My wife and I went to Maine to visit my mom and her hubby for Thanksgiving, and I had two very telling basketball conversations on the trip. First I met Double Dribble’s biggest / only fan, and we talked about the Celtics while other people cooked. Havlicek’s all-around game, Cowens’s unremembered athleticism, Parish’s selflessness, Lewis’s tragic end, Bird’s brilliance, even the one half season of helpful shooting from Rodney Rogers came up (while we were trying to recall what Boston got in exchange for Joe Johnson). Knicks fans get credited with being the most knowledgeable group of fans out there, but long-time Boston fans know their history and understand the game with anybody. We may need to manufacture a new Boston / New York rivalry contest around sports fan knowledge. Some combination of Trivial Pursuit meets Family Feud with lots of profanity and alcohol. I’m thinking Spike TV as a stop gap show between Pros vs. Joes and the Ultimate Fighter. We could call it The Gaaahh-den versus Madison Square.
My cousin, Erik, came to Thanksgiving, and while we watched NBA highlights on ESPN that night, he asked me about the positions in basketball. He knew what differentiated a center from everyone else – he’s the big guy who tries to keep Shaq from dunking on every possession – but other than that, he couldn’t tell one from the next. Everybody does the same things on the court to varying degrees. It’s not like football, where you have position-specific responsibilities that don’t really overlap. It’s not like baseball where you have positions designated by assigned areas on the field. In basketball position is a matter of practicality rather than a matter of regulation.I tried to break it down for him and hit an immediate snag. Erik was never a basketball fan. He was a Michael Jordan fan. He watched every Bulls game he could, and that’s it. You try explaining NBA positions using the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. They had a 6′ 2″ shooting guard who couldn’t dribble against pressure and defended point guards at the other end. They had a 6′ 6″ small forward who dominated in the post and was introduced as a guard from North Carolina at the beginning of every game and defended shooting guards most of the time. They had a 6′ 7″ point guard who primarily defended small forwards. They had a hyper-athletic power forward who played from the high post and did most of his scoring on dump downs and kick outs from that 6′ 6″ small forward from NC up there. They had a 7′ center who didn’t rebound or block shots. Good luck!
I actually used the 1997 and 1998 Utah Jazz to explain. Stockton, Hornacek, Russell, Malone, and Ostertag was an almost prototypical collection of players. Point guard runs the plays. Shooting guard moves without the ball and shoots. Small forward does the same plus some rebounding. Power forward gets rebounds, runs the floor, and scores. Center blocks shots and only shoots bunnies in front of the rim.
The conversation brought to mind the impact Scottie Pippen had on those Bulls teams. He may not be the best second banana ever – that’s one of Kobe, West, Baylor, or Chamberlain (take your pick). He may not be the first great point forward. That’s Rick Barry (and maybe Hondo for a season), and you could toss in Magic while Nixon was still a Laker. What made Pippen special was his ability not only to run the team from the forward position but to fill the forward role at the same time, crashing the boards, making good aggressive cuts, and he could defend all three positions and do it all while taking a backseat. He filled in everything the team could ask for and allowed Michael to focus his energies on scoring and trash-talking.
How many teams have ever had a starting forward so good at running the team offense that it could play significant minutes to Steve Kerr, a spindly, 6′ tall, supremely skilled catch and shoot specialist who could barely dribble while the other guard spent most of his time filling in as the team’s go to power player in the post? LeBron comes to mind, but could he sublimate his need to dominate and actually take that sort of a backseat? That’s the thing about Scottie. Michael was undoubtedly the superior creator off the dribble and the best passer on the team, but Scottie knew how to manage the game. He took a special pride in getting the ball to the right player at the right time, keeping everyone involved, riding hot hands, orchestrating the whole game. Point guard. Pure point guard. Err, uh, forward. It’s hard to explain. See in basketball position is about practicality not regulation.