What was supposed to happen was that I would be part of the crowd at the NBA D-League's Fantasy Clinic. Except things didn't quite go as planned. I did travel to Springfield as a guest of the NBA, staying in its hotel along with pretty much every single legend in town. There was time in the gym, and a lot of D-League swag.
But there's really no way to sugarcoat it: this event didn't go off as planned. The two other times they had done this -- a year ago in Springfield, and then this summer in Vegas -- they had 20 some and 40 attendants, respectively. This year, a company that had reserved a decent number of spots pulled out at the least minute, leaving two FanHouse contest winners -- and me. That meant turning two days and change of activity into one afternoon, and putting this journalist-participant way more on the spot than he ever intended to be.
So that's how Dee Brown came to keep yelling at me, when I'd already planned to be ignored and take long breaks on the sidelines.
I can't say he made me a better basketball player. Brown got that making me into an athlete was a lost cause -- he liked my line about trying to get on "a level," as opposed to the next one. That didn't mean, though, that he didn't want me to see the game like he did. That's why, as I struggled through ball-handling drills with my non-existent left, Dee Brown demanded I respect the routine.
Brown, the coach of the D-League's Springfield Armor, describes himself as a teacher, but he's not looking to clone Hubie Brown. He thinks, and communicates, as a still-explosive guard with a regimented yet colorful approach to breaking down the game. In short, the kind of thing that the D-League has made its mission.
Around the same time, far across the globe, a flustered JaVale McGee tweeted that writers who didn't play the game needed to shut their mouths. McGee, who inexplicably gets invited to USA Basketball every summer, is just the sort of project player who should at some point have visited the D-League. Teammate Andray Blatche did, and look how he finished his season. I couldn't help but think about Brown's careful constructions of space, angle, and direction, a new kind of fundamentals that laid out how and when to use off-the-charts physical attributes. Touche, Mr. McGee.
I'm getting way ahead of myself here. I arrived on Thursday afternoon, heading to the hotel after my first-ever trip to the Naismith Hall of Fame itself (I've written about it here and here). Within seconds I realized that, for the weekend, this was no ordinary Marriott. At least not unless your Marriott has an autograph line set up by the entrance, and Rick Barry, resplendent in jean shorts and a baseball cap, working the crowd.
Part of me wanted to spend the night posted up in the hotel restaurant, eavesdropping and trolling for conversation with the greats. But that kind of freaked me out, so I went to my room to work and make the best of AC and bare-bones cable. Too bad, because I missed Charles Barkley and company living it up in the sports bar that was under the same roof. They were respectfully run out at closing time, and promptly found another spot to hand out $100 bills for a few more hours.
The next morning, the Fantasy Experience officially got underway. In the lobby, I met one of my two fellow D-League trainees. Except Wayne Washington, who had gotten in via this site's contest, wasn't there to fulfill some middle-aged fantasy. For him, professional basketball was a longtime dream -- and now, a goal within reach. Wayne had played a year of JUCO before starting at guard for Shenandoah University, where he wore #0. Watching clips of him after the fact, I saw an explosive, crafty guard with a fine-tuned court sense, good touch on his shot, and notable hops, These days, he was honing his skills in the DC area and looking to attend tryouts, including those for D-League squads. Dude was quiet, intense, and maybe a little letdown by the scaled-back situation.
Dee and a host of handlers showed up to walk us over to the Mass Mutual Center. It doesn't really matter if I tell you that Brown was totally open and down-to-earth; this was P.R., and the D-League keeps everyone humble. Plus, he knew that he could yell at us later. I shook everyone's hands, was introduced with my government name as "AOL blogger Nathaniel Friedman" without protest, and we were off for some "chalk talk" with Celtics icon Dave Cowens.
Cowens, who has the notable distinction of being my father's favorite basketball player ever, was absolutely great. I found him eager to rap about obscure details of the past, like the time Bill Russell went easy on Reggie Harding -- the first-ever preps-to-pro player -- because the seriously thugged-out Harding kept a weapon in the locker room. Even Red accepted that one. Cowens reminisced, with surprising warmth and affection, about coaching Marvin Barnes. Barnes was great with kids, and as tremendous a player as the rumors say. Cowens confirmed the too-perfect "now that's a foul" story, in which he sent an opponent flying across the court just to make a point about overzealous refereeing. Cowens added, with a smirk, "all the stories are true."
|Dave Cowens holding court at lunch|
Brown didn't have nearly as illustrious a career as Cowens, and was transitioning into his full-on coach mode. But he still gave us some gems. What happened when, thanks to Dee's dunk contest promotion, Reebook had outsold Nike for the first time in years? Michael Jordan deigned to speak to him for the first time ever, only to deliver an expletive-filled threat about [to paraphrase] "starting the shoe wars." Him and Cowens rapped about Celtics culture and lore, including Auerbach's lasting defiance of the NBA's sock rules. Tales of Harold Miner and LaBradford Smith were told.
I also got an unbeatable trivia question out of all this: Who is the only Celtic to play with Russell, Cowens, and Larry Bird? You've heard of him, but won't get the answer. I guarantee it.
In the middle of lunch, our second contestant, Renardo Espinosa, showed up. Coming from Florida, he had flight problems working against him. Renardo was affable, but tired, and relieved to have made it. He later told us it was his first time outside of his home state, which also explained a lot. Renardo immediately introduced himself to Dee as "that guy who didn't make a single dunk in that contest you judged," after which he told Brown "you'll be seeing me again." He had a huge smile on his face, but I also got that, at the time, Renardo had really meant it. We all agreed that it never hurt to say "you'll be seeing me again," since worst case, you never saw them again, and all was forgotten. I wondered if having Dee Brown see you again wasn't perhaps an overly modest goal.
Renardo was taller, more muscular than Wayne, and harder to read as a player when we were all standing at a deli spread. It turned out that he played high school ball in Land O' Lakes, population 35,000, which also had its own AAU team. Renardo excelled as a shot-blocker and dunker, which is how he ended up crossing paths with Dee. A self-described "diamond in the rough," Espinosa knew he had to tighten up his game some to find a spot on a domestic or overseas team. He arrived in time to pepper Cowens and Dee with questions about differences between then and now; no chalk was ever produced, though Cowens did complain about the three-pointer and its effect on the fast break.
We took some pictures, suited up, took some more pictures and then hit the court. I got to enjoy the distinctly weird moment of telling Cowens the special place he held in my father's heart while bricking listless jumpers as warm-up. He laughed, but was much more interested in motioning me toward the paint. My layups didn't fall either. I remarked how awkward it all was, and Cowens laughed again before walking away for the afternoon.
That's when Dee took charge and the fun began. For me, it was all a blur within minutes. Right off the bat, with sprint-stretches up and down the court, I was out of gas. Not literally out of breath -- my tank was already emptied. At the very least, I could have started hitting the gym again in advance of this weekend. Then came cones, and dribbling drills that were as much about knowing how moves fit into the geometry of the court as they were iterating tricks.
A great Dee-ism, transcribed from sweaty memory: "They say practice makes perfect, but that doesn't mean any and all practice is worthwhile. It means you get your practice until that's perfect, and then start to see results."
Dee was adamant on making things simple and efficient, all to to develop and refine qualities that the modern-day basketball player has. The game can be taught with three people; you shoot with three fingers; on a reverse, your move is an easy choice based on the markings on the floor. There are only five real dribbling moves, but people try and do them all at once, so they think there are more. There's a time and a place for each of them, or each combination, depending on what the defender's showing. There's no such thing as a "guiding hand."
Yet he also stressed the importance of the "third hand" -- using your body to secure the ball like Stephon Marbury was known for -- and the value of learning the "Euro Step" and the "Rondo." Again, there's a time and a place for everything you see NBA players do, even the stuff purists decry. No move is new, or belongs exclusively to one player. Yes, they are identified with whoever does them the most; in some cases, they become synonymous with that player. Since he wants to make sure his pupils learn everything they can use, he brings up names from the present as a handy visualization tool. Of course, he's the first to point out that the "Rondo" really belongs to Hakeem, and that Manu Ginobili didn't invent the Euro Step. To pass the information on, though, you need that easily-accessed example.
Let's step back and establish one fact: I understand a lot about basketball. Well, enough to get by at my job. Being part of this clinic, though, parsed the game for me in a way that really allowed me to see it from a player's perspective. Or, to really idealize it, how an elite player thinks on a granular level. That's valuable knowledge to have when you spend all day and night watching other people play the game. What makes Kobe better than other shooting guards? He makes good decisions, using the court as a rational template -- even if the end result is a highlight reel. I see his decisions, but this helped me better understand exactly what guided them. Dee knew he could teach me something, lay bare some of that science.
And that's why he kept yelling as I dribbled the ball off my dirt-caked running shoes.
I felt kind of bad for Wayne and Renardo. Wayne clearly knew a lot of this stuff inside and out. He seemed most intent on making a good impression -- and, almost as importantly, just getting it right for himself. But he had come to play, and seemed a little disappointed we weren't getting in any real run. Renardo, who was far better with the ball than I expected, still had the look of someone soaking up knowledge. He also patted me on the back sympathetically whenever I ran back after an especially poor showing. I tried to laugh self-deprecatingly, but all I could manage was a snicker. Neither irony felt like a particularly good idea.
By the end of the workout, my brain had totally lost touch with my body, and I could barely process Dee's directions for a drill that stressed defensive footwork. This was also the one chance to get in some live one-on-one -- albeit with only three dribbles allowed. Needless to say, both Wayne and Renardo took the opportunity to dunk on me mercilessly, or at least try. They had usually beat me so badly that I was at least two frames behind their poster, dragging myself across the floor like an escaped hospital patient. Dee wrapped things up with a speech on basketball's simplicity, beauty, continuity, and universality, and how he hoped we had all gotten something out of the afternoon that would help us with whatever our basketball goal happened to be.
For me, or anyone with a prayer of making an impact on the floor, Dee's method is a version of the Right Way that's fully in touch with today's game. Then again, it was never supposed to be about old versus new. Fundamentals are just that: timeless. As Dee put it, it "never changes, which means you can always base your game on that." He also called the ball itself "the least racist thing in the world," which was kind of awesome
When we all met up to head over to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, I kept apologizing for the afternoon, but eventually decided to drop it and let everyone enjoy the proceedings, which I wrote about in the second item here. Afterward, I broke away to drop my disguise in the press room, then made my way to the Hall of Fame ball solo. It was mobbed, but so were the HOF'ers in attendance. And plenty of them didn't make the trip. It had nothing on the Marriott.
The cover band was tight, though, especially their version of The Moments' "Love on a Two-Way Street." "Ball of Confusion" summed up my feelings about the Hall of Fame itself, as both punchline and critique. I skulked upstairs to spend some more quality time with the Maurice Stokes and Wilt Chamberlain 100-point jerseys before heading back. That's when I had this bizarre encounter with David Thompson.
The next morning, I went down to breakfast but found only some Nike dudes -- and more Hall of Famers. Willis Reed uses more sweetener in his coffee than any human being I've ever seen. It was gratifying to watch Christian Laettner struggle to keep his young daughters under control -- yes, I'm Carolina born and bred. Tiny Archibald and Calvin Murphy greeted each other, both dressed like ballers my age. I didn't recognize Bob Boozer. At some point, it was just getting ridiculous. I checked out, jumped in the rental, and tried to decide what this weekend would have meant for JaVale McGee.