Monday, February 26, 2007

We all make mistakes...


...and Rolando Blackman keeps getting screwed by them. Someone recently asked Pat Riley what he believed to be the biggest mistake of his long career in basketball. (His answer was not "That I let someone take a goofy reverse-jersey stash-douche picture and print it a million times over.")

"...I should have played Blackman, without a doubt, in the Finals...At the time, Starks in games 3, 4 and 5 carried us in the second half, and in game 6 he had this incredible fourth quarter. I got caught up in the short rotation..."

As any fan of the New York Knickerbockers knows, game seven of the finals was where Starks went cold (ice cold). He shot 2-18 and forever cemented his place as the man put on exclamation point on "In 1994, the Knicks really blew that 3-2 lead!"

Riley: "...If we had played the two of them, but especially Ro, we would have won the championship. (Emphasis added.) To this day, ever time I see [Doc], he's mad at me. He's like..." (Riley shakes his fist as if about to throw a punch.) "Rolando has never expressed what he feels about it to me, but he could still play. And that's the biggest mistake I ever made."

Today is Rolando Blackman's birthday, and I feel for him. He was an excellent scorer and an even better defender during his days as a basketball player, and now is a very good coach with the Mavericks. Despite all that, the litany of ways God has screwed over the best player ever born in Panama is quite unfair for a man as good as Rolando. Ro takes it like a man, though, refusing to feel sorry for himself or wax poetic about what could have been. He's got plenty to be proud of, and has had one hell of an interesting basketball career.

Rolando was born in Panama, but raised in the cradle of basketball, Brooklyn, New York. As anyone who follows the sport knows, any player from Brooklyn is harder than rock and tough as nails. Rolando was no exception, and he played his way out of Brooklyn and into a scholarship at Kansas State Univeristy.

Though Kansas State has fallen on hard times in my lifetime, in the early eighties when Rolando went there (and for the preceding 40 years) they were no joke. With the addition of Blackman, who would become their best player ever (Mitch Richmond notwithstanding), the Wildcats were a team to be taken seriously. Rolando's career at KSU came to a crescendo when the Wildcats met the legendary Orange Express team, the Oregon State Beavers.

Much like the current Wildcats (who are only becoming successful of late under shunned-but-effective Bob Huggins), Oregon State is two decades past its heyday, but in 1981, they were something to be seen. The Beavers were ranked between #1 and #2 for practically the entire season, as they ran up a 26-1 record under the coaching of an absolute legend (HOF), the too-often forgotten Ralph Miller.

From 1980 until 1983, the Beavers went 77-11 and lost only one game at home. They produced three All-Americans and in 1981, Miller was named coach of the year. The team was legit.

Unfortunately for them, they didn't have any player among them who could contain Rolando Blackman, and his skillful defense helped a relatively weak Kansas State team (they were an 8 seed) win on a buzzer beater. Who shot it? That would be the bad motherfucker from Brooklyn on the cover of Sports Illustrated right there.

Rolando led his team all the way to the Elite Eight, where he met North Carolina. The Tar Heels were led by the now-forgotten Al Wood, who was good enough to be drafted4th in 1981, five spots ahead of Rolando Blackman and ahead of players like Kelly Tripucka, Herb Williams, Tom Chambers, Danny Ainge and Larry Nance.

Al Wood might not have been so bad if he wasn't flanked by Sleepy Sam Perkins and James Worthy, two of the best players in NCAA history. That North Carolina team was just shy of unbeatable, and Ro couldn't overcome it. The 'Heels would go on to lose to one of the great teams of all time, Isiah Thomas's Indiana Hoosiers, but Rolando certainly drew a short straw.

Having to play an incredibly tough opponent wasn't the first crappy thing to happen in Rolando's college career. He had the misfortune of being selected for the 1980 Olympic Team, which, due to politics, boycotted the Olympics. Now, whether the boycott was justified can be argued this way and that, but I think it is fair to say that Ro got screwed out of a gold medal. (The United States winning the gold medal was the custom at that time.)

Rolando began his professional career on the god-awful Dallas Mavericks. Having gone 15-67 the year before, they were smart to make Blackman their first round pick. The Mavericks' record subsequently improved to 28-54 Rolando's rookie year (he averaged 13.3, 3 rpg, and 1.3 apg), 38-44 his second year (17.7, 3.9, 2.5), 43-49 his third (22.4, 4.6, 3.6), 44-38, 44-38, 55-27, 53-29, 38-44, and 47-35 by the time Rolando was 31. Over that span, he was consistently good for 20 a night, and though a primary catalyst for the Mavs' rise was Mark Aguirre, Blackman was always right in the mix.

Blackman epitomized the defensive master without it showing in his statistics. He never averaged more than one steal or block per game, but Michael Jordan named him among the toughest defenders he ever went against. Magic Johnson said "He was one of the best shooters of all time and the toughest players to guard." Rolando never blew people away with his stat line but he was a player, the kind of guy who's on every championship team.

That's the way it was when the Knicks traded for him for the 1992/1993 season. And he should have been their guy. Instead, he sat on the bench as one of the best teams ever squandered their only chance at the NBA championship.

"It still kills Ro," said Derek Harper before the Mavs faced Riley's heat in last year's finals. "Knowing Ro the way I know him, who's more competitive than Ro and who is more prepared for that kind of opportunity than Ro? Not many people."

Blackman is diplomatic about his snub. "I've seen Pat since then and we've talked, but nobody says anything about the day. We've never talked about it. My perspective is that we should have gotten me in there, or Hubert [Davis], just so John could sit out for a little bit. He needed to come out for a little bit to stop what was going on with him. But I don't want to be critical, because it's gone. It's past. We still had other problems -- called Olajuwon."

I appreciate that Rolando is so statesmanlike, because if I felt like I was trapped on the bench while some guy was chucking rim-wreckers and forcing me to watch my ring slip away, I'd be pissed. I don't think I could ever get that chip off of my shoulder. But Rolando can.

After he retired, Rolando loved basketball so much he traveled all the way to Europe to play. In his waning years, he powered his team to the championship, and when his time finally came, he hit 8-12 from behind the arc to win Finals MVP. Did it give him the prestige he could have had wearing the ring of all rings? No, but he finally got some closure.

Now Rolando is helping Dallas shore up their defense. He's the perfect man for the job, and, true to form, he's getting none of the credit. That is reserved for everybody's favorite little screamer, the 'lil general, Avery Johnson, whose career statistics are significantly worse than those of Sherman Douglas.

Avery is a good coach for sure, and I'm sure he's had considerable effect, but if history is any indicator, there's another guy willing to do the hard work, shut up, blend in to the background, and do what it takes to help his team win.

Happy birthday, Ro.

As always, e-mail me at dontgiveupthebasketballblog@gmail.com

5 comments:

Kodijack said...

Nice profile. Why the picture of Avery Johnson on the floor?

JimmyValente said...

A) I like the picture;
B) I don't like AJ;
C) I was going to go more in depth about how I didn't like him but I didn't want to lose focus and he also doesn't really deserve it in the middle of a 50-5 run (i like to kick guys when they're down)

Kodijack said...

Avery is yet another former Nuggets player. Its amazing how often they come up in your blog.

Don't like cherry picking coaches huh? Where is the Phil Jackson falling down picture?

JimmyValente said...

I actually think both Avery and Phil are good coaches, but it just kills me when guys like Charlie Rosen have to write these mush-pieces about how they're the greatest coaches ever. I don't know, maybe I'm just too contrarian.

MattG21 said...

Have you ever heard Ronaldo Blackman talk? He's on my NBA Super Slams 2 VHS tape (being interviewed for his opinion...NOT as a dunker) and he's very soft spoken and eloquent.