Category Archives: basketball

Jim Boeheim’s values and college sport’s big bucks

Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim’s recent putdown of Greensboro, N.C., for having “no value” as a conference tournament site really was just the latest episode in college sports hypocrisy. Boeheim was reminding that his sport, on the Division I level, has nothing to do with proximity to campus life. Nothing to do with education. Nothing to do with the NCAA’s claim to be an amateur operation.

His typically prickly demeanor aside, Boeheim merely was verbalizing the state of affairs in his chosen racket. Just as conference realignments have severed schools’ geographical connections to chase bigger and better paydays, so do post-season tournaments increasingly gravitate toward the largest cities.

Because, as Willie Sutton supposedly said when asked why he robbed banks, “that’s where the money is.”

So the Atlantic Coast Conference, founded as a Carolina-centric league in the early 1950s, abandoned its traditional home in the burg that calls itself “Tournament Town” to play in New York’s Brooklyn borough this year. With Jim Boeheim’s hardy approval.

“Why do you think the Big Ten is coming to New York City?” Boeheim said of next year’s deal to bring that conference tournament from its Midwestern roots to Madison Square Garden. “It’s a good business decision. Everyone says this is all about business. The media centers, the recruiting centers, are Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and New York. How many players do their have in Greensboro?”

Boeheim, of course, is the crotchety fellow being paid roughly $2 million a year who has dismissed as “idiotic” any thought of sharing the wealth with college athletes. He is the guy who was suspended for nine games a year ago for failing to promote compliance of NCAA rules within his team for nearly a decade. He—and Syracuse basketball—are the embodiment of a gold-digging approach.

He noted that “Madison Square Garden made the Big East Conference” in the early 1980s, when Syracuse was a charter member of the league formed primarily to tap into the largest East Coast TV markets—$$$$: New York (St. John’s), D.C. (Georgetown), Boston (Boston College), Philadelphia (Villanova). The conference, in fact, mandated that its teams play the majority of their games in large public arenas, away from their campuses, to maximize ticket sales.

Long ago and in a galaxy far, far away, it was the ACC which concocted a post-season tournament to determine its league champion—and sole NCAA tournament participant. That was 1954, when only 22 teams made up the NCAA field. Between 1978 and 1980, the Big Dance grew from 32 to 48 teams, just when the Big East embraced the idea of a post-season tournament as a significant revenue stream. With as many as four of its original seven teams already guaranteed NCAA berths, its tournament essentially amounted to a series of exhibition games. But with large crowds paying top dollar at the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Famous Arena.”

As long ago as 1985, St. John’s Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca admitted that the Big East tournament “means nothing. It’s nice for the league, to put a little money in the sack, to get the alumni together to discuss who’s better. It’s good because it makes a lot of noise…”

So isn’t it a bit ironic that none other than Jim Boeheim was grumbling back then that “any coach who feels he’s [already] qualified for the NCAA would rather not play a postseason tournament”?

Soon enough, he came around to the comforts of greed, until the Big East’s pursuit of further riches through a disorienting expansion of adding schools with a football emphasis led to its virtual demise. The conference eventually was forced to retreat to its old basketball model and Syracuse, meanwhile, ran away to the ACC’s greenbacks.

In Greensboro, many see justice in the fact that Boeheim and his Syracuse lads were immediately ousted by Miami from the ACC’s new Brooklyn stage in the first round, ending any hope of an NCAA bid. And that Syracuse subsequently was matched, in the consolation NIT’s first round, against the team from the University of North Carolina’s campus in Greensboro.

Surely there’s some value in that.

Always a retiring fellow

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Only very briefly did I have a front-row seat to Tim Duncan’s masterful 19-year NBA career, and only in his earliest days with the San Antonio Spurs. Duncan was 22 years old at the time, in his second pro season. He was then, as he remained until his retirement this week at 40, the antithesis of the clamorous NBA culture. Amid the sport’s garish theatricality—raucous crowds, deafening music, enabling acoustics—Duncan’s game was one of muted perfection.

The occasion was the 1999 championship finals against the New York Knicks. Because a labor dispute had delayed the start of the 1998-99 season until January of ’99—and because my Newsday editors had failed to replace our departed Knicks beat writer during the NBA owners’ lockout—I became a last-second stand-in to chronicle that abbreviated Knicks campaign.

That the Knicks wound up in the finals against the Spurs and Duncan was a most unlikely development. Through 42 games of the truncated 50-game schedule, hurriedly pieced together with the labor cease-fire, the gyroscopically challenged Knicks barely were able to maintain any equilibrium, slogging along with a shaky 21-21 record.

But they evolved into a spunky outfit at just the right time, the first No. 8 seed to ascend to the finals by shocking top conference seed Miami, sweeping Atlanta and knocking off Indiana. Along the way, they lost perennial all-star Patrick Ewing with a torn Achilles and arrived in San Antonio—the two teams had not met during the season—with former all-star Larry Johnson hobbling on a sprained knee.

The Spurs, meanwhile, were at a full gallop, about to set an NBA record of 12 consecutive post-season victories during the Knicks series. Steve Kerr, the former Chicago Bulls sharpshooter who now coaches the 2015 champion Golden State Warriors, was a role player on that San Antonio team. Avery Johnson, who spent five years as an NBA coach and now coaches the University of Alabama, was a vital Spurs factor who scored the championship-clinching basket with 47 seconds to play in Game 5. Imposing 7-foot-1 all-star David Robinson, who was late in his 14-year-career, was the Spurs inside force.

But the primary motor for San Antonio was Duncan, the high tide who lifted all teammates’ boats. Against the Knicks, Duncan scored 33, 25, 20, 28 and 31 points in the series. He took 16, 15, 12, 18 and 9 rebounds. He blocked shots, delivered assists and was the obvious final-round MVP—the first of three such honors in the five championships he eventually won with the Spurs.

Seldom has one player made so much noise. Yet so quietly. Throughout his career, Duncan betrayed so little emotion, on and off the court, that The Onion, the satirical news source, once posted the farcical headline: “Tim Duncan Hams It Up for Crowd by Arching Left Eyebrow Slightly.”

His was not a false humility. Pressed during that Knicks series whether he could see himself as a 6-11 point guard, since he seemed to play every other position effortlessly, Duncan acknowledged that he would be happy to try. And that he believed he would have an impact in that little man’s role.

But he never indicated any desire whatsoever to seek the spotlight. Instead of narcissistic showboating and self-promotion, instead of angry slam dunks and demonstrative chest-beating, Duncan was restrained eloquence. Turn-around jump shots banked gently off the glass. Spinning layups. Rebounds. Shtick-less efficiency.

It was typical that Duncan skipped the kind of season-long farewell tour Kobe Bryant embarked upon this past season and left his retirement announcement (without comment) to a Spurs press release.

(San Antonio River Walk)

(San Antonio River Walk)

He came to be Old Man River Walk, as much a landmark in San Antonio as the network of restaurants, bars and shops along the city’s eponymous waterway. Yet, just as his basketball home was not the definition of glamour, his style was not the sort that spread his name beyond hard-core fandom. My own informal poll has concluded that, while casual sports observers easily can identify Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, they struggle to place this Tim Duncan fellow.

All those years ago, during the 1999 finals in which Duncan put the Knicks on the road to extinction (their last NBA finals appearance, by the way), his opponents and teammates offered reviews that never needed revising….

Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy: “Nobody on the planet can guard Duncan. [And on defense], he is the long arm of the law, does a great job of turning us into a jump-shooting team.”

Knicks forward Latrell Sprewell: “He is long, excellent with the ball, has a great touch for a big guy. We have to go back to the drawing board.”

Spurs teammate Mario Elie: “He just does his job, doesn’t complain, doesn’t bring attention to himself.”

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