By Bill Campbell
The possibility occurs that if the 76ers had a player like Dirk Nowitzki they might still be playing. Nowitzki has led the Dallas Mavericks into the NBA final championship series now underway. His opposition is that collection of stars representing the Miami Heat. A player like Nowitski would be the answer to a coaching prayer. Doug Collins did such a good job defining positions for his players this past season that such dreams just might be possible. But Nowitzki, LeBron James notwithstanding, is considered by many the best player in the league and certainly has the play-off stats to prove it.
Nowitski has been in the NBA finals before in 2006 and he was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2007. So that experience of being his team’s key player with the suffocating pressure of the final series could become the difference. He is averaging 28 points a game in the play-offs, has scored 40 or more twice and 48 in the opening game of the conference finals. But to me his most impressive performances have come in the fourth and final quarters of really tense games. He has averaged just a fraction under 10 points per fourth period, which pretty much defines him as a player. When the heat is really on he seems to rise to the occasion. His fourth quarter performances have been the best of anyone who has gotten out of the second round in years. And you can imagine the effect that has on his team-mates, the confidence it generates and inspires.
But the Heat cannot be undersold. Its three stars, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, have done what most fans expected them to do: namely, reach the finals. They got off to a stumbling start in the season’s opening games. It took some discipline and sacrifice on the part of each individual to learn how to play together effectively. They each have enjoyed the luxury of setting the pace and exerting leadership for the good of the team in alternate fashion. And Miami deserves much credit for that as does its coach, Erik Spoelstra, the first Phillipino-American to coach a national sports team. There isn’t much doubt that there are more Dallas fans than Miami supporters in this series. You’ll recall the backlash that erupted last summer when James made his move from Cleveland to Miami. A lot of folks became Heat haters on that occasion, and now see themselves as Mavs lovers.
It’s interesting to recall that when the Heat was contemplating the make-up of its roster, Dirk Nowitzki was also a free agent. He was not vigorously pursued by the Heat or by anyone else because they were sure he would remain in Dallas. But Nowitski has admitted since that he would have listened had any of the celebrated Heat stars invited him to join them in Miami. He never received that invitation. Some former MVP’s might have held a grudge. Not Nowitski. He is now 33 years old and says the only thing on his mind is winning the NBA championship. And now the only team in his path is the Miami Heat. The first 2 games are in Miami, then 3 in Dallas, then back for 2 in Miami – and all may be necessary.
Switching to baseball: Buster Posey is one of the best young players in baseball. Many think he is the best. Certainly he is the best young catcher, who had much to do with the success of the San Francisco Giants last season. He was seriously injured last week in a home plate collision with Florida’s Scott Cousins, breaking his leg and tearing three ligaments in his ankle. He’s out for the season, leaving the Giants in the unenviable position of defending their championship without one of their best players — to say nothing about the possibility of the injuries affecting Posey’s future career.
We baseball old-timers will recall Pete Rose’s hit on catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All Star Game and the effect it had on Fosse’s career: he was never the same player. And there have been a few other notable collisions over the years. Some have called for a changing of the rules to protect catchers the way pro football tries to protect quarterbacks. And probably just as many are opposed to any change. Those in opposition to a rule change believe that baseball collisions at home plate are part of the game. I’m not sure how I feel on the subject but players charging the plate should know that the object is home plate and not the catcher.
I was intensely interested in Tim McCarver’s statements during the Phillies-Mets game in New York recently. McCarver was a catcher and a good one. He says he would love for his son or, now, his grandson to become major league baseball players, continuing a family tradition — but never behind the plate as a catcher unless they change the rules.
Home plate collisions in baseball are fairly rare and I’m not sure that the comparison to the position of football quarterback is quite accurate. The quarterback is involved in almost every play, frequently only to hand off to a running back. Jeff Berry, Buster Posey’s agent, would naturally like to see a rule change as would Bruce Bochy, the San Francisco manager, who is a former catcher. And some consideration is in order. Baseball has been called the Great American Game. But there have been some significant rules changes over the years including whichever team wins the All Star Game deciding who gets the home field advantage in the World Series – which has never made much sense to me. Obviously, steps should be taken to protect a player from a serious injury which the football people talk about frequently. And it’s something that will merit consideration down the line.