POSTED: Oct 14, 2013 9:34 AM ET
The Bucks' John Henson (right) and the Bobcats' Cody Zeller are two names to watch in 2013-14.
It happens every year. Suddenly, Steph Curry isn't just an undersized point guard; he's staying healthy, dropping 3-pointers and becoming the face of a shoe company. One day, Paul George (who?) is the 10th pick from Fresno State (where?), and people think the Pacers have lost their mind; the next, he's dunking on LeBron James and Indiana's got its next superstar.
The bust-out season is a thing of beauty. It's a confluence of opportunity, willing teammates, luck and timing. You have to have above-average talent; ask Salieri how competing with Mozart worked out. And you usually have to be of a certain age, of course; Brando was 23 when he hit a different set of boards, on Broadway, and starred in Streetcar; Little Richard was 25 when Tutti Frutti came out in 1957.
But the NBA is filled with talented people. Everyone plays well on occasion. To have a true breakout year, you're talking about All-Star-caliber play, over an extended period -- and enough winning to make a difference. You don't have to be on a playoff team to have a breakout, but it usually follows.
With that in mind, here are 10 candidates to have a breakout season.
Washington's Most Effective Lineup
• Bradley Beal, Washington: There's just way too much good stuff in the second-year shooting guard not to think he's capable of a bust-out season. With point guard John Wall out for the first third of last season, and with precious little else to work with, Washington got out of the gate 4-28. Beal looked overwhelmed at times and shot the ball poorly (though he had his moments even then). But as the Wizards got their pieces back, Beal's efficiency grew.
With Wall again healthy, Beal should thrive. His shooting percentages before Wall's return and after (and, it must be said, before and after the return of Nene, who also missed much of the early part of the season) look like they're of two different players. Beal shot 34 percent on 3-pointers without Wall and shot 50 percent with him. Wall and Beal developed quick chemistry, with Wall's attacks (and the presence of a credible 3-point shooter on the wing, usually Martell Webster) drawing defenses, Beal could comfortably step into a 3-pointer -- his stroke is as pure as anyone east of Golden State -- or use an underrated first step to get to the rim. (As he gets more comfortable handling the ball, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Wizards put the ball in his hands more often as a playmaker.)
Beal's feet (and, again, Wall's presence as a disrupter) should never make him a defensive liability. But he'll earn his keep on offense.
Maccabi Haifa vs. Suns
• Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix: The chains are off. There will be no limitations, minute restrictions or any other kind of impediment on Bledsoe. It's his show with the Suns. Chris Paul's backup the past two seasons for the Clippers, Phoenix acquired Bledsoe in a three-team deal last summer to get a 23-year-old who flashed in L.A. but never really fired.
That should change this season. The Suns are convinced that Bledsoe and Goran Dragic can play with one another and should be fairly interchangeable in the backcourt. If so, Bledsoe on the move, coming off of screens or in the occasional 1-2 screen-and-roll could be quite effective. (It will be more so when the Suns add to their talent base and get a few shooters to surround their guards and their first-round pick, center Alex Len.)
Oddly, Bledsoe shot the ball well from 3-point range -- nearly 40 percent -- but wound up shooting just 44 percent overall and had a mediocre .513 true shooting percentage. Will more playing time improve those numbers? The guess here is yes. At the least, he should get more steals and opportunities for runouts.
Bledsoe's bigger issue may be health. He had nagging injuries the last two years that sapped his biggest attribute, his quickness. If he doesn't get slowed down, the sky's the limit. Somebody has to score on bad teams, too.
• Wilson Chandler, Denver: Two years ago, Chandler was averaging 34 minutes a night and 16 points through the first 51 games of the season in coach Mike D'Antoni's system with the Knicks. But Chandler was part of the Carmelo Anthony deal and has not been able to stay healthy since coming to Denver. He missed all of 2011-12 and much of last season recovering from hip surgery.
Though he's been slow out of the gate in the preseason with a new slate of injuries, Chandler is a prime candidate for a bounce-back season.
With Danilo Gallinari on the shelf and Andre Iguodala gone to Golden State, Chandler is the clear top option at the 3/4 for Denver. Assuming coach Brian Shaw doesn't slow things down -- and it doesn't seem as if he will -- Chandler's floor game and 3-point shooting (41 percent last season) will aid the starters. (I was surprised the Wizards didn't make a major play for Chandler last summer ... he would have been a picture-perfect fit alongside Wall and Beal.)
• Monta Ellis, Mavericks: Through his years with the Warriors and Bucks, Ellis was often a high-volume, low-percentage shooter -- with one notable exception. In 2007-08 with the Warriors, his third season in the league, Ellis had a true shooting percentage of .580 and an effective field goal rate of .536. Both are by far his highest career marks in those respective categories. That season, Ellis, who spent his first two seasons splitting minutes at the two with Jason Richardson, became the full-time starter alongside Baron Davis. And that spring, as you recall, the eighth-seeded Warriors pulled off their huge first-round upset over the No. 1-seeded Mavericks. (Was it also a contract year for Ellis? Why, yes it was!)
Ever since that season, Ellis' advanced numbers have gone through the floor. Oh, he still scored plenty (his 25.5 points a game in 2009-10 was sixth in the league), but his teams didn't accomplish very much. When he was traded from Golden State to Milwaukee in 2012, Mark Jackson didn't seem too broken up about it. Nor did the Bucks raise much of a fuss when Ellis signed a three-year deal with Dallas in the summer.
But Ellis has never played with a teammate as accomplished as Dirk Nowitzki, and he's never had a coach as demanding as Rick Carlisle. Carlisle worked wonders with O.J. Mayo last season, and the bet here is the combo of Carlisle, Nowitzki and a rock-solid Jose Calderon at the point will get the best out of Ellis. Why shouldn't Ellis become as proficient at the elbow screen and roll with the Diggler as Jason Terry was? Ellis should thrive in Dallas and win again as he did all those years ago in Golden State.
John Henson Interview
• John Henson, Milwaukee: The word on Henson coming out of North Carolina was that he would rebound and block shots in the pros, but the offense would come later in his rookie season. During a stretch of nine games in November and nine in April, Henson raised his scoring and rebounding from 6.6 points and 4.1 rebounds a game in November to 9.2 ppg and 8.9 rpg, respectively, in April. That April average was skewed by a monster 17-point, 25-board game against Orlando, but Henson looked more comfortable as the year went on.
The expectation is for continued growth, and perhaps something more. It's "perhaps" because Henson would have to play next to center Larry Sanders, and with their combined lack of perimeter skills, they might not be the best match, leaving Ersan Ilyasova the starter over Henson at power forward.
But Bucks general manager John Hammond showed he has the green light from owner Herb Kohl to blow the roster up, as evidenced by the series of deals and signings Milwaukee made over the summer. Henson was Hammond's Draft pick and teams don't like to give up on people for whom they vouched.
So it wouldn't surprise to see further weaning of the Bucks' frontcourt, which still includes veterans like Ekpe Udoh. In an increasingly small NBA, a slim big who can block and rebound like Henson has room to grow. And with guards like Mayo and Gary Neal who will command attention, Henson should have room to operate.
Better Defense With Favors & Kanter
• Enes Kanter, Utah: With Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap both gone, either Kanter or Derrick Favors figures to get a lot of low-post love this season as the Jazz struggle to score points. But the bet is on Kanter, who has remade his body and is ready to finally get regular playing time. He was ineligible at Kentucky and never played a second for the Wildcats. In the NBA, he fell deep behind in Utah's big man rotation his first season-plus in the league. I think Kanter's more developed low-post game (in comparison to Favors') will get him more touches and he'll know what to do with them.
Kanter's PER last season was better than Roy Hibbert's, DeAndre Jordan's and Nene's, and his rebound rate was better than those of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nikola Pekovic and Brook Lopez. And he did that in just a little more than 15 minutes a night. He should get a lot more run this season.
• Andrei Kirilenko, Brooklyn: For the money ($3.1 million), Kirilenko may have been the summer's best free-agent pickup. And the 32-year-old should return to the form he displayed early in his career with the Jazz, when he was a whirling dervish of defensive chaos-making. This was before the Jazz became the team of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, and Kirilenko was reduced to a sideman. This was before the injuries and the self-doubt and everything that has made a lot of people forget how good AK-47 was.
Kirilenko Comes up with the Steal
Playing alongside the Nets' menagerie of talents, Kirilenko will do what he does best -- stuff the stat sheet, especially on defense, with a couple of blocks and few steals. If he's healthy, he can still be utilized defensively on threes and fours. Plus, you don't realize how long his arms are until you throw a casual skip pass in his direction. Brooklyn has some interesting defensive lineup options between Kevin Garnett, Kirilenko, All-Star Brook Lopez and the way-smart and still-long Shaun Livingston.
And, playing for countryman and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is the closest thing Kirilenko can come to fulfilling the pride of playing internationally for their native Russia, which went on an unlikely run in 2012 in the London Olympics to the bronze medal. With Brooklyn's large Russian population, and with New York affording his wife, Masha, a former pop star in Russia, additional opportunities, the pay cut Kirilenko took to come to Brooklyn should be viewed more as an investment toward future on- and off-the-court successes.
• Jeremy Lamb, Oklahoma City: It's easy to forget, because it was so long ago (2011!), that Lamb is a big-time talent. As a freshman at UConn, he was on the Big East All-Tournament team, the Final Four All-Tournament team and scored all 12 of his points in the second half of Connecticut's national championship victory over Butler. (Because that game was so dreadful, you may not remember it.)
Postgame: Jeremy Lamb
So Lamb, penciled in to replace Kevin Martin at shooting guard, isn't being asked to re-create himself. With Kevin Durant (and, eventually, Russell Westbrook) alongside him, Lamb will get plenty of single coverage and lots of weakside opportunities to drive or spot up for open 3-pointers.
And Lamb is well-versed in what the Thunder want from their two guard, having worn out I-44 last season on endless trips back and forth between OKC and its NBA Development League team, Tulsa. With the 66ers, Lamb was a D-League All-Star, averaging 21 points a game. He doesn't have to be an NBA All-Star this season to justify his place. He just has to score when he can and give a credible effort on defense. He's off to a slow start shooting in the preseason, but if the Thunder are going to survive until Westbrook returns, they cannot discourage Lamb from letting it fly.
• Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto: Waiting for the 21-year-old Valanciunas, literally and figuratively, may have helped cost former GM Bryan Colangelo his job. But it was the right call. Valanciunas took a year to come over to the NBA after Colangelo took him No. 5 in the 2001 Draft. Valanciunas also took the better part of last season, his rookie season in Toronto, to start living up to his potential. But it's a vast potential, and Valanciunas should do even more this season.
He had a terrific Las Vegas Summer League, earning MVP honors while building on his last two months of the regular season. During those final two months, he shot 63 percent and was in double figures in 17 of the Raptors' last 19 games.
Toronto's hope is that the 7-foot-1 center makes an even bigger jump this season. The Raptors were using the words "Valanciunas" and "All-Star" in Vegas.
"He's still learning," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said Saturday. "The main thing with him is he had such a long way to go to learn the NBA, just the nuances of the NBA, the timing, the quickness ... he came in blind. We had to tell him who the players were, what their strengths were. And he missed all of training camp last year. That start [last season] was a lot of him not knowing what was going on, and getting his timing back. As the year got better, he got better."
Valanciunas has put on about 10 pounds from last season, which should be more than enough for him to be able to hold his position in the paint.
"We can go to him in the post," Casey said. "He's not a lot bigger, and plus, he doesn't need to get a lot bigger. You don't want him to bulk up too much. He's going to naturally get bigger by just getting older."
But his biggest improvements have to come at the defensive end. Fouls were a problem for him, as was understanding of the defensive three-second rules. The Raptors have worked with him extensively on the "Hibbert" (named after Roy, of course) defense -- jumping vertically to challenge shooters instead of reaching and hacking.
The combo of Vegas and playing for Lithuania in EuroBasket 2013 seems to have galvanized Valanciunas. The Raptors see a growing confidence in him.
"He's far more comfortable in the NBA games," Casey said. "More confident, moving with more confidence, understanding where to go, what to do. I thought it gave him a sense of belonging, that I belong here. He's got a little swagger from the Summer League. Just being one of our primary interior scorers will be a great year for him, quarterbacking out of the post. And defensively, understanding the nuances of the NBA, the speed of the NBA. We need a rim protector and he needs to be a rim protector for us."
• Cody Zeller, Charlotte: Of all the rookies taken in the top half of the Draft, Zeller is one of the more likely to have a major impact right away. As long as the Bobcats aren't asking him to bang in the post against centers on a regular basis, Zeller's ability to get up and down the court should be a natural complement to Al Jefferson inside. If Jefferson isn't there (and he already has a sprained ankle), Zeller's skill set doesn't get to shine.
Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said the just-turned-21-year-old Zeller was the most talented rookie in the Draft. Whether that's true is a matter of debate. But Charlotte's belief in his skills is clear when you consider the offensively challenged Bobcats passed on Ben McLemore to take Zeller. (You'd like to think this means Ben Gordon will be taken out of drydock this season.)
You could see what Charlotte saw in Zeller during Summer League (I know, I know). He made perimeter jumpers from the key with ease and you could imagine him being able to shot-fake and get to the rim against fours and fives that don't want to come out there and challenge him. And when he gets up a head of steam, there should be any number of alley-oop opportunities.
1) Miami: Greg Oden reportedly cleared to start full-court practice next week.
2) San Antonio: Tim Duncan starts the season 584 points behind Allen Iverson, currently in 19th place on the league's all-time scoring list. But Duncan is also behind active players Paul Pierce (20th) and Ray Allen (21st) on the scoring list.
3) Indiana: I keep forgetting to note that the Pacers signed Chris Copeland when detailing how improved Indy's bench is going to be this season.
4) L.A. Clippers: Clips run down with injuries so far in preseason but escaped a potentially big one when Blake Griffin was diagnosed with a bone bruise in knee after going down and clutching it during a scrimmage Wednesday.
5) Memphis: Grizz looking to become regional team and sell some more tickets beyond Memphis with "caravan" across the south during the summer.
6) Golden State: David Lee looks terrific; he seems to be in the best shape of his career.
7) Oklahoma City: Very good gesture from the Thunder to the people of Moore.
8) Brooklyn: All good thoughts to assistant coach Lawrence Frank and his family right now.
9) New York: Carmelo Anthony acknowledges "huge risk" in not having surgery to repair his torn labrum and rotator cuff injuries. It's always up to the player, of course, but curious if the Knicks made a recommendation one way or the other.
10) Houston: Jeremy Lin rules the day as the Rockets beat the Pacers twice in Taiwan.
11) Chicago: I guarantee you, Mike James will win at least three games this season for the Bulls.
12) Denver: Nuggets looking for someone to establish themselves so far in camp/preseason.
13) Atlanta: Lou Williams cleared for some full-court and contact drills, and has been playing two on two and three on three. Still not cleared yet for full-court five on five.
14) L.A. Lakers: Glad to see Pau Gasol healthy again and playing the way he's capable. He's one of the best big men of his generation and as accomplished as Dirk Nowitzki or anyone else, but his nature leads some to mistake his basic kindness with weakness.
15) Dallas: Jose Calderon (hamstring) hasn't gotten out on the court yet, and Shane Larkin probably won't play during the preseason. You're up, Gal Mekel.
Are NBA teams vulnerable to another MRSA outbreak?
The NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers are again dealing with an outbreak of the staph infection (technical name: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics. Three Buccaneers players have been diagnosed with MRSA since August, when kicker Lawrence Tynes came down with it. Tynes has not played all season. Guard Carl Nicks and another player learned last Thursday they had contracted the infection; for Nicks, it was a recurrence. Nicks was on Tampa Bay's inactive list Sunday against the Eagles, though cornerback Johnathan Banks was cleared to play.
Former NFL players Brandon Noble, LeCharles Bentley and Joe Jurevicious all had to retire after getting MRSA infections, and several NBA players have developed MRSA over the years. Most infamously, MRSA almost killed Grant Hill in 2003.
MRSA usually develops from a skin infection, at a wound or surgical site or where the skin is broken for the placement of a medical device like an IV line. The infection can spread from person to person when they are in close contact with one another, or that use the same sinks, razors, utensils or beds.
Worse still, MRSA is almost impossible to diagnose before it shows up. The Bucs had thoroughly cleaned their practice facility twice since the August disclosure, and even though they don't believe the three cases are related to one another, they don't know how the players contracted it, either.
Preventing MRSA outbreaks among sports teams centers on thorough cleaning of all surfaces at team facilities and by trainers and others who come in contact with players wearing disposable gloves and getting rid of towels and razors immediately after use. It is crucial that any player with a cut or gash have that cut covered with a bandage immediately.
"I always stress to wash your hands as often as you can," one head athletic trainer said Sunday. "Hand sanitizer doesn't kill all bacteria."
While NBA players like Rudy Gay and Shane Battier have dealt with staph, no one was as traumatized by it as Hill while he was with the Magic.
Hill had undergone surgery in March, 2003, on his oft-injured ankle. Five days later, his temperature shot up, and within a couple more days, he started having chills and he had a 104-degree fever. He started having convulsions. Panicked, he and his wife went to the hospital, and he was immediately admitted to intensive care. Hill thought he was about to die.
Eventually, doctors determined that Hill had a staph infection. He went to Duke University for what he thought would be a one-day visit for a clean-up procedure. Instead, he was there almost two months. He had to have skin and vein grafts before the hole in his infected ankle finally began to close.
That same year, 17 football players on the University of Southern California team were diagnosed with MRSA symptoms; 11 developed the full-blown infection, with six of those 11 having to be hospitalized. After the outbreak, USC's athletic trainers, team physicians and an infectious disease doctor came up with a plan of attack. According to a report in the Journal of Athletic Training, the plan included cleaning all shower stalls and bathrooms with disinfectants; covering all wounds and cuts; not allowing the players to use the team whirlpools if they had open wounds, and discontinuing the use of lotions with pumps because of the concern of transferring germs.
Players were told to shower before they entered the team's athletic training room, and not to share towels or other common items like soap, and told to report any skin lesions immediately. Tables were wiped down frequently; all towels used for ultrasound treatments, massages and that were used by athletes for hot packs were marked "soiled" and washed after every use. Disposable paper towels were used at practice and at games to prevent sharing towels. The temperature of the water used to wash uniforms was increased to meet the recommended 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
The following year, 104 USC players got nasal swabs to test for MRSA before the start of the season. Only three players tested positive: two returning players and one new player.
The NBA has had at least one similar outbreak to Tampa Bay's in recent years.
In 2008, the Celtics had four cases of MRSA, with Paul Pierce and Delonte West laid up for several days. Pierce's left elbow and left middle finger were infected at separate times; West got it from an ingrown toenail. Ominously, the Celtics' Head Athletic Trainer, Ed Lacerte, a 30-year veteran who's seen every kind of injury and disease, told ESPN The Magazine at the time, "we don't know where it came from."
The league first sent guidelines to teams in 2007 about treating MRSA. Last year, the league reviewed all of its infection protocols with an infectious diseases specialist. As part of that process, the NBA reviewed the policies of other sports leagues. The league also advised that any players suspected of having MRSA be held out of any practices or games.
"We learned a lot from USC," said a former NBA head athletic trainer. "They [the Bucs] have a rough situation."
One brick shy of a load. From Dennis Barnes:
Love your work, but I do have a question about your predicted record for the Indiana Pacers (49-32) in the Monday Morning Tip today. Did the league short-change the Pacers season to just 81 games? Let the conspiracy theories begin!
No, Dennis. The Indiana-Boston game that was scheduled to be played at TD Garden the night of last April's Boston Marathon was canceled because of the bombing at the Marathon that afternoon, and was not rescheduled or played.
Not his cup of tea. From Richard Mathews:
I will have to disagree with you on the political jab at Senator Cruz (you brought it up) and the Tea Party. Your characterization of them with a slanted synopsus (sp) of the situation doesn't seem very fair. You are entitled to your opinion of course, and I just wanted to give you mine. You make valid points, but this clearly isn't as black and white as you make it seem.
Thanks for your reasonable disagreement, Richard. We will continue to disagree, I'm afraid. It is well and good and expected for legislators to fight tooth and nail for their respective positions and constituents. But once a law is passed and is upheld by the Supreme Court, the time for fighting is over, and it's time to allow laws to be enacted and enforced. Elections do have consequences. Or so I've been told.
That was the worst political statement I've ever heard. Oh. Wrong Simon from England. From Simon Dingwall:
When you said this, "And, in the interests of full disclosure, I have family members who are now working for nothing, and who have bills and obligations that are a little more important to me than the presidential aspirations of Ted Cruz. Sorry. The "keep your non-sports opinions out of sports line forms to the right" [emphasis added]
Did you mean it to be a pun on the likelihood that people who will complain about something as petty as this are going to be Republicans?
(In the interests of full disclosure, I am one of the most right wing (non fascist/extremist) people that the UK can produce since we don't have much of a fly-over state/redneck tradition; but I think what you wrote is very funny.)
I really enjoy reading the 'Tip every week and I must praise you for your ability to look at both sides of the argument for your various subject matters (something I am, regrettably, poor at).
I am afraid, Simon, that I really wasn't making a political statement with the "to the right" phrase. It was an unintended consequence (sort of like the makers of Viagra -- which was originally designed to help people with high blood pressure and to increase circulation to the heart and lungs -- discovering it had, um, some useful side effects). I appreciate the fact, though, that you could laugh at it. We need more laughter in our political discourse, for we are all occasionally ridiculous in our various, and, increasingly, intractable positions.
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and possible replacements for the Raptors' mascot to email@example.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!
1 -- Miami Heat players officially under contract for the 2014-15 season, after Miami exercised its option for next year on guard Norris Cole. As you no doubt know, each of the SuperFriends (LeBron, DWade, Bosh), along with Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony, is under contract for '14-'15, but each has an opt-out for that season. Each of the SFs is expected to opt out next summer to sign a new deal. Whether that's in Miami or not is the big question.
$4,850,000 -- Listed price for Kevin Garnett's Massachusetts home, per Forbes. Garnett and his wife, Brandi, bought the house in Concord, Mass., in 2007 for $4.65 million.
1) Looking forward to my first look at the Nets on Thursday against the Heat on TNT. You just want to see all of that money together in one locker room. You wonder what they would do if they decided to be crazy, and all decided to pull out their checkbooks and buy something. Like Finland.
2) Maya Moore continues to be all that. Congrats to her and the Minnesota Lynx on their WNBA championship.
3) A Nets' security man has first-hand knowledge of what really happened aboard the boat that Somali pirates hijacked in 2009, inspiring the recent film "Captain Phillips."
4) Don't watch "Duck Dynasty," but know it's popular -- and so, apparently, does Derrick Rose.
1) I suspect there will be increased curiosity as the preseason goes on about why NBA teams haven't yet signed Jason Collins. We all knew after Collins' disclosure last spring that he's gay that if he went through the summer unsigned, there would be speculation that homophobia was at least partly to blame. It is impossible to prove a negative. So we don't know why teams haven't yet signed him. It could be homophobia. It could be because he's a marginal center at this point of his career who would cost tax paying teams two or three times the veteran minimum for which he'd likely sign. It could be teams just don't want to deal with the certain media hassle that would accompany his arrival. Or some combination of all three, or something else. It's a puzzle.
2) Long way for Nene to fly to get booed by his fellow Brazilians.
Trey Burke Injury
3) Hope Trey Burke isn't out too long.
3A) Ditto Al Jefferson.
3B) Ditto Tyler Zeller.
4) If this is true (in Twitter 24/7 Land, you never know for sure), I cannot stress enough how much some people stink. UPDATE: It appears the initial report was, indeed, exaggerated some. But even one person being that obnoxious stinks. UPDATE II: There was more than one person at Reliant Stadium Sunday cheering Schaub's ankle injury that forced him out of the game. You people are sick.
It had been a long time since I'd been in downtown Detroit. The Pistons, of course, play 31 miles north of the city, in a place called Auburn Hills, which is as relevant to Detroit as Quito, Ecuador is. Structurally, there's a lot that's right about downtown. The GM Renaissance Center is still gleaming and still commanding almost 30 years after its construction.
Like many other cities, Detroit has turned to casinos to generate revenue; there are three within a mile or so of one another. Like many other cities, Detroit has built its most recent sports buildings downtown; Ford Field, where the Lions play, is next door to Comerica Park, where the Tigers play, and where I was covering their Division Series against the Oakland A's.
But unlike most cities, Detroit is, officially, bankrupt. There are decades' worth of blame to throw around (this story in the Detroit Free Press last month is revelatory and what great newspapers, like great cities, used to produce regularly). But what was striking about downtown was that there were so few people around. It was like that History Channel show Life After Humans, which hypothesis how the world created by man would collapse if man suddenly were not there.
And yet, those that remain refuse to yield, and those athletes from there like Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Derrick Coleman and Jerome Bettis, to name four, brought that grit and toughness with them. Shane Battier wasn't from the city; he grew up in the Detroit 'burbs, in Birmingham, Michigan. But he has won everywhere he's been, from County Day High to Duke to the Grizzlies and Rockets, and now, finally, with the Heat, where his defense and clutch 3-point shooting have been central to Miami's two championships.
At 35, Battier's basketball career is winding down, but his lifelong love of the Tigers has never been greater.
Me: When did the Tigers become important to you?
Shane Battier: My first sports memory was of the '84 Tigers. I was 6 years old when they won the title. I can still tell you the lineup to this day. George Kell, Paul Carey, Ernie Harwell, the Bless you Boys. I've been a Tiger Fan for a long time.
Me: All right, name 'em.
Battier on Building Confidence
SB: First base, Darrell Evans. Up the middle, Lou Whitaker at second, Alan Trammell at short. Dave Berman at third. Lance Parrish behind the plate. Larry Herndon, Chet Lemon and Hojo [Howard Johnson] in the outfield. Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Juan Berenguer. The MVP and Cy Young winner was Willie Hernandez. I just remember going to Tiger Stadium. That was the first sporting event I went to. Tiger Stadium, before it got demolished, you understood why it was special. You thought about the old days, and Al Kaline. Michigan and Trumbull was something that's still important to Detroiters.
Me: Which Tiger did you idolize growing up?
SB: Well, I loved them up the middle, with Whitaker and Trammell. Every time Lou Whitaker went up to bat, the whole stadium went 'Looooo.' I was too big to play second base but I always wanted to play shortstop.
Me: But after that team won in '84, things went downhill: one playoff appearance in the next 22 years, until the 2006 team got back to the Series. How hard was it to stay a fan during that drought?
SB: The '90s were a tough era. Cecil Fielder was probably the only bright spot in the 90s. And I suffered with the year that Jeremy Bonderman lost 20 [actually, just 19] games. The Mike Maroth era [Maroth actually did lose 20 games, in 2003, the only major leaguer in the previous three decades to lose that many games in one season]. I stayed loyal. That's why this team now, it's really fun to watch. We stuck with those guys for a long time.
Me: With the current team, which superpower would you most covet: Justin Verlander's knee-buckling curve, Miguel Cabrera's opposite field power or Jim Leyland's ability to chain-smoke?
SB: I'm going Miggy's opposite field power. There's a lot of great curveballers out there. Those guys are not pitching inside to Miggy any more. But Jim Leyland's chain-smoking is pretty impressive. I threw out the first ball at a game this year and I brought my son, Zeke, to the game. And I almost had to take him out of the manager's room before the game. It was great talking to those guys, but I was like, coach, I've gotta go.
Me: When you watch a performance like Verlander's in Game 5 against Oakland this year, athlete to athlete, are you impressed?
SB: I think players are defined by the postseason. The pressure's the highest. You really find out what players and athletes are made of when the flame's the highest. We were actually playing in Detroit that night so I was getting updates from the fans courtside. They were telling me, he's gone through the first three innings, and he still hasn't given up a hit. Fourth inning, no-no. Fifth inning, no-no. Sixth inning, no-no. This guy's an animal.
Me: I know that sports matter to people, but do you think, given the terrible trouble Detroit is in economically, that even something like the Tigers potentially winning a World Series will have any real effect on the city?
SB: People from Detroit are tough. Their toughness is being tested right now. There's not a lot of optimism. People are grinding to get through this tough period. Detroit's going to come back. It'll come back. We'll figure it out. If we have to reinvent ourselves, we will. It does amazing things for the city. It's always been the case for a tough city. It really brings the city together. It sounds like a cliché, but it really does. I think it's a case where a team can bring a city together.
Me: A couple of work questions. Why are you still playing? You have two rings; I'm sure you don't need the money, and your next job is almost certainly going to be more important and impact many more thousands of people, directly and indirectly.
SB: It's what I do. It sounds corny. It's what I've done for so long. Past successes the last couple of years notwithstanding, it's what I do. August 1st rolls around, OK, let's get in shape. September 1st rolls around, OK, let's really focus on the season. October 1st rolls around, the ball goes up. It's in my blood. It's what I can do, and I'd like to think I can still do it at a high level.
Me: You are a big believer in process, preparation and living with the results of what occurs on the court. How does winning validate those beliefs? Would it be harder to believe in those things if you were on a losing team?
SB: I'd like to think no. Even though I wasn't competing for NBA championships with the Grizzlies and the Rockets, I could live with the results. I did everything I could to make those teams successful. That's all I can ask for, to help to make my team as successful as possible. And for the Heat, it's the mountaintop. In Memphis, it was helping a team that hadn't made the playoffs in 10 years get to the postseason. It wasn't the championship, but it was fulfilling in a totally different way. When I can't help a team reach it's maximum potential, that's when I know it'll be time to step away.
Me: So what will you be doing when you hang 'em up?
SB: A little of this, a little of that. I could see myself speaking. I could see myself writing. It'll be dynamic. It won't be confined to a cubicle. That is for certain.
Have no regrets in life
-- Lakers center Robert Sacre (@Bobby_Sacre), Thursday, 6:28 p.m. This is where TwitterWorld makes things unclear. Does he mean, "You shouldn't have any regrets in life," or "I have no regrets in my life"? Two totally different things, I think you'd agree. At any rate, Sacre is going to be too busy in the near future selling burgers, apparently, to have time for individual reflection.
"I need to get my fat ass in shape. Six months of eating whatever the hell I wanted to eat and not running has caught up to me a little bit."
-- Kobe Bryant, on what he'll need to do before he can get back on the floor. Bryant said he needs three weeks of hard cardiovascular training and will need to regain explosiveness in his legs before he feels "comfortable" back on the court. There is no specific timetable for his return.
"Pressure? I don't know what that pressure is. Obviously you've never seen me play."
-- Larry Bird, while at the Global Games Philippines last week. Bird was reportedly asked whether being a player for the Celtics or an executive for the Pacers brings more pressure.
"My first thoughts? I like his hairdo. And I like his tattoos a lot. There's a lot of storytelling going on there. You know he's got a high pain tolerance if he's got tattoos on his eyelids. All that stuff impresses me before we even start talking about his game."
-- Rick Carlisle, to the Dallas Morning News, on Renaldo Balkman, trying to make the Mavericks as a free agent after playing last season in the Philippines.
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