All Ball Sports: Nash clash with Nets, McPeak honored, Kobe remembered

NBA All Star Steve Nash traded coaching little kids at American Martyrs in Manhattan Beach to coaching big kids in Brooklyn last year. Photo by Ray Vidal

Nash clash with Nets, McPeak honored, Kobe remembered

This isn’t what Steve Nash signed up for.

The former Phoenix Suns star signed with the Lakers in 2012, spent three injury-plagued years with LA, and retired in 2015 to enjoy life. He deserved a break after his miraculous journey from unheralded Canadian baller with exactly one scholarship offer – from Santa Clara University – to undisputed status as an all-time NBA great.

Last summer, after a half-decade spent hanging out at the beach with his new family, giving private lessons at the Live Oak Park basketball courts and playing tennis at the Live Oak courts, the first ballot Hall-of-Famer decided to give coaching a try and walked into one of the most desirable head coaching jobs in the NBA with the Brooklyn Nets – and did it with zero coaching experience.

Stephen A. Smith, who makes a living shouting about sports on ESPN, immediately labeled it a case of white privilege. But Nash was smart enough and classy enough to ignore the sideline          heckling. And he didn’t bother to point out that Smith was factually wrong: several black players, starting with the great Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics, had also been handed head coaching gigs without any coaching experience at all.

What a great set up awaited the long-time Manhattan Beach resident: the Nets, who made the playoffs last year as a scrappy team without a real star, now have both Kevin Durant, a top five player when he is healthy, and Kyrie Irving, a top-25 player when he feels like playing.

And because it was a team in transition with an untested coach, expectations were not set too high: an appearance in the NBA Finals or even the Eastern Conference Finals would be a successful debut. Winning an NBA title could wait until next year or even the year after. That’s typically the way NBA titles are won: pay your dues, advance a little further each year, fix whatever problems exist and then go all in when you have the fire-power and the defensive commitment to win the whole thing.

Then, just because this is the NBA, crazy things started happening to Nash and the Nets.

As a result, their expectations skyrocketed and Nash now has a whole new challenge. 

First, Durant, who hadn’t played in 562 days after tearing his Achilles tendon playing in the 2019 NBA Finals with the Golden State Warriors. That was so long ago that it was pre-pandemic, pre-President Biden and pre the first Trump impeachment. Durant started the season playing like an MVP candidate who could pose a serious challenge to LeBron James for the coveted award.

That was a good surprise for Nash and the Nets.

Then came the bad surprise: After a few games Irving just disappeared, stopped coming to games, and wouldn’t communicate with the team. He missed seven straight games and it got so bad that General Manager Sean Marks told the press that he didn’t know what was going on and Irving would have to explain it to them because he couldn’t. When Irving finally did return last week, he simply said he “needed a pause” but didn’t explain why. Anyone other than a star would have been immediately traded or cut. But Nash had no option other than to welcome him back with open arms.

In the middle of all that chaos, Nash had to deal with another surprise: the Nets traded for Houston’s prolific scorer, James Harden, a three-time NBA scoring champion. That made the Nets the first team in league history to have two, three-time scoring champions in Durant and Harden. It also instantly made them the most discussed and dissected team in the league, with a spotlight on their every expected win and unexpected loss.

It also made them the first team to have three certified knuckleheads, three-talented-but-troubled players who can win games and lose games all by themselves.

The 32-year-old Durant has long been an elite baller on the court and a chronic malcontent off the court. First he complained he didn’t have enough talented teammates to win a title in Oklahoma City, the team that drafted him. So he left for Golden State, where he won two titles but felt he didn’t get enough credit because of talented teammates like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Finally he left Cali for Brooklyn where he would be the alpha dog, and brought Irving along as his sidekick.

Irving, 28, has been equally enigmatic. He hated being Robin to LeBron’s Batman in Cleveland, so he stopped talking to his teammates and demanded a trade to the Boston Celtics with two years still left on his contract. The Celtics at first were happy to let him run the show. But they hated the way he played defense with ostentatious displays of fake hustle, and he hogged the ball so badly that he stifled the development of their two prize young players, Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

So after publicly assuring the fans on opening night of the 2018-19 season that he planned to re-sign with the Celtics, he walked away from Boston and teamed up with Durant. They looked around the league for the best situation and chose Brooklyn, who signed them both to max deals even after the Nets knew Durant would have to miss the entire 2019-20 season to heal his Achilles injury. Irving soon joined him on the injured list and missed most of the season with assorted injuries, physical and psychic.

Even before this season started last month, Irving made headlines by complaining that he had not been consulted about Nash’s hiring and added that the Nets really didn’t need a coach because they had such great veteran leadership with him and Durant. “I could coach this team,” he said. “KD could coach this team.” Again, Nash was smart enough to brush it off and not respond in kind.

Harden has been a knucklehead in a different way. In OKC he was viewed as the third banana behind Durant and Russell Westbrook. But the one time they went to the NBA Finals Harden choked so badly that management soon decided they couldn’t afford to give him a long-range extension and traded him to Houston for dimes on the dollar.

As a Rocket, Harden quickly became the most dynamic scorer in the league. The problem was that his style leaned heavily on his isolation talents, then bulling his way to the hoop and his ability to jack up three-pointers from anywhere on the court. He used both those skills to draw so many fouls that many games consisted mainly of him marching to the foul line and shooting an endless procession of free throws.

Within a couple of years the Rockets had a team custom-built to let Harden do his thing while the other four players spotted up around the court waiting to shoot a three if he couldn’t get his shot off and had to dump the ball off to beat the 24-second clock.

Not only was it an ugly, unappealing style for the spectators in the stands and watching on TV, but it repeatedly fizzled in the playoffs. Harden couldn’t make the same incredible shots he routinely made during the regular season and began demanding more help.

Desperate to keep him as the franchise cornerstone, first the Rockets imported point guard Chris Paul. But he couldn’t stand playing with Harden and after several displays of on-court conflict between the two head-strong players he was gone after one season, traded to OKC for the reckless Westbrook, equally accustomed to dominating the ball.

After one season of my-turn-your-turn play, Westbrook demanded a trade and was moved to the Washington Wizards this past summer.

That left Harden all alone at the start of this season to go back to his one-man show. The problem was that he was as tired of it as everyone else was. After a summer of non-stop partying, he came to camp fat, frustrated and demanding a trade. After playing the worst ball of his entire career, the Rockets suspended him and quickly traded him to Brooklyn. In exchange they got the Nets best defensive player, young center Jarrett Allen, four first round draft picks and four future first round draft pick swaps that gave them the right to exchange picks if the Nets had a better draft pick that year.

In other words, Brooklyn traded its foreseeable future for the 31-year-old Harden.

That immediately put Nash on the most sizzling of hot seats: not only did he have to figure out the chemistry between three ball hogs with only one ball, but he was now expected to win an NBA title in his very first year on the sidelines. With the Lakers dominating the Western Conference, that left the NBA spotlight focused squarely on Nash and the Nets.

Oh, and the already shaky Nets defense got a lot worse with the departure of Allen and the arrival of Harden, who like Irving is an indifferent defender with one key difference: he doesn’t even pretend to hustle.

The experiment got off to a good start with two straight wins as both Harden and Durant had high-scoring games without Irving around. Then Irving finally returned with no good explanation – while gone he was fined $50,000 for violating league health protocols for a video that showed him dancing maskless at his sister’s birthday party – and no apology to his team or his teammates.

In his first game back, the Nets lost a double-overtime 141-135 thriller to one of the worst teams in the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Irving scored 37 points, but the guy he was allegedly guarding – point guard Collin Sexton – scored a career high 42, and at one point scored 20 straight.

Nash, diplomatic as always, chided his team for its terrible defense without singling out Irving or Harden.

“We had break-downs all over the place,” Nash said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, we know that. We’ve got to improve with our communication, improve with guys getting into better condition. We feel positive that we can improve defensively, but it’s got to be a priority for us.”

Pretty generic coach type of post-game talk. 

Two nights later, the Cavaliers beat the Nets again and Nash was a little more direct after the game.

“We just need to find a way to play harder,” he said. “We need to dig deeper. We are not a defensive roster. We have to take more pride, contest more shots, fight scrap, and claw. That’s what I think is missing as much as anything schematic that we’re breaking down.”

Again, no fingers were pointed at Irving or Harden. He didn’t need to. Everyone knew who he was talking about.

Right about now, hanging at the beach, working with well-behaved children at American Martyrs School and playing tennis at Live Oak Park has to be looking pretty good to the new kid on the NBA coaching block.      

This isn’t what Nash signed up for.

Former Mira Costa star Holly McPeak was named to the CIF Volleyball Hall of Fame last week. McPeak went to star on the AVP tour and to win Bronze at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In 2009, McPeak came out of retirement to assemble an all-star team to represent the U.S. at the Asics World Series of Beach Volleyball, in Long Beach. McPeak (above, foreground) is pictured with championship teammates (left to right) Christal Engle, Annett Davis, Lane Carico, Rachel Scott, Holly McPeak, Katie Carter, Traci Weamer, Emily Day and Jenny Jordan. Photo by Pete Henze

Homegrown Holly

Like many pro athletes, Steve Nash moved to Manhattan Beach after joining one of LA’s many sports teams. When they realized it was one of the world’s best places to live and raise a family they stayed and put down roots.

But we also have more than our fair share of home-grown athletic talents, foremost among them Holly McPeak. The former Mira Costa High School volleyball star and Olympic medalist received another in a long line of honors this week when she was named to the CIF Hall of Fame.

McPeak grew up on Marine Avenue and, despite being only 5-foot-7, starred at Mira Costa, Cal Berkeley and UCLA.  In 2004, she won a bronze medal at the Summer Olympics with partner Elaine Youngs.

McPeak is second in career earnings on the AVP with nearly $1.5 million, and third in titles, with 72, (behind fellow Olympians Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh). Though undersized in a sport dominated by Amazonian athletes, she was successful because she was one of the quickest movers and most intense competitors ever to hit the sand.

McPeak, 51, tells the ER she was fortunate to be exposed to the beach volleyball scene at an early age. 

“I am truly honored to be elected into the Hall of Fame,” she said. “I had amazing coaches who helped teach and guide me along the way.”

She singled out former Mira Costa coach Daelea Aldrich, as well as former UCLA coach Andy Banachowski and Anna Collier as three of the most important influences on her skill set – and equally important, on her winning attitude.  “They were fantastic coaches who taught me that I could achieve anything with hard work,” she said.

She noted that her success was not hers alone.

“I was truly blessed to have incredible support from my family and friends throughout my long career,” she said.

McPeak lives with her husband, sports agent and AVP founder Leonard Armato, in their little seaside cottage on The Strand, which looks out over the 14th Street beach volleyball courts.

If you visit those same courts on almost any afternoon, summer, fall, winter or spring, you’ll find her paying it forward by coaching young girls who aspire to excel in the same way she did.

When she talks, they listen.

A mural of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, painted by Randall Williams and Stacy Nalapraya, on the wall of Manhattan Beach’s JEI Learning Center. The mural was commissioned by Leia and Anthony
Joaquin. Photo by David Mendez

The day the music died

Tuesday, January 26, was the first anniversary of former Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s way-too-early death at age 41 in a helicopter crash, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others who were flying to a basketball game where Kobe would be coaching Gianna’s team.

The news of his death was one of those never-to-be-forgotten moments when most people – sports fans or not – will always remember where they were when they heard the news.

Sunday night ESPN showed a complete replay of Kobe’s final game, in which he took 50 shots – the most in NBA history — and scored an incredible 60 points in front of a star-studded crowd.

It was surreal watching Kobe do his familiar thing once again, hitting shots from everywhere with his classic-form jump shot and slinky, fearless drives to the hoop. It was fitting that all aspects of his unique personality were on display: the unrivaled work ethic that enabled him to maximize his prodigious talents along with the selfishness that his critics harped about for his entire, 20-year NBA career.

Kobe was self-aware enough to acknowledge his flaws when he spoke to the adoring crowd afterwards. He noted that many of his teammates, going all the way back to his rookie season of 1996, were in attendance for his big farewell night.

“The crazy part is that for 20 years those guys were telling me to pass the ball,” he said, laughing. “But tonight they were all telling me not to pass.”

After singling out his family and friends and telling them all that he loved them, Kobe said “Mamba out” and dropped the mic.

At that point, no one in the full house ever could have imagined what was to come just three and a half years later. January 26 is now a date that will forever be circled on the LA sports calendar, a sad reminder of all that Kobe was and all that he could have been as he turned his focus and energy towards a dozen other pursuits, from films to books to investments.

Kobe was one of the greatest soloists the NBA has ever seen. But it was only when he learned to play in an ensemble — first with Shaq and D-Fish and B-Shaw and D-George, later with Pau and Lamar and Bynum and D-Fish – that his true greatness was unleashed and he started winning titles.

That’s why January 26 will always be remembered in LA as the day the music died.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER

 

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Written by: Paul Teetor

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