STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In the National Basketball Association, Christmas Day means a Christmas doubleheader, and yesterday it provided basketball jockeys with a mix of soap opera, hard feelings and one very hot basketball team. In the first game, the Detroit Pistons beat the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. Then the Miami Heat defeated the Los Angeles Lakers. Commentator John Feinstein was watching and is with us now.
JOHN FEINSTEIN reporting:
Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: And let's start with that Miami-Los Angeles game, which is a matchup, in a sense--or was a matchup, in a sense, between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
FEINSTEIN: Yeah, you know, "As the Basketball Turns," the ongoing soap opera that has become the two former teammates in Los Angeles with Shaquille O'Neal now in Miami. To say that there are hard feelings between them is a vast understatement. They wouldn't even look at one another when the guys shook hands before the tip-off yesterday, and when O'Neal was asked about that on television, he just looked down at the person asking the question as if to say, `Why are you even bringing this up?' They clearly despise one another and they're both great players, and that adds a lot of spice to the fact that they're now opponents on the court.
INSKEEP: Who played better?
FEINSTEIN: Well, yesterday I think, you know--I think you got to call the two of them a draw because Gary Payton, who I think was there when James Naismith put up the first peach basket in 1890, did an unbelievable defensive job against Kobe in the fourth quarter even though Kobe ended up with 37 points. He was 0 for 8 from three-point range and missed the last shot. Shaq struggled, had good numbers, 18 points, 17 rebounds, but Payton was actually the difference in the game and the reason the Heat won.
INSKEEP: And so Miami wins that one. And it was also the renewal of a coaching rivalry.
FEINSTEIN: Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, great rivals in the '90s when Riley was coaching the Knicks and Jackson was coaching Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Riley just came back two weeks ago to the Heat, coming out of retirement to take over the team now that he's got Shaquille O'Neal at center. And, of course, Jackson came out of retirement to come back to the Lakers this year for a mere 10 million bucks.
INSKEEP: A mere $10 million. Why did Riley come back?
FEINSTEIN: Well, let me just say this. It was not because Stan Van Gundy, the former Heat coach, woke up one morning after 20 years in the league and decided he wanted to spend more time with his family. Riley came back because he wants to win one more title and he wants to prove he can win one without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, who he coached to four titles in Los Angeles--simple as that.
INSKEEP: Now there was another game yesterday.
FEINSTEIN: There--believe it or not, between the two best teams in the league. The Detroit Pistons are 22 and 3, and nobody's even noticed it. Larry Brown leaves. Everybody thinks they're going to collapse when Brown goes to New York. They've hired Flip Saunders and they're better than they've ever been. And the San Antonio Spurs are only the defending champions and have the second-best record in the league, and they played in the preliminary game yesterday with the Pistons winning and going to 22 and 3, as I said, which is a remarkable record.
INSKEEP: And as you're following all this, the league commissioner, David Stern, is trying to clean up the league's image. How's he doing?
FEINSTEIN: Well, off the court, so far, so good. The players are subscribing to the new rules that they have to look neat and clean when they arrive at the arena, can't wear throwback jerseys, things like that. But now on the court the players are protesting because he says their shorts are too long and many players have been fined for that. The players say, `Wait a minute, the team gave us the shorts. You can't fine us for that.' So the battle goes on, Steve.
INSKEEP: How did everybody look yesterday?
FEINSTEIN: Oh, I thought they looked terrific. I mean, it's funny how trends go. In the old days the players wore really short shorts to look sexy, now they wear really long shorts to look sexy. So you tell me what works.
INSKEEP: The comments of John Feinstein. His latest book is "Next Man Up: Behind the Lines in Today's NFL." John, thanks.
FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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