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Enraptored! Read more

The dunk that saved a league. Read the story

Remembering Jordan and the Pistons. Read the story

Does the Hornets brand still have sting? Read the story

Muggsy Bogues and point guards of stature. Read the story

NCAA legend Dwayne McClain reflects on his Sydney Kings career and talks about the NBL's future. Read the Q&A 

Lauren Jackson helps us forget the end of the Seattle Sonics. Read the story

 

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                    HALF COURT PRESS

                        EDITOR: JP PELOSI

 

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Thursday
May152014

The Ex Files (part 3): Where did Dante spring from?

Dante Exum is mostly known as 'The Australian Kid' in NBA pre-draft circles, a point guard squeezed into a two guard's body, who wowed onlookers at the Nike Hoop Summit last year. Draft boarders label him as the next big thing at the point, which is fine, they have to quantify unknown quantities somehow. But I think his slashing and cutting is the stuff that shoots scoring guards to the moon. 

In Australia, we've been following Exum for a while. After all, he's the son of one-time star of our local league, Cecil Exum, a talented small forward for teams like the Geelong Supercats and Canberra Cannons. Canberra, the nation's capital, is also important in the story of the younger Exum because it's where he honed his ball skills, tested out dunks, no doubt, and developed the court vision you see today. His years at the Australian Institute of Sport, our version of the collective college sports experience bundled up into one place, cannot be underrated. The coaching he received there from the likes of Ian Stacker and Paul Goriss, seems to have had the same type of meaningful impact that a man like Dean Smith had on, say, Michael Jordan.

Now I won't dare compare Exum to MJ - or Kobe, for that matter, though some have - but I certainly understand the hope. Not only is he six-foot-six and a similar weight (Jordan was 195 pounds in college according to Sports Reference), but he has that dash of flair Jordan had at a similar age - a sort of quiet confidence and patience that the right crease will present itself. He glides into the play, if you know what I mean. Listen, he has a way to go, of course, but the foundation is there.

“Basketball has always been part of my family and I have grown up around it with my dad coaching so that has been good for my development,” Exum said in an AIS interview recently.

“The AIS has helped me progress and take that next step to the NBA draft.”

There are a few Aussie ball players coming up through the AIS ranks in fact, and like Exum, they're the kids of National Basketball League greats. But Exum is all the talk right now: he has the moves, the look, the catchy name and even an element of the unknown, which can only work to his advantage.
Tuesday
May132014

The Ex Files (part 2): Dante Exum, the wizard of Oz

 

Dante Exum will be in the NBA this time next year and that has genuine meaning for Aussies, beyond the novelty of one of our countrymen defying the odds, that is. It's not everyday that an Australian reaches the global sporting summit after all, which differs depending on your vantage point. For us, Down Under, the highs of sports achievement usually involve venerable cricket grounds, starched green blazers or white coloured rugby balls branded with the name 'Gilbert'. Rarely then, does the climb to athletic stardom occur in the United States, though it does happen from time to time. For example, we have punters in the NFL, pitchers in pro baseball and the occasional big man in the NBA (there are shorter exceptions of course, such as the Spurs' Patty Mills).

All of this makes the rise of Dante Exum to Top NBA Prospect so very compelling, right up there with Hugh Jackman's Broadway takeover and basically everything Miranda Kerr does or doesn't do. Exum is neither big nor small, nor exceedingly fast like Mills or a soft-handed giant like Luc Longley. But he appears to be the prototypical, six-six combo guard that draft board aficionados salivate over. For example, ESPN's Chad Ford had him at around No.5 last year and now seems to have pegged him even higher, depending on the drafter. Exum will be coveted come June, of that we can be sure, but the end result will be part of the story at home. Indeed he has a chance to be an international star, the likes of which no Aussie basketballer has experienced, not even the great Andrew Gaze. This is why the tale of Exum to this point, even before the draft, has a real touch of magic about it.

Monday
May122014

The Ex Files (part 1): On NBA prospect, Dante Exum 

 

Australian guard Dante Exum will get another chance to boost his already favourable profile at the NBA combine in Chicago this week, where prospects are questioned, measured, tested, poked and prodded to see if they're a fit for the company. Sounds a lot like an afternoon on Facebook. The basketball firms likely to be in the mix for Exum's services are the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings, based on the high number of chances these clubs have in the lottery.

Wherever these teams end up picking players, a few of them in particular will be keen to speak with Exum and find out what the kid's made of, given that most of what they know about him has been via Youtube highlights and in newspaper reports about his latest endorsement deals. At this point, all that's certain is that he's half pogo stick, half crane, where one bounces and the other stretches its neck and soars.

The Orlando Magic, for example, are destined for a No.3 pick and according to many draft pundits and the prognostic wizards of ESPN, Exum is not only likely to land in central Florida but would be well-suited to the ball club there. He might even like the climate too. The rationale behind the Orlando idea is that the springy and speedy Exum could team up with budding star Victor Oladipo, presumably with the six-foot-six Aussie running the point and Oladipo on the wing. 

Meanwhile, if the Sixers move their current point Michael Carter-Williams, which has oddly enough been rumoured across social media sites, then Philly could prove another intriguing spot for Exum. This is especially so because head coach Brett Brown has spent much of his career in Australia and has surely been keeping an eye on Exum as he's risen through the ranks of the Australian Institute of Sport. Of course, the turn of lottery balls will play its part in all of this.

Saturday
May032014

EnRaptored: The joyful state of almost

The Toronto Raptors came close to beating the NBA’s fifth most valuable club (according to Forbes) and its most stylish (based on Rihanna's support), but the history books will surely say Game 7’s outcome was inevitable. You could argue that creaky veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were always going to conquer the plucky upstarts from Up North, just the way the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics overcame the long-bombing Pacers of the early Nineties. The fates just don’t allow some things to happen, you see. Read more

 

Thursday
May012014

Shooting at a suprising Clip

 

By J.P. Pelosi

Beyond the new crop of stat geeks, and every zany guy behind a backboard with a poster of Kate Upton, free throws have never really inspired anyone.

Even for those who’ve played ball, professionally, in high school, or on some dusty back lot, foul shots were never the draw card, the thing that urged us out of bed Saturday morning to hustle to the mall for a short set, to paraphrase the Fresh Prince.

No, buying new sneakers, let alone playing in them, has always been done with more in mind than wanting time at the charity stripe to show off your stroke. 

It’s the same for fans of course: Leaving work early to get a beer before the game; calling out a Marv-like ‘YES’ at a perfect jumper; forking out for League Pass; keeping your Topps cards safe in a shoebox; wearing your favourite jersey in another city; following player tweets as if they unlock the universe's secrets; scouring Youtube for that dunk you missed; reading Zach Lowe to learn how LeBron humiliated your team – no this isn’t all leading to a Mastercard punchline – these are simply the things we do for the action of this sport, not the wicked game inside the game that is free throws.

And yet, despite all that, there we were watching the NBA’s team of the hour, the Clippers, take down the Golden State Warriors from the free throw line in Game 5. It was a masterful, if bland display of shooting, that not even the NBA’s bombardier of the day, Stephen Curry, could match. Oh sure, Curry slots them in from the Rosa Mexicano restaurant down the street from Staples, but what of it? The Clippers hit 31 of 41 free throws!

We should have known this might happen the moment Blake Griffin stepped to the line in the first minute of the game Tuesday. The arena was buzzing after Silver put the sword to Sterling, and it seemed the fans were about ready to party. They wanted to party, as Vince Vaughn’s Swingers character might have told us. It was a magic opening to the night indeed, with an emotional anthem and rousing cheer, and really deserved a Paul-to-Griffin alley-oop, or a thunderous rim rocker from DeAndre Jordan - or at the very least, another Billy Crystal kiss-cam moment. All we got was, well, 'two shots'.

But as it turns out, there was significance to those shots. The Clippers had come of age, not only by thwarting the monumental pressure they faced to perform - heck, to even show up and play - but by excelling, lobbing the ball around as loosely as the Trotters, measuring up their threes with poise, and absorbing the Warriors hits so that they might have a chance to grind it out at the line.

And didn’t the Warriors just love it? Players like Draymond Green were being whistled at so often it felt like carnivale in Rio. The Clips made him and the W’s pay, especially Jordan, who really appeared to be enjoying the outing, even at the foul stripe, which he normally must dread. The Warriors were taken aback, it seemed. The last time anyone looked on so helplessly at so many well-timed free shots they were staring back at Don Rickles. DeAndre, a career 43% free throw shooter according to the Elias Sport Bureau, knocked down 9-of-17.

So if the Clips are to forge ahead these playoffs, their free throw shooting might be a leading factor. They can certainly match it with the best. For example, among the league’s best free throw shooting teams this season are Portland (80%), Dallas (76%) and Oklahoma City (83%) in the West, and Miami (76%) and Toronto (83%) in the East. Hey, the Spurs (72%) and Grizzlies (70%) aren’t too shabby either.

The Clippers were in the top 10 at 74% and against the Warriors on Tuesday night, they bettered this to make 76%. In the playoffs, with the sudden weight of cultural history on their shoulders, that’s pretty damn impressive. It also matters especially when you shoot 41 of them. Couple this with smothering defense, energy on the boards and a crowd with a chance to become the most boisterous sixth man since Cliff Robinson, and you have a genuine title contender on your hands.

Consider that when the other outfit from Los Angeles won the championship in 2002 and 2003, Shaquille O’Neal made more than 60% of his foul shots. His 65% in the ’02 postseason and 65% in ’03, were the best of his playoff career (with the exception of his hiatus in Cleveland where he played fewer games, minutes and took less attempts. Come to think of it, I don’t even think that was Diesel but a cardboard cutout on wheels, Kevin McCallister style).

The point is, if the Clips can get similar nights out of their big man for Game 7 and (perhaps) the rest of the playoffs, the mere foul shot might just become a thrilling aspect of basketball in Tinseltown.

Wednesday
Mar262014

All the Kings' men

 

By J.P. Pelosi

As the Sydney Kings descended from midseason highs, it occurred to me that the club is close to its former regality but something is still lacking - and I don't mean the jumpy bloke who used to wave his giant foam finger courtside.

The Kings were decent this past campaign, putting several formidable opponents to the sword and finishing fifth on the NBL ladder. To some, that might be equivalent to splitting two free throws - fair, but hardly worthy of applause. And yet in a tightly contested league, in which just a handful of games determine whether you play in the finals in late March or spend Sunday nights watching My Kitchen Rules instead, the Kings 12 wins from 28 outings doesn't seem as poorly as it sounds.

Sydney sports fans apparently agree, as they continued to march up to the team's Haymarket castle, 'the Kingdome', and without a pitchfork in sight. This is a losing club folks and still 4,600 vocal supporters showed to see their purple and gold knights tussle with the worst team in the nation last week, Townsville's Crocs. This happened with football season now hitting its stride, and even amid the marquee event of the year, the opening series of American baseball at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Who knows what else the Kings stole people away from? Springsteen was in town again, wasn't he?

What I'm getting at is that I keep reading columns and hearing people say basketball has no real chance in Australia and yet, crowds front up and people tune in on TV. And just ask around your office, I'll bet you a banana Paddle Pop that more than a few sneak a look at the dazzling NBA each week. Sounds like a few old cronies of the cricketing media are spinning myths to me.

Now the NBL has a long way to go, of course, but the appetite is there. This is most apparent in cities like Perth and Melbourne where fans are filling up their respective arenas, not merely the lower decks. It's all very promising, though there's still the question of shortcomings that I mentioned earlier. 

I just think Sydney, and some of the other less successful sides, need better narratives. Not enough is made of past success, former heroes, records, nor merchandising. For example, if Sydney issued some t-shirts that were almost as eye-catching as their cheerleaders, they might dislodge a few wallets from back pockets. But this isn't solely about sales, it's about awareness and building the brand, which they have essentially done on a shoestring budget to this point. A solid effort but let's see more.

It'd be wonderful if they could promote their stars a little and tell the community - wider Sydney, that is - about the top players and why people should come see them. That's what hooked me from an early age, the stories. In the late eighties the Kings were similarly average you see, winning less than half of their games in 1988, but my brother and I still asked dad to take us to matches, mostly to see Mr. Magic Steve Carfino, Damian 'Three-o' Keogh and the Man Mountain Dean Uthoff. Later on there was the D-Train Dwayne McClain, who dunked it as emphatically as Michael Jordan. They were all characters and made game night matter.

So there are angles to work here, not least of which is Sydney's increasing taste for Americana, as shown by the busy baseball showcase at the SCG. I'm not saying Americanise it all but I'm sure our diverse and very globalised city is ready to embrace more than just the Sydney Swans, the latest Ray Bans and four dollar flat whites. 

Sunday
Mar232014

INXS: Torn Apart But Still Letting Rip

By J.P. Pelosi

 

The metallic rattle and romp of INXS’s album Kick, charged into 1987 with enough gigawatts to send fans to the future and back.

Not even the plutonium-fuelled DeLorean could have kept pace. The first time I heard the record, the chords tore through my Sony Walkman and bolted across the room, before boomeranging back to slap me across the cheek. I deserved it, I guess.

Indeed, Kick overrode the senses of every teenager it struck. But I was just 11. I thought lead man Michael Hutchence was referring to an evenly contested football match when he bellowed, ‘Sometimes you kick, sometimes you get kicked’. Certainly I was too young to appreciate the sentiment of INXS’s most iconic record. And yet, there I was, lying on the floor of our family's living room, just a short drive from where the boys went to high school in northern Sydney, absorbing its bravado.

___

It was at about the same time I fell in love with basketball and so summertime was complimented by the constant bounce of my rubber Spalding on the paved bricks in front of our house, and the blitzkrieg bop of Inxs on the family stereo. It didn't get much better, though I'm sure mum hotly anticipated sundown each day after all the racket.

Now I’m at an age where Kick truly resonates – the same age as the boys when it all came crashing down in ’97. It rocketed to No.2 on the Australian music charts and Apple’s iTunes late last month, only behind INXS’s greatest hits collection, The Very Best. The latter still occupies the top spot weeks later. Twenty-seven years ago, Kick was similarly blocked from No.1, but back then it wasn’t their own work in the way but Icehouse’s Man Of Colours and the La Bamba movie soundtrack – if you can believe it.

I came to the tape by accident because my younger brother, surely drawn to the crisp cut-outs of people depicted on the cover, which included a band member on a skateboard, bought it for me as a gift. We were enthusiastic skateboarders. Then INXS arrived and things got much faster. The band dreamed of not just a hit record, but a record of hits. Start to finish. They sought less pop perhaps than that of the typical mid-eighties fair, and far more grunt. Certainly most of the chart stuff at the time was fluorescent by comparison: The Bangles, Michael Jackson, Tiffany, George Michael and Belinda Carlisle. So INXS hit the target hard, drifting from the romantic and nostalgic, and thrust toward the sky like loaded cannons. As a result, the record’s opening track, "Guns In The Sky", seemed to barge into a world filled with saccharine twangs.

As detailed in the recent Australian-made TV biopic about the band’s rise and fall, Never Tear Us Apart, Kick marked not only a change of direction for INXS but a surge in their global popularity. Composed by the band’s in-house genius Andrew Farriss, together with Hutchence's loose and lustful lyrics, Kick fused elements of rock with dance and funk in a soulful hybrid that had the big wigs at Atlantic Records in New York fumbling for their marketing texts.

How could they possibly sell it?

Atlantic balked, but thankfully INXS’s manager Chris Murphy pressed, which is at least how the  mini-series told it. Either way, Murphy and the band believed in Kick when others didn’t and knew they were onto something. The kids would ‘get it’, Murphy cried, even if the suits didn’t. This all boggles the mind years later of course, after the record sold 14 million copies worldwide, 8 million in the US alone, and set them up for mega-stardom in the UK. Arsenio, Rosie, shiny accolades and copious amounts of drugs followed.

It was a wild recording in hindsight. It took my untainted ears a few listens, so perhaps I can empathise with the studio brass. How foreign it must have been, echoing in polished boardroom amid neatly framed platinum – all electronic, slithery and slick, ramming its message home in just 40 minutes. If "Need You Tonight" was the hit, what would become of the rest? Mystify. Devil Inside. New Sensation (which has been used inside every basketball arena on the planet it seems). Or the title track, Kick. The multiplicity of sounds would have sent even Prince into seizure.

Nonetheless, Need You Tonight was bigger than Bono. It’s harsh strums against that intoxicating guitar loop sent me reeling. It was hypnotic, repetitive even, as it slid over to us with moves so raw. It didn’t seem possible someone could write lyrics like this. It never seemed likely that a rhythm guitar could be so underutilised and yet so enthralling.

Years later, in a college dorm room on the east coast of the US, I turned to Kick for the sort of comfort Skype gives us today. Though I’m sure the album was never intended that way, I needed a taste of home. It didn’t lift the roof like, say, Blur, or even fill the void of remoteness the way Springsteen does. But it zapped you with rare and unpretentious energy and that was the point.

Days after watching the gripping re-telling of the band’s arc, a tale that focused on their ascension from a pub band to the world’s biggest rock stars, it seems naive that I considered them distinctly Australian. I can’t think of an Aussie album that’s more globally iconographic than Kick. It’s mesh of clanging steel and pulsating beats - as if drummer Jon Farriss was trying punch a hole in his equipment - was so innovative and startling, it smacked of a brash American sound actually – like Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane or Iggy Pop.

Maybe Kick stands alone as a timeless and universal artefact in 2014, created long before globalisation was even a buzz word. After all, the record merged distant beings into throbbing masses long before social media. And here it is again, an old set that still packs a mighty wallop.

 

Friday
Mar072014

The Rabbit, the Hawk and selling the game

 

By J.P. Pelosi

In the sports world, brand is everything. Okay sure, supreme athletes and clever coaches are integral to on-field success, bouncey cheerleaders and fans add colour to the sidelines, while those hardworking kids on the concourse serve the hors d'oeuvres. Other things matter too.

But brand, well, brand really underpins it all, permitting the very existence of a club, its stars and trophies. Without it, what would you have but a bunch of behemoths hellbent on a little violent bodily contact?

Take rugby league's South Sydney Rabbitohs, for example, a club that hasn't won a title in more than 40 years and was mostly a punching bag for opponents in the seventies and eighties, which is now the toast of Sydney. And why are they so celebrated? Not because they've won anything. No way. It's because their fanbase is swelling at a rate that'd turn even the egotistical Justin Bieber to the bottle (if he hasn't already set along that path). 

According to the National Rugby League, the Rabbitohs now have the highest club membership in the history of the game at 27,543 members. This is stunning to me, a footy fan that grew up in the Greed Is Good era, in which only three teams mattered and acquired all the riches: the Eels, Bulldogs and Sea Eagles. They were the only teams that won. The Rabbits not only failed to grab my attention back then, they actually didn't matter. The brand was at an all time low, you might say.

It's amazing what a little cash and star power will do, especially when that star has the physical size and metaphysical presence of Russell Crowe. Yes, Maximus' powerful thumb has more influence than the coaching staff, it seems. But more importantly, his name, and the brand he has helped to rebuild, have shown there's tremendous appetite in the marketplace for an 'old favourite'. And Souths, with their storied history, honour roll of legends and classic logo, are more enticing than Tim Tams these days.

The point I want to make here is that rugby league, or at least its best brands, have tapped into its heritage and traditional brands in a way that few Australian sporting competitions have. The National Basketball League needs to think about this approach. It has popular brands - and had a few too - but doesn't work its stories quite as well. The imagery has been watered down over time, and in some cases, lost completely.

Now some people will say there isn't much to work with and the brand cache of the Sydney Kings or Melbourne Tigers can only go so far. Maybe, at least when compared to the football codes. But basketball doesn't need to compete with football. In Australia, it's a niche sport and that can work in its favour. There are people out there that appreciate the NBL's history, myself among them.

Lately I've been thinking about the Perth Wildcats and how they've become the premier club of Aussie basketball. In truth, they've always been the benchmark for the sport here. And still, the 'Cats are hardly a household name beyond the west coast. This is a great shame because all Aussies, scarved up at the footy or sipping chardonnay courtide at the tennis, love a good sports story. The Wildcats are just that - right now. Their rollicking style of basketball, which is punctuated by one of the best talents our shores have seen, James Ennis, is must-see entertainment. You'd think this would be enough. Apparently not, not among the endless stream of footy and nonsensical number of football codes.

So maybe the growth of basketball, as commonly is the case for smaller brands in any sporting arena, will depend on the 'small market underdog' model. The NBL needs more of these and thankfully seems to have recognised this with expansion scouting trips to Hobart and Canberra recently. This is really pleasing because as funny as it sounds, the Wollongong Hawks, the regional but big hearted Hawks, are a benchmark in their own right. They play hard and fast, and can fill their modest arena. They fill a niche and local fans enjoy a special connection to them. It's a simple recipe but is appealing, just as the Rabbits are in South Sydney - by way of Homebush.  

Consider sneaker brands like Converse, Vans and Tiger for a moment, all of which have long been popular, but only because they've found crowds who want a point of difference - something for them. Amid shoe titans like Nike and Adidas, these other sneaker brands consume a significant amount of attention and more importantly sell. But as the slick sales guy from every cheesy eighties flick about 'making it big' said, it's sizzle that sells steak.