Published Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 9:47 pm
BASKETBALL
Shatel: McDermott, Bird not quite the same

Can we get a timeout?

The season of Doug McDermott is blowing minds at an up-tempo pace. The national bandwagon grows by the game. And now pundits and self-styled experts are dropping names and comparisons so fast it can make your head spin.

The latest, greatest effort is Doug as Larry Bird.

St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said it last month. ESPN's Digger Phelps went there last week. His ESPN colleague, Jay Bilas, hedged, but said D-Mac has “a Bird-like game.”

You can understand the sentiment here. Small-school players, mid-major league, Midwest kids who live and breath hoops and sleep in their high-tops.

It's flattering for McDermott. It's also not fair.

There's a generation of hoop heads who only know Larry's legend from their DVD player or classic sports channel. But these are almost always Boston Celtics highlights.

The Indiana State stuff is harder to find. Why? Because in the late 1970s, college basketball wasn't on television as much. There weren't wall-to-wall games on every weekend, and the Missouri Valley wasn't usually in the mix. There's an older generation, myself included, who can say the first time they saw Bird play was in his last two college games, at the 1979 Final Four.

He was this lanky 6-foot-9 “kid” with shaggy blond hair and a milk mustache, making every play conceivable. He scored from every spot, he blocked shots, rebounded, defended, led the break like a point guard.

I'm not here to question the memory or expertise of Phelps, who coached for Notre Dame and saw Bird up close. But Bird and McDermott are two different college players, with different games, playing in different Valleys, in different eras.

That comes from another Bird watcher, a local eyewitness who had a front-row seat to Bird the college superstar.

Remember Randy Eccker?

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There's a group in Omaha that know him as a voice on their sports talk dial throughout the 1990s. But before that, Eccker was a point guard for Creighton from 1974 to '78 and a senior on the 1978 team that won the Valley and played in the NCAA tournament. He played against Bird's Indiana State team three times, including the storied Valley tournament final at the Civic Auditorium.

Eccker lives in Omaha and has season tickets to CU games, where the Creighton hall of famer sits five rows up across from the visitor's bench.

He started by saying, “I love Doug McDermott. I really appreciate him as a player and how much he's developed into a great player. The performance at Missouri State was Bird-esque.”

But Eccker, going point-by-point, talked about the differences in the two.

1. Different time, different Valley.

“The line of demarcation came in the early 1980s, when ESPN took off and started covering college basketball,” Eccker said. “The larger conferences started investing more in basketball because of the TV money.

“Before that, the Valley was one of the top three or four conferences in the country, as opposed to how it is now. When we played in the Valley, there were at least eight to 10 players a year who went to the NBA from the league. It was a totally different league. And Larry was head and shoulders above all of those guys.”

2. There was no 3-point line yet, so there was not an abundance of long-range sharpshooters in the game. Thus, opponents packed it in against big men like McDermott without the fear of giving up bunches of points outside.

Eccker said Bird accumulated his 30.3 career scoring average at a time “when most games were 35 minutes long.”

“Back then, when a team got up, they held the ball the last five minutes. It was just free throws and lay-ups the last five minutes of a game.”

3. Eccker joined CU's coaching staff after his playing career and faced Bird as a coach during the 1978-79 season. That year, Eccker said, Bird was 22 but looked and played older than everyone else, with a frame that was fully developed. McDermott, a junior who just turned 21, seems to be still growing into his body and developing as a player.

4. Doug is a 6-8 forward who plays inside and steps outside to shoot. Larry was a 6-9 forward who played small but was a ferocious rebounder.

“Larry played like a (small forward),” Eccker said. “Indiana State ran him off baseline picks for open jumpers. He was always moving around without the ball, around picks, catching and shooting medium-range jumpers. But he could also play like a point forward, running the offense, leading the break. He got inside to rebound. He could block shots. He did almost everything.

“Doug plays like a (power forward) who steps out on the floor. He grinds more, works for what he gets and is a great converter around the basket. Doug will have to change his game at the next level.”

But there are similarities, too. “Their work ethic, their ability to create, from the perimeter or around the basket. They have that understanding, that intellgience.”

5. Bird played three seasons at ISU and holds records for career points scored (2,850), scoring average (30.3), field goals made (1,154) and field goals attempted (2,165). In 18 games in his third season, McDermott is averaging 24.0 points, the highest average of his career. For his career, he's 673 of 1,187 (and keep in mind, today's teams play more games) and has 1,814 points. Some will argue that Bird had less around him than McDermott does. But Eccker doesn't agree.

“There's actually a similarity,” Eccker said. “Creighton has some complementary parts, like Gregory Echenique inside and Grant Gibbs, a smart role player. Indiana State had very similar complementary guys around Bird. They could score and help out, too.”

6. One difference in the two eras: the hype factor. In a world where so many games are televised and game tape is available on the Internet, McDermott's reputation precedes him. For instance, his thunder dunk the other night was repeatedly shown on “SportsCenter.”

Even though Bird was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the best kept secret in college hoops, not many outside of the Valley saw him play. And that included some in the Valley.

“The first time we played him, our first meeting in (1977-78), we had both just joined the Valley that year,” Eccker said of CU and ISU. “So we hadn't ever seen them play. Back then, there wasn't a lot of film exchanged on teams. We went into that first game cold.

“I'll never forget the first play. (Bird) caught the ball at the hash, with his back to the basket. We had a guy guarding him, but he gave him some room. Larry didn't even hesitate. He turned and without looking shot it and it went in. We were like, 'Wow. Who is this guy?'

“When they came to Omaha later that year, we held him to 12 points and beat them by 30. He had the flu that game. Then we played again in the Valley tournament final at the Civic. He went 12 for 13 in that game and he tipped in his only miss. We ended up holding the ball the last four minutes before Rick Apke made the last shot. That game reminded me of what Doug did the other night. He was just unstoppable.”

That's a valid comparison to make, one that does both stars justice. Like Bird, anytime McDermott steps on the floor, you can't leave your seat. You might see something you've never seen. That trait transcends change in rules and landscape.

And while the comparisons by the talking heads and national types don't hurt McDermott's player-of-the-year chances, take it from one Larry Bird fan: There's only one.

“Having grown up watching Larry Bird play collegiately and professionally, that comparison is a heck of a compliment to Doug,” said Greg McDermott, his father, coach and No. 1 fan. “There are probably some things Doug does similar to Larry Bird. But there's only one Larry Bird.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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