Monday, June 24, 2013

Looking Backward: Reliving the 1990 NBA Draft

There are only two types of NBA Drafts one should watch: one is the live-and-in-real-time draft, held every June.  The other type is the one in which all drafted players have ended their careers, and an assessment of their legacy can be envisioned as you watch the younger version of the NBA retiree march awkwardly up to shake David Stern’s hand.  Watching a draft from five years ago is an exercise in inanity.  Watching a draft from twenty years ago is an existential reflection on youth and innocence and society, a historical document in living color.  You may not believe me.  Thankfully, NBA TV exists, and they broadcast old drafts. I decided to jot a few notes down while watching the 1990 NBA Draft to illustrate my point 

The best way to watch an old draft is with a laptop open and a browser window parked at basketball-reference.com.  With every pick, three contrasting perceptions will collide against each other in your mind. First, there is the image on TV of an excited, nervous kid who undoubtedly has false expectations of stardom ahead.  Then, there are your own perceptions of how their career actually went: the stories you remember reading, the Sportscenter highlights you’ve seen, the three-team parlays you lost because he couldn't make a damn free throw.  Finally, there are the career statistics.  If your memories serve as a check on the unbounded optimism portrayed in the young draftee's eyes, the information on basketball-reference serves as a check on your own misguided perceptions.  Case in point: Lionel Simmons, the 1990 Naismith college basketball player of the year.   
You don't see a ball-sweep like that anymore.
As I watched him make the Stern-walk and listened to Rick Barry (joined by the broadcasting team of Bob Neal, Doug Collins, Steve Jones and Craig Seger) comment that Sacramento coach Dick Matta “was a forward-oriented coach,” I thought “Poor Sacramento…they drafted Pervis Ellison in ’89 and now Lionel Simmons. No wonder they sucked for most of the 90s.”  Then I looked at Simmons’ stats.  Maybe Simmons wasn’t a Hall-of-Famer, and his career did flame out early.  But he wasn’t the bust I imagined.  In his first four years with the Kings, the 6’7 forward from La Salle started an average of 75 games per year.  He averaged 17 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block per game.  Sure, his FG% was only 43.8% and he rarely attempted threes.  And there was also the fact that the Kings never won more than 29 games in the four years he was a starter, and in the 94-95 season (the one in which Simmons was relegated to the bench in favor of a young Walt Williams) the Kings improved their win total to 39.  Still, for four years, Simmons was a multi-faceted forward who passed well, rebounded well, made aggressive defensive plays, and probably shot a bit more than he should of.  In short: Hollins was a decent pro.  Maybe my perception of him needed to be corrected.          

Of course, some perceptions really are rock-solid in reality. For example: "Bo Kimble was a bust" is a truism that twenty years later still holds up as much as "two plus two is four" and "every media personality needs a parasitic website devoted to bringing about his/her demise." When I watched the Clippers select Bo Kimble and heard Doug Collins make the mandatory “Bo knows L.A.” joke, I assumed that it was predestined from time immemorial that Kimble's career would end poorly and quickly.  I could practically see the word “bust” emanating from his eyes. There was something powerful and jarring about the contrasting images of what I knew about Bo Kimble's career versus the hopeful uncertainty that I saw in the eyes of the 20 year old rookie on the TV screen. (Side note: the highlight of Kimble's career came before the NBA draft, when he defeated Gary Payton to win the rookie one-on-one tournament. If Kimble and Kwame Brown are any indication, one-on-one games are a terrible way to evaluate future NBA talent.)  
Bo Kimble skies over arial font.
Because I knew how his career would end up (3 years, 22 starts, 12.6 minutes a game, 38.6% FG), everything he said or did on camera seemed to be a sign that clearly indicated what his ultimate NBA future would be.  The same phenomenon was true of my reflection on other players.  When Gary Payton said of Seattle, “I think they needed a leader, and I’m glad they took me,” I thought about how obvious it must have been that Gary Payton was going to be a supremely confident team leader and future Hall-of-Famer.  And when Rumeal Robinson said essentially the same thing, “The Atlantic Hawks just need a little guidance, hopefully I can lead them to an NBA title” I interpreted his comment as a weak, flailing attempt to project confidence, an attempt which those watching in 1990 must have seen through.  Yet in the world of athletics, nothing is predestined.  Can’t-miss players turn into busts.  Question-mark picks end up being star players.  For some reason, though, when we look back at an athlete’s career, we assume their career trajectory was set in stone and transmitted from Mt. Sinai by the providential hands of the sports gods, gods who found that it was their good pleasure to decree such things as, "Dwayne Schintzius will be nothing more than a short-lived NBA back-up with a memorable mullet who will testify in a court of law that Jayson Williams shot his dog for fun."  We're all draft experts, just on a ten year tape delay.  
Kessler and Stern wanted this camera angle in order to look down at the less-educated 99  percenters.
One of the best moments of the 1990 draft came with the Houston Rockets' 12th pick, Alec Kessler, who was a tall, white, micriobiology major from George with a 3.91 GPA. Sterns' announcement of the pick elicited a truly-shocked “WOAH! WOAH! The first curveball of the evening!” comment from Rick Barry.  The pick shocked the analysts so much that despite the graphic listing Kessler’s weakness as “jumping” they compared him to the high-flying Tom Chambers, as if they were frantically scrambling to find a tall white NBA player with whom he could be compared, and they didn’t quite get to Paul Mokeski in time.  The best part, though, came when Kessler was interviewed by the ageless Craig Seger.  Seger asked Kessler, “Are you surprised you got picked so high?” to which Kessler replied he was “a little surprised.” Seger pressed further: “C’mon, just a little bit surprised?” Kessler, perhaps mentally hatching a plot in which he would become a doctor in order to intentionally botch a surgical operation on Seger, laughed sheepishly and said, “Alright, I was shocked, I gotta admit.”

There were plenty of other intriguing draft moments.  Duane Causewell was said to have “hook shot potential” which is something I'd like to think goes on my scouting report before YMCA pickup games.  Chris Jackson was a much-discussed draftee because he entered the NBA after his sophomore season at LSU (“early-entry” was still a rarity back then). Doug Collins suggested that Jackson was a good pick at number three for Denver because you “can sell to the Denver community a young Chris Jackson.”  Selling a young Chris Jackson is one thing. Selling one Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf who refuses to salute the flag during the national anthem to an affluent, predominantly white city in the Rocky Mountains...now that's another story.  Steve Jones’s interview with Jackson’s coach at LSU, Dale Brown, provided another layer of unintentional comedy. With an eye towards catching the attention of any potential high school studs who wanted a brief  stop on their way to NBA stardom, Brown was beyond giddy as he praised Jackson for leaving college early.  Brown urged the NCAA to make it easier for other college players to follow suit, arguing that the NCAA didn’t need a "500 page rulebook" to govern its rules about early-entry.  Instead, Brown suggested that the NCAA should replace its rulebook with the Ten Commandments, because “it says in one of those things that you should be fair and use human dignity.”  There is no doubt in my mind that if the FreeDarko collective were alive in 1990, they would have turned Brown's suggestion into a beautifully illustrated "The Ten Commandments According to Dale Brown" graphic.

Other fun draft moments included Kendall Gill being drafted by Charlotte with the fifth pick, prompting an infographic that succinctly summed up Charlotte’s strength as a team with the lone phrase “Rex Chapman.” Ironically, if Rex Chapman were on the current Charlotte franchise, they would likely have the same infographic. Felton Spencer, the sixth pick by Minnesota, carved a place for himself in history by making two statements that have never been said before or since: First, “I’m looking forward to playing with Pooh Richardson and Tony Kimball.”  Then, “I had a good time in Minnesota.”  And no discussion of the 1990 draft can occur without mentioning Dwayne Schintzius’s excruciating stay in the green room. 
This picture sums of Schinztsius's career. Awkward, difficult to describe, over way too soon.
Schinztsius was a Florida Gator who did not play during his senior year because of repeated run-ins with his head coach. Despite such red flags, Schinztsius was invited to the green room. By the 21st pick, the camera panned to a distraught Schintzius, mulleted-head buried in his hands, as Rick Barry noted that Schintzius’ attitude problems were keeping GM’s away.  Finally, the San Antonio Spurs ended Schintzius humiliation and took him with the 24th pick.  Seger rose to the occasion with his first question: “What did you do to those people in New York, we got a bad reaction every time we showed your picture...why?”  Schintzius hung his head in shame like a sad, mulleted puppy and said dejectedly, “I don’t know…”

Although hilarious-in-hindsight moments were dispersed throughout my viewing of the draft, the comments and infographics were occasionally spot on.  Doug Collins questioned first pick Derrick Coleman’s consistency, asking “will he play against Atlanta and Charlotte like he will against the Lakers and Chicago?”  Tyrone Hill’s description was a simple as his career: “strength – rebounding…weakness - offensive skills.”  Even more interesting were Rick Barry’s prophetic comments that hinted at the future problems the NBA would have throughout the 1990s and the 2000s.  “When you have a salary cap restriction and you make a mistake, it can last for a long time,” he noted (surely he had images of a Eddy Curry floating in his mind).  Then he claimed that “GM's are tired of having players come in with attitude problems,” a statement which Kenny Anderson would later say motivated him to come in with an EVEN WORSE attitude than that which the GM’s were already tired of.

Perhaps Rick Barry and the TNT crew had all of the answers back in 1990. Maybe they knew it was inevitable that the Antoine Walker/Allen Iverson/Stephon Marbury era was on the cusp of happening, followed by the Raef Lafrentz/Eddy Curry/Mark Blount “expiring contract” era.  The NBA had no choice, and could not change its destiny.  It was all right there in the 1990 NBA Draft, if only you had eyes to see and ears to hear and basketball-reference.com opened on your browser.