Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Driven, Animated, Entertaining, Calculating, Smart, Prideful Package Of Energy

When AJ took the microphone back on Dec. 22, his broad smile filled the arena, and I immediately recollected the worst Spurs memory of him (probably a side-effect from his stint in Dallas): a not-so-famous, tumultuous night in Cleveland in 2000. Then, with Terry Porter taking his PG minutes and Gregg Popovich his power, AJ felt his kingdom dissolving in the spray of the shower in the visitor's locker room. AJ kept repeating loudly to no one in particular, *This is MY team!* Eventually Steve Kerr turned to David Robinson and asked, *Would you do something?* Up next: AJ and Malik Rose tangled that night, slipping to the locker-room floor in a naked flurry of unintended comedy (where the heck were cams?). When Pop stood in front of the media (they entered later), explained that HE was the one who had thrown things around in a post-loss tantrum. Good, ain't it? Hmm, after four titles, that's nothing but little blot.

Buck Harvey wrote in his column before that Dec. 22 game vs. Clippers that *No. 6 still has a half-dozen sides to him. He's the same driven, animated, entertaining, calculating, smart, prideful package of energy he was in San Antonio.* I agree.

AJ's jersey retirement night also reminded me how he fought for his turf because he'd had to fight for everything, and from that came qualities Spurs franchise needed at the time. This personality, more than his franchise-best assist total or even the culminating jumper against the Knicks, is why his jersey number deserves to hang with the others.

The Little General wasn't drafted, NBA teams cut him (Denver doing it on Xmas Eve). Then he came to Alamo City. He stuck for nearly a full calendar year. And after being in Admiral's wedding in 1991 the Spurs released him to save $80,000. I mean $80K! What happened when he came back to Spurs a second time? Then, after Jerry Tarkanian declared he couldn't win without a real point guard, AJ helped John Lucas turn around the Spurs. He went to Golden State, where Popovich was then an assistant, but only after a Warriors starter had been injured. Three days after entering that locker room, AJ was named a team captain. That's why Popovich, upon becoming Spurs general manager the next season (1994), signed AJ even before he signed his coach, Bob Hill. AJ started for seven seasons, every game. AJ was unofficial management and he critiqued players as well as Hill. He helped recruit Mario Elie, his buddy, and he could be harsh when talking about players who disappointed him. He was not above privately using a term such as "loser" to describe a teammate.

Maybe he was Popovich's savior. In 1999 Spurs stood 6-8 and Popo was a couple of losses from being fired. A few things, such as a new arena and Tim Duncan's future, were also in doubt then.That was the strike-shortened season, and there were veterans new to Spurs who wondered about Popovich. But AJ convinced them to hang in, and, when Spurs won at Houston in their next game, Johnson dedicated the moment to Popovich. Reporters went to Popovich afterward with AJ's words and Popovich turned away with tears in his eyes. Then came the 1999 Playoffs run and his title-clinching shot. Jump shot from the left corner at MSGarden secured Spurs' first NBA title in 1999 and was the highlight of his 1991-2001 career in SA. *That particular team had Avery's personality stamped all over it,* Popovich said. *He was a very focused player and a very demanding player, which is unique, because he wasn't that good.*

(Note: You gotta love the player who was re-nicknamed The Little Nazi by Sean Elliott.)

In millenium year came The Cleveland Incident. AJ felt Spurs really were his team. His heavy-handed leadership began to wear on some teammates,and his "inner me" didn't know what to do about it. Spurs considered trading him shortly after that game, though fans never understood why. One sign at the Alamodome read then, "Trade Pop, Keep AJ". Later, when TD evolved and the team changed, AJ left.

When Manu Ginobili was introduced at a press conference, Spurs held up the jersey number he would wear. No. 6. They yet realized their mistake, switching Ginobili to No. 20, but AJ had gone on. He went to Denver for the contract he always wanted. And eventually he ended up in Dallas. There he has become to Mavs what he once was to Silver & Black.

AJ means much to me. That's why seeing him in front of Mavs bench battling against us feels so weird. He was great. He knew how to handle failure, both with his words and his reaction. He has that kind of spiritual muscle that's innate. Discipline matched his work ethic. Heart. Leadership. AJ could always instruct and demand and better players listened him. That was the AJ the public knew. But he could also be political. He could be angry. Could be salty with his language. True Ghetto Preacher.

It's amazing how he lived by house rules when the playoffs came. No reading newspapers, no listening to sports-talk radio or TV, no unnecessary fan interaction. *He's worse than I am,* said his buddy Elie (now his assistant coach) about him. *You can't talk to me before games, but you can't even breathe on Avery.*

This all is why it felt good that he was a Spur for one more night. That group of old Spurs is always entertaining. Elliott. Robinson. AJ. The camaraderie is still tangible. Yes, AJ always will be part of the Spurs' family. He made it clear that a big part of his heart remains in Alamo City, no matter where his NBA obligations and loyalties now are situated.

Some quotes now:
*It's hard to explain to people what it means to be a Spur," AJ told the sellout crowd which stayed long after the game to honor him, No. 1 on Spurs' all-time assists list.
*More than anything,* coach Pop told the crowd, *no matter what happens in his future, no matter where he is, he is always a San Antonio Spur.*
*My man already has tears in his eyes,* said Elliott, the evening's master of ceremonies, and this was before any of the evening's speakers had paid tribute to The Little General.
Pop also said in his own humor, "/AJ was/ the only player in NBA history that went left every time, and nobody ever figured it out.*
*There are a lot of players who do well and have more stats than Avery, and they don't get their jerseys retired,* Pop said before game. *He was special on and off the court.*
*He's a son of San Antonio. I don't care how successful he is in Dallas, he's always going to be a San Antonio Spur in our mind. That's because of what he did in the community.*
*I thought a championship would do it,* AJ said, *but that didn't do it. This finally puts an end to what I now realize was an incredible 16 /NBA/ years.*
*We didn't think any of this was going to happen,* AJ added. *At the time, I was just trying to feed my family and keep my NBA career alive. I didn't even think I was going to have an opportunity to come back here and play for the Spurs again. I thought that was the end of my time here. When I retired, I didn't retire playing for the Spurs as my last team. And then to go and coach another team, you didn't know it was going to happen. But this night is not representing who I work for now but who I was for the nine years when I was in uniform here.*
*The voices have changed,* Duncan said, *but Avery's voice still echoes.*

THANKS, Avery Johnson.

p.s.(special): Oh we background key players never get the credit we deserve. Avery, I sympathize with you. I'm an Information Technology professional by trade. We only get attention when something goes wrong. We are constantly faced with new and innovative challenges. We make grand changes for the benefit of all, and our goal is to make these changes so that no one notices. Avery was awesome at moving the ball up-court and getting it to the right guy in the best position to score. He scored some on his own, but that wasn't his strongest asset, nor was it what the team expected from him. He was a very focused and a powerful positive force that served as such a great motivation for the entire team. Maybe he wasn't the 7 foot presence of David Robinson, or the scoring threat of Sean Elliott, but he was there with record numbers on assists and as a team leader and a great role model. THANK YOU AVERY, YOU WERE INSTRUMENTAL TO THE CONTINUED PROGRESS OF THE TEAM AND MADE THEM SUCCESSFUL. THANK YOU FOR HELPING MAKE IT HAPPEN FOR THE SPURS. (spurs fan InvisibleLeader)
p.s.2: Have you seen Sunday's CELTS at LAKES? Great game, absolutely. The late Red Auerbach must have been smiling up there. Of course, Celtics thumped Lakers 110-91, but it seems like The Rivalry has been established again. This was the first meaningful game between these two franchises since the Yellow won the 1987 Finals over the Green. LA bosses marketed the game as if it was something extraordinary... it was. We have seen Jerry West out there (not playing, of course). Lakers wore throwback short shorts in the first half what led to this exchange: *Damn, look at Bynum.* ... *Holy shit, he's like overgrown baby, lol!*. Even Celtics couldn't stop laughing when they first saw Lakers step onto the court. I mean, Bill Russell hates LAL so much that he didn't even show up, lol. Celtics are genuine, looking unbeatable. They held Kobe to 6-of-25 shooting and only 22 points. KG proved his versatile brilliance - 22 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks; Pierce lit up the Staples Center with 33 points & 8 rebounds. The intensity was obvious from the outset, with Garnett sent to the locker room for stitches above the right eye in the 2nd quarter. Seven technical fouls were called! Just imagine The Playoff Garnett. He'll be the first player ever to play with broken foot. He's mad. He's more driven than Al Gore with his weather. Boston's win is even more valuable when you consider that they did it without PG Rajon Rondo (injury). They did it with Ray Allen playing less than 10 mins in the 1st half because of foul trouble. More sights - Laker Girls wore 80s-style outfits (*Bring the time machine, please!*); LAL assistant coach Kurt Rambis grew back his facial hair and wore his thick-framed glasses; Celtics had jerseys styled from the 60s. Good old times, really.
p.s.3: Happy New Year to everyone, except for The Ten NBA Guys I Hate.

Posted by Foreigner in CS - Jan 2 2008 10:27PM

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