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They say that every sport is all about winning.  Unless you can’t.  So what’s left then?  Watching the sport.  Is that so bad?  Before you reply, consider this: I’m talking about one season.  One Lockout-shortened season.  After which our team has two first round draft-picks.  And maybe more, pending a possible Kaman trade.  So is it so bad to watch basketball excellence for a half, to stop playing in the third, followed by a final, futile comeback in the fourth; or a tight game through three quarters, only to be followed by a massive collapse in the fourth?  It’s frustrating, I know.  But, based on the fast-paced back and forth nature of the game, followed by the expectation of better tomorrows to come, I think it’s safe to say it’s gonna be okay.  You just have to change your mindset a bit.

General Manager Dell Demps and Coach Monty Williams both come from the San Antonio organization and, in many ways, model this franchise on that one, hoping to replicate the same success through finding the right pieces, the right attitudes, and employing the right system–starting from the ground up.  Consider their model, the Spurs, which, in 1995-1996, were 59-23, ultimately losing in the Western Conference semi-finals.  The next year, their superstar center, David Robinson, went down with an injury, and the team was 20-62, and failed to even make the playoffs.  That offseason, the ping pong balls delivered them Tim Duncan.  The next season, with Robinson back, the Spurs went on to a 56-23 season, and again made it to  the Western Conference semis.  The following year the Spurs won it all.  And from there, a dynasty was born, with 4 Larry O’Briens in 9 years.

Is Monty the next Popovich?  Will injured shooting guard Eric Gordon be our David Robinson?  And will one or both of our ping pong balls deliver us the League’s next superstar?  I don’t know.  But I believe this team, with all its injuries, bad luck, and lack of practice time, will come back next year: hungry, angry, rested, practiced, and ready to demolish the rest of the League.  If there’s one thing that can be said about this team is that it tries.  Some losing teams give up; you can see it in their play, and in the looks on their faces.  Not these guys.  Their effort, night to night, and coming so close, again and again, is admirable.  So, next year, assuming the team is healthy, I expect the Hornets to return to the Playoffs.  But, that said, how do we, as fans, survive this season?  And as an esteemed member of the Hornets’ Twitter group, #twittersection asked last night, why do we come back next year?  Because there is plenty to enjoy, losses be damned.  America derides losses, but sometimes loses the trees for the forest.

All we have to do is just be fans.  It’s not that hard.  You think Belinelli worries about the last shot he missed?  You think Okafor wonders on each defensive rotation whether he blocked the last shot that came his way?  We all love basketball.  We need to do that.  Let’s love what we can, and let the rest fall away.  I’ve been told repeatedly by casual fans that they love the experience of the Hornets games, win or lose.  Bring the kids.  Cheer loud.  Enjoy the Arena’s house jazz band.  Enjoy the middle school drum line.  Cross your fingers that the halftime show is that lady that tosses the bowls on her head.  Enjoy the Mardi Gras Baby, King, and Jester race, the dance cam, and the kiss cam.  It’s all part of the basketball experience.  There’s no reason more serious basketball fans can’t do the same thing.  Join the cheers, clap, and berate Dick Bavetta and the other Donaghy-type refs.  And if you’re watching at home, crack a beer (or five) and watch (or tweet or live-blog) with friends.  Talk about what works, criticize what doesn’t.  But just watch the sport, and keep your eyes off the final score.

Above all, let go of your expectations.  Don’t get wrapped up in hoping for wins in this 2011-2012 season.  As ADAA champion, Peter La Fleur, once said: “I found that if you have a goal, that you might not reach it. But if you don’t have one, then you are never disappointed. And I gotta tell ya, it feels phenomenal.”  Look how that worked out for La Fleur: he ended up winning it all.  Regardless, that’s how Hornets fans will survive this season: no expectations.  Don’t focus on the outcome, but the moment-to-moment minutia that made you love basketball in the first place.

Marvel at the improvement in Okafor’s offensive game.  Appreciate those times Jack finds the right shots just behind a screener and pulls up for a mid-range, open jumper; and his fast penetration dribble that causes problems, making the right pass once he draws in the defenders; rather than those other times when he dribbles the ball at the top of the key for 20 seconds.  Cheer for Marco off the bench to hit those trademark off-balance jumpers, and those long threes that send the Italian flags running around the arena.  Watch Aminu grow into the NBA game, using his length and athleticism to defend and rebound, and look for that moment when he will figure out his offensive role, and the purpose that will make him dangerous. Smile at Jason Smith’s open jumpers hitting bottom, followed by a vicious block on the other end; and stop being surprised when he takes his man off the dribble and throws it down.  Stand up and holler like a madman when Vasquez and Ayon take over games with their high energy offense-defense tandem: Ayon slipping the pick and Vasquez making a bounce pass through traffic for an easy lay-in,  Ayon getting the deflection on the other end, and outletting to Vasquez on a break, which ends in the athletic Summers dunking it over a scrambling defender.  Take pride in the success hard work can bring, as evidenced by 29-year-old rookie and Nola product, Squeaky Johnson, leading the second unit.  Watch Xavier Henry work his way back into the rotation after injury, and believe everything will be okay once Gordon does the same.  Above all, enjoy the passion with which this team plays moment-to-moment, working so hard to play their best.  Because, as fans, what more can we ask?

It’s okay, Hornets fans.  It’s not always about the wins.  Some seasons, it’s just not in the cards.  But, if you love the sport, seeing three-fourths of a great game from your team can be enough.  Take a deep breath, enjoy what you can, get mad when the defense doesn’t rotate fast enough or the refs blow a call.  But don’t sweat it when the team loses by 2, again.  Believe this is just one season.  One Lockout-shortened season.  With current team owner, Stern, picking those ping pong balls in June.  Think back to the conspiracy theories about how the Knicks got Ewing and the Spurs got Duncan.  Believe it’s our turn next.  That’s part of your solace.

Let the anger and frustration from the results wash away.  It’s all we can do.  Unless you can hoop better than these guys and can finagle a try-out before the add deadline, you can’t control the outcome, you can only watch.  But you can survive.  As New Orleanians know, sometimes that’s enough.

So watch the games, get excited, and cheer for the Hornets on every play.  Our guys are trying hard, they deserve our support.  If you watch, you will still see great basketball and be entertained.  Just don’t expect wins.  Not this year.  But that’s okay.  Sometimes the trip is more important than the destination.  Winners are forged in fire.  What today’s ordeal brings will be bound to tomorrow’s successes.  So hang tight.  We’re in this together.  The team is frustrated, the fans are frustrated.  But believe that this will make us all stronger.

Believe that this season is an aberration; ignore the standings.  Have no expectations other than to watch an intense competition.  Enjoy the little things done right this year.  Because it is those things, combined with health and some talented new rookies, that will lead to success next year.  That’s how Hornets fans survive the 2011-2012 season.

Talking With The Big Heads

By on January 21, 2012

On January 20, 2010, Hornets radio voice, Sean Kelley hosted a live interactive fan conference call with Hornets President, Hugh Weber, Vice-President and General Manager, Dell Demps, and scores of season ticket holders. Over the hour-long call, both men established that they are committed to building not just a new Hornets team, but a new image, a new culture, and a new identify for the Hornets organization.

Each of the key pieces to the Hornet’s front office has his own watchwords. Weber’s are my least favorite; to him, it’s all about products, investments, markets, and branding. I understand that as a businessman, those words probably mean are as casually thrown around as the words “pass” and “score” at a Hornets practice, and perhaps they help him gauge strategy and success in a purely financial capacity. For one though, I hate thinking of a business made of up people (the coaches, staff, and players), as a “product.” If you listen to any speech by Weber, he uses these words repeatedly, as if he’s trying to figure out how to market a suitcase company’s new brand of luggage. (I counted his use of the word “brand” 4 times during the call.) Although Hornets head coach, Monty Williams, wasn’t on the call, he has his word too: defense. It is a mantra he instills in each of his players, and not just on the court; clearly, for Williams, they need to use the word every time they talk as part of an all-encompassing philosophy. Listen to interviews with Hornets players; you’d think they get fined if they speak without using the word “defense.” I particularly love it when the question has nothing to do with defense and that is their answer anyway (“Jarrett, how were you able to penetrate the Mavs’ 2-3 zone all night?” “Well, we made big stops on defense and used that to spark our offense in transition.”) Dell’s word is my favorite, though: culture. He, at least, seems to understand that it is about people. He understands it is about attitude, teamwork, and grit. Throughout the conference call he made it clear that he is doing everything possible to get this team on the right track ,and, despite the team’s struggles so far this year, it is not hard to see that Demps and company have things moving in the right direction.

Almost as soon as the call began, the question of who will buy the Hornets from the NBA was asked. Personally, I expected Chouest to re-surface shortly after the CBA was inked, but it appears the NBA is unwilling to sell the team until a new lease for the Arena is inked. While neither Weber or Demps indicated who might ultimately buy the team, they did say that they hoped to announce an owner by February, and said they want to hold a press conference with the Governor to announce both a new owner and a new lease for the Arena. A new lease for this new owner would include no benchmarks, and would expect to run through 2024 or 2025. Weber indicated he wanted the new lease to show that:

Fans can rest at ease that this is their team, and a team that they can count on for many generations to come.

Indeed, Weber is so confident about getting the new lease done, he said the team wasn’t even watching the benchmark situation at all, as the new lease would supersede the current lease. He was concerned about the contract with Cox Sports, though, as currently the amount of fans that can watch the game is limited. Currently, CST, which shows all the games, is only available on Cox Cable, Charter, and Dish Network, but not DirectTV or U-Verse. Weber stressed that this was not a Northshore-Southshore thing, but just a matter of contractual disputes between different providers. As Weber said, “if [people] cannot watch our games, they cannot become fans.” At any rate, the contract with Cox expires this year, so hopefully the Hornets will strong arm it into accepting better terms for the team.

Another issue that was asked about was the naming rights for the Arena. While Weber refused to comment on any ongoing negotiations, or the rumor that one proposal was the “Louisiana Seafood Arena Seasoned by Zatarain’s,” he indicated that Louisiana Seafood (full name Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, a 15 member governmental board formed in 1984 to strengthen and revitalize the Louisiana seafood industry) and Zatarain’s a major sponsors of the Hornets, and that the Hornets would be proud to have either of their names on the Arena. Nonetheless, Weber was clear that nothing was in place with anyone yet. Weber did indicate, however, that naming the Arena was a key step of the organization’s plan; “a big piece of the future,” as he put it, and part of the “legacy” they are trying to create as a successful franchise.

Before long, the conversation turned to New Orleans being a small market, and the impact that had on creating a winning team. Demps said the new CBA gives teams like New Orleans a fair chance to win with the players it drafts, because rookie contracts typically allow teams to keep a player 4 years; and, even after that, the player is a restricted free agent, making it possible for a team to re-sign the player for another 3-5 years. When asked what it takes to lure free agents to New Orleans, that is, to make this team a preferred destination, Demps had an interesting answer. Demps indicated that under the new CBA it is hard to get free agents. A lot of the available ones, he said, are restricted free agents, and teams end up overpaying to get those guys. Also, he mentioned that the unrestricted free agents are usually older, around 29, and you have to consider that when you go after them. At the end of the day, he said you just have to build a good team, and have a winning culture, which makes players want to be here.

When asked about Eric Gordon , Demps responded that Gordon wants to be here, and that he likes New Orleans. Gordon obviously has a bruised patella, which continues to swell, and Demps did not know when he would return to the court, indictating that extra tests would be done this weekend. Demps said that the team is more concerned with protecting Gordon’s long-term health, rather than trying to get him back too soon. Demps said that hoped for a resolution on Gordon soon. Whether he was referring to the injury or a possible contract extension was unclear.

One brave fan asked about Jarrett Jack as a long-term starter at point guard. Demps indicated that Jack has embraced his role, and is playing well, and that the team has no plans to change their point guard. Nonetheless, he said you can never say you won’t change. Reading between the lines: we have no choice.

There were also plenty of questions about the Hornets bigs. No surprise that the questions began with the team’s presumptive starter at the power forward position this year, Carl Landry. Demps admitted that Landry has had an up and down season, but that he will get his chance to earn his minutes, just like everyone else. Demps also discussed brief the fact that Kaman and and Okafor play differently, and that each brings something to the table, and that Monty is still experimenting with what works best. Demps added that Jason Smith has really stepped up, surprising them–but then he caught himself and rephrased, saying that Smith had developed ahead of schedule. Dell also seemed really happy to have Gustavo Ayon, and said that Ayon’s not knowing Engilsh hasn’t really been impediment, based on his high basketball IQ, and having an assistant who speaks both languages (and added that he’s learning English quickly). Ultimately, Demps seemed to acknowledge that the team has a problem may teams wish they had: too many bigs.. The key, though, seems not figuring out what each one can do, but what they can do together. As Dell put it:

[It] Doesn’t matter about the name on the back of the jersey, we’re more concerned about the name on the front of the jersey.

Someone else asked if Demps if he thought the Hornets were weak at the small forward position. He quickly responded that the team had a quality 3 in Trevor Ariza, who had, until recently, been injured. Demps made the good point that, against Houston, Kevin Martin exploded for 27 points in the first half; but, in the second, the Hornets switched Ariza onto him, and Martin was was held to only 5 points that half. Interestingly, of the “wing” position in generally, as Demps referred to the 2 and 3 spots, he said “In our system, the shooting guard and small forward are interchangeable.” What makes that even more interesting is Demps’ and Williams’ preference also to play combo 1/2 guards at the shooting guard spot, blurring that line, too.

One fan asked about the team’s early struggles, and whether that means Monty should play more of the younger players, and maybe go for that draft pick. Demps immediately answered he wanted to win, but admitted that “playing young players is important.” Particularly, he said the team needed to figure out how well Al-Farouq Aminu, Jason Smith, Xavier Henry, Dajuan Summers, and Gustavo Ayon can play, to better know what to look for in the draft. Regarding the struggles, though, he pointed out that the team has continued to play with passion, and that if they keep giving the amount of energy they did the other night in Houston, that he expects more wins will follow. He did point out, though, that the team’s full line-up has yet to be healthy at any point this year. Speaking of the road game at Houston, Demps said that he had never seen a bench so energized, jumping up and rooting on their teammates, and generally going crazy over every good play. I thought the same thing at the time, and I’m glad to know that this team is hungry for it.

At home, one thing that fans love is the new live music played at Arena time-outs. Weber indicated the small side stage they play on may become a thing of the past, as a more prominent stage could be developed. Significantly, he said of the decision to bring music to the Arena that:

We stop and reflect about who we are and what our brand is, and over the offseason we really looked at what this city is about and our community is about.

And that led to the music. Bravo. All the fans ask is that the live music is played more often. Why play any non-live music at all? Fans will wait and see. Now, if they can just get the food to match.

Fortunately, one fan brought up the concessions at the Arena, and asked if the Hornets would be improving them anytime soon. While Weber said they are “always trying to press a little harder to make sure that the concessions offered in the Arena are reflective of…the community,” which goes in line with what he said about the music, this may be a harder goal to achieve. Weber mentioned that they brought in Louisiana Seafood as a partner on concessions, but that is a marketing board, not a vendor, and he said that efforts to bring in higher quality items were controlled by Centerplate and SMG, which means you won’t see Emeril grilling in the Arena anytime soon. While I love the fact that Weber wants to add great food to the New Orleans experience, as long as they essentially have a generic cafeteria service providing the food, it won’t matter, if the sign says “French Quarter Franks” or “Bob’s Hot Dogs,” the product will be the same. Weber added that he believes the Arena food should be the best of any Arena in the country. No one’s disputing that. But the team needs a new concessions contract to achieve that goal. With this, the Cox contract, and the lease, it makes you wonder who the Hornets’ lawyers are, and if they even read these contracts before telling then-owner, George Shinn, to sign.

At the end of the hour, the season ticket holders listening had reason to feel good about their team. I, for one, was convinced that this team is going in the right directions. Said Dell Demps: “I’m a bad loser.” That’s what Hornets fans want to hear. Another great thing to hear was Weber indicating that the front office is spending three to four times more on scouting and talent development than prior iterations of the team. That has been a huge problem in the past, and if snagging Ayon, and the fast-development of Smith are any indication, the problem may be solved.

Weber told listeners that one of his goals is that when people come to visit the city, he wants seeing a Hornets game to be at the top of their list of things to do. With all that is going on in New Orleans, that will be a tough goal to achieve. But, if this front office keeps building on their current successes, they may well achieve that goal.

Representatives of the NBA players proclaimed that they hoped for a summary judgment in their federal litigation within sixty days of filing suit. The Owners claimed the players turning to litigation was a sham, meant as an improper negotiation tool, and likely ended any hope of an NBA season this year. Had the players stuck out their litigation, the Owners would have been right; but, regardless, the Players fell right into Stern’s trap.

Before the players disclaimed their Union, the NBA and the Owners, on August 2, 2011, filed suit in the U.S. Southern District Court of New York. As a time-reference, the case has basically gone nowhere in over three months. It is Civil Case 11-cv-05369, before Judge Paul G. Gardephe. In federal litigation, Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that defendants have 21 days to answer a lawsuit after the Complaint has been served; but, if the defendants waive formal service, they have 60 days to respond. While it is not clear when the various services were made in this case (which probably indicates formal service was waived), the court held a status conference on September 7, 2011, which is quicker than one might have expected. At that telephone conference, the Players indicated an intent to file a Motion to Dismiss, and, a week later, the Court ordered it filed by September 16, 2011. Any written opposition by the NBA (or its individual teams) was ordered due by October 10, 2011, with any response by the players to that opposition due by October 19, 2011. Other conferences were had with the judge, though, several delays were requested, and finally, the players filed their Motion on October 19th. The NBA’s opposition was filed shortly thereafter. The matter is still under consideration. This is the timetable one can expect from federal litigation.

No Union what?The NBA and its individual teams filed their suit as a preemptive strike, asking the Court to declare that any attempt to disclaim or decertify would be an improper action, a violation of the collective bargaining process. They pointed in their Complaint to a long history of the Players threatening to do this in an effort to leverage a better bargaining result, and asked the Court to find this bad faith bargaining, to find the lockout valid under antitrust laws, and the disclaimer invalid. The NBA and the pointed out that a different federal court had recently refused to order an injunction against the NFL lockout. The Players’ Motion to Dismiss, in which they essentially called the NBA’s suit bullshit posturing about “what if” scenarios and an improper legal response to the hard bluffs of negotiation, was a fairly good argument that the NBA’s suit was premature, and that there was as of yet no justiciable controversy. The problem is, the Players derided the “disclaim” option as totally unfounded, preposterous, and an option that wasn’t even being considered by the players, who, allegedly, were bargaining in good faith with the League. Oops. The day after the Players did disclaim their Union, the NBA wrote a letter to the Judge, arguing that the Players’ had done precisely what they threatened to do, and that any “what if” objections the players had were clearly moot. The Players’ attorneys’ response was a not-too-thinly-veiled we spent X hours preparing this Motion to get this fucker dismissed and the players did what? type of response. The Judge did not appear happy.

Meanwhile, the players, on November 15, 2011, filed two suits: one in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota and one in the U.S. Northern District of California. They ended up voluntarily dismissing the California action, perhaps they were forum shopping, hoping for a friendly judge, and ultimately realized the Minnesota court was where they wanted to be. Or, perhaps it was the fact that California Judge Samuel Conti set a scheduling order the date the suit was filed, ordering that the Rule 26 Conference be had on February 8, 2012, with another case management conference on February 29, 2012. This was Civil Case 11-cv-05525. A Rule 26 conference is what leads to the initial disclosures each side makes, and pre-dates any discovery, depositions, and most other court actions. So there’s another timetable. And this is typical of any case, let alone a multi-billion dollar case, which, I can assure you, no judge is in any hurry to decide. In a car wreck case, valued at $50-100k, judges like to allow the parties to negotiate and settle it between themselves. So what do you think is going to happen here? Regardless, the Players dismissed their California suit.

The Minnesota suit is Civil Case 11-cv-03352, before Judge Patrick J. Schlitz. Interestingly, each of the New York, California, and Minnesota suits requested jury trials. Did the players really think twelve random people were going to feel sorry for them only making $3M a year instead of $5M? But I digress. A week after filing suit, court records show service returns on the NBA, the New York Knicks, and the New Jersey Nets. It is highly unlikely the Court will hold any status conferences until everyone is served. So since we’re already two weeks out, even if served this week, each of the other 28 defendants will have 21 more days to answer. Or 60 if they signed waivers of service. If the players sent waivers. I would have just gone straight to formal service if I was trying to push along a case. But you would expect the NBA to ask for a dismissal or stay pending the outcome of their litigation in New York. So that would require briefing, argument, and time for the court to decide.

As for the players’ claims of summary judgment within sixty days? You can’t get judgment on a party that hasn’t answered. So while the NBA, Knicks, and Nets have to answer by December 13, 2011, expect for them to request an extension in the time to answer until all the defendants are served. So there’s no chance in hell a summary judgment is filed in 60 days, let alone decided. Plus, even ignoring the fact that the NBA and League would first file a Motion to Dismiss or Request For Stay, litigants have to give their opponents a minimum of 15 days notice when filing. There is no chance they could get a date set before New Year’s, and even once the Motion is submitted, even if oral argument is granted, the Court does not have to decide anything on the spot, and can take the matter under advisement, after which there is no rule controlling when a decision must be rendered.

Stern's way or the highway.Also, as opposed to a Motion to Dismiss, which merely focuses on the sufficiency of the Complaint, a Motion for Summary Judgment must be submitted with sufficient evidence, and the non-movant can, under Rule 56, always request a continuance (or denial) of the Motion if it needs more time to do discovery. And can you imagine in a multi-billion dollar case that a judge would refuse to allow the parties to conduct plenty of discovery? Not to mention that if a summary judgment is denied, and the case continues, it could be years before going to trial. Our legal sources, who asked not to be named, indicated that their last federal summary judgment action came 10 months after suit was filed, and a month later, no decision has been rendered. The last two federal trials that our same sources participated in took place over two years after the filing of suit. These are the timeframes we can expect from any litigation. Now or in the future.

So, now, only weeks after claiming the Union was not protecting the Players’ interests, a deal looks to be worked out? Of course, to sign a new CBA, the players have to first dismiss their Minnesota suit and then reform the Union. So did the players tactic work? No. Stern is playing chess, not checkers. He’s not just trying to win this round, but the next. And in six years, when the new deal will likely expire, the NBA will file their New York suit all over again, and when the players respond that the mere concept of them “disclaiming” is ludicrous, that judge will shake his or her head and know the players are lying. The players filed suit claiming the Union could not help them, and that, resultingly, the NBA was instantly in violation of antitrust law? Yet, then, mysteriously, without the Union’s help, they reached a deal not even two weeks later, which, I would wager, looks suspiciously similar to the deal the Union had negotiated up to the point of disclaimer? The NBA’s preemptive suit argued that antitrust exemptions were not lost the instant a Union disclaims or decertifies, and their argument that the tactic of doing so is a sham just got stronger. Have the players thought that through? Their lawyers, who are the same high-priced antitrust sports experts, who tried similar cases decades ago for the NBA, and recently for the NFL, must be furious. What will their argument be next time?

Read the timelines referenced above again. No federal court case worth billions of dollars will be decided in any less than one year, and likely not for two or more years. That’s assuming, of course, no decision is ever appealed. Our sources were involved in a March 2006 federal lawsuit, whereby summary judgment was granted in September 2007. The other side appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. After briefing and argument, a decision was not rendered until September 2008. But, an en banc hearing was requested. That is, unsatisfied with the decision of 3 judges, one of the parties requested a hearing before the entire Fifth Circuit panel. After additional briefing and argument, a decision was rendered in December 2009. But, that too was appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted briefs and arguments, and in June 2010, over four years and three months since suit was filed, the matter was finally resolved. While it is possible a year could be cut off that timeline if the Supreme Court declined to hear the matter, if anyone thinks either the players or NBA would be content to let a trial court judge decide their billion-dollar fates, they’re crazy. This is how litigation works. It will not be over quickly. The parties will not enjoy it. No one wins.

So no is the answer to the question you haven’t asked, as to whether litigation is an effective tactic in professional sports collective bargaining disputes. By the time any resolution is reached, multiple seasons will have been lost. And if liability carriers are willing to settle cases for $50k to avoid maybe paying $100k, can you imagine the trepidation of either side in the NBA being found liable for billions? It will never happen. So what happened then? What was this litigation all about? It was a ploy. A stratagem. The players get to save face and tell the world they forced a resolution. But they also haven’t told us how many hundreds of thousands they spent on legal fees when they could have just paid for plane tickets back to the bargaining table with the NBA. And they’ve all but told federal courts that this is what they do, and that disclaiming is an empty, bogus threat. Just look at the November 26th news conference announcing a tentative deal: Fisher and Hunter were there. (No Union exists, but they are still negotiating with the League?  Even during the litigation? Judges will watch this process.)  Next time this comes to court, the Players arguing disclaimer is not a sham will look like liars. So the NBA wins. Sort of.

The biggest losers of this whole experience however, are the rest of us. The arena workers prevented from working. The fans unable to watch the games. The fact that multi-millionaires couldn’t agree to share a multi-billion dollar pot isn’t the biggest concern to most ordinary people. We just want basketball. Union, Players, Owners, Teams: at the end of the day who cares who wins? This isn’t about protecting the pensions of people struggling to pay mortgages; this isn’t about keeping wages up for people struggling to put their kids through school. This is one faction of the 1% calling the other faction of the 1% greedy bastards. Black, meet Kettle. Kettle, Black.

As for me, all I want is a fair system that gives every team the opportunity to win. A system that allows Chris Paul to be to New Orleans what Brett Favre was to Green Bay. Moreover, I want a league where the cult of personality does not decide the fate of the team; where, for example, a young Aaron Rodgers can be brought in to lead the next generation of small-town fans to frenzy when Favre walks. I don’t want losing Chris Paul to make people question whether New Orleans should even have a team. If that means caring who “won” the lockout, then maybe I do care.

But litigation wasn’t the answer. For either side. It was never going to solve anything. For both Players and Owners it was bullshit posturing. Now we get 66 games crushed in from December to April. And for what? I hope it was worth it for both sides, who spent so much of this summer not meeting. Remember that when you think of these lost 16 games and all the crying over lost revenue. Right now I just want to remember why I am such a huge basketball fan. Because, honestly, turned off as much as I have been by both sides throughout this process, it’s hard to remember why Samuel L. Jackson’s last lockout commercials (“The NBA, it’s faaAAAAAaaaantastic”) made sense.

Narrative Me This

By on June 11, 2011

Two teams, putting nine months of grind, exhaustive hours of coaching, film, and analysis, with rote dedication to mastering what some call a game, culminating in a determined fight to prove your team is the best in the world, while enveloped in millions of obsessive fans cheering and jeering every move, tells a story on its own.  That effort, that focus, which extols basketball as an endeavor of peak physical greatness and strategic mental acuity should be what these NBA Playoffs are about.

Or do you need the storyline explained to you? I’d like to believe there are plenty of fans around the world able to watch one of the greatest Playoffs in NBA history on their own, who will allow the Game’s brilliance to shine on its own.  Yet, the way some media outlets would have it, we need to be told over and over and over again the pre-fabricated storylines, written by moneymen, agents, and marketing people.  Case in point: the narrative that the speedy highlight factory, who, admittedly, is a maestro around the rim, but shot less than 40% from the field this Playoffs, and only 25% from deep (though attempting over long balls 6 a game), and had half as many turnovers a game as assists, is not only the best point guard of all time, but the best player in the League.  At least that’s what ESPN and TNT were selling before Derrick Rose’s exit stage left.

But I wasn’t buying.  I’ll make my own decisions, thank you very much.  If I want to know which point guard can dominate like no other in the League, I’m forgetting the TV commentary and replaying the Hornets-Lakers series; I’ll let my eyes tell me the truth.  Even on replay, I’ll let my soul feel Chris Paul’s heart and drive to win, even if he does play on a small market team.

Being the best, apparently, is not enough. It’s location, location, location.  Take Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudamire.  Are they great players?  Sure.  But I don’t care any more about them because they play in Madison Square Garden than I would if they were still in Phoenix or Denver.  The only reason I do care about them is because the people who think a collection of superstars without any regard for chemistry or strategy will deliver a championship are looking for a point guard to get NY to the next level, and our very own Hornets’ small cannon is number one on their list.  The fact is, New York Cityites are convinced that they deserve the biggest, best, greatest of everything (well, who wouldn’t want to be a Yankee, Giant, Ranger, Knick, etc.?): without regard for the fact that Chris Paul is the personal savior of basketball in New Orleans, could be elected governor tomorrow if he retired rather than be traded to the Knicks, and is, in fact, small.  Though he is the best and greatest.

Man, I can still see CP and Trevor Ariza at the podium after beating the Lakers, all smiles.  That’s what it’s about.  Those post-victory smiles.  Still gives me chills.  Yet, for some strange reason, Chris Paul, sans New York, does not appear to be part of the manufactured NBA narrative.  Why?

Paul is one of the greatest point guards ever, a once in a generation talent.  Yet, before the Playoffs, he had one national television appearance this year.  Let that sink in.  The Knicks had ten.  And that was before they added ‘Melo.  Ten.  I don’t need to be told the storied history of the Garden, I don’t need to know how many points Kobe or Lebron scored their last time there, nor do I need to be told Willis Reed won’t be walkin’ through that door.  Fuck that.  I’ll watch in amazement as Zack Randolph and Marc Gasol dominate from the #8 seed.  I’ll watch Darren Collison show up the presumptive, and ultimate (albeit imposter) MVP.  I’ll sit, rapt, and horrified as the Hawks take revenge on a discombobulated  Magic, despite one of the most impressive series performances I’ve ever seen, as Dwight Howard, even in defeat, shot 63% from the field and averaged 27-16-2 (all the more impressive considering that the small six-game sample size was twisted by his 8-8-1 performance in that Game 5 victory).  Give me more Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and the baby Thunders.  Because I can see the excellence in all that, in itself.  On its face.  The story is already written.

But that’s not good enough.  I mean, we haven’t even gotten to Lebron as-I-prefer-“Viscount” James.  His rise and fall is pre-scripted, and should be a TV movie any day now; or a Japanese anime.  But, it’s surfeit; even “professional writers” can’t say anything about James any more without just being penned paparazzi.  Some people call this hating, but I simply don’t be need to told anything about James at this point.  Literally.  I’ve already been told everything I need to know about him.  He’s greater than any player ever, and he was MVP the day he was born.  Yet, he’s never won championship.  Kobe has 5.  MJ 6.  Bill Russell 11.  So when you’re doing first name greatest last name ever calculus consider that Shaq won a championship with Kobe, Kobe won with Pau, Wade won one with Shaq, but Lebron couldn’t win even with Shaq.  (P.S.: never listen to Drake.  But I digress.)  The narrative, though, tells us that three great players (Wade, James, Bosh) can take a roster of 2 (Haslem, Chalmers), and a cast of hangers-on, and, through Pat Riley’s force of will, win a championship.  Or as Lebron predicted: eight championships.  You know, more than Michael and Kobe, but less than Bill Russell.  At least the man’s humble.

One problem: the Heat aren’t a great team.  They have great players, sure.  And they have amassed a bunch of wins, but the Heat are a deeply flawed team.  Really, it’s the same equation as the Olympic team, but with different variables.  Those guys were not a great team.  (Except when CP3 rolled out the second unit; but, again, I digress.)  The key was they had twelve unbelievable players, at every position, and no one team could match up with that, no matter their coaching or cohesion.  The Heat, however, have three great players, and despite all their talent, not enough to tie them together to make them a great team.  All year, teams have proven they were beatable (including the Hornets), and the Playoffs have only exposed a horribly weak Eastern conference, where Rondo and Shaq’s injuries were the biggest keys to victory for the Heat, followed by an entirely overrated, if effective, Bulls team.  Funny thing is, Stern and the League got a gift from the results: a Finals consisting of players colluding to form a superteam, with others taking pittance to make roster; against the second highest paid team in the League, paying over $20M more than most teams, to put together this übermensch team.

What greater evidence could you have that the League needs more equity?  Greedy players and greedy owners are ruining parity.  The League needs to level the playing field and save itself.  And what better way to make that case by pointing out all the future free agents will gather in a few select cities, and that teams owned by willing-to-spend billionaires may just buy their way to a winning team.  The next three highest paid teams are the Lakers, Magic, and Celtics.  Remember a Finals before this year when none of these four teams were in it?.  Me neither.  On the flip side, Miami, New York, and Chicago are just the beginning for the talent emigration without a new CBA.

But the 2011 Finals themselves?  Unbelievable.  The closest Finals ever, and getting the high ratings it deserves, despite all the beat writers and TV analysts trying to tell us their stories.  But the Mavs and Heat have their own stories.  It’s in their eyes.  Anyone who’s ever questioned Dirk Nowitski’s will to win need only look into his greyish blue hues to be rebuked.  Same with Terry.  You can talk about his his “jet” antics all you want, but the look in his eyes reflects the tattoo on his right bicep of the Larry O’Brien trophy.

As for James, Wade, and Bosh?  Only Wade has the experience and wherewithal to understand his surroundings, but even behind the assassin-like edge in his eyes is a glimmer of entitlement.  As for James, that’s the only thing.  You see, he knew he’d make the NBA and be successful there (keep in mind, coming out of high school, we roughly figured DeShawn Stevenson would be the next MJ too), knew he could lead the NBA in scoring at will, get a few MVPs, and, of course, roll in the dough, er, I mean championships.  You’ll excuse me if I don’t let him dictate the narrative either, and refuse to use words rhyming with “mobile” and “icahn.”  Bosh, well, no hit on him, but he just doesn’t have “it.”  Ask Robert Horry, Manu, or James Posey about it someday, Chris.

The media herd of sharks, not content to go into a feeding frenzy at the sight of blood, is eager to write about said blood to create the frenzy.  These writers panning Lebron everywhere now were the same ones lauding him before this series.  All these “analysts” were saying how Lebron had put his fourth quarter woes behind him after the Boston and Chicago series.  Two series among six years of playoffs is not a reliable marker.  But it fit the narrative.  Create a star and tear him down.  It’s bullshit.  Just speak the truth from day one and you won’t have to worry about re-writing the storylines.  Similarly,  the lazy narrative of “whose team is it?” pervades.  The question should be how can Spoelstra scheme around Wade-James-Bosh, and how has he done it?  But that question requires analysis, not gossip, which makes it hard.  So the major media takes a pass.

Many League people, notably the Hornets’ Hugh Weber, have panned blogs and internet media as amateurs in their basements, wearing pajamas, barely worth the word “writer.”  But anyone out there who follows the games, who is connected on Twitter, and who reads enough blogs, knows that these people do a better job than 85.3% of major media, and 102.5% better job than TV analysts.  Personally, I’d like to read about how the Mavs’ late-game switches to the zone impact the Heat’s iso progressions; but, I guess some people prefer “Mama, there goes that man.”  Hope those people are Warriors fans.

So to those of you who have attacked the false narrative prevalent in the major media all year, and particularly now, in the Finals, my metaphorical hat is off to you ladies and gents.  To the rest?  Shame on you.  Journalism is supposed to be about what happens, described.  Imposing a forced version of that makes you no better than the people behind of the Rich, unrepresentative, Housewives of Wherever, at best; or, spitting empty rhetoric with no actual facts behind it, like Rush Limbaugh or so many “talk radio” personalities, at worst.  Anyone remember the pre-game interview with David Aldridge–when he may or may not have been drunk–alleging that the Hornets were demanding a new arena and that “many coaches” around the League were complaining about the officiating against the NBA-owned Hornets?  That fell into the latter category.

As for these Finals?  The coaches and players of two fine teams will deliver the final chapter to the 2010-2011 season.  But, if you want to skip ahead to the end, just look into Dirk’s eyes.

Lakers vs. Hornets.  A streetfight to the finish.  May the second best team win.  Kobe proved karma is dead by sticking a dagger in the back of every Sacramento fan last night and denying them one more happy moment, one small shimmer of victory in a season full of struggles.  This all a day after Kobe called a referee “a fucking fag” after being awarded a technical.  (I hope the refs respond by keeping the Mamba on a quick tech whistle watch during Round 1.)  Don’t believe it, Google it, the video evidence is incontrovertible.  He was fined $100,000 by Stern.  Deservedly.  It would have been an appropriate moment for Kobe to miss that one last desperate three and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fail.  Didn’t work that way.

I’ve always been a Kobe fan, and still admire his skill; but there is something Greek-tragic-classic about a man refusing to recognize another’s time to shine and later paying the price.  I’ll be in the back row, Games 3, 4, and maybe 6, booing him every time he touches the ball.  Twittersection will be in full effect. Anywho,  you can also share Game 1 with friends.  Have fun.  You just have to know where to go.  The folks at Hornets247.com have a suggestion: go to their watch party.  From their site:

Where: The Doors Pizza.

It’s located at 7537 Maple Street, New Orleans, LA 70118.

When: Party starts at 1pm. Game starts at 2:30.

Sounds good.  Cheer the home team.  Boo Kobe.  Hate the Lakers.  Share well wishes for David West.  Drink beer.  Send sexts.  Whatever does it for you.  (Hopefully all of the above.)  Oh, and feel free to tell anyone present that we’d have a chance to win if we still had Marcus Thornton.  I’ll get your back.  Just don’t mention it to ticktock6; she might break her Abita bottle on the bar and stab someone.  Yup, she’s the one who answered the 247 poll: “Nothing satisfies me. I love Marcus Thornton.”  So did I.

[Deep sigh.]

Difficult year, no doubt.  But let’s go out swinging.

We Were Right And You Were Wrong

By on March 15, 2011

Guess what Monty Williams and Dell Demps?  Give Marcus Thornton 41 minutes a game and he might just drop 42 for ya.  On 13-20 shooting.  On 4-7 from deep.  Maybe the young guard who’s so explosive and agile, always avoiding contact, will only have 1 FTA (made) at half, but then the other team will be forced to hack him mercilessly on the other side, desperate to stop him, somehow: only to find the guy ending up at 12-14 from the line.  Maybe this mythical hero would also add 3 boards, an assist, and 4 steals for good measure.  Oh, and with ZERO turnovers.

And for those jokers out there saying Buckets could only do it on a losing team?  This came in a blow-out win.  Scoring is scoring.  It always helps.

In comparison, the Hornets’ starting 2, Marco Belinelli, went 3-10 (3-8 from deep), and his backup, Willie Green, went 7-16 (3-4 from deep).  Not bad, but that was 10-26 in 54 minutes of play.  Belinelli’s and Green’s combined 27 not even close to Thornton’s production, even with 13 more minutes of play.  Oh, and when the Hornets’ vaunted defense failed, it was their inability to keep pace with the high-scoring Nuggets that led to the loss.  Weird.

Ticktock6 said “Lil’ Buckets” graduated to just plain “Buckets” when he dropped 30+ on the Cavs last year.  Maybe now that he’s cracked 40+ he’s “Big Buckets” or “Bi’ Buckets.”  Take your pick, or twist it your own way.  Sadly, we’ll have to leave it to the Kings fans to decide.  Because the Hornets management couldn’t find a way to use either of two of the best five rookies from last year.  In particular, Thornton is immensely talented, and anyone who’s watched a modicum of basketball should have realized it.  Shame.  Our loss is their gain.

I’m happy for Marcus, though, and wish him the best.  I just wish it was happening in New Orleans.  To all those who felt otherwise?  (And you know who you are.)  Well.  We were right.  And you were wrong.

Tuesday night, with the trade deadline looming, the Hornets were good enough to give us just under an hour with the team’s general manager, Dell Demps.  Although he, like any NBA front office person, was guarded, you could still get a good glimpse of his thoughts by reading how he answered questions, which answers he gave enthusiastically, and which he just had to give.

There was no doubt that Demps came to New Orleans day one with a plan on how he believed this team could succeed; he sold Shinn and Chouest and later Jack Sperling and the NBA.  For the second time in as many times as I’ve heard him talk, he made it clear that if the Hornets could seriously improve the team, the luxury tax wouldn’t stop them.  He also seems fairly confident with the constant phone calls being made, that, more likely than not, a trade will be made before the deadline.

Demps also was insistent that both Chris Paul and David West were in the team’s long term plans.  Chris is under contract; David he knows won’t sign an extension for economic reasons, but Demps sounded confident he could re-sign DX.  Plus, he said any personnel moves are run by both guys.  All of this fits into the long-term goal that Demps has of turning this team into the kind of team that players want to play for, the kind of team that guys believe they can make a contender by being the last piece.  The man is committed to not just success, but success here; he just bought a house, loves it here, and says his family feels the same.  That’s more than Sean Payton can say.

When asked about specific players, he acknowledged Ariza’s up and down play, but was confident that his defense was instrumental in the team’s success.  That said, I find it hard to believe Ariza’s name is legitimately coming up in trade rumors.  He said Chris’s knee is fine, but it was muscles in his quad that gave them pause and led to the knee brace–and that such injuries can take two years from which to fully recover.  Again, Demps said Marcus was inconsistent, and capable of being great, but also of doing nothing.  Sadly, nothing Dell said made me believe Thornton will see much playing time this year, let alone end up on this team.  Interestingly, Demps indicated one of the difficulties in getting a back-up for Chris was that such a player’s minutes would be limited, so they wanted someone that could play back-up point as well as the two.  He never mentioned Bayless, but I have to think he better fit this bill than Jack, who he did mention.  Actually, Thornton could do that.  Nonetheless, it does makes sense of the team’s love affair with Green.

Although the absurdity of smallball was not specifically mentioned, Demps did say he was shopping for a backup big more than anything, and that Ariza had blown some defensive assignments when playing out of place at the 4.  When fans expressed frustration with the stagnant offense, Demps did say that the team has a “20 second rule,” whereby the guy with the ball has to cross half-court before the 20 seconds point on the 24-second clock.  He blamed poor offensive execution on moving on bringing the ball up too slow, as well as lackluster approaches to setting screens.

More than one fan stopped Dell to thank him for making this year so successful.  Each time applause ensued.  Demps said pundits didn’t expect much from the Hornets this year, and he’s loved proving them wrong.  I wasn’t one of those, but Demps’ thoughts echoed ours: with Paul, West, and Okafor, there’s no excuse for not winning.

Petition for More Marcus Buckets

By on February 16, 2011

NBAtv’s Rick Kamla knows Marcus Thornton is “Lil’ Buckets.”  Gil and Bob from CST’s Cox Sports know it.  Let’s face it, he knows it.  The Hype has written about Marcus plenty, albeit, much of it last year.  If you’ve been following him too, you know the nickname didn’t come out of thin air; MT5 can ball.  Somehow, he and Darren “Lil’ Dimes” Collison had enough verve and pluck to make Hornets basketball watchable last year, in a season devastated by injuries, and losses abounding.  After watching our Lil’ rook run over defenses across the League, I think just about everyone assumed Marcus would start at shooting guard for the Hornets this year.

Didn’t happen.

Marcus Motherfucking Lil Buckets ThorntonPeople at AtTheHive and Hornets247 are good people, and write the best Hornets-related content on the web.  But many of the people over there are sick of hearing posters complain about Marcus’ minutes.  Last year we talked about giving up too many layups and horrible defense every game.  Seems fair to me to talk about the problems with each team, each game, each year. Regardless, we decided to help out our kindred bloggers.  Send your Thornton fans our way, and have them SIGN THE PETITION FOR MORE MARCUS BUCKETS!

The fact is, opposing announcers always seem apprehensive when Marcus enters the game.  Opposing defenders pay a little more attention to him than Belinelli, Green, or Jack.  Kid can make shots.  In a hurry.  Just watch his flow, his explosion on the break, his quick release;  he’s one of the few NBA players I just love to watch ball.  The best part?  It doesn’t matter if you’re in his face, in his way, or fouling him; he’s going to get to the rim, blow by you, or shoot over you.  And he’ll score.  In a hurry.

Some people think it’s childish to think Monty “doesn’t like” the kid.  But can you think of one basketball reason why he’s not the best option at the 2 for New Orleans?  Or for that matter, not at least the second best option at the 2?  I can’t.  Let me stop you right there.  The parroted answer is “defense.”  These are the same corporate yes-men that say Belinelli is in the game for his defense.  [Record scratch – music stops]  Wait, what?  No.  The Italian can shoot, no doubt, but let’s not get overeager–he’s never been known as a defender and isn’t this year.  Or is it that he says he cares about defense?  I’m not being facetious.  Listen to every interview with every Hornets coach and player and count the times they answer a question having nothing to do with defense with some iteration of “it’s all about defense for us.”

I think Monty is so insistent on converting this squad to a defensive mindset, that if he calls you at 3AM, and you have the balls to answer “Hello?” instead of “Defense?” it’s back to the end of the bench.  If that’s the case, and it’s Marcus’ expressed commitment, rather than actual play, I say we all need to shout at Marcus and call him a dummy.  Because hecan fix that easy.  Just eat, breathe, and sleep defense.  Say “defense” when you roll out of bed in the morning, Marcus, whisper “defense” when you get in your car, and say it again as you walk into work.  Damn, get “Defense” tattooed on the back of your hands, son, so you can’t forget.  But, then again, maybe that’s not it.

Whatever “untouchable” point Monty is fussing over, every rule is made to be broken.  So, Monty, I think you’re a great coach, but just play the fucking kid already.  He’s the third most talented scorer you have, and absolutely has the most untapped potential of any player on your roster: meaning, he needs minutes to improve.  Yes, Coach Williams needs to trust Marcus the way he’s trusted all his other players, and give him time to work out any issues he sees with his game.  Otherwise, the kid will never improve.

And why let him get away, so he can succeed elsewhere, when he clearly has a strong bond with the New Orleans crowd, and has to love playing for his home team.  (Um…tickets, anyone?  People love him, they’ll pay to see him?  Hello?!?)  The people of New Orleans believe in Marcus.  And more than a few of us know something about the game.  So, coach, play the kid!

You know, I really meant this to be a one paragraph post, but here I am, still writing.  I can’t help it.  I love Marcus Buckets.  If you’re gushing to talk about Thornton too, and other sites are becoming less receptive to your chatter, bring it here.  Unleash whatever you have to say.  As for the haters: feel free to post whatever you want; we won’t censor you.  But, you post, you sign the Petition.  So there’s that.  Also, for those of you that like to read blogs and not post, that’s cool, but, if you care about Marcus, just put in your name and random words.  Ball.  1.  Freedom.  Pink garters.  Alkjdfl;kaewr! What happened to Ticktock6?  Whatever does it for you.

So, come on down, folks, and sign the PETITION FOR MORE MARCUS BUCKETS by posting below:

Gray Smash!!!

By on February 12, 2011

For those of you who don’t know it, I have an irrational dislike of Kurt Thomas.   As Mr. Thomas has aged (he’s now 38), he’s often been used as a center, instead of his natural position, power forward.  He’s 6’9″, 230 lbs.  In contrast, his presumptive position opponent at the New Orleans Arena tonight, the 26-year-old Aaron Gray, is 7′, 270 lbs.  Gray’s also twice as wide.  Lest I become an angry Bruce Banner-clone, Gray better do his best Hulk Smash!!! impression on Thomas tonight.  You don’t want to see me when I’m angry.

If you follow me on Twitter, or have watched a Knicks, Suns, Spurs, Sonics, Bucks, or now Bulls game with me, you know I can’t stand Kurt Thomas.  My hyperbole about his suckage is renowned, if, admittedly, a bit unfair.  Here’s the genesis.  Kurt Thomas was drafted 10th overall in the 1995 draft by the Miami Heat, played there two years, was shipped to Dallas for a year, and then established himself on several good Knick teams, from 1998 to 2005.  I was living in New York at the time.  Here’s a stat people some forget now, but one I’ll never forget, ingrained in my brain as it is: playing at a small college, Thomas managed to lead the NCAA Division I in scoring and rebounding in the same year, becoming at that time only the third player in history to do so, by averaging 28.9 and 14.6 per game.

In the real world, Thomas has career averages of 8.8 and 7.0.  His highest rebounding average ever was 10.4 a game, his last year with the Knicks.  His highest scoring average ever was 14.0, two years prior.  Nevertheless, nothing, and I mean nothing, would stop Breen or Frazier, the local TV announcers, from mentioning at least two or three times a game that Thomas led the NCAA in rebounds and scoring at the same time (“one of the only players ever!”), as if it was a question (“did you know….?”), and always with boundless enthusiasm.  Like viewers hadn’t heard this game after game after game after game.

Yet, New Orleans folks, Thomas is the quintessential Aaron Brooks (the ex-Saint quarterback, not the Rocket PG).  Yup, that sums it up nicely.  Just good enough to make you think he’s the guy who will win you games, but then, right then, at that point of hope, he inexplicably causes a series of losses singlehandedly.  Do you keep him?  Trade him?  Make him the Man?  (Ugh.) Thomas was never the star the Knicks thought he would be.  Since leaving the Knicks, Thomas has  never been more than a role player, yet the Suns and Spurs consistently paid him more than $6M a year (and as much as $8M), and you see his name among the “key free agents” available from year to year.

Why?  He’s a too-slow forward, has no moves other than an open jumper, and despite having decent rebounding instincts, he’s 6’9″ and totally outclassed by a legitimate center.  Can he defend?  Kind of.  But who cares.  I’d prefer Mbenga as a back-up center, at least that cat’s 7′.

Enter tonight’s match-up.  Thomas vs. Gray.  Gray is no Dwight Howard, but he’s not the patsy some say he is.  Did Howard post 20-17-1-1-3 (pts/rbs/stl/ast/blk) against Gray, who only managed 8-8-2-3-2?  Yes.  But did Howard have -10 and Gray +8?  Yes.  There’s something to that.  Though Gray may have been outclassed by Howard, the Hornet held his own and helped anchor a defense that was finally clicking again.  Considering he was playing against Howard, an MVP candidate, that’s saying something.

Gray has long been a conundrum among bloggers (not journalists, because so few actually use advanced stats).  This year, by way of comparison:

  • Gray has a PER of 13.5 and True Shooting % of 63%
  • Thomas PER of 11.0 and TS% 55%
  • (Howard PER 25.3 and TS% 60.0)
  • Gray’s Total Rebounding percentage is 18.2%
  • Thomas’s is 13.9%
  • (Howard 21.8)
  • Gray’s offensive rating is 115.
  • Thomas’ is 111.
  • (Howard’s is also 111?)

I could go on.  The point is Aaron Gray is a good player; he just needs minutes.  Clearly, he deserves to be in the rotation, and can do so on a contending team.  And all it took for him to get the chance to prove it was an injury to Emeka Okafor and illness from Jason Smith.  Shame on you Monty Williams.  The numbers have been there.  They come as no surprise.  There’s only so many seven-footers out there, and only so many who can actually play well. Gray’s one of them.

Not to mention the fact that Aaron”s an excellent passer out of the post.  The Hornets  can run their screens, pick downs, and other sets with him in the game, he can help ball movement, and he can find your cutting and screening shooters.  Also, as an aside, I’ve met him, and he’s just an awesome person, so I’m biased.  (Kurt Thomas may be nicer than Oprah, but I’ll never know, nor do I want to.  “Irrational,” remember?)  Regardless, if I’m the New Orleans Hornets, I actively get Gray involved in the offense tonight and have him smash Thomas in the low post.  Plus, you have this kid named Chris Paul who seems to be good at finding good looks for his players.  (And, no, Rose won’t help Thomas the same way.)

Gray might not be getting alley-oops like Tyson used to.  But you might see the jumbotron go Gray repeatedly tonight

The New Orleans Hornets are currently one of two teams (the Oklahoma Thunder being the other) that start each game with an Arena-wide, pre-game prayer.  This strange occurrence is a hybrid of religious zeal and moneymaking, as the Hornets sell this slot of proselytizing to the highest bidder.   While I’ve been told that anyone can pay for the privilege of delivering this prayer, and, indeed, we’ve heard Jewish Rabbis come forward multiple times, nine times out of ten it’s a Christian prayer. In contrast, I have yet to hear an atheist step on the hardwood and dedicate a few moments to reason and logic, wish the players well, admit that each player’s health is a motley mix of conditioning and pure chance, and wish them the best. Instead, we are subjected to a game day prayer to Jesus (no, they rarely say his name, but they almost always say something similar to “In Your Name We Pray,” it’s not hard to read between the lines) to  ask the big guy in the sky to bestow good health to the players on both sides of the floor. What’s missed in the well wishes is the excessive entanglement with religion in a place where it is simply out of place.

The Hornets, as opposed to, say, LSU, or Benjamin Franklin High, are a private institution, not run by the state or any of its many subdivisions. This means, strictly speaking, many Constitutional provisions that would guarantee freedom, equality, and non-discrimination do not apply to the Hornets; that is, unless the team determines that such values correspond to its corporate mission. Private institutions, otherwise, are, in part, free to espouse whatever values they want. For example, you’ve no doubt seen Chick-Fil-A around town. They have an expressly Christian value-system built into their corporate ethos, and have even been known to fund anti-gay causes. The New Orleans City Council can’t do that, but Chick-Fil-A is free to hate whomever they want.

The rub is that the Fourteenth Amendment allows Congress to prescribe prophylactic remedies, such as Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) laws, and these statutes can touch even private institutions. The basic gist is that employees cannot be discriminated in the workplace because of race, religion, sex, nationality, etc. There is a “religious organization” exception, i.e., if the organization’s purpose and affiliation is overtly religious, such as a church, or if the company’s or charity’s articles of incorporation state a religious purpose. The NBA is not one of these groups. As such, its non-discrimination policy reads:

Equal employment opportunity is a fundamental principle at the NBA. Accordingly, the NBA’s EEO Policy provides that all employment decisions will be based on merit and valid job qualifications and will be made without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, alienage or citizenship status, ancestry, marital status, creed, genetic predisposition or carrier status, sexual orientation, veteran status, familial status, or any or status or characteristic protected by applicable federal, state or local law.

I added the emphasis to the above quote.  So how is this relevant to the Hornets? Because the NBA owns the Hornets. Therefore, every single Hornets employee is an NBA employee.  Hornets’ blogger, Joe Gerrity, was recently brave enough to question the Hornets’ pre-game prayer. Although the poll Hornets247 ran concomitantly with that article is gone, approximately 65% of people were in favor of the pre-game prayer, about 25% were against it, and the remainder didn’t care. But that is precisely the point of anti-discrimination statutes: to preclude a majority of people from discriminating against the minority.

For Christians whose beliefs are in-line with the pre-game prayer, it is an innocuous blessing. For those of opposing beliefs, it may be less so. And for those that believe in no higher power, but instead rely upon science, logic, ethics, and reasoning to guide their lives, the entire thing is a travesty. The point is not which side is “right.” The point is, if it is opposed by as many as a quarter of the people who care, it should be done away with, regardless of NBA rules.  Why stir such strong sentiments when they are ultimately irrelevant to the product produced by the NBA?

Regardless, the NBA’s own anti-discrimination policy forbids the pre-game prayer. Similarly, if my private, non-religious employer decided to start the work day with a prayer, there is no doubt that it would violate the tenets of the EEO Act. It is harassment. Plain and simple. If you’re a Christian, it probably is not. If you’re a non-Christian it is. End of story. This is the part that is difficult for the dominant, Christian majority to get: some people are offended by your religion.

Think about this: if we were talking about basketball at a public school, like either of the aforementioned LSU or Benjamin Franklin High, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that an opening prayer would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Religion”), which is applied to the states and their subdivisions by the Fourteenth Amendment. There are a number of similarly decided lawsuits related to high school football games that are squarely on point.  This is because governments and their many subdivisions are precluded from favoring any religion over any other religion, or even favoring believing in any religion over believing in none at all.

If a pre-game prayer at a public school is viewed as religious coercion, excessive entanglement with religion, a message sent to a minority that they are outsiders, or an establishment of a “normative” religious belief (all language used by the U.S. Supreme Court), why, just because the Hornets are a private organization, would the team want to do something so blatantly discriminatory, when it doesn’t need to go there at all? Basketball should be inclusive, not decisive; sport is about bringing together people of all sorts to witness elite competition, to see others striving for physical perfection: not an opportunity for ecumenical proselytizing to a captive audience.

Arguably, sport is the antithesis of religion. It involves physical contact, facts, strategies, cause and effect. Religion involves intangibles, faith, and suspension of disbelief. Players cannot afford to trust in god they won’t get hurt; they have to stretch and condition. Players can’t just pray they make their shots; they practice, practice, and then practice more. Nor do coaches read the Bible in search of parables in lieu of drawing up X and O plays.  The prodigal son doesn’t know how to defeat a zone.  

Many players and coaches are religious, and that is fine. That is their personal belief. But in opposition to religion; where people are supposed to merely trust that their traditions, priests, and God have their best interests in mind and are subsumed by acquiescence to belief in a omnipotent benevolence, no questions asked; NBA players and coaches cannot afford to simply do what has always been done: they must evolve,they must innovate.  To be elite in the NBA, players and coaches have to watch game film, strategize, and think through each game plan and opponent: reasoning their way to success, practicing and honing those strategies on a daily basis, and executing them all at the highest level to achieve victory.  Thus, unlike religion, basketball is palpable, responsive, and falsifiable.

So even were the NBA not the Hornets’ owner, it is clear that religion has no place in the NBA. But seeing as the NBA is the Hornets’ owner, and all the team’s employees are Hornets employees, exposing them to religious prayer before every game is a form of religious intolerance; because, as the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, religious discrimination is not just favoring one religion over any other, but favoring belief in religion over non-belief.  Twenty eight teams in the NBA get it right.  Two do not.  One, the New Orleans Hornets, is owned by an organization professing non-discriminatory principles. Yet, the Hornets’ pre-game prayer violates those principles every home game.

Forty-one times a year, the Hornets and the NBA offend me and many others.  Maybe more this year if the team makes the Playoffs.  It needs to change.