Order on the Court

NBA Basketball Diaries

illustration by Ben Plimpton

Basketball season is over. Yeah, okay, the NBA Finals are -- as of this writing -- knotted at two games each, but the real season ended a few minutes before 11pm Thursday, May 29, when Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz, this year's league MVP, set a flagrantly illegal pick on the Houston Rockets' Clyde Drexler, freeing up partner-in-crime John Stockton for a wide-open three-pointer that sent the Rockets' sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-frustrating 1996-'97 season down in flames. Now all we're left with is Space Jam vs. the cheatin' Mormons.

Of course NBC isn't complaining, because it means another round of Ahmad Rashad-Michael Jordan interviews heavy on the ass-kissing and reminders that Michael is, in fact, The Greatest Player Ever, and by the way, be sure and buy some Nike shoes, drink Gatorade, and don't forget Space Jam is out on video now, available for rental or purchase at your leisure. (It's a toss-up whether M.J. or his bad-boy teammate Dennis Rodman is more overexposed, but if I were Scottie Pippin, I'd have my size thirteens so far up my agent's ass his breath would smell like leather every time he even thought about exclaiming, "Show me the money!")

The overexposure of Michael Jordan will probably make a compelling movie one day, one that can really examine the effect of the spotlight upon a man's soul, a man treated like a god, savior, or superhero who is in fact just really good at playing basketball. Spike Lee should be the perfect director for such a tale, only in his new book Best Seat in the House by Spike Lee with Ralph Wiley (Crown, $23 hard), he's too busy pulling an Ahmad Rashad. That is, when he's not expounding on what an incredible Knicks fan he is, his long arduous journey to courtside season tickets, and how officials, opposing players, NBA brass, and any basketball fan outside a 30-mile radius of Madison Square Garden vilify the Knickerbockers, because They Just Don't Understand Them.

Lee tells of attending his first Knicks game as a mere sprout, the seduction and allure of roundball, and of making movies in between shouting matches with Reggie Miller and the zebras. He offers opinions freely on players of the past and present, coaches, memorable games, the draft, the Celtics, just about everything except the really interesting stuff: His life as a black filmmaker, one of the few men in America gifted and blunt enough to make movies that start riots and vicious racial debates, and thoughtful enough to look past those confrontations and search for some kind of solution. Maybe owing to his association with Nike, his friendship with Jordan, or his season tickets, he's disappointingly mute on many problems facing the NBA, including the lack of respect for officials, the sometimes-crippling amount of body contact in the low post, and the dawn of the mega-athlete, how the now-routine eye-popping sums of money paid to players is wiping out the game's playground integrity like Wilt Chamberlain posting up Greg Ostertag. Lee, so gifted a social critic in his films, is here just another fan.

Rockets coach Rudy Tom- janovich, "Rudy T" to the people of Houston, author of the recent A Rocket at Heart by Rudy Tomjanovich with Robert Falkoff (Simon & Schuster, $23 hard), may look like one, but he's far from just another coach. Tomjanovich has been with the Rockets ever since he was their No. 1 draft choice out of the University of Michigan in 1970 -- way back when they were the San Diego Rockets. An all-star shooting forward for the Rockets throughout the 1970s, Tomjanovich was involved in one of the first -- and ugliest -- incidents of on-court violence when a punch from the Los Angeles Lakers' Kermit Washington almost literally separated his face from the rest of his skull. Tomjanovich is characteristically low-key about the fight, saying he had no idea what happened at all until he saw it later, and even after listening to the doctors, didn't fully comprehend how serious, even life-threatening, it was. Even discussing his drunk-driving arrest after the Rockets won the 1994 NBA championship, he just sticks to what happened, leaving the finger-pointing, moralizing, and judgments to the sportswriters.

An icon in the city of Houston, and by every account an extremely nice guy, Rudy T is sentimental enough to close the book with a love letter to his wife Sophie and three children. The Michael Jordans, Dennis Rodmans, and New York Knicks may dominate the media's (and therefore the nation's) perception of its basketball figures, but it's men like Rudy Tomjanovich, by keeping the game close to its fundamentals of shooting, passing, and defense, who give the game its true fire and drama. Wait 'til next year, Rudy.

For anyone not present on the planet Friday June 13, 1997, the Chicago Bulls won the NBA championships against the Utah Jazz.

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