My Take On: The Launching of Larry Legend

By | Sports

As Larry Bird shot over Julius Erving in 1984, this reporter had the ideal courtside view at Boston Garden./Photo by Dick Raphael

It would be negligent to present a series of NBA flashbacks to the Michael Jordan era without including an article about Boston’s superhero, Larry Bird.

The Celtics’ “Larry Legend” gave me and another reporter, Marty McNeal, one of the best interviews of our careers. The 1985-86 Celtics had come to Oakland to face the Golden State Warriors, and Bird agreed to talk to us after practice. To our amazement, no other reporters had requested Bird, so when he walked onto the court Marty and I had him to ourselves.

He came into the NBA in 1979 as a very reluctant talker, but seven years later Bird had become what reporters call “a good quote.” He usually was affable and could crack a funny line, and that day Bird was in an unusually talkative mood. Marty and I kept feeding him questions and he answered with an openness and ease we hadn’t expected.

When the interview ended, I had enough quotes to write a two-part series. My favorite segment was about when Bird first felt a passion for basketball, so I hope you enjoy reading his sharp memories of that event in my Feb. 20, 1986, San Francisco Chronicle article “How Bird Took Off.” That night, he crushed the Warriors with 36 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.

This article also serves as my tribute to Marty McNeal, who died on May 21st. He was one of the funniest people you could ever meet, which I’m sure was one reason Bird tolerated us for so long.

This will be the last segment in my series about the roots of NBA superstars from the Michael Jordan era. The research and writing involved reminded me of how exciting it was to cover the NBA when it was just starting its climb toward worldwide recognition. I  appreciate all of you who have read my articles. If you have enjoyed venturing into pro basketball’s past, I encourage you to buy my book, “They Cleared the Lane: the NBA’s Black Pioneers” from Amazon or University of Nebraska Press.

How Bird Took Off

By Ron Thomas

Everybody remembers the first time he fell in love, and Larry Bird is no exception. The circumstances are a bit different, though. For Bird, it was the day he realized he could sink a jump shot at will.

“I can remember when I started hitting a lot of shots,” Bird said a few days ago. “I was shooting around, and all of a sudden shots started going in. I can remember to this day when that happened.”

In French Lick, Ind., where Bird was raised, he always liked basketball. But he didn’t begin to love it until that day, at the age of 14.

“I was at my friend’s house and there were people there and everybody was sitting around,” Bird said. “We started to shoot until somebody missed, and I hit 10 or 12 in a row.”

Everybody noticed his accuracy.

“Then I started concentrating on it and liking it. All of a sudden you feel excited about it and start playing ball all the time. That’s exactly what happened to me.”

A fortunate injury

About two years later, another fluke infatuation made Bird embrace passing as a skill. He was playing for Spring Valley High.

“In practice one time, I had just come back from a broken ankle and I really wasn’t quick enough or able to jump to get a shot off,” Bird recalled.

“I just started passing the basketball, and it seemed like everybody started getting excited about it. Next thing I knew, I was labeled a pretty good passer.”

Bird’s high school coach, Jim Jones, taught him the fundamentals. “Once I got them, the game came pretty easy.”

When the older players in his neighborhood started choosing him first in pickup games, Bird knew he had a special affinity for the game. He hasn’t lost it.

At Indiana State, Bird averaged 30 points a game and led the Sycamores to the 1979 NCAA finals, where they lost to Michigan State and Magic Johnson.

A new beginning awaited Bird in Boston. As a rookie, he averaged 21 points and five assists, and the Celtics leaped from 29 victories the previous season to 61 under demanding new coach Bill Fitch.

“He was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Bird said. “He made me a great player in a short period of time, because he had restrictions on me. Plus, after he found out I could do certain things and started trusting me, he let me go. All I had to do was give him eye contact, and he’d run my play.”

Three years later, however, Fitch’s players had grown to despise him because of his fanaticism. After Milwaukee swept the Celtics in the 1983 playoffs, Fitch resigned before his players could mutiny.

Saved by team defense

“Bill Fitch wasn’t really mean,” Bird said about the current coach of the Houston Rockets. “He was a winner. He’s not going to let himself get beat because he was not prepared. That’s one thing a lot of guys could not understand, and I could understand it.”

But Bird also understood that his teammates couldn’t tolerate Fitch’s pressure cooker. “I think Bill Fitch got out at the right time,” Bird said.

Now Bird plays for K.C. Jones – “the greatest human being I’ve ever been associated with” – and has teammates who share Bird’s ability to excel in the game’s subtleties. Especially on defense.

“You’ve got to know your teammates real well, because if you make a move on the defensive end, somebody’s got to cover up for you,” said Bird, who ranks eight in the NBA in steals with 2.2 per game.

Bird’s need to play with a team concept was painfully obvious in this month’s All-Star Game. He is neither a great leaper nor is he exceptionally quick – and it showed.

Small forwards like James Worthy jetted past Bird. Big forwards like Ralph Sampson powered over him as if he were Spud Webb without his launching pad.

But bring Bird back home to his Celtics, and he’s on the NBA All-Defensive second team again, as he has been for the past three years.

“Playing with these players has been the easiest part and made my game mature,” he said. “Dennis Johnson is the best player I ever played with. He knows what I’m going to do out there, and I know what he’s trying to do. It makes it very easy. Bill Walton’s getting to be the same way.”

Walton joined Boston this season after six years with the pathetic Clippers’ franchise. It took Bird awhile to figure out Walton’s game, but he has helped Walton become Boston’s leader in blocked shots per minute.

Plotting with Walton

Late in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s victory over the champion Los Angeles Lakers, Walton rose like a monster from the deep to crush a Worthy jump shot.

Worthy didn’t know it, but he was “set up” by Bird. Walton was the hit-man.

“Bill always tells me to set him up a couple times so he can block the shot,” Bird said. “My man will come driving in there and I’ll cut right in front of him so when he jumps, he can’t stretch all the way out.”

That’s what Bird did to Worthy, who shot anyway. “Then Bill will smack it,” Bird said.

Bird doesn’t block many shots, only 34 in 51 games this season. But he blocks a lot of paths to the basket.

“A lot of guys are rhythm shooters,” he said. “If you just get your feet in the way – where maybe they have to take a little jab step and then go up – they’re off balance a little bit.

It even throws off Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook.

“What I do is very minor,” Bird said. But if it were minor, he would have played on a losing team by now. He never has.

Even great players usually aren’t that fortunate. Just look at Walton’s purgatory with the Clippers.

But now, as a Celtic, “watch how he enjoys himself,” Bird said. “Talk to his wife and she says, ‘This is unbelievable. Bill’s talking to me now. He hasn’t talked to me in four years.’

“He’s been through it, and I don’t want to go through it.”

My Take On: Women Never Sweated Until Basketball Came Along

By | Sports

During the late 1980s and 1990s, women’s college basketball was producing superstars who would dominate the WNBA that began in 1997. Among them were Jennifer Azzi, Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Teresa Weatherspoon. All of them have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The NBA was partly fed by players like Spencer Haywood, Julius Erving and Moses Malone who went straight from high school to the pros or played only a couple years of college ball, but female basketball stars have been developed almost exclusively through their NCAA experiences. The ultimate root of the women’s college game dates back to 1892, when physical training instructor Senda Berenson organized a game between freshmen and sophomores at Smith College just a few months after the sport was introduced to men. Four years later, the first intercollegiate women’s game was played between Stanford and University of California-Berkeley, often called Cal in the sports world.

That game said much less about basketball today than it did about society’s expectations and limitations placed on women when the sport was invented. Here are the roots of today’s article:

Writing an article about the first women’s college basketball game sent me off on a surprising historical and cultural adventure. With Cal Professor Roberta Park as my guide, old San Francisco newspaper stories as my main sources, and the Stanford Library providing photos, I produced this article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 20, 1992, to honor 100 years of women’s basketball.

Cal vs. Stanford in 1896: Women’s Game Is Born

By Ron Thomas

Chronicle Staff Writer

When the Cal and Stanford women’s basketball teams play tonight at Cal, their rivalry will have added significance: On April 4, 1896, the two teams played the first intercollegiate women’s basketball game ever.

They played in a San Francisco armory on Page Street the day before Easter Sunday. It was a close game that was tied at intermission. The halftime score? 1-1. In the second half, reported the next day’s Chronicle, Cal committed a “fatal foul,” and Stanford’s Frances Tucker capitalized on it by throwing the ball into the basket for a 2-1 victory.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of women’s basketball, or “basket ball,” as it was written at the time. According to “At the Rim,” a new pictorial history of women’s basketball, Senda Berenson, director of physical training at Smith College, introduced the game to women in 1892, just three months after Dr. James Naismith created the game in Springfield, Mass., which is about 20 miles from Northhampton, Mass., home of Smith College.

The first women’s game was played on March 22, 1893, at Smith, a women’s school where the sophomores beat the freshmen, 5-4. Three years later, Cal and Stanford played the first intercollegiate contest.

That first game didn’t resemble basketball as we know it. There were nine players on a team, and the rules were still evolving.

“It wasn’t very clear to people in the beginning how the game should be played, so people snatched the ball away from each other, and they didn’t know how to throw it into the basket,” said Roberta Park, chairman of Cal’s Department of Physical Education and a specialist in sports history.

And women’s uniforms (called “costumes”) were extremely conservative: heavy woolen garments that covered a player’s entire body except for her face, neck and hands.

No Men Allowed

Naismith, who taught physical education at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College), created basketball because his male students needed an indoor winter sport. Park said it was introduced to Cal students by Walter E. Magee, a physical education instructor who had seen it played in Springfield.

At Stanford, one of basketball’s strong boosters was Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher, a staff member in the women’s physical education department who became its director in 1910.

In 1896, the Stanford women challenged Cal to a game in Palo Alto. May Dornin, who wrote a history of early Cal basketball in 1957, quoted the “Berkeleyan” student newspaper saying Cal players refused the challenge. They were “unwilling to have the game played in the open air, or anywhere where a mixed body of spectators can attend,” the Berkeleyan reported.

In other words: No Men Allowed.

Eventually, the teams agreed to the neutral indoor site in San Francisco and the banning of male spectators. Why were the women so concerned about men watching them play?

“Women’s roles, their destiny in life, what they should do and what they were physically and intellectually capable of doing was believed to be entirely different from men – almost diametrically opposed,” Park said.

“Therefore, since the vigorous, powerful and strong was very much part of the masculine role . . . it was strongly believed that not only could women not do this, but if they did it they were violating the rules of nature.”

Also, basketball demanded more exertion than graceful sports like tennis and golf. “If it gets too vigorous, you might get yourself in what were called ungainly poses – you might fall down – and all of these things were just not part of the decorum of the way a young lady should behave,” Park said. “And then you perspired, and women never sweated. Horses sweated, men perspired and women glowed.”

The Chronicle reported that on game day the armory windows were guarded by women holding sticks to keep men from sneaking in. It appears that Mr. Magee was allowed to watch the game because he was quoted in the article, and perhaps Dr. Thomas Wood, Stanford’s director of women’s physical education, was allowed to watch, too.

Emphasis on uniforms

In the Chronicle article, written by Mabel Craft, Magee’s wife, Genevra, (referred to as Mrs. W.A. Magee) and Miss Ada Edwards of Stanford are identified as referees, Miss Moser (presumably a misspelling of Clelia Mosher’s last name) as scorekeeper and a Miss Farnham as timekeeper.

The lengthy Chronicle article (it took half the page, including illustrations) used the very formal writing style of that era. Unlike today’s game stories, which focus on the action, the first third of the article talked almost exclusively about the players’ fashionable uniforms and excellent deportment, which Park said was necessary to prove the game was a respectable activity for women.

“The Berkeley girls have gorgeous hair,” Craft wrote. “Each girl was like a modern Lorelei as she threw back her long mane and braided it in long strands, tied with blue ribbons at the ends and caught up in the way its owner deemed securest.

“. . . the Stanford girls made quite as pretty a picture. Their sweaters were cardinal and masculine in cut, worn over the bloomers without belts and trimmed with wide red sailor collars. Their bloomers were an assorted lot. Some were brown, some blue, some black . . . all wore bewitching polo capes of bright red, with tassels.”

Craft characterized the players as “two different California types.” Stanford players were “small, slender, sinewy. Some were rounded, but most of them were agile, without an ounce of superfluous flesh.” The Cal players were “bigger, stronger, heavier, slower . . . They were more sedate and less vivacious, but not less eager and scarcely less alive than the Palo Alto girls.”

Basketball, 1896 Style

The rules of the game sound strange to us now. “The ball is caught and instantly thrown,” Craft wrote. “No one is allowed to fall on it and stay there. Five feet is the furthest you can run with it, and five seconds the longest you can hold it, and all in all, it’s the jolliest kind of a romp.”

Then she noted that the game was invented for men – “there isn’t anything effeminate about it” – and that physicians who believe women are “so delicate” would become hysterical watching them play it.

Stanford’s Martha Clark sank the first basketball in women’s intercollegiate history, which at the time counted for only one point. “It came after a most exciting rush, when the ball, like a cork, had been from end to end of the hall for 10 minutes,” Craft wrote.

The ball stuck in the basket, which was made of netting, so someone jerked a string attached to the basket and “it belched out its contents,” then the game resumed. About five minutes later, Katherine Jones scored for Cal, tying the game, 1-1.

Then a crisis arose. Stanford’s basket was lopsided, so the janitor and a helper, both men, were allowed in to straighten it. Dornin, citing a San Francisco Examiner article, said the Cal women “modestly retreated” into a huddle at the far end of the court, but the Stanford players “boldly” sat down in the middle of the floor.

At halftime, both teams rested in their dressing rooms and sucked on oranges for nourishment. Craft reported that, “One tearful mother was at the door. ‘I was afraid you were killed, dear,’ she said, ‘when you got that terrible fall, with that great big girl on top of you.”

“Not a bit of it,” her daughter replied. “I’m all right. Go back and don’t bother.”

When Cal fouled Frances Tucker during the second half, Tucker’s ensuing shot scored the winning point.

“The scene that followed was wild,” wrote Craft. “Somebody had an arm around the neck of every red sweater, the little red caps flew in the air and fluttered down anywhere.”

In the next few years, Cal continued to play games against local colleges, high schools and YMCAs, and Stanford women played weekly games against each other. In 1899, a Stanford faculty committee banned women from playing intercollegiate contests in all sports, and Cal’s women were discouraged from intercollegiate action because they couldn’t practice in Harmon Gym, which was being remodeled.

But they defied those orders and played again on April 23, 1900, a 7-0 Stanford victory. Tonight’s game at Harmon Gym is a tribute to their determination and their love for the game of basketball.

Next Sunday: How Bird Took Off

My Take On: The Magic Man Who Had No Limitations

By | Sports

Magic Johnson was listed as a point guard, but he was that in title only. At 6-foot-9, he could shoot or pass over almost any defender. With phenomenal peripheral vision, he could find any open teammate. From the ages of 28 to 30, he almost doubled his 3-point shooting percentage so he couldn’t be left alone on the perimeter. And in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, he proved that he could excel – not just play – center, too.

That evening Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sat out the potential title-clinching game against the Philadelphia 76ers, so Magic volunteered to take his place, then filled the stat sheet with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. That performance earned him his first NBA championship,  the Finals’ MVP Award, and a reputation for being able to play any position.

On June 9, 1987, Magic’s incredible versatility attracted the national spotlight again when his “junior, junior” sky hook – fashioned after Kareem’s signature sky hook – stunned the Boston Celtics with two seconds left in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Two games later, the Lakers clinched the title. In Magic’s 12 seasons with L.A., they appeared in the Finals nine times and won five championships. Here are the roots of today’s article:

The day after Magic’s winning hook shot, writers surrounded his locker and asked how he learned that shot. He credited it, and much of his varied skills, to thievery. Here’s how Magic built his game, one unashamed theft at a time, as told in my San Francisco Chronicle article on June 11, 1987.

Magic’s ‘Stolen’ Talents

By Ron Thomas

Chronicle Correspondent


Magic Johnson proudly admits that he is a thief – one who has stolen parts of his offensive weaponry from some of the best basketball players who ever lived.

If he were not such a student of the game, he probably would not have made Tuesday’s 12-foot hook shot that gave Los Angeles a 3-1 lead in the championship series. Tonight, the Lakers go for win No. 5 and the NBA title at Boston Garden.

Tuesday’s game-winning shot was not a Magic original. Instead, he modeled it after teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s famous “sky hook”, just as Magic previously had emulated Bob Cousy’s passing, Oscar Robertson’s back-in jumper and George Gervin’s deceptive drives.

“I’ve always believed that if you look at other people’s games and see something that can help our game, you should steal it,” Magic said. “Why not? That’s a smart player to me.

“You just steal a little to make your game better, and the guys I took things from were the best in the game. Now I take all those guys and add it to my game, and this is Magic Johnson’s game.

“Here I am.”

Calling on the hook shot guru

The newest addition is his hook, which he shoots with the right or left hand.

Before this season, Magic had used the hook since college, but only in pickup or H-O-R-S-E games. Then, last summer in training camp, Coach Pat Riley changed Johnson’s role from playmaker to scorer-passer, and Magic decided to add variety to his repertoire of shots.

At 6-foot-9, he usually has a height advantage over defenders, so the hook shot seemed ideal for him.

“Plus, even if a man is taller than you, that’s one of the only shots you can still get off,” he said. “It’s just a hard shot to block.”

The hook no longer was a toy to fool around with. Because it was to become an important part of his arsenal, Magic wanted to learn the proper technique for releasing it. So he consulted Abdul-Jabbar, the hook shot guru.

“I gave him permission to shoot it,” Abdul-Jabbar joked. “It’s hard to get the rhythm of it, so I worked on it with him, and I guess he’s worked on his own.”

Magic practiced and practiced the hook during training camp, and sometimes he polished it on his indoor basketball court in his mansion in Bel Air. It became one of his favorite shots, and in March, he beat the Warriors with it in Oakland.

When the final seconds of Tuesday’s game arrived, Magic’s “real junior, junior sky hook” had been perfected before he lifted it over the fingertips of Boston’s 6-11 Kevin McHale and seven-foot Robert Parish.

“At that time, that was my best shot,” Magic said. “I’ve been hitting it all season. I just let it go.”

Profiting from older players’ excellence has been a life­long habit for Magic, beginning when his father, Earvin Sr., taught him how to think on the court.

The Big O, Cousy, and The Ice Man

While growing up in Lansing, Mich., Magic spent many hours watching Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson star in televised games. Since they both are unusually tall guards, Magic said he watched Robertson closely, and now they talk basketball every summer.

Gervin and the late Terry Furlow also lived in Michigan, so Magic played one-on-one games against them when he was in high school. He didn’t get a chance to do that against Cousy, who was 31 when Magic was born, so Johnson has studied films of probably the greatest passer ever.

As a result of Magic’s history lessons, he has become an incredibly versatile superstar.

“l looked at bow Oscar backed in and just shot over people,” Magic said. “On the passing, everybody can pass, but how you pass to set somebody up for a shot is the key. Cousy used to do that the best. He used to drive in and drop it off for a shot.

“Gervin had all the moves, so once he drove in, he could get his shot over everybody. You very rarely saw George Gervin get his shot blocked because he had a technique to slip and slide in to make you, as a big man, unable to jump.”

Now Magic, the ex-pupil, has become a tutor to many high school and college players. Two of his prize students are Celtic guard Sam Vincent, another Michigan native, and University of Iowa star Roy Marble, and Magic often plays one-on-one against youngsters at basketball camps.

It’s his way of paying back Gervin and Furlow, an NBA player who died in a 1980 auto accident.

“When I was young, Furlow used to beat me 15-0,” Magic said. “I was in high school at that time. I would get so frustrated that I would quit. He said, ‘You’re not going to quit. If I beat you everyday 15-0, pretty soon you’re going to get one game.’

“He beat me every day for a while 15-0, then finally 15-1, 15-2, and you start scoring on him. The same way with Gervin. He would kill me, but by learning, after they beat me I would beat everybody my age and a little older than me. They were so proud of me when I made it to the pros.”

Today, Magic Johnson is the star every young player should copy – there’s something in his game for everyone.

Next Sunday: The first women’s college basketball game. Final score: 2-1

My Take On: NBA’s Skywalkers – Playing Above the Rim

By | Sports, Uncategorized

Dunking, a foundation of today’s NBA, used to be a guilty pleasure done in the privacy of casual workouts or a team’s practice in the 1940s and ’50s. Just driving down the lane during a game was frowned upon. “We had a saying, ‘Nobody comes through the middle without a ticket,’ ” recalled Earl Lloyd, the first black player to participate in an NBA game.

So, throwing down a slam would have been considered a rude attempt to embarrass an opponent, probably one worthy of a fight in the NBA’s Wild West days when brawling was acceptable.

But extraordinary leapers like Joe Caldwell and Connie Hawkins made dunking a crowd pleaser in the 1960s and ’70s, and the era of “The Last Dance” produced airborne creative geniuses who were admired and feared during the 1980s and ’90s. That’s why I wrote this third installment of my Sunday basketball profiles. Here are the roots of today’s article:

I interviewed some of the greatest dunkers of all time mostly at the 1986 NBA All-Star Game for a story about the sport’s amazing skywalkers. But that game will forever be remembered for producing the most unexpected Slam Dunk champion of all time, 5-foot-7 Spud Webb. I hope you enjoy “NBA Elite – Games Above the Rim” (SF Chronicle, March 19, 1986) and “Spud Webb Takes Off to New Heights” (SF Chronicle, Feb. 10, 1986).

By Ron Thomas

They are the daredevils of the NBA – the skywalkers who soar, swoop, dip and slither in midair to score points and thrill crowds.

“Going above the rim and making a play,” says Julius Erving, the unofficial captain of the skywalkers’ air corps, “blocking a shot, pinning a ball on the glass, dunking the ball, bringing the ball down then, taking it back up – that’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

Not to mention reputations.

Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan and James Worthy explore the atmosphere around and above the rim in a way few mortals can.

All are small forwards or big guards – the positions that seem to have the best combination of size, strength and flexibility – and they symbolize the playing-in-the-air artistry more prevalent now than ever in the NBA’s 40-year history.

But by “daring to be great” – one of Erving’s personal mottos – they also expose themselves to serious injury.

“The element of danger doesn’t really enter the priorities you think about when you’re on the ground,” Erving said. “It’s right up there one or two when you’re above the rim.

“Where am I going to land, and who’s going to be under me? Is it going to be some guy who will take my legs and put them where my head was, or will this be a safe flight and a safe landing?”

When Erving goes up, he says he’s always looking or feeling for “ground space.” Sometimes, opponents provide it. “If guys see you coming down wrong, they’ll catch you to keep you from hurting yourself,” Wilkins said.

Other skywalkers don’t acknowledge the danger. “I’m so used to it now, there’s no fear,” Jordon said.

Skywalking was a stranger to the NBA until the late 1960s, when Elgin Baylor and Johnny Green joined the league. They both are black, and in the 1990s, eagle-like thrusts to the basket became more common as the number of black players increased.

Tom Sanders, a Boston defensive star in the ’60s, said black players learned to defy gravity because they concentrated on developing their skills more than white players.

In addition, basketball is king in predominantly black urban areas, where there is a scarcity of playing space and money required for other sports (such as golf and tennis).

“It comes down to the number or blacks who take the game seriously,” Sanders said, adding a personal concern that too many young players place basketball above academics.

Sanders said that when he played, every team had at least one player with extraordinary leaping ability – Connie Hawkins, Joe Caldwell – but there was much less dunking because of a popular defensive philosophy.

‘If you make me look bad, I may hurt you a little bit.’ – ex-Celtic Tom Sanders

Today, dunking and playing in the air are accepted fundamentals of pro basketball, says Lakers coach Pat Riley, executed best by “disciplined leapers” who have tremendous body control.

“It’s the evolution of the athletes,” Riley said. “The training methods and their physical makeup have changed the game. It’s being played much higher and taller than in the past.”

In skywalking, there is no prepared flight plan. Says WiIkins: “I just do whatever comes to mind.”

So does Worthy, who credits skywalking to “God-given talent” and spontaneity.

“You run into obstacles you don’t expect when you first take off,” he said. “Once you run into them, creativity is just automatic.”

A few years ago, Worthy pulled off one of the most sensational moves ever seen in the Coliseum Arena when he went up for a baseline shot, spun 360 degrees around the Warriors’ Larry Smith, then banked in a jumper.

Credit it to planned spontaneity.

Earlier in the game, Smith had blocked two of Worthy’s shots after Worthy had eluded his main de­nfender. The next time, Worthy shook Purvis Short, waited for Smith to leap, then jumped and spun around him.

“I didn’t know it was going to be a turn,” Worthy said. “That playground instinct just came out. I never practiced that before.” And he has not been able to duplicate the move since.

Jordan, who has missed most of this season with a broken foot, appears to change direction in midair effortlessly, but he says it’s easier to play earthbound.

“On the ground, you control your steps,” he said. “In the air, you can’t. You can’t go around a person.”

But Jordan does, doesn’t he? “It looks like it,” he said. “A lot of times when you change direction, it’s because you got bumped.”

Worthy never rehearses his moves, but Erving takes a studious approach that defies the concept of the “natural athlete.” He sometimes will sit at courtside and think about different ways to expand the court’s dimensions.

For a memorable basket in the 1980 playoff finals, Erving drove down the right side of the foul lane, floated under the backboard with the ball extended out of bounds, then curled under the left corner of the backboard for a reverse layup over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“They don’t know what to do when I’m holding the ball out of bounds,” Ervin said at the time. “Do they go for it? Do they wait for me to bring it back? It has a tendency to freeze defenders. That’s from studying the game – that’s not natural, either.”

Even Erving’s subconscious reaches skyward. He has dreams in which he is flying, which inspires his on-court imagination.

Skywalker By Necessity, Not Nature

As a younger growing up in Roosevelt, Long Island, he most admired Jumpin’ Johnny Green, the 6-foot-5 Knicks forward who often would grab a teammate’s off-target shot in midair and guide it into the basket.

“I always got a kick out of that part of his game,” Erving said.

Erving’s flights of fancy began for more practical reasons. He wasn’t a good outside shooter, so be needed a way to get closer to the basket.

“I started saying, ‘This is wonderful. I can create as avenue for myself and get to the basket, (where) I can jump up and just drop it in.’ It was almost a no-brainer.

“And out on the break, there was the challenge of taking the little guys for a ride.”

Erving’s flights can get dangerously bumpy.

“There’s an electricity that goes through you if you think you should be on the ground and suddenly you’re not,” Erving said. “Suddenly you’re riding on somebody’s shoulder or you get turned around. It’s like a shocking experience and it’s very, very scary.”

After one of those flights, Erving likes to stay on the runway for a while.

How do defenders stop skywalkers? Denver small forward Alex English has the unenviable task of guarding many of them. He doesn’t let his ego get in the way of reality.

“It’s difficult in that they may go over your head, but you use your fundamentals like blocking out and staying on the floor when they shoot,” English said. “Some plays you just have to accept that you can’t do anything.”

Of all the players who specialize in playing in the air, English is most awed by the former NBA star who officially carried the nickname “Skywalker.”

“When I played with David Thompson,” English said, “he did things that just blew my mind.”

Spud Webb Takes Off to New Heights

Photo by Associated Press

By Ron Thomas

Chronicle Correspondent


Spud Webb, whose nickname came from a satellite, has reached a new orbit.

Webb, a 5-foot-7, 133-pound rookie reserve guard for the Atlanta Hawks, is the NBA’s Slam Dunk king, taking the crown Saturday from his best friend among his teammates, 6-7 defending champion Dominique Wilkins.

Wilkins knew Webb could dunk far better than his height would allow, but he didn’t know Webb could defy gravity to make 360-degree spins in the air and still have enough loft left to jam the ball through.

Webb knew that all along, but he can’t explain why he can hang and twirl and spin and jam – even though his hands are so small that he can’t palm a basketball.

“When I figure that out, I’ll write a book about it,” Webb said.

Maybe it’s all in the nickname, Spud. “Everybody thinks it came from a potato, but it came from a satellite,” Webb said.

On his first dunk, he was 5-foot-4

When Webb was a baby, he reminded a friend of his mother’s of a Soviet space satellite called “Sputnik.” Other children shortened it to “Spud,” and now, every basketball fan in America is bound to recognize that nickname, too.

Couple the fact that a 5-7 player won the dunking championship with 6-foot-9 Larry Bird winning the Long-Distance Shootout, and there couldn’t be a better advertising tool for a sport that prides itself on having the world’s best and most versatile athletes.

“Isn’t it great for the NBA?” Atlanta coach Mike Fratello said. “It’s just another thing that will enhance the NBA in the public’s eye.”

Fratello, who also is 5-7, said he can’t imagine anybody who can’t identify with Webb. “When you’re on the bus tomorrow riding to work or on the subway somewhere, you’re saying to yourself, ‘He’s smaller than I am’ or ‘He’s as small as my son is.’

“He’s America. Everybody’s going to be out there tomorrow in their driveway trying to hit the rim.”

Webb spent a lot of time hitting the rim himself before he dunked for the first time. He said he must have tried 100 times before he finally cleared the rim. He slammed for the first time as a 5-foot-4 high school senior.

Since Webb is a Dallas native, he was the crowd favorite all day. (Webb is tied with three others as the smallest players in NBA history: Monte Towe, Red Klotz and Wat Misaka.)

His biggest fan at the contest (rating enthusiasm, not size) was 5-9 former NBA star Calvin Murphy, who had played earlier in the old-timers game. When the judges gave Webb less than a perfect score of 50 on one dunk, Murphy was so agitated he stalked up the sideline toward the judges’ table, frowned like he had smelled a skunk and waved his white cap in disgust. And when Webb stood nearby, you could see Murphy chattering away.

“He was telling me he had (bet) his house on me, so don’t miss,” Webb said.

“We know that the fans wanted Spud to win,” said judge Roger Staubach, the former Dallas Cowboys star. “But we had to be sure that he deserved it. He was more creative.”

A Self-Made ‘Sputnik’

Such as when he threw the ball toward the basket about 15 feet high, caught it on one bounce in mid-air and reverse dunked without touching earth.

And his first dunk, a running two-hand slam, had some accidental flourish. It went through the net, bounced on top of Webb’s head, then bounded back up through the net again.

It was originally ruled a miss until everyone realized Webb’s head had launched its own basketball “Sputnik.”

Webb had performed all of his dunks before, but he didn’t come into the contest with any set plan of dunks. “I didn’t decide what I was going to do until the referee handed me the ball,” he said.

He hadn’t even practiced his routine. “For the last week, I had a sore ankle,” he explained.

“Yeahhhh. Right,” said a skeptical Wilkins. “You must have done some quick healing.”

Next Sunday: Magic Johnson’s “Stolen” Talents

My Take On: Air Jordan Lands in Oakland

By | Sports

Since NBA Commissioner Adam Silver suspended the NBA season on March 11 because of the coronavirus,  hoops-starved fans have clung to ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary (has a film ever had a better timed release?), replays of memorable games, and endless roundtable discussions about sports’ unknown future while panelists practice social distancing.

It’s just not enough for desperate NBA junkies, so I offer to do my part to satisfy us. I received such a good response to my April 24th blog about Michael Jordan that I’ve decided to make it the first installment in a series of articles about the roots of pro basketball superstars’ exploits. They will be focused on NBA players who starred between 1976, the first season after the ABA-NBA merger, to 1995, when Hall of Famer Moses Malone retired as the last NBA player who had played in the ABA.

Why that span? Because there never was, and I believe never will be, a greater collection of pro basketball talent over a 20-year period. At a time when the struggling NBA couldn’t get the Finals shown on prime time TV, the merger added an influx of dominant, extremely creative players like Julius “Dr. J” Erving, George “The Iceman” Gervin, David “Skywalker” “Thompson and Larry “Special K” Kenon who arrived playing at or near their peak. Add Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isaiah Thomas, Kevin McHale and other future stars who joined the NBA through the normal draft, and you have an incomparable harvest of talent.

Superstar Profiles to Come

During the next two months, I’ll post profiles I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today about different types of roots of the NBA’s phenomenal dunkers, Magic, Bird, Dr. J, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Ray Richardson, and a historical piece about the beginning of women’s basketball. With that hoops nourishment, I hope we can maintain our sanity through June 21st, when Game 7 of the NBA Finals could have been played.

The roots of today’s article: During Michael Jordan’s first two NBA seasons, Oakland had a hex on him even though the Bulls played there only once per season. In 1984, head coach Kevin Loughery limited Jordan to only 13 minutes against Golden State. In 1985, he broke his foot on a fluke play and missed 64 games. But on Nov. 29, 1986, he returned to Oakland at full throttle, averaging 37 ppg. before punishing the Warriors for 40 more. Before that evening, the Chronicle flew me to Los Angeles to interview Jordan and teammates about his blue-collar, hard-hat work ethic that returned him to prominence, never to be grounded by injury again.

Coming Next: The NBA’s Skywalkers – Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy, Michael Jordan on how they fly so high

My Take On: The Night Superman Met His Kryptonite

By | Sports

By Ron Thomas

Here is the actual clipping of the game story I wrote after Michael Jordan suffered the only serious injury of his career, a broken left foot in 1985./Photo by Mike Maloney, San Francisco Chronicle

In retrospect, I buried the lead, as we say in the news business. I had overlooked the best story of the night.

In the second episode of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s celebrated documentary about the Chicago Bulls’ last of six NBA championship seasons, one of the more telling events occurred when Michael Jordan broke his foot in the third game of his second season. It happened in Oakland on Oct. 29, 1985, and I was there.

I was the San Francisco Chronicle’s beat reporter covering the Golden State Warriors, and 11,210 fans had come to the Coliseum Arena to see the NBA’s newest superstar. The fact that the 15,000-seat arena was far from filled tells you that Jordan was more potential than production, and the Bulls were closer to pedestrian than perfection. Their head coach was Stan Albeck, not Phil Jackson, and the rest of the starting lineup was Sidney Green, Orlando Woolridge, Jawann Oldham and Kyle Macy – all solid NBA players but not a star among them. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman weren’t even in the league yet.

Either the Bulls won or Jordan was no fun

The early part of the series had devoted itself to how fanatical Jordan was about winning. There were no moral victories in his world, no confidence-building losses against title contenders. Either the Bulls won or he was no fun, and in the film, 35 years after he broke his foot, viewers could hear the disappointment in the now 57-year-old Jordan’s voice as he recalled how he landed wrong on a fastbreak and basically ruined the rest of his season.

However, that night in Oakland, the Bulls rallied behind Woolridge’s 25 points and Macy’s 12 assists to win 111-105. Jordan had contributed 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting in only 18 minutes, but no one knew at the time that his season was over. So, rather than leading my story with the fact that the great Jordan had left the court after hurting his foot, I “buried my lead” and didn’t get around to mentioning him until my ninth paragraph.

“Many of the 11,210 spectators had come to see superstar Michael Jordan, but the Coliseum Arena is becoming his personal jinx,” I wrote that night. “Last season, he played a season-low 24 minutes in a Bulls loss when then-coach Kevin Loughery benched him. Last night, he jammed his left foot, compressing two bones, with 45 seconds left in the first half and didn’t play again. It was X-rayed after the game.”

‘I was devastated because I had never got hurt.’ – Michael Jordan

At the time, it looked like no big deal; players limp off the court all the time, and even the fact that Jordan was carried off the court a few minutes later didn’t raise an alarm. Today, Jordan probably would have had an MRI exam the next day, but that technology wasn’t available yet for sports injuries. So it wasn’t until November 5th, a week after he got hurt, that a Chicago Tribune article reported the X-rays did not reveal a break but a CAT scan found that Jordan had fractured a navicular tarsal bone in his left foot.

“I was devastated because I had never got hurt,” Jordan recalled in the documentary while shaking his head. He still sounds annoyed about it. “They put me in a cast. I couldn’t do anything. I was anxious. I’m sure I was irritable to a lot of people.”

That fracture cost him 64 games, the only time in his 15 seasons that he had a serious injury. Jordan played in only 15 more games that season, the Bulls finished with a 30-52 record, and Chicago’s first of six titles was still six years away.

My Take On: The Brains Behind Serena – Her Own

By | Sports

Image Captions: Serena Williams trailed 4-2 in her Wimbledon championship match against Garbine Muguruza, but solved the puzzle to become champion again./Photo by Julian Figgins/Getty Images

Serena Williams is such a dynamic, powerful, beautiful, black Superwoman athlete that everything she does and is hits society like an exploding firecracker. That’s five reasons why her fans – especially her black fans – are so protective of her.

That was obvious when the New York Times got beaten up so badly by its readers over focusing its article “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition” around Serena’s physique. Even the Times’ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, apologized for the article’s lack of depth.

As ESPN Wimbledon commentator LZ Granderson said, “So many different conversations come from the simple fact that this dark-skinned, impactful successful black woman is at the top of what has been known as a privileged white sport.”

Another hovering controversy about Serena was handled with much grace by ESPN analysts on July 12, the day after she won her sixth Wimbledon crown and 21st Grand Slam. Her detractors – some of whom clearly are racists or sexists – often dismiss her by claiming she merely bludgeons foes into defeat with her awesome power. It’s the classic “blacks win with brawn; whites win with brains” argument, but before the men’s final, ESPN’s tennis analysts – all exceptional pros in their day – struck blow after blow against that stereotype.

Early in the Wimbledon final, Serena seemed to be thinking, "Oh, oh. I'd better change my strategy."
Early in the Wimbledon final, Serena seemed to be thinking, “Oh, oh. I’d better change my strategy.”

Winning with head and heart

Chris Evert raved about her with the loyalty of a twin sister, praising Serena’s competitiveness that has left her within one title – the U.S. Open – of only the fourth calendar year Grand Slam in women’s tennis history, and the first since Steffi Graf achieved it in 1988.

Cliff Drysdale pointed out that Serena made a critical adjustment three years ago when she changed to the same kind of racket Roger Federer uses, thus gaining control over her sometimes erratic forehand.

Then Mary Joe Fernandez hit the “brains vs. brawn” bull’s-eye, buttressed by Granderson praising Serena’s problem-solving skills.

“What’s impressed me the most, LZ, about Serena throughout these Slams this season is the way she hasn’t panicked,” Fernandez said. “She hasn’t played her best. She’s been down a set and a break, two points from losing to Heather Watson here. And she figures things out.

“It’s not just about the serve; she got broken three times yesterday. She’s got other things to fall back on and she’s thinking out there. She’s finding ways to win.”

For an article that appreciates the totality of Serena’s achievements, read BBC Sport’s Tom Fordyce.

My Take On: Becky Hammon, Spurs Future Head Coach?

By | Sports

Image Caption: Becky Hammon and her players celebrate her coaching the Spurs to the Las Vegas Summer League championship, a historic basketball achievement. /Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

By Ron Thomas

The scene looked so familiar to NBA fans. With only 2.5 seconds left in a tied postseason game, San Antonio inbounded the ball, a Spur dribbled toward the basket and then sank the winning 20-foot floater to stun Boston in a quarterfinal playoff game.

It looked like the Spurs’ iconic coach, Gregg Popovich, the winner of five NBA titles, had worked his magic again. Except that after the winning play a commentator said, “Just like coach Hammon drew it up.”

Who? He was referring to Becky Hammon, who on July 11 became the first woman to be the head coach of an NBA Summer League team. Saturday’s winning shot by her player, Shannon Scott, raised her team’s record in the Las Vegas Summer League to 4-1 and qualified them to face Atlanta in Sunday’s semifinal.

They overcame a 12-point deficit to win that game, and then squeezed past Phoenix 93-90 on Monday to win the Las Vegas Summer League championship in Hammon’s head-coaching debut. After losing her first game, Hammon led the Spurs to six straight victories.

Becky Hammon's encouragement helped Kyle Anderson become MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League.
Becky Hammon’s encouragement helped Kyle Anderson become MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League./Photo by Ronda Churchill/AP

Those last three games were perfect examples of  why Popovich hired her as the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach last season. He has highly praised Hammon, a longtime WNBA star guard, while comparing her to three excellent NBA coaches he helped groom.

“She talks the game,” Popovich said. “She understands the game. So for all of those reasons, you really know she’s got that same sort of Avery Johnson, Steve Kerr, (Mike) Budenholzer type thing.”

Gregg Popovich talks wine at the Rex Hill Vineyards that produce his label./Photo by Karly Imus/The Oregonian
Gregg Popovich talks wine at the Rex Hill Vineyards that produce his label./Photo by Karly Imus/The Oregonian

At the age of 66, Popovich soon will start his 20th season as the Spurs’ head coach. He has said he will complete the remaining four years on his contract. Maybe by then, or before then, the noted wine connoisseur will be ready to retire to spend more time sipping his private wine label Rock & Hammer Pinot Noir.

Despite all of his championships, the boldest and most unique part of Popovich’s legacy would occur if he hands the head-coaching reins to Hammon.

Hammon is fortunate to have the strongest advocate she could ever wish for, a future Hall of Fame coach who commands so much respect that if any Spurs player balks at taking orders from a woman, he should just keep that thought to himself. As all of us who grew up with a strong father figure remember, there are some things you just don’t want “Pop” to know.

My Take On: Bill McMoore, Always Looking Out for His Brothers and Sisters

By | Sports

Image caption: Bill McMoore carried a menacing right hand when he entered the ring, just waiting for a jaw to be exposed. This falling San Jose State boxer felt McMoore’s power in their 1951 match. 

By Ron Thomas

(The following is the introduction I read before presenting McMoore with a Pioneer Award from the National Association of Black Journalists Sports Task Force on August 7.)

When Bill McMoore graduated from the University of Minnesota, Harry Truman was president, “I Love Lucy” had not debuted on TV yet, and the NBA still was playing without a shot clock.

It was 1951, and if Bill wanted to view the university’s black representation on the football and boxing teams, and in the Education Department, all he needed was a mirror. In all three cases, he was the entire brotherhood. Yet, he persevered.

As a boxer, succeeding was a breeze because his coach was so supportive. “He was more of a father-like coach, so I didn’t feel discriminated against,” McMoore, now 89, recalled. “Ray Chisholm was a very nice guy.”

McMoore responded to his support by becoming the No. 2-ranked lightheavyweight in NCAA rankings, back when boxing was a sanctioned sport.

“I had a good right hand,” Bill said. “You had to worry about that…. Straight right hand to the chops.”

However, McMoore seldom played in a football game. He believes that he was discriminated against, but he refused to quit the team. “That was just ingrained in me,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up in anything.”

A One-Man Employment Agency

Bill began his teaching career in 1958 at Minnesota South High from where he graduated, and in the early 1980s he became the district’s director of health, physical education and athletics. He used that authority to add color to the sidelines, including giving Sports Task Force member Charles Hallman his first coaching job.

Charles was teaching young kids basketball one day when a parent complimented him and asked if he coached high school ball. When Charles said no, the parent said he knew someone who could hire him. A few days later, Bill called and asked for his resume.

“I didn’t know he was the AD,” Charles recalled. “I just thought he was somebody working for the schools. I didn’t know he was THE MAN.”

That was in 1984, and soon Charles was an assistant coach. Today, he’s still coaching in Minneapolis schools and so are both of his sons – all part of McMoore’s legacy.


But Bill is most proud of how hard he fought to get women hired as coaches. “If a man could find benefits from coaching in sports, why shouldn’t women?” he said.

Bill retired from the school district in 1989 and became director of community relations for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, where he started an internship for minorities by recruiting from HBCUs. One of his finds was Terrell Battle from Winston-Salem State, who now is General Manager of Lifetime Fitness in Minneapolis.

So Bill, please come to the podium to accept our award for being a black pioneer in so many ways for so many people for so long.

My Take On: Tony Oliva, Baseball Star Who Owes His Career to Fidel Castro

By | Sports

Image caption: To honor his great career and his retired No. 6 jersey, the Minnesota Twins dedicated this statue to Tony Oliva in 2011 at Gate 6 at Target Field. 

By Ron Thomas

(The following is the introduction I read before presenting Oliva with a Pioneer Award from the National Association of Black Journalists Sports Task Force on August 7.)

If not for Fidel Castro, Tony Oliva probably would not be one of our honorees today.

One of the great hitters of the last half-century, Oliva was raised in rural Cuba, where baseball is revered. He played only on Sundays, and he learned how to hit as his brother pitched to him.

“I told him any time you strike me out you get a nickel, and he had to work hard to strike me out,” Tony said.

In 1959, Castro overthrew the dictatorial Cuban government. The next year, the Washington Senators signed Tony to a contract before moving to the Twin Cities, and in January of 1961, the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Using his brother’s documents to leave, Tony (whose real first name is Pedro Jr.) was allowed to fly first to Mexico and then to the States for a tryout with 21 other Cuban players. They were the last baseball players to leave Cuba without defecting.

The lucky break that made a career

At spring training in Fernandina Beach, Florida, Tony was cut presumably because of poor fielding, but he believes racism was the real reason. Only two minor-league teams were left in spring training when the Cubans had arrived. The Erie, Pa., team had already chosen one black player, and the other team from Florida didn’t want any, so Tony was supposed to be sent home. But because of the Castro-U.S. feud, there were no boat or plane rides to Cuba.

A minor-league manager named Phil Howser got a rave report on Tony so he paid Tony’s expenses until Howser found a team that would take him in Wytheville, Virginia. There he hit .410, and a stellar career was born.

Unlike many of today’s hitters who will get a three-ball count and then settle for a walk, Tony stayed aggressive at the plate. Regardless of the count, if a pitcher threw what he calls “a Cuban sandwich,” Tony tried to crush it.

Instant star

He made history by leading the American League in batting in his first two full major-league seasons, hitting .323 in 1964 and .321 in 1965. Despite a serious mid-career injury that resulted in eight surgeries and a replacement of his right knee, from 1962-76 Tony batted .304 with 220 home runs, 947 RBIs, 8 straight All-Star Game appearances and five finishes among the top 10 vote-getters for the MVP award.

Last year, Tony was deeply disappointed when he missed being selected for the Hall of Fame by one vote. But this year brought him joy when President Obama re-opened U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“Hopefully, more people will enjoy a chance to enjoy Cuba and see for themselves what kind of people Cuban people are – very nice, very friendly,” Tony said. “I have five brothers and sisters and I go back every year.

“Now I have two countries. I live 55 years in the United States and 21 in Cuba. I am very proud of both countries.”

Tony, please come to the podium for being one of the most lethal hitters of our time.

Morehouse's Ron Thomas, Jeffrey Washington '10, Jayson Overby and Thomas Scott '13 surround 2015 Pioneer Award winner Tony Oliva

Image caption: Tony Oliva with (L-R) me, Morehouse graduate Jeffrey Washington ’10, past Maroon Tiger Editor-in-Chief Jayson Overby and Thomas Scott ’13