Posted: Tuesday August 4, 2009 1:33PM; Updated: Tuesday August 4, 2009 5:29PM
Barry’s underhanded "granny shot" was unorthodox but unfailingly accurate.
Walter Iooss Jr.
25 Things We Miss In Basketball
1. Al McGuire
McGuire was not a color man, he was a poet. He took a televised basketball game and turned it into performance art. Big centers were “aircraft carriers.” A flashy, unnecessary move was “French pastry.” Traveling resulted from the insensitive (but innocently phrased) “Chinese steps.” You had to rely on “your seniors.” When a game was out of reach, it was “curtains,” and for the winners it was “seashells and balloons.” If you want to make the argument that every former coach or player dropped in front of a microphone tries to be a “personality” nowadays, you wouldn't be wrong, but in college basketball, every one of them owes a debt to McGuire. He did it first, and not to make his voice louder than the rest, but just because it was him. —Tim Layden
2. Great Team Nicknames
All you have to do is say the names, and they’ll evoke classic memories in an instant. Phi Slamma Jamma. The Doctors of Dunk. The Fiddlin’ Five. Houston, Louisville, Kentucky. Just as the nicknames of players have devolved into mindless initials, fun team nicknames have disappeared altogether. And so, too, have the types of legendary characters who made those teams (and college hoops in general) such a blast. I’m thinking of Benny Anders, the court jester of Phi Slamma Jamma, who thought nothing of wearing a frilled tuxedo around town at the 1984 Final Four in Seattle. If Benny were around these days, his nickname would be “B.A.,” his Jheri curls would be nonexistent and Phi Slamma Jamma would simply be called the Houston Cougars. —Grant Wahl
3. Connecticut vs. Tennessee
You circled it in red every January, sometimes in February, too: Connecticut vs. Tennessee. Blue vs. Orange, North vs. South, Geno Auriemma’s Philly brashness vs. Pat Summitt’s southern propriety. For 13 glorious seasons from 1995 and 2007, the two titans of women’s basketball supplemented their frequent NCAA tournament encounters with regular-season showdowns. A No. 1 ranking was often on the line, and the teams’ fans were always in a froth. It was like a Hatfield and McCoy annual picnic, something you didn’t want to miss.
There was great basketball, of course, and provocative moments. At the 1999 game in Storrs, Conn., Lady Vol Semeka Randall’s foot got a bit too close to beloved Husky Svetlana Abrosimova’s head in a scuffle for the ball. Huskies fans went ballistic, and Randall’s nickname became “Boo." In 2002, Connecticut’s Diana Taurasi punched a basket stanchion in Tennessee's Thomson-Boling Arena because she wanted to hit “something orange” while dropping 32 points in an 86-72 victory. It all made for great theater, and TV was always there to share it, broadcasting each of the 15 regular-season showdowns, which consistently brought in the highest ratings -- for men's or women's games -- of the season.Then, suddenly, it was over. In the spring of 2007, Summitt ended the series without publicly explaining why. The two teams, which have met seven times in the NCAA tournament -- once in a regional final, twice in the national semifinals and four times in the championship game -- haven’t played each other since. It’ll happen again, most likely, but unfortunately for fans and players, there’s no telling when. —Kelli Anderson
I miss hearing the squeaking of sneakers like metal blades clashing in a swordfight. I miss hearing the complaining of coaches from the sideline and the shouting between defenders that signifies their commitment. I miss being able to listen.
I miss being able to discuss with the person next to me what we've just seen, and I especially miss hearing what the strangers nearby have to say. I miss the not-so-long-ago nights when the audience took responsibility for inspiring the home team, when fans from all corners of the arena took it upon themselves to chant "dee-fense" or "Let's go (nickname)" when they sensed their players needed a lift. Now they sit waiting for a video of Mel Gibson on the battlefield or Gene Hackman telling his players they're all winners.
Today each franchise controls its audience via the Jumbotron, the deafening network of speakers, and the fireworks and explosions that always leave me glancing around to see if anyone noticed me jumping out of my chair. I understand the noise. It has been designed to create a larger, louder entertainment, and it has succeeded in recruiting bigger crowds. But it has also obscured the experience of those who would attend NBA games even if the halftime show consisted of rolling a cart of basketballs out to midcourt while an organist played softly from the rafters, as it was during the Larry Bird era at the old Boston Garden.NBA games are loud to create an impression of something constantly happening. The same games used to be loud enough when something actually happened. I miss the real noise. —Ian Thomsen
5. The Set Shot
Just as time once passed football’s dropkick by, so it has relegated the set shot in men’s basketball to grainy black-and-white films and Hoosiers. In the game’s first six decades, before the advent of the jumper, the feet-on-the-hardwood set shot was the reliable way to score from outside. (And of course it’s still the second shot most of us learn after the layup.) Watch films of the early days of the NBA and you’ll see set shots being hurled like howitzers by the likes of Dolph Schayes (using an overhead one-hander), Larry Costello (the from-the-chest two-hander) and Bob Cousy, who often kicked his front foot as he launched. Like the rainbows their arcs resembled, they were gloriously gorgeous. Larry Bird resurrected the genre, sort of, with his overhead two-hander, though he violated the textbook definition with his little hop upon release. It usually went in, so who were we to quibble?
We can’t really encourage today’s shooters to work overtime practicing the set shot, for one reason: It demands open space of the kind you seldom see nowadays. As such, it’s highly blockable if a defender is even semi-close. However, the set shot conveys one huge advantage over the jump shot: You never leave your feet, so you’re free to make another move. The defender must honor that. In the old days, set-shot specialists like Bill Sharman were whizzes at faking defenders out of their Chuck Taylors.Someday, a history-savvy coach will decide that his or her best shooters could add, say, five feet to their range if they pushed off from the floor when they shot. After all, has there ever been a better weapon for puncturing a zone? Maybe, for those long bombs or Hail Mary buzzer-beaters, we should bring back some of the old masters. Hey, you think at age 81 the Cooz could come off the bench and give us 10 good seconds a game? —Dick Friedman
6. Cheryl Miller
There is a fine line between star player and entertainer, an even finer one between entertainer and hot dog. SI’s Phil Taylor wrote that of Cheryl Miller in 1991, and walk that line Miller did with panache. She played with flair and showmanship, hurdling tables and blowing kisses at opponents after scoring. And, man, could she score. As a senior at Riverside's Poly High she set a California state record with a 105-point game (including 41 in the fourth quarter). Then came one of the storied college careers in women’s basketball. At USC Miller was a four-time All-America, three-time Naismith Award winner, two-time national champion and a member of the 1984 gold medal-winning Olympic team. At 6'3" she played with abandon and dexterity never before seen of a woman her size. Yes, there were pioneers before her -- Nera White, Lucy Harris, Ann Meyer, Nancy Lieberman and Lynette Woodard, to name a few -- but Miller’s stardom collided with Title IX and the growth of the feminist movement. She had style (man, could she talk) and substance, but without a full-time professional league -- and with balky knees -- we never saw her excel as a pro. That’s a shame. Had Miller been born 20 years later, she’d be the face of the WNBA. —Richard Deitsch
7. The Jordan-Bird H-O-R-S-E commercials
So let’s get this straight -- Michael Jordan and Larry Bird sit in an empty gym, with nothing but a basketball and a Big Mac. A little smack talk ensues, and suddenly two of the game’s all-time greats are matching each other on shot after impossible shot, bouncing the ball off the scoreboard and tossing it from the rafters, shooting through windows and over rivers, watching each time as the ball falls perfectly through the net. And we’re supposed to believe they were acting? Doubtful. The ad was enchanting because it seemed so possible that it was real, that it was just a glimpse into a burger-fueled battle of one-upmanship that only exists among basketball deities. At the beginning, Larry set the ground rules: Winner gets the Big Mac. Game ends as soon as someone misses. But the last shot cut out with the sound of yet another swoosh. For all we know, they could still be dueling today. —Jordan Conn
8. Len Bias
Picture Michael Jordan, plus two more inches. Think of Dominique Wilkins, but stronger. Imagine LeBron James, only with a better jump shot.
That was Len Bias, the Maryland forward from 1982-86 who was twice voted ACC player of the year. At 6'8", 225 pounds, Bias had the wide shoulders, chiseled frame and mad hops that could only have been assembled in Hoop Heaven. He had the power to rebound and finish around the rim, yet his outside touch was so good that he led the ACC in free throw shooting as a senior. When Bias, who grew up in Landover, just a few miles from Maryland’s campus, was in college, I was a teenager living in the state, and he was the cupid who shot the college basketball arrow through my heart. I will never forget watching him score 35 points his senior year in an overtime win at North Carolina, handing the Tar Heels their first loss at the Dean E. Smith Center. During one sequence in the second half, Bias dropped in a silky jumper from the right wing and then, in one quick motion, stole the inbounds pass and reverse-dunked with both hands. It was the stuff of immortality.Only, it turned out Bias wasn’t immortal. On June 19, 1986, just two days after the Celtics selected him with the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, Bias collapsed in a dorm room and was later pronounced dead at a local hospital. The cause: cocaine overdose. It was hard to figure out what was more shocking, the fact that he died or the reason he did. Either way, I miss him. I miss his fallaway jumpers with two defenders hanging all over him. I miss his two-handed dunks in traffic. I miss the way his eyes glinted as he trotted back on defense. I miss the pro career he never had. Most of all, I miss the innocence I felt watching him play. He was the hometown hero who made me fall in love with college basketball, and I was certain he could do no wrong. I miss believing he was invincible. —Seth Davis
9. The Dream Team
Herlander Coimbra, a lonely nation turns its eyes to you. You remember Herlander, don't you? It was Barcelona, the summer of 1992, when the hapless forward/economics student from Angola met the elbow of Charles Barkley underneath the basket. "That kind of stuff just isn't good for us imagewise," John Stockton would say of Sir Charles' flagrant foul. But here’s the thing: No one much cared. It was just America, well, being America. "I heard this Barkley supposed to be bad guy," SI's Jack McCallum described one Spanish teen saying in broken English, Barkley's autograph in hand. "I think he is nice guy." And besides, as far as image goes, doesn't it just depend on what kind of reputation you want?For those who miss the Dream Team, that Olympic elbow -- even more than the ludicrous 46-to-1 U.S. run which started that game -- is the ultimate symbol of old-time (read: 1990s) American domination. You know, when Team USA trounced opponents 116-48. When the phrase "too big to fail" made sense, both in basketball and banking. When one could elbow the skinniest person on the Angolan national team and then reconcile by signing autographs for his teammates. Sure, the so-called Redeem Team made up for recent failures (Greece?!?) by winning the 2008 Olympics. But it was no Dream Team, not even close, and it really isn't LeBron and Co.'s fault. There are just fewer Herlander Coimbras out there these days. Fewer still care for our signature. —Pablo S. Torre
10. The SEC in the '80s
Never has a college conference enjoyed a richer and more ribald ride than the SEC’s during the 1980s. The league was great in part because it played second fiddle to football. (The ABA developed its mojo in a similar fashion, playing the smoky backrooms, where the connoisseurs glommed on to it before the masses.)
The SEC featured not just first-tier nicknames hung on first-rate talents like Charles (Round Mound of Rebound) Barkley and Dominique (Human Highlight Film) Wilkins, but also second-stringers: Eugene (The Dunking Machine) McDowell and (Dinner Bell) Mel Turpin. It had a student section, Tennessee’s, puckish enough to arrange to have Domino’s deliver a pizza to Barkley. Pre-game. In the Auburn layup line.
The coaches at Alabama and Auburn never got the memo that they were supposed to hate each other. Instead Wimp Sanderson and Sonny Smith delivered laughs times two, forging and flaunting a friendship so enduring that in retirement they’d co-host a Birmingham radio show.
One year LSU coach Dale Brown, whom one wag likened to “AM radio on search” for his random invocations (Imelda Marcos, Medjugorje, gandy-dancers on the railroad) and declarations (“I am a molecule”), pledged to go sleepless for 72 hours of the SEC tournament, then called sportswriters every few hours to prove that he was keeping his vow.
Speaking of sportswriters, the men (and they were virtually all good ol’ boys) along press row knew exactly how exquisite all that material was. Before he left for a similar perch in Atlanta, Lexington columnist Mark Bradley memorably dug out from the media guide the middle name of LSU’s Nikita Wilson (Francisco) and declared him “a trilateral summit conference.”
The SEC may have been the cheatingest of conferences, but the league’s bagman assistants came with enough color, and their scandals and near scandals delivered enough entertainment value, so as to compensate. Sometimes the unmarked bills disappeared from the trunk of the car of an LSU assistant, who had to report the theft. Sometimes they spilled incriminatingly out of an overnight envelope from the Kentucky basketball office.Either way the fans, like the recruiters, always got their money’s worth. —Alexander Wolff
11. The Fab Five
It was the recruiting class to end all recruiting classes, with four players ranked among the nation's top 10. Michigan's Fab Five -- Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson -- will always be remembered when the history of college hoops is written. They had attitude, a catchy nickname, a shadowy recruitment that ultimately came to light, black socks, baggy shorts and oodles and oodles of talent.
Joining a Michigan team that had finished eighth in the Big Ten the previous season, the new Wolverines introduced themselves to the nation in 1991 by playing defending national champion Duke to overtime just five games into their college careers. Duke featured Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill, and Michigan's precocious freshmen would find themselves matched up against that regal Blue Devil team again in the national championship four months later. "We don't respect anyone," the outspoken Webber said before the game. Duke won 71-51, but the stage was set for the Wolverines to dominate as sophomores.After a 26-4 regular season, analyst Bill Walton labeled Michigan “underachievers,” and the properly inspired Wolverines reached the title game again, only to lose to North Carolina when Webber called a timeout Michigan didn't have down by two points with 11 seconds left. It was the last game the Fab Five would play together, an unforgettable end for a trash-talking, rim-hanging, tongue-wagging group that ultimately exited with, of all things, sympathy. —Bill Trocchi
12. The Houston Comets
When the WNBA debuted in 1997, the Comets -- featuring Olympic stars Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson -- were one of its eight flagship franchises. Led by longtime Ole Miss coach Van Chancellor, Houston became the league's inaugural powerhouse, winning its first four titles and embodying the optimism the WNBA's founders and its fans felt about the chances that women's pro basketball would succeed and thrive.
The Comets immediately became a big draw -- when they beat the New York Liberty in the first WNBA championship game, they did so in front of a crowd of more than 16,000 fans at The Summitt. The following season they roared back from a one-game deficit to beat Phoenix in a three-game championship series and celebrated their second title with a sea of fiercely loyal fans nicknamed “The Red Wave.”But after the last title in 2000, and with Cooper retired and Swoopes injured, the Comets' success waned, as did their financial backing. Team owner Leslie Alexander put the franchise up for sale in 2006, and Chancellor resigned later that offseason. The new ownership moved the team to a smaller, less-accessible arena and attendance dropped. All signs -- including the mix of the veteran Thompson and an influx of new, young talent -- pointed toward a turnaround, but the team was disbanded at the end of 2008 because the league was unable to find a new owner in a sluggish economy. The WNBA may be bigger, with 13 teams, than it was in the Comets' heyday. But it's poorer for their absence. —Nina Mandell
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