Friday October 30th, 2009

Their friendship declined on the court. In his upcoming book, When The Game Was Ours, co-written with Larry Bird and author Jackie MacMullan, Magic Johnson admits that his close friendship with Isiah Thomas began to suffer when the two met in the 1988 NBA Finals.

"I saw things differently," said Magic in the book. "Our relationship was changing."

When Isiah and Magic kissed each other on the cheek before each game of that series, it was a gesture meant to suggest that their friendship dwarfed the competition between them. But that turned out to be false. By Game 5 Magic was resorting to a cheap-shot elbow to the kidney of Isiah as he drove to the basket; Isiah responded by throwing the ball at his best friend and lunging at his throat.

"I did target Isiah," acknowledges Magic now. "[Coach] Pat Riley had questioned me in front of the guys whether I'd take him out. I needed to show them I was willing to do it."

The big news from the book (to be released Nov. 4) has been Magic's accusation that Isiah was spreading rumors about his sexuality after Magic was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. But that happened three years after those NBA Finals. The mistrust between them -- the failure of their friendship that enabled the disagreements to come -- developed first of all because they both wanted to win the championship more than anything else.

The competition among the best players is paramount. Of course there are all kinds of reasons to doubt this -- players from rival teams openly hug before each game and vacation together in the summer, while the biggest names pursue marketing endorsements or other entertainment deals that sometimes appear to blight their devotion to basketball. It has always been this way: Bill Russell has told me that he and Wilt Chamberlain were such good friends that they used to have dinner together on the eve of their games.

But at the highest levels of the NBA, the desire to win devours all else. For a couple of hours on the floor Russell would respect Chamberlain as an enemy, as opposed to the friend Chamberlain was at all other times. The brotherhood between Magic and Isiah has turned into a backbiting rivalry.

In recent decades the NBA has grown to look more and more like some kind of Hollywood show in which the players appear interested mainly in exploiting their celebrity and riches. That cynical dynamic exists among the lesser players, without a doubt. But the elite NBA stars have achieved their status because they want to win above all else.

LeBron James refused to congratulate the Magic last season. Here is a guy who wants to become the most beloved and celebrated athlete around the world. He should be more concerned about his image than anyone. But when his Cavaliers were upset in the Eastern finals last May, LeBron was so angry that he walked off the floor without shaking hands with the Magic, and he left the arena without giving his customary interview to the press.

It's not the first time we've seen that kind of behavior. Isiah's Pistons walked off the court without shaking hands with Michael Jordan's triumphant Bulls in the 1991 Eastern finals, just as Bird's Celtics left the floor with time still remaining on the clock when Isiah's Pistons knocked them off in the 1988 Eastern finals.

LeBron was criticized for poor sportsmanship last spring, but I viewed his exit as a healthy and impulsive display of what matters most to him. As much as he may want everyone to like him, his priority is to win championships. Without that bottom line there would be no larger interest in him or the NBA.

Shaq and Kobe lost their way. They stand as a timeless example of teammates who couldn't put aside their personal differences. To this day they should be playing together, with at least twice as many championships as the three they shared with the Lakers.

But they understand better than anyone the mistakes they made. Look what happened after they broke up. Each instantly began to chase more championships, whether it was Shaquille O'Neal in Miami with Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant in L.A. with Pau Gasol or now Shaq in Cleveland with LeBron. After they were divorced and they came to their senses, each went back to the basics of trying to win.

Imagine the triangle of emotions if Kobe should arrive at the NBA Finals to defend his championship against former partner Shaq and newfound rival LeBron. As much as the marketeers will be spewing millions of dollars out of that showdown, their work will be of secondary importance in relation to the all-out battles on the court.

Michael Jordan told the truth. When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Jordan gave an edgy speech that came off as petty and vindictive. As much as I respect that view, my perspective was that he was finally being honest.

Throughout his career Jordan profited as the NBA, corporations and even Hollywood reinvented his character so it could be sold to the public. He was cast as a kind of athletic superhero, an inoffensive gentleman who could be seen as all things to all people. When he entered the Hall of Fame he finally let people know what he was all about, and to me it was refreshing to see him reading from his own script as opposed to one written for him.

The truth that drove him to his six championships against bigger and stronger rivals is that he carried grudges, invented enemies and took great joy in punishing his victims. All of the great winners have those qualities to some extent. Kobe has been criticized for his ruthlessness over the years, but that's in part because he hasn't been as adept at hiding that ruthlessness as his peers.

Eventually Magic and Isiah may resolve their issues and have a heart-to-heart conversation as the friends they once were. Maybe their differences can't be fixed. But if they trace their breakdown all the way back, they'll probably realize that all of their problems began because they both wanted the same thing: To win a game.

Do you think LeBron James will be the Defensive Player of the Year? Looking at his game [on opening night against the Celtics] and how he can take away baskets with his shot-blocking, it's hard to say anyone else makes a bigger impact. -- Max, New York

While it's a no-brainer to go with LeBron as league MVP for the second straight year, it's going to be difficult for him to win the defensive award this season. First of all he must displace Dwight Howard, who dominated statistically in defensive rebounds (9.6 per game last year, second only to Troy Murphy) and blocked shots (a league-best 2.9). Kevin Garnett will also be in the running provided he is healthy all year long.

Michael Jordan won the defensive player award one time, in 1987-88, when he led the league with 3.2 steals per game and his Bulls were No. 1 in scoring defense overall. James isn't likely to lead the league in steals, and it is an overrated stat anyway -- a lot of the steals leaders are actually unreliable teammates who gamble too often on defense.

But if the Cavs should win the championship with LeBron making big defensive plays along the way, that could vault him into position to be recognized as the league's most important defensive player the following season.

The Mavs didn't look good opening night against a Wizards team minus Antawn Jamison. Do they have the pieces to realistically compete with the Spurs and Lakers? -- George, Austin, Texas

I don't think so. The Lakers and Spurs have as much firepower offensively, and both teams are better up front than Dallas. It's not impossible -- Orlando made the NBA Finals last year after Garnett was injured -- but something will have to go wrong for the Lakers and the Spurs to make room for Dallas at the top of the West.

You mentioned in one of your previews that Cleveland coach Mike Brown has to deliver a title this year. He seems to be ripped by the media for his unimaginative offense, but you said he is pretty sharp. Do his players respect him? What makes him so special? -- Gabe, Dayton, Ohio

His players defend for him, therefore they respect him. But most NBA coaches (except for the likes of Jerry Sloan) are going to be faced with questions of whether their players "respect" them until they win a championship. The perception of Doc Rivers changed drastically after his Celtics won the championship two years ago. People listen to him now as if he's Aristotle; but if he hadn't won the 2007-08 championship, then he would have been up against the same kind of win-or-else pressure Brown is facing.

There are four active coaches with championship rings: Rivers, Larry Brown, Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson. Players accept Jackson's instruction as a matter of faith because he has won 10 championships and therefore knows what he's talking about it. Most of the league's ringless coaches, including proven winners such as Stan Van Gundy and Flip Saunders, are going to be second-guessed until they win a Finals. They know it and accept it.

• There were a lot of responses to Denver vice presient Mark Warkentien's proposal to introduce a mini-tournament for the No. 8 playoff spot.

What about a slight tweak: Non-playoff teams play a single-elimination tournament for the rights to the top pick? Take all of them and seed them according to record. This tournament could go on at the same time as the other one; you wouldn't have to extend the season. And there's no longer any incentive to have the worst record; in fact, you'd want the best record possible in order to have home court advantage in the loser's tournament. I think it could work. -- Rob Mussig, Los Angeles

I don't think so. In one of those years when an elite talent is available as the No. 1 pick (equivalent to LeBron or Tim Duncan), the No. 8 playoff team will go in the tank in order to qualify for your postseason tournament -- then score the No. 1 pick by beating up the weaklings. Every team in the league would happily sacrifice the No. 8 spot in the playoffs in order to draft LeBron or Duncan.

I don't understand how this proposal would prevent teams from tanking? If the No. 15 team makes the playoffs with the worst record, it still receives the best chance at the No. 1 pick in the lottery. Making the playoffs in no way discourages a team from finishing with the worst record. -- Jason Kaplan, New Windsor, N.Y.

I agree that teams would still be liable to tank the last month of the season (even though the lottery doesn't necessarily reward that behavior). But at least the worst teams and their fans would have something to anticipate over the otherwise dreary closing weeks of an otherwise lost season.

There is no brilliant way to lift the cynicism that hovers over teams while they try to improve their position in the lottery. Would this proposal improve the current state of things incrementally? At least some people in the league think it's worthy of discussion.

With Warkentien's plan, what's to stop a team like the Lakers tanking the season, finish 15th, win the mini-tournament, make the playoffs and get the best chance to land the No. 1 overall pick? -- Dustin, Red Deer, Alberta, Canada

I'm pretty sure Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and Jerry Buss would stop the Lakers from doing that.

• An Eastern scout on how teams will take fewer risks in their coaching hires: "The day of the disposable coach is almost at an end now. You're going to see these owners leaning back toward experienced guys, so maybe they go for more of a coach's coach than a player's coach. I think the move in Detroit from Michael Curry to John Kuester is evidence of that. So was the thinking in Minnesota, to choose Kurt Rambis over Bill Laimbeer, who has never coached in the NBA. You saw Sacramento take a chance on a guy like Reggie Theus -- that didn't work. Get on the bench, put in your time, be at practice, learn how to do a game plan, form a philosophy before you're handed the keys ... That's what teams are going to be looking for now that they don't have as much money to spend."

• A Western scout on why he watches the warmups: "It's a good chance to see the young big guys who maybe don't play a lot during the game. I'll look at them in pregame during the drills and see what kind of touch they have, how they move and also can they catch it? Can they run and can they catch the freaking ball when it's passed? If they can do those simple things, then they can be big guys in the league. If not, then they're non-factors. When I see a team that has a lot of young big guys, you can tell that team probably is hoping that one of the three has something that can allow them to play someday. That's why you see big guys come out early in the draft, because they want to get drafted before people can figure out who they really are."

• A Western scout on Al Jefferson: "He has that old-fashioned game in the low post, and why that has gone away so much from the game today I don't know. But somewhere down the road somebody taught him some post moves and then he refined them. It's a feel thing when you're operating in the post -- I did this to him last time, now I'm going to set him up with the countermove; or, he's cutting me off in the middle, so now I have to go to the baseline.

"A lot of times you don't see college players developing their post moves because they're facing zones in college, and it's hard to get the ball into them. Sometimes we'll get big guys in for pre-draft workouts and it turns out they've got more skill in the post than what they showed in college, and the reason they didn't have the chance to do it was because it was so crowded in there. But at the same time, I don't see why more players wouldn't want to put in the time to emulate the things Jefferson does."

The 35-year-old new Spur spoke to me in the preseason.

• After missing 194 games because of knee injuries over three seasons (2001-04), does your body feel younger?

"People ask me that all the time. The answer is I really don't. I didn't play basketball, I didn't run up and down the court. But mentally, that physical therapy all day for two or three years was a strain for my body, honestly. I was working hard. Personally I don't feel any younger. But I do feel I got a lot more in my tank to help this team out, to win a championship.''

What did your new partner in the frontcourt, Tim Duncan, say to you when you came to San Antonio?

"He made it perfectly clear to me he wasn't playing center. He said, 'You know I'm still the 4.' " I said, 'I can't argue with you.' I'll play center, I'll play 4, it don't matter to me. I think he just likes the title [of power forward].

"He's so humble, like you won't even think Tim Duncan's got four championships, because he'll treat everyone the same and he'll expect everyone to be treated the same. I would think Tim Duncan is like, 'Hey, this is my team,' and have an ego that way. But he doesn't."

A resolution must be achieved. During its preseason visit to the U.S. the Greek club Olympiakos was greeted with speculation that it might be garnished of its uniforms, plane tickets and other properties before it played exhibition games against the Spurs and Cavaliers. The goodwill trip turned into a fiasco.

There may be more to come. U.S. Rep. Peter King has drawn in the NBA by asking commissioner David Stern how he can be involved with a club that owes money to American players. Boston-based agent Tom McLaughlin and former player Chris Morris have won U.S. court judgments by default against Olympiakos worth $1.4 million that the club has yet to pay. Over the years there have been many stories of other American players who claimed they were owed money in unpaid salaries from clubs in Europe.

It is understandable that Olympiakos president Panagiotis Angelopoulos believes he is being held unfairly accountable for the sins of a previous owner. He has big dreams of growing his club by outbidding the NBA for players like Josh Childress and Linas Kleiza, but now he is being held down by an issue in which he was not personally involved.

Stern also must be wondering what this has to do with him, because his owners -- to their fiscal detriment -- pay NBA players in full whether they're worthy of the salary or not. Then there is the Euroleague, which may be threatened with garnishment of its payments to Olympiakos even though in recent years it has raised the standards of its 24 clubs -- including Olympiakos -- with the result of far fewer allegations of unpaid contracts.

But none of this changes the bottom line: McLaughlin and Morris currently have a default judgment that permits them to collect their money. Not only does McLaughlin insist he will keep working to collect it, but that he'll also counsel more former players who say they are owed money by other European clubs as well.

So other European clubs may yet face similar claims. Sooner or later, European basketball and the NBA will have to deal with the issue of the former players' contracts. Otherwise it will limit their ability to grow the game together.

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