Leland Stein III

Archive for February, 2016|Monthly archive page

In Bryant’s final All-Star game NBA rolls out red carpet

In sports column on February 17, 2016 at 3:55 am

Westbrook wins MVP, but Bryant’s legacy is also an MVP

team

Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and others celebrate the West’s win. Gary Montgomery photo

By Leland Stein III

TORONTO – Did I just witness a NBA Ballet experience?

ap-all-star-game-basketball

Kobe Bryant and his two daughters.

From these humble eyes I would offer there never were more demonstrations of athletic movements akin to ballet than at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto, Canada – the first All-Star event played outside the United States.

With professional athletes’ rapid and swift action in NBA basketball, the violence and physicality of NFL football and the hand-eye-coordination of MLB baseball players, the smooth athleticism of a professional athlete’s body in action gets lost on fans without replay, because the action happens too briskly.

Leland Stein III

The annual NBA All-Star Game and its super stars, celebrity filled contingent along with 19,800, descended on Air Canada Centre in Downtown Toronto and were not dissatisfied as Western Conference outran the Eastern Conference in a record breaking score of 196 to 173.

The teams combined for a record 369 points. The previous All-Star Game record was 321 points in 2015.

After all the running and gunning, even Paul George’s 41 points – one shy of Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star Game record set in 1962 – and an All-Star Game record nine three-pointers, could not keep the explosive Russell Westbrook from being named All-Star MVP for the second year in a row after he tossed in 31 points (including seven three-pointers), grabbed eight rebounds, with five assists and five steals.

No matter, the day still belonged to the Lakers’ retiring Kobe Bryant.

Bryant played in his 15th All-Star Game, which tied him with Tim Duncan for second most all time. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has the record with 18. Bryant extended his own record by starting an All-Star Game for the 15th time and he also recorded one steal (his 38th) to break a first-place tie with Michael Jordan (37) for most steals in the games’ history.

LeBron James finished with 13 points and Bryant 10 points to become the all-time scoring leader in the Game’s history. James has 291 points and Bryant has 290.

“I do not care about being the scoring leader,” James said. “It was just bittersweet being out on the floor with him, knowing the matches between us are coming to an end. But when you get that opportunity versus a great man, you just have fun with it.”

James continued: “I know it’s been overwhelming for him over this year, but our fans across the world and here in the States and here in Toronto have been paying so much respect. It’s all well deserved. I’m happy that I’ve been along for a small piece of the ride of his journey. We’re very good friends, and I’ve been watching his journey for 20 years. When I don’t see him out there in Charlotte, I think that’s when it will sink in that it is over.”

Bryant a five-time NBA Finals champion, a two time Olympic Gold medalist, an 18-time Western Conference All-Star, a four-time All-Star Game MVP, NBA league’s MVP in 2008 and a two-time Finals MVP had the international gathering in Toronto calling his name.

After the team introductions, Magic Johnson came out to specially anoint/announce Kobe. He joyfully exclaimed the noteworthy history Bryant has put down and right after he gave the mike to him and the fans broke into a continuous Koooooobe Bryyyyyyyant chant. That was just the start of the lovefest. A tribute video featuring Bryant’s highlights, his voice and interviews with many of today’s players followed right after.

In the post-game press conference Bryant talked about his interaction with the legends of the game and today’s players. “I think it’s the stories of when I and they first came into the league,” he recalled, “and when we were matching up against each other, and just kind of the little things like an elbow here or a steal here, and then wanting to earn the legends respect at an early age and later the young ones wanting to earn my respect.

“When I heard those kinds of stories that made me feels real good. Because over the years you’re competing against each other. Those aren’t stories you’re ever going to share with somebody that you’re competing against. But at this stage, it felt absolutely wonderful to hear these things.”

Bryant brought his wife and kids to the game and he was elated to share the moments with them.

“My kids were sitting right behind the bench,” Bryant happily exclaimed, “so I was talking to them virtually the whole game. They’ve enjoyed this as much as I have, coming to these arenas. You know, they’ve seen me throughout the years get up at 4:00 in the morning and work out and train and come home and work out again. So it’s awesome, as a father, for them to be able to see all the hard work and how it pays off.”

We asked Bryant about Allen Iverson and Shaq O’Neal being announced as finalists for the Hall of Fame.

“Shaq obviously on a more personal level, having played together for so many years and winning three championships, right, and all that he’s meant to the game, and meant to me personally. And AI as a competitor, he drove me to be as obsessive, more obsessive about the game, because I had to figure out how to solve that problem, you know? And I told him — I saw him here this weekend. I said, ‘You don’t realize how much you pushed me.’ And I don’t think people nowadays realize how great he was as a player and how big of a problem he was for defenses.”

When asked if he talked to NBA legends Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson during the weekend, Bryant noted that he did not feel the role of caretaker after Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas retired, but he did want to represent the league and himself.

“For sure there was a lot of concern voiced from the elder statesmen, including Magic,” Bryant recalled, “about what kind of caretakers AI and I were going to be for the game. Oscar and I have spoken throughout the years sporadically. Russell and I have talked more often, and he’s given me a lot of great advice on leadership and competitiveness and things of that sort.

“But as far as the league, when we first came in, it’s always the younger generation that comes in and it’s just like the elder statesmen says this younger generation has no idea what they’re doing. They’re going to absolutely kill the game. The game, when we played, was pure and all this kind of stuff. Hey, man, that’s always the case. When we came in, we were just young kids that wanted to play, and AI was aggressive. It was a newer generation, newer culture, but I think when David Stern changed the dress code somewhere in between that, that helped, I think. But, yeah, I think the game is in a beautiful place now.”

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich the winning West coach said: “It’s kind of bittersweet. You remember all the struggles against him and all the competitiveness and you respect him so much for bringing it night after night after night. You know, a lot of players don’t understand that responsibility to be able to do that at that level, and he does it fiercely for all these years. So to see him now, it’s like the passing of a generation and he’s been such an iconic figure for so long, and he passes it on to that other group of young guys that you saw out there tonight. So I’m just thrilled that I was able to be here and see that.”

Stephen Curry interjected: “The entire night was very memorable, for sure, with Kobe’s entrance during the starting lineups and the tribute video, Magic Johnson giving a speech about him and his legacy to some highlight moments. Then the curtain call at the end that you knew it was coming, but you didn’t know what part of the game and the feel that the crowd was going to give, and it was amazing. Kind of got goose bumps out there. Kobe means something to everybody individually as a basketball fan and including us, as players. So you kind of have a lot of different thoughts about what he means to the game and how he inspired others and me growing up. I’ll remember that for sure.”

It may have been Bryant’s farewell, but the NBA ballet went on. In particular, I talked to NBA Hall of Famer and Slam Dunk judge, George “Ice Man” Gervin about the slam dunk contest results. I kind of thought that Aaron Gordon’s dunks were enough to at least earn him a tie if not the win in the most talked about contest since Dominique Wilkins vs. Spud Webb.

“I have to admit that Gordon put it down,” Gervin told me, “but he had a number of misses before his great dunks. Zach LaVine nailed his on the first try. We had to give it to him based on that.”

In all it was a special weekend for me and I was elated that Bryant, a person I have known since he first came into the league was feted, but being in Canada made it even more special.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII

 

Denver’s defense gets defensive against Carolina

In sports column, Uncategorized on February 8, 2016 at 7:59 pm

Newton storms out of press conference.

Denver D

Cam Newton felt the heat from Denver’s defense. Gary Montgomery – photo

 

By Leland Stein III

SANTA CLARA, Ca – Coming into Levi Stadium for Super Bowl 50 two giant photos grabbed my attention. Displayed enormously were giant photos of quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Cam Newton.

Their massive photos only reaffirmed what I already knew, and that is, the NFL is a quarterbacks’ league. It is safe tme at USA basketballo say signal callers are the most important players on the field, and, generally teams that win consistently have one thing in common: an elite quarterback.

Well, Super Bowl 50 indeed had elite quarterbacks; however, this contest showcased elite defenses as the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos each fielded what many note were the two best defensive squads in the league.

The first half of the game both defensives just dominated. In fact, Denver scored its only touchdown after a monster hit and strip by Super Bowl MVP, Von Miller, that was recovered in the end zone by defensive end Malik Jackson giving the Broncos a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

How bad did the offenses featuring the quarterback of the future (Newton) and a future Hall of Famer (Manning) play?

Denver, the winning team, made infamous Super Bowl history gaining 194 yards on offense, the fewest by a winning team ever. That number was 50 yards less than the record the Baltimore Ravens set in 2001. Even worse is the fact Manning’s team was 1 for 13 on third downs.

Let’s look at Newton, who produced one of the best statistical regular seasons in the history of the league. He completed just 18 of 41 passes for 265 yards. He fumbled twice, was intercepted once and was sacked six times. Together the teams combined to set a Super Bowl record for most collective sacks: 12.

The Broncos tied the Super Bowl record by recording seven sacks. It was officially set by the Bears in Super Bowl XX (1985 season) but the Steelers are also credited with seven sacks in Super Bowl X (1975 season) before sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

Manning, who at 39 was the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, said the game reflected the Broncos’ resilience.

“This game was like this season in that it tested our toughness,” Manning said. “It tested our unselfishness. It’s only fitting it turned out this way.”

After the game reporters cajoled Manning to take a position on his possible retirement, but he did not bite on that line of questioning concerning if this was indeed his last game.

Much to the consternation of many reporters and me, Newton came into the post-game press conference in a serious funk and did not engage the mass of reporters. He gave one-word answers and after a few questions walked out the interview session.

If I was Newton’s public relations person, I would have coached him to just come in and give respect to Manning, the Broncos, the Super Bowl itself and just lighten the mood with a funny quip.

With their victory in Super Bowl 50, the Broncos are the ninth franchise to win as many as three Super Bowl championships.  This was the eighth Super Bowl appearance for the Broncos, matching the record also shared by the Patriots, Steelers and Cowboys.

Ironically Miller, who was the second overall selection in the 2011 draft after Newton, became the 10th defensive player in Super Bowl history to be selected as the Super Bowl MVP by tossing Newton on the turf with a purpose. Miller had 2.5 sacks, 6 total tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 hurries and a pass defended.

The other three linebackers to be chosen Super Bowl MVP are Chuck Howley of the Cowboys (Super Bowl V), Ray Lewis of the Ravens (Super Bowl XXXV) and Malcolm Smith of the Seahawks (Super Bowl XLVIII).

“He (Miller) was absolutely tremendous,” said Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak. “Our defense was just special, and they have been all year long. Miller is a hell of a player, but he has become a great pro, great man and a big leader on this football team. So, (I am) just very proud of everybody, but (I am) especially proud of him.”

Kubiak gave praises to his entire defense, noting that they “very disciplined as far as our rush goes,” and he was extremely pleased at his team’s “effort in chasing Newton down, stopping the run, getting the turnovers, that’s the reason we’re standing here tonight.”

Manning also becomes the first quarterback to start and win Super Bowls for two different teams.  He also won Super Bowl XLI (2006 season) for the Indianapolis Colts.  He is the third quarterback to start for two teams, joining Kurt Warner (Rams, Cardinals) and Craig Morton (Cowboys, Broncos).

With the win, Manning became the first NFL quarterback with 200 career wins (186 regular season and 14 postseason).  He had been tied with Brett Favre, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2016, with 199.

Panther’s coach Ron Rivera recalled how Denver got toasted by Seattle a couple years ago in the Super Bowl and he liken that experience to what his team went through. “We have to learn from this disappointment and continue to grow as a team,” he said, “and we have to go to work to take ourselves to that next level.”

Only time will tell if Rivera and Newton will be a one hit wonder or they will indeed keep it coming. My guess is they have a lot of work to do.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII