Free throws and a high-tech basketball net

25 02 2012

NBA All-Star Saturday Night typically values style over substance, so it makes sense that a new technology incorporated into its main event follows along those lines. I came out with a story yesterday for Wired.com’s Playbook about the basketball net that will measure the force of dunks at the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest. The project to develop the net was a collaboration between Turner Sports, whose TNT channel will broadcast all All-Star Weekend events, and MIT Media Lab, which works on these kinds of hair-brained projects.

I found out about this idea by reading a Reggie Miller Q&A in the L.A. Times. Miller stated in the interview that Sport Science was developing the net for the NBA’s dunk contest. (Sport Science is the TV series that airs occasionally on ESPN.) I read that on Tuesday, February 21, and I emailed a guy connected to Sport Science to find out if that was the case. He said it wasn’t. At the same time, I went to a contact at Turner, who stated that there was a high-tech net. However, the person said it wasn’t Sport Science and didn’t tell me initially who the net developer was. But I did get an interview with Pete Scott, an executive in Turner Sports Digital.

The room where I conducted the interview.

I knew that I had to get this interview quickly given that the dunk contest would be on a Saturday. As is usually the case with these  quick-turnaround stories, I had to settle on the first available time, which was at virtually the same time I was to attend a Nike event on NYC’s Lower East Side. So, as the event crawled to an end on Wednesday, I snuck into a room for the phone interview. Twenty-five minutes later, I had most of my details. I wrote the story on Thursday – with a few follow-up answers from Scott – and it posted Friday. You can read it by clicking on the link below.

Are you curious about the force with which a player dunks a ball? Does this serve value to you, as a basketball fan? Hit me up on Twitter or Google+.

New Net Rates the Force Behind Monster Slam Dunks

I also had a free throw-centric story on SLAMonline earlier this week. The idea for this one originated during the NBA lockout, when I was thinking of what I would want to cover once the work stoppage ended. An article documenting how NBA players devised their free throw routines seemed like a fun topic.

Do a Google search on free throws and observe the number of stories that delve into how players came up with their routines. There aren’t many of them. The free throw isn’t a sexy topic – I get that. But I’m always interested in how professional athletes develop their games, including from when they were kids or teenagers.

The free throw routine is sort of a sacred thing for every serious basketball player. It’s called a routine for a reason – the key is to do the same thing every time. In thinking that through, I realized there was more to a free throw story than to simply document the when and why a group of NBA players started their routines. I had to consider the psychology of the shot. Free throw coaches and sport psychologists play a role in helping players, particularly those in the NBA, refine their shots.

After speaking with about 12 NBA players throughout various locker room visits to Nets and Knicks games, I found a pair of free throw coaches and a couple of sport psychologists. The story can be found at the following link.

Are you curious about how NBA players have developed their free throw routines? Let me know.

The Art of the Free Throw





Under Armour Honors Gary Williams

24 01 2012

Nike is to Oregon as Under Armour is to Maryland, right? Uhh, not quite, although UA is making the connection with their local major university that Nike has established with its local college. UA’s dedication to making Maryland’s football team a test lab for its uniform designs and functions garnered attention this past college football season.

UA is further extending its relationship with Maryland to basketball by helping honor former men’s coach, Gary Williams. Williams retired from coaching college ball last May after a 33-year career, 22 of which came with the Terps. He’ll be honored January 25th at Maryland before their game against Duke. The university will name its court at Comcast Center by calling it Gary Williams Court, and Under Armour is finishing out the dedication with three shoes in honor of the coach.

Maryland players will wear the Bloodline and Juke while the Funk will be given to Williams in a commemorative box. Heck of a design job by UA to dress up these kicks. This isn’t a huge deal, but it’s one more way for Under Armour to deepen its association with the university that they probably hope becomes as identifiable with them as Oregon is with Nike.

(From L-R: Bloodline, Juke, Funk, Funk in the box)

     





Definition of a Dynasty

23 01 2012

I had a short Twitter debate today with my friend Paul Bourdett on the timeline of the New England Patriots’ dynasty. I tweeted a remark that the Pats’ dynasty is ongoing with their recent admission into Super Bowl XLVI (46). He retorted that the franchise was no longer in dynasty mode since it hasn’t won the big game since 2004 (representing the 2003 season). He thought it ended with their Super Bowl loss to the Giants a few years ago. He made me consider what standards I have for calling an organization a dynasty.

Before I get into that, I want to point out that terming a franchise a dynasty can be made on a case-by-case basis. There’s no clean definition for it.

My first general rule is that the same core group of players and/or coaches must win multiple league championships, e.g. Super Bowl, NBA Finals, World Series. And the time frame in which that franchise was elite in its sport should have lasted for at least five seasons. By saying ‘elite’, that doesn’t mean a team has to appear in a semi-final or final series or game every year. There are times when a team has a great regular season and flames out early in the playoffs. Yet if that campaign is sandwiched between others in which it advances far in the playoffs – or wins the damn thing – then it’s fine.

A good example is the ’90s Dallas Cowboys. They get automatically called a dynasty because they won three Super Bowls in four years – ’92, ’93, ’95. They were absolutely a dynasty, but I think people forget that their run atop the NFL was relatively short. In that four-year window in which they won three Super Bowls, they won 12 regular season games three times and 13 once. In ’94, they lost to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. (It was technically in ’95 but it was for the ’94 season.)

Yet the ‘Boys won 11 games on the front-end of their Super Bowl years and 10 games on the back-end. In totality, they had six straight 10-game win seasons, with four of them having the ‘Boys playing at a Super Bowl level. I suppose it’s arguable whether they were truly elite for five straight years, but they come close enough.

I consider the Patriots to still be a dynasty because, first and foremost, Tom Brady has been the quarterback and Bill Belichick has been the head coach. They’ve been around the whole time. I can’t argue the Super Bowl title thing, since they won one in ’01 to kickstart their dynasty, two more in ’03 and ’04 and haven’t brought home the Lombardi Trophy since then. They obviously lost in ’07 (technically ’08; these NFL seasons are so confusing) and they’re back in the ’11 season. Look at their overall timeline, though.

Since the 2001 season, they’ve won 11, 9, 14, 14, 10, 12, 16, 11, 10, 14 and 13 regular season games. That’s a run of almost 10 consecutive seasons with double-digit wins. They’ve made the playoffs all but two years – the nine-win campaign in ’02 and the weird 11-victory season in ’08 when Brady was hurt and Matt Cassell QB’d the team. The Pats have been remarkably consistent in this NFL era of increased free agent movement. This is their fifth Super Bowl appearance during that time. Given how little difference there is in team quality between the Super Bowl winner and loser, I think Super Bowl losses shouldn’t count too much against a team.

That’s why I consider the ’90s Atlanta Braves to be a dynasty. They don’t pass my requirement of multiple titles – they won a single World Series during their 15-year reign atop the National League East from 1991-2005 – but they were still so damn dominant. They nearly strung together 15 consecutive NL East titles. The only division title they didn’t capture during that ’91-05 period was in the strike-shortened summer of ’94, when they finished second, even though they may have won the NL East had the season not halted in August.

During their reign of terror on the NL, the Braves lost four World Series – ’91, ’92, ’96, ’99. This got people to call them the Buffalo Bills of MLB, although they were stronger over a much longer period of time than the western New York club. Extended dominance must count for something, especially when factoring in the need to replace productive players due to injuries, retirement or reduced, you know, productivity.

Anyway, I think the Patriots are still in the midst of their dynasty, which stands a decade long. I’m interested to hear (or read) from my readers about this subject. Do you think the Patriots are still a dynasty? What is your criteria for determining what constitutes a dynasty? Fire away on here or get at me on Twitter (@KyleStack) or Google+ (+KyleStack).





The Meaning of a Personalized Shoe

11 01 2012

Jordan Brand and Under Armour have led the way in the past several months of giving a personal meaning to the shoes they make for their NBA endorsers. Several NBA players have had new shoes released since October – Jordan Brand’s Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Under Armour’s Brandon Jennings and, to a lesser degree, Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams, although they didn’t receive signature kicks this season.

Adidas has Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard. Nike has Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Reebok has John Wall. But UA and Jordan have gone above and beyond to show why their shoes mean something to their players. It’s in the way the shoes are designed, with special details that mark a player’s life to that point. It’s done also by the videos created for those players. Check out the two-minute vignettes UA produced for Jennings, Walker and Williams as part of their Are You From Here? campaign (more text after the videos):

Those videos strike a chord. You see the players off the court as ordinary people. Of course, they have extraordinary athleticism as well as other qualities that make professional athletes unique in what they do.

Jordan Brand has also made a connection between their product and their endorser. In this case, it’s the CP3.V shoe for, obviously, Chris Paul. They’ve churned out a two-minute video of their own in which Paul discusses how he celebrates his love for his family through his newest signature shoe. I’ll list the video below with two images and three sketches of the shoe to follow, all provided by Jordan Brand. (You may notice a yellow and blue colorway that was obviously intended for Paul to wear on the New Orleans Hornets before his trade to the Los Angeles Clippers.)

One comment to add: I appreciate the fun factor of Kevin Durant’s Nike NERF shoe and what the Kobe System represents about Kobe Bryant as a ballplayer, but I especially dig what UA and Jordan Brand have done for their endorsers. They’ve personalized them to the point where a reasonable person can feel empathy for that player. That effect can’t be underestimated in terms of how a consumer views an endorser, and thus, that endorser’s brand.

    

   





Kobe’s Divorce and People’s Reactions

20 12 2011

Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms make all our lives more convenient and, in some ways, more efficient. Twitter, in particular, is an exceptional news aggregator, networking resource and promotional arm. Yet there is one major downside I’ve identified with social media: it shows the worst side in folks, at times.

Take Kobe Bryant’s recent divorce announcement, for example. It was reported last Friday that Bryant and his wife would divorce. She filed for divorce by citing irreconcilable differences, which insinuated that he cheated on her.

Following the news, reported on Twitter by numerous media outlets, an almost immediate wave of snarky comments filled my Twitter timeline. Jokes about Kobe’s past – namely, his 2003 rape case – David Stern’s involvement in the divorce (playing off the Chris Paul fiasco) and other types of humor-riddled tweets were too many to be named and remembered in specificity. It was a typical Twitter reaction to a controversy, as suddenly people feltt as though every subject deserved a comedic retort.

I was discouraged by it. There are times when it seems as though people don’t have any sense of integrity. Not every topic needs a comment. I wish people would have more respect to a situation and keep their fingers off the keyboard.

I know this is Kobe Bryant and anyone familiar with me understands how much I revere Kobe Bryant the Athlete. He’s my favorite of all-time. And I get that people feel as though athletes are so entitled – money, women and attention, in general – that it’s sort of payback to them that we, as “normal” people, throw insults and snarky comments at them whenever something in their life goes wrong. In other words, whenever their lives more closely resemble ours.

It’s our passive aggressive way of letting celebrities know that life can hit every person hard, no matter how much money or glamour they have. But people usually go too far.

If a person is getting divorced (or fired), perhaps folks are better-served by keeping their opinion(s) to themselves. Yes, Twitter is a repository for thoughts. However, it doesn’t mean that it should be used as a dumping ground for any bitter comment any of us might have.

Honor and integrity are words that don’t seem to mean a whole lot to people, especially those of my generation and younger. It’s too bad because some of the people I follow could use more of each judging by their reactions to certain events.





Madison Square (Beer) Garden

16 12 2011

BEER! It’s everybody’s favorite drink. (Don’t believe anybody who says otherwise.) Sports teams love beer because they can mark it up and still sell a shitload of it. So, teams look for ways to optimize their delivery of it. That’s what Madison Square Garden has done by consolidating its kegs into rooms located on the fifth and seventh floors of the remodeled MSG. (The remodel is ongoing through 2013.) I documented for ESPN Magazine precisely how the consolidation will help the World’s Most Famous Arena sell more suds.

Click on the link below to read the story:

MSG beer system





The Trail Blazers’ Eight-Year (Or So) Theory

16 12 2011

Hey, oh yeah, I have a blog! I don’t actually forget that I have one, although I struggle to make the time to write consistently on here. I have several thoughts to post today, though.

I recently finished a book called The Breaks Of The Game, written by the late David Halberstam. It’s a wonderful read about the time Halberstam spent with the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers. He used his experience with the team that season to detail a franchise reeling in the aftermath of a shortened, but legendary, period atop the NBA.

The Blazers won the 1977 NBA title led by Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas. They followed up that championship campaign with a 50-10 record to begin the 1977-78 season when all hell broke loose. Walton’s feet broke down. (They had caused him injury issues in his first two years of the NBA from 1974-76.) That began a devastating cycle for Walton in which he sat out the 1978-79 season, played 14 games in the next one after being traded from the Blazers to the San Diego Clippers and subsequently missed the next two campaigns.

The book enlightened me into details of the late ’70s Trail Blazers, which made me think about all the unfortunate situations in that franchise’s history. That developed into an eight-year theory that I thought might make it all the way up to the present incarnation of the team. I was one year off. I’ll explain:

1976: This is typically thought of as a successful year in Blazers history. Jack Ramsey was hired as head coach before the ’76-77 season, and he would coach them to the franchise’s first title in what was just their seventh season in the NBA. Yet a poor decision regarding a famous big man would foreshadow the future problems the franchise would have with talented 7-footers. With Bill Walton already on the roster, the team decided to trade Moses Malone, a 20-year-old who had been selected by the Blazers in the ABA Dispersal Draft, following the NBA/ABA merger. The Blazers were aware of Malone’s talent; they were possibly even more aware of his $300,000 salary, which they did not want to pay a backup.

In retrospect, the decision to trade Malone was even more perplexing considering that Walton had played 35 and 51 games from 1974-76. His susceptibility to injury was already apparent. But the Blazers dealt Malone anyway, sending him to the Buffalo Braves for a  ’78 first-round pick. That pick, Rick Robey, was eventually packaged with Johnny Davis in ’78 to acquire Mychal Thompson, who was the first overall pick of the ’78 draft.

Thompson, who stood at 6-10, ended up missing the ’79-80 season because of a broken leg. Very Blazers-like. He did go on to a successful career with the Blazers but it was nothing like what Malone accomplished.

Moses became a three-time League MVP, one-time Finals MVP, 12-time NBA All-Star and averaged 20.6 points and 12.2 ‘boards in 19 NBA seasons. The Blazers could have had that.

1984: The Blazers won 48 games in 1983-84 yet managed to get the second overall pick of the ’84 Draft via a previous trade with the Indiana Pacers. Akeem Olajuwon was off the board since he was taken first by the Houston Rockets. That seemingly left the Blazers with a choice between Sam Bowie and Michael Jordan. It’s an easy choice now. At the time, Bowie was thought to be the next great NBA player from the University of Kentucky. (Of course, the same was said of MJ and North Carolina.) But Bowie is 7-1, and the Blazers already had Clyde Drexler and high-scoring Jim Paxson at the wing.

That Bowie had dealt with knee issues in college didn’t discourage the Blazers. Given their luck with Walton, and even Thompson, perhaps they felt bad fortune couldn’t strike a third time with a highly-selected big man. They were wrong. Bowie put up 10 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in a 76-game rookie year – more games than he would play in his next seasons combined. Injuries killed any chance Bowie had at stardom. He moved to the New Jersey Nets for his fifth season and became a role player for them and the Lakers through ’95.

We all know what MJ did – six titles, six Finals MVPs, five regular season MVPs, 30 points per game for his career, yada yada.

1992: Another example of their past kicking them in the present. Eight years after passing on MJ for Bowie, the Blazers lost their second Finals appearance in three seasons, this time to the MJ-led Bulls.

2000: No ‘past meets present’ here, unless you consider that MJ’s cohort for so many years, Scottie Pippen, was now on the team. An absolutely loaded squad (Pippen, Steve Smith, Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, Detlef Schremf, Damon Stoudemire, Bonzi Wells) blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and ultimately lost the contest to the Lakers. In the broadcast booth for NBC that day: Bill Walton.

2008: This is where my theory loses steam. It technically was an unlucky year in that Brandon Roy had his first surgery on his left knee since he had been in the NBA. Continuing problems with his left knee, as well as the other one, led him to retire from the League last week. It’s such a sad story for a player who put up 19 points per game in five injury-riddled seasons. Roy, like Walton, never had a prolonged opportunity to show his greatness.

Of course, ’08 wasn’t the year in which the Trail Blazers’ bad fortune continued so much as ’07 was. That was the year they once again spent a first overall draft pick on a talented big man with an injury history. Once again, the Blazers opted for a big man instead of a proven wing scorer. Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. People like to say now that Durant wasn’t in play for the Blazers at the time, but that’s wrong. Sportswriters stepped up to advocate Durant for the Blazers’ pick; Bill Simmons was the most adamant of them all. I also thought, at the time, that the Blazers should have taken Durant.

But the Blazers had Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, and they apparently felt that Oden’s defensive prowess in the paint made him the better fit. Just like Bowie had theoretically been the better fit in ’84.

So, the Blazers chose a big man with the first overall pick for the third time in franchise history. (Technically the fourth if Mychel Thompson is thrown in there, albeit via a trade.) They chose Bill Walton, who brought Portland a title before succumbing to his feet, leaving the Blazers down-and-out. They chose Thompson, who missed his entire second season because of a broken leg, thus stifling their recovery effort in the post-Walton Era. They chose Sam Bowie, whose glaringly small contributions in Portland were accentuated by the fact that the man selected after him became arguably the greatest basketball player ever. And they chose Greg Oden, who has missed two of his four seasons, and played just 21 games in another, because of knees that will likely never allow the Blazers to justify taking him ahead of Kevin Durant, who is the next great NBA scorer.

It’s sad that these circumstances have hit a franchise located in a city so passionate about them. Who knows where the Blazers go from here?