Thursday, March 22, 2007

Notes, or Kevin Durant's invisible teammates


Welcome back.

This will be labelled a "Notes" blog, but it will more likely be referred to at the watercooler, or, scratched into the stall wall of an airport men's room, as "the Durant thing." And that stuff is coming. But first, a quick intro to the next entry, which could come any minute after this one.

I originally wrote a feature on a man named Bob Schulte for the Bismarck Tribune sports page some two years ago. It was probably the best story I've ever published in a professional newspaper. The Trib was incredibly generous in giving me space, and a massively edited version eventually hit the Associated Press wire, where it was then picked up by the Miami Herald and another paper I can't remember. Good for me.

I realized soon after my deadline that there was an even bigger and better story to Bob Schulte, so I went back and reinterviewed for hours on hours, and rewrote the story to double its original size. I did so thinking I would then publish it in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where Bob grew up. I won't get into the e-mail and phone call exchange, but here's the short version: I wrote a big story under a misunderstood pretense, offered said big story to the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, paper shocked author when asked to cut said story IN HALF, I refused, they stood firm. So I sat on the story a couple months, pouted, hoped someone might call me, out of the blue, tell me my story was "getting around," and that someone was very interested in this Schulte fellow.

This did not happen. In the interim, I started blogging. Good for me.So I'll be posting the story at its full length, here, for free. This seems, and is, stupid. But I can't stand the thought of cutting it in half, it's too much. I don't think it would be fair to anyone involved, nor fair to the story, if I may be esoteric, and I may.

This way I appear to take the moral high ground, and publish the story for storytelling's sake. And I also get to serve my own purpose of leaving the story intact. If anyone out there wants to work like hell, learn fascinating things and not make rent, I encourage them to borrow this idea.

So, the entry that follows this will be the Bob Schulte story in its entirety. Hope you like it. I gave up roughly $175 to bring it to you.

- Okay, what follows in this particular entry has become extremely, extremely long, so long that I don't think anyone should even read it. Anyone who does, will either be a) my blood relative b) hopelessly obssessed with basketball or c) within arms reach of a gallon of Thunderbird wine. Either way.

- Now, onto the subject of why I have not written in a week's time. I had planned, as I hinted in other entries, to write a full-fledged preview of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament.

But, in the days leading up to the tournament, I realized that everyone and their father figure was in-depth, line-by-line, who ya' got previewing this damn thing. We got so bracket-crazy someone I heard was previewing the NIT, for God Shamgod's sake. (NIT, for the uninformed, stands for Not the Important Tournament.)

So I decided I'd wait it out, and instead post after a round or two had been played.At about the midpoint of the first day, I realized that the brackets I had filled out on two websites were worth about as much as the F5 button on my laptop. The second day it got worse.I've got eight, count 'em, eight teams left out of 16. My bracket was horrible.

Here's who I've got left in the Midwest bracket: No one. 0 of 4 teams. I had Wisconsin and Maryland, which were chalk (see note), and then I had Notre Dame in a big upset of Oregon, and Arizona in an earth-shaker over Florida. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

(Note: "chalk" is a gambling and bracket term, which refers to picking a favored higher seed to beat an underdog lower seed and advance. I just learned it this year, and thought I should share. Feel free to also use it in non-sports conversations, as in, "Phil Spector was involved in a gun-and-alcohol related death, which was chalk. But a perm at the arraignment, now THAT was an upset.")

Let me explain. Maryland closed out the season very hot. That one seemed easy. Butler was, and still is, Butler. I don't know how many they're bringing back next year. I don't care. I won't take them against a team I believe to be good because they are Butler until further notice, and I only had them beating ODU because, I mean, c'mon.

Full disclosure: My pops went undergrad to Notre Dame. I grew up with them as my team to watch in the big two sports, they still are, so I watched them a bunch this year and liked them. Gotta like a team that loses a starting point guard midway, brings in a freshman and doesn't miss a beat. Plus, they shot 3s and free throws very well, free throws so well, from top to bottom, that I had to give them the nod in any close game. Naturally, they missed NINE out of 13 free throws in a close game, muffed a bunch of layups, and went 4-of-22 from the college three point line, which, really, is walking distance.

Wisconsin I was never very impressed with, not once. Tucker's a nice player, but that's about it. But I thought they were surrounding by really, really mediocre teams. And I don't think anyone had the University of Nevada Las Vegas this far, outside of Mike Cufflinks and Jimmy Legs at the Mirage.

How can I defend Arizona over Florida? Well, I can't really. 'Zona did not look good, and Florida did, right at the end of the year. And that's why I picked it. There had to be one huge upset, right? In this year, which I think was about the hardest to read since I started paying attention in the mid-90s.

As soon as a team got ranked in or near the top five, they forgot how to do everything remotely related to basketball, as evidenced by Duke's team TWICE showing up at away games on horseback and wearing polo uniforms, only to be informed of the nature of the occasion just before tip-off. Okay, that I can't prove, but you would have to believe it.

So I look at Zona', which is incredibly talented on the face of it, and looked terrific before someone told them they were highly-ranked, at which point they took a few weeks off. But my theory on teams returning to the tourney is, it's hard to rely on a group of young men, particularly men around my age (20), that young, to perform well under pressure in consecutive years. Frankly, I've never performed well in consecutive years, and a lot of people can attest to that. So in that case, I look at the oldest guy around, the coach.

Or, in Florida's case, junior forward Al Horford, who is several years older than head coach Billy Donavan, 16. In 'Zona, you've got 94-year-old Lute Olson, who I assume doesn't even take time to learn players names anymore. It's just "12's gotta' clear out here. Pay attention, 24." So I went with Zona, and I never even got to see my matchup because AU didn't show up against Purdue. (On a side note, Purdue? Really?)

So that's how you get an entire region wrong. My bracket was so bad, I got no one through in the Midwest, and I LIVE in the midwest. Bad, bad, picks.

As I teased earlier, my other huge upset (again, crazy year, crazy picks), was Gonzaga beating UCLA and losing to Kansas in the final 8. For Gonzaga, like ND, I liked free throws and threes, and, in this case, great guard play from Raivio and Pargo all year. Again, wrong.

So, you can see why I might have taken a few days to come clean with these kind of picks in public. As you can imagine, I wanted to make a good first impression here. It does not look good for someone who is paid to write about sports to be so tragically incorrect about a major sporting event like this.

So I took my beating, and I'll now glance through swollen eyes at the 16 teams left. And here's what I see: this was, indeed, the weirdest year in college ball I can remember.

You want proof? Here's proof. The seeds, my friends, the seeds. . . were pretty much right. We've got four No. 1s still left, three 2s, and three 3s. And so, now, I will make a prediction that is, based on my recent experience, remarkably bold and spectacularly wrong.

My new final four, today, Final Four 2.0, or Vista, or whatever, goes like this. No. 1 North Carolina, No. 1 Kansas, No. 1 Ohio State, and No. 1 Florida. That's right. I've got chalk. It's never happened before. And that's how weird I think this year is.

I'll skip round-by-round breakdowns, because, why waste our time when I'm going to be wrong anyway? This is actually the reason why I'm making these picks. Because they feel wrong. It's just that kind of year. Put your left glove on your right foot, walk out the back door, smoke 'em if you got 'em, and take UNC 78-66 over Florida, led by Reyshawn Terry.

- Now, quickly to Kevin Durant. This came off the wire six months ago.

DA NANG, VIETNAM (AP) - Kevin Durant, a species scientists believed to be extinct for 3 million years, was found and captured live and in near-adult form off the coast of Vietnam early Tuesday morning. Durant, which could possibly grow to be 7 feet (roughly 2m) in length, was pulled aboard a Chinese fishing boat that had been trolling for shrimp when he was accidentally snagged in a large net. Fisherman described Durant as "soft spoken and mild-mannered."During the Paleolithic Era, Durant had been known to make 18-month journeys from the South China Sea to the Gulf of Tonkin, eating mostly small fish, but known to take on the occasional squid. Durant has exceptionally long arms and a velvety mid-range jumpshot, and will be on exhibit at the Honk Kong Zoo for one month, before being shipped off to the United States, where he will start at guard-forward for the University of Texas this fall.

Here's what's weird about that story: it's the NON-basketball people who think it's not true. Those who have seen Durant play might actually be inclined to believe it. It is, alas, just a rumor, as alleged by numerous internet sites and proven in Texas's loss to USC.

By the way. Texas, USC, Florida, Ohio State. Can we send Dannah Priest around just to confirm that there are still students attending classes at these places? Would you really be shocked to find out that the given address for the University Florida at Gainesville was actually just a single basement office with one phone, a cheery-sounding woman and four dozen fax machines?

Back to the youngster in Austin, Texas. He's a truly remarkable talent, and rare, inasmuchas, there has never been another player like him, which is actually more than rare. Let's call Durant's talent singular.

There are two comparisons to be made here, in trying to describe Durant, and both take a current NBA star and tweak them. One is, Kevin Durant is Tracy McGrady, but taller. The other is Dirk Nowitzki, but smoother. Both of these are terrifying descriptions. But I'll go with the Nowitzki one for now, and here's why.

Dirk is just, just beginning to realize how important it is to find his teammates. Let's throw the name Steve Nash in here. If Nash goes for 18 points and 11 assists (which he's equalled or surpassed 25 times this year), he's accounting for 18 points, plus at least 22 points on 11 other made baskets. Let's assume two-to-four of these assists are on 3-pointers. That's 40-44 points coming directly from Nash.

Not only is that a whole pile of buckets to trace back to one guy, it makes his teammates happy and, surprise, it compels them to pass to -- and trust -- Nash as much as any team has trusted any player since MJ. Watch how many times a Suns player gets a rebound or grabs a loose ball, and doesn't even look at any other player than Nash. By the way, by my count the Suns have won 21 of those 25 games. Two of the losses were their second and third games of the season.

To compare Nash and Durant is silly. They play different positions, their teams ask for different things.

But do you know how many assists Durant had in one four-game stretch against Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Texas A & M? Zero.

Finally, he was credited two assists in a loss to Kansas, and one more the next week in the Baylor rematch. And then, in the Big 12 conference tournament, against Oklahoma St. and then Kansas? Zero assists, zero assists.

I mean, have you ever heard of anything like this in your life? Durant had 10 games this year with no assists. 12 more games with only one, including the USC loss. He might be headed to the NBA with a career high of four. Really? Four?

A lot of these are home games, where Oldy Whitehair over at the scorer's table is just dying to give Durant credit, even if the ball falls out of his hands to a teammate, even if it HITS HIM IN THE HEAD, he wants KD to have that assist. Zero assists at home against Texas State? You're six-nine, the most well-known offensive talent in the country, and nobody's open against Texas State?

I don't want this to seem like a scathing indictment of someone who is just a kid. But that's essentially what it is.

I remember hearing KD's mom doing an interview where she talked about how proud she was that Kevin spent the entire summer working one-on-one with a private coach, day in day out. Apparently one thing coach forgot to say, all summer, was, "Hey, kid gimme' the damn ball."

Now, as I said, Dirk is starting to learn how important it is to find his teammates when they're open, and I have to believe that this kid will too. But I am not, as some are, ready to white-out the record books and re-christen the NBA the National Durant Association (NDA), of course coupled by the National Durant Development League (NDDL).

MJ and Danny Ainge have both been fined by the NBA for talking about the Lone Ranger.

Jordan's fine was only 15 grand, which Michael immediately produced from his wallett, in five dollar bills, before deadpanning, "Now, you ask your grandmother if she needs something from the grocery store before you spend this."

And this Ainge thing must be addressed.

Here's the situation: Danny Ainge played professional basketball for the Boston Celtics, where he won championships, and played in Phoenix with Charles Barkley. He was in the league for a long time. He's still in the league, in fact, representing Boston as their general manager. Boston, which is terrible right now, looks like it might have the No. 1 pick, which looks like it might be Durant.

During the Big 12 tournament, Ainge was spotted sitting next to whom? Kevin,Durant's,mother.

What's in Danny's briefcase these days? An empty vodka bottle?

This is a no no, and he was fined 30-large for it. Here's what's even dumber. Apparently, Ainge and Durant's mother did not say one word to each other the entire time. Not one. Let's assume Danny was hoping for KD's mom to strike up a conversation, which would have probably gone like this:

KD's mom: "Did you go to Texas or USC?"

Ainge: "Uh, neither, actually."

KD's mom: "Oh, what brings you here?"

Ainge: (trying to play it cool) "No reason."

KD's mom: (uncomfortable, forcing small talk): "Oh, what do you do?"

Ainge: "Well, you're not gonna' believe this, but actually I'm the general manager of the Boston Celtics."

(Long pause as this sinks in with mom.)

KD's mom: "You're Danny Ainge, aren't you?"

Ainge: "That's right."

Mom: "I thought Mormons didn't drink."

If Ainge wasn't hoping for this scenario, then I can only guess that he was there to spy. At this point, when you realize that the Boston Celtics cannot find a more inconspicuous person than Danny Ainge, well... you could even begin to feel bad for the Lone Ranger.

NOTES - In my last entry, I used the word "first" twice in one sentence. Good for you if you caught it.

That's all for notes this week, and you can see now why they'll probably just call it the Durant thing.

Thanks for reading, you've been great. Enjoy Bob Schulte, I know I did.

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