Ian Thomsen: Life's a pain around the NBA - Sports Illustrated

Weekly Countdown: Life's a pain around NBA -- even for mascots

Publish date:

5. NBA All-Injured Teams. To qualify, players must be expected to miss at least two weeks this season. Note the array of talent that has been sidelined already.

First Team

G Tony Parker, Spurs: sprained ankle, out 2-4 weeksG Gilbert Arenas, Wizards: knee surgery, hopes to return in DecemberG Manu Ginobili, Spurs: ankle surgery, expected to return in DecemberF Josh Smith, Hawks: sprained ankle, out 2-4 weeksC Greg Oden, Blazers: sprained foot, missed six games

Second Team

G Deron Williams, Jazz: sprained ankle, missed first six gamesG Monta Ellis, Warriors: ankle surgery, out at least 30 gamesG Mike Dunleavy,Pacers: knee injury, out indefinitelyF Shane Battier, Rockets: swollen foot, out indefinitelyC Brendan Haywood, Wizards: wrist surgery, out 4-6 months

Third Team

G Kirk Hinrich, Bulls: thumb surgery, out three monthsG Larry Hughes, Bulls: dislocated shoulder, missed first eight games F Al Harrington, Warriors: back spasms, out two weeksF Matt Harpring, Jazz: ankle surgery, missed first seven gamesC Eddy Curry, Knicks: overweight, out indefinitely

4. The strangest injury of all time. I asked Celtics president Danny Ainge if the league had suffered an unusual number of injuries early this season.

"I don't think it's that uncommon,'' he said. "I look at the Tony Parker injury, I had that happen to me a bunch of times in my career. I came down on a foot and rolled that ankle. That's just bad luck.''

I reminded him that Red Auerbach used to say the era of oversized sneakers was responsible for many injuries.

"Yeah,'' Ainge said, "but I don't think that's it. I think some guys, just the way their bodies go, they are susceptible. Some guys don't get any sprains; some just land wrong. Tony's ankle just went, he hit it hard.''

Ainge was the victim of the weirdest injury that I can remember in the NBA. In a 1983 first-round playoff game with Atlanta, Ainge tried to tackle Tree Rollins. Ainge shrieked in pain from the ensuing tangled pile of bodies.

"We got into a little scuffle out on the court by the foul line and he almost bit my finger off,'' Ainge said. "He bit it all the way through. I had to get two stitches.''

He raised his right hand to reveal the scar on his middle finger.

"Usually, you don't put stitches on a human bite,'' he said. "But just to keep everything in there together, they had to put a couple of stitches in there.''

Did he realize that someone was biting him?

"Oh, yeah, I knew it was happening,'' he said. "Oh, yeah.''

The next day, the Boston Herald published one of the great headlines: "Tree Bites Man.''

3. The costs of being injured. Arenas signed a six-year, $111 million contract with the Wizards last summer. He is being paid approximately $180,000 per game this season. Therefore, the Wizards are out $1 million in lost pay already, though it's important to remember that their re-signing of Arenas persuaded many ticket buyers to invest in the team.

The billions of dollars paid in player salaries has changed the way the games are being played, and you can see it in all sports. In the NFL, they keep adding rules to protect the quarterbacks. In baseball, you don't see pitchers throwing inside nearly as often as Bob Gibson did, when he would frighten batters off the plate. The best NBA defenses used to beat up anyone who dared drive the ball to the basket, but that kind of vigilanteism is no longer tolerated. The players are too valuable to be exposed to unnecessary risk, especially when TV ratings depend on the abilities of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant to elevate above the rim.

"It used to be that players didn't necessarily like the guys on the other team,'' said a longtime NBA executive, who asked to remain anonymous. "Now you see them after the game, no matter what happens, they're all hugging each other. At times, I wonder if it's a collusion -- you don't play too hard, I don't play too hard, and nobody gets hurt. What happened to the day when you were supposed to hate your opponent, you wanted to knock his lights out and you didn't dare be his friend? Maybe we're a more educated and civilized society for doing what we do today. But I miss the intensity, especially when I see these guys hugging each other and saying, 'I love you, man,' and 'Call me! Call me!'

"I think it started with Isiah [Thomas] and Magic [Johnson] when they would kiss each other [before each game of the 1988 NBA Finals]. The superstars are attracted to the other superstars. If they went to college together, that's one thing; that makes perfect sense. But I miss the good old days, and I hate to say it: I miss it when guys wanted to take out the other guy.''

The last infamous "taking out'' happened during the 1984 Finals when Kevin McHale destroyed Kurt Rambis on a breakaway. Each was among the nicest, most outgoing players in the league, but McHale was a Celtic and Rambis was a Laker.

"McHale took him out, and it changed the whole series,'' the executive recalled. "I bet if you were to ask Rambis today, he would still be upset about it.''

Those were the days.

2. The unseen injuries. On Wednesday in Toronto, The Raptor mascot was trying to dunk when his feet slipped through the springs. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported that he limped off the court and didn't return.

"An ankle sprain,'' Raptors media relations director Jim LaBumbard informed me. "Listed as day-to-day.''

I asked The Raptor to detail his injuries over the years.

"It's a long list,'' he said during a rare telephone interview Thursday. "A fractured tailbone. Cuts, scrapes and bruises, twisted ankles. I have one vertebrae that got twisted so I was getting pinched nerves in my back and neck. A few times I've dislocated a finger and popped it back in. I tore a hamstring trying to dunk over three ball racks stacked on top of each other. I had a concussion doing a backflip off something and hit a stanchion, or something, and ended up falling on my face, so when I got up I was like, 'Oh, I don't know where I am,' and they ended up escorting me out. I was in the old Skydome doing a dunk and I landed on top of the ball, I rolled my ankle on top of it. That's no fun. I came back the next game in a wheelchair with a sign that said, 'Say No To Trampoline Dunks.' "

The Raptor agreed to speak with me on condition that I not reveal his true identity. In that sense, it was like talking to Spider-Man. He has been The Raptor throughout the 14-year history of the franchise. Maybe you've seen him: He is bright red with an oversized head, sharp teeth and limited eyesight, mainly because he sees through his mouth.

"When I'm running around in that thing, it's like a sauna,'' he said of his outer skin. "You're breathing the same air inside of your head. Each night I'll sweat anywhere from six to nine pounds in water. I'll take my shirt off during timeouts and literally wring out the sweat.''

I first met The Raptor a few years ago at the Air Canada Centre. He came walking into the press room in the first quarter. When he took off his head, I felt like Dorothy looking behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. I don't know what I was expecting to see, but he wasn't it. My innocence was gone, and I have never viewed mascots the same way again. Not even the San Diego Chicken.

"I'm 35,'' he admitted. Before he was The Raptor, he was toiling in the Canadian football and basketball leagues. "This is my 20th season of doing mascoting,'' he said. "Every parent wishes their kids will grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. Mine got a puppet.''

The speckled red tail and monocular eyes belie a discipline to his craft. He missed but one game after suffering the broken tailbone.

"I was tobogganing down the stairs and lost the positioning on the toboggan.'' After the collision, he said, "I got up on my own and my spine was completely tingling. I was like, 'Oh, my God, this hurts,' and I got up and walked away. There was a slight little fracture in the tailbone. I didn't dunk for the rest of the year, but I was back into doing some sort of running handstand maneuvers in a couple of weeks.''

I asked him what was the anticipated life expectancy of a Raptor.

"I get asked that all the time,'' he said. "The answer is as long as I can, because I love doing it. It's as fun a job as you can get in many different ways. You perform in games but also go out in the community and work with special-needs kids in different situations, such as going to hospitals for sick kids and bringing that element to them. I can tell you, there are times you're glad you're wearing a costume while you're seeing these kids in their situations. Because the whole time you're thinking, I've got problems?''

1. The worst victims. The Wizards are 1-6 without their starting point guard and center, which are traditionally the two most important positions in basketball. Haywood is expected to miss most or all of the season after undergoing preseason wrist surgery. Arenas' comeback from last year's microfracture surgery is an ongoing dilemma. But they still have two All-Stars in Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, who should be able to keep the Wizards close to .500 until Arenas returns.

The Spurs are 2-5 and rank an alarming 22nd in defensive field-goal percentage (45.6). But even if they're 10 games under .500 when Ginobili joins Parker back on the court next month, the Spurs are still going to make the playoffs. Health permitting, of course.

4. Yes, the Pistons will get better. And yes, Allen Iverson is a very impressive player. But it doesn't matter. The Pistons are worse defensively (without a doubt), they've lost their chemistry, he doesn't want to play point guard, they're way too old, and of course there's a very good chance that they will turn on their third coach in a row. But none of this matters. We're talking about the Pistons as though they're a factor. They aren't. Joe Dumars is thinking about the future and maybe taking a mad stab at becoming a contemporary contender, but it won't work.-- Nick, Seattle

In most cases, you represent the majority opinion (though they definitely aren't too old -- wings Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince are in their prime years, and most of the role players are young). The Iverson trade is a good gamble to take because the cap space can instantly bail out the Pistons this summer. But this is one of those moves that defies instant judgment. It's easy to say that Hamilton will languish while Iverson dribbles out the shot clock. But maybe Iverson will surprise us. He's an ambitious guy, and maybe he will adapt.

3. Is there a possibility that another franchise will relocate after what happened to the Sonics? My guess is Memphis.-- Sanjeev, Perth, Australia

My guess is the Nets, who have been trying to move to Brooklyn. If that falls through as many believe it will, then it will be no surprise if they are sold and the team is moved to another market. The other vulnerable franchises include New Orleans, Memphis and Charlotte (which appear unlikely to break its leases), as well as Sacramento and Milwaukee (which can escape).

"The Nets aren't going to be moving to the Barclays Center, that's not happening,'' a rival NBA owner said of their proposed move to Brooklyn. "And they're losing money.''

2. Regarding the Grant Hill section from last Friday's column: When are people going to realize that the vast majority of people couldn't care less about the political leanings of athletes? Their opinions are worth the same as anybody else's, no more, no less. Each player is certainly entitled to be vocal about his politics, but why should we care?-- Geoff, Rochester, N.Y.

I agree in general, but in this case Hill had an informed perspective on a highly visible constituency -- a few hundred rich African-Americans. What I find interesting is the premise that most NBA players were raised as Democrats, switched to the Republican side for tax purposes, and have gone back to the Democrats now that Barack Obama has come along.

Basketball will be the sport of the White House over the next four years, much as baseball was the pastime of the Bush administration. The next NBA champion may be invited to shoot hoops with President Obama on the new basketball court he has promised to build.

1. How does Derrick Rose compare with Steve Francis before the latter got nipped by the injury bug? They are about the same height and size and both are great finishers and penetrators.-- Ming, Singapore

I asked an NBA scout for his analysis: "I would have never put those two together. Francis was a massive scorer who had to learn how to play with other people, but I don't see Rose like that. Rose can put up points and score in transition. But he's a point guard. I never thought of Francis as a point guard. His mind-set always has been that he knows how to score, and he's trying to get himself open.

"For sure, Rose can get to the rim. But with most guys in the league, you see early in their career that they're going to the rim a lot, and as the years go by they're doing it less and less and less. They take a lot of pounding going inside, they become better shooters, and they worry about their longevity in the league. [Tracy] McGrady and Vince Carter are guys who rarely take the ball to the rim like they used to.''

3. Chris Bosh keeps improving. Bosh reports none of the usual fatigue from playing for the Olympic gold medal last summer. His scoring (24.1 ppg), shooting (52.6 percent) and rebounding (10.4) are all up.

"If anything, it helped me,'' Bosh said of his summer with USA Basketball. "You put some of the best players in the NBA on the same team, so when we started practicing it became like a competition. Who can be the best basketball player, the best defender, the best scorer -- unspoken things that guys try to compete over. We didn't take any days off. We tried to guard hard every single time we stepped out on the floor, whether it was a game or practice. We showed great concentration, but at the same time it was fun.''

Said Raptors coach Sam Mitchell: "Someone reminded me the other night that Chris is still only 24 years old. He's been around a while, but he's still a very young player. He has a chance to be something special. I tell him this all the time: He can be an All-Star, OK. But there's another level he can get to. And I think he's trying to get to another level.''

Bosh should continue to develop a more complementary relationship with Jermaine O'Neal, who is averaging 13.1 points and 7.5 rebounds as he recovers from two years of injuries while fitting himself in.

"It was a little tough at first trying to get used to him,'' Bosh said. "We need to get him the ball inside, and I wasn't really used to playing with a guy who can do well in the post like that.

"But as time has gone on, we've gotten more time together, and I see his tendencies. I know the different spots to be at when he has the ball, so I can make more space for him. And I see what he does when I have the ball, so it's working out pretty well.''

2.Jose Calderon may be the best point guard in the East. He leads the conference at 9.0 assists and is No. 1 among NBA starters in assist-to-turnover ratio (5.1 to 1).

"He's a scoring point guard who can really get people the ball,'' O'Neal said. "He's not a real big break-the-defense-down type of point guard.''

Calderon drew the attention of Kevin Garnett, who guarded him in the third quarter as the Celtics were coming back Monday from a 15-point deficit against the Raptors. Garnett waved a finger in his face while picking up the defense full-court, but Calderon yelled right back at him. The officials did Toronto a favor by declining to interrupt the exchange by whistling Garnett for taunting: It was a defining moment for the Spanish guard.

The crucial improvement for Calderon has been his three-point shooting; he made 16.3 percent as a rookie in 2005-06, but this year he's hitting better than 40 percent just as he did last season.

"The first year was bad, terrible,'' he said. "Coach was really hard on me every time, and I don't know, I thought about getting back to Europe because maybe it wasn't my time to be here. But I worked hard during that summer, and everything paid off, and I'm feeling happy to make the decision to stay in this league.''

After sharing the position with T.J. Ford the past two seasons, Calderon suddenly needs backup help. He's averaging 36.3 minutes and appeared exhausted in the fourth quarter of the loss at Boston.

He's too busy to worry about making the All-Star team for the first time.

"I don't know what's going to happen in February,'' Calderon said. "Right now, I just try to make plays, make things happen for my team, and if the coaches and the people vote for you, that's perfect. But I don't feel upset if I don't go. It's not in my job to decide.''

1. Toronto has become a stable market. A decade ago, it was viewed as a fragile NBA environment, but that changed with the rise of Vince Carter, who drew national TV coverage in the States while introducing Canadians to the NBA. They remained plugged into the team during the fallow years before the emergence of Bosh and team president Bryan Colangelo, who was hired from the Suns in 2006.

American players don't complain nearly as much as they used to about playing in Canada, though financial concerns remain.

"What got them afraid was the tax situation of having to pay Canadian taxes and U.S. taxes,'' O'Neal said. "It's gotten better, but it's still there. That's why guys are still veering away from coming across the border to Toronto.''

O'Neal said he loves the city and its support of the Raptors.

"The diversity in the city has been amazing,'' he said. "It's basically like New York City, but a cleaner version. I'm pretty happy about being there.''

But ...

"I knew about the [tax] situation before the trade was made,'' said O'Neal, who declined to talk specific numbers. "We tried to make some things happen [to ease the burden]; it didn't happen. But sometimes you've got to take a couple of steps back in order to take five steps forward. I've made a lot of money in this league, and I just wanted to be somewhere where I had an opportunity of winning. Sometimes you've got to pay the price financially to get to where you want to be.''

2.From Kings coach Reggie Theus, who is in his second and final guaranteed year with Sacramento (the Kings can choose to exercise their option to retain him next season): "I've had other jobs. This is not the end-all for me. If I had to quit today, I could get another job. I've worked extremely hard for everything I've got, and I know from my experiences I can only control certain things. I believe that Geoff [Petrie, the GM] and the Maloofs [owners Joe and Gavin Maloof] are just looking for some stability, some consistency. I believe that if I do my job, I will be rewarded for it. And I don't mind working for it. It doesn't bother me one bit. I don't feel like a lame duck. My players don't treat me like that.

"Yeah, it's a negative tag, but listen, I had to go work for free to become a coach. I volunteered as an assistant at a Division II school [Cal State-Los Angeles] when I was starting to coach. I coached in the ABA, I coached AAU basketball, I was assistant coach at Louisville and then I was two years at New Mexico State [as head coach]. I don't mind working for my stuff.

"My job status does not define me. I'm the same guy I was last year, the same guy I was before I got this job. I try to create an element of truth in the locker room where I can look my guys in the face and tell them how I feel, and I accept when they look me in the eyes and tell me how they feel, which sometimes is not always good. I think I've earned the respect by doing it the hard way. My owners and Geoff, they have to know that I trust them, and that if I do my job it will be fine. And if I don't, we'll move on.''

1. From Hawks coach Mike Woodson, who survived as a lame duck last year to lead Atlanta to the playoffs; he received a two-year extension and the Hawks are 6-1 this season: "It is not an issue. I don't think any coach in this league goes into practice any day or to a game thinking about losing a job. That's you guys. That's the media that always puts the spin on guys because they don't win at a high level.

"I don't know what people expected when I took this team over. It was a young team. You had to grow with the team. I've been in this league 26 years, man, and I've never seen a young team win at a high level. It takes time, and people are just so impatient that it makes you sick sometimes. But it doesn't change my direction and how I feel as a coach because I know the dynamics of the sport. So I just try to stay the course. You can't get rattled. I'm not a guy who can easily be rattled, so when people talk about your job, it's them talking. I'm still going to continue to do my job as long as I'm under contract.''

1. Should he be allowed to return to the Pistons? McDyess is expected to re-sign with Detroit 30 days after the Pistons traded him to the Nuggets, who released him in a buyout of his contract. If so, we surely then will hear informed insinuations that McDyess's return was negotiated as part of the trade, as well as calls for the NBA to outlaw such shenanigans.

I couldn't disagree more. It's hard enough to make a trade in the NBA because (in most cases) the salaries exchanged must be of equal value. What happened between Detroit and Denver is not such a bad thing. The Nuggets met the necessary financial obligations of acquiring Chauncey Billups while saving more than $8 million on McDyess' contract; the Pistons got Iverson with a chance at retaining McDyess; and the league benefits from a trade that creates newfound interest in both teams.

A trade like this is good business, which is good for the NBA. Why would the league rewrite its rules to hurt its own bottom line?