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On Loss, Basketball, and Len Bias

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The English language has a lot of words to describe the feeling of loss. We have words like grief, anguish, even nostalgia. Despite all of our flowery metaphors and similes, we lack a word that describes the loss of a thing you’ve never experienced. Some people experience the feeling when thinking about a deceased relative that is well remembered by the rest of their family. Others are immigrants who mourn a home country they’ve never known. The examples are there, yet there is no word to describe it.

Saudade.

It’s a Portuguese word that signifies a deep longing or sadness for something missing. It’s not an exact translation, but linguistic loopholes allow for the stretch. Saudade can be used in the place of missing someone or something, but it’s considered a perpetually unfulfilled longing often linked to nostalgia. To me, it sounds a lot like Len Bias.

Len Bias has always been a ghost to me. I wasn’t alive when the small forward first graced the floors of Cole Field House, adorned in Maryland red. I wasn’t alive when he transformed his game from that of an athletic—albeit undisciplined—freshman to that of a dynamic lottery pick. I wasn’t alive on June 17th, 1986, when a 22-year old Bias stepped onto a stage in Madison Square Garden and accepted a kelly green Boston Celtics hat. In accepting that hat, Len accepted his place in NBA history—a place that the world would come to know much sooner than anticipated.

Growing up, I was the only one in my family who was a Celtics fan. As a Canadian, bucking trend and choosing a team across the border was fairly off brand, but I was resolute in my decision to support the Cs. I learned about Boston through basketball biographies I borrowed from the public library. I devoured pages and pages about Bill Russell, Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale. It was in those early biographies that I first found mention of Len Bias. The brief paragraphs about him were quick and to the point, a bullet point eulogy of what could’ve been. So I read and researched, as much a ten-year-old could, until I felt like I had assembled all the puzzle pieces of Len Bias’ story. Still, there was something missing.

Every year starting in April, this weird feeling pops up. The closer I get to June—the NBA draft in particular—the stronger it gets. I know it has something to do with the invisible legacy Len left behind, but this year it’s particularly strong.

Neither Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball particularly bring Len to mind. It’s more about the circumstances that led to Boston getting a shot at the top two. The catastrophic Nets deal shares a couple eerie parallels with the way Len Bias found himself Boston bound. It’s enough to put me on edge.

***********

It’s the fall of 1984. The Boston Celtics are fresh off of a championship win. Guard Gerald Henderson has just inked a new contract after being part of a starting backcourt. He’s 29, having just come off of a career high average of 11.6 points a game. But he’s about to get swapped out with Danny Ainge and become the first guy off of the bench.

Meanwhile, other teams noticed the backcourt shift. Boston started to get offers for Henderson, but nothing truly piqued their interest until a first round pick was put on the table. The Seattle Supersonics were willing to part with their 1987 first rounder in return for Gerald Henderson. Henderson would be the guy to lift their franchise above the mediocrity it had encountered in recent years and in return, Boston would get a first rounder. Not an awful deal. But Boston wanted an earlier pick. The SuperSonics eventually compromised, offering the 1986 first rounder. Two days later, Henderson was Seattle bound, setting the stakes for the final trade that would send Bias to Boston.

Seattle underachieved that year, winning only 31 games. Henderson was by no means the saviour he had been hailed as. All of sudden, it seemed the Celtics might get a chance at the elite core of players in the draft. All through the 1985-86 season, Boston fans watched hopefully as Seattle continued to flounder through a coaching change and yet another 31 win season. Finally, it was sealed.

Boston always wanted Bias. There was no question about it. They didn’t even invite the other top pick, Brad Daugherty, in for a workout. Len Bias had worked with Red Auerbach’s basketball camps and was very well known amongst the organization. The Celtics had brought Bias in several times for workouts, and had even drug tested him.

Two years after the Seattle trade, it all came to fruition. Len Bias was drafted second overall to the Boston Celtics.

***********

Right about the time I hit middle school, the Celtics won the 2007-08 championship. It was the big three era, I had just started to get really into basketball, and I had a huge laminated poster of Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce hanging on my wall. Winning the championship and beating the Lakers simultaneously felt like validation of my weird fandom choice and a nod to the past.

Obviously, things didn’t quite mimic the success of the Larry Bird-led Celtics, which brought us to the 2013 Nets trade. With Ray Allen fleeing Boston for Miami, Rajon Rondo’s ACL tear, and Doc Rivers’ departure, change was afoot. It was time for a rebuild.

On July 12, 2013, the Brooklyn Nets officially announced they had acquired Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White from the Boston Celtics in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans and their unprotected first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. The Celtics also received the right to swap first-rounders with the Nets in 2017.

Now, at this point in time we all recognize that Nets deal as the dumpster fire it would eventually become, but at the time, it seemed like they were veritably buying their way into what should’ve been a deep run at a championship. They then proceeded to trade Terry and lost to the Heat in a second round sweep. Pierce left in free agency the following summer and they traded Garnett halfway through the following season.

As disastrous as the trade was for the Nets, it has been the crown jewel of the Celtics organization. It has given the Celtics guys like Jaylen Brown (third overall, 2016)  and Marcus Smart (sixth overall, 2014) while still allowing them to stockpile assets and be in the conversation around any big free agents at trade deadline time. All season long, Celtics fans have kept an eye on the struggling Nets and now, it seems we will be rewarded with a top three pick.

As much as my homerism is present in regards to Smart and Brown, I can concede that neither of them are true instant impact stars. That’s what makes this 2017 pick so big—Len Bias big.

***********

Just five months before Len Bias would cross the stage at Madison Square Garden on June 19th, 1986, Bob Sakamoto of the Chicago Tribune wrote an article titled, Cocaine–scourge of Nba. It quickly painted a connection between basketball, “the game of the playgrounds”, and drugs “the bane of the streets”.

There were a couple big names cited in Sakamoto’s article, most notably that of Larry Legend himself. Bird was an outspoken advocate for harsher penalties for drugs users and mandatory testing, as opposed to the NBA’s three strike policy. The three strike policy encouraged players to come out and admit they had a problem without fear of punishment, therefore creating a culture where athletes could be treated like humans and given time to rehabilitate.

The worry among players like Bird and several NBA owners is that this elaborate aftercare program would do little to deter first time users. Sure, the mechanisms were in place to help addicts get clean, but how efficient would that be if they couldn’t stop players from experimenting with drugs in the first place?

The Players Association bristled at the idea of mandatory testing, claiming that the that would be a massive infringement on the rights of their constituents. It was widely thought that league counsel at the time, Gary Bettman, was posturing simply to garner favour with media that was hungry for yet another drug scandal.

At the time, America was several years deep into first lady Nancy Reagan’s overly simplistic “Just Say No” campaign, aimed to educate and prevent drug use among young people. It had raised awareness among the population while quietly shaping a new nightmare in the heads of parents everywhere. All it needed was a face.

The face would be that of Len Bias. His cocaine overdose lit the fuse on the lingering fear about drugs in America. He was the ideal poster child for the campaign: A young man, with the world at his feet, whose life was cut tragically short by drugs.

Len Bias would never go on to play an NBA game. He would be memorialized as a great college basketball player, a tragedy, and the embodiment of “what if”.

***********

But back to the present. We’re approximately two months away from an NBA draft in which the top two will almost certainly make an instant impact wherever they go. Boston, just like 31 years ago, has the chance to add a piece while still being a championship contender.

However, the catalyst for Boston being on the receiving end of this pick gives me that weird feeling. The parallels are present:

The Nets deal is viewed as some as Danny Ainge’s best work as a GM, exactly the way the Henderson deal was viewed as a coup for Red Auerbach.

Henderson might not have been a Paul Pierce or a KG, but he was a starting guard on a championship team and his loss was felt.

Seattle wasn’t supposed to tank. No one thought the Celtics were getting a top 3 pick out of the deal. No one thought the Nets would crumble as spectacularly as they did either.

The 1985-86 Celtics were more than contenders. They were coming off of winning an NBA championship. The 2016-17 Celtics are unlikely to be as successful, but are still the first seed in the East going into the first round.

Fultz and Ball are no Bias, but should Boston land the one or two spot, that will be the first top two draft pick the Celtics have received since Len Bias.

There you have it. It’s not enough to give true deja vu, but it’s enough to make that feeling I get around draft day a little bit stronger. Maybe I’m being crazy, or looking for Len in places I’ll never find him; but feeling his legacy is nice, even if it’s fleeting.

Maddy is a Canadian sports media student who does not like the Raptors. Growing up in a hockey family, she decided to be rebellious and play basketball. She lives in Toronto and considers herself the defensive specialist of her pick-up league. When not writing, she does colour commentary for the Ryerson University women's team.

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Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers

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Lonzo Ball is the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. The new savior. The Big Baller Brand is now here to stay and LaVar Ball’s family’s future is set. But is that enough?

Lonzo Ball is a great kid and athlete who knows his talent will take him to another level. The major question mark that remains is whether or not he will take the Lakers there as well. He has the platform and skillset to do so, but with that comes the added pressure from the city and league to basically become part of the next version of Kobe and Shaq. It’s too strainful for a young kid—a rookie—to achieve.  

Magic Johnson, the recently named President of Basketball of Operations for the Lakers, is taking an aggressive approach to get this team back into playoff contention his first year in. One of his first moves was sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Brook Lopez is definitely an upgrade at center, but has a couple of years already under his belt.   

Lopez will provide a much needed veteran presence with a great IQ for the game at his position. The only downfall is that a couple of years under his belt doesn’t really transfer to great experience, but simply wasted miles on his body. He isn’t as quick as he used to be and doesn’t even rank in the top 10 centers in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report had him last season at exactly 15 out of the top 30 centers in the NBA. While he is has improved by adding the three-point range to his arsenal, there is no doubt that he is nearly past his prime, and although he can still contribute on a nightly basis, who knows how much and what effect it will have with Lonzo Ball running the point.  

Ball has great court vision that has been often compared to that of LeBron James. Combined with his passing skills, he is a true PG with tremendous upside in the backcourt. With that being said, he will only reach a certain extent. His full potential is years from being maximized and people are buying into it early on. In fact, the pressure for him to lift a sub .500 team to the playoffs for the first time in five years is daunting. 

These are Lonzo Ball’s stats during his rookie—and only—year at UCLA: 

  • 14.6 Points
  • 7.6 Assists
  • 6.0  Rebounds
  • 1.8 Steals
  • 0.8 Blocks
  • 55.1 FG%
  • 41.2 3P%

He did a tremendous job maintaining that statline and even added a triple-double in the NBA Summer League, earning him the Summer League MVP.  

Don’t get me wrong, Ball seems ready for the challenge and is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent mirroring that of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but he is not an All-Star or MVP—at least, not yet. These way-too-early predictions that he is the Lakers’ new savior are farfetched. He has yet to face the elite NBA offensive threats and superstars that have been at it for 10-plus years. Defensively speaking he will not be able to keep up. Not in his first year. He still needs NBA experience and a more rounded roster to be able to reach the playoffs.  

He is off to a good start, but being named NBA Summer League MVP doesn’t necessarily mean a spectacular season is coming as some think it does. Especially if you consider the previous Summer League MVP winners.

Year Nat. Player Pos. Team
2012 Damian Lillard (co-MVPs) PG Portland Trail Blazers
Josh Selby (co-MVPs) PG Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Jonas Valančiūnas C Toronto Raptors
2014 Glen Rice Jr. SG Washington Wizards
2015 Kyle Anderson SF San Antonio Spurs
2016 Tyus Jones PG Minnesota Timberwolves
2017 Lonzo Ball PG Los Angeles Lakers

With the exceptions of Damian Lillard in 2012 and Jonas Valanciunas in 2013, the past five Summer League MVP winners have gone on to produce very mediocre NBA careers. All I’m saying is, don’t read too much into NBA Summer League. It’s the pre-preseason that no one really watches or cares about.  

The NBA season is nearing—exactly a month away—and my somewhat harsh criticism of Lonzo Ball isn’t too cruel. I am just not ready to jump on the Ball bandwagon following LaVar’s prophecies of his son being the Lakers prodigal son. He won’t be. Again, at least not yet. He needs to earn his spot and the transition will surprise him his first year in. It will hit him hard, but, despite my concerns, eventually Lonzo Ball will become a future NBA All-Star and a daring NBA point guard.  

Not yet though, and until then all we can do is prepare for his official NBA debut. Until then, we can enjoy and bask in his newly released rap single paying tribute to his little brother LaMelo Ball.  

If the NBA doesn’t end up being his calling in life, at least he has a back up career in mind.

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MELO-dy Cool

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Carmelo Anthony has been traded away from the New York Knickerbockers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

You probably knew this before you laid eyes on these words.

It honestly doesn’t matter much who the Thunder traded away for “Melo” and who the Knicks received, because they weren’t anywhere near Melo’s overall value. But, it matters that Melo himself is gone and away from New York City, and for all his accolades, he honestly had a major part to play in his exodus.

Melo altogether is a player that both outplayed and underplayed his own potential. No one that saw him at Oak Hill Academy as a high schooler could for-sure say that he’d be a superstar, and everyone that saw him at Syracuse University might say he was a can’t-miss by then.

And he didn’t miss on most of what he’s teased, he’s delivered in a lot of ways; but, the reason why he didn’t work out in New York was because he was selfish to a fault in the key places that required compromise.

Do you remember how he got to Kings County in the first place? He forced a trade to the Knicks from his then-Denver Nuggets, a team that was teasing with talent abundant, but not unlike today, stuck in the mighty Western Conference. With title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers at that time of the NBA, the 2010–2011 season, the Nuggets just weren’t going to make the noise they wanted to make. Melo was a free agent-to-be at the completion of that season, and it was likely that he’d leave. His time with the Nuggets, a very successful time, had run its course. The change was coming, and he was catalyst to the change he wanted to see in his world. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem was that Melo didn’t want to wait for New York. He wanted New York then and there, and it didn’t matter how it was going to happen.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks weren’t in a position to compete for a title during that season, something he long wanted to bring to New York upon his eventual arrival.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to gut their team’s best assets in a trade for the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised native. It didn’t matter that if he waited until the season was over, he could be playing with a young and promising Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov (a revelation upon his arrival to the States from Russia), amongst others.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to sacrifice draft picks for him, instead of keeping them upon signing later.

It didn’t matter to Melo.

And so, when he arrived in New York, in early 2011, he received the adulation and praise of a prodigal son. Sure, the team lost some valuable talent and depth, but surely Melo would will the Knicks into wild success — just like he did in Denver, right?

And sure enough, after he rebuked the Linsanity of 2012 when Jeremy Lin became an overnight NBA superstar and balked at the prospect of Lin’s resigning, he gained some success.

The 2012–2013 season saw Melo as the closest thing to being an MVP candidate that anyone had ever seen from him as a professional in an 82-game season, but not before being totally indifferent to former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s wishes for him to play more at power forward to stretch the offensive side of the ball for the Knicks and the defenses of the opposing league teams. D’Antoni quit before the end of the 2011–2012 season, because of Melo’s loathsome resistance to D’Antoni and the coach’s embrace of Lin.

A big aspect of Melo’s failure to bring glory to Manhattan was his resistance to doing what has made him a legend in USA Basketball. Having won multiple gold medals as a stretch-four shooter, that he refused to embrace that positioning as an NBA pro limited the ability of his teams to win.

As a four, Melo, who had gained grown-man weight from natural maturity and strength and conditioning, didn’t have to be the cavity in his team’s defense as he struggled as a man-to-man defender. Moving from his formerly-natural small forward slot could allow him to defend more ably and allow someone more fleet of foot to stop the dominant wings that Melo often matched up against. Becoming something different and better in a new place would’ve allowed him the opportunity to be greater than anyone had known him to be in an NBA uniform.

But, he refused and rebuked such a change.

And one last thing: Injuries and front office politics aside, Melo was loyal to the Knicks organization through and through. But, he had a choice to go.

So, to recap, Melo forced a trade to New York that gutted the talent of the roster, and then he refused to change to a position that would behoove him and the team in the journey to championship gain.

Well, he also had a chance to leave for greener pastures and become a Chicago Bull, where he could experience more success with a front office committed to his development and surrounding talent. He didn’t want to do that, and that’s fair. New York was home, but if he was going to win in New York, seeing as to how being the way that he’d always been wasn’t helping — that is shoot-first, ask questions and defend later — why return to The Big Apple if you aren’t going to change?

He saw what being a score-only wing was giving his teams — it gave his teams very little success for the vast majority of 14 years. Sure, his Nuggets and Knicks made the playoffs (not so much New York) much of the time, but he said he wasn’t playing for that.

In the end, Melo and the Knicks not working out could be seen before he even became a Knick, when Melo stomped his way out of Denver to play immediately for New York when it would’ve behooved him to stay put for two more months.

Championship or bust, they say.

He couldn’t really compromise too well for the chip, it appears.

In the end, Carmelo Anthony — despite years of league-leading jersey sales, runway appearances, and bright lights on the New York City streets with LaLa — was a big, fat, shining, New York bust.

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Reloaded Raptors Banking on Young Guns

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Masai Ujiri is a smart guy.

No matter which conference your team is in, you’re either stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out the Warriors, or you’re stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out LeBron James. For Ujiri’s Raptors, the latter is the elephant in the room. So when the offseason came, the club had some decisions to make that would indicate the direction of the franchise’s future, both immediate and long-term.

Ujiri and Toronto GM Bobby Webster were somehow able to re-sign Kyle Lowry for a three-year deal instead of the five years that Lowry desired, and then managed the same with Serge Ibaka. This effectively put the Raptors on a three-year timeline until the next big shift in the franchise. For these upcoming three years, the Raps will stay competitive with their tried-and-tested core, and they will simultaneously cultivate young talent around their stars.

It’s a great formula. LeBron is going to be 33 years old this December, and by the time Lowry and Ibaka’s contracts are up, he will be entering the twilight stage of his career. Suddenly, the East could be wide open again. Ujiri knows it, and he wants to be ready for it.

But what about the present? The Raptors lost a couple of their veteran role players this summer in the re-signing of their core, including Patrick Patterson (an advanced analytics darling), and P.J. Tucker (a terrific perimeter defender). The team also traded away DeMarre Carroll—who was never able to return to his Atlanta peak—to Brooklyn in order to shed his contract, as well as Cory Joseph to Indiana, who snagged them sharpshooter C.J. Miles—swiftly signed to a three-year deal, no less—as a return.

These changes have left the Raps with a squad that, outside of the starting lineup, is quite young. None of their bench players have played more than three seasons in the NBA, and their total average age is about 23 years old. A number of them have yet to see significant minutes, with Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and newcomer K.J. McDaniels being the exceptions.

The regular season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the keys to racking up wins in order to put yourself in a good position come playoff time are chemistry and consistency à la the Spurs. If the Raptors are to continue their regular season success of the last few years, then they’ll need their young guns to step into formerly veteran roles and rise to the challenge.

Thankfully, a few of them already seem prepared to break out and have impactful seasons. Both Powell and Wright gave the team some fantastic minutes last year, especially in the playoffs. Norm in particular was a standout, putting the league on notice with his athleticism and tough defensive play. He was part of the best lineup the Raptors had in the postseason (a +5.3), and the team’s offensive rating shot up from 101.7 to 107.9 when he was on the floor compared to when he wasn’t.

In the first round against the Bucks, Powell went for 55/91/92 per cent shooting, averaging 12.4 points per game and torching his opponents. He was a key cog in helping the Raptors win that series and fully earned Dwane Casey’s trust, which is not an easy thing to do for a young player.

Wright didn’t get quite as much time to shine with CoJo being the primary backup point guard, but when he was on the floor he scrapped defensively and showed in flashes that he was able to run the team. His length and effort have been the two most noticeable qualities when watching him so far, and his nose-to-the-grindstone mentality is one that Casey must love.

Siakam is another high-energy guy, and good for a few minutes a game, although playing him for a substantial amount of time isn’t a great idea since he’s undersized and a below-average rebounder. Jakob Poeltl should get more run, and like Wright—though less frequently—he showed instances of strong play, both on the boards and around the basket.

Perhaps the two most interesting youngsters are the newcomers: Raptors 2017 draft pick OG Anunoby and K.J. McDaniels. Anunoby has been touted as an excellent defender, a grinder, and he already has an NBA body that should allow him to guard multiple positions on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from an ACL tear and therefore it’s possible he doesn’t even play this season. Still, this is the kind of player you get excited for as a fan and as a coach—he’ll likely be impactful right away, at least in one aspect.

As for McDaniels, he’s spent time bouncing around the league during his three seasons. He’s already played for Philadelphia, Houston, and Brooklyn, and has never had a chance to get comfortable. He’s another player with defensive potential—he’s got some pretty sweet block highlights—but has yet to find any sort of consistent shooting. If he can’t show Toronto something this season, he may be on the move again.

And finally, as we ask every year, is this the season when Bruno Caboclo breaks loose and starts going Brazilian Kevin Durant on the rest of the league? My answer: Unlikely. It may be hard to believe, but Bruno is still one of the youngest guys on the team at 21 years old. His time in the D-League—now the G League—can only be good for him, but his scoring dropped off significantly last season compared to the year prior, when he was putting up double-figure numbers almost every game. There’s still a lot of time left for Bruno to prove himself, and as such it’s tough to imagine that time being this season.

It’s difficult—though intriguing—trying to judge a group of players who don’t have an extensive NBA resume as of yet (I feel for you, Philly fans). Even if one has seen a player be productive in spurts, it’s impossible to know whether or not they’ll be capable of handling a bigger role long-term without actually seeing it. For the Raptors in particular, Powell is probably the only young player that the team has a good grasp on.

So let the experiment begin. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

And remember: It’s all part of the three-year plan.

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