THE DUKE OF ROCK by Peter Nolan Smith

Published on 5/2/2010

I don’t own a television. My laptop provided most of the programming necessary for entertainment, although the online screen resembles that of an airline economy-class movie presentation. The only gap on my computer has been sporting events and I fill that absence by heading down to Frank’s Bar on Fulton Avenue.

Last night I watched the Celtics lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. Few of the clientele watched the game. Another horrible year from the Knicks had destroyed their love for the basketball. The only conversation about hoops from New Yorkers had been whether Lebron James will accept MSG’s offer to play basketball at the Garden.

“No way,” I answered adamantly against the move. I hated their owner James Dolan.

“You’re right. The Knicks management sucks. If Lebron comes here the tream never go anywhere.”

Pacho is an old-time Knicks fan. He lives on the faded memory of Willis Reed hobbling onto the court against the Lakers in Game Seven in 1970. That glorious entrance happened forty years ago today.

“They might say that, but no way they’ll let a twenty-four year-old run a basketball team.” The last time the owner showed his face in the Garden he wore an expression of utter contempt for the players and fans. “They’re dysfunctional.”

“I’ll tell you why Lebron will come here. To be basketball’s first billion-dollar man.” Vincent, whosse uncle owned the bar, added his opinion. “Salary of $25 million a year, plus endorsements.”

“Ain’t no one giving his big money for endorsements. Not with all those tattoos. They want someone nice like Tiger Woods. He’ll never get a billion. Maybe a half, but no way a billion. He’s too big and scary for the little white boys. Not like Michael Jordan.” Pacho was a realist. “And number two LeBron don’t deserve the big money. He don’t nothing. Hell, he didn’t even win the scoring title this year.”

“He won’t get past Boston.” Vincent was drunk on beer. The bartender charges him for every drink. “How much you think Bill Russell get if he was playing now?”

“You asking me?” I was off my drink. The previous night too much Veuve-Cliquot champagne. My spirit was as weak as a long-buried zombie

“No one else wears Celtic gear in this bar.”

“Bill Russell was the best basketball player ever.”

“Better than Michael Jordan?” Vincent was in his 40s. Jordan was the greatest player of that era.

“11 championships in 13 years. 5 times MVP. 50 rebounds in a game.” Russell was no point machine, but played a grueling defense and got inside Wilt Chamberlain’s head, especially in the fourth quarter, when he was fould to put the center on the line. “No one can say that or ever will be able to say that. LeBron won’t win a single ring at MSG. Better he stick it out in Cleveland for a short year and then defect to the Nets for the rest of his career.”

“He’s not going to the Nets.” Everyone in the bar shouted at me.

“Maybe not, but he ain’t going to the Knicks neither. Unless it’s for the money and a lot of it. Because he’ll need it to pay everyone to tell him he’s great, while they lose year after year.” The MSG management were so bad that kids don’t play street ball in New York. “Even if he get the billion, he’ll still only be a first-rate player on a shitty team. And he’s no Bill Russell. He was the first black superstar of basketball and had to put up with shit every day of his life.”

That comment quieted the bar.

Bill Russell was renown for his criticism of Boston’s racism, but he had experienced the scorn of White America early in his career. Almost everyone at the bar accepted that, becasue Bill Russell was a break-through player in the seond most racist city in the early NBA. Cinncinati was # 1 and he once explained how he handled the abuse and hartred from his hometown fans.

“At that time it was never acceptable that a black player was the best. That did not happen…My junior year in college, I had what I thought was the one of the best college seasons ever. We won 28 out of 29 games. We won the National Championship. I was the MVP at the Final Four. I was first team All American. I averaged over 20 points and over 20 rebounds, and I was the only guy in college blocking shots. So after the season was over, they had a Northern California banquet, and they picked another center as Player of the Year. Well, that let me know that if I were to accept these as the final judges of my career I would die a bitter old man.”

Bill Russell was better than those crackers and # 6 will always be my favorite player.

LeBron might get his billion.

But he will never be no #6.

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