(By Mitch Lawrence)
NBA in the spirit of giving
Christmas games put league's biggest feuds on holiday stage
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas: In Indianapolis, that means extra security on hand for the first game between the Pacers and Pistons since "that thing," as Larry Brown called what everyone else knows as the riot at Auburn Hills. Out in Los Angeles, it's going to mean Kobe Bryant invoking the Christmas spirit and telling Shaquille O'Neal that he's sorry.
Yes, peace on earth and good will toward man is the theme on Saturday in the only two scheduled NBA games. Just how long it lasts is anyone's guess.
You'd think the Pacers and Pistons will be on their best behavior. But the league is not taking any chances.
According to one NBA official, the league is sending a squadron of security officials to Conseco Fieldhouse to ensure that there is no repeat of the ugly events of Nov. 19. At last count, David Stern is going to have to shell out holiday pay to 14 members of his security force.
As was the case in the Garden last week - when the league agreed with the Knicks' assessment that security should be tightened for the Pistons' first game in New York, and sent a starting five of security officials to work the game - most of the extra secuirty personnel will be posted behind the Detroit bench. The primary concern will be to keep Pacers fans, who can be as loud and ugly as the foul-mouthed hooligans in the Palace of Auburn Hills, a safe distance from Ben Wallace.
Wallace, one of the chief combatants in Detroit and subject of a six-game suspension, is grateful for the preferential treatment he'll be getting Saturday.
"We've gotten extra security in a couple of other arenas," he said. "I guess the league and the teams are doing it as a precautionary thing. That's fine with me. It's good. I'm just minding my own business and playing basketball."
Before the Pistons and Pacers gave the league a black eye for Christmas, the much-ballyhooed reunion of Kobe and Shaq was expected to be the main event. With Bryant's reputation continuing to plummet, Bryant went on the public-relations stump this past week. He first attempted to smooth over the Karl Malone affair, after he and his wife, Vanessa, trashed the Mailman for attempting to hit on Mrs. Bryant.
Bryant also intends to use the Christmas stage to apologize to O'Neal. Not for pulling his monumental power play that ended with Phil Jackson leaving and O'Neal packing his bags for Miami. Not for all the times he veered away from Jackson's triangle and didn't get the ball to O'Neal. This goes way back to when Bryant faced rape charges in Eagle, Colo. During his infamous Q&A session with investigators, which told everyone everything they needed to know about Bryant, he mentioned that he had heard that Shaq had paid up to $1 million to various women to keep quiet when O'Neal was caught in the same kinds of, er, "situations" that Bryant found himself in.
"I never intended in any way to mix him into my troubles and difficulties that were going on at the time," Bryant said last week. "December 25 seems like a good day to kind of talk to him and tell him I never meant in any kind of way to bring any of his personal business out."
Even with that explanation, Bryant still is implying that O'Neal did, in fact, use hush money to solve extra-marital dalliances. O'Neal has called that "ridiculous." To this day, Shaq has no love lost for his old teammate. Christmas spirit or not, that doesn't figure to change on Saturday in L.A.
Under the Gundy
The Rockets lost again? Blame Jeff Van Gundy.
Tracy McGrady couldn't find his offense? Blame Jeff Van Gundy.
Houston is a punchless bunch of plodders? Blame Jeff Van Gundy.
Yao Ming and McGrady aren't the second coming of Shaq and Kobe?
Blame Jeff Van Gundy.
Steve Francis is having a career season in Orlando? Blame Jeff Van Gundy.
That's how it goes in Houston these days. With all the trouble the Rockets have been having, and all the grief Van Gundy has been taking, you'd think that the ex-Knick coach has been the coach-GM for the past five years.
In fact, the Rockets, who entered the weekend two games under .500, are paying for some pretty bad personnel decisions that were all made before Van Gundy arrived. But since he is now the face of the team, you never hear a disparaging word about the job long-time GM Carroll Dawson has done.
From 2000-2003, here are the Rockets' first-round draft picks, off four straight lottery finishes:
2000: Joel Przybilla, whom they turned into Jason Collier on draft day. Collier played in 61 games for the Rockets over three seasons, was released and is playing in Atlanta.
2001: Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong, whom they parlayed into Eddie Griffin on draft day. The Nets struck gold with this one, while Griffin's days in Houston were marked by arrests and a substance abuse problem. He's now playing in Minnesota.
2002: Yao Ming and Bostjean Nachbar. Yao plays almost every night, but he has not been anything close to a genuine impact player, even if he is No. 1 among all vote-getters for this year's All-Star Game. Nachbar is a backup.
When you finish in the lottery four straight seasons, you can't come away with only one good player. Dawson and owner Les Alexander were wholeheartedly behind the McGrady trade, which sent Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato to Orlando. Even if Francis is flourishing, it's comical that the Rockets have been criticized for breaking up a team that had averaged 38 wins and didn't make the playoffs from 2000-03.
"It's not like they broke up the '27 Yankees," said one Western Conference coach.
Dawson hasn't been able to land a point guard, even when Darrell Armstrong was available. Under their GM's watch, the Rockets have become an older, slow-footed team. At least their current stretch of schedule - six straight games versus Charlotte or lottery teams from last year - could get things turned around.
"We've been in the muck long enough," Van Gundy said after a win to start the favorable stretch, against the lowly Hawks. "I'm going to keep tinkering until we get our chemistry right. When we get our chemistry right, you'll see a better product on the floor."
# The Pacers picked up Michael Curry, who was called "Sir Snitch" by his Toronto teammates for passing along inside locker room info to coaches.
# Arbitrator Roger Kaplan's ruling on the appeals cases of four Pacers players suspended for fighting with fans in Detroit last month is expected to come down any day. "Hopefully, we can get a ruling so that Jermaine (O'Neal) can play Christmas Day against the Pistons," said Billy Hunter, the NBA Players Association chief. The union and league agree that the case is headed to federal court, to be resolved fairly quickly.
Originally published on December 19, 2004