Thursday, 31 December 2009

The 10 Best Basketball Stories of 2009

1. The Win That Almost Was. September 8 2009. Warsaw. 3:27 left in the fourth quarter. Spain – reigning world champions, Olympic silver medallists – are staring a most improbable defeat in the face to Great Britain after leading by 16 points at one stage. Mike Lenzly puts the underdogs 73-69 ahead. The sound of pins dropping.

It was not to be. The Spaniards put up a 15-3 finish to avoid an early exit before going on to lift the title. GB went home but with some face saved.

2. Phil Jackson’s Supremacy. Sure, the legends of MJ, Scottie, Kobe and Shaq will live on in history. But Phil’s NBA title number 10 affirmed his place in the pantheon, if any additional evidence were required. The late Red Auerbach, ceding his throne atop the rankings, would have hated that the Lakers won another crown but you can’t begrudge Jackson his dues.

3. And likewise Kobe… All the talk about who is better: Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, has been settled. For everyone who thought the young pretender had assumed the crown (myself included), the Lakers guard provided the answers with a string of stellar showings and his fourth championship ring. LBJ, at 25, still has it all to do.

4. Capital Calamities. We were promised that London Capital wouldn’t remain the laughing stock of the BBL after last season. They were wrong. London lost 110-38 to Leicester in December, equalling a league-record of infamy. There have been claims of bills unpaid. Their only consolation is that Essex are bottom on loss difference headed into 2010. As one BBL director said recently: “I think the time is coming where no matter how much we want a team in London, it’s not doing us any good to have them in the league.”

5. Worcester-isms. It says a lot about basketball’s decline in the UK that the claims of racism made against former Wolves coach Chuck Evans received scant attention in the mainstream media. Or perhaps, it says something about our culture that while white-on-black racism is (thankfully) spotlit and decried, the inverse provoked little comment. Throw striking players, sackings and the welcome return of Paul James to the BBL into the mix, and what a bizarre tale it all was.

6. AI or not AI? Is Allen Iverson done or about to do something improbable? His meek exit from Memphis hinted at the mortality of a once-omnipotent star who could not accept his slide into the realms of lowly back-up. As anticipated, , he made a swift, unlikely, return in the colours of the Philadelphia 76ers. In the last chance saloon, this will either be AI’s time to cement his legacy or the ignominious final chapter in his riveting journey.

7. The enigma that was Andre Smith. Two weeks after arriving in the BBL, Everton’s expensive capture admitted the league “wasn’t as good as I thought it would be.” It was one thing to accomplish the astonishing feat of regularly putting up 30 points and 20 rebounds while, at the same time, appearing utterly disinterested. It was quite another when he was alleged to have told an opposing player that he hoped the Tigers would lose the game so he could go home early for the summer. One of the best performers in BBL history, it spoke volumes when the ballot of coaches declined to vote him as MVP.

8. The Ups and Downs of the NBA Brit-Pack. Luol Deng will surely be glad to see the back of 2009, having been sidelined for six months with a fractured tibia and watching the mixed messages surrounding his return to the Bulls damage his stock – and his reputation. With coach Vinnie Del Negro on the verge of being sacked, and Deng no longer considered an potential All Star, where does Lu go from here?

Credit, at least, to Pops Mensah-Bonsu for sticking to his pursuit of his personal NBA dream. Cut by San Antonio, dropped by Toronto, jettisoned in Houston, the popular Londoner is back in Raptor-land, hoping to stick through the end of the season. Coming back to Europe may have been his best bet. But who would argue with his persistence?

9. Joel stays in Spain. In an unrelated move, Great Britain forward Joel Freeland turned down a three-year rookie deal with the Portland Trailblazers in the summer, in favour of a (slightly) more lucrative move from Gran Canaria to ACB rivals Unicaja Malaga. "I would prefer to go (to the NBA) when I feel I am ready,” he said. “I don't want to sit on the bench for a couple of years.”

Ironically, with Portland’s injury problems, playing time wouldn’t have been an issue. Those of us who have followed the progression of Aldershot’s finest would argue he is ready as he’ll ever be – right now.

10. Two steps forward, two steps back. For basketball in the UK, this was a year of minimal progress. Great Britain’s men and women did not produce the results needed to advance their cause sufficiently to get FIBA to end their damaging Olympic dithering. The BBL went an entire year without any TV coverage and the trend toward smaller venues continues.

The NBA sold out the 02 Arena but, for all the noise it made, it otherwise flirted with obscurity on these shores at a time when the NFL is solidifying its own position. And for all the extra cash arriving in the lead-in to 2012, there are still too many familiar tales of volunteers not getting the support they need at a grassroots level.

There is a coherent strategy on paper for British hoops but no real evidence of delivery or results. Must do better in 2010.


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