With the NBA finals set to tip off tomorrow between the Spurs and the Heat , SI senior writer Chris Ballard tells the story of the San Antonio’s talented trio—Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker—a group of mismatched teammates making one last final push for its fourth title after 13 seasons together. The three stars appear on a regional cover of this week’s SI.
Although there are more famous trios in NBA history, Ballard says, “if this is about winning and teamwork, then it’s hard to argue against Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili and Tim Duncan. They have 10 rings among them and, with this year’s trip to the NBA Finals, more postseason wins (98) than all but one trio in NBA history: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper.” (PAGE 54)
Each player took a different path to stardom. After being drafted No. 1 overall in 1997, Duncan averaged a double double his rookie year as a starter and helped the Spurs win a title in his second season. Ever since, he’s been one of the most consistent stars in the NBA. “There’s nothing sexy about Duncan. Unless, that is, you find studied excellence to be sexy,” says Ballard. (PAGE 58)
Parker, a late 2001 first-round draft pick as a 19-year-old from France, drove coaches and fans crazy early in his career with turnovers, wild drives and poor outside shooting. Yet coach Gregg Popovich’s patience paid off when the Spurs won their second title, in 2003, thanks to Parker’s improved play, along with the continued brilliance of Duncan, and the energy from Ginóbili, then a 25-year-old rookie from Argentina. Ten years later, Popovich says of the acrobatic Ginóbili, “I had to stop coaching him because if you put him too much in a cage, you lose his benefit.” (PAGE 56)
The trio, which also led the Spurs to titles in 2005 and 2007, now returns to the finals tomorrow for the first time in six years with different roles, but the same goal.
“To this day I can’t believe it all fit together like it did,” Popovich says of his trio. “If you say, How did you guys find Ginóbili, you must be really good scouts, my response is, ‘Are you s—-ing me?’ He was a competitor, and we liked his style. But it was the 57th pick. What the hell, let’s take a shot. Same with Tony. He was the 28th pick. There’s not a lot of pressure there. We didn’t know all this would happen in the beginning. It really is a credit to the three of them.” (PAGE 60)
When the Bulls and the Suns met in the 1993 NBA Finals, the championship showdown had everything: Michael Jordan at his peak, Charles Barkley at his most animated, a triple-overtime classic and a title-clinching jump shot that will live in the memories of basketball fans forever. Twenty years after the blockbuster series, some of the principals, including Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Danny Ainge and John Paxson, recall what many deem the “best finals ever” to contributing writer Jack McCallum in this week’s SI.
“No matter what anyone says about being ready, nothing will prepare you for the pressure of the Finals when you’ve never been there before,” says former Suns point guard Johnson, now the mayor of Sacramento, who struggled in a Game 1 loss.
Barkley’s 42 points in Game 2 were not enough for the Suns to avoid going down 2-0 in the series.All season long the Suns rode Barkley on the offensive end, but his indifference on the defensive end frustrated coaches. During the regular season Barkley even admitted to Suns coach Paul Westphal, “It’s not that I can’t play defense, it’s just that I don’t always want to”. (PAGE 66)
In Game 3, the Suns defeated the Bulls 129-121 in triple overtime. “It was the greatest basketball game I ever played in,” says Barkley. Before the game, Westphal chose a struggling Johnson to guard Jordan.
“I was sleeping with a blanket over my head on the flight to Chicago and somewhere between Utah and Kansas, Paul wakes me up and says, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the series is not over. The bad news is, you’re going to be guarding Jordan.’ I put the blanket back over my head and on the way out of the plane, I say to Paul , ‘You won’t believe the nightmare I had. You told me I’d be guarding Michael.’ And he says to me, ‘That wasn’t a dream.’” (PAGE 68)
After Jordan put up 55 points in a Game 4 win, Suns rookie Richard Dumas’s 25 points led Phoenix to a Game 5 victory. Dumas would play only two more seasons before drug problems ended his career. “I feel bad every time I think of what could’ve been for Richard Dumas,” says Westphal. (PAGE 70)
The game-and series-winning three-pointer by the Bulls’ Paxson in Game 6 erased the Suns late game lead and inevitably their NBA Finals run. Paxson was wide open after Ainge decided to leave and help on Horace Grant. “All I know is that it was like a million other jump shots, in my driveway, in college, in the pros,” recalls Paxson. (PAGE 72)
“‘Don’t leave your man.’ That’s what Paul told us. So the so-called smartest guy on the team, Danny, leaves his man,” says Johnson. (PAGE 72)
The following season there were high hopes for the rising Suns, but injuries got in their way. “The next season I had taken so many injections in my knee, I wouldn’t have been able to play in the Finals anyway,” says Barkley. (PAGE 72)
Today at 1:00 p.m. ET SI Now Powered by Ford will debut on SI.com. The guests on the debut live, 30-minute sports talk show include NBC News’ Willie Geist and Sports Illustrated’s Peter King and Chris Mannix.
Viewers are encouraged to submit questions for guests via Twitter using @SINowLive or #SINow. SI Now Powered by Ford is hosted by SI’s Maggie Gray and airs weekdays at 1:00 p.m. ET on SI.com. SI Now Powered by Ford broadcasts from Time Inc’s NYC headquarters in Rockefeller Center and is produced by Joe Lynch (Senior Producer) and Ian Orefice (Executive Producer, Time Inc. News and Sports).
For ongoing guest updates and a behind-the-scenes look at the show follow @SINowLive on Twitter.
This week’s Sports Illustrated cover story breaks down LeBron James’s stunning array of skills, with takes on his brilliance at each of the five positions by Lee Jenkins, Chris Ballard, Ian Thomsen, Mark Jackson and Bill Walton. This unique feature story on one of the best athletes in the world presented quite the challenge and opportunity for SI’s design team to deliver a cover concept that aligned well with the package.
Inside SI sat down with SI creative director Chris Hercik to discuss the process of putting together this week’s cover (with a bonus question on the design of Albert Chen’s story on baseball in the state of Georgia that draws up memories of “Field of Dreams”).
When was the concept for this cover story first conceived?
Hercik: The concept was first brought up two weeks ago, in our weekly edit meeting. Our NBA editor proposed the idea of having five different writers break down LeBron’s skills at every position. The team seemed to really like the idea, so I know I had to start preparing cover ideas.
What did you do next?
Hercik: I actually sketched a mock cover in which LeBron was lined up at every position at the same time. I even had him as the coach at one point as well—some would argue he is a coach on the floor! Everyone on the team liked the sketch so much we decided it would be model for our cover.
How did you go from your sketch to planning the actual photographs needed for the cover?
Hercik: The tricky part was the planning. Marguerite Schropp Lucarelli, the SI NBA photo editor, and I sat down to plot out the angles for which SI photographer Greg Nelson would need to shoot. We tried several different test shot angles—higher, lower, tighter and looser shots— until we finally settled on the parameters for the cover.
What was the biggest challenge once you set up the parameters for the cover shots?
Hercik: While the Heat were home for the first two games of the series, the biggest challenge was that we had to get all of the photographs right in the first game since we couldn’t be guaranteed that the Heat would wear the same white jerseys in Game 2.
How did you choose which photos to run?
Hercik: After Game 1, several hundreds of photos came in from the photographer based on what we asked him to do. We had to select the five photos that fit each position and also fit into the overall concept. We had to take into account factors such as eye contact with the ball handler, engaging body language, etc. In the end, we picked five photos that show him playing each of the five positions on defense.
The Heat wound up wearing white uniforms again for Game 2. Was there any thought on adding photos from that game too?
Hercik: Actually, yes. Once we realized they were wearing white in game two, we were hoping to capture a photograph of LeBron defending Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who is over 7 feet tall. This shot would really speak volumes on how LeBron does it all. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. But in the end our Imaging Department stitched together all of the pieces, and we had a completed photo illustration for a cover. This was the exact cover I envisioned when I was sketching during that initial meeting.
This is LeBron James’s 19th SI cover. His last cover, which you designed, was when he was named the SI Sportsman of the Year this past December. Does designing covers for iconic sports figures change your approach at all?
Hercik: I wish I could say that who is on the cover doesn’t factor into the process, but it’s always in the back of your mind. The challenging part in designing a cover with an athlete who has been on the cover so many times is to make it different from all the other ones he or she was on. I wanted the Sportsman cover to be simple, clean and regal (hint hint). On the other hand, I wanted this week’s cover to show LeBron’s dominance at all 5 positions. I actually would love to know what LeBron thinks of all of his SI cover and which his favorite is. My all time favorite LeBron covers are the “Closing Time” and the “Power of LeBron” covers. They show his power and his total development in his craft.
(Editor’s note: Click here to view the 12/10/12 LeBron James Sportsman cover. Click here to view the 6/25/12 LeBron James “Closing Time” cover. Click here to view the 2/9/12 “Power of LeBron” cover. )
Bonus question: In Albert Chen’s “Land of Plenty”, he writes on how the state of Georgia has become a hotbed for baseball talent. In the story, he profiles two of this year’s top MLB draft prospects from the Peach State, Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows. The layout of this story has a “Field of Dreams” feel to it. Describe the process behind the design of this story.
Hercik: The Georgia baseball story design was inspired by some amazing photographs from Pouya Dianat. It was just a majestic shoot which was carried throughout the entire story. And this was a case where the photos dictated the layout. The opening spread captures the spirit of Georgia’s most prized crop—ballplayers. As for the two inside spreads, you at first might think the photos are the same, but in fact they aren’t. In the first photo Meadows is throwing to Frazer and it’s the opposite way on the next spread. A subtle touch. It was inspiring to see the photographer take a step back far enough to capture this scene. Sometimes we get caught up in the details so much we miss seeing the big picture, literally. The photos do invoke a “Field of Dreams” flashback but that was pure coincidence. It’s moments like this that remind me how powerful SI photography really is.
Baseball may finally be back in Cleveland thanks to manager Terry Francona’s ability to get the most out of his imperfect parts, writes Ben Reiter in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. “Francona is not perfect,” says Reiter. “He doesn’t expect his players to be perfect, either. Which is a good thing, because they are not.” (PAGE 38)
Despite some key offseason additions, which included the signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to big contracts and the addition of less expensive veterans such as Mark Reynolds and Jason Giambi, Francona found a group of players with plenty of flaws. That’s why he has relied heavily on letting his players excel at what they are good at. “He looks for guys to be themselves, and he’s not asking them to be anything different,” says Cleveland general manager Chris Antonetti. (PAGE 39)
Francona’s Indians are in second place in the AL Central at 27-22 and rank third in the majors in runs, fourth in home runs and third in OPS. They lead the league in percentage of at bats taken with a platoon advantage, since Francona has liberally used his bench players, such as Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes and Ryan Rayburn, in key situations. “You try to take the things your guys do well, and maximize them,” says Francona. “We don’t need to remind them of the things they don’t do well, know what I mean? We try to almost make our guys feel indestructible.” (PAGE 38)
No. 1 starter Justin Masterson and the power-hitting Reynolds are two key players benefiting from Francona’s philosophy. Masterson says he has felt liberated to mix in his slider more under Francona and is off to a great 7-3 start, with an ERA of 3.20. Reynolds, who hit 164 homers between 2008 and ‘12, but also struck out a major league high 993 times, was told by Francona to simply focus on what he does best—hit homers and not worry about striking out. Reynolds has a team-leading 12 homers and 40 RBIs to go along with a career-low strikeout rate.
“Tito’s told me from Day One, you go do what you do,” Reynolds says. “Sure, we talk about maybe seeing a few pitches, approaches for different guys. But it’s mainly, you swing the bat. You hit the ball far. You can change the game.” (PAGE 40)
Fans hope that the change in clubhouse culture will result in Cleveland’s first winning season since 2007. Swisher is one who believes in the power of team unity. He says, “The camaraderie factor is monstrous for us.” (PAGE 41)
With the 2013 MLB Draft just a week away, the conversation is heating up on the top ranked players, most of who typically hail from the all too familiar states of California, Texas and Florida. However, another southern state – Georgia – has become a hot bed for baseball talent on a grand scale, says Albert Chen in this week’s Sports Illustrated. The Peach State is home to players such as reigning National League MVP Buster Posey, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, the No. 2 overall pick of last year’s draft Byron Buxton and two of this year’s top draft prospects, fiery slugger Clint Frazier and tall left-handed swinger Austin Meadows.
“This territory now is as aggressively scouted as Florida, Texas and California,” says Atlanta Braves team president John Schuerholz, , of Georgia’s growing relevance in baseball breeding. “Those were always the hotbed states. And then this talent source awakened and continues to grow and expand. It started in the immediate Atlanta area, and now it’s all throughout the state.” (PAGES 50-51)
Hot prospects Meadows and Frazier live only 10 miles from one another and are former travel teammates. While Georgia is known for its traveling powerhouse amateur program East Cobb Baseball, a surge in new traveling programs allowed the two to stay close to home while contributing to the rising power of Team Elite.
“Before I was drafted, I’d already seen the country and played against the best of the best in the country,” says Jason Heyward, a Georgia native and East Cobb alum who has been Atlanta’s starting rightfielder since he was a 20-year-old rookie in 2010. “Without those experiences, there’s no way I’d be where I am right now.” (PAGE 52)
While mock drafts have both Meadows and Frazier going at varying numbers, they consistently remain in the top 10. Frazier’s explosive homerun numbers, 14 in the 2013 regular season and only nine short of a Georgia state record, and Meadows enormous potential, he stands at 6’3” and 212 pounds and batted .535 and had 17 steals this spring, has scouts licking their chops.
When Frazier was in the seventh grade he would sometimes take batting practice with the local high school team, “He’d be parking balls over the fence. Everyone would stop what they were doing and watch him hit,” says Jeff Segars, Frazier’s high school coach. (PAGE 53)
“He’s one of those rare guys where the sound of the ball off the bat is different,” explains Jed Hixson, Meadows’ coach, of the developing star. “His power will come. And it will be big.” (PAGE 53)
Chen notes that over the last three years, Georgia high schools have had nearly as many first-round draft picks (16) as Texas (18), a state with more than double their population. Chen finds that Georgia is turning out prospects at a rate unforeseen by a state of its size before. Over the last three years Georgia high schools have had nearly as many first-round draft picks (16) as Texas (18), a state with more than double their population.
“I think scouts are wise to spend a lot of time here,” says Schuerholz. “I just wish they wouldn’t.” Says an NL Executive on scouting in Georgia, “The G.M.’s of teams that don’t are committing malpractice.” (PAGE 51).
LeBron James’s ability to contribute at a high level at all five positions places him among the most versatile players the NBA has ever seen. This week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which features James on the cover, breaks down James’s stunning array of skills, position by position, with takes by Lee Jenkins, Chris Ballard, Ian Thomsen, Mark Jackson and Bill Walton. This is the 19th SI cover for James; the last time he appeared was when he was named the 2012 SI Sportsman of the Year.
Small Forward: Since every player requires a position, Heat coach Erik Spoelestra pencils in James at small forward. Often manned by the most versatile player on the floor, the three spot is where the 6′ 8″, 250-pound star seems to fit best. Jenkins says, “James performs all the job’s diverse duties: slashing inside for layups and stepping out for three-pointers, handling the ball and hitting the glass, accepting the toughest defensive assignments and smothering them.” (PAGE 32)
Point Guard: Warriors coach Mark Jackson, a former point guard for 17 years in the NBA, says James’s skills at the point are similar to Magic Johnson’s, if Johnson had possessed the ability to score 30 every day. “To me, he has the chance to be the leading scorer in the history of this game and one of the top five assists guys,” says Jackson. “That’s how special he is.” (PAGE 33) Jackson says that in addition to being an excellent passer, James uses his length and strength to disrupt opposing point guards on the defensive end. “Even if he had to play only point guard on both offense and defense, he’s my Number 1 pick at the position right now,” says Jackson. (PAGE 33)
Shooting Guard: When James entered the league, he struggled with his outside shooting—teams dared him to shoot threes as he often took off-balance shots. Since his days in Cleveland, Ballard finds that James has worked with a shooting coach to create a “calmer” shot, which has helped turn him into a better long-range shooter. Now, Spoelestra takes James off the ball for large chunks of time, which enables James to take more efficient spot-up jump shots.“LeBron James could be, would be and is an excellent shooting guard,” says Ballard. “He can drive, he can score and he can defend opposing twos.” (PAGE 34)
Power Forward: James recently developed a post-up game, in which he bangs and bruises like a power forward, writes Ian Thomsen. After working on post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon before last season, teams now fear James inside—a place where he is one dribble from the basket and one kick-out pass from finding a wide-open shooter. “When the time is right, James could yet become the league’s most challenging power forward, having both an unparalleled ability to pass out of the post combined with a touch that will stretch defenses out to the three-point line,” says Thomsen. “It’s shocking to be the best player in the world and continue to improve,” says Pacers coach Frank Vogel. (PAGE 36)
Center: Hall of Fame center Bill Walton says James, who has played some center in the Heat’s small-ball lineup, can handle the pivot for even longer stretches of time should his team need him to. “He’s an outstanding passer and has outstanding footwork, which are two things you look for in a center,” says Walton. “Plus, who could guard LeBron? What center is equipped to take on that challenge? He can post you up and take you outside and shoot effortless jump shots.” (PAGE 37)