Who needs the pros? Bring on the normalcy

I failed to make it through more than five minutes of Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game. I watched long enough to see a blatant walk (uncalled) and a pair of fast breaks, thanks in large part to defense that rivaled Barry Bonds’ flaxseed-oil argument.

This isn’t new. Last year, I turned off the game and started watching the national figure skating championships instead. And by national figure skating championships, I mean manly sports with beer and twins.

Anyway, this year’s installation of David Stern and friends got me thinking — why is it that the All-Star game never does it for me? Why do I hate the NBA? Why did Charles Barkley kiss 68-year-old referee Dick Bavetta on the lips?

In regards to the last question, the world may never know. But some good ol’ Yale sports from this weekend shed some light on the other two queries. We always talk of the LeBrons of the world, the man-child freaks who take the stage and immediately garner the spotlight with otherworldly athletic prowess. Meh. I’d pass up the superhuman any day for a “normal” athlete who plays big and carries himself well.

Exhibit #1: Eric Flato. Flash back to Friday night and the men’s basketball team’s woefully under-attended game against Dartmouth (I don’t know where you all were, but we’re in the middle of a title run, people). The Bulldogs had climbed their way out of an early hole and were within striking distance, 36-42, with 13 minutes to play … when Flato forked over the ball.

Not a problem. Flato found his footing and swiped the ball right back, then fed it to Nick Holmes for a trey.

To clarify, “normal” does not imply “untalented.” Flato, the best player on the team, is quite talented. But that one play is a perfect example of an athlete playing bigger than his talent. Flato recognized the moment in the game, one that necessitated a Yale pick-me-up, and got over his initial mistake to make a key follow-up play.

Across sports, good defense is the mark of effort, not talent. In basketball, it takes patience, timing, concentration and a willingness to put in energy even when the other team has the ball.

This is the ultimate reason why I hate the NBA. If Kobe gets stripped, he laughs and thinks to himself, “Screw defense. I’ll get to shoot 43,569 more times this half anyway.” When I see outlet passes during the All-Star game that lead to wide-open reverse dunks, I’m not thinking about why Vince Carter is the man. I’m wondering why they bother playing the game with a full court if no one’s going to even pretend to play defense.

My other major complaint with the NBA, and another major signpost of basketball players not playing up to their talent, is how many guys play below the rim. Case in point — my lovably incompetent New York Knicks. Eddy Curry scores 19.6 points per game, and his 58.5 shooting percentage is the fifth-best in the league. Big whoop — the guy’s 6-foot-11 and averages a pathetic 9.8 rebounds per 48 minutes, ranking him 37th among NBA centers alone.

It’s not Curry whom the New York fans love. It’s David Lee, the second-year backup power forward who is fifth among all players in rebounds per game with 16.7. Why? Because they know a 6-foot-9 pasty white guy isn’t bringing down all those rebounds on the strength of his “mad ups.” It’s because he runs harder, plays tougher and works more than everyone else.

This brings me to Exhibit #2 from the weekend in Yale sports: Travis Pinick. With Casey Hughes out for the weekend for a foot injury, Travis took on the mantle of highflyer beautifully, posting nine rebounds over two games.

Nine rebounds might not sound too exciting. Notably, however, three of Travis’ boards were on the offensive glass, good for a share of the team lead for the weekend. This is another perfect example of playing bigger than normal. Offensive rebounds do take skill and athleticism, but they absolutely require energy, hustle and a willingness to stick with the play.

So far, I’ve only talked about successes. But playing bigger than normal concerns lack of success just as much. At the same time that we applaud athletes who play beyond their ability, we do the same for athletes who live up to being normal by bearing their failures with grace.

This brings me to Exhibit #3: Yale gymnast Laura Lombardi. Saturday was the first time I’ve managed to get over to Payne Whitney for a gymnastics meet, but I have seen gymnastics before, so the spectacle of 4-foot-11 girls who are strong enough to kick my ass was expected.

What surprised me was Lombardi. In the middle of an uneven-bars routine, the junior released … and then missed the bar on the way down, performing a 10-foot belly flop onto a mat. Not even a grimace. She got up, put some more chalk on her hands and got back on the bars. A half-hour later, she fell on the balance beam. Yet again, completely stone-faced, she got back on the beam and finished her routine.

The caveat here, I suppose, is that gymnastics is all about performing. But still, you have to appreciate it when an athlete messes up — possibly injuring herself and hurting her team’s chance of victory in one fell swoop — and yet somehow manages to betray no emotion and keep on trucking.

Screw Dwight Howard and his ability to stick a likeness of his face 12 feet high on the backboard. In a manner of speaking, he got schooled by a sub-five-foot blonde this weekend.

Dan Adler is a senior in Pierson College and a former Sports Editor for the News. His column appears on Thursdays.

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