WHY CAN’T WE PLAY IN WIDE-OPEN WEST?

So there I am, at the Palace, Wednesday night, the game has just ended, the Pistons won on a last-second shot by Chucky Atkins, and I walk into the press area and a TV is on. And I see Charles Barkley from TNT holding his head as if someone had pulled out his molars. And he’s whining. And he says if he has to watch any more Eastern Conference basketball, he “should get paid more.”

Memo to self: Find Charles Barkley’s agent.

Oh, I know what Barkley was saying. He’s saying the East is a bore. He’s saying the playoffs on this side of the country are a nightly exercise in dull, grabby, pushy, clunky, all-defense, no-offense hoops. I disagree. It isn’t nightly. Sometimes there are day games.

Other than that, it’s hard to argue. The West is fast. The West is sleek. The West actually makes baskets. The west is Pamela Anderson, the East is Bea Arthur.

Barkley knows this. So do other people. A friend of mine from out of town called me after Wednesday’s Pistons-76ers game. He said he watched the fourth quarter.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“I was waiting for the varsity to come out,” he said.

Everyone’s a critic.

The continental divide

“Hey, man, that’s just how it is,” Atkins said. “It was that way when Charles was in the East, too. The East has always been about defense. The West is more up and down, lots of shooting.”

“Which would you rather play in?” I asked Atkins.

“Me? The West.” Et tu, Chucke? Since when did basketball become a geographic sport? Don’t they all play in similar buildings? Don’t they all use the same ball? It’s not like the heat or the humidity has anything to do with it. This isn’t a Lambeau Field thing.

So why is the Eastern Conference a wrestling match and the Western Conference is a salsa dance contest? Why are the Eastern playoff games averaging 13 points fewer than the Western’s games? (Thirteen points, by the way, makes you high scorer in many Eastern games.)

I understand geography in things like language, you know, North versus South?
(“Y’all talk funny!” “No, yaw the one talkin’ funny!”) I even understand it in food. Californians like raisins and wheat germ. New Yorkers like anything that gives you a heart attack.

But basketball? Is there something in Eastern water? I mean, you’ve been watching these games. They’re brutal. In one stretch Wednesday night I watched Allen Iverson lose the ball, the Pistons mishandle it, the ball come back to Iverson who shot a clunker, the Pistons mishandle it, the ball come back to Iverson who almost lost it again before making a pass. Iverson went 5-for-25 on the night. He is what we call “an offensive highlight.”

Listen to these numbers: A few days ago, the Dallas Mavericks and the Sacramento Kings played a double overtime game in which the final score was 141-137. The Pistons don’t score that many points in a month! Their victory Wednesday night was 78-77. Are these men even playing the same sport?

Let’s face it. In the West, whoever has the ball last wins. In the East, whoever shoots 39 percent wins. I watched Ben Wallace on Wednesday try to drive to the hoop with no one within five feet of him. He looked as if he’d landed in a foreign country. And someone stripped the ball away.

A few plays later, I saw Derrick Coleman try to score inside. He took one look at Wallace and changed his mind.

Making a basket in the East is obviously a privilege, not a right.

Finding the right word

Here are the phrases used for the West: “swift, speedy, darting, WOW!, pouring it on, a scoring spree, a monster slam!”

Here are the phrases used for the East: “clawing, sticky, air ball, off-the-mark, drought, gone cold, 24-second violation, zzzzzzz.”

No wonder the NBA is shuddering at a possible San Antonio-Detroit final. Have you ever heard a basketball announcer exclaim, “What a great defensive battle!” You know what viewers think when they hear that? Where’s the remote?

What are we supposed to do? We live here. This is our team. So I suggest if you run into one of those high-falutin’, three-point firin’, all-about-the-benjamins-of-scoring Westerners, offer any of the following comebacks:

1) “Hey, it’s no fun when EVERYBODY makes their shots.”

2) “A block is better than sex.”

3) “Have you ever heard the sound the ball makes when it hits the top of the backboard?”

4) “Do you want to hear it?”

As for Barkley? Well. Who listens to anything that comes out of his mouth? I will say this: If Charles gets paid extra for watching these games on TV, what about those of us who have to go to the arena? I don’t know about the rest of this staff, but I’m checking with workers comp.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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