So Nike exec Phil Knight was inducted to the Hall of Fame last night, and his presenter happened to be Michael Jordan, on account of the symbiotic relationship between the two men’s cultural rise. In the video below, Knight thanks Jordan by elevating him, calling him the greatest of all time and talking about his impact on the industry. And where he goes… is a little weird.
In talking about Jordan’s impact in selling shoes and on society through being his Airness, Knight compares him to Nathan Hale, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and makes a reference to Jesus Christ.
Apparently 18th century revolutionaries, Marxist-Communist leaders, and Che buy shoes, too.
It should be noted that Mao Zedong altered the course of Asian geopolitical finances, military, and philosophy irrevocably and stood as chairman of the party for the most populous nation on Earth for thirty years. Jordan once took two years off to fail as a baseball player. So yeah, there’s a little hyperbole involved here. If you’re into sports, it’s easy to recognize some sort of thread between the two. But if you have a greater perspective… easy there, Phil.
Also, he’s Jesus, apparently. So he’s got that going for him.
When I make this column, as I do every year, I go through the usual flip side. Do we really need a Hall of Fame? Is there anyone who should be included in a Hall of Fame for the NBA that is not or will not be in the Naismith? Is recognition in the Naismith not enough accomplishment? Is there really the demand to satisfy fans desire to attend a NBA-only Hall? What’s the problem?
The problem is not that Reggie Miller, Don Nelson, and Ralph Sampson are being inducted tonight alongside people whose accomplishments were not in the NBA. That’s not it at all. I’m not arguing for the elimination of the Naismith Hall, if anything, I want there to be a higher level of regard to those who have genuinely contributed to the sport, not just the league. But to lump the NBA in with every other organized basketball entity on the planet is to insult both sides. The NBA is its own creature, far removed from Europe’s basketball cultural evolution, profoundly different from the NCAA’s particular brand of madness, and not at all truly entwined with international competition.
It’s its own thing.
And it’s a big thing.
When you think of basketball, you’re either going to think of the NCAA tournament or the NBA. I’m not here to try and inflate the importance of pro basketball over college. March Madness is a wonderful entity and should have its own recognition of greatness.
College gets to celebrate its wonderful moments and players, the people who form the tapestry of its rich and legendary history. Why doesn’t the NBA? Why should the NBA run cover for all forms of basketball? Again, I don’t mind the association of the NBA with the Hall. It’s good that the NBA brings some attention which gets drawn to the other inductees whose accomplishments may not be as well known but are often equal or greater to those of the millionaire superstars molded to statue.
But it’s the lack of a Hall for the NBA, without the ability to recognize people who clearly belong, but likely won’t because the Naismith is trying to cram in all of basketball. What winds up happening is worthy people from outside of the NBA who would go overlooked otherwise get in, while completely worthy people from the ranks of the NBA are excluded.
I’ll admit it, I love Bill Simmons’ Pyramid idea for the Hall. It’s innovative, and it serves two purposes at once. It allows us to induct those who are worthy of enshrinement, but not next to the greatest of the greats, while providing an opportunity to set those players aside.
Reggie Miller is entering the Hall alongside Phil Knight, for crying out loud. I don’t have an issue with Knight being inducted, You can’t argue the impact he’s had on the game. He belongs in the Naismith. But Reggie freaking Miller deserves to enter enshrinement alongside Nelson and Sampson, Wilkes and Daniels, by themselves. Their contributions to the sport of basketball may be equal, but not to the NBA.
I’ve long held that the best thing about the NBA is that you can’t take it too seriously. This is a league of tape-delay Finals, coked out history, flopping franchises, lottery conspiracy theories, trade vetoes and Planet Lovetron. That’s what makes this league so great. The sheer absurdity of it. But you can’t have all that without also recognizing the greatness and history of the playoffs and Finals. Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kareem, Wilt, Olajuwon, Russell, Moses, Walton, Duncan, Shaq, Kobe, Dirk, LeBron, Wade. That’s a whole other level of basketball greatness and that’s just scratching the surface. The league has been around for over 60 years. It’s got a story to tell, and it deserves a building to tell it in. It deserves to recognize the best of the best, and the great players and people who contributed to what it has become.
The NBA having its own Hall won’t lead to total destruction of the Naismith. Basketball culture won’t crumble into a sponsored dystopia. (Though you can bet the league will make a huge profit on it that way — and hey, maybe that way we can avoid another lockout!) Everything will be fine if we recognize the accomplishments of those to the sport of basketball, and those specifically to the National Basketball Association. We lose nothing, we gain a lot.
We live in a world where stories are told in more volume and with more accessibility than at any time in our history as a species. We’re not fighting for bandwidth. There’s room in the basketball collective consciousness for both the Naismith Hall and the NBA Hall.
The league too often has deferred throughout its history, has shied away from flexing its muscle (unless it’s in a labor dispute). It’s time. The NBA’s worthy of its own Hall of Fame.
Let’s build it.
The Inbounds: The NBA’s unintentional tribute to Don Nelson
Don Nelson was in the NBA long enough to be considered in about a hundred ways over the span of his most-winning career. Longevity comes with peaks and valleys, and Nelson had tons. From his prolific Bucks teams to the start of the Mavericks’ surge with Nowitzki, Finley, and Nash, to the 2007 We Believe Warriors, Nelson had more than his fair share of moments. Not bad for a guy who defied the very core of traditional basketball paradigms: slow it down, defend, trust the big men. Nelson did none of that, and managed to slide away with wins left and right like Puck from Midsummer’s tossing dust while the other teams were sleeping.
As Nelson prepares to enter the Hall of Fame Friday, there will be talk of all his accomplishments. Many weren’t around for his run in the 80’s with the Bucks, including seven of ten seasons with over 50 wins. And there will be criticism of his failures, such as those last few years in Golden State, running a system dependent on athleticism and yet benching the young guys, and how lost they seemed at times.
But if we look around the league, Nelson’s innovation has had its effect. Just look at the lineups for the best teams.
Much of the smallball movement that’s prevalent in the league is a result of the dearth of legitimate big men. Great big men just aren’t out there. It’s Howard, Bynum, Bogut, Hibbert, Marc Gasol and that’s about it. But there’s also an adjustment that’s a product of what Nelson showed, that if you can spread the floor and get your opponent out of their rhythm, you can win with speed.
Take the Heat. After a year of trying to find anything close to a traditional center, they finally just said “Screw it” and eliminated the center position all together. Chris Bosh kept playing power forward. LeBron James played point-forward-center. But they also used the fast break to a high degree and head coach Erik Spoelstra is already beating the “faster, better, stronger” drum for next season, advocating more speed. The Heat are not playing NellieBall, at all. They’re far too dependent on defense. They’re not trying to simply outrun and outscore the opponent. They’re focused first and foremost on defense. Once they stop you, though, the objective is to create those fast-break opportunities. It’s a simple change of utility in player abilities. See, a lot of the time coaches try and harness athleticism to improve skills. You have speed, so you can run the point to set up the offense and get the defense off-kilter. You’re tall, so you can score next to the basket. But the Heat are using athleticism for athleticism. They’re creating dunks by being bigger, stronger, faster.
How about the Thunder? Similarly fast, similarly fast-break-oriented, and they throw in another core tenet of Nelson’s impact, the willingness to put up those threes at a moment’s notice. If you’ve ever seen hesitation in transition from Westbrook, Durant, or Harden, you’ve seen it for the first time.
The Nuggets, constantly running and creating offensive opportunities, constantly spreading the floor. Even the Spurs, and if there’s a less Nelson coach out there than Popovich I ask you to let me know.
In some ways, the Bulls’ defense is even a reflection of this. Driven off of wave after wave of player, creating havoc, just using the opposite end and reacting with both instinct and resolution.
This isn’t to attribute any and all of this to Nelson. There have been smallball advocates before and will be after. George Karl’s a mad genius of his own creation, same for Popovich, same for Thibs. But we see reflections of the success Nelson brought, we see the remainder of what he accomplished. Nelson was an innovator in a game that too often falls back on familiarity. Even his approach, like taking his players to a bar (when some of them aren’t even old enough to drink) both hearkens back to an older time and goes against convention. Nelson made the game more fun. He wasn’t always successful, he wasn’t always right, but the league was a more fun place with him roaming the sidelines.
His style of play remains in vogue, only translated, his ideas still banging around. Countless beat writers have stories about him. Seriously, walk into a media room anywhere in the country and ask for Don Nelson stories. You’ll be there for hours. What says Hall of Fame more than that? So he goes off, having made the game more interesting, having left a legacy, and an enduring image that was never perfect, and not always good, but always worthy of the discussion.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
– William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
The Inbounds: Reggie Miller was the thorn you loved or hated watching stick
There’s a freaking movie about how Reggie Miller made life hell for the Knicks. That’s how legendary that rivalry was. But it wasn’t just the moments, the trash talk, the shots or the points. To be a truly worthy hero, or a villain, you have to be good enough for the damage inflicted to seem like something more than just “one of those things.” This wasn’t just a player have a great series or series of series against one team. It was a great player who happened to just stab one team in particular in the midsection. Over. And over. That’s what makes it legend.
Reggie Miller enters the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, a year later than he needed to, honestly, and to much less fanfare than many of his contemporaries. Miller’s reputation doesn’t really precede him. Whether it was his style and approach, playing in Indiana, or something else, Miller never really hit household-name level. The fact that he spent a huge portion of his prime playing against the GOAT has something to do with that, yet another wonderful player who was swallowed up in Jordan’s shadow. But for those that watched him, they understand what he was able to do during the course of his eighteen seasons in the NBA.
Something that stands out when you look at Miller’s Basketball-Reference page? All eighteen of those seasons with one team. How many Hall of Famers from this current era are going to be able to make that claim? Miller could have gone chasing a ring in New York or with Chicago or whoever, but he stuck with Indiana and they enjoyed a prolonged series of success featuring multiple trips deep into the playoffs.
And that kind of leads us back to the original topic. You can torture a team from multiple teams, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same as seeing that same uniform, over and over, as representing what it means to wear that jersey. Not just for the Knicks, but all the fans who throughout his stellar career cursed the sight of him in that white jersey jogging backwards with his mouth open. It was a special kind of irritant.
Miller stands in the Hall not only for how he lifted up the Pacers and put them into an era of relevance in modern times, but for how he burned the other teams around him down to the ground, then vandalized the historical markers where they once stood. The man jawed with Jordan, for cripes’ sake. He made famous the choke signal. He put Spike Lee’s fandom on a new level. He is a huge reason why if a team is up seven with time winding down, you shouldn’t leave the channel for any reason, ever. It wasn’t just what he did for his own team. It’s what he did to the other guys.
In a way, Miller enters the Hall of Fame at a time where that identity is fading. Team rivalries are starting to explode, replicating the star-studded Lakers-Celtics matchups, even if none are as great. Boston-Miami, Chicago-Miami, New York-Brooklyn, LA-LA, Spurs-Mavericks, Lakers-Celtics, Lakers-Thunder, the list goes on and on. But having that one guy who just murders you on his own is getting harder and harder to find. Miller was never the best player in the game, but he was often close. LeBron doesn’t really hit that level, because he’s always one step above with his talent.
We’re seeing the death of the villain/one-team hero. It’s not worse or better than these epic battles with individual moments you remember (“That Battier three,” “the James Harden finger gunz shot,” etc.). But it does make you long for the days of Miller and how he would just murder a team until the fans were a blubbering mess that would forever spit when his name was mentioned again. We need more of that drama, more of that kind of good vs. evil matchups.
Of course, you look at all that and you realize that Miller never won an NBA title. Maybe the two were related. Stayed with his team, tortured his rivals, played the good guy to his fans, the bad guy to everyone else, and never walked out with the ring.
But then again, there’s something pretty cool about being remembered as “that guy.” Here’s to “that guy,” Reggie Miller.
The Inbounds: Rajon Rondo and a game of art not science
Over Labor Day, I had an opportunity to share a beach house with both a scientist and an artist. (Don’t get jealous, we were pretty much living off our friends’ generosity, it’s not like I’m skipping off to the Hamptons every other weekend.) A social situation involving people on opposite ends of the conceptual spectrum, particularly in their late 20’s when ways of life and outlooks have cemented somewhat can bring some borderline fascinating observations on the conversations and how they develop. The rest of the group was evenly split between leaning more towards the analytically-inclined (an engineer and a financial services rep) and the less-so (an English grad student). So it provided a nice background. The differential between how the two approached things wasn’t striking, it was subtle and textured. Both also very much had a strong crossover to the other’s side of the world. But at their core, one was a scientist, one was an artist, briefly living in each other’s shared universe.
It made me think of Rajon Rondo.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss interviewed Rondo for Bleacher Report as he continued his Red Bull promotional tour last week. In the interview, Strauss asked a series of insightful questions trying to get to the core of how Rondo looks at the way he plays. (Actual basketball questions in a player interview! “The horror,” cried most media.) Rondo answered the way an artist answers a question about the science of their approach. It’s not that there’s not a science to it, it’s that the approach is using science to create art, not the other way around. Two particularly notable sections of an interview I beg you to read:
B/R: Do you ever wonder why more guys in the NBA don’t do what you do with the ball fakes?
RR: I don’t know (laughs). I have no idea. I don’t want them to pick up on it, ya know? I like having a unique game and doing my own thing.
B/R: When did you come up with the ball-fake strategy, because, guys throw ball fakes when they’re on the move, but you do it when you’re planted. Is that just something that came instinctively?
RR: I just came with it. It’s actually funny. A lot of my moves, it just comes out. I don’t really predetermine or practice.
B/R: Did you do that because, when you were growing up, fundamental-minded coaches didn’t like some of the cool, different things you were doing, and you wanted to do it differently?
RR: I just want to give them something different. I don’t want to come out here and give a boring camp. I want to give them something that they actually see me do out on the court. I don’t want to teach them a regular bounce-pass. I want to show them why I throw the behind-the-back pass to Kevin on the pick-and-roll, why I do my shot fake.
B/R: You do throw that behind-the-back on the pick-and-pop a lot of the time to Kevin Garnett. What’s your favorite kind of pass to throw? Is is that one?
RR: Oh, I like throwing a cross-court one-hand bounce-pass between the defense to P (Paul Pierce). I’ll throw a little English on the ball, throw it between two, three guys that are trying to run extremely hard to the paint. Then you got Paul Pierce trailing for the three—and obviously I’m pleased when he makes it.
The answers aren’t particularly shocking. A lot of players like to talk about basketball, but from the outside, you can press too deep, and then they’re like “I’m not overthinking it, I just do it.” It’s basketball, not advanced chemistry. The game is complex, but the actions are instinctive a lot of the time. It’s part of what makes the game so perfect from a conceptual and execution standpoint. The games that reach true popularity are those that have the right balance of entertaining features and no discernible holes for exploitation. The major sports are the models of this. But Rondo’s statement above “I don’t really predetermine or practice” speaks really to who he is and how we consider him.
Chris Paul is considered the Point God for a number of reasons, chief among them the simple superiority of his execution. His floater is in perfect form. He routinely flirts with a 50-40-90 line from the field. His passes are on target nearly 80% of the time, and by that I don’t mean they reach their target, I mean that he lands it in the hand he wants, at the height he wants, at the velocity. If you want to teach a player how to execute the pick and roll or pop, cue up Paul’s execution, which is consistent to a stunning degree, steady like a freight train, sharp like a razor.
But Rondo’s inherently different. It’s not that he’s not consistent. Lord knows he’s run that pick and pop with Garnett the same way so many times the process should be permanently embedded in Spencer Hawes’ brain like in “The Manchurian Candidate” (and yet Hawes will still watch as Garnett nails that 18-footer). He has a series of plays that he runs the same way. But that’s not why we’re wowed by him. Those that come down as pro-Rondo marvel at his instinctive ability in his creativity. Artists don’t wake up one day, say “I will become an artist, now,” and then go learn to draw. Not often, anyway. It starts with drawing with crayons or markers as a kid, with filling notebooks, constantly messing with clay, spending hours on graphic design programs. It fills the brain the way numbers fill the minds of statisticians or biblical passages ruminate in the minds of the devout. It’s just there, it’s the way they process. And the same with Rondo.
It doesn’t come from plotting, from a blueprint, it comes in spontaneous moments, in the instantaneous creation of a play. Observe:
Rondo could likely play in the clinical manner of a lot of point guards. He wouldn’t be as good as Paul, he’d just be a standard, good, blue-collar point guard. I have no way of knowing, but it’s an impression I get that the biggest reason Rondo plays the way he does is that he would get bored otherwise. Read that second quote section. “I just want to give them something different.” Rondo is consistently criticized for his attitude, and there’s every indication he’s driven Doc Rivers absolutely guano over the past five years. He’s temperamental. This is pretty in-check with most of the artists I know. That bit of artistry is all that keeps the world from becoming mundane.
Rondo’s driven by creating plays which fall outside of the ordinary. It’s those plays that make him remarkable, that separate him. And just as it is with most artists, when he’s in a creative groove, the results can be stunning not only in their quality, but volume. His absurd triple-doubles with 20-assists remind me of stories of how Ryan Adams will go into studious and pump out dozens of songs in a session, all stockpiled in his brain.
Rondo’s an avid rollerskater. Think about the actions and way that you do that. It’s about freedom, and spontaneity of movement. Spins, twists, twirls, jumps. The objective is mobile grace. The ball-fakes he uses are sometimes wholly unnecessary. They’re not fooling anyone. It’s just a mechanism. But when it works out perfectly, he fools the defense completely and it’s one of the most unique plays you’ll see, sweeping left to right, whipping the ball from one angle to the polar opposite, and sliding in the layup.
Maybe that’s what’s at the core of the debate over Rondo. Superiority in execution is dependent on precision, consistency, and effort. Rondo’s investment in all three of those principles waxes and wanes as the game goes on, the same way an artist’s involvement in his work can be subject to emotional twists and turns. Much of basketball is geometry. Rondo is constantly working to get bend geometry, trying to do things which aren’t just unnatural in the course of a game, but seem to run almost counter to the principles which decide success.
If you’re not into art, or at least not in basketball, Rondo’s going to seem sloppy, a pain, too inconsistent. But if you can appreciate the attempts to make the game more than a game, even if he’s not consciously aware of that attempt (and Rondo’s mostly just playing basketball and getting paid here, let’s be honest), then he means something wholly different. Creativity can be a liability, but if you consider the endeavor inherently worthwhile, then Rondo’s the point guard for you.
Artists and creative types abhor labels and boundaries. They instinctively act to get past those limitations into a creative and mental freedom. It may not be intentional, but you can see a lot of the same thing in the play of Rajon Rondo.