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Tuesday, October 8, 2002
Updated: October 10, 1:03 PM ET
True tales from the camp fires

By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2

Editor's Note: Charley Rosen has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. A former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, he has also co-authored several books with Lakers coach -- and close friend -- Phil Jackson, including "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League" and "Maverick." This is the second installment of his look at the 2002-03 NBA season for Page 2.

In its (relatively) long and (mostly) glorious history, the NBA has showcased many dramatic and memorable shots: George Mikan confidently laughing as he flipped two underhanded free throws through the hoop with the clock already dead to tie the 1954 All-Star Game and send it into overtime. Don Nelson's last-second jumper that hit the heel of the rim and bounced 10 feet in the air before plunging through the basket to win the seventh game of the 1969 championship playoffs for the Boston Celtics. How about Julius Erving's incredible swooping backhanded flip against the Celtics in the 1983 playoffs? And arguably the most famous shot of all-time, performed by Darryl Dawkins on Nov. 13, 1979, in Kansas City -- the "If You Ain't Groovin', Best Get Movin', Chocolate Thunder Flyin', Robinzine Cryin', Teeth Shakin', Glass Breakin', Rump Roastin', Bun Toastin', Glass Still Flyin',Wham-Bam-I Am Jam!"

Even so, the most incredible shot I've ever seen occurred in the privacy of an NBA training camp.

Kobe Bryant
For a superstar like Kobe Bryant, training camp can be a giant bore.
In October 1989, when I was coaching the Rockford Lightning in the Continental Basketball Association, I happened to be at the Chicago Bulls' initial training camp session at the Deerfield Multiplex. Since the Bulls were Rockford's NBA "affiliate," I had dibs on every draft choice and free agent who would eventually be cut by the Bulls. The player I was looking hardest at was Matt Brust, a 6-foot-4 tough guy signed as camp-fodder out of St. John's.

For the first few days of any training camp, the protocol is traditional: The important veteran players cruise through the drills and scrimmages, while everybody else busts their hump from baseline to baseline. That's why, in an otherwise lukewarm scrimmage, Michael Jordan came sashaying to the basket in a semi-break situation, casually gearing up to amuse the in-crowd with his first slammer-jammer of the new season. But Brust, hustling like his butt was on fire, caught up with Jordan and proceeded to unceremoniously knock His Airness on his royal keister.

BAM! Jordan went down and didn't move for a few moments. Suddenly the gym was hushed, as the trainers scurried onto the court. The only sound was Jerry Krause choking on one of his breakfast doughnuts ...

... until Jordan finally climbed to his feet, shook off the ministrations of the trainers, and motioned for the scrimmage to resume. But the fearsome look in Jordan's eyes foretold a revenge that would be both devastating and creative ...

Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Ryan Bowen
Things can get physical when players battle for jobs, as the Nuggets' Nikoloz Tskitishvili, left, and Ryan Bowen prove.
Training camp includes the period from the first gathering of a ballclub to the beginning of the preseason games. And, for the most part, the crucial importance of those seven to 10 days are cloaked in a workaday dullness. At the start, the coaching staffs focus on instituting their teams' generic game, one piece at a time: This is the way we'll cut, pick, curl, pop-up, pin-down. These are our defensive rotations. Wing-passes, pivot-passes and reverse passes will be thrown and received just so.

All the pages of the playbook -- including fastbreak and early offense, halfcourt sets, press-breakers, in-bounds plays -- are introduced and rehearsed. Terminology is also established as a locational and procedural shorthand -- e.g., "garden spot," "pinch post," blind pig" and "line of deployment," as used by the Lakers.

Every team's requisite training camp exercises are always tedious and repetitive, but some coaches' drills create unique problems. "Flip Saunders' drills are the most complicated," says one well-traveled vet. "Yet the coaching staff never fully explains them, so newcomers to the Timberwolves wind up stumbling around and looking like fools. The only guys who can get through Flip's training camp drills are guys who've already played for him."

When Tex Winter coached the Houston Rockets (1971-73), his star player, Elvin Hayes, asked to be excused from the training camp drills. "Even though Elvin was an All-Star," Tex says, "the truth was that he had the worst fundamentals of any player I've ever coached. His footwork was terrible, and except for his one dribble-and-spin move, he just couldn't handle the ball. We had a lot of basic drills that he simply couldn't execute. He tried to avoid these drills by making believe he was hurt or by getting his ankles retaped. Finally, he came up to me and said, 'Coach, it's too embarrassing for me to be out there.' So I excused him and designed a series of four-man drills."

Paul Gasol, Drew Gooden
Rookie Drew Gooden, right, can expect a crash-course introduction to the Grizzlies playbook.
A new head coach must focus on overcoming the habitual reluctance of veteran players to embrace any new system. For veteran teams under holdover coaches, however, the X's and O's and the jargon are already familiar and training camp is mostly a reaquaintance process. And rookies are always in a daze, because NBA teams can have up to 10 times the "calls" that college teams have (and 100 times more than high school clubs).

Training camp is where the coach aims to set the tone for the entire season. Let the players start off by taking short cuts and the upcoming season will be long and painful. That's why Bill Cartwright, starting his first full season at the helm of the Chicago Bulls, was barking at his squad for their carelessness and lack of hustle 10 minutes into Day One.

Most NBA teams convene their training camps far removed from the bright lights and normal thrill-a-minute temptations available during the regular season -- the Knicks in Charlestown, S.C.; the Hornets in Westwego, La.; the Clippers in the College of the Desert, Palm Desert, Calif. To further maximize the players' on-court learning time and minimize any leftover energy, the core of NBA training camps are the dreaded two-a-day practices.

The standard schedule calls for the first two-hour session at 10 a.m. or so (late enough for the players to get sufficient sleep, early enough to prevent them from partying the night before), then another beginning anywhere from 4 to 6 p.m. Some players will go to any length to avoid these grueling two-fers -- like Shaq, who for two consecutive seasons has strategically scheduled foot surgery so as to avoid training camp altogether.

When Gene Shue coached the Washington Bullets, his innovation was to have his double sessions run back-to-back, with only a short break for a light lunch/skull session. The idea was to have the players finished by 3 or thereabouts to give them a lengthy recovery time. A great idea for both young, resilient players and creaky veterans.

Dion Glover
Players are educated on the team philosophy during camp -- but not many are asked to sign pledges like the Hawks' Dion Glover.
Two-a-days also make physical demands on the coaches, especially the ex-players suffering the residual knee, back, and/or hip pain characteristic of all aging athletes. During the four hours of daily practice, nobody hurts more than Larry Brown, who, even with his double-hip replacements, remains a disciple of the Dean Smith philosophy in which the head coach is omnipotent and the assistants are merely silent drill-masters and fetchers of loose balls.

But the pain also transcends methodology: No other NBA coach utilizes his assistants more than Phil Jackson, yet Jackson suffers constant torment because of the gradual disintegration of a spinal fusion done back in 1967.

Also, unless they've spent the summer yelling at their kids -- "Get back on defense! Swing the ball! Push it!" -- coaches always develop sore throats during training camp.

Training camp is where a coach discovers the capacities and learning curves of rookies and new players; finds out which players are complementary and which can't stay out of each other's way; and conducts furious competitions to determine daylight as well as roster spots.

When Phil Jackson took over the Lakers in 1999, he cut Ruben Patterson early in training camp. Patterson was a rugged small forward who had played some meaningful minutes for the Lakers during the prior season, and Jackson certainly respected his talents and his intensity. "The trouble was," says Jackson, "that Ruben always matched up against Kobe Bryant and played much too ferociously. It was like Ruben had some kind of personal grudge against Kobe. Even in the drills, Ruben was unnecessarily confrontational, and his practice habits were destructive to team harmony."

Donny Marshall, Kenyon Martin
Camp can easily become old hat for vets like Donny Marshall and Kenyon Martin.
In addition to the repeated matchups of a starting player versus his backup, there's another pithy reason why training camp makes players edgy and downright nasty: All of the players (except the rookies) know all of the offensive and defensive sets and calls. Because every defender can anticipate every programmed zig and zag, it's no wonder that the play can be extremely physical. That's why fisticuffs are common in training camp, and that's why the media is routinely excluded.

Years ago, teams played fewer "exhibition games" and training camps lasted longer than they do nowadays. Back when Bill Fitch coached the Cleveland Cavaliers, his idea of a good time was to schedule 21 consecutive days of double-practices. A one-time Marine drill sergeant, Fitch thoroughly enjoyed the resulting mayhem.

Sometimes what happens in training camp can establish a pattern that endures for a player's entire career. Back in 1985, when Patrick Ewing was a mere rookie, the Knicks' resident pivotman was Bill Cartwright, renowned for his brutal play. On the very first day of training camp (at Hofstra University), Cartwright unleashed the Elbows of Experience and battered the daylights out of the rookie. Cartwright continued to pummel Ewing on a daily basis until the preseason games provided the cagey veteran with fresh meat. This abuse continued for three more years, until Cartwright was traded to Chicago. By then, Ewing was totally conditioned to being dominated by Cartwright's gangbusters-defense -- and so it was that Cartwright helped the Bulls to three championships by controlling the high-scoring propensities of Ewing even after the rookie evolved into an All-Star. ... and now, let's rewind to MJ's revenge ...

The scrimmage resumed, and on the very next sequence Jordan pilfered a careless pass and was once again headed hoopward -- and there was Brust, chasing the ball and intent on a command performance.

The first hint of trouble was when MJ slowed down somewhat to allow Brust to catch him. Then, as before, Jordan elevated to the basket, palming the ball in his right hand. This time, just as Brust launched another audacious attack on Jordan's august personage, MJ made a preemptive strike, smashing his right elbow into the rookie's forehead ... then, while still levitated, Jordan switched the ball to his left hand, reached around to the far side of the basket, and shivered the entire gym with a thunderous dunk.

For Jordan, score two points and a kayo.

For Brust, a mild concussion, an early retirement, and a lifelong case of the training camp blues.

Charley Rosen's other books include "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."