Wednesday, June 4, 2003 Updated: June 5, 7:15 PM ET
Finals karma's gonna get you
By Eric Neel Page 2 columnist
In the story of the Finals, first there are the scores. Beneath the scores there are the statistics -- shooting percentages, assist-turnover ratios, runs and charity-stripe efficiency. Beneath the numbers, there are the match-ups and the chess game. Somewhere just below the radar are the eyes and impulses of the officials. And lower still, at the bottom, down deep in the core of the game, are the intangibles.
What's the difference between winning and losing once you reach the Big Throwdown? Talent, yes. Strategy, nerves, desire, and a touch of luck, no doubt. But that ain't all.
Kidd is going to need more than a good fast break to win the title.
A bricklayer on one squad finds a sweet stroke at the same crucial moment the other team's shooter starts short-arming stuff. One sure-handed point loses the handle down the stretch and the other makes seeing-eye passes with his eyes closed. One coach can't guess right and the other can do no wrong.
Them's the breaks. But as for how and why do they break the way they do, look to the intangibles, baby: little pockets of mojo, subtle cosmic attractions and repulsions, karmic currents, and the burdens and boosts of history.
If you're the Nets, when things get tight in the next couple of weeks, you're counting on your guys to play hard and smart, you're counting on Jason to be the stone-cold virtuoso and K-Mart to be the bulldog. You're also counting on some of this:
The Old Riley Factor: Look at Riles lately -- he's haggard and pale; his trademark bad-ass, brilliant confidence is nowhere to be found. Now look at Lord Byron these last two years -- cocksure and quiet, sartorially splendid, and with fastbreaking energy to burn. That's right, like Obi Wan, Riles has given up his body to dedicate his spirit and soul to his young charge. Scott's running on Riley, breathing deep in the ways of the master.
Alleyoopishness: Here's how they have it in the official NBA rule book: "A successful field goal attempt from the area on or inside the three-point field goal line shall count two points." Here's how it reads in the book of Intangibles I, verse V: "A successful field goal attempt shall float, like a leaf dancing in the wind, shall rumble like thunder and come down like the murderers upon Banquo, and shall leave spectators huddled and gasping, both overjoyed and terrified at the grace and power they have seen. It shall count two points and then some."
Ethics: Points are vital. Stops are crucial. Passes -- the giving, the collaborating, the seeing and sharing -- are moral.
Mud grey: The color of those alternate road jerseys ain't in the box of 64 Crayolas, friends. It's primordial. It's the muck from which every one of us emerged, wriggling, gasping and looking to mutate and procreate. Ur-dirt, you know what I'm saying? It doesn't smear or soil the opposition, it owns them, it already is them.
Bruce: We're talking "The River"-Bruce; lean, with something to prove.
The track record: April 24, 1976: The New York Nets defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 121-114, in Game 7 of the ABA Semifinals. You'll hear a lot of current Spurs say that series is ancient history. In fact, if you ask them about it, you'll hear a lot of guys tell you they have no idea what you're talking about. Don't believe a word of it. The Nets have 27 years worth of upper hand in their back pockets, and they're coming into this series looking to slap some folks around.
The hoop gods owe the Nets and Drazen Petrovic.
Petro: During the 1992-1993 NBA season, Drazen Petrovic averaged a team-leading 22.3 points per night, and shot 44.9 percent from beyond the arc. He was bright, fearless and played with a young boy's love for the game. In the summer of '93, just a month after the season ended, Petrovic was killed in a car accident in Germany at age 28. If there is a basketball god, and if he thinks suffering builds character, he owes Drazen, the Nets and their fans a little something this time around.
Deke: As in Dikembe. Yes, he's been hurt, he's gotten older and slower, and he's fallen out of favor. But what if there were just one play left in him; one block of a Duncan shot, in, say, Game 4, for example. Just the one block, and then the goofy Mutombo finger wag and head shake. The Jersey crowd goes wild (he's been dormant so long, the whole thing feels so fresh; goofy, yes, but defiant, too, like Corey Haim in "Lucas" running out to the huddle to get hammered), and momentum swoops up under Jason, Kenyon and RJ and carries them titleward. The Spurs live in fear of this one play. The Nets can't wait to spring it, like a modern-day Willis moment.
And some of this stuff is in play, too ...
The wild, relentless underdog spirit of New Jersey-born Allen Ginsberg. The absence of Keith Van Horn's knee-highs this year. The chip on Kenyon Martin's shoulder. Memories of Stan Albeck's loose curl. The smooth of Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. Richard Jefferson thinking he can fly, which makes people nervous, and his thinking defense is fun, which scares the living tar out of folks. The fact that most people handed the title to the Western Conference about seven months ago -- this is one of them there motivator dealies.
And let's just say that the Nets are none too hurt by a little thing called the Jason Kidd look-away: He gives them points, he provides assists and rebounds, but more than anything, Jason offers bursts of the beautiful, glimpses of the mysterious and unexpected. The game isn't Xs and Os alongside Kidd, it's curves and shapes, angles and openings; it's pictures of what is possible. Guys are more than impressed and delighted by such things, they're inspired, moved, compelled to be more adventurous and imaginative than they've ever been before. You hear all the time that great players make their teammates better. Kidd makes his teammates bigger.
It ain't all to the good, though:
From the not-all-mojo-is-good-mojo (and if the wheels come off, this might have a lot to do with why) department, remember this: The Nets once sold Dr. J to Philly for $3 million. Ask the Red Sox about the statute of limitations on that kind of move. And even if New Jersey is finally due to come out from under the Erving cloud, are we to presume there aren't some nasty, long-term penalties for having once trading Larry Kenon (to the Spurs, no less) for Swen Nater, Bernard King (plus John Gianelli and Jim Boylan) to Utah for Rich Kelley, and Buck Williams to Portland for Sam Bowie (and the draft pick that would become Mookie Blaylock)?
So, the Spurs will have some of that working for them. They'll also look to capitalize on:
All things Artis Gilmore: The height, the glare, the rock-steady post play, the goat and the mutton-chops, and most especially the 'fro. With the possible exception of Art Garfunkel's, all 'fros are good 'fros, and Artis' was super fine. Little kids wanted to touch it, ladies wanted to get lost in it, and opposing centers feared it might eat them alive. People say the 2003 Spurs are a bit soft. If they are, they need only channel the spirit of Artis' untamed mane to be their most bold, bad and beautiful selves.
A guy named Manu: This is like the name of a killer whale. It's the name of a snow beast, or a haint, a hurricane, or maybe a mob enforcer. It ain't the name of a mere mortal, a regular Joe, or a common ballplayer, you can be sure of that.
Tim Duncan's quiet: In it's own unorthodox way, it announces his presence with authority and weakens the knees of any poor slob who stands in against him.
The Texas kinship of Lyle Lovett: Like Duncan, a poet of wicked understatement.
Bile: Stephen Jackson's got a bellyful of it for Byron Scott, who let him go from Jersey and questioned his work habits in the press. According to one theory of the game, you stay above the fray, pursue hoops in its ideal form, strive to reach the height of your potential. Another theory is that you claw, scrape and muscle your way to every advantage, no matter how small, because all you want is to defeat your enemy, to dance on his grave, to feel his last, stale breath wash over your face like the sweet ocean breeze of victory. Theory one is a regular-season theory. Theory two is at the nasty, green bottom of the stomach of the playoffs. Jackson thinks it's delicious right about now.
Behold the power of Gilmore's do.
The Admiral's creds: Do you remember how good he once was? The fans do. TD and Pop, they remember too. And the high priests of hoop, the supreme council, the basketball gods? Do they remember? You know they do.
Seniority: Kevin Willis is something like 73 years old and Danny Ferry checks in at about 69. These guys don't bring a lot to the stat sheet, but they bring the old wise man vibe to the Spurs' party. On off days, they sit on top of the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio and receive the younger players, who climb the tower like pilgrims in search of enlightenment. Willis speaks in ancient riddles: "I never was, am always to be, no one ever saw me nor ever will, and yet I am the confidence of all to live and breathe on this terrestrial ball." Ferry doles out Zen Koans like, "When cold, be thoroughly cold; when hot, be hot through and through." The rest of the players have no idea what either of them is talking about, but they take comfort in the idea that their elders are working the wisdom tip -- it puts them at peace on the floor -- and that "hot through and through" thing works like a huddle-breaking mantra when the team's coming out of a timeout.
Steve Kerr: I know what you're thinking: He's not intangible, he's a flesh-and-blood player who just happened to come off the bench for the first time since, what, 1978? And hit four threes in 13 minutes the other night. Yeah, right.
Any or all of this ...
George Gervin's Plastic-Man moves, a one-time Spur named Goo Kennedy, the chip on San Antone-native Joan Crawford's shoulder, Stan Albeck's loose curl, the yellow rose of Texas, the love of Franco-American hoop fans and Tony Parker acolytes everywhere (especially important in these days of Franco-American tension), the very real prospect that Nets players will wilt stepping off the plane and into the Texas heat, Jack Johnson's Texas grit and style, and the stigma attached to the Spurs' '99 lockout-season championship, which is the monkey that must be thrown off at all costs.
And let's not forget ...
The supernatural glow that emanates from Bruce Bowen when he D's-up. It's the light of a man who loves to defend. His teammates are wrapped in it, warmed and comforted. His opponents quietly surrender to it, unable to deny the power of the love. There's a line in a Flaming Lips song called "What is the Light" that goes like this: "Something glowing from inside/shining all around you/it's potential has arrived." Watch Bowen defend tomorrow night, and somebody say, Amen.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.