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When pickleball takes precedence
Faced with a difficult decision at All-Star Weekend -- attend the Tech Summit or play hooky to spend the day with NBA legend Rick Barry -- you can surely guess what this racket sports enthusiast chose
CLEVELAND — It's a question I get often from colleagues and this was especially true at a well-attended reunion like All-Star Weekend after two pandemic-wrecked years of limited interactions.
What's it's like to work for yourself?
Feb. 25 will mark eight months for me as the publisher of this Substack, after some 35 years working in a variety of traditional editorial structures, so I wouldn't dare suggest that I can answer that one as if I have it all figured out already. I'm still learning how to make the best choices in this invigorating world of Boundless Autonomy that, on the less enticing brochure, can also be summed up this way: Ultimate Responsibility.
I already know this much, though: All-Star Weekend was a much more enjoyable experience than normal for me in Cleveland — frosty temperatures and all. A careerlong pet peeve is being asked/forced to write oodles of copy or fritter away hours waiting for two-minute TV hits while a bustling convention like All-Star is underway. One of the worst feelings as an NBA reporter is missing out on face time because you’re stuck in a hotel room churning out drivel under the mistaken guise that reams of live content are the only way to validate the cost of the trip. I was duly reminded of that eternal conflict when I watched a number of scribes scramble back to their laptops in the press room to throw together a story on Adam Silver's annual All-Star Weekend press conference ... even as they all knew that anyone truly interested likely watched it live or followed on Twitter. Saturday night readership is probably the worst of the week; writing instead of working the proverbial room is such a dispiriting trade in those circumstances.
I thus loved heeding zero unwanted requests via text, making my own All-Star agenda and cashing in on that autonomy Friday morning like never before. I made the executive decision that I had no choice but to skip out on the NBA's exclusive Tech Summit, for all its heavy-hitter panelists and ticket scarcity, when I was presented with an invitation to go play pickleball with Rick Barry.
At the same time as the tech fest, longtime Cleveland-based NBA agent and attorney Mark Termini was hosting the inaugural Rick Barry Pickleball Shootout at Western Reserve Racquet Club. I had only played the sport some 10 times in my life — mostly in a futile attempt to hang with Scott Foster and the other maniacally competitive NBA referees who jousted with paddles under the searing Orlando sun every single day at the Walt Disney World bubble — and by no means belonged in any sort of tournament. But this is a game that I’m trying to learn and embrace in my 50s, even if nothing will ever quite compare with tennis for me, given its much friendlier court-coverage demands.
So tagging along with Barry and his wife Lynn to Streetsboro, Ohio, provided me a full morning of educational swings with an array of players better than me ... along with the benefit of a considerable car ride to and from the courts to hear Rick tell stories on the same weekend he would be formally installed as a member of the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team.
It all added up to an irresistible opportunity.
I covered two of Rick's five sons, Jon and Brent Barry, throughout their NBA careers and worked alongside Jon at several All-Star Games for ESPN Radio. Neither could resist needling me about consenting to spend so much time with their outspoken father — "So sorry, Steiny," Jon joked — but by now I'm guessing it won't surprise many regular readers that this nostalgist wanted to hear every last tale from No. 24. Especially since the point of the entire visit to Cleveland was to honor the game's history.
Now 77 and among the best pickleball players in the world in his age bracket, Barry's care factor continues to register at roughly 15 out of 10 — just as it did as an NBA player. The sight of Barry berating himself for his mistakes John McEnroe-style? Expected nothing less.
Away from the morning’s competition, Barry spoke patiently and passionately about his decision to sit out for a full year early in his pro career to force his way to the old ABA, which isn’t cited by sports historians nearly as often as it should be as a key chapter in the fight that stretched well into the 1980s before basketball players secured legitimate free agency. He spent a good 10 minutes railing about current NBA players for their shortcomings as screen-setters. And he naturally had lots to say when I asked him if he'd like the opportunity to try to work with Ben Simmons on his wayward free-throw shooting.
Barry is under no illusions: He knows it will never happen. Shaquille O'Neal once famously said that he would rather shoot zero percent from the line than adopt Barry's underhanded form. Wilt Chamberlain likewise admitted years earlier that, after shooting 28-for-32 on free throws underhanded in assembling his legendary 100-point game in 1962, he felt like a “sissy” despite the success and could not allow his macho image to be sullied by "granny"-style shooting. Given the way Simmons is known to recoil from the slightest criticism, Barry isn't about to reach out to Simmons' new team to offer his tutoring services.
It nonetheless remains an utterly fascinating what-if. Rick and Lynn’s son Canyon, who plays in the G League with the Iowa Wolves, is believed to be the only current player affiliated with the NBA shooting his free throws underhanded. Just imagine if Simmons, no matter what happens with his jump shot from here at age 25, simply became a proficient at the line. Perhaps then you could really start to buy into the idea that the Nets are better off having been forced to abruptly abandon the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving-James Harden experiment by swapping in Simmons for Harden.
“He definitely could be fixed,” Barry said of Simmons. “Somebody already told me he said he would never want to do it, but I don’t understand: What difference does it make how you do it? If he was an 80-percent shooter, with his size, he would be like Shaq. You could take him and post up those little guards and he would just abuse them — and he could hope he got fouled. He would be such a dominant factor. He becomes one of the best players in the league.”
The Athletic’s Joe Vardon did an interview with Barry in January that contains many of his strong views about the game, past and present, that also happened to be shared with me on that car ride. In that same piece, Barry did not shy away from the tough stuff, describing himself as having "the reputation of a being a hard person to get along with" — someone that "nobody liked at all."
Barry’s blunt nature has certainly turned off many over the years, but I always enjoyed going on his old Bay Area radio show and crossing paths with him occasionally on the league circuit, critical as he can be. Who would dare pass on the chance to carpool with him up and back and listen to a legend lament the angles so many sub-par screeners take on the pick-and-roll in 2022?
Not me. No chance.
Not when I’m in charge of making the schedule.
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All-Star Photo Album
I want to believe I am improving as a visual journalist. (Stress: WANT!) I still can’t react quickly enough to video situations that I know would be #NBATwitter hits, but I do have to give the iPhone some rare props, as much as I hate typing on the damn glass, for the picture-taking ease it affords (and the crispness it delivers).
It should be pretty obvious, given the various tweets I fired off over the weekend and the new snaps that I’ve included here, that I was pretty giddy in Cleveland, not only to be back on the road for a big NBA event but to share hotel space with so many retired greats from the 1970s and ‘80s eras I loved so much.
On to the album!
(LEFT) The hats I packed to wear in Cleveland in honor of Buffalo Braves legend Bob McAdoo. (RIGHT) Even when traveling in first class, in this coronavirus era of commercial flights with amenities scaled so far back, getting handed a packet containing two oversized Biscoff biscuits makes you feel like you were just served a delectable handmade French pastry:
No one wants to hoop with a rubber basketball, but I do love collecting them from events I’ve covered over the years. This display in the Cleveland Public Square, with balls stuffed into each letter behind glass, predictably caught my eye:
My glimpse of downtown Cleveland on All-Star Saturday Night and the big Nike mural under the lights opposite Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse:
The combination of limited time for meals amid All-Star Weekend madness and cold temperatures in town that discouraged exploration limited my dining extravagance on the trip. Yet I did manage to come home with one memorable food snap to share and tout. Local West is a craft sandwich shop some five miles from downtown that served an upscale helping of Italian Beef on a top-shelf toasted roll that I already miss:
An unhealthy indulgence, true, but I pride myself in candor among friends here and admitting my missteps. Having a Rocket Fizz outlet within walking distance of the hotel that stocks Royal Crown Cola in glass bottles is always going to be a problem for me:
And one more from Twitter to go with the photo tweet that leads off this section:
Perhaps I should leave this invite here every Tuesday.
Consider this section our virtual suggestion box to discuss content ideas … NBA and otherwise.
What would you like to read more of in 2022? Or less of? What do you really think of my (largely pretend) idea to launch a complementary coffee Substack? Or a Substack about BlackBerrys?
I've got a lot of things planned already in terms of stories I hope to tackle in coming months, but I would love to hear your ideas either in the comments below or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are 61 living members among the 76 players selected to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team. Forty-five of the 61, according to the league's count, attended Sunday's festivities in Cleveland. In alphabetical order they are: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ray Allen, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Carmelo Anthony, Charles Barkley, Rick Barry, Dave Bing, Billy Cunningham, Stephen Curry, Clyde Drexler, Julius Erving, Patrick Ewing, Kevin Garnett, George Gervin, James Harden, Elvin Hayes, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Jason Kidd, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Jerry Lucas, Bob McAdoo, Kevin McHale, Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Robert Parish, Chris Paul, Gary Payton, Bob Pettit, Paul Pierce, Oscar Robertson, David Robinson, Dennis Rodman, John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Bill Walton, Jerry West, Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy.
Of those 61 living members, here are the 16 players who did not attend Sunday's halftime ceremony (also listed in alphabetical order): Tiny Archibald, Larry Bird, Bob Cousy, Dave Cowens, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Walt Frazier, Karl Malone, Earl Monroe, Steve Nash, Scottie Pippen, Willis Reed, Bill Russell, Lenny Wilkens and Russell Westbrook.
We have sadly lost 15 honorees from the 75th Anniversary Team who were recognized posthumously. In alphabetical order: Paul Arizin, Elgin Baylor, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Dave DeBusschere, Hal Greer, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Moses Malone, Pete Maravich, George Mikan, Dolph Schayes, Bill Sharman, Nate Thurmond and Wes Unseld.
San Antonio's Gregg Popovich needs three more wins to pass his pal Don Nelson (1,335) as the winningest coach in NBA regular-season history. The Spurs play four of their first five games coming out of the All-Star break on the road (at Washington, Miami, Memphis and Charlotte) with a home game wedged in March 3 against Sacramento. I've written multiple stories on Popovich since starting this Substack in June 2021, including these two on his coaching happiness and late-career prizes he's chasing.
Quite a stat from my pal Howard Beck of Sports Illustrated from his recent piece about "superstar empowerment" and its impact on the league: Nine stars, by Beck's count, have forced trades over the past five years, including two — James Harden and Paul George — who have done it twice in that span. I am compelled to add, though, that Ben Simmons' refusal to play for the 76ers this season included the unprecedented potential forfeiture of millions in salary and followed Philadelphia's attempts to trade Simmons for Harden early in the 2020-21 season — one month into Simmons' five-year contract extension worth nearly $180 million.
Each of Cleveland's three turns hosting the All-Star Game was attached to a league milestone: The NBA celebrated its 35th anniversary in conjunction with the 1981 game, its 50th anniversary in 1997 and its 75th anniversary this past weekend.
Stephen Curry established a new All-Star Game record with 16 3-pointers on Sunday. The league's single-game record in a regular-season game belongs to Curry's Golden State teammate Klay Thompson: 14 3s.
When I did a piece for The New York Times in April 2019 on Stephen Curry's love of popcorn, Cleveland's Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse placed a mere 26th among the NBA's 29 arenas on Curry's personal popcorn rankings. Yet that didn't stop Curry from celebrating his 50-point, MVP-winning performance in Sunday's All-Star Game with a bucket.