Mar 9, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) drives for a layup as Milwaukee Bucks forward Tobias Harris (15) defends during the first quarter at the Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

On the Milwaukee Bucks, Tobias Harris, and the Frustrations of Chasing Dominance

The best pass I saw this year wasn’t thrown by Steve Nash or Rajon Rondo.  It wasn’t thrown by Ricky Rubio or even DeMarcus Cousins.  In fact, it wasn’t from an NBA, college, or high school game at all.

My daughter threw it in a junior high game, and for an instant, I was the happiest person in the world.

***

It’s not a great time to be a Bucks fan.  The promise of winning basketball (or dare I say, a title?) is scarce. The scene in Miami this week was totally and completely unrelatable.

The Bucks didn’t make the playoffs this year.  Their slim hope of landing in the top-three picks of the draft fizzled, and they ended up in the wasteland of the late lottery.

NBA Draft history suggests that the player the Bucks get with the #14 pick won’t be a difference maker.  From 2004-2008, for a five-year span of players who should currently be in their prime, the #14 pick yielded Kris Humphries, Rashad McCants, Ronnie Brewer, Al Thornton, and Anthony Randolph. This draft is a deep one, and the Bucks may yet find their Kris Humphries.  But still, he’s a Kris Humphries.  The fact is that most late lottery players never become NBA starters.

Added to their other woes, Milwaukee’s second-best player could soon find himself in Brooklyn nestled thigh-deep in hipsters — with the Bucks getting nothing in return.

Feeling good yet?  Then how about this:  there is only one active player left in the NBA who won a playoff series while sporting a Bucks jersey.  (To be fair, it was a damned fine-looking jersey, though.)

If there is any consolation here, it lies in the fact that the Bucks have a backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.  But a Jennings/Ellis guard tandem is akin to a flawed work of art; we know the canvas is ripped, but we all want the painting to be stunning regardless:  “Please just let them be entertaining.  I know we won’t win a title, but at least they’ll be fun to watch.”  Defeat is conceded from the outset.

If there is a real hope in Milwaukee, one that goes beyond looking good and extends into being good, then it may just start with last season’s first-round pick, Tobias Harris.

***

My daughter’s junior high team was the middle-school equivalent of the Jennings/Ellis backcourt, but without the talent.  There were only seven young women in her eighth-grade class.  By the time the end of the season rolled around, she herself was all of 4’11” tall and 80 pounds, and about half of her team was the same size or a few inches and pounds bigger.

Against all odds, her team rolled into its final Tuesday matchup with a 4-3 record.  It was a home game. Senior Day. She was going to start for the first time.

Basketball isn’t my daughter’s thing.  She’s an artist and musician by nature.  It is my thing, however.  I write about it and play it far more than any middle-aged adult should, and she knows that.  So in that kind of frenzied stupor, with my personal objectivity gone, I took a total hands-off approach with her just to be on the safe side. I was the anti-Marv Marinovich.

But the two of us are kindred spirits, and even though she didn’t take to basketball initially because of her size and her asthma, she came around to asking for a hoop.  Then she wanted me outside rebounding while she clanged shot after shot.  As she improved, she wanted to play H-O-R-S-E.

Then she asked for a week of summer camp, and eventually, the chance to tryout for her school team.

***

Tobias Harris’ rookie campaign did not ride along smoothly.  A week after drafting him with the 19th pick, the Bucks locked their doors for five months.  Harris was left to his own devices to train and prepare for the eventuality of a season.  (And he did well in that regard.) Per rule of the NBA, the Bucks could not communicate with him.

When camp did open, Harris and teammate Larry Sanders were hospitalized for severe dehydration after the first practice.  After another lost month of rest and rehab, Tobias returned — in the midst of the Bucks’ crippling January West Coast trip.

He came back and saw sporadic minutes.  His talent shined in those spare moments, and his style stood out in contrast to the players around him.  But when Mike Dunleavy came back, and Luc Mbah a Moute’s knee got slightly healthier, those minutes dwindled.  A late season roadblock arrived in the form of Dwight Howard. Literally.

“Any player that is at this level would like to be playing,” he told me in April after his time had shrunk.  “But I’ll continue to work hard and stay focused and just know that things are going to get better. And I’ll continue to work.”

Suddenly, what started out — against all odds — as a promising rookie campaign stopped getting buzz as attention switched to the Bucks’ playoff run.

 ***

I knew Senior Day wasn’t going to be all that I had hoped from the moment the opposition walked in the gym. “Which one of these behemoths is my baby going to guard?” I wondered to myself, although I may have also muttered it loudly enough for someone else to hear.  Every starter on the other team was taller than me — meaning that they were all at least six feet tall.

Heck, the cheerleaders that came with the visitors — and this was the first school we had encountered large enough to field a cheer squad — were a fair bit taller than most of our starters.

The game floated away quickly.  My girl played a quarter without doing anything spectacularly notable, good or bad, and the other team darted and rebounded to a 21-2 halftime lead.

Then, in the third quarter, she threw the pass.  Undaunted by outscoring his opponents by over 900%, the other team’s coach kept his starters in the game and had them playing a defense designed to trap the ball at all times.

With the defense focused on the ball, my daughter found herself completely open from well beyond the three-point line, and she caught a pass sent her way.  Two gangly defenders began to close in from opposite sides.  She cocked the ball back like Tom Brady and fired a pass over the long-armed defenders to a teammate just under the rim.  The resulting bucket cut the lead to 29-4.

A few minutes later, the coaches high-fived her and slapped her back as she left the one and only organized basketball game that she will ever start.

“Nice pass.”

 ***

If there was one source of frustration with the Bucks last season, it had to stem from the sports version of bullying.  The Bucks weren’t the team dunking, they were the team getting dunked on.  They never backed anyone down in the post, but they had that unsolicited favor returned on them many times over.  When teams sliced up Milwaukee on the pick-and-roll, the Bucks countered with an effective, but never intimidating, pick-and-pop.

The Bucks regularly started lineups that were undersized at all five positions.

Enter Tobias.

Aside from the streak of games where the Bucks regularly notched 30 assists and the ball zipped around the court like an unsettled electron, the one truly pleasing sight of the season was Tobias with the ball in his hands.  He knows how to score.  He has a solid midrange game and that knack for getting off a clean, balanced look at the rim, even when it looks a bit unorthodox.

There are hints — and this smacks of heresy in Milwaukee — of former Buck Marques Johnson in his game.  (And, yes, I know that he has a long way to go before achieving any level of success comparable to what Johnson did… but he has that same style.)

Most of all, he looks like Marques when he plants his back to the basket from the baseline.  He is sturdy enough not to get pushed off the block by shorter defenders and tall enough not to have to look over them.  He can turn, rise, then rise some more, and follow that with a gently arced, nine-foot shot toward the hoop.

It’s a thing of beauty, and one should become routine in the future, provided that defenses fail to adjust with a double-team and/or a larger defender.  This, of course, is precisely what I want.  Instead of the Bucks scrambling to react to an opponent, the tables are turned.

Wanting to know how Skiles might use him in the future and wanting to know if he would be matched up against smaller opponents, I asked him about the position he was playing in practice when the team ran through its drills and scrimmages.

“The three,” he said succinctly.  But then before I had started the next question, he stopped me short amend his earlier response.  “The two and the three,” he clarified with a hint of pride.

 ***

On the ride home after the game, my daughter looked tired.  The car was quiet.  After we had driven a few minutes on our way home, I couldn’t contain my silence (or my enthusiasm) any longer.

“That was a nice pass you threw”, I said, using the calmest, most even-tempered voice I could muster.

“What pass?” she said with a confused look.

“The one that Kaitlyn caught right under the basket before she scored.”

“Ohhh. That was a shot. I missed,”  she said with a sudden realization. Then she paused for a moment. “But I’m glad Kaitlyn was there to put it back in.”

***

Tobias is exactly like my daughter in one respect. He’s a teenager. It seemed fair to ask if his growth spurt was over yet.  Was he still getting taller?  Despite the awkwardness of a 40-something year-old man inquiring about what essentially amounts to a 19-year-old’s puberty status, I put the question to him.

“I think so.  I’m 6’7.5” coming in here, and now I’m 6’8”, so I guess so. I hope so.”

Against all odds and better judgment, hope grows.

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