May 11, 2010

CBA: The Crazy and/or Banished Association

I feel a little guilty taking vacations. After all, when you work three days a week and get paid a comfortable (and largely undeserved) sum of money, what is a vacation actually a break from? Twenty-hour work weeks? Three days on, four days off? Eating out every night? In a lot of ways, when you teach English in China, your whole life is a vacation.

But as guilty as I sometimes feel about traveling, I’d likely feel a twinge of remorse for not traveling. I am in an exotic, foreign country, and trains and cheap flights make every corner of this monster accessible. And then there are holidays like the recent May Holiday, or Labor Day, when my school was closed and I had a full 11 days off.

I couldn’t pass on a chance to travel over the May Holiday. But in an attempt to justify it, I still had this blog in the back of my mind. That’s why, when I saw the CBA final on TV, I felt compulsed to watch it and, later, to write about it.

The best-of-seven series was between the Xinjiang Flying Tigers and the Guangdong Southern Tigers. It was Guangdong’s eighth consecutive trip to the finals, and, on the strength of a 4-1 series victory, the sixth title that the Southern Tigers have claimed in the past seven years. Not even the Chicago Bulls of yesteryear pulled off the six-out-of-seven titles feat, so the Southern Tigers are indeed a juggernaut.

(That this game was between the Tigers and the Tigers inspired a quick study of the different CBA team nicknames. Of the 17 total teams, three are named the Tigers; the third is from Jilin. Other nicknames include the Ducks, Leopards, Dragons, Dinosaurs, Lions, Sharks, Whirlwinds, DoubleStar and Rockets. For a moment these names struck me as utterly ridiculous, but then I thought about some NBA names: Magic, Thunder, Knicks, Heat, Suns, Jazz, Lakers [which, when written in Chinese characters, translates to “Lake People”]. So I’ll give a pass to the Dinosaurs and Ducks and Whirlwinds because, really, NBA names are pretty goofy too.)

But what was most interesting to me watching that decisive Game 5 were the foreign players on Guangdong’s championship team: Smush Parker and David Harrison. I remembered both of these players from the States, but until I did a little homework, I had no idea about the crazy routes that landed them in China.

David Harrison was a star at the University of Colorado from 2002-04. Kansas fans like myself will remember the seven-footer for exchanging words with former KU All-American Drew Gooden during a 2002 game in Boulder. Following the game, Harrison, then a freshman, said that the Jayhawks would “get theirs” when the teams played again in Lawrence; Colorado lost the rematch 103-73. (Harrison conceded that KU fans “really don’t like me.” We did, however, like playing his team.)

KU storylines aside, Harrison, a top 15 national recruit, was a heck of a player in college. As a freshman in 2002, he averaged 13.9 points, 7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and shot 63.8 percent from the floor. His sophomore season he again averaged 13.9 points, but upped his rebounds to 8.3 and blocks to 3.3, and led the Buffaloes to a rare NCAA Tournament appearance. He blew up as a junior with 17.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 63.1 percent field goal shooting and 2.9 blocks – he became the all-time leading shot blocker at CU. His efforts earned him All-Big 12 honors, and he opted to forego his senior season and enter the Draft. He was chosen No. 29 overall by the Indiana Pacers in 2004. That’s when things went terribly wrong for Harrison.

Now, Harrison was a bit of a hothead before he got to Indiana. Just look at what Denver Post writer Christ Dempsey wrote about Harrison:

Not only was the giant a top-notch recruit, he was intriguing. He was outspoken. He played with fury. But he also partied relentlessly, never quite reaching the promise predicted for him. Emotion was his calling card, and it often got him in trouble.

He argued with opposing fans, most notably with blue-clad Kansas supporters at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.

He openly questioned CU coach Ricardo Patton's authority.

So yeah, Harrison had it in him to be brash and maybe ever a bit reckless. But it certainly didn’t help getting drafted by the Pacers in 2004. Think of the nuts on that squad: Ron Artest, Jamaal Tinsley, Stephen Jackson. There has been no team in recent history with as thuggish a persona as that 2004-05 Pacers team (not even the Jailblazers). And for a player like Harrison – who was teetering between ultra-talented big man and massive waste of talent – there couldn’t have been a worse fit.

People know about Ron Artest. He was at the epicenter of the famous Pistons-Pacers brawl after he charged into the stands to try to maim the guy who threw beer at him. Throwing beer at someone is lame, but so is retaliating against the wrong person – which Artest did. Other interesting Artest tidbits:

* Told the Sporting News that he used to drink Hennessy during halftime of games

* Applied for a job at Circuit City to get the employee discount

* Asked for a month off to start the 2004-05 season because he was exhausted from promoting an R&B album produced by his label

* Destroyed a television camera at Madison Square Garden

* Had his dog confiscated by authorities for lack of proper care

* Arrested for domestic abuse

* Served 10 days in jail for domestic abuse

This was the best player, the leader of that Pacers team.

Then there was Jamaal Tinsley, whose rap sheet is almost as ridiculous as Artest’s. I’ll let David Aldrich, writing for, rehash Tinsley’s off-court career:

In October, 2006, just after the start of training camp, Tinsley and several teammates were at a strip club when an altercation occurred, which led to then-teammate Stephen Jackson being hit by a car outside the club – and firing a gun into the air several times. Tinsley wasn't disciplined by the team (the league suspended Jackson for seven games the following season).

In February, 2007, Tinsley and then-teammate Marquis Daniels were involved in a fight at a local bar that led to a felony charge of intimidation being filed against Tinsley, along with misdemeanor counts of battery, disorderly conduct and intimidation. The charges were dropped in March 2008, after an agreement was reached where Tinsley and Daniels agreed to perform 32 hours of community service and stay out of trouble for two years.

However, during that interim period, Tinsley was involved in another incident, this one even more serious.

In December, 2007, Tinsley and members of his entourage were shot at in a high-speed chase through the streets of Indianapolis in which Tinsley was the apparant [sic] target of a robbery. Cars followed Tinsley's party out of a local club and followed them for several blocks, into a gas station, and to a local hotel, where one of the passengers in one of the cars opened fire, striking the Pacers' equipment manager in both elbows. (He was treated and released at a local hospital.)

How sullied was Tinsley's reputation? Well, the Pacers had tried to trade him in 2008 but couldn’t find any takers. Thus, during the 2008-09 season, they ended up paying him millions upon millions of dollars – not to play, but to stay away from the team. He was still technically under contract, but was nonetheless such a cancer that the Pacers chose to swallow the money rather than let him be around the team. Must be a great guy.

And Stephen Jackson – who was just mentioned as having fired a gun outside of a club and being a key component in the Pistons brawl – rounds out the Pacers 2004-05 roster. Jackson is so hot-headed that he got himself ejected from playoff games (yes, plural) in 2007, but that is minuscule compared to the rest of his transgressions.

This is the mess into which Harrison was welcomed when he left Colorado.

“He had the craziest group of characters assembled on one team,” Harrison’s brother, D.J., who also played at CU, told the Denver Post. “There was nowhere to hide on that team.”

It goes without saying that Harrison didn’t flourish with the thuggery surrounding him. He was hit with a misdemeanor assault charge for his role in the brawl in Auburn Hills, and subsequently sentenced to one year of probation. Things weren’t going well on the court either. For three years, Harrison averaged fewer minutes each season than he had the last, from 17.7 minutes as a rookie in 2004-05, to 15.4 to 7.9. His point totals followed the same downward plunge.

According to Dempsey, it was after his third season – when Harrison averaged 7.9 minutes and 3.0 points – that Harrison fell into a habit of heavy marijuana use. “I didn’t really have friends anymore,” Harrison told Dempsey. “I stayed in my house, and I smoked pot. That's what I did. I didn’t want to leave the house. I literally feared for my life sometimes there [in Indianapolis].

“That’s what I created in my mind. I didn’t understand that those things may or may not happen to me. And if they do, I have no control over it anyway. So why am I sitting around worrying about it?”

In January, 2008, Harrison failed a random drug test and, as a result, was suspended for five games by the NBA. He was suspended again, by the Pacers, after a March tirade in the locker room. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t offered a contact extension by Indiana after the ’08 season. No NBA teams wanted him, so he headed to China to play for the Ducks. During the 2008-09 season, he averaged 42.2 minutes and 21 points. Then, he went back to the States to try to convince a team to pick him up. None did.

“Skill-wise, there’s no question David should be in this league,” Larry Bird is quoted saying in the Denver Post article. “It’s just the other little things that’s keeping him out. Your reputation is everything. . . . As a player, I know what he can do.

“It’s just that he’s got to prove to people that he's going to put all of that other stuff aside and take this job seriously.”

If it’s any consolation, he’s tearing it up in China. This season, with Guangdong, he averaged 16.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and shot 70.4 percent from the floor. And now he has a medal to show for it. (The players got medals, not rings, and during the award ceremony a 60-second snippet of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played in a mind-numbing loop.)

Pretty bizarre career.

Then there’s Harrison’s teammate, Smush Parker. For me, Parker is synonymous with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he started for two seasons from 2005 to 2007. This was a down period for the Lakers but that wasn’t necessarily Parker’s fault. After all, Kobe Bryant was in “Trying to show the world how great I am” mode for each of these seasons. For instance, in the last month of the 2007 season, with the team hovering around .500, Bryant had point totals of: 65, 50, 60, 50, 43 (in five consecutive games!!!), 53, 50, 50. In a 17-game stretch, Kobe netted at least 43 points eight times – and 50 points seven times. It wasn’t, however, a winning formula; they didn’t make it past the first round of playoffs either season with Parker running the point.

In 2005-06, Parker had a totally serviceable two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, plus he averaged 1.7 steals per game and hit nearly 37 percent of his three-points. In his two season, Parker averaged 11.7 and 11.1 points with almost identical assist numbers; he was a statistically competent point guard.

So why was Parker shown the door? Well, in 2007 the Lakers signed Derek Fisher, and with 2006 Draft pick Jordan Farmar revealing himself to be at least serviceable, there was no need for a third point guard in Parker. Thus released from LA, he signed a two-year, $4.6 million contract with the Miami Heat. 

Then things got pretty ugly. A 41-year-old female parking lot attendant said that Parker needed to pay a $12 valet charge to get his keys back. Parker said that he had already paid and, having “lost it,” grabbed the woman’s arm in order to get his keys. After news of the altercation broke, the Heat deactivated Parker.

Parker ended up playing a total of just nine games for the Heat – averaging 20 minutes, four points and 1.7 assists – before being waived and later singed by the Los Angeles Clippers toward the end of the season. During his second stint in L.A., he played 19 games with numbers similar to his numbers in Miami – that is, not good. The next season, 2008-09, he tried out for the Denver Nuggets but was cut before the season began. After playing in the NBDL for a few months, it was off to China.

Like Harrison, Parker was a stud this season in the CBA – and apparently didn’t get into any tiffs over valet fees. On the year, he averaged 18.7 points per game to go along with 6.2 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.1 steals. Pretty nasty numbers – good enough to be named to the All-CBA team, along with four other foreigners (Charles Gaines, Stephon Marbury, Bateer Mengke and Stromile Swift).

I promise that this is almost over. But, before I sign off, a quick look at the two foreigners for Xinjiang, Guangdong’s opponent in the finals: Myron Allen and Charles Gaines. Allen played college ball at North Dakota but, after it was found that he played a few minutes in a quasi-professional league for the Fargo-Moorhead Beez, the NCAA said that he was forbidden from playing college hoops anymore; he’d lost his amateur status. That was in 2003. Afterward, he bounced around the NBDL for a bit and ended up here.

Gaines, who played ball at Southern Mississippi, has played professionally in Turkey, France, Israel and even briefly for the San Antonio Spurs. He was booted from his Israeli team after repeated violations of team policies; sounded like the guy liked to party. He was signed ever-so-briefly by the Spurs, who quickly released him. Sticking with the “American ballers in China are a little flaky” theme, Gaines slapped a Chinese player on Guangdong’s team during the finals, earning him a two-game suspension.

One wonders if things could have been different for Harrison and Parker. What if Harrison had gotten drafted by another team? What if Harrison ended up in, say, Utah or San Antonio? After all, Stephen Jackson kept it together in San Antonio. Maybe the combo of a veteran coach and a quieter city could have kept Harrison in line like it did Jackson. And what if the Lakers hadn’t drafted Farmar in 2006? Then, even if Derek Fisher came to town, Parker may have still had a spot on the team (and a even-tempered veteran to groom him). 

Then again, maybe these guys were doomed regardless of circumstances. Harrison proved to be a headcase before he was even drafted. Sure, it didn’t help that he was surrounded my misfits in Indianapolis, but there is pot and fighting to be had anywhere, not just in Indianapolis. And who knows about Parker. A millionaire who will quibble with a parking lot attendant over $12 probably doesn’t have the soundest psyche to begin with.

As circuitous as they were, these guys’ paths landed them in China. Those paths, of course, are lined with legal issues and drug problems and bad reputations. And now, a CBA title.

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