Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Basketball Diaries

Every son has a cherished early sports memory with their father. It’s a galvanizing moment. This is as big as him teaching you how to tie your first necktie. (Some would say it's bigger.) It’s a birthright that he’s passing on and it’s a responsibility no son takes lightly.
In Cleveland, the sport for most fans, is football. And for those not into football, you’ll find baseball fans. But my father passed to me his love of the third tiered sport of our hometown--basketball.
My father, lucky bastard he is, happened to be the pediatrician to the Cleveland head coach’s kids and so as thanks my father would occasionally score tickets. I was too young to remember this, but I’ve sat in the floor box seats at the old Richfield Coliseum, watching Cleveland get thrashed by the 76ers (Dr. J hung on the rim after one particularly deft-defying dunk) and any number of other much better teams.
My first true memory of my father’s sport was the 1987-88 NBA Finals between the L.A. Lakers and the Detroit Pistons. My dad loved the Lakers, and especially Magic Johnson. (I was always the smallest player on every team I played on so I loved watching the point guards, in particular Magic.) I watched every game of that series with feverish intensity. I remember one play where James Worthy, who would go on later to win that year’s Finals MVP, dove out of bounds to save a loose ball and was able to get it to a teammate for an easy lay-in. He sacrificed his body for the good of the team and he wasn’t the only one. Isaiah Thomas severely sprained his ankle on the middle of sixth game, only to give the finest third-quarter performance I’ve ever seen. He scored 16 points in one quarter on one foot. These men were warriors. The Lakers prevailed in a seven game series, but my love for the game has never left me.
My favorite coach, Pat Riley, who was the Lakers head coach during that era, known for his slicked back hair and Armani suits, is now back to the sidelines as the Miami Heat head coach. He’s the greatest coach I’ve ever seen. He went from L.A. to New York and then Miami, adjusting his approach to the personnel, but always preaching defense. Most of the time, he doesn’t have the best talent, but he’s always had the best teams. They work as a unit. Everyone knows their roles.

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