Andrew Polaniecki: Having the opportunity to play for Villanova, talk about your level of excitement for the Villanova reunion this season between Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo, and Ryan Arcidiacono?
Rory Sparrow: It is exciting to see that many Villanovans on the floor at the same time and competing at that level. I just don’t know if at that level does it make a difference whether you went to Villanova or Ohio State for what the challenge is and be able to compete against those you got to beat. Watching last night’s game, (opening night vs. Boston) they were very competitive, and our Villanovans did a good job of playing the roles they were assigned. We could’ve shot the ball better, any one of them. It might have made a difference in a very close game. I saw them representing a lot of the grit and determination and hard work that was a part of our culture at Villanova and it’s always been a part of the Knicks culture. I see them fitting in pretty well.
Other than Jalen, the other guys are definite role players, and they fulfill their role. Jalen as the leader and sometimes leading scorer, he has to take on a different responsibility, and he is doing that pretty well. I was surprised at how well he did last year and now that everybody knows that’s his role, I‘m going to be anxious to see if he can maintain that type of production coming into this year.
As a former point guard, when you watch the game, do you think you see it differently than the average NBA fan? Are you able to break down the game differently?
RS: Yes, to have a sense of what’s going on that most people don’t understand. Most people just look at the NBA as isolation basketball and individuals getting the ball to their best player and letting them make a play. There are so many other small intricate nuances that get missed by the average fan.
As a former player, and point guard, I kind of understand what the game plan is and what they’re trying to do in terms of those individual matchup’s that they try to work to get and try to take advantage of. When I’m watching, I see the strategy behind, but I also see the individual skills that it requires to do so in today’s game. In our game a power forward would never step past 15 feet from the basket. Now the stretch fours are just incredible athletes that do so much more from trapping the ball, from pick and rolls, to shooting threes … it’s just amazing how these guys have developed as skilled players. Watching how they’re being deployed and strategies that help teams win.
How do you think a guy like Victor Wembanyama would fare in the 1980’s?
RS: I don’t know. I see him very similarly after watching him play, to being similar to Ralph Sampson. I don’t know if he is going to be as physical as Ralph ended up being. To me, the question as I watch him play, especially in the 80’s, is could he have taken the beating and physicality of the game back in the ‘80s, as opposed to now. I think he’ll do okay now because there is a lot less pushing, grinding, bumping, and posting that he’ll have to do.
Even though last night (NBA debut vs. Dallas) as I watched him during some of the rebounding and post-up situations, he was rooted out of spots several times. That would have been our every play in the ‘80’s and it still was happening here in today’s game. He might have had a difficult time adjusting. You have to always temper that though with the fact that today’s athletes didn’t grow up playing that way, but if he was in the 80’s he would have grown up playing that way so he may have done alright as well because he would have been used to it.
Are you a fan of the game today or do you wish it would go back to the grittier hard-nosed style that it was?
RS: I think somewhere in between that makes a lot of sense. I think that in all professional sports there is an overemphasis on offense. Everybody wants to see home runs. Everyone wants to see touchdowns. Everybody wants to see three-pointers and slam dunks. All of those are beautiful in their own right. But I think there should be room for defenses to be able to compete against these rules that make it so oppressive for offenses, that offenses are being given big advantages so blatantly.
To this day, I cannot understand the gathering rule around the step back three, because it is a travel! I don’t understand that at all. And the euro-step is another one that should be challenged because based on the old ruling, as that second foot hit the ground you had to be lifting up in the air to take your shot. Whereas now it’s used to position and used to change your position again, which technically is another walk, but this is where we are in terms of you got to play by what the rules are and so players are doing it. I appreciate it, but I just think somewhere in the middle there should be a balance between the rules that allow defensive teams to be as effective as offensive teams. Right now, if you don’t have great offense, you’re not going to be a defensive team competing for the finals.
No question that the league needs to redefine what a travel is, especially when you see superstar players taking four, five, six steps, and walking to the hoop if they chose to.
RS: A lot of that is based on fan appeal and also referees and what people have come to expect. They don’t expect superstars to walk. They don’t expect those types of guys to make those types of mistakes. In some form or fashion in their mind, and because some of it is so obvious, they just anticipate that they’re not going to do anything illegal and allow the play to develop and sometimes they do get away with traveling and all kinds of fouls and situations that other players won’t.
What’s your take on all the flopping that occurs in today’s game? Back in the ‘80’s there wasn’t flopping, they were real hits.
RS: I’m glad they did something. I don’t like the rule in terms of getting a technical foul for it. I think that is overstepping. Part of competing and entertainment at the pro level should include some theatrics. For the fans as well as for the other players. For those guys that are not physically talented enough but could use their mind and be able to figure out how to draw fouls, I don’t see a lot wrong with that. I do get the point where it was being overused, but to be given a technical foul for it, I think it’s too far.
I must ask then, was your ejection for the hit you had on Bird justified?
What do you remember about that play?
RS: I remember the play prior to, I went to the basket and got rammed into the stanchion. Two plays later Bird is out on a break, he is coming in, and our rule was to make sure you wrapped up guys so that he doesn’t get the ball over his head to possibly make the layup. As Bird was coming in on the play, it looked like I had an opportunity to block the shot because of where he was positioned. So, when he took off, I was actually going for the block and then he pumped the ball downward away from me, so I was left out there in the air with no real opportunity to block his shot, so I had to take a full fledge swipe at him to make sure he didn’t get the ball up. It came across his head and his shoulder, and I got ejected from the game. But it wasn’t malicious, it wasn’t an intent to hurt him, it was just an intent to inflict a hard foul so he wouldn’t make a lay-up.
When I watch the highlight, I feel like in today’s game it was a borderline Flagrant 1.
RS: Yeah, yeah. . . . It was definitely a flagrant foul in today’s game. With the Kurt Rambis foul, there were a lot of fouls that were a lot worse than that. But it was Larry Bird.
Do you think there was a little bit of a superstar call there?
RS: No, it was a foul. It was intended to be a foul, but it was Larry Bird. It was Larry Bird against Rory Sparrow. Two birds going at it but one with a bigger name.
You just mentioned the name Kurt Rambis. You finished your career in Los Angeles playing 42 games for the Lakers during the 1991-92 season. That season also marked the end of any remaining pieces from the Showtime Era. Were you able to pick up on players’ vibes that the end was rapidly approaching?
RS: When I showed up, Magic had just retired for the second time and I was the replacement, not for Magic but for the final roster spot. James Worthy was hurt and never came back. Byron Scott was done. Kareem was still around, but he was helping at the coaching facility.
That era of Lakers with Mike Dunleavy as the head coach and Elden Campbell as the center and Terry Teagle as the two guard, it was a totally different team than the Showtime Lakers were. Everybody was gone and it really was the beginning of the rebuild for the Lakers from that Showtime team. Even though some of those guys were still hanging around the locker room, but with injuries, retirements and forced retirements, none of them were still impacting play when I joined the team.
You also had the opportunity to play with Jordan and the Bulls. What was some of the biggest differences you noticed in the level of intensity from a Jordan-led practice in comparison to some of the other teams you played for?
RS: Well, I didn’t see it as any different other than the challenge of going up against the greatest player that played at the time. Michael was very competitive, and he loved to talk about how competitive he was and what he was going to do. He was going to challenge other players to meet him at that level. Practices were very competitive but always a lot of fun. With him leading the charge and when your best player competes every day at that level, it just raises the level of competition every day at practice and makes your team better. If he is willing to go full bore, to compete and play, and challenge everybody to be better, then no one has an excuse for not getting up and getting out and practice.
What I learned from him and took with me wherever I went, and part of my my philosophy, was to take every day as a real day to compete and try to get better and try to make your team better, and that is what he did. He was so talented in so many different areas, offensively and defensively, and he liked to show everybody that he could do all those things and just out of sheer desire not to be embarrassed, you really had to compete hard not let that happen. With Oakley on the team—his protector at that time—and Scottie as a rookie and Horace Grant just coming in, it was a lot of fun, it was a lot of growth. Those two guys, Horace and Scottie, were just getting to the program and beginning to learn what was necessary on a daily basis. Oakley employed his physicality and wisdom. It was a really good time. They showed in the documentary (The Last Dance) that you can have fun in professional sports, have a great time, and still be very competitive.
You mentioned Jordan’s level of competition. There is a famous story from when after Jordan was already retired the second time, he showed up to the Bulls practice facility when Jamal Crawford who was a rookie at the time challenged him to a shooting contest. Jordan wanted to wager his own Ferrari for Crawford’s Mercedes, and ultimately took the young rookie’s Benz. Do you have any stories from your playing days with him that showed this same sort of competitiveness?
RS: He’s just a competitive guy to fuel his competition and drive. His HOF speech was all about the people he wanted to prove that they made the wrong choice and that he was the one they should have chosen. It’s just who he is and there are so many examples of that from when we played cards, horse, 1 on 1, anything to fuel his level of competitiveness to make it more meaningful for him, it was not beyond him to do. Bets were regular. Individual challenges on the bus, calling you out. He’d talk about you during the play, during the game, that’s just part of who he was. It’s what drove him to be the best player to play.
You were with the Miami Heat for their inaugural season in 1988 and made the first field goal in franchise history. What do you remember from that night?
RS: It was a crazy night playing in Overtown, FL, where the original arena was. It was a great night to come out and welcome basketball to Miami. I had gotten there five days prior. I didn’t really know the offense or the players, but they needed a veteran point guard to try and lead them. I ended up starting. We ran one play, it didn’t work. We ran another play, it didn’t work. Then the third time I ended up getting the opportunity with the clock running out and made it, so I am in the history books scoring the first basket against the Clippers and against my guy Norm Nixon who I have long standing relationship since the Villanova Duquesne days.
HBO’s Showtime gave us a strong portrayal of Norm Nixon especially during the show’s first season. Do you think the show accurately portrayed Norm?
RS: Norm is smart. Norm is competitive. Norm will definitely speak his mind. But it’s television. You must remember that. Norm would definitely challenge anyone who was on his team to be a part of the team. With Magic coming in and thinking it was his team, and rightfully it was, I could see Norm definitely challenging some of that.
Before we wrap up, what do you expect of the Knicks this season?
RS: They’re going to be very competitive. They’re going to be in the playoffs again this year. I still think they are a closing player away from really being able to compete for the title. I don’t think they could compete with Miami, Boston Milwaukee yet until they get that player. But, I think they will be competitive, they will make people proud, and want to come out and watch it.
Lastly, let’s talk about your foundation, The Sparrow Foundation Institute.
RS: The Sparrow Foundation Institute works in developing clean energy resources for underserved communities. As we march toward sustainable energy and clean energy technologies, underserved communities are being left behind. Right now, if you own a Tesla, you can’t charge it in an inner city, because there aren’t any charging stations. You can find it in the suburbs, but you can’t find them in disserved communities. What we want to do as we march towards this new world of sustainable energy that they also include communities that have been typically left out and forgotten and that they are a part of the march towards the developing of sustainable energies and resources as well. When you think of solar energy and wind energy you see a lot of pictures of windfarms and solar farms, but when you ride, you don’t see that many solar panels in inner cities or underserved communities and you ask yourself why? Some of it is affordability, some of it is a lack knowledge and of understanding, and some of it is a lack of resources.
Our thanks go to Rory for giving so generously of his time for this interview. If you would like to get involved with Rory’s foundation, you can do so by making a donation to The Sparrow Foundation Institute at www.sparrowfoundationinstitute.org/donate.