the time, it was the third highest contract ever given to a rookie (behind Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon). In 1984 the salary cap for the entire team was only $3.8 million. But for Thorn and the Bulls, they thought Jordan and his $1 million a year salary was worth it. A myriad set of circumstances took place that spring and summer for Jordan to fall to the Bulls, but also for the Bulls to use the pick to draft Jordan.

When the 1984 NBA season ended on April 15, 1984, the Indiana Pacers had the worst record in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, they did not own their first round pick, Portland had traded Tom Owen for it in 1981. The Houston Rockets, who had landed 7’4″ Ralph Sampson the year before, were also in the running for the first pick having the worst record in the Western Conference. A coin flip would decide who would own the pick. The NBA was gaining popularity thanks to great players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving. The draft in 1984 was seen as huge new part of the NBA’s marketing scheme and business model under new commissioner David Stern.

A lot of maneuvering took place before the coin flip took place. The consensus #1 pick that year was Hakeem (then spelled Akeem) Olajuwon. The 7’0″ center from the University of Houston was coveted by every General Manager (GM) of every NBA team. He was smooth, sleek, quick, and a winner having won a NCAA Championship as part of Phi Slamma Jamma at the University of Houston. After Olajuwon, the second pick was anybody’s guess. If Patrick Ewing of the Georgetown would have come out a year early, he would have been the second pick. In fact, the Portland Trail Blazers tried to convince Ewing to leave school a year early. Ewing did not. Ewing only wanted to play for the Lakers or the Knicks. But, the Trail Blazers got caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar. The result was a then staggering $250,000 fine placed by brand new commissioner David Stern.

Stern, asserting his authority, called both the Rockets and the Blazers executives to his office to discuss the matter. The Rockets, having documented their contacts with NCAA coaches came away with no damages, fines, or draft picks taken away. The Bulls meanwhile, sat on the sideline hoping that either team would be stripped of its pick allowing the Bulls to possibly move up and take Olajuwon. That did not happen either.

Before the coin flip, the Bulls were in active talks with several teams about the #3 pick. Some of the talks were not so pleasant. Former Bulls coach and then Dallas Mavericks head coach, Dick Motta, complained openly the Bulls had tanked several games in the 1983-1984 season in order to enhance their draft slot. Despite Motta’s objections, Philadelphia GM Pat Williams adored Jordan and was willing to talk a deal. Everything depended on the coin flip. Either team was going to take Olajuwon with first pick. But Houston was not going to take Bowie second if it lost the first pick. Had this scenario played out, that meant that 7’1 Kentucky big man Sam Bowie would fall to the Bulls. Then, in turn, the Bulls would have shipped Bowie off to Seattle for All-Star and Illinois native Jack Sikma, then a 28 year old center for the Super Sonics. The Rockets won the coin toss killing the Sikma deal.

May 27, 1984 Tribune Trade Account

May 27, 1984 Tribune Trade Account

The Bulls also took in and pondered offers from the Atlanta Hawks of Center Tree Rollins for the third pick. The San Diego Clippers (soon to be Los Angeles) offered Forward, and Chicago native, Terry Cummings. Thorn turned down all offers.

cummings

But even drafting Jordan was not a done deal. The Portland Trail Blazers sat at number two and they controlled the draft and the Bulls’ fortunes. According to Hakeem Olajuwon, in his memoir, the Trail Blazers offered the Rockets an unbelievable scenario to snag Ralph Sampson instead of Bowie. It would have gone down like this: Olajuwon would have been drafted at one by the Rockets. Then Ralph Sampson would have gone to Portland in exchange for Drexler and the #2 pick and Jordan could have picked #2 by the Rockets. But that deal, like many others, was either just a pipe dream or received little merit by the Rockets. The Rockets saw Olajuwon as once in a lifetime player to pair with Sampson.

It was up to Portland. They brought in Sam Bowie in for a round of tests and examinations. According to Bowie, the physical exam lasted seven hours. Bowie was not that far from Olajuwon athletically, but Bowie sat out 2 years in college with shin splints and leg issues. He was only 22. But at 7’1″, the Blazers, who had won 48 games the year before, felt Bowie could push them over the edge to a championship caliber club. The NBA game at the time was built around the center being a dominant offensive and defensive force. Bowie fit that mold as a college player when he was healthy.

In the recently released ESPN Films “Going Big,” Bowie said of the process,

“I can still remember them taking a little mallet, and when they would hit me on my left tibia, and ‘I don’t feel anything’ I would tell ‘em. But deep down inside, it was hurting,” Bowie said in the documentary. “If what I did was lying and what I did was wrong, at the end of the day, when you have loved ones that have some needs, I did what any of us would have done.”

Still, despite Bowie’s admission of hiding pain, the Doctors for the Blazers cleared him. He did have a productive rookie season before missing most of the next two seasons. The Blazers pick was later seen as a disaster and a cautionary tale of millions of dollars lost investing in a high pick. In the film, then Coach Jack Ramsey said that Jordan wasn’t even a consideration. It was alluded that Blazers were more interested in Auburn forward Charles Barkley.

At the draft, it was well-known who was taking whom ahead of time. Draft picks were not held close to the vest like today. Olajuwon went first.

He would go on to win two back-to-back NBA Championships in 1994 and 1995.

Sam Bowie went second to the Trail Blazers. Listen closely to the commentary about Bowie and how he was projected.

While his second and third years were spent missing a lot of games, he did wind up playing in the league for over ten years, some very productively for the New Jersey Nets. He was no lost pick like Greg Oden.

bowie

Basketball Reference’s chart on Bowie’s career

 

Jordan, he went third to the Bulls. Six Championships later and the greatest player ever label was not foreseen. Most scouts thought he would be a good player, but they even had no idea.

The summer of 1984 was a magical one for Jordan and the Bulls. Jordan went to the Olympics and helped the US win Gold in Los Angeles. Jordan’s prowess was on display that summer and it became clear to Bulls GM Rod Thorn that he had made the right choice with the third pick. Rave reviews came in from not only Coach Knight, but basketball reporters across the world as Jordan led the Olympic team in scoring at over 17 points per game.

Jordan olympics

After the Olympics ended, negotiations began in earnest for Jordan’s services. The highest contract the Bulls had previously given was to Center Artis Gilmore when he arrived after the 1976 merger and that was for $4.5 million. Jordan in one fell swoop became the richest Bull and led the Bulls to many riches. over the next 13 years.

That summer of 1984 saw many other changes in the NBA. The Clippers moved to LA, Stern and the NBA sued and lost. A draft lottery was instituted to keep teams from tanking and losing on purpose in order to move up in the draft. It was not popular as many owners and GMs felt that the worst team should have the best pick. It rarely has happened in the 28 drafts since. When New York won the lottery in 1985, the right to draft Patrick Ewing along with charges of conspiracy came along with it.

However, in one summer in 1984, what some call the greatest draft class ever, changed the fortunes of many NBA teams and was a turning point in the history of the game. Jordan, along with Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and 16th pick John Stockton ruled the NBA in the 1990s at the height of its popularity.

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Watch the whole 1984 NBA Draft here.

George Gervin: How the Iceman Became the Iceman

As a young child in the early 70s, basketball was one of my early loves along with baseball, baseball cards, Gail Goodrich, Saturn V model rockets, Star Trek and Hogan’s Heroes. But one of my favorite things was my red, white, and blue basketball from the American Basketball Association (ABA). Any kid who was anybody had an ABA ball. When shot correctly, the spin of the three colors was a thing of beauty.

I was pretty impressionable in those days. I was an avid Lakers fan because I loved Gail Goodrich. He was my first basketball hero. Then I discovered the ABA. It was all about the ball. I loved the way Dr. J could make it do what he wanted. In 1972, a player arrived who would change all my perceptions about what one could do with a basketball. That year, the Virginia Squires of the ABA, based in Richmond, acquired a skinny kid formerly of Long Beach State and Eastern Michigan. At 6’7″ and 170 pounds, he could disappear if he turned sideways. George Gervin was all arms and legs. His first year, he did not get a lot attention playing alongside Julius Erving (Dr. J). George averaged 14 points a game in Dr. J’s shadow.

In order to find out information about the ABA, a young kid could not watch them on TV or read about them in the local paper, you had to hunt for information. Usually, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated had the best pictures and information about the ABA at the time. Occasionally, on Saturdays, one could find a highlight reel, but rarely. Words were the key to learning about his game.
Squires Fan Rick Bell said this of George:

“I saw George Gervin in his rookie year with the Squires. The Dallas Chaps hosted Virginia on March 20, 1973. I went to the game to see Julius Erving. But Erving was hurt and didn’t play. There were less than a thousand people at the game. The Chaps had a huge lead going into the fourth quarter, and then this skinny kid comes in for Virginia. He scored 20 points in the quarter and almost led the Squires to a victory (the Chaps won, 122-120). From that night on, I was an “Iceman” fan.”

The Iceman goes in, up, and over Dr. J

For the next year, after Erving was sold to the Nets, a young George would help lead the Squires at 25.4 points per game. The Squires, however, were destined to get rid of Gervin just like they had their previous stars, Julius Erving, Sen Nater, Rick Barry, Dave Bing,and Bob McAdoo. Owner Earl Foreman had assumed a $500,00 debt when he had bought the club in 1970. Over the next four years, he tried to get rid of the debt. When it came George’s time, George did not want to go. At 21, he was the face of the franchise. The fans liked him as such, and so did the ABA. In 1974, Foreman sold George to the San Antonio Spurs for $225,000. ABA Commissioner Mike Storen (ESPN’s Hannah Storm’s father) did not approve. Spurs owner Angelo Drossos had a deal and when Foreman began to have second thoughts, Drossos sued to get George. After a short court battle in 1974, George became a Spur. The Squires never recovered. Two years later, the Squires folded shortly before the merger with the NBA. Gervin, who initially resisted, said of San Antonio,

Once I got here and saw how the fans were, the love they had for their basketball team, I knew I had found a home

George’s road to stardom was a road filled with potholes. Born in Detroit, Gervin only knew poverty but basketball was his salvation. Gervin later said,

“I was just running the streets like any other kid, but the difference was that I was in love with basketball. You live in a city like that and you’re living in a state of war. You don’t realize it then. You just take it day by day.”

At King High School, George was initially short. As a sophomore, he was only 5’8″. His junior year saw him grow to 6’4″ but he struggled to stay eligible and missed half the games. His senior year saw George blossom. He averaged 31 points and 20 rebounds and his team made it all the way to the state quarterfinals. George would make it to college.

At Long Beach State, George played one year for Jerry Tarkanian before heading back to be closer to home. At Eastern Michigan, he thrived for one year averaging 29.5. After he slugged a player in a tournament, Coach Jim Dutcher was removed and George was suspended for a year. He could not sit for a whole season. He had to play. George played for $500 a month for the Pontiac Chaparrals in the Eastern Basketball Association. At 40 points a game, George caught the attention of scout and former Bulls coach Johnny “Red” Kerr who signed George to the Squires for $40,000 a year after seeing him throw down 50 points in one night.

When Gervin arrived in San Antonio, he was immediately pressed into the starting lineup. Over the last 19 games, the Spurs won 13 and George helped lead the Spurs to the ABA playoffs. It would be the beginning of his legend. It was in San Antonio that the Iceman became the Iceman. He calm, cool demeanor on the court had been hardened by experience and failure. His game, however, had been taken from others. Here is how George developed his patented finger roll.

Over the next 12 seasons, George was the face of the San Antonio franchise. In 12 seasons in San Antonio, the Spurs made the playoffs 11 times including 10 straight. When the ABA merged with the NBA, television was made for George and his smooth, silky game. Former Bulls and Mavericks coach Dick Motta said of George,

You don’t stop George Gervin. You just hope that his arm gets tired after 40 shots. I believe the guy can score any time he wants to. I wonder if he gets bored out there?

After the merger, he averaged, 27, then 29, then 33 points a game with defenses designed to stop him. Dr. J may have been the reason for the merger and the player who got all the attention of the east coast media, but it was George who got the attention of the players, coaches, and executives. Jerry West said George was one of the few players he would pay to see.

For me, George was the player I most built my game after. Playing Nerf basketball in the house, I used George’s finger roll to perfection. However, on the playground, a short white kid from south central Polo did not have much use for a finger roll. But one could dream of flying through the lane and dropping a roll. His game was like watching art in sports. It was a thing of beauty. He is now a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and works with underprivileged kids in San Antonio. If you combine his ABA and NBA stats, he is the Spurs all-time leading scorer. He would end his career playing for the Chicago Bulls. Despite playing on 2 gimpy legs, the “Iceman” managed to average 16 points a game.



Sources:
http://www.remembertheaba.com/abaarticles/kingarticlegervin.html
http://blog.mysanantonio.com/spursnation/2011/10/11/ices-clandestine-arrival-enables-spurs-to-turn-the-corner/
http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/g/gervige01.html
http://www.nba.com/history/players/gervin_bio.html

Ronnie Fields: Crashing the Dream

I once met Ronnie Fields in 1999 when he was a member of the Rockford Lightning. A couple members of the Lightning did some outreach at the school where I teach. He signed my copy of the Chicago Tribune back page of when he was Mr. Basketball in Illinois. He could still dunk then. But compared to 1994 and 1995, he was a shell of himself. He did not have the same hop, the same explosion. I always felt for him that he never made it to the NBA. A car crash his senior year made sure of that. But for three years, he was a human highlight reel for public league basketball. He seemed destined to go straight from high school to the NBA.

Chicago basketball is filled with tales of high school players with unimaginable skills. Some made it out of the city, some did not. Some made it to college but never made it to the pros. For Ronnie Fields, basketball was his release and the NBA was his dream. Basketball kept him out of trouble. And surprisingly to him, he was good at it. In seventh grade, Fields could dunk a basketball. When he arrived at Farragut Academy high school in the fall of 1992, the legend began. After his sophomore season, the six-foot three-inch Fields was already an all-state selection and a Parade All-American. He had a reported 51 inch vertical jump. But for Fields, he was averaging over 20 points a game as sophomore.

Fields said of his skills,

I didn’t watch as much basketball as a lot of people would think for some of the things I was able to do on the basketball court. A lot of it came natural. At the time, I looked at basketball as an escape, a way of getting out of trouble, and it made me want to play more. I started realizing the talent I was blessed with. It started in grammar school when the coach let me know where I was at talent-wise and put me in a position to be a leader, and from that point I started taking it even more serious. It really showed in my game. I was just a hard-worker that wanted to go out there and compete and win, and entertain fans, as well.

The sky was the limit. But in 1994, a new player arrived at Farragut Academy that would give Fields even more national attention. Kevin Garnett was one of the most lauded players in the country. At 6’11”, he could dominant a high school game with his presence at both ends of the floor. Add Garnett to Farragut Academy, and suddenly, the Admirals became not only one of the top teams in the state, but also the nation. In order for that to happen, the IHSA (Illinois High School Association) had to clear Garnett and declare him eligible to play. The tandem, along with their Admiral teammates, dominated the headlines of the Chicago Tribune Sports section for 1994-1995.

Garnett and Fields in happier times

  • Farragut 69, Rock Island 57: Ronnie Fields put on a Show
  • GARNETT, FARRAGUT STRUT THEIR STUFF
  • GARNETT, FIELDS FLY FARRAGUT TO CHAMPAIGN
  • ADMIRALS CLOSE OUT CARVER, CLAIM PUBLIC LEAGUE CROWN
  • TV DOESN’T BUY INTO PRIME-TIME DUO BUT FARRAGUT’S SIDESHOW SURE TO BE A HIT IN CHAMPAIGN

The dynamic duo of Fields and Garnett made it to the state championship series, but did not make it out of the quarterfinal losing to Thornton. That summer, Kevin Garnett was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves. For Fields, many thought he would do the same a year later in 1996. His senior season numbers were ridiculous. He averaged 34 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, four steals and four blocks a game….those are video game numbers but they really were the stats Fields accumulated during his senior season. During one point in the season, he averaged 10 dunks a game! He was named Mr. Basketball in the state and was set to attend DePaul if he did not go pro. He was also selected to play in the McDonald’s High School All Star Game. Everything changed for Ronnie Fields shortly before the IHSA State Tournament was set to begin.

The Chicago Tribune reported the following on February 26, 1996:

RONNIE FIELDS, FARRAGUT STAR, HURT IN CRASH:
Ronnie Fields, one of the nation’s top high school basketball players, was seriously injured Monday morning in an automobile accident.
Fields, who will be 19 on Wednesday, was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s spinal injury unit at 7:30 a.m. Monday. His parents requested that no information about his medical condition be released, a hospital spokeswoman said. Fields was driving alone in a Budget Rental car at about 1:15 a.m. when he swerved the 1996 Ford Contour to avoid debris in the road, according to the DuPage County sheriff’s office.
Fields was westbound in the center lane of Illinois Highway 38 (Roosevelt Road) where it passes under Interstate Highway 88 near Elmhurst when he tried to avoid what was believed to be a rock in the roadway. The car slid on the wet pavement, hit a guardrail, then continued to spin before coming to rest against the guardrail on the far right side on the road, police said.
He was removed from the car by the Yorkfield Fire Department and transported to Elmhurst Memorial Hospital.
An Elmhurst Hospital spokeswoman said Fields was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for treatment of a spinal injury.
Fields, a 6-foot 3-inch guard at Farragut High School on the West Side, hopes to attend DePaul University on a scholarship if he qualifies academically. On Feb. 3 he took his ACT examinations for the third time.
Fields has said he is likely to turn pro if he does not qualify.
According to the sheriff’s department there were no tickets issued to Fields as a result of the single-car accident.
Fields was selected this month as a member of the Associated Press All-State team. It was the third time he had been selected for that honor.
Fields is one of 22 players selected for the McDonald’s All-American game on March 31.
The game is to be broadcast live on CBS and will be played at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.

Fields underwent surgery, and the Doctor assured basketball fans that Ronnie Fields would return to world class form. But questions about what Ronnie Fields was doing in a rental car lingered. It would be a rough few months for Fields. Not only did have to answer questions about the accident, but he also did not academically qualify in July to play Division I basketball at DePaul. He would have to follow his dream via another route.

Fields in his halo after the surgery

His recovery would take months. By the time he was ready to play again, the NBA Draft would be over. No team in their right mind would draft a player who just had neck surgery.
Fields stated about his own frustration,

In high school, with so many things going on, and how big basketball had gotten from my freshman year on up, we were doing so many different things that so many young kids don’t get a chance to see. Being able to have things that you never had. At times, being a young kid, we take those things for granted. It [the injury] put things in perspective of maybe moving too fast, not really understanding and appreciating that it’s not all about me, and really working and focusing not just on basketball, but other things in life. The accident had me so mentally frustrated. Basketball was something that I loved doing and escaped me from so many things.

After the accident, my feelings were most set on getting back out there playing. To be a fully aggressive player, that kind of changed my way of playing. As I started playing professionally, I started to slowly get all that back — the mental part and the physical contact.

It changed my life, it changed my outlook, it changed a lot of things. The Lord gets your attention, and you realize how important life is in every aspect. You figure you can do things the way you want, but it catches up to you. Sometimes it’s a good thing. If you’re always living in the dark, thinking that it’s all your doing, sometimes the Lord has a way of showing that it’s not your doing.

Ronnie was electric above the rim

Fields entered his name in the Continental Basketball Association Draft. He was drafted by the LaCrosse Bobcats, but wound up playing for the Rockford Lightning and Chris Daleo. He would play professional basketball through 2008, but he never made it to the NBA. While he would be the third leading scorer in the history of the CBA, he never got the call. He may not have had the hops he had in high school, but he could still play basketball.

Since his retirement from basketball, Fields goes around to schools telling his tale of how basketball is not the only thing in life. Fields says of his life,

“I can talk about it, look back at it and be thankful I’m still here today and still have every day to move forward to improve myself as a person and as a father. I’m happy in terms of what I’m able to give back and share with kids. To be able to help people, I’m thankful for it.”

In recent months, a documentary of Fields’s life is in the works. Called Bounce Back, the film is close to being finished. The lesson for most people about Fields’s life is how he was coddled for ability to dunk. As a sophomore, he was suspended four games by the IHSA for his association with Nike. IHSA Director Dave Fry said,

“I believe it’s a situation where people are capitalizing on opportunities right now the rules do not give good coverage to. So we again have blown the whole concept of high school athletes being recruited out of its proper educational shape.”

After the car accident, Fields was arrested for sexual assault. In September of 1996, he received probation for the crime. His assistant coach who helped get him the car he crashed was banned from associating with any of the Chicago Public Schools. His tale caused many in the press in Chicago, and some rumored at DePaul, to question how these young kids were being treated. Former CBS College Basketball analyst and Chicago hoops legend Quinn Buckner said in 1996 after Fields’s accident,

The whole sports business has changed, and I don’t know if it’s done changing. But the high school sports are the purest of all the sports. What does that mean? I don’t know when you see some of the things that are going on. Is it becoming big business? I don’t know.

It did become a big business.

But for Fields, he recognizes the lessons and the tragedy of his own life. However he doesn’t let it get to him.

For young kids, whatever they want to do in life, my message would be to always have your family life, and focus on being the best person you can possibly be. You’re going to make a mistake, but it’s the forgiveness that you ask for, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice to get better as a person or in whatever work you do.

Source Information
Chicago Tribune Newspaper Articles form 1993-1997
All Ronnie Fields quotes: http://www.slamonline.com/online/college-hs/high-school/2010/03/catching-up-with-ronnie-fields/
Scott Powers: http://espn.go.com/blog/chicago/high-school/post/_/id/3072/legendary-fields-more-than-a-cautionary-tale