In 2000, the Los Angeles Lakers won the franchise’s 12th NBA championship, blitzing their way through the league behind Shaquille O’Neal’s MVP year, Kobe Bryant’s budding stardom, and Phil Jackson’s incomparable Zen. In dominating the league post-Michael Jordan’s departure in 1998, one might think that the Lakers’ three-peat influenced the league to rely on multiple superstars and a bevy of role players. We can pinpoint, however, an occurrence – two actually – during this 1999-2000 campaign that changed the way basketball has been played for the last 16 years.
The Lakers played the Orlando Magic twice during the 2000 season and beat them both times. Although Los Angeles – a champion in the making – won both efforts, they were continually stumped by the emergence of a retro-revolutionary player who gave them fits both times. In the two games, a relatively unknown Pat Garrity came off the bench to score 16 and 13 points respectively.
A late first-round pick out of Notre Dame in 1998, Garrity offered a unique skillset that the Lakers could not have anticipated: he lacked any sort of functional athletic ability but thrived in stretching the floor with his shooting. Moreover, Garrity was a backup, and the Lakers’ defense was completely tailored to stopping the Magic’s offensive focal points in Darrell Armstrong, Ron Mercer, and Tariq Abdul-Wahad.
In the two games against the Lakers, Garrity averaged 14.5 points, nearly twice his seasonal and career averages of 8.2 and 7.3 respectively. What was it about this guy that seemed to work so well against a team that led the NBA in Defensive Rating?
Here I hearken back to the early days of the National Basketball Association. The league was bereft of athletic talent and high-flyers, dominated instead by immobile stiffs who could hardly dribble the basketball, let alone crossover their defender and take it to the hole. Guys like Harry Gallatin, Paul Arizin, and Dolph Schayes set the world on fire with their fundamental abilities and a relentless desire to help their team succeed through teamwork and defined specialties.
As we can see, the Unathletic White Baller (UWB) has existed since the beginning of basketball. The arrival of leapers like Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain obscured the importance of UWB’s, forcing them into the background and relegating them to marginalized roles. Basketball appeared to change, but our heroes never faltered.
And so we return to 2000. The Lakers, fresh off their first championship in the new millennium, needed a way to divert the focus from their best player Shaquille O’Neal. In remembering the surprise success of Pat Garrity, they sought to find a decoy who could destroy their opponent when least expected…a backup who would spell impending doom when his number was called.
Enter Mark Madsen.
Drafted shortly after their 2000 title, Madsen became Shaq’s primary backup, giving the Big Diesel a breather for 10 minutes a game while providing excellent hustle and teamwork. Though he lacked the outside shooting ability of a Garrity, Madsen rejuvenated the Lakers and helped the franchise win two more championships in 2001 and 2002. The UWB was back.
The San Antonio Spurs copied the Lakers when they signed Danny Ferry in 2001. A former second overall pick, Ferry had played power forward most of his career and resembled Garrity with his ability to stretch the floor. His spot shooting and occasional offensive explosion helped the Spurs win their second title in 2003, and suddenly the UWB was all the rave in the NBA.
Over the next three years, teams strove to replicate the Lakers’ and Spurs’ success, although most were thwarted in their efforts to find the ideal UWB. The Detroit Pistons won the championship in 2004, but you’d be hard-pressed to determine whether their actual UWB was Bob Sura (a perimeter player like Garrity and Ferry, but far shorter) or Mehmet Okur (a prototypical backup big man like Madsen). The same difficulty in distinction can be seen with the Miami Heat in 2006 with Jason Kapono and Michael Doleac. Sadly, the Spurs were unable to replicate Ferry’s role on their 2005 championship team – the UWB was a toss-up between Brent Barry and Sean Marks.
In 2007 the Spurs finally perfected their recipe for the UWB, and they won the championship while featuring Matt Bonner as a backup big man who could body opposing players on defense and knock down shots from the perimeter on offense. The Red Rocket is the first of our “Big Four,” a series of UWB’s who combined to win five straight titles from 2007 to 2011 and six of eight from 2007 to 2014.
Brian Scalabrine, commonly known as the White Mamba, arrived in Boston in 2005 and helped the Celtics win the 2008 NBA championship – their first in over 20 years. His charisma and knowledge of fundamentals made the game fun again, paving the way for stars like Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett to finally learn how to play team basketball and win as a unit.
Luke Walton came to the Lakers after their three-peat, but his pedigree and studious nature led to him studying the success of those who came before him. In 2009 and 2010 he was ready to take the mantle and lead Los Angeles to repeat championships as their designated UWB. Although his shooting ability paled a bit compared to Bonner and Scalabrine, Walton thrived as an offensive facilitator, and he is recognized as one of the best passing forwards of the past 15 years.
Our “Big Four” concludes with the coronation of Brian Cardinal, The Janitor, in 2011 as a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Although he played behind another UWB in Dirk Nowitzki, Cardinal took it upon himself to take every charge possible, living up to his nickname by spending more time on the floor than on his feet. His contributions to the Mavericks’ championship that year reinforced the idea that UWB’s reign supreme, and flashy stars like Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh can’t win without them.
Although their stars are credited with bringing home back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013, the Miami Heat would not have won without the arrival of Shane Battier, who technically qualifies as a UWB because his mother is white. The George Washington of modern UWB’s, Matt Bonner again reigned supreme in 2014 with the Spurs when San Antonio put on one of the greatest displays of teamwork and passing en route to their fifth title.
In the past two years, we have seen the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers win championships. Our modern UWB role was tweaked in 2015 as the Warriors relied on David Lee to serve as more of a post facilitator than shooter (given their stars’ reliance on 3-pointers). Here we can see that the UWB is a chameleon on the floor, capable of taking on any role the team needs. Last year the Cavaliers prevailed with Kevin Love as their UWB/starting power forward. For the first time in nearly 40 years, an NBA team won a title with a UWB as one of their leading scorers.
And so we owe the success of the modern UWB to the Godfather, Pat Garrity. Without his offensive explosion on the evenings of December 5th, 1999 and February 18th, 2000, our beloved league might look very different. The current manifestation of the NBA has several budding candidates who appear ready to seize the mantle with Zaza Pachulia, Ryan Anderson, Jonas Jerebko, Jason Smith, and Joe Ingles. Look for one of these guys to lead his team to a championship in June.