Big Match-Ups Highlight Christmas Day Hoops
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
Basketball fans get a load of presents on their television screens this Sunday courtesy of the NBA. Games will feature four playoff contenders, three recent champions, two coaching legends, practically everything but a partridge in a pear tree. And joining me now to talk basketball is Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis.
Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: The first game on Christmas Day is a replay of last year's NBA finals, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs against the 2004 champions the Detroit Pistons.
Mr. FATSIS: Yes, the NBA schedule makers are no fools. The finals last season went seven games, the maximum, and the Spurs and Pistons once again are the class of the league. Detroit's won 20 out of 23 games so far. San Antonio's won 20 out of 26. And they're a delight to watch. The Spurs' selfless team play, big dose of international stars. Detroit's fifth in the league in scoring at a hundred points per game and they're still a defensive power. They're best in the NBA by a large margin in terms of the difference between points scored and points allowed.
SIEGEL: And then comes the second game, and this really is the marquee match, the Los Angeles Lakers against the Miami Heat. The Lakers are coached, once again, by Phil Jackson, who returned to the team after a year off. And the Heat are coached again by Pat Riley, who came down from his president's office earlier this month to take over the coaching duties after two years away. Pretty big game.
Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, and their careers have been intertwined for decades. They played against each other in the 1972 NBA finals. They feuded as coaches in the early 1990s when Jackson was in Chicago and Riley was in New York. Jackson's got nine NBA rings, six with Chicago, three with Los Angeles, the last in 2002. Riley's got four championships, all in the 1980s with the Lakers. But what we really love about these guys, of course, is that they are a walking soap opera. You've got Jackson, then coach, returning to LA. He dates the owner's daughter. He's repaired relations with Kobe Bryant, his star whom Jackson dissed in a memoir while he took that year off. Riley is grayer but he's still slicked back and he's got the player that LA ditched after the post-Jackson team breakup in 2003, Shaquille O'Neal.
SIEGEL: This game, the subplot here is all about Shaq vs. Kobe.
Mr. FATSIS: And there is still no love lost between these guys. O'Neal missed most of the start of this season with an ankle sprain. He is back now and apparently he is fine both on and off the court because he was recently sworn in as a reserve police officer with the Miami Beach police.
Bryant, meanwhile, seems to be getting along just fine with Jackson. Last year without the coach, the Lakers didn't even make the playoffs. This year Bryant's playing very well and so is the team. Kobe is number two in the league in scoring with 32 points per game.
SIEGEL: And he scored 62 points the other night. Both his game and his image seem to be having a comeback this season.
Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, on Sunday he's going to be debuting his first signature sneaker for Nike, and Nike was notable among sponsors because it didn't dump Kobe Bryant after he was charged with sexual assault in 2003. That case was dismissed and very gradually Nike has tried to rehabilitate this guy and bring him back into the endorsement fold. The view among fans, still disliked by a lot of NBA fans because of those charges and because of his feuds with the Lakers. On the other hand, kids who buy sneakers like Kobe Bryant.
SIEGEL: While we're on the subject of comebacks and rehabilitations, there's another great NBA coach, Larry Brown. Has he finally met his match in the New York Knicks, a team that he cannot turn into a winning basketball team in the NBA?
Mr. FATSIS: It's very hard to turn a team that is a bunch of spare parts and young players who aren't there yet and old players who aren't on top of their game anymore. They've lost 18 out of 24 games so far. This team looks virtually hopeless. Even Larry Brown can't turn around everybody.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.
Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: And have a great weekend.
Mr. FATSIS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal, who talks with us on Fridays about sports and the business of sports.