Grace Under Pressure, On and Off the Court
THOUGH THE San Antonio Spurs won their fourth championship in nine years, behind Finals MVP Tony Parker, an important moment of the 2007 playoffs came a month earlier.
Under normal circumstances, an NBA player showing up late to a game means that some sort of transgression has taken place. But point guard Derek Fisher arrived late for games twice in the 2007 postseason, and both times he was extended a hero's welcome by the crowd, his teammates and his coach.
Fisher, then with the Utah Jazz (he rejoined the Los Angeles Lakers, who drafted him in 1996, last summer after being released from his contract so he could move his family to a city with better medical care), has always been a coach's dream—a gutsy, no-nonsense workaholic who built himself into a solid player, never a star but frequently a starter. In his first stint in L.A., he was the one who provided the blue-collar stability on a team dominated by the oversized and volatile personalities of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
So when Fisher, who was traded to Utah before the 2006--07 season, said he had to miss Game 1 of last season's Western Conference second-rounder against the Golden State Warriors for personal reasons, everyone knew it must be serious. It was.
Fisher's 10-month-old daughter, Tatum, had been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer, a week earlier, and Fisher had to fly to New York City to be with her and his wife, Candace, for an emergency operation. The procedure took place on May 9, the day of Game 2. After the operation, which was termed a success, Fisher returned to Salt Lake City on a charter plane, got a police escort to EnergySolutions Arena and walked in to a huge ovation near the end of the third quarter. He huddled briefly with coach Jerry Sloan ("I asked him if he was all right, and he said he was," Sloan said later) and headed directly to the scorer's table to check in, getting high fives and hugs from his teammates and Warriors star Baron Davis.
Fisher didn't do much until the overtime period, when the Hollywood script kicked in. He took only one shot, a three-pointer that went in, and added two key free throws to help the Jazz to a 127--117 victory. "I don't know how I got through this tonight," Fisher said afterward. "I really don't."
Three weeks later, as the Jazz faced elimination in the Western finals against the Spurs, Tatum was back in New York for follow-up treatment. Fisher knew his priorities. He flew to New York after Game 4 to be with Candace and Tatum, then flew back to San Antonio for Game 5, arriving at halftime. It was no Hollywood ending this time—the Jazz lost 109--94—but Fisher had already given the sports world a lesson in grace under pressure.
Tatum continues to receive treatment, but Fisher says he is optimistic about her recovery. Meanwhile, he's back alongside Bryant in the Lakers' backcourt, a dependable floor leader playing hard but keeping the game in perspective.
Further Adventures of The Restless Superstar
TWO YEARS after winning three straight championships, the Coach is out. Dismissed. At odds with the direction of the franchise. The Coach then rips the Superstar in a book.
But the Coach is rehired a year later, given a three-year, $30 million deal that makes him the highest-paid coach in sports. He forms a bond with the Superstar he had ripped.
After another lost season, however, the Superstar says in a radio interview that he wants to be traded. Then he says he doesn't want to be traded. Then he says he wants to be traded again. He is still fine with the Coach but feels that the General Manager has not done enough to build a championship-caliber team. The Owner says he will not trade the Superstar.
In the last year of his contract the Coach becomes the subject of a family squabble over his professional future. On one side is the Owner's Son, who wants him out, on the other is the Owner's Daughter, who wants him to stay (though she might be prejudiced, since she is the Coach's girlfriend).
The Superstar rips both a Teammate favored by management and the G.M. in an amateur video taken by two college-age kids in a mall parking lot.
During training camp the Owner changes his tune and says he would trade the Superstar if the right offer were to come along.
The season commences, and the team gets off to a middling start. Still, the once exiled Coach is given a two-year contract extension worth $24 million.
But as 2007 comes to an end, the franchise (hint: it rhymes with flakers) hasn't imploded. The Teammate is the starting center and has shown flashes of brilliance. The Coach is very much in charge and says he feels a "comfort level." Suggest to the Superstar or the General Manager that all of this contentment is a little peculiar, and you are met with What are you talking about? responses.
The situation doesn't have the dreadful, Fall of the House of Usher aspect that makes these such dark days in Madison Square Garden. In a way, it's kind of delightful, set as it is in a town that will take drama, intrigue and chaos over normalcy any day. And it's not over.
Blowing the Whistle On a 'Rogue' Referee
THE POSSIBILITY that games can be fixed is a shadow that hangs over basketball, largely because hoops is considered the sport most vulnerable to impropriety. A half dozen or so "mistakes" by one player—a walk, a bad pass, a three-second violation, all routine things that happen in the flow of the game—can easily transform a 10-point lead into a three-point victory, thus ensuring winnings to a gambler who took the four-point underdog.
But the shadow was always a faint one in the NBA. The pros were considered nearly untouchable by gamblers because players, even bench-sitters, make so much money that they had little incentive to cross the line. So when commissioner David Stern's greatest nightmare came to light last summer—the revelation that his league might've been tainted by a betting scandal—it was no surprise to those in the know that it was a referee who had been fingered.
After his July arrest Tim Donaghy, an NBA ref since 1994, told investigators that he had communicated information—primarily, who was refereeing what games and which officials were most likely to call more fouls and increase the game's point total—to gamblers. The NBA had turned its officiating crew into a mini-Brahmin caste, refusing to allow reporters access to them, hitting coaches and players who questioned referees' calls with heavy fines, never revealing how much a ref himself was docked for a screwup. "Our referees are the best in sports," Stern was fond of saying.
Maybe so. But Donaghy, who was widely disliked by his peers, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to transmit gambling information across state lines, as well as admitting that he took cash payoffs and bet on games he officiated. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 25 in federal court. (He faces a maximum of 25 years.) Which games he bet on and whether he ever made a call based on his wagering we still don't know. But by his actions Donaghy has told us that the game, even on the millionaire level, remains vulnerable.
Shoot First, Blog Later
WASHINGTON Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas never met a shot he didn't like or a distance from which he believed he was not accurate. Which helps explain how Arenas, who is at least two months away from returning to action after November surgery to repair a partial tear of his left meniscus, emerged as the most fascinating NBA personality of '07.
He made three game-winning shots last season and treated each as if it was routine. He weighed in on almost any topic in his Agent Zero: The Blog File on NBA.com. ("[Emeka] Okafor said he wants Dwight Howard's money.... I mean, you ain't Dwight Howard.") He is the subject of several other blogs, one called Gilbertology. He drew a reprimand from the NBA for announcing that he had bet a courtside fan $10 that he would make a game-winner. (He missed badly.) He took outlandish shots and exasperated coaches and teammates, yet in the process became one of pro sports' most lovable athletes.
6.2 NIELSEN RATING FOR THE 2007 FINALS, THE LOWEST IN LEAGUE HISTORY
7 CHAMPIONSHIPS WON BY SPURS FORWARD ROBERT HORRY
4 FOREIGN-BORN MVPS, INCLUDING '07 WINNER DIRK NOWITZKI OF THE MAVERICKS
22 ALL-STAR GAME APPEARANCES BY THE CELTICS' KEVIN GARNETT (10), RAY ALLEN (7) AND PAUL PIERCE (5)
MAKING A DIFFERENCE | Charlie Villanueva
POSING RECENTLY for a picture at Madison Square Garden, they made an odd couple: Charlie Villanueva, a 6'10" forward for the Bucks, and Alex Fabozzi, a 16-year-old who attends St. John's Villa High on Staten Island, N.Y. The two do, however, have an abiding connection: Both suffer from alopecia areata. "Charlie understands me in a way even my best friends can't," says Fabozzi (near right). "He knows what I'm going through."
Alopecia is a congenital, autoimmune skin disease that causes hair loss, usually on the scalp and sometimes over the entire body. There is no effective treatment. Villanueva learned he had developed alopecia at 11, an age when appearance can seem as important as intelligence or athletic ability. "Kids said some mean things," says Villanueva, 23, who grew up in Queens, N.Y. "Horrible things. I had to block them out."
Seeking an outlet for his frustrations, Villanueva latched on to basketball. "Pretty soon people stopped saying, 'Look at the bald kid,'" he recalls. "They said, 'Look at that kid who can play.'" Through his Charlie's Angels program, Villanueva will meet with children who have alopecia before 14 Bucks road games this season. He plans to donate $1 million to the nonprofit National Alopecia Areata Foundation when he signs a new contract in 2008. "What Charlie is doing for these kids is unbelievable," says Diane Fabozzi, Alex's mother. "They see what he has accomplished, and they know that they can do the same. It's amazing."
PREDICTIONS FOR 2008
THE LAKERS and the Bulls will both squeak into the playoffs but will be eliminated early. Mutually disenchanted with their seasons, the teams will renew trade talks that will eventually bring Kobe Bryant to the Windy City for the 2008--09 campaign.
ONE OF the two Celtics legends running teams, Larry Bird (Pacers) or Kevin McHale (Timberwolves), will resign at the end of the season. Meanwhile, former teammate Danny Ainge will be named Executive of the Year for his work in rebuilding the Celtics.
A LAST-MINUTE infusion of civic money will keep the SuperSonics in Seattle, and a strong All-Star Weekend will keep the wolves at bay in New Orleans. Alas, though, the summer will find the Grizzlies on the move out of Memphis.
THEY SAID IT
"The future is yours, but thanks for letting us have it one more year."
TIM DUNCAN, to LeBron James after Duncan's Spurs swept James's Cavaliers in the Finals
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
A PAIR OF MVPS Parker (9) and the Spurs bumped the Jazz from the playoffs, but Fisher (2) made another kind of impression.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
[See caption above]
DAVID BERGMAN (VILLANUEVA)
GREG NELSON (DUNCAN)
JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (DONAGHY)
BUSTED Stern (above) is thankful that Donaghy (top) proved to be, in Stern's words, a "rogue, isolated criminal."
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (STERN)
[See caption above]
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG
JASON LEE (HANDS)