Basketball’s Best Kept Secret (Part 1)

June 6, 2013

Michael Jordan’s 1994 departure from basketball to pursue his dreams of playing baseball or serve a secret suspension, was supposed to signal a changing of the guard. The NBA’s hip-hop generation was poised to step up and lay claim to the throne. History tells us that Hakeem Olajuwon and a resurrected Jordan intervene, and the proverbial passing of the torch would have to wait for Jordan’s penultimate retirement in 1998. But what the post-Jordan, pre-Kobe superstars lack in championship hardware they more than make up for in broken dreams bad decisions cultural impact.  This was the first generation of NBA players who grew up on hip-hop. More importantly the grew up watching Michael Jordan create the archetype of multimedia superstar. If His Airness could fight crime with Bo Jackson and Wayne Gretzky, why couldn’t they  BE rappers.

While dozens of players tried their hand at the rap game, Shaq-Fu’s catalog excepted, very few official releases exist.  Allen Iverson’s  shelved “Jewelz” album has become the stuff of  legend within hoops-rap circles, and Kobe Bryant’s Tyra Banks collaboration is a go-to punchline for honors-level Bean-bashers. Truthfully, most ballers didn’t have the time, energy, focus or font of creativity required to record long players. Listeners seeking a 30 minute+ dose of rapping athletes are forced to make do with the 1994 compilation “Basketball’s Best Kept Secret”.

Boasting production by such luminaries as DJ Clark Kent, Warren G,  Ant Banks, Diamond D, “Basketball”s Best Kept Secret” doesn’t suffer from a lack of beats, but the question is “can these guys flow”? Luckily for you, I listened so you don’t have to.  And now, without further ado, allow me to present an unsolicited, untimely, two-part, song-by-song review of a slightly obscure, largely unloved compilation of songs by amateur musicians:

Check It- Dana Barros

  • What it sounds like: Brand Nubian before Grand Puba left
  • The Flow: Sadat X channeled through Buckshot Shorty
  • Basketball-related line: “Cross over? Hell no! Dana B’s paid”
  •  Lamest Stunt Line: “Cross over? Hell no! Dana B’s paid”
  • Overall Rating: 7 out of 10After Ed OG, it’s safe to say that Dana Barros is the second-best rapper to ever come out of Boston (nope, Brooklyn gets to claim Guru).

Lost in the Sauce- Malik Sealy

  • What it sounds like: An athlete rapping over a beat that Mic Geronimo rejected
  • The Flow: 1982. Think Kool Moe Dee and Kurtis Blow
  •  “Life’s just one big jump-shot/You’re either on or you might be off”
  • Lamest Stunt Line: “I dunk it on you from the dotted” Really son, the dotted? A full 7 feet away from the rim?
  • Overall Rating: 3 out of 10. This is kinda painful to listen to

Mic Check 1-2 - Shaq featuring Ill All Scratch

  • Overall Rating: 6 out of 10. As a successful hip-hop artist, Shaq is a bit of a ringer here. His rap skills or lack thereof are a known commodity, so I’m going to expend a lot of energy thinking or writing about this. I will, however, say that Ill and Al Scratch are much better emcees than I remember them being.

Flow On- Cedric Ceballos featuring Warren G

  • What it sounds like: Vintage G-funk, a warm summer day
  • The Flow: Da Brat (that’s a compliment, btw)
  • Basketball-related line:  “Mary Jane ain’t the way for me/I get high up off me jumpers and my dunks, you see”
  • Lamest Stunt Line: None that stand out. This is barbecue music, relatively free of braggadocio.
  • Overall Rating: 9 out of 10. This could have been released as a single, and done pretty on commercial radio

Anything Can Happen- Brian Shaw

  • What it sounds like: A gangstafied funeral dirge
  • The Flow: MC Eiht (gyeah)
  • Basketball-related line: none
  • Lamest Stunt Line: none
  • Overall Rating: 7.5 out of 10. Shaw is a comment, albeit derivative emcee.  I might have scored it higher had it not been so damned depressing. In the song, Shaw talks abut the pain losing his entire family and how even his closest homies can’t relate. It’s real spit. A little too real, and I think I need to take a break from this album.

Stay tuned for Part 2.


Discovering Drazen Petrovic

March 27, 2013

I’m going to do something that is almost unheard of among sports fans. I’m going to confess a lack of knowledge about an athlete whose career apex occurred while I was watching the sport. Sure, I know about Petrovic’s contribution to the game and about his relationship with his former Yugoslavian teammates before and after the country was torn apart by, civil war, but I’m largely ignorant to his game.

In the pre-League Pass early-90s, the Nets weren’t exactly a network television fixture. If you weren’t a Nets season ticket holder, your opportunities to see Petrovic play were probably limited to one or two nationally televised games and a handful of Nets/Bulls matchups on WGN. The only things the average American hoops fan could tell you about Petrovic’s game, is that he was the best of the early NBA euros; which is to say that  he was a great shooter and terrible defender who probably liked to smoke cigarettes at halftime. That’s why these youtube compilations are such a revelation. In the words of a good friend, “Petrovic is a total showman and a jackass”.

Notice the sheer number of under-the-leg passes. WHO DOES THAT? It’s a sort of anachronistic vaudevillian showboating that owes more to the Harlem Globetrotters than any actual brand of contemporary American basketball…more Meadowlark Lemon than Hot Sauce.  Halfway through watching the first video, one of the stranger moments of my life began to make sense.

It was the summer of 1994, at an outdoor court near Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The details of the afternoon are somewhat fuzzy, but somehow, I found myself playing pick-up ball on a court that appeared to be roughly the size of a football field. Granted, it was many years ago, and I may or may not have been in the midst of a coffee shop crawl that afternoon, but I distinctly remember court being abnormally long. I’m also fairly certain that it wasn’t fenced in. I suspect that two basketball hoops had simply been placed at opposite ends of a concrete slab with no intention that the intervening space would ever serve as a court. Nonetheless, run’ we did.

As remarkable as the court itself, was the style of play. It was an uptempo style that featured a lot of penetrate-and-pitch, with very little low-post play. This may sound unremarkable now, as this style of basketball dominates playgrounds and open gyms nationwide, but this style of play was much less common.  And then there was the showboating. It was practically Maravichian in nature. Lots of between-the-legs passes, and drives to the lane that featured players wrapping the balls around their bodies before attempting the layup. It was jarring enough for me to go home and proudly proclaim to anyone who would listen that European’s only exposure to American basketball was highlight videos and globetrotters tours. It’s obvious now, having watched these videos, that they weren’t trying to imitate American basketball at all. They were paying homage to one of the greatest European players who ever lived.


Fake it or make it: Drake’s vs The Knottery

March 19, 2013

It’s been roughly 17 years since I’ve done what used to be my favorite recurring feature, Fake it or Make it. For those of you who are new to the blog, or have simply forgotten; I compare two similar items, one high-end, one budget and then tell you which you should buy. Yup, unsolicited, I tell you what to do with your own hard-earned money. I can do that because I have a blog.

Moving right along…

Drakes of London has a long history as one of the finest makers of men’s accessories. The Knotery is an internet upstart, aimed at providing quality ties at bargain prices. In this installment we will compare not one, but two Drakes and Knottery ties.

 

Silk Knit:

Silk knit ties are all the rage right now, and have been for a few years. They’re incredibly versatile, and can help add an air of youth to an otherwise stuffy ensemble, without coming off as desperate or affected.

Drake’s Silk Knit $155

 

The Knottery $25

 

The Drakes tie has the sort of “crunchy” hand feel that knit tie aficionados rave about. This is desirable because the internet says it is. The Knottery tie, on the other hand, has a lighter, silkier hand. As a bonus, the Knottery’s silk knits are available in both 2.25 and 3 inch widths.

As the owner of several knit ties, including Drakes (acquired at a DEEP discount), I can’t say I believe that high end knits are worth the difference in price. Skinny ties are also less versatile than their wider kin, so that, combined with the price/value ratio, I’d have to recommend the Knottery.

The Royal Artillery

With it’s zig-zag pattern, The Royal Artillery is one of the more striking regimental ties. Bole enough to be noticed, yet conservative enough to be business appropriate (unless of, course you happen to live in the U.K. and did not serve in Her Majesty’s artillery regiment).

Drake’s $193

 

The Knottery $20

If you’re striving for authenticity (which you aren’t) neither of these ties of for you. The stripes actually zig in the wrong direction. The Knottery, while getting the stripe direction right, doesn’t currently offer the actual Royal Artillery colorway, It’s a reasonable facsimile, but the fabric is a a bit on the shiny side. It’s a great choice if you’re on a budget, but I’m inclined to recommend the Drake’s tie.

 

Being an English (though currently Hong Kong owned) brand, Drake’s is truly great at all things British, and it doesn’t get more British than regimentals. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d venture that Drakes chose to make their tie with the stripes going in the wrong direction because they are British, and understand that true regimental stripes should be earned. If you’re looking to splurge on a tie, this isn’t a bad place to start.

You know what? Forget what I said in that last paragraph. I’m not recommending $200 ties to anyone. Buy the Knottery piece and spill soup on it. Fuck it, it’s 20 bucks.


We are what’s wrong with boxing

March 12, 2013

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This past weekend, 48 year old Bernard Hopkins dispatched 31 year old Tavoris Cloud to win the IBF Light Heavyweight championship, setting a record as the oldest man to win a belt. The previous record of age 46, was set by…Bernard Hopkins in a unanimous decision victory over Jean Pascal. Hopkins is being celebrated by the boxing press for defying Father Time and competing on a championship level when most of his peers have long since retired. Right now, he press has to luxury of cheering B-Hop’s success because he still has all of his facilities. Those same writers will start singing a different song once Hopkins’ speech patterns start to change.

The punch drunk pug who hung around too long is a story as old as boxing itself. One needn’t be familiar with the most recent CTE research to know that sustaining repeated blows to the head is not good for the brain. We’d like to see our boxers retire before the effects of head trauma become permanent, yet we hold longevity as at a premium. We’d like to believe that we’re concerned with fighter safety, yet we clamor for slug-fests and high-risk matchups.

Our expectations for boxers are unlike those of any other athletes. When a fighter establishes himself as the class of his division, our expectation is that he moves up in weight to fight bigger, stronger men in the next weight class. Take Floyd Mayweather Jr for example. Floyd won his first professional title at Super Featherweight division at 130 pounds. His most recent fight took place at the Junior Middleweight limit of 154 lbs against Miguel Cotto. Mayweatther’s ascent up the weight ranks can partially be attributed to the natural weight gain that comes with age, but much of the motivation stems from making the most lucrative fights.

When Usain Bolt dominated the 100m and 200m distances, we didn’t ask him to move up to the 400 or 800 to cement his legacy as an all-time great. The notion is patently absurd. Yet, we think nothing of demanding that Floyd Mayweather Jr. step into the ring with men who walk the street as light-heavyweights on a day-to-day basis. Google Mayweather ducking, and omit results mentioning Manny Pacquiao and you’ll see both fight fans and journalists calling for Mayweather, who has fought one fight at 154 (his reported walking weight) to fight Saul “Canelo” Alvarez or Sergio Martinez,;two men who are rumored to walk the street weighing as much as 180 pounds. The question is, why?

Isn’t enough to watch to watch brilliant athletes compete against and dominate their peers? Why the instance that boxers, and only boxers operate at a disadvantage for our entertainment? No one says, “Lebron James is great, but until he moves to the center position, he’ll be remembered as a pretender”. Why then, do we ask men who participate in arguably the most dangerous sport in the world to increase their risk? What does that say about the sport of boxing, and us as its consumers? Think about that the next time you accuse a boxer of taking “safe” fights.


The forgotten superstar everyone remembers

March 7, 2013

The athlete who hung around too long is a familiar trope. Unable to say goodbye to the game because they can’t admit that they no longer have what it takes, or too frightened of what life after sports holds to let go, so they linger. And then there’s the athlete who didn’t get to play long enough to reach his full potential. These are the heart-breakers, the what-ifs. Sports lore is littered with the tales of these bests-that-never-were.

In recent years another model of careers ending at the wrong time has emerged; the player deemed so toxic that he finds himself involuntarily retired despite retaining the ability to contribute at the professional level. They are the Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens, Allen Iversons and Sean Averys of the world. Whether plagued by scandal, psychologically unstable, unwilling to accept a smaller role, or just plain jerks, they’ve found themselves on the outside looking in. Unique among this group, however, is the NBA’s forgotten superstar; a man who has to personify persona non grata, so unwelcome in professional basketball circles, that he’s actually beginning to fade from our collective consciousness. Stephon Marbury.

Ask most NBA fans to name the 25 greatest PGs of all time, and you’re likely to get consensus on about 10. Some lists will suffer from recency bias, ranking players whose legacies are very much works-in-progress over those with established legacies of greatness. Others still, will veer towards the historical, spurred by tall tales of legends past and citing defensive rule changes as evidence that modern stars have inflated stats. What most of these hypothetical lists will have in common is the omission of Stephon Marbury.

This is the part where you say to yourself that Marbury ISN’T a top-25 pg. Maybe you’re right. He is, however, good enough to be in the discussion. Marbury is one of only six players to average at least 20 points and 8 assists for eight or more seasons. The other names on that list: Oscar Robertson, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway. That’s a five-time all-star and four men included on the NBA’s 50 Greatest Player of All-Time list. Why then, have we forgotten how good Marbury was?

There are a few factors in play here. First and foremost, he didn’t win. In the post-Jordan NBA, we have come to expect nothing less than championships from our stars. There is this belief that a great player, through sheer force of wil,l can drag a roster full of rotation players and cast-offs to the promised land, and if not, he’s a loser. People point to the fact that every team he left during his prime, got better in the following season. They somehow forget that in two of those cases he was replaced by Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, and in the third, a young power forward named Kevin Garnett who was just entering his prime and blossomed in the season following Marbury’s departure.

Although Marbury was briefly among the best players in the game, being good enough to be named to Team USA, his peak coincided with a dark period in the NBA (they took the bronze). For the five minutes between Jordan and Lebron eras Marbury was held up alongside Allen Iverson as an example of everything that was wrong with the NBA. It was a league filled with tattooed, me-first prima donnas who had to be wrestled into submission by the strong arm of benevolent commissioner David Stern…except for that part where that entire narrative isn’t true. Marbury was just one of many stars born into the the hip-hop generation painted as thugs and punks by the aging, culturally out of touch (and maybe just a little bit racist) sports media and the league’s megalomaniacal, paternalistic dictator of a commissioner.

Another thing Marbury has going against him is recency bias. It may seem odd that recency bias would negatively affect the perception of a player as contemporary as Stephon Marbury, but it’s true. We all saw Stephon Marbury suck RECENTLY. We remember his struggling, scandal plagued Knicks. We remember him being released, unable to find a team only to land on the Celtics’ bench, only to be released after only 23 games. Truth be told, while Marbury was past his prime, he still had enough left in the tank to contribute at a high level, but teams are unwilling to tolerate Marbury’s special brand of erratic behavior from anything less than an all-star caliber player. Simply put, he assholed his way out of the NBA. Fans find it extremely difficult to attribute greatness to players who find themselves saddled with the label of team cancer. Also:

These factors, combined with Marbury’s decision to continue his career in China while his peers are either revered elder statesmen of the league, or retired on their own terms create the perfect recipe for a tarnished and eventually forgotten legacy.


Now open under old management

March 1, 2013

Stay tuned,  In the interim, feel free to check these out.

Warmth without bulk

Stuff you already know


Advanced Statistics or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Hero Ball

May 9, 2012

In recent years, basketball has seen a rise in advanced statistics rivaling the sabermetrics movement in baseball. The traditional basketball statitistics; points, rebounds, assists etc. are flawed because they lack perspective. Good numbers on a bad team has practically become a cliché in basketball, but that was impossible to quantify without watching the games. The box-score won’t tell you that Ricky Davis secured the tenth rebound of his triple-double by shooting and intentionally missing at his own basket.

Seeking a higher understanding of player value teams have embraced statistics as simple as plus/minus (the difference points scored by and against the player’s team while said player was on the court) and as complicated as Player Efficiency Rating (PER):

uPER = (1 / MP) * [ 3P + (2/3) * AST + (2 - factor * (team_AST / team_FG)) * FG + (FT *0.5 * (1 + (1 - (team_AST / team_FG)) + (2/3) * (team_AST / team_FG))) - VOP * TOV - VOP * DRB% * (FGA - FG) - VOP * 0.44 * (0.44 + (0.56 * DRB%)) * (FTA - FT) + VOP * (1 - DRB%) * (TRB - ORB) + VOP * DRB% * ORB + VOP * STL + VOP * DRB% * BLK - PF * ((lg_FT / lg_PF) - 0.44 * (lg_FTA / lg_PF) * VOP) ])

where: factor = (2 / 3) – (0.5 * (lg_AST / lg_FG)) / (2 * (lg_FG / lg_FT))
VOP = lg_PTS / (lg_FGA – lg_ORB + lg_TOV + 0.44 * lg_FTA)
DRB% = (lg_TRB – lg_ORB) / lg_TRB

And that’s before you adjust it for pace.  Got it? These are called advanced statistics for a reason. They’re a great tool for teams assessing player value…if you’re a scout, GM or otherwise involved in an NBA front office. They are, to borrow a phrase, inside baseball. For years, advanced basketball metrics were the exclusive domain of insiders and stat-geeks, until 2009’s famed “No Stats All Star” piece in the NY Times Magazine. The article details how Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey used advanced metrics to build a team of low-cost players who, while unimpressive when measured by traditional statistics, actually provide great value on the court. Since the publication of “No Stats”, basketball writers and fans have become increasingly enamored with these new-look stats.

Despite the greater depth of understanding of player performance, advanced metrics do absolutely nothing to increase a fan’s enjoyment of the game. For those of us whose livelihood is not directly tied to the performance of NBA teams, basketball is a diversion. It’s entertainment, and must come to terms with the fact that the best-played basketball, as determined by statistical analysis, isn’t necessarily the most thrilling or aesthetically pleasing.

Most recently the concept of “hero ball” has come under fire. Hero ball is the notion that the best players should put their teams on their backs and will them to victory late in the game…that the superstar should take the game-winning shot. Statistically, speaking, a team should do what works best for them throughout the game. Hero ball leads to poor shot selection and wasted possessions (possessions are the currency of advanced basketball references). From a strategic perspective these people are probably right. I say probably, because human beings are not rational actors, and statistics fail to quantify things like the motivation factor of a thunderous dunk or dagger three.


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