Sunday, January 10, 2016

Afforded An Opportunity, Luke Awakens

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Remember when NBA bluebloods dominated the league?  From 1980 through 2014, just six teams – the Lakers (10), Bulls (6), Spurs (5), Celtics (4), Pistons (3) and Heat (3) – claimed 31 of 35 championships.  The NBA was consistent.  Predictable.  Familiar.  Stars gravitated to a few elite franchises in glamorous basketball destinations.  The result was an insult to open competition: an inequitable concentration of power and riches created an NBA aristocracy and a just-happy-to-be-here proletariat.  The era gave us Magic, Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers.  Larry’s Celtics.  The Bad Boy Pistons.  Tim Duncan’s Spurs.  Jordan’s Bulls.  And Wade and LeBron’s Heat.   

Now, a coup might be upon us.  To quote Buffalo Springfield, “There’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.”  The best team in the Eastern Conference is the Cleveland Cavaliers, a pre-LeBron James also-ran. The champs are the Golden State Warriors, a long-time basketball wasteland.  And the best rivalry going isn’t Lakers-Celtics or Bulls-Pistons…it’s Golden State and the inconsequential Milwaukee Bucks, a sub-.500 that somehow managed to deal the Warriors their only loss and darn near pulled the trick again in the rematch last week.  Maybe there’s hope for the Wizards?  If my visions (hallucinations?) of free-agent-to-be Kevin Durant in a ‘Zards jersey become reality, it will affirm that a basketball revolution is underway.

Regarding those champion Warriors, they opened the season with 24 consecutive wins and are, as of last Sunday, 26-1.  So much for success spoiling the team’s hunger.  With a title on the resume, the Warriors seem intent on trying to become one of the best teams in league history.  Considering the casual nature of the NBA’s regular season (let’s face it, maximum effort isn’t prevalent), Golden State’s approach is refreshing.

Continuity is on their side: The Warriors carried over largely the same squad from last season.  Reigning MVP Stephen Curry is even better.  Fellow “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson rounds out the NBA’s best backcourt.  Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes all remain in the rotation.  But there was one alteration, one that’s been oddly ignored.  Head coach Steve Kerr has been out all season recovering from multiple back surgeries.  His assistant, Luke Walton, has quietly - an understatement because no one is talking about him – been a masterful substitute teacher. 

I get it.  He’s “just” Luke Walton.  He’s not Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader’s kid, but he is the son of basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton.  Luke was, in his own right, a 10-year NBA player, but he was nothing more than a rotation guy on loaded Lakers teams that featured the likes of Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant.  After Kerr took a leave of absence, Walton was also handed an obnoxiously talented roster.  Iconic father, famous teammates, decorated head coach and star-studded roster: It’s understandable that Walton, a man perpetually in the shadow of others, remains an afterthought despite coaching the Warriors to a 26-1 record. 

But it isn’t justified.

Walton’s not just a warm body who mindlessly fills out a lineup.  He’s placating egos, manipulating rotations, strategically responding to in-game situations and managing the team’s mental and physical burden of being the champs and getting every opponent’s best.  Yes, he comes from good stock, was a teammate of Bryant, one of the league’s best ever, and was given the coaching opportunity of a lifetime by Kerr’s balky lower lumbar – the shadow-man can’t deny any of it.  But Walton’s in the light now, front and center every night…and he’s crushing it. 

It bothers me when cynics dismiss individual accomplishment as the product of name value, surrounding talent, accidental circumstance or some other cheapening ingredient.  Whom among us has accomplished anything of significance organically?  Whatever summit a person ascends, at the foundation of the journey are advocates - teachers, parents, coaches, colleagues and a community/economy – personal Yoda’s or Obi Wan’s, if you will.  Walton stands on many supporting shoulders, but Luke’s success isn’t merely luck or the product of The Force.  The young Jedi/coach has seized the moment and is coaching at a high level.  He deserves some credit.  Acknowledging his existence on the Golden State bench would be a start. 

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