Damian Lillard’s epic buzzer-beater: off-the-charts talent vs. out-of-your-mind bad judgment

In my 40-plus years as a basketball player, coach, referee and all-around zealot, I have found that there’s no reliable metric when off-the-charts talent meets out-of-your-mind poor judgment.

A standout player can make what appears to be the worst decision, and somehow make it right. This is especially true when that out-sized talent is rivaled by the individual’s confidence in said talent.

Which brings me to Portland Trail Blazer guard Damian Lillard’s winning shot on Tuesday evening. With Portland up 3-1 in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the score is tied after Portland has overcome a 15-point deficit. All they need is a basket of any kind—even a free throw will do the trick.

For Lillard, this has been a special night already. He had 34 points at the half, a new team playoff record, and 47 points at this point. But he has been slumping in the second half and has missed half his shots overall.

He brings the ball past half court with 12 seconds to go, then strolls near the Blazer logo with eight seconds remaining. As the seconds tick down, for a good six seconds, there is the All-Star guard rocking back and forth just a step away from the logo. One of the league’s best defensive players, Paul George, is giving him a few feet of space because, well, Lillard’s closer to the bathroom than the basket.

Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two…

As I am lying on my living room couch, cat outstretched on my legs and my smartphone only a few inches from my eyes, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This had all the feeling of a playground, with the only thing at stake being pride—and the right to stay on the court to take on the next group of five guys waiting in the wings.

Does Lillard realize that he’s blowing his team’s chances of winning in regulation? Why isn’t he going anywhere? Does he really want to go back to Oklahoma City for Game 6?

I have begun mapping out my next two minutes: first, I stick around to see Lillard miss the impossibly, irresponsibly, needlessly long shot. Next, I re-fill my water bottle while keeping alert to commercials ending and the broadcasters’ righteous lambasting of Lillard’s arrogant hero ball-hog behavior as the contest heads to overtime.

After all, as any basketball fan knows, he had plenty of time to do plenty of higher-percentage things. Try these three options for starters:

Option #1: Drive all the way to the basket and try a layup or another close-in shot that would, surely, be challenged by a much taller defender or set of defenders. At the same time, this climactic clash could result in a foul and Lillard is exceptional at free throws.

Option #2: Drive toward the basket, draw a crowd of defenders, and then kick out a pass to a wide-open teammate who would be, oh I don’t know, somewhere in the same ZIP code and therefore stood a much better chance of making the winning basket than Lillard near midcourt.

Option #3: Drive toward the basket, step back somewhere along the way, and take a 15-footer, a 20-footer, even a 25-footer would be a much better choice.

But what does Lillard do instead?

He moves to his right with a shade over two seconds left, stepping back slightly to create enough space to loft the ball over a lunging George’s outstretched hand. The release happens with about 1 1/2 seconds left–and the ball takes that much time to arc 37 feet toward the basket, the buzzer sounding just as the ball drops in for three points.

You can see it all, from a variety of angles, for yourself:

Portland wins the series, and George—who did all he could do—simply walks off the court as Blazer players, staff and supporters form a victory pile.

Goes to show: sometimes the absolute worst shot, in the hands of a supremely talented and supremely confident player, can become the best shot of all.

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Admiring & dissecting an artful Dodgers vs. Cubs story

I began inhaling Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover when I was 10 years old, after my dad hooked me up with a subscription for my historic double-digit birthday.

It was summer on the South Shore of Boston, my beloved Red Sox were miles ahead in the American League East, and the cover of my inaugural issue featured a photo of beleaguered Yankees manager Billy Martin and an allusion to a famous line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (“Double, double, toil and trouble”) that went over my elementary-school-aged head.

I had seen the game that was the focal point of that cover story, as Martin yanked star outfielder Reggie Jackson from Fenway Park’s right field for failing to hustle. A heated tete-a-tete ensued in the dugout, the Sox went on to win, and all was right with the world.

Between that moment of getting SI delivered to my home set back in the woods off Webster Street and my development as a writer, there is one solid, bold-fonted line.

Four decades later, this vibrant account of last night’s Cubs vs. Dodgers game at Wrigley Field reminded me of a key element that drew me to journalism: the creative joy of drawing from an abundant supply of words and phrases, coupled with the challenge and reward of picking precisely the right one for the moment.

It’s what SI did more often than most, and it’s what I would find in the sports section of the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe that I would fight over (and play hide-and-seek with) my brother Andy.

It was a stroke of Alice in Wonderland-style hyperlink-clicking fate that I happened upon Los Angeles Times writer Jorge Castillo’s story. Some of his choices that resonate with my word- and phrase-wielding and story-telling soul:

“electric boom-or-bust slugging shortstop”

This one’s got a back-to-back batch of alliteration–and even casual readers ought to get the gist that I am a sucker for alliteration, especially when it is as aptly stated as that characterization of Chicago Cubs shortstop Javy Baez.

“provoking an exasperated response”

Granted, this is a “tell, don’t show” description of Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda. Did he flail his arms? Tilt his head up and gaze at the encroaching darkness? Stab at the ball with a flick of his wrist when the catcher tossed it back?

Castillo doesn’t say, and that’s OK with me. Every word, every piece of punctuation is a choice, with a constellation of factors at play. Very likely, he simply wanted to employ an economy of words to move on with the story of Maeda’s rough inning. So that’s just what he did, raising the literary bar in the process.

“in a jiffy”

When’s the last time I read this phrase in a newspaper story–or any story, for that matter? Have I ever seen it? Maybe a handful of times.

A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to revive “in a jiffy” in my everyday conversational repertoire, particularly around my teen-aged kids. I like how it sounds, how it makes me feel. Digging deep, I suppose it has something to do with my own sense of nostalgia, since the phrase hearkens back to my childhood, when the phrase seemed to be more frequently uttered.

That Castillo chose to sprinkle “in a jiffy” in this game story makes it something of a gift that I choose to make personal.

“display of agility”

This refers to Baez’s latest base-running caper. And although the scene could have been depicted in innumerable ways, this phrasing gets it just right. It was, after all, a display of agility.

“His contention didn’t produce a reversal.”

Having covered the civil and criminal courts for years, this brings to mind a legal argument. In the context of this story, it was Dodgers manager Dave Roberts arguing that Baez should be ruled out for running out of the baseline.

Castillo’s choice strikes me as a bit of tongue-in-cheek whimsy. We’re talking about a game of baseball, not a life-or-death issue. But, oh, how these trifling contests in the universe’s grand scheme can be treated as so exceedingly consequential.

The story runs 16 paragraphs; the highlights I have picked out are only in the first six. If you enjoy the art of writing, or baseball, or simply have time on your hands, I exhort you to read the entire piece before the link goes stale.

Notably, and perhaps not coincidentally, much of the delightful story’s early phraseology revolves around the colorful Baez. Castillo was equal to the task of capturing and conveying the action.

One might say that, in his story-telling, he was Baez-like. My whole point, though, is that there are countless other ways to describe it. That’s the challenge–always has been–and therein lies the reward.

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Shameful Smollett Plea Deal, Destructive Fall-Out From His Sham Claims

In my latest installment of “As the Jussie Smollett Debacle Turns,” I closed with this thought:

If there is sufficient evidence to convict Smollett of these charges, then his sentence should be stiff enough to deter others from trying anything similar.

That was one humongous “IF,” as it turns out.

Hot on the heels of today’s startling, troubling, smack-my-head-inducing news that charges against Smollett have been dropped, in exchange for community service and $10,000, I suppose one might wonder if this saga will actually embolden Jussie-like behavior in the future. (No need to elaborate on what that means—let’s get real here.)

My hunch is that it won’t stir copy cats among those borderline celebrities seeking to take a perilous, false police report-style short-cut to move up a rung on the Rich & Famous Food Chain. That’s because my hunch is that Jussie Smollett’s star has dimmed considerably through this entire shameful spectacle he set in motion.

Meantime, it’s infuriating to ponder the scope of damage wrought by Smollett. A partial list:

*Damage to actual victims of hate crimes, past or future, when people are that much less likely to believe them because of this grand fabrication;
*Damage to the City of Chicago’s reputation, which got dragged through the gutter as a place where such a vile attack could occur;
*Damage to the Police Department, which six weeks ago appeared foolish to have taken so long to get to the bottom of this outrageous scheme and which now appears to have been left hanging out to dry by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office;
*Damage to public safety, because the Police Department’s resources were diverted to chase these mythical bad guys; and
*Damage to the trust of everyone who stood behind Smollett. He used his small measure of celebrity to leverage a lie of epic proportions, and became a bigger celebrity through it.

Smollett is such a dedicated actor that he is maintaining his line that he has been truthful throughout this chain of events. Nobody who understands the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy are fictional is buying this fairy tale, either.

Maybe, beyond his own selfishness, on some level Smollett wanted to shine a light on oppressive truths–the racism, homophobia, and other horrible things that certainly, and tragically, exist in our society.

But the fights against those ills have been undermined by his alleged fabrication. Instead, his name deserves to become a verb. Get ready for “jussied” and “jussying” to enter our lexicon.

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Setting the (Stilted) Stage: Jussie Smollett Tale Was a Cynical Checklist for Public Outrage

A little over three weeks ago, I had never heard of Jussie Smollett.

Same goes for most people, since he was a secondary character in Empire, the Fox series that is filmed in Chicago.

That relative obscurity changed in late January, after he alleged that he was the victim of a heinous hate crime in Chicago, complete with homophobic, racist and all-around nasty overtones.

From the start, I had serious doubts about his account. I was far from alone in that skepticism, although expressing those misgivings was a perilous exercise until the recent turn of events. Yesterday, he was charged by Chicago Police with felony disorderly conduct for making a false police report.

That report, among other startling details, included a noose thrust around his neck…the “This is MAGA Country!” remarks attributed to the two purported assailants…the homophobic and racist slurs hurled at him…and, oh yes, the curious time of 2:30 a.m. for all of this going down as he returned home from a late-night jaunt to get a sub sandwich.

It simply didn’t add up. It felt like a too cut-and-dried checklist designed for public outrage–a sort of stilted staging that, quite literally, defied belief. As a journalist, I covered a variety of con artists and liars, from politicians to people who lay it on thick with their academic, athletic and business credentials.The list is long enough to give me pause whenever something in a story doesn’t quite jibe.

A few highlights of my time chronicling those dealing in heavy-duty deception:

*Over 20 years ago, I broke what my newspaper, The Courier News of Elgin, Ill. playfully dubbed “Penguingate,” a Cook County Commissioner candidate’s untruths about a professional hockey career that included a stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins. That interview began going south for Michael Olszewski around the time he couldn’t correctly recall the name of Pittsburgh’s coach during his supposed time in the NHL.

*In the early 1990s, there was “Motorcycle Mike,” an 85-year-old Streamwood, Ill. man named Mike Figliulo with a penchant for fascinating stories about his interactions with Al Capone, Charlie Chaplin–and, oh, who also exaggerated his age by precisely two decades. (He fooled reporters before me, as well as after me–and he duped me, too, until I wrote a column a few weeks after my feature on this “105-year-old” that set the record straight.)

*About a decade ago, while reporting for Realtor magazine, I came across a 23-year-old man who was a finalist for the magazine’s “30 Under 30” issue. My red flags about him centered on business and athletic claims. Those assertions didn’t hold up when I did a little digging, and prompted editors to agree with my recommendation to drop him from consideration for the recognition. Within a year or two, this supposed rising star of real estate was out of the industry altogether, having bolted to some other field.

Fast forward to February 1st, or three days after the since-debunked incident with Smollett and those two Nigerian brothers he is alleged to have hired as part of his scheme. This was still an early juncture in its aftermath as police were (at least publicly) expressing continued belief in Smollett’s tale. At that time, I revealed my doubts with language that did little to disguise my skepticism:

At the time, I wrote:

Like so many others, I fervently want justice to be done in this case.

Must confess I am puzzled, however, over a seeming contradiction: police say that Jussie Smollett has been fully cooperative…and also state that he has declined (is “refused” too loaded a term?) to turn over his phone for their review. This would be the same phone on which he and his manager have stated they were having a conversation when the attack occurred.

Looking at the phone would, for starters, pinpoint the time of attack. Saying “no” to sharing it with authorities: Isn’t that, at minimum, a tad less than cooperative?

Hundreds of hours of law enforcement resources (read: many 1,000s of public dollars) are being dedicated to solving this alleged crime. Wouldn’t it be basic investigative procedure to have a look at his phone?

Now events have played out as I suspected they would. That includes the new criminal allegation that Smollett not only orchestrated the faux wee-hours attack, but the threatening letter that was mailed to the Empire office a week earlier.

If those criminal allegations stand up, then it’s infuriating to consider the damage that Smollett has wrought with this far-fetched plot. More thoughts on that later, if and when he is convicted.

To echo my February 1st observation, let’s hope that, now, justice truly will be done in this case. If there is sufficient evidence to convict Smollett of these charges, then his sentence should be stiff enough to deter others from trying anything similar.

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Deep (Throat) Lessons From Bob Woodward: Strike Up Conversations, Then Listen Up

Do you have the gift of gab?

It’s actually a trick question–because it’s not a gift at all, but a series of choices. The biggest one is to choose to put your focus on others rather than yourself.

Professional, ethical, effective journalists cannot write with long gazes into their navels. They must seek input from other sources.

Public relations professionals seeking to build solid rapport with media members do not merely “smile ‘n’ dial” and hope that some coverage-worthy mud sticks to the wall. PR pros try to figure out how journalists tick, what they are looking for, and in what form they prefer to receive information.

The top-performing salesman poses a few questions, allows the prospect to talk about his or her objections and needs, and then zeroes in on the closing approach that stands the best chance for success.

In all of those cases, the individual seeking to learn more from key contacts is taking a page out of the playbook described in Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Carnegie shares the story of how he met a botanist at a party and sincerely began asking questions about his world. The botanist talked for hours. At the end of the evening, he gushed to the host about Carnegie, whom he described as a “most interesting conversationalist.”

Noting that he “had said hardly anything at all,” Carnegie recalled that the key was that he had “listened intently.”

“I had listened because I was genuinely interested. And he felt it,” Carnegie stated. “Naturally that pleased him. That kind of listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay anyone.”

If it’s such a precious commodity, then why is it so rare? Much of the answer boils down to fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of rejection are two biggies.

Those are self-absorbed ills. All of the focus is on our little selves, and worst-case scenarios of what could happen to us if this, that or the other thing ensues. But those are statistically remote illusions, a fervent faith in negative results that hardly ever materialize.

Consider what you can gain by practicing the discipline of focusing on others, of speaking very little and listening very much.

In his account of how he first met W. Mark Felt, the man who would later become his pivotal Deep Throat source, Bob Woodward experienced the powerful impact of looking beyond himself and stepping out of his comfort zone.

In 1970, while he was in the U.S. Navy, Woodward was in the White House waiting to deliver documents to the chief of naval operations. Felt sat down near him. After several minutes of silence, Woodward introduced himself.

For many of us, saying anything to a stranger can push us out of our comfort zone—especially when we are in the company of someone whose stature may intimidate us. (Woodward recalled Felt as “very distinguished looking” with “a studied air of confidence.”)

Woodward went on to share more about himself with Felt. Though the older gentleman initially did not reciprocate, he became more engaged when Woodward hit on common ground. Woodward was taking graduate courses at George Washington University, and Felt replied that he had gone to night law school there before he joined the FBI.

Bingo, a key fact emerges. From there, the two found more common ground and spoke at length as Woodward continued to push through any comfort zone constraints he may have had.

“I peppered him with questions about his job and his world, and as I think back on this accidental but crucial encounter–one of the most important in my life–I see that my patter probably verged on the adolescent. Since he wasn’t saying much about himself, I turned it into a career counseling session. I asked Felt for his phone number and he gave me the direct line to his office. He was going to be one of the people I consulted in depth about my future.”

While the meeting may have been “accidental,” Woodward’s boldness and persistence transformed what could have been a routine, superficial mutual head-nodding moment into an historical turning point.

Think about your moments, minutes, hours and days ahead.

It’s not a gift, it’s your choice.

What’s the worst that can happen if you say “hello” to someone on the elevator? How uncomfortable is it, really, to introduce yourself to someone in the crowd at the city council meeting? Why don’t you make that contact you’ve been putting off for days?

Better yet, ask this question: What’s the best that can happen?

Matt Baron originally wrote this column in July 2005, and posted it on his PAVE The Way to Powerful Communication blog.

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