Sentimental favorites in playoffs
Had Reggie Miller accepted the Celtics' offer to come out of retirement last fall at age 42, more than two years removed from his NBA playing days, he might be participating in these 2008 playoffs from the other side of the broadcast table, in the other half of the bracket. Arthritis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints and lumbago willing, of course.
Given Miller's Hall of Fame credentials and his 15 trips to the postseason, including a lone NBA Finals appearance in 2000, the thin man sitting next to Marv Albert these days on TNT's crew at the Western Conference championship round would be the prohibitive sentimental favorite to finally win a ring.
As it is, there are a number of candidates for that position. The most obvious ones are in Boston, where stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are laboring simply to play in what would be the first Finals for each of them. Backup big man P.J. Brown, 38, belongs on the list and so does coach Doc Rivers, who played in 81 playoff games and got to the conference finals with New York and San Antonio but, prior to this spring, had four one-and-done tastes in eight seasons on the bench.
The Pistons have Antonio McDyess as their postseason poster child, the only starter who wasn't around for the 2004 title and a one-time All-Star whose career nearly was torpedoed by three knee surgeries in two years. If you're an NBA fan still not old enough to legally buy a beer, you might not even remember the explosive, athletic power forward McDyess used to be. So coveted that three Suns teammates (Jason Kidd, Rex Chapman, George McCloud) parked in a limo outside Denver's McNichols Sports Arena, on a snowy night in January 1999, hoping for one last chance to discourage McDyess' free-agent leanings toward the Nuggets.
That all changed in training camp in 2001, when a cruel pattern of injuries and repairs gripped McDyess for the first time. By 2005, he had navigated -- nobly, by today's standards -- the unwelcome transition from franchise player to backup, and he was the (almost) feel-good story of that postseason, helping the Pistons all the way to Game 7 of the Finals against San Antonio. Three years later, he is at it again, notching 21 points and 16 rebounds in the Pistons' Game 4 victory against the Celtics on Monday.
Not all of the sentimental favorites left in these playoffs, though, are as evident as those guys. Here are five more participants for whom it is easy to root, as they chase that signature keepsake, the bauble they all can afford yet cannot simply buy. (We're not going to rank "deserving," so we'll just list these fave fives alphabetically.)
1. Ed Lacerte, Celtics: Yeah, yeah, yeah, Lacerte is an athletic trainer, one of sports' many shirttail hangers in the eyes of most fans. So there might not be a lot of warm-and-fuzzies headed his way as someone who deserves a ring. The native of Lowell, Mass., has a dream job and had the added thrill of being the trainer of the first Dream Team in 1992, that Olympic gold-medal-winning group featuring Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and the rest. But Lacerte was hired by the Celtics in August 1987, 14 months after their most recent championship. He's going on 21 ringless years now, something that was nearly impossible to do with a franchise that won 16 in the league's first 40 seasons.
2. Ira Newble, Lakers: Only San Antonio's Ime Udoka can challenge Newble for "most circuitous and unlikely route'' to a conference finalist team. From high school in Southfield, Mich., to Mississippi Gulf Coast J.C. to Miami of Ohio, from the Idaho Stampede and the Flint Fuze in the CBA to the Wisconsin Blast of the IBA, from the tease of training camp with the Spurs in 1999 to a year in Cyprus to a couple of 10-day contracts with the lowly Hawks in 2001-2002, Newble got to the Cavaliers a month after LeBron James in the summer of 2003. Good times? Sure, until he got shipped to Seattle in February as a piece in the Cavs' 11-player, three-team trade.
The Sonics valued him only as an expiring contract and cut Newble after just two games, giving him just enough time to beat the deadline for playoff pickups. But it took another 10-day contract before his spot with the Lakers was secure. He has played only one minute in this postseason, but surely cherished it. And since Newble, 33, is almost three years older than Udoka -- who has three college stops, an IBA stay, two European teams and a D-League stint on his résumé -- he gets the nod here.