July 8, 2008

Crammed-on Chronicles II: Matrix ON Al Harrington (Hero-to-Zero in 1.8 Seconds)

One young player makes the spectacular slam that heralds his entry into stardom, while another witnesses the event up-close-and… way too personal.

January 11, 2001

Four-on-one fast break… and to your dismay you’re the “one.” Every one of your teammates has left you hung out to dry, at the mercy of your opponents. Defenders wake up in cold sweats at night after nightmares like this. The guy with the ball might dribble it right at you and challenge you to make a play, or he and his teammates play keep-away and leave you awkwardly out of position as the ball approaches the rim.

When a player gets stuck backpedaling like this, there’s only two legitimate choices. Fight or Flee? It can be a tough dilemma. Experienced NBA veterans know how to get out of Dodge gracefully if the prospects for disrupting the play are low. But every once in awhile you get somebody who strives to be a hero, willing to risk taking one for the team as the foil on some opponent’s highlight reel, hoping he’ll produce his own. Often it’s someone who’s young, impressionable, not nuanced enough to know how to slide out of the paint without looking like some frightened rabbit and getting chewed out by his coach for lacking courage. Rather than a hare, envision a squirrel that sauntered into the street and is suddenly beset by an oncoming Winnebago trailer. Lacking the instincts to know exactly what to do or which way to run, instead it’ll often choose to simply freeze up and hope for the best.

Fight or Flee? On this warm Arizona night a young, impressionable Indiana Pacer named Al Harrington is caught in just such a predicament. After two years of riding the pine since coming fresh out of out of high school, he’s displayed enough tenacity and athleticism that the coach (at the time, a still highly respected Isiah Thomas) has just begun awarding him starter’s minutes. As the Suns retrieved the ball, he stuck with his assigned man, the supremely underwhelming Chris Dudley. But his lethargic Pacer teammates seemed to be stuck in tar while their respective opponents zipped across halfcourt without them.

From Harrington’s position, approaching at twelve o’clock was Jason Kidd, the Suns’ star point guard who was fully capable of finishing a fast break with a well-timed pass or a crafty lay-in. To Kidd’s left was a coming-of-age forward named Shawn Marion, only in his second year and quietly filling up stat sheets, but a player like Harrington still striving to make a name for himself in The League. To the far right with the ball was Penny Hardaway, a past-his-prime wing player who, when healthy, was still able to produce highlight plays in clutch situations. The slowest man to get to the defensive end, suddenly it’s Dudley in prime position to be rewarded as the player ahead of the entire pack once the Suns got the ball back. Abandoned by his teammates, only Harrington can thwart an easy field goal by Dudley.

Penny lasers a bounce pass across the court just beyond Harrington’s fingertips into the waiting upper limbs of Dudley, reaching down nearly seven feet to gather the ball at his ankles. In the middle of the game and holding a comfortable lead, a savvy veteran who did his homework would have immediately dived in to hack Dudley, then the NBA’s reigning poster-child for missing free throws. Even Shaq cringed every time this cat got to the line. Dude spent the previous twelve seasons never shooting above 56 percent (his rookie season), and the season before broke an NBA record with thirteen consecutive bricks-slash-airballs. Now the seven-foot Yale graduate possessed the ball just feet away from the basket and was intelligent enough to know immediately what to do… get rid of it before he screws it up.

Harrington scrambled behind Dudley and, rather than draw the foul, reached around him in a vain attempt to dislodge the ball, thinking Dudley would instinctively spin and try to lay it in. He was then caught dumbfounded as Dudley shoveled the ball from his ankles toward a charging Shawn Marion. Here comes the trailer…

Fight or Flee? The question seemed pretty simple for Harrington to answer when it was the plodding Dudley he was dealing with. But now it’s the lightning round and as he turns to face Marion, who’s about to take flight, he has a split second to decide what to do. Jump into attack mode and go for the swat? Slide to the side in hope for a missed lay-up and rebound? Or jump right under the basket, toes just beyond the restricted area, and hope for a sympathetic charge call? Played out of position, he hops into the squirrel approach. Sorry, Al, wrong answer. VRROOOM.

Back at the TNT studios, the NBA crew scrambled to find words to describe this breakout player with the breakout play of the season. Kenny Smith already had the words. Enter “The Matrix,” the name he dubbed Marion during a preseason game in his rookie season. Scouts knew and, eventually, fantasy players would know the man with the classic “tweener” build could do literally anything with his multifaceted game. Pass, shoot (awkwardly, yeah, but the ball still seems to go in), board, block. But few who failed to watch him at UNLV knew he could do what he just did, until now. The New York Times would even pull out the anatomy book to explain Marion’s exploits, asserting he was blessed with “fast-twitch” fibers in his legs that were superior to most athletes… the “American Jumping Bean,” a nickname that thankfully never caught on.

Anatomic explanations were certainly no salve for the unfortunate Al Harrington, destined for SportsCenter, YouTube, and poster-making infamy. Harrington would go on for years without a popular nickname, unless you count, “the poor fool whose forehead got tied up in Matrix’s drawstrings.” Trying futilely to draw the charge, he managed to go from Hero-to-Zero in less than two seconds. The lessons were there in plain view for all ballers to see… four-on-one fastbreaks rarely end pretty when you’re the one. So if you value your teammates at all, don’t leave them hanging, and stick with your man when the ball’s in transition.

Fight or Flee? Years later, Harrington’s recovered from this split-second embarrassment to become a starting forward and make a decent free agent pay-day for himself. And if you ask him that question, he’ll be glad to let you know he’ll still fight. Only this time, opponents flying into the lane had better protect themselves, because now Al’s armed with a stiff right jab. Now a crafty veteran, he’s smart enough not to be caught defenseless under the rim any more. No matter what teams they’re playing for, anytime The Matrix unleashes another aerial assault, Harrington ought to be giving his teammates a heads-up. “C’mon Mickael, don’t you watch YouTube?”


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