Likes and dislikes from NBA All-Star Weekend 2014

February 17, 2014 in Basketball, NBA, Sport

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The NBA’s annual February showcase just concluded in New Orleans with the Eastern Conference All-Stars earning a record 163-155 come-from-behind victory over the Western Conference All-Stars, with Kyrie Irving winning the MVP after racking up 31 points and 14 assists. Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant each scored 38 in a losing effort.  It’s one of those events I look forward to every year that never lives up to the hype or the expectations, and this year of course was no different. We’re so accustomed to only remembering the highlight reels that we tend to forget all the embarrassing moments, the airballs and the missed dunks.

Having said that, this year’s All-Star Weekend is my favourite in years. Here’s what I liked and didn’t like about it.

LIKEDIndiana Pacers represent!

My Pacers had two All-Stars this year in starter (and third-leading vote getter) Paul George and Roy Hibbert, plus the East coach in Frank Vogel as the Pacers have, ahem, the best record in the m@*$#f&^*ing conference. It would have been even better had Lance Stephenson and David West also made the team like they should have, but it’s hard to complain when your team already has three guys in it.

This is how I voted fir the All-Star Game

This is how I voted fir the All-Star Game

 

And it was a successful outing for the trio. Paul George led the East to a clean sweep over the West in the Dunk Comp and finished with a solid 18 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in the All-Star Game itself, while Roy Hibbert had 8 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in just 12 minutes off the bench. Coach Vogel, of course, orchestrated the team’s brilliant come-from-behind win.

 Oh, and before I forget it’s actually four Pacers, because assistant coach Nate McMillan coached Team Hill to victory over Team Webber in the Rising Stars Challenge. Hang on, it’s actually FIVE Pacers if you include TNT analyst and the greatest Pacer of all-time,  Reggie Miller!

Overall, a great experience for the team. Even though it would have been good for George and Hibbert to get some rest because they had been playing like crap heading into the break, I think being around all these great players will really pump them up for the back end of the season.

LIKED: The Celebrity Game

This is one of those events I wish gets more coverage because it’s always fascinating to see which celebs can actually ball. I guess they throw in some retired NBA greats and WNBA stars to make it look a little less horrible aesthetically, but personally I would prefer it if they were all non-athletes, or at least people not known for basketball. I don’t usually know most of the celebs in the game, but most of the time you just need a couple of big names like Kevin Hart, Erin Heatherton and Michael B Jordan to keep it interesting.

really liked how they got Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose to coach the teams, but it would have been even better had they been in charge of drafting their own teams by reaching out to celebrities in their respective phone books.

This game itself was also surprisingly entertaining. I only recently watched Michael B Jordan light up the screen in Fruitvale Station, and he showed how he can really ball by pouring in 16 points despite being the focal point of the defense. But really, the star of the night was without a doubt US Secretary of Education (and former professional bball player in Australia!) Arne Duncan, who powered his team to a 60-56 win 20 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists, plus a handful of brilliant highlight-reel plays. He was so good that Kevin Hart, voted MVP by the fans for the third straight year, gave up the trophy.

DISLIKED: Nick Cannon

Mr Mariah Carey hosted the whole thing and he was just terrible. He tried but it was embarrassing seeing him try to liven up the mood and failing. He also posted a -14 plus-minus in 20 minutes of court time in the Celebrity Game along with this wonderful shot chart. To think he missed Valentine’s Day with his wife for this.

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DISLIKED: Joe Johnson

No one thought Joe Johnson was an All-Star this year, and yet here he was, taking up a spot that should have gone to Lance! Seriously, Johnson is averaging 15 points on 43.8% shooting with 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game for the 24-27 Brooklyn Nets, while Lance is putting up 14.1 on 50.2% shooting with 7.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists for the 40-12 Indiana Pacers. Come on!

And to prove my point, Johnson came last in the Three-Point Contest with just 11 out of a possible 34 points, then shot 2-7 in the All-Star Game for a team-low 5 points. I won’t torture you with a video of his performance.

LIKED: Damian Lillard

At the opposite end of the scale is Damian Lillard, who set a record by participating in five All-Star Weekend events — the Rising Stars Challenge (13, 5 and 5), the Skills Challenge (winner along with Trey Burke), Three-Point Contest (18, just missing out in final), Dunk Comp (lost to Eastern Conference) and the All-Star Game itself (9 points). His self alley-oop through-the-legs and 360 bounce pass lefty dunk were two of the better ones of the evening too. Sure, only one win from five events, but full marks for effort and participation. Great work, young man.

LIKED: The Three-Point Comp

Interesting strategic addition this year with the one rack containing all money balls (which are worth 2 points instead of the usual 1), which the contestant can choose where they want to put. This means together with the single money ball at the end of the other four racks there are 9 money balls all up, raising the maximum score from 30 to 34.

Unfortunately, despite having some of the best shooters in the league competing this year, only two guys, the winner Marco Belinelli and runner up Bradley Beal, had rounds of more than 20. Belinelli saved his best for last, scoring 24 in the tie-breaker round, while Beal had 21 in his first round. However, it was exciting to see the contest head into a tie-breaker and there were moments of real intensity, especially when the contestants got to the all-money-ball rack.

PS: Really disappointing that heavy favourite Steph Curry only had 16 and didn’t make the second round.

LIKED/DISLIKED: The Dunk Comp

I know a lot of people hated the new format, but I think it’s commendable that they at least tried something new because there hasn’t been a really good dunk comp in years with so many professional dunkers posting their ridiculous feats on YouTube and contestants favouring flair over substance and props over genuine creativity. Moreover, this year there were some real stars participating, unlike previous years, with Paul George, John Wall and Damian Lillard leading the way.

The new format pitted the three dunkers from each conference against each other, first in a “freestyle” round where they had 90 seconds to do as many dunks as they like (with at least one dunk from each team member), then a “battle” round where it’s one-on-one between the two conferences, with the first to rack up three victories emerging as the winner. This year the East dominated the freestyle round and all three of the battles, with John Wall being voted “Dunker of the Night” by fans with this killer jam.

With all the negative feedback, it seems more likely that the league will scrap the format altogether and return to the way it was before. Personally, I’d like to see them try it one more year but with a few tweaks.

First of all, the freestyle round thing has to go because watching three guys running around at the same time saps the excitement and anticipation as it makes each dunk less meaningful. It also makes it extremely hard to judge. That said, I do like the teamwork element of it, so maybe next year they can have a “team round” where each team gets to perform three team dunks (with a different finisher each time) and the total scores added to determine the winner of the round. They don’t have to use all three guys with each dunk, but they need at least two to make it a team dunk.

Secondly, the battle round is nice and all, but viewers were left unsatisfied because: 1. There was no actual scoring, just a “who was better” vote; and 2. It ended abruptly as soon as the East got the three required wins. What I also don’t understand is the link between the two rounds — what if the West won the freestyle round and the East won the battle round? Who is declared the victor then? Shouldn’t they still have a scoring system which will help determine the winning team overall?

What most people have suggested, which I agree with, is to have the three dunkers from the winning squad take on each other with at least one more dunk. That way you have an actual “Slam Dunk Champion” as opposed to a “Dunker of the Night”. As for the fan voting to decide the winner? I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. Maybe they need to make it 50/50 with the judges or something.

LIKED: The All-Star Game

Fugly jerseys, maybe, but personally I didn’t mind the sleeves all that much.

I don’t usually get overly impressed with the All-Star Game, but this year’s was damn entertaining. A record 318 points scored, 100 three-pointers attempted (30 made), 88 assists and only 28 turnovers (not too different to most normal NBA games). Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin scored 38 each, which is third-most all-time behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 42 and Michael Jordan’s 40. And Blake Griffin’s alley-oops were incredible, as were LeBron’s explosive coast-to-coasts, Carmelo Anthony’s record 8 three-pointers and Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry’s insane handles. Just a fun showcase.

Movie Review: Linsanity (2013)

January 19, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I too was caught up in all the Linsanity madness as much as anyone else when it started in February 2012 (actually, probably more so because I was writing about it every day for work). A Taiwanese-American underdog in the NBA, and a Harvard graduate, no less, who had been undrafted, sent to the D-League multiple times and was about to be cut for a third (and probably final) time before a miraculous string of record-breaking performances made him the biggest headline in New York, and later, the whole world. It was a story too good to be true, and everyone absolutely loved it.

And therefore it came as no surprise that someone decided to make a documentary about the phenomenon that has come to be known as Linsanity. The impressive thing about this film, however, is that director Evan Jackson Leong decided to make the film when Lin was still a student at Harvard, well before he became a household name.

The narrative follows Lin from his childhood days when he displayed incredible talenting playing AAU ball with his brothers, then onto his highly successful high school career before landing a spot at Harvard because no Div 1 school would offer him a scholarship. After leading Harvard to one of their best seasons ever, Lin had ambitions of being selected in the NBA draft, revealing that he believed his best chance was being picked by the Knicks in the second round (he “crushed” that workout, in his words). Of course, he missed out on getting selected completely, but was fortunate to be invited the Mavs’ summer league, where he went toe to toe with No. 1 pick John Wall. He then signed with the local Golden State Warriors, and the rest is pretty much general knowledge.

Anyway, I did enjoy it, but I must admit I liked the subject a lot more than the film itself. Linsanity, as it turns out, is a fairly run of the mill documentary where the drama and excitement is nearly entirely attributable to the true story itself as opposed to the filmmaking. I had expected to see a lot more exclusive footage and interviews, as well as a deeper look into Lin’s personality and especially his well-publicized religious beliefs. Instead, I was treated to a huge chunk of well-edited game footage, though a lot of it — mainly the college and NBA highlights — I had already seen before in the actual games or on YouTube.

To be fair, there is some interesting stuff in the film, such as the interview with Lin’s parents and brothers, and especially listening to his father explain how the family got into basketball in the first place. The portion of the film dedicated to Lin’s lowest point, when he was sent to the cutthroat D-League, is perhaps the most insightful part of the 88-minute running time. But to be honest, if you know Jeremy Lin’s story pretty well like I do, it’s likely you’re not going to get a whole lot out of this documentary. The subjects you know are going to be tackled — like the discrimination, the racism, the taunting, being repeatedly overlooked, etc — are all broached as expected, but there really wasn’t anything I hadn’t already seen or read elsewhere. That’s when more exclusive interviews, or even just a fresher approach, would have been welcome. I kept waiting for some revelatory comment from Lin, his family, friends, teammates or enemies, or even just a new angle on things, but it was all ended up being relatively tame and cliched.

The film also skimped on the awkward end of Linsanity, when Lin’s knee injury ruled him out of the team for the remainder of the season and the fact that he later copped flak for not playing because he was not 100%. The subsequent controversial contract negotiation with the Knicks, which turned ugly and essentially forced him to Houston as a free agent, was essentially overlooked. I know that is not the glamorous side of Lin’s story but it’s an important one that should have received more attention.

Nearly a year after Linsanity came and went, and with Lin now just a “regular” starter in Houston, Linsanity doesn’t quite have the effect and impact it would have back had it been released a year or so earlier. On the other hand, one could argue that the film comes too close after Lin’s success, and it would have been better to wait even longer, maybe another year or two, to be able to properly reflect on what an amazing time it was.

At the end of the day, Linsanity is an entertaining film because it is about one of the most extraordinary underdog stories in sports history. Even if you’ve seen it all before, you’d be crazy not to get pumped up all over again by rewatching some of Lin’s greatest moments during his incredible run. That said, I suspect it is a film that is most suited for audiences who have only a faint idea of Linsanity; for people who know the story well, there isn’t a lot of new things to see or learn, and the documentary filmmaking is just too typical and sanitized to give Lin’s story that extra edge it deserves.

3.25 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘The Jordan Rules’ by Sam Smith

July 18, 2013 in Basketball, Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews, Sport

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Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls sparked quite a firestorm of controversy when it was first released in late 1991, months after Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls captured their first NBA title.

At the time, no one could believe the things Smith was saying, such as Jordan’s gambling addiction, his relentless bullying of teammates and the blind eyes his coaches, team management and league officials were turning to the behaviour of the sport’s transcendent megastar.

I finally got a chance to read the 20th anniversary edition of this legendary book, which includes a new introduction looking back on the furore and how the book came into being. There is also, I presume added from later editions, an epilogue written after the Bulls’ first three-peat (the last title coming in 1993), as well as an afterword summarising the events leading up to the second championship.

Even after all these years, The Jordan Rules is still an amazing book because of its incredible insights, revelations, humour and exquisite journalism. The biggest difference, reading it now, is that none of the so-called negative things about Jordan discussed at length in the book can really be considered surprises anymore.

It is now widely accepted that: 1. Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, and possibly the greatest athlete ever; and 2. He is/was a massive a-hole. These two facts are not mutually exclusive and should not mitigate each other.

It is now actually more unexpected to see a sports superstar who isn’t seriously flawed. People these days expect a mean streak or some level of douchbaggery in their sports heroes. Kobe, for example, is a dickhead, while LeBron and Dwyane Wade are douches and Dwight Howard is a twat. The few “good guys” such as Tim Duncan are considered boring and bland. That’s why people who read The Jordan Rules now will probably wonder what the fuss was all about. Smith himself mentions this in the intro,

The book is titled The Jordan Rules (an allusion to the so-called tactics the Detroit Pistons employed to deny Jordan and the Bulls year after year, as well as the “special treatment” Jordan was afforded by his team and the league, such as skipping practice to play golf, avoiding punishment for dissent, and doing basically whatever he wanted without repercussions) but it’s actually about the entire Chicago Bulls team during the 1990-1991 NBA season.

The first few chapters take us through each of the months in the regular season, then into the playoffs and eventually, the NBA Finals. The narrative weaves in and out of events taking place throughout the year, including key games and incidents off the court, but also takes time out to give us brief biographies into each of the players on the team, coach Phil Jackson and front office guys Jerry Krause and Jerry Reisendorf. The rotund cheapskate GM Krause, in particular, is highlighted as a source of much of the discontent on the team for his unwillingness to reward players with fair contracts and his man-crush on Toni Kukoc, a European superstar at the time.

Smith was in a very fortunate position as a basketball beat writer in Chicago, giving him plenty of access to the players and staff, something which would not be possible in a post 9/11 world. He was also working in the pre-Twitter era where players were much more willing to speak to reporters without fear of it being broadcast to the world seconds later.

But are the stories in the book accurate? I’d like to think so. Smith claims nearly all the anecdotes and stories in the book are from first hand accounts from players and staff (my guess is mostly from Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant, though he claims it was just about everyone). So obviously while there will be mistakes and exaggerations, I’d like to believe the book is credible, for the most part.

Smith has a deprecating sense of humour about his writing ability, but it’s actually very good and straightforward, guided bynprofessional integrity and laced with some timely dry humour. There are no Bill Simmon’s-style cultural references, though the book has no shortage of outrageous jokes and laugh-out-loud moments. It is the kind of book I wished Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings had been. That book made the Bulls’ 1990-1991 season seem like a stroll in the park with barely a bump in the road, but The Jordan Rules revealed just how much tumult there was in and out of the locker room all year.

There is, of course, Jordan in the middle, the once-in-a-lifetime athlete who took the NBA and the sport of basketball to unprecedented heights. Jordan was not close to any of his teammates, not even Scottie Pippen (who was actually best buds with Horace Grant for a long time), and spent much of his time complaining about them because he thought they weren’t good enough to help him win a championship. He belittled many of them, telling his screeners and point guards to get the f*&% out of his way, freezing out teammates he disliked, and even punching center Will Purdue during practice. And he actually hated Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. But Jordan’s relentless drive to succeed was as unparalleled as his god given talents, and I was stunned to discover that he didn’t even start lifting weights until around 1990 and was once a junk food addict.

I don’t believe, however, that Smith was trying to paint a negative portrait of Jordan. He is clearly in awe of Jordan’s unique talents on the court, and questioned why Jordan should not have received special treatment given what he was doing for his team and the sport. Despite his basketball prowess, Jordan was not perfect but felt like he had to project that image of himself, and often that pressure was too much to overcome. He was and is an extremely private person, but can’t go anywhere in public without being hounded, explaining why it was tough for him to hang out with the rest of the team. It doesn’t excuse his bad behaviour but it helps us understand why he might be this way.

Jordan is the focus, but the rest of the team received equal attention. Just about everyone else on the roster was worried about their contracts and concerned about playing time and getting their shots (because Jordan took most of them). They looked at Jordan with a mixture of awe, resentment, envy and jealousy, but at the same time had no choice but to acknowledge that he was by far the best player they had ever seen.

Pippen, for instance, having grown up dirt poor, was obsessed with financial security. He wasn’t regarded as the second-best player in the league at that stage and was frustrated that he wasn’t getting a contract extension as Krause focused all his attention on Kukoc. It was a contract year for him and he wanted to get paid, meaning he often hogged the ball to pad his own stats (and still complained about Jordan taking all the shots).

Horace Grant was Phil Jackson’s whipping boy on the team and hated Jordan. He believed he had the chance to be a star but could not get an opportunity to shine because of Jordan’s dominance. Bill Cartwright was the voice of reason on the team but also longed to be given a fair contract, as was John Paxson, who had been loyal to the team but was getting no love in return. BJ Armstrong was a backup who believed he deserved to start, and Dennis Hopson was a former top scorer relegated to bench warmer. Everyone had their own agendas and gripes, and it was virtually a miracle that they eventually learned to put their differences aside for a common goal — to win the NBA championship.

There is so much gold in this book. I won’t spoil too many but here are some of my favourites:

– Phil Jackson, upon hearing his players’ approval of the Gulf War: “Do you understand, he explained, that these are people who will never forget, the people who lose their father or a brother or a relative? They or their children or even their children’s children. Do you want to see, Jackson wondered, your son killed someday in an airplane explosion because we’ve made Iraq a terrorist nation from what we’ve done?” I know it’s Afghanistan, not Iraq, but the words are nonetheless prophetic and chilling.

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Stacey King!

– I loved any mention of Stacey King, the 6’11” Bulls forward/center who was fat and lazy and got virtually no playing time but still believed he was a superstar and loved to BS to teammates about his prowess in college. Anyway, he once grabbed a single rebound in three games (84 minutes of game time!), and this is what one of the front office guys said: “A two-year-old could get hit in the head with more rebounds than that.”

– the words of 7’7″ center Manute Bol, the tallest player ever in the NBA, to Bulls coach Phil Jackson after Jackson kept telling refs Bol was playing then-illegal zone defense: “’Mother fuck, mother fuck, mother fuck,’ Bol shouted at Jackson in a sort of soprano hyena form of broken English. ‘Why you pick on me, you mother fuck?'”

– Charles Barkley to an official before a playoff game against the Bulls: “‘Hey, Ed,’ he yelled at Rush. ‘I hope you’ve got some Vaseline. I know you’re planning to fuck us, so maybe you’ll at least make it feel better.'”

– Jordan on why the Bulls could conquer the NBA despite the turmoil on the team: “’The thing is, this is a business, and in business you don’t have to like everyone, but you’ve got to work with them,’ Jordan said. ‘What we’ve been able to do this season is separate. Basketballwise, our focus has been the same from game to game. It’s been proven the best teams don’t always have to get along together, and if everyone likes one another, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win. The difference is in the play.'”

– Pippen on his future teammate, Dennis Rodman, who was playing for the opposing Pistons at the time: “‘They really need to get him some help,’ Pippen was saying to Grant. ‘Really. This guy is crazy. It’s the one thing I’d never realized before and I was always too stupid to not let his stuff bother me. But now I can see it. I think he does have mental problems and needs help. Really. I don’t like him, but I think he is sick and it’s just not right that people like that are allowed to walk around free on the streets. They ought to get him some help. The boy is flat-out crazy.'”

– Jordan did some dickish things such as flaunt his ability to secure tickets for Bulls games in front of less privileged teammates, but could also be extremely generous, such as meeting Make A Wish Foundation kids just about every week, call all his teammates on the stage to receive his MVP award, and agreeing to the famous “We’re going to Disney World!” declaration after winning the finals only if the $100,000 fee is split among his entire starting five.

– Phil Jackson after seeing Jordan take a serious fall during the 1991-1992 season: “The trainer and Jackson rushed over. ‘I was expecting to find blood,’ Jackson related later. ‘Instead, we saw this beautiful blonde in the front row. That’s why we stayed out there so long.'”

So as you might have gathered, I had a great time with this book. My only complaints are that it may have exaggerated a couple of things: the disharmony on the team, making it a surprise to suddenly discover that the team was on its way to a record-setting season; and also the extent of Jordan’s selfishness, as he averaged 6.3 assists that season, hardly a representation of a guy who seemingly never passed the ball.

4.5/5

Book Review: ‘Eleven Rings’ by Phil Jackson & Hugh Delehanty

July 12, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

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I’ve really been getting into sports books lately, so I decided to tackle Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, the latest from the Zen master, Phil Jackson, the winningest coach in NBA history.

As the title suggests, Jackson has 11 NBA championship rings as a coach (does that make him…Sauron?), comprising the 6 he won with the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in two separate three-peats in the 90s, the three-peat he accomplished with the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers at the turn of the century, and the two more he added with Kobe and Gasol in 2009 and 2010. That doesn’t even include the two he won as a bench player with the Knicks in the 70s (though “13 Rings” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it).

There were a couple of reasons I became attracted to the book. First, Jackson is the only man to have guided both Jordan and Kobe to multiple titles and hence the only man who could give detailed and personal accounts of how these two ultra-competitive alpha dogs behaved on and off the court. I wanted those juicy, sordid details, dammit!

Secondly, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with how the minds of successful people operate and how they differ to us mere mortals. What is it that drives them to succeed? Why are they awesome and I’m not? How can I also be awesome?

The narrative structure of the book is straightforward and follows Jackson through each of his 11 title runs, plus a short history of his playing days. You would expect the seasons to get a little repetitive after a few years, but each one is surprisingly different and has its own set of unique challenges. As Jackson says, the second one (in each set of championships) is usually harder than the first because the egos start rising to the surface, and the third becomes even more difficult because players start thinking they know it all.

While Eleven Rings does provide some of the things I had expected, it was ultimately a bit of a disappointment because it lacked the depth and special insights I had hoped for. The book was “co-written” by Jackson and Hugh Delehanty (who previously worked with Jackson on Sacred Hoops), though I had a feeling while reading the book that Delehanty might have done most of the heavy lifting in the writing process. As a result, the narrative felt somewhat artificial in some respects.

Most readers would have an idea of the basic details such as who the Bulls beat for their first title (the Lakers), who they had to overcome to get there (the Pistons), and so forth, so what I was looking for was the added depth Jackson’s unique perspective could provide. Instead, the book ended up glossing over much of the stuff I wanted to learn about the most — the hardest-hitting stories, the unknown intimate details, the “real” behind-the-scenes anecdotes no one but Jackson and maybe his inner circle could divulge.

To be fair, the book did address some of the things I was curious about — such as Jordan’s gambling, how Jackson handled the antics of wild child Dennis Rodman, the Shaq-Kobe feud, the Kobe rape allegations. It was interesting to find out that the first thing Kobe said to Jordan when the two came face to face for the first time was: “You know I can kick your ass one on one.” Just as it was interesting to learn that Jackson could not stand Kobe for a long time after the Colorado rape allegations because his own daughter had been the victim of an assault at college.

A surprise for me was how Jackson made it a point to really emphasize Scottie Pippen’s greatness in this book. We knew he would rave on about Jordan, but Jackson repeatedly praised Pippen’s all-round game and touted him as the engine that drove the team, a true team player that at times even outshone his more famous teammate. On the other hand, Pippen didn’t exhibit any outward jealously because of Jordan’s success, but he did resent the general lack of appreciation he received and felt shafted by his low salary (he was basically the second best player in the league but about 100 guys were earning a lot more than him).

That said, I could still sense that the information I was reading was somehow restricted and carefully managed in a way that it felt like there was a wall separating Phil and his readers. Everything he was saying came across as too “sanitised” and made me wish he would just give it to us straight, no holds barred.

The most honest parts of the book, the parts I felt came closest to being completely honest, were the sections on Kobe Bryant, which even overshadowed the sections on Jordan. Jackson’s assessment of a young Kobe was brutal — he labeled him “selfish” and “uncoachable” — and basically painted the Black Mamba as an absolute a-hole. At least Jordan was an a-hole who listened to him. However, Jackson’s stance against Kobe would soften over time as both men grew together to form a tight bond, so much so that Jackson declared his final championship — the Lakers’ 7-game victory over the Celtics in 2010 — as the most rewarding of his career.

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Jackson sure is a different breed of animal to any sports coach I have ever seen or read about. For a long time I thought all that Zen stuff he’s known for was just a gimmick, but Jackson really is a dude in tune with his spiritual side. Both his parents were Christian ministers, though his restrictive upbringing led him on a path which embraced all facets of spirituality. Jackson would give his players books to read based on what he thought they needed to take the mental aspect of their game to the next level, and the teams would often engage in meditation and other bonding sessions such as road trips. When things got out of control he would consult psychiatrists. All of it was to ensure that the players could become the best they could be — not for themselves but for the sake of the team.

As someone still trying to embrace his spiritual side, I must admit that the Zen stuff didn’t exactly rock my boat. Eleven Rings is threaded with spiritual teachings (some of which even I recognised) Jackson utilised to manage his teams. There were some profound passages I could relate to, but at the same time it usually stopped the narrative dead in its tracks and turned the story into a spiritualism text book.

Nevertheless, it does make you realise that winning championships in the NBA is really really hard, and that talent alone is insufficient. It genuinely takes a full team effort where each player knows his role, where egos are put aside, and things just click at the right time. Jackson’s critics have downplayed his 11 rings by pointing to the fact that he had Jordan and Pippen, then Shaq and Kobe, then Kobe and Gasol, but I strongly believe now that without Jackson’s guidance those teams might have never gotten over the hump.

Anyway, I would recommend Eleven Rings for those interested in any of Phil’s 11 coaching titles, but in my opinion there are much better written basketball books out there. It was engaging because it was Phil Jackson and he has accomplished so much, but I had expected a little more.

3.25/5

Game Review: NBA 2K12 (PS3)

February 21, 2012 in Basketball, Game Reviews, NBA, Reviews, Sport

I really need to find more time to play video games these days.  Despite purchasing the game on DAY ONE, I have only recently found time (well, at least at the time I typed this sentence a few weeks ago) to play enough of NBA 2K12 to be able to give my thoughts about it and found the time to write the darn review.

It’s easy to proclaim 2K12 as the greatest basketball simulation of all time.  After all, 2K11 was the previous GOAT and there has been nothing to challenge it since, especially considering that the NBA Live (aka Elite) team is still on hiatus after the embarrassing debacle that was NBA Elite 2011, the game that never was.

That said, I’m not going to judge 2K12 as a an independent video game.  It’s only fair that I compare the game to its predecessor, 2K11, because that’s the only yardstick people can compare to.

So does the 2K12 compare favourably to 2K11?  On the whole, yes.  The best improvements are the controls, the simplified playcalling, the widened legends roster, more legendary teams, and the presentation.  But to be perfectly honest, it’s not a revolutionary advancement in the franchise.

Let’s break it down.

Visuals

The graphics are supposed to be improved, but I really could not tell.  In fact, some friends have told me that they felt the visuals actually took a step back this year.

There’s just something different about it, as though the level of detail has been pared back slightly.  The players don’t look quite as shiny during the gameplay, though the close up cut scenes are as impressive as ever.  Another improvement is the extent to which the computerised players resemble their real life counterparts (for instance, Kobe looks less like an alien).  One of the biggest problems before — the bad hairdos of white guys (including coaches) — has been fixed somewhat.  It’s not perfect but it’s a step in the right direction.

There has been an improvement, but white dudes' hairstyles still don't look quite right

This year, with the new NBA’s Greatest (discussed below), the creators of the game also ingeniously tried to emulate the TV broadcast quality of times gone by, so if you play an 80s game, the colours are less sharp, and if you play a 60s game, the game is fuzzier and in black and white.  Even though it’s kind of gimmicky, it’s a nice added touch.

Ultimately, I think it’s possible that the visuals are more realistic but less detailed.  It looks more like a live game you would see on TV rather than a video game with mind-blowing graphics.  Does that make sense?

Sound

Not a lot of improvement here.  New music, a new commentator (Steve Kerr, replacing Clark Kellogg and joining Kevin Harlan), but not a whole lot of freshness.  Not to say the commentary isn’t good, but in terms of variety and the amount of excitement it can add to the game, I think it has essentially peaked for the series.  The only real way to improve it is to make the commentary more varied, more dynamic and more excited when players make big plays.

Presentation

Improved again from last year.  Not dramatic changes in terms of the menus (just more streamlined) but I quite like the changes they made in stuff like player intros, the half time reports and the post game features like Player of the Game, etc.  You can tell they put a lot of effort into making the game seem like a real TV broadcast.

Gameplay

Last year I thought the gameplay was already pretty awesome, and this year they upped it another notch.

It might take a little while to get used to the changes, but it’s worth trying the various tutorials and drills to get the hang of them before playing proper games.  It makes a HUGE difference when you feel more in control of the players you are controlling.  It not only makes you a better player, it makes the games far more exciting.

The best improvements are in the areas of post play (offense and defense) and off the ball movement.  There is an entire tutorial teaching you how to fake out your opponent when playing without the ball.  You can learn how to pound the ball inside and wreak havoc down low like Kevin McHale or Hakeem Olajuwon by using an encyclopaedia of post moves.  It’s awesome.  Your ability to call for screens, utilise the give-and-go, perform up-and-unders, hop steps, spin moves, in-and-outs, behind the back dribbles, crossovers, Euro steps, face-up moves — the whole shebang — makes the game super real and will keep players coming back as they improve their techniques with the control pad.

That’s the best thing — you can play on the lower levels with just the basics and it’ll be fine, but as you get to the more difficult settings, you really need to learn the entire repertoire of moves to have a chance against your opponents.

The computer AI is also improved, though it might be hard to tell for casual gamers unless you line the two up side by side.  But it’s there.  Fast breaks are better on both sides of the ball.  Crazy passes are less likely to thread through untouched.  If you run into teammates you’ll lose the ball.  Playcalling has been simplified and you can simply call plays for particular players or just call the best play available.  It’s the little things that have made the biggest differences in the game.

Game Modes

You still have the same stuff from last year, so I won’t go through them all.  The new headline mode is the aforementioned NBA’s Greatest.  Last year it was reliving Michael Jordan’s greatest moments — a good idea that got old real quick.  This year, there are a lot more legends and you only need to complete one challenge game to unlock more stuff, and all you have to do is win the freaking game.  You got guys like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Isiah Thomas, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Karl Malone, John Stockton, and so on.  It’s fine, but it’s still a single playthrough kind of mode.

The modes you’ll spend most of your time on are still the Association Mode and My Player Mode.

Association Mode is largely unchanged, but it’s still the most packed mode in the game that will allow you to play for hours and hours through years of NBA seasons, playing games, organising rosters, scouting new rookies, making trades, signing players, scheduling practices, developing young players and so forth.

A little overboard for the 14th pick of a weak draft, but these little touches make 2K12 fun

My Player Mode is slightly improved.  The biggest change is that instead of going in the D-League to start off, you get to play in a showcase game which will determine where you go in the NBA Draft.  If you play well enough you get drafted, which is pretty cool (they show the whole process, including handshakes with Commissioner David Stern), and you’ll get a chance to fight for a starting position straight away.  Jeremy Lin, anyone?

There are also add on downloadable features, such as the Legends Showcase.  I’m too cheap to get it, but here’s a review and it seems decent if you are into living in the past and playing with legends all day long.

Online

Not for me, but I hear that the online mode is not very stable, at least not on the PS3.  Apparently, a lot of people have flooded back to 2K11’s online mode, which is a huge indictment of this year’s game.

The good thing about having the Internets is that you can update your roster to keep them up-to-date with what’s been happening in real NBA (eg, I hear Jeremy Lin recently got a stats upgrade). You can also download fan-made rosters and players, so you can get your hands on players who aren’t licensed for the game — the main ones being Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson.  If you have a lot of time on your hands you can also create your own players and teams and share them with others.

Reckon there's going to be a lot of Linsanities online?

Playstation Move

This was one of the things 2K played up in the lead up to the release — you can play 2K12 with the Playstation Move!  Wow!  And it’s so easy and intuitive anyone can do it on their first try!

Err…no, that idea just stinks.  If you want to play real basketball, pick up a ball and go outside.   I haven’t even bothered trying the Move mode of the game.  It’s a waste of time.

Check this out and tell me it’s not lame.

Conclusion

So is 2K12 worth getting if you already have 2K11?  Now?  Yes.  Originally, when the game was first released, the NBA was still in lockout mode, meaning you had only a couple of the pre-signed rookies in this year’s class.  With the NBA now in full swing, you can download the official updated rosters or the fan-made ones.

For me, the greatest improvement was the controls and gameplay.  If you have the patience to lean the moves, 2K12 becomes much more enjoyable than 2K11.  All the other improvements, such as the presentation and the graphics (if you call it an improvement) were nice, but they’re not game changers.  If you can’t let go of the past and feel the urge to keep using Larry Bird to shoot over Chuck Person while saying, “Merry F&*%ing Christmas”, then the NBA’s Greatest Mode would also be a great reason to buy the game.

At the end of the day, 2K12 is of course a better game than 2K11, but it didn’t blow me away like I thought it would.  Nonetheless, credit must go to 2K for making the effort to improve last year’s game when they had zero competition.  It will still be the most played game in my collection until 2K13.

8.5 out of 10

 
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