This weekend I took a break from books to cover the fourth-annual Paul Duer Birthday Linvitational Tournament. As always, it was an honor to play. And I’d like to wish Paul, a great friend and a wonderful person, a happy and healthy 40th …
FLUSHING, N.Y.—Paul Duer is a man of angles.
Dating back to his boyhood on the gang-infested playgrounds of Plainview, N.Y., his game has always been predicted upon taking weird shots from weird spots. Leaning in, backing out, ducking, fading, hucking, hurling. At his absolute best, he is a bolt of offensive lightning, not unlike Vinnie Johnson, the famous Microwave from the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys heyday. If he scores, he scores in bunches.
Yet Duer, like the aforementioned Johnson, has a weakness. Namely, when his shots are off, his game diminishes. Duer is a passable defender and a so-so rebounder. With age, his foot-speed—never outstanding—has become somewhat Muresan-esque. “Duer can be deadly,” said Dan Monaghan, a longtime rival. “Or not. But if he’s on, his team wins.”
So there Paul Duer stood, the hopes of a team … of a tournament … of a birthday party, pressed firmly upon his shoulders. With his Green team trailing Orange by six in the semi-finals of the fourth-annual (and conveniently named) Paul Duer Birthday Linvitational Tournament, Duer made his move. Holding the ball near the three-point line, he dribbled four times, leaned toward his right and, with Monaghan draped on him like a wet towel, yelled “Foul!”—then looped an awkward knuckler toward the hoop. The ball, of course, caught nothing but net, and Duer pumped his fist in celebration.
A new tournament.
A new life.
Or, ahem, maybe not.
Despite his protestations, Duer’s shot didn’t count. It was flung far too late, and—when, moments later—Orange guard Joe Passo (a brilliant free-agent signee from the Ugandan Professional League) hit a 12-footer to advance his team to the title game, Duer could only hang his head and wonder, “What if?”
“That shot had to count, right?” he asked teammates afterward. “Right?”
Not one agreed with him.
“It had to,” he said.
With that, reality took hold. Duer, a two-time winner, wouldn’t brandish another goblet. Forward Dan Creekmore, an MVP frontrunner whose play down low made up for the offensive ineptitude of center Jeff Pearlman, would once again have to hear of his Carmelo-like inability to win anything close to a title. Guard Denis Kiely would be haunted by his streaky offense down the stretch. Guard Jo Jo Lucarelli, whose surprising three-point barage evoked comparisons to a young Dennis Hopson, would be recalled as merely another fringe specialist (albeit, one who saw Whitney Houston in concert in the late 1980s). And what of Brad Kaufman, signed as a free agent for one game, now forever linked with the likes of Trey Junkin?
“This one,” said a dejected Creekmore, “hurts.”
Emotionally? he was asked.
“Nah, physically,” he said. “I won’t be able to walk tomorrow.”
Indeed, were there a theme to PDBIT IV, it was age. Old age. Really old age. For the first time ever, the game was played inside the gym of historic St. Andrew Avellino School—a facility (based upon the masonry and the smell) built during the James Buchanan administration. The court was long, the gray hairs longer. For the first time in tourney history, most of the contestants were either past (or approaching) their 40th birthdays. Why, Orange center Joe Duer, the league’s oldest player (as well as possessor of its sharpest elbows), looks so haggard and decayed that two of his hairs were out of place for extended periods of time. It was that type of tournament.
With the Duer-led Green team’s humiliating exit, the PDBIT IV Finals was a clash of two polar-opposite franchises—Passo and Monaghan’s Orange squad vs. the Blue of scrappy, hard-edged guard Jon Sheridan and his band of overachievers. Though Sheridan recently signed a three-year, $19.5 million extension to stay with Blue, his teammates carried plenty of question marks. Forward Jay Loscalzo, a former St. John’s outfielder famous for overthrowing cutoff men, hadn’t played basketball in a year. Mark Nodelman, still stinging after his recent trade from Orange to Blue for two sodas and a Wayne Tolleson rookie card, looked angry. Tom Craven has a beard. And then there was Andrew Harris, the high-priced free agent signed away from the Tulsa Drillers of the NBA’s Developmental League. Tall, strong and disconcertingly athletic looking, Harris dazzled teammates and foes during warm-ups with his bevy of three-point shots. “A ringer?” someone asked—and the answer was thought to be a decisive Yes. Then, however, the games began, and Harris seemed to play tentatively. His shots weren’t falling, he passed too often. That all changed, however, late in the regular season, when he lit up Monaghan for 12 points in a Blue rout.
A former Edna’s Edibles guard at the University of Delaware, Monaghan (possessor of a notoriously short fuse) didn’t take the dismantling well. He stomped. He moaned. He even flashed Paul Duer the finger. With the championship game, however, came a chance at retribution and redemption
Behind guard Layne Martin’s faulty knee and shiny new sneakers (purchased 30 minutes before tipoff at a nearby Sports Authority), Orange jumped out to a 4-0 lead. There was genuine frustration in the faces of Blue’s players. They wanted to win. But they really wanted oxygen. And beer. And if there was a beer-flavored oxygen, even better. This, however, was when Sheridan, a two-time title holder, took over. He ran the offense flawlessly, played fierce defense, pushed the ball past the hobbled Martin, past the determined Ron Busloff, past Monaghan and Passo and even the feisty Joe Duer who, it must be mentioned once again, administers quite the ass kicking with his large (and sharpened) elbows from Planet Hell. As the Orange defense turned its focus to Sheridan, Harris came alive once again, draining uncontested jumpers from the outside with little trouble.
By the time the dust had cleared, Blue won, 15-12, making Sheridan the first player to ever win three-straight titles.
And all the while … Erik Andersen was on an airplane.