On the Road with Mike

This week I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of Magic/Bird on Broadway. Eric Simonson’s play examines Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird’s rise to NBA superstardom, their longstanding rivalry and enduring friendship. The show brought back a lot of great memories from when I coached against the Lakers and Celtics, and later when I broadcast many of their games including the Dream Team’s quest for Olympic gold in 1992.

A number of NBA dignitaries, former players and entertainers were in attendance, including Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. As a special bonus Johnson and Bird took the stage after the curtain call to greet the audience and acknowledge the actors.

All of the actors delivered impressive performances. The leads Kevin Daniels and Tug Coker did a wonderful job portraying the two very distinct basketball personalities, which must have been especially difficult knowing that their legendary subjects were in the audience.

I wish the producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo the same success that they had with Lombardi. 

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Fired Up: LeBron James

The seemingly endless criticism of LeBron James from the national media (and no doubt shared by many fans outside of Miami) feels more personal in nature rather than objective journalism. By all accounts, James committed a big error in judgment last offseason in the way he left Cleveland – i.e., “The Decision” and not informing Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. However, people are very quick to forget that many athletes, including the legendary Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, have run-ins with management/coaches that they do not handle well from a PR perspective.

The bottom line is that young, talented and ambitious athletes under endless scrutiny are prone to make mistakes; and LeBron is no different. The other reality is that no athlete other than Tiger Woods has come into a sport with the fanfare and expectations that LeBron did, a fact that is particularly important to remember in today’s social media age where no stone is left unturned.

LeBron has also been vilified because he chose to team up with other stars in Miami rather than go-it-alone in Cleveland like stars of the past. Conveniently lost in the shuffle is the fact that parity is much greater in the NBA today than it was in the past. In the 80’s, the league’s best players were concentrated on a handful of teams. The overall talent pool from top to bottom was not nearly as deep as it is today – this is why it seemed as though the Celtics, Lakers and Sixers were contending for the title every year. In today’s game, star players are present throughout the league on many teams. Recent Celtics and Lakers teams have shown that one player, even Kobe Bryant, cannot get you over the top. Dirk Nowitzki may be the latest example of this, even though he has a much better supporting cast than LeBron ever had in Cleveland. The fact that LeBron joined Miami through free agency rather than a trade merely reflects the economic reality of today’s NBA, but does not change the underlying formula required to win.

Another major criticism of LeBron is that he’s not the last second(s) “closer” that Jordan and Larry Bird were, or that Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and even Nowitzki are today. But he is a legitimate closer to the extent that his team wants to get the ball in his hands at the end of a close game because they trust him to make the right decision, whether that be to shoot the ball or pass it. To be a closer by the narrow definition of executing the winning shot every time requires one to not only be a perimeter player, but also to be a natural shooter/scorer, effectively eliminating both the great low post players of the game due to the ease with which they can be double-teamed and also the pure playmakers of the game as scoring is not their primary responsibility. Herein lies the fundamental disconnect between what LeBron actually is and how he is analyzed. While LeBron may not average the rebounds, assists and points of Barkley, Magic and Jordan respectively, LeBron possesses a combination of rebounding, passing and shooting skills that may be unparalleled in the history of the game. He balances his contributions in these areas according to what he must deliver in order for his team to win. To compare King James to any individual player of the past reflects a lack of understanding of what his true value as a player is. In any event, it is a debate best suited to the end of his career when we have seen his entire body of work.

As LeBron’s career unfolds there may be situations where he needs to focus on one of these skill sets more than the others; only time will tell. For now, he is taking full advantage of playing with Wade and focusing on his all-around game (including lock-down defense). Emotions aside, no one would dispute that a player maximizes his value to a team by doing whatever it takes to win, even if that means deferring to a teammate at times. The funny thing is that LeBron seems to be one of the few people out there who genuinely understands this.

Czar’s Got Heart: Dick Vitale Gala Tops Fundraising Goal

The 2010 Dick Vitale Gala was another successful effort on behalf of the Jimmy V Foundation to help raise money to fight and eventually beat cancer. There was an overwhelming show of support that reflects how highly people regard Dick Vitale as well as the respect everyone has for late Coach Jim Valvano who died of bone cancer in 1993, when the V Foundation was formed. There were a number of coaches and players who showed up and contributed including Magic Johnson, who introduced honoree Tom Izzo, and Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, who introduced Tony Dungy.

Country music star Kenny Chesney was also in attendance. Dick and his wife Lorraine are huge fans of Kenny and have attended a dozen of his concerts. They were back stage talking to Kenny after a recent show and Kenny told them he’d love to come to one of their events and they said they would love to have him and of course he was welcome to come down to Sarasota for the Gala. So Kenny showed up and sat at the table between Dick and Lorraine. During the auction Kenny got in on the action. Coach John Calapari had donated four courtside seats to next year’s Kentucky vs. Tennessee basketball game.  The bidding was going back and forth between Kenny and another gentleman. They had gotten to $38,000 and were waiting for someone to bid $40,000 when Dick jumped up, grabbed the mic and said, “Wait, Kenny Chesney just bid $38,000 for those tickets.” Then he pointed at the other guy and said, “And you’re bidding $38,000 for the tickets … John Calipari, you’ve got to find eight tickets because both of these guys are paying $38,000 to buy four tickets.”  Calipari was standing next to Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl up on the stage and Cal replied, “That’s fine Dickie, you got it. I’m just going to take them out of Bruce’s allotment.” So Dick raised $76,000 that way.

Then Jonn said, “I’ve got a guy out in the audience who’s willing to match whatever we can raise here in the room, up to $100,00. Why don’t we do this, think about how much money we spend when we go out and take friends to dinner and order a couple bottles of good wine. A $500-$600 check is nothing. Why don’t we do this: I’m gonna start out with $1000.” Then he pointed to me at the table and said, “Mike Fratello, you’re in for $1000? I raised my hand and said, “I’m in for $1000.” To which John replied, “If we can find 98 more people in this room out of the 800+ people we have here we’ll have $100,000 and that man will match it. That means in ten minutes we can make $200,000.

It was a moving and inspiring evening, and by the end of the night we had all laughed and cried with Dick and the guests of honor. Thanks to the generosity off all the attendees Dick was able to raise over $1.2 Million for Pediatric Cancer Research. If you would like to make a donation, please call 1-800-4-JIMMYV or click here to visit the V Foundation website and donate online.