Love & Basketball
As I’m sure many of you already know from Justin’s post last Monday, my father passed away suddenly from complications of pneumonia last Saturday at the age of 59. First of all, I’d like to thank everyone for their love and support during this difficult time for me and my family. It means a lot to have people thinking of and praying for us right now, while we try to sort this tragedy out. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to focus on the minutiae of turnover rates and true shooting percentages when life’s big things place themselves squarely in front of your face. At the same time, though, I thought I would share a little bit today about my dad and what the game of basketball meant to our relationship. After all, I wouldn’t be here writing for you guys if it weren’t for him introducing me to the game many years ago.
So let’s start at the beginning. My dad was born on May 6, 1949, just 3 months before the BAA and NBL merged to form the NBA. Like my dad, pro basketball was still in its infancy then, but it would grow quickly over the next decade to cement itself as a staple of the American sporting culture. In his youth, my dad was a big Boston Celtics fan, which was understandable for a kid growing up during the dynasty that produced 11 championships in 13 seasons from 1957-1969. He liked the style of those teams, with the parquet floor and black Converse shoes, dominating opponents with Russell’s suffocating defense, Cousy’s ballhandling, Havlicek’s energy, and the all-around play of guys like Sam Jones, K.C. Jones (both of whom were my dad’s favorites from that era), Satch Sanders, Bill Sharman, and Tom Heinsohn. He especially loved Red Auerbach, who personified winning and emphasized a commitment to teamwork and hustle. My dad never smoked, but he appreciated Red’s victory cigar as a symbol of the excellence that the Celtics strived for every time they took the court during those days — congratulations for a job done well, if you will.
By the early 1970s, my dad had been drafted and served the U.S. Army in Germany (he narrowly avoided being sent to Vietnam, instead being shipped to the 105th Finance Section in Augsburg), and just like a lot of people back then, he embraced the hippie subculture upon his return. He still liked the Celtics, whose core of Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, and Jo Jo White made them a perennial contender, but he found a new favorite player, one which embodied the more free-spirited attitudes of the day: “Pistol” Pete Maravich.
To many, Maravich represented the ultimate victory of flash over substance, but that was essentially the point; the Pistol looked better in losing than most guys did winning… While I laugh at the image today, when I was growing up my father would often regale me with stories of Maravich swooping down the court in these hideous jerseys, laying waste to a trail of defenders before uncorking an impossibly difficult shot that somehow found the bottom of the net. Pistol Pete’s teams were never very good, and thanks to the advanced stats we have at BBR, I know now that a good deal of the losing was Maravich’s own fault (he was Allen Iverson before there was an A.I., a low-efficiency/high-usage gunner whose dazzling moves often failed to offset his low percentages). But in the early seventies, those hoops fans seeking to root for an anti-hero who played by his own rules could do no better than Pete Maravich. (Incidentally, my dad would definitely have appreciated this Rod Benson post on Pete’s superhuman skills: “Dick Vitale sounded like Jay Bilas until he saw Pistol’s crossover”…)
As the eighties dawned, the Pistol retired, but my father quickly found another Boston superstar to claim as his favorite in Larry Bird. Dad always stubbornly maintained that Larry Legend was the greatest basketball player of all time, and if I ever countered with a pro-Michael Jordan argument, he quickly dismissed MJ’s superiority thusly: “Jordan’s athleticism made him great… I’m talking about pure basketball players here.” Well, Jordan had plenty of pure skills of his own, but Dad had a point about Bird — the man did more with fewer physical tools than just about any player in NBA history. Bird wasn’t fast and he couldn’t jump very high, but at his peak he was still capable of completely dominating games. Come to think of it, since my dad was entering his late thirties and could no longer physically do the things he did as a young man, I think Bird had obvious appeal — his game was predicated on what happened from the neck up, after all.
If there was one sporting event Dad always bragged about attending, it involved his 2 favorite players of the 1980s, Bird and Dominique Wilkins. I must have heard a thousand times how he was in attendance at the fabled Bird-‘Nique shootout in 1988, but it never really got old. I admit I was (and still am) jealous — although my very first NBA game was in fact another Hawks-Celtics game in the early 90s, I wish I had been able to see Larry and Dominique in their playoff primes, trading baskets like a couple of heavyweight fighters trade haymakers. Athough Boston lost to the hated Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, the tale of that Game 7 was definitely Dad’s favorite basketball-related memory.
In the 1990s, I started playing basketball myself, first in a church league from ages 6-10, then in middle school, and finally high school. Every step along the way, my dad taught me something valuable about the game in our driveway. He wasn’t very tall (5’11” and 3/4… so he said), and I grew to match his height by the time I was in the 5th grade, but consistently beating him one-on-one still wasn’t easy. He was a rugged rebounder who had a surprisingly soft (dare I say Bird-esque?) touch from distance, and he wasn’t above buying himself extra space down low with the occasional elbow to the ribs. I finally was able to dominate him when his lateral quickness succumbed to father time, but it’s a testament to his work ethic that he was able to transform himself into a formidable opponent at HORSE.
In fact, that’s where I see him right now: playing a game with Pistol Pete, up in heaven. I’m going to miss my father, and I don’t think basketball will ever be the same to me without him around. But I’ll treasure the memories I have of him, and the way the game was able to connect us for so long. Rest in peace, Dad. I love you.