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Wilt fixes Finals for Lakers
by Dennis Hans / June 8, 2008

The bad news is the championship series has been fixed for Los Angeles by a former Laker. The good news is the fix involves no hanky panky by anyone alive on Earth.

The referees will be conscientious and honest (though occasionally clueless), and players on both teams will give their all, so don’t look for a scandal that will bring down the NBA. But it’s a foregone conclusion that the Lakers will win, because way back in 1999 the most dominant hoop god in Hoop Heaven, Wilt Chamberlain, decreed a ringless future for every look-at-me coach who has ever brought a brisk, enjoyable game to a screeching halt by resorting to repeated off-the-ball intentional fouls.

Wilt arrived in Hoop Heaven October 12, 1999, and the carnage commenced with the 2000 playoffs. One coach after another – starting with Mike Dunleavy and Larry Bird and continuing with Don Nelson, Flip Saunders, Avery Johnson, Doc Rivers and quite a few more – has met with a cruel but richly deserved fate.

The Lakers’ Phil Jackson is not in this group, for his brief dalliance with Hack-a-Shaq in the mid-1990s involved the less odious stragegy of fouling Shaq only when he had the ball and had gotten within dunking range. Because Wilt never received Shaq’s special privileges of dislodging defenders and camping indefinitely in the lane, he doesn’t have a problem with bear-hugging Shaq in that particular circumstance. It’s the fouls that make a gigantic joke of the game – away from the ball and having nothing whatsoever to do with playing basketball – that really get Wilt’s goat.

The casual fan might wonder why Wilt would go after egocentric, screw-the-fan coaches rather than, say, floppers. Well, by the time Wilt ended his career in 1973 flopping was only in its infancy. Having never experienced the sickening feeling of being flopped into foul trouble – Wilt averaged 46 minutes in the regular season and 47 in the playoffs and never fouled out once – he’s not sensitized to that issue. But as a .465 shooter at the stripe in playoff games, he can relate to bricklayers.

Wilt benefited by playing in an era when the Rules and Competition Committee was not run by morons, so he never had to worry about off-the-ball intentional fouls. Not once in his 14 seasons did a game grind to a halt because Red Auerbach or Red Holzman ordered some stiff to whack him the second the ball was inbounded, even if he was 80 feet from the basket. Back then, the NBA didn’t think it needed a rule that would reward such an asinine tactic, and no one was clamoring for such a rule.

Between 2000 and 2004 Gregg Popovich faced Shaq in 25 playoff games and managed to avoid disgracing himself. But this time around he repeatedly ordered off-the-ball fouls on Shaq and even Brian Skinner. The tactic may have made a small contribution to the Spurs’ 4-1 victory over the Suns, but it was a death sentence for the long haul. The Spurs will never win again as long as they employ their good-coach-gone-bad.

Other targets of off-the-ball intentional fouls have included Ben Wallace, Bruce Bowen, Josh Boone, Dan Gadzuric and Dwight Howard. So far, they have accumulated eight rings (four for Shaq, three for Bowen and one for Wallace), while the coaches who sought to humiliate them have garnered none. (Popovich won his four rings before he took the low road.)

Here are the stories of the eternally doomed coaches, whose ranks Pop has now joined:

- “The coward Don Nelson,” as Shaq has dubbed him for his addiction to Hack-a-Shaq, has coached for thirty years without winning a ring. If he coaches another thirty he’ll still be ringless. And it’s not just O’Neal who he’s deliberately fouled: Earlier this year he went after Josh Boone, and back in 2003 he had his Mavericks repeatedly foul the Spurs’ Bruce Bowen in the middle of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Two games later Dirk Nowitzki suffered a series-ending injury, dooming Nelson’s title hopes. Bricklayer Bowen, on the other hand, was about to win the first of his three rings.

- Nelson was succeeded in Dallas by Avery Johnson, who stressed defensive soundness – a welcome change from his predecessor’s gimmicks. Nevertheless, early in the 2005-06 season Johnson, desperate to beat arch-rival San Antonio, resorted to Nellie’s Hack-a-Bowen. Thus, the curse that had been lifted with Nellie’s departure went right back on the Mavs at the worst possible time, for this was the most capable team in franchise history. Wilt let the Mavs reach the Finals, win the first two games and build up a big lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3 before he coldly pulled the plug. All of a sudden, a hobbled, foul-plagued Dwyane Wade couldn’t miss, and the Mavs lost a heartbreaker. The Heat proceeded to take the next three games and the 2006 title.

If that weren’t bad enough, Johnson regrouped the next season and led the Mavs to the league’s best record, only to fold in the first round to Nellie’s tricked-up Warriors. This postseason the Mavs were crushed by New Orleans, leading to Johnson’s dismissal. It might be a year or two before someone gives him a chance to order more intentional fouls.

- Pat Riley hoped for a Heat repeat in 2007. His first-round opponent was the Chicago Bulls, and in Game 4 he went against his long-held principles and gave Hack-a-Ben a try. Big Ben Wallace, a career .418 shooter, nailed four in a row to break open a tight game and finish off a four-game sweep. But that was just the beginning of Riley’s humiliation. This season the Heat degenerated into one of the worst teams in league history, winning just 15 games as Riley ended his coaching career on a seriously sour note.

- Back in 2003 the Orlando Magic’s Doc Rivers became the first coach to try to steal a playoff win by embarrassing Wallace. The Piston center rarely touched the ball in Rick Carlisle’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense, averaging but 2.6 free-throw attempts per game. But in Game 6 of the first round of the playoffs he went to the line 22 times. He made only eight, but the Pistons cruised nonetheless. They went on to win Game 7 (this was the series that Tracy McGrady said was in the bag after the Magic went up 3-1). Rivers was fired 11 games into the next season. He’s now with the Celtics, which means their story-book season will not have a happy ending.

- Stan Van Gundy leads the Magic these days, so don’t look for Orlando to win it all in the Dwight Howard era until they replace him with Billy Donovan or some other untainted coach. The dye was cast December 12, 2007, when Van Gundy resorted, mid-game, to a string of off-the-ball fouls against Milwaukee’s backup center, Dan Gadzuric. He sank half of his eight attempts, but not before Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak retaliated by giving Magic bricklayer Howard a dose of Van Gundy’s medicine. A nauseating time was had by all.

While Van Gundy is merely cursed, Krystkowiak is unemployed – as is the coach who resorted to Smite-a-Dwight two nights after the Magic-Bucks snoozer.

- On December 14 the Charlotte BobcatsSam Vincent had a rare chance to coach before a national audience. So he put ESPN viewers to sleep by repeatedly and intentionally sending Howard to the line. He made 11 of 20 as the Magic beat the Bobcats, and Wilt placed another Mickey-Mouse coach in the “one and done” category.

Vincent’s replacement, Larry Brown, has long insisted that intentional fouling is not playing the game “the right way.” That’s why Lifer Larry, despite his many faults, was allowed to coach Bricklayin’ Ben and the Pistons to the 2004 title over Shaq and the Lakers. Other coaches who’ve faced Shaq in the playoffs have been less fortunate:

- In Game 1 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the brilliant Mike Dunleavy sent Shaq to the line for 24 free throws. Not in the game. Not in a half. Not even a full quarter. Would you believe the last 5 1/2 minutes of the game? The Lakers won by 15, and they won the series even though the Blazers may have been the better team. These days Dunleavy coaches the Clippers, bringing his bad karma to a franchise in desperate need of the good stuff.

- In the 2000 Finals, Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird didn’t learn the right lesson from Dunleavy’s demise the previous week. In Game 2 he sent Shaq to the line a record 39 times – to no avail. This was a great chance for the Pacers to steal a game on the Lakers’ court, as Kobe Bryant suffered a nasty ankle sprain in the first quarter and never returned. But Bird, an ex-player who, alas, was not a “players’ coach,” coached scared. He didn’t trust Reggie Miller to play in the first half with two fouls, despite Miller’s extremely low-fouling rate. Miller sat out half of the opening half, and Bird forced his big men to be intentional foulers rather than proud defenders. The Lakers won a close game and a week later a title that easily could have gone to the Pacers.

That was the first of four rings for the massive target of Bird’s strategy. Things haven’t gone quite as well for the Pacers, who have suffered even more under Bird the president than Bird the coach.

- Flip Saunders, after repeatedly ordering intentional fouls against Shaq in Game 3 of the 2004 Western Conference Finals, said this after the loss: “We're going to do what we've got to do. If that's fouling Shaq 50 times, we'll foul him 50 times if that's what it takes.” Just what hoop fans the world over were dying to hear. Flip’s T-Wolves lost the series, and in 2005 he lost his job. Later that year he brought his dark cloud to a powerhouse Pistons team, and he guided them to three consecutive postseason flameouts before his firing.

Because the NBA’s Rules and Competition Committee refuses to protect the game from win-at-all-costs nincompoops, Wilt has been forced to intervene. In his first nine seasons as a hoop god, he’s brought many a coach to justice. Starting next season, it would be nice if he would add players to his hit list and decree ringless futures for all the fool-the-ref phonies littering the NBA landscape. Granted, that would eliminate every team in the league from title contention, but what better way to send a message?

Thanks, Wilt.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate and The Black World Today. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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