July 16, 2019
Judy Norton-Taylor will forever be known as Mary Ellen Walton, the oldest daughter to John and Oliva on The Waltons (1972-81), the earnest television series about a Depression-era family in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The family drama was a top-20 show for most of its run, watched by more than 20 million viewers a week.
To millions less, Norton-Taylor is simply the greatest women’s athlete in the history of Battle of the Network Stars (1976-85), the biannual made-for-television special in which stars from the three broadcast networks competed in various sporting events. “A female superstar,” Howard Cosell said.
Norton-Taylor could do it all — and play through pain. Her signature events: the obstacle course and 3-on-3 football. She won the women’s obstacle course in each of her three appearances — beating Kristy McNichol (thanks to a 3-second penalty), Susan Richardson and Randi Oakes — and she holds the all-time record for touchdown catches. Battle IX was her masterpiece, arguably the best individual performance in the show’s history, helping CBS win six events, three with a broken finger. “It was a good weekend,” she said. Battle X was nearly as good: five wins, two with a sprained ankle.
Today, Norton-Taylor is Judy Norton, but she is still a hyphenate — actress-writer-director-producer and singer. Finding Harmony and Another Day in Paradise — two films she wrote and co-starred in — are scheduled for release later this year. Her IMDb page lists five films in pre- and post-production. Still in the development phase: a stage musical based on the life of Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis.
— Kevin Brewer
You were 18 when Battle of the Network Stars began and 21 when you first competed. Did the producers reach out to you or the other way around?
I don’t know. I had a press agent who I believe pitched me to the show.
I’m guessing it was an easy decision.
I loved sports and was very competitive, even if I wasn’t great at a sport.
Many of the stars had clear specialties. Gregory Harrison in the water events. Scott Baio in the obstacle course. But you were good and often great in everything.
The football event was probably my most significant contribution. It was less common to score points with the women in football, so I was usually able to help my team win the football event.
You had three different captains in your three Battles — Ed Asner, Jamie Farr and Tom Selleck. How were they different?
Tom was the most athletic, so he led from that quiet, confident strength. Jamie was high energy and kept us all upbeat and positive. Ed didn’t back off from anything. He was willing to go to the mat for his team.
I think Ed and (NBC captain) Robert Conrad disliked each other. They differed politically and battled in the Screen Actors Guild.
Yeah, I’m not sure what that was about. I learned a ton about how to win on Battle from Robert Conrad. I think he respected my athletic ability … just a guess, but he gave me some good pointers, particularly in the tug of war.
What did he tell you?
He stressed setting up a cadence, so we weren’t pulling against ourselves, and keeping your heads back. Again, so not fighting against yourself. He was super competitive, and I respected that.
Conrad’s competitiveness sort of made the whole series.
Yeah, Conrad sort of exemplified the series for me. I went in thinking it was going to be a fun weekend and soon found the majority of competitors were out for blood. Considering I sprained an ankle and broke a finger, I guess you can’t say I was “skating” by.
How much pain were you in?
It was the worst when it first happened, but the adrenaline kicked in, so it was manageable.
Your favorite memory from the series?
Toss-up between catching touchdowns thrown by Tom Selleck and being carried off the obstacle course by Tom when I sprained my ankle. Getting coached by Robert Conrad about how to win the tug of war.
There were so many wonderful memories over three battles. Howard Cosell saying I was the best female celebrity to compete on Battle.
He called you “the best female athlete we’ve ever had.”
I was super competitive.
You were on two dominant teams with Selleck and Harrison.
They are amazing athletes, and it was so inspiring to compete alongside them. They pushed me to do the best I could, and I never wanted to let either of them down. They were probably the two actor-competitors I was most concerned about not wanting to disappoint, because they set such a high standard with their ability. They are also both wonderful men, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them a little bit. I love when someone you admire turns out to exceed your expectations when you meet them — rather than being a letdown. They both exceeded. Such admiration for both of them still.
Any friendships that still last today?
Not really, but I’m still in touch a bit with Greg and Randi (Oakes) via Facebook and have crossed paths with Ed Asner, Robert Conrad, Erin Gray and a few others. Always fond memories when we see each other. I also did flying trapeze with Randi for Circus of the Stars, so we bonded more during that 12-week rehearsal period.
When you were competing in the Battles (1979-81), women’s sports were not that big. There was Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert in tennis, and that was about it. Who did you admire?
I did watch tennis — loved Martina and Chris. Having ridden and jumped horses for years, I always loved that it’s possibly the only sport where men and women compete evenly. And many times, the women win. Also loved figure skating, so I admired skaters like Dorothy Hamill, Tai Babilonia. My mom was an acrobat, so I always watched gymnastics when Nadia Comaneci was dominating. She was magic.
Your mother was an acrobat?
Yes. She grew up in England. My grandfather was a gymnast as a young man and made the British Olympic team on rings. He wasn’t able to go ... athletes had to pay their own way, and he couldn’t afford it. But he then worked as a coach at an athletic club building human pyramids, etc., taught hand-to-hand balancing. From the time my mom and her brother were little, he taught them, and they began touring England, doing vaudeville shows as an acrobatic team. When I was young, my grandfather taught me and my sister a few “moves.”
It was rare that women and girls played sports back then. Were you an athlete mostly because of your parents’ influence?
Hard to say. I had dance lessons as a kid but always loved sports and PE at school. Played softball in a girls league before The Waltons and then our show had a team I played on. Also played on radio station team. Loved competing, I guess. Also started skiing at about 12.
Then lots of the sports were ones I took up because of work or PR events. Started tennis because I started getting invited to celebrity tennis tournaments. Then ski events. Was asked to do a roller skating charity event — there were skaters there from Roller Derby, so I started training with them for fun. The horses were because of a costumer on The Waltons who rode and took me to a horse competition. I fell in love with the sport and starting at 15. Skydiving was because of a stunt for Circus of the Stars as were wing-walking and flying trapeze.
My dad was from Canada and grew up playing hockey. My brother played for years, and I did learn to ice skate but just recreationally.
Was Circus of the Stars a natural fit because of your parents’ background or a little bit scary?
Scary. … I’m not fond of heights. That one was tough. Building the upper body strength to do it took a lot of work. We trained six days a week for about 12 weeks.
How did you select the trapeze or was it selected for you?
I was given the option of flying trapeze or tightrope walking … for some reason, I thought trapeze would be less scary.
How did you become involved in the musical based on Greg Louganis?
I was invited by a fellow writer friend to attend a meeting with Greg. During the meeting, Greg mentioned he was looking to create a musical. I mentioned I had been involved in writing over 50 musicals that have been produced and said if he needed some help, let me know. He took me up on the offer and I have teamed up with his composer/lyricist Patrick Alan Casey (an uber talented singer/songwriter), and the two of us have formed a fabulous collaboration. Greg has been amazing to work with. He will be one of the producers and of course is always available to give us the actual facts, which is invaluable when you’re writing about a real person.
I’ve been on the project for about four years now.
Have you mentioned to Greg that you were a part of two winning swimming relay teams?
I wouldn’t say my swimming skills are something I’d brag about.
June 25, 2019
Luka Doncic won the NBA Rookie of the Year award last night at the NBA Awards — an anticlimactic made-for-television event that most fans don’t care about because they are thinking about Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and free agency and not trophies for the regular season, which ended more than two months ago.
Anyway. Doncic’s award was the most anticlimactic. The Mavericks polymath averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists last season, receiving 98 of 100 first-place votes.
Even more impressive: Doncic might be the best 19-year-old in NBA history.
He is at least on the short list with Dwight Howard (2004-05), Anthony Davis (2012-13), Jayson Tatum (2017-18), LeBron James (2003-04) and Kyrie Irving (2011-12). Doncic turned 20 on Feb. 28, but a player’s age is his age on Feb. 1, per Basketball-Reference.
Among 19-year-olds who played at least 1,500 minutes, Doncic is the all-time leader in Box Plus/Minus, well ahead of Irving. Using the same criteria, he is third all-time in Player Efficiency Rating, behind Davis and Irving and just head of Marvin Bagley (2018-19). He is just seventh in win shares, right behind LeBron, partly because the Mavericks were 33-49.
Those numbers project Doncic to be a multi-time All-Star with a shot at becoming a superstar in the LeBron James-Anthony Davis range.
One caveat: Doncic is not the best 19-year-old in the history of American professional basketball. That is still Moses Malone, who averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds for the Utah Stars in 1974-75. In the ABA.
Another thing: Zion Williamson will be 19 in 11 days.
— Kevin Brewer
My annual player rankings — the (roughly) top 50 players in the league sorted by age — based only on last season, including the playoffs. …
Age 19 | 1. Luka Doncic, Mavericks
Age 20 | 1. Jarrett Allen, Nets. 2. Mitchell Robinson, Knicks. 3. Deandre Ayton, Suns. 4. Jayson Tatum, Celtics.
The Celtics have not acquired Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis because of the supposed future greatness of Jayson Tatum.
Age 21 | 1. Bam Adebayo, Heat. 2. John Collins, Hawks. 3. De’Aaron Fox, Kings. 4. Thomas Bryant, Wizards. 5. Jamal Murray, Nuggets.
Three Kentucky players.
Established talent, with free agents highlighted:
Age 22 | 1. Ben Simmons, 76ers. 2. Domantas Sabonis, Pacers. 3. D’Angelo Russell, free agent (restricted)
Sabonis and Russell enter the rankings. Donovan Mitchell is out.
Age 23 | 1. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets. 2. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves.
Jokic is six months older than Towns.
Age 24 | 1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks. 2. Joel Embiid, 76ers.
3. Pascal Siakam, Raptors. 4. Clint Capela, Rockets. 5. Jusuf Nurkic, Trail Blazers.
Siakam should be an All-NBA player next season. Nurkic broke his left leg in March. His return is uncertain.
Age 25 | 1. Anthony Davis, Lakers. 2. Bradley Beal, Wizards. 3. Andre Drummond, Pistons. 4. Montrezl Harrell, Clippers. 5. Steve Adams, Thunder.
Great story by Kelly Dwyer about when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded to the Lakers. His situation was not so different than that of Davis.
Age 26 | 1. Rudy Gobert, Jazz. 2. Kyrie Irving, free agent. 3. Tobias Harris, free agent.
Gobert won his second Defensive Player of the Year award last night.
Age 27 | 1. Kawhi Leonard, free agent. 2. Derrick Favors, Jazz. 3. Khris Middleton, free agent. 4. Dwight Powell, Mavericks.
Yes, Dwight Powell.
Age 28 | 1. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers. 2. Paul George, Thunder.
3. Nikola Vucevic, Magic. 4. Kemba Walker, free agent. 5. Draymond Green, Warriors. 6. Klay Thompson, free agent. 7. Jrue Holiday, Pelicans.
Green will be entering a contract season.
Age 29 | 1. James Harden, Rockets. 2. Jimmy Butler, free agent. 3. Blake Griffin, Pistons. 4. Eric Bledsoe, Bucks.
Harden: DNS (did not show) for last night’s awards.
Age 30 | 1. Stephen Curry, Warriors. 2. Kevin Durant, free agent.
3. Russell Westbrook, Thunder. 4. Danilo Gallinari, Clippers. 5. Brook Lopez, free agent. 6. Thaddeus Young, Pacers.
A good starting five, with Durant taking a redshirt season.
Age 31 | 1. Mike Conley, Jazz
The Jazz are NBA Finals contenders.
Age 32 | 1. Kyle Lowry, Raptors. 2. Al Horford, free agent.
Glue guys. Indispensable. Every season.
Age 33 | 1. LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs. 2. Chris Paul, Rockets (58 games).
Big contracts. No titles.
Age 34 | 1. LeBron James, Lakers. 2. Marc Gasol, Raptors.
LeBron turns 35 on Dec. 30, the age when many players lose a step or two.
Old players, a complete list:
Age 35 | 1. Andre Iguodala, Warriors. 2. Devin Harris, Mavericks.
4. Channing Frye, Cavaliers (36 games).
Age 36 | 1. Tyson Chandler, Lakers (55 games). 2. Nene, Rockets (42 games). 3. Tony Parker, retired (56 games).
Age 37 | 1. Dwyane Wade, retired. 2. Kyle Korver, Grizzlies. 3. Jose Calderon, Pistons (49 games).
Age 38 | 1. Pau Gasol, Bucks (30 games). 2. Jamal Crawford, Suns.
3. Udonis Haslem, Heat (10 games).
Age 39 | none
Age 40 | Dirk Nowitzki, retired
Age 41 | none
Age 42 | Vince Carter, free agent
The best 42-year-old of all time. The three others: Robert Parish, Dikembe Mutombo and Kevin Willis.
June 17, 2019
Kawhi Leonard has been called a cyborg, because of his supernatural two-way excellent and mechanical laugh. Except he’s not. Leonard is a dynasty-stopping, two-time NBA Finals MVP cyborg with the highest winning percentage in NBA history.
Leonard four-bounced a game-winning shot in Game 7 of the Eastern conference semifinals, guarded the freakish Giannis Antetokounmpo in the conference finals and snuffed out a possible three-peat by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals on Thursday night, leading the Toronto Raptors to their first championship in franchise history.
Just a couple weeks short of his 28th birthday, there is a mythical aura surrounding Leonard. He scores and stops his opponents from scoring in a Michael Jordan kind of way, only with none of the panache. He is both guarded and unguardable, an immortal warrior from another century, winning championships past and present in a Highlander kind of way. He is the third player to win a Finals MVP award with two different teams, the first to do it in both conferences, the first in two countries. There can be only one.
While the “best player” debate was an Antetokounmpo vs. James Harden matchup during the regular season and Kevin Durant’s reputation seemed to grow the more he didn’t play, the more the talking heads talked about his impending free agency, the unanimity now rests with Leonard, the Bill Russell trophy in his large alien hands.
But Leonard wasn’t just the Finals MVP. He was also the “playoffs MVP,” which sounds less prestigious but includes a larger sample size — excellence over one-fourth of a season instead of four to seven games. It is also a worthy placeholder in the “best player” debate. (Leonard played 24 postseason games or about the same number that he missed during the regular season. That strategic rest, coupled with playoff injuries to Golden State’s Durant and Klay Thompson, makes a strong case for “load management.”)
Leonard was first in playoff win shares — a quick way of determining the “playoffs MVP” — with 4.9, easily ahead of second-place Stephen Curry (3.3). That’s the sixth-best total of all time, behind Tim Duncan (2003), Dirk Nowitzki (2006, when he lost in the Finals) and three playoff runs by LeBron James. Using win shares as a guide, this postseason’s All-Star team would be Leonard, Curry, Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (3.0) and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry (2.8) and Pascal Siakam (2.4).
— Kevin Brewer
Here are the playoff win shares leaders since 1969, when the NBA Finals MVP award began. The winners are in bold, with my “playoffs MVP” selections highlighted — when they differ from the official selections:
1969 | Jerry West, 4.3
1970 | Jerry West, 3.2; Walt Frazier, 2.8; Willis Reed, 2.6
1971 | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 3.3
1972 | Walt Frazier, 3.3; Wilt Chamberlain, 3.0
1973 | Walt Frazier, 3.0; Wilt Chamberlain, 2.7; Willis Reed, 1.0 (14th)
1974 | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 4.7; John Havlicek, 3.5
1975 | Rick Barry, 3.1
1976 | Dave Cowens, 2.7; Paul Silas, 2.3; Jo Jo White, 2.1
1977 | Julius Erving, 3.4; Bill Walton, 2.5 (fifth)
1978 | Elvin Hayes, 3.1; Wes Unseld, 2.0 (fifth)
1979 | Gus Williams, 2.7; Bob Dandridge, 2.5; Dennis Johnson, 2.2 (fourth)
1969-1979 | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 17.8
2. Walt Frazier, 15.8
3. Wes Unseld, 12.6
4. John Havlicek, 12.3
5. Wilt Chamberlain, 12.1
Willis Reed owes Walt Frazier two trophies.
1980 | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 3.3; Magic Johnson, 2.8
1981 | Moses Malone, 3.5; Larry Bird, 3.1; Cedric Maxwell, 2.5
1982 | Julius Erving, 3.0; Magic Johnson, 2.7
1983 | Moses Malone, 2.8
1984 | Larry Bird, 4.7
1985 | Magic Johnson, 3.0; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 2.5 (fifth)
1986 | Larry Bird, 4.2
1987 | Magic Johnson, 3.7
1988 | Magic Johnson, 4.0; Kevin McHale, 3.3; James Worthy, 2.8 (fifth)
1989 | Michael Jordan, 4.0; Magic Johnson, 2.2; Joe Dumars, 2.2 (fourth)
1980-1989 | Magic Johnson, 27.1
2. Larry Bird, 23.6
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 17.7
4. Kevin McHale, 17.2
5. James Worthy, 13.5
Magic Johnson should have five playoff MVPs. Larry Bird should have three.
1990 | Michael Jordan, 4.0; Isiah Thomas, 3.1
1991 | Michael Jordan, 4.8
1992 | Michael Jordan, 4.1
1993 | Charles Barkley, 4.6; Michael Jordan, 4.4
1994 | Hakeem Olajuwon, 4.3
1995 | Clyde Drexler, 3.0; Shaquille O’Neal, 3.0; Hakeem Olajuwon, 2.8
1996 | Michael Jordan, 4.7
1997 | Michael Jordan, 3.9
1998 | Michael Jordan, 4.8
1999 | Tim Duncan, 3.7
1990-1999 | Michael Jordan, 32.0
2. Scottie Pippen, 20.2
3. Karl Malone, 17.9
4. Horace Grant, 15.9
11. Reggie Miller, 12.0
Michael Jordan was the best player in the playoffs eight times in 10 years.
2000 | Shaquille O’Neal, 4.7
2001 | Kobe Bryant, 3.8; Dikembe Mutombo, 3.8; Shaquille O’Neal, 3.7
2002 | Shaquille O’Neal, 3.8
2003 | Tim Duncan, 5.9
2004 | Shaquille O’Neal, 3.9; Chauncey Billups, 3.7
2005 | Chauncey Billups, 4.6; Manu Ginobili, 4.2; Tim Duncan, 3.5
2006 | Dirk Nowitzki, 5.4; Dwyane Wade, 4.8
2007 | LeBron James, 3.7; Tim Duncan, 3.3; Tony Parker, 1.6 (14th)
2008 | Kevin Garnett, 4.1; Ray Allen, 3.1 (third); Paul Pierce, 3.0 (fourth)
2009 | LeBron James, 4.8; Kobe Bryant, 4.7; Dwight Howard, 4.5
2000-2009 | Tim Duncan, 23.0
2. Kobe Bryant, 21.7
3. Shaquille O’Neal, 21.2
4. Chauncey Billups, 20.3
16. Robert Horry, 9.8
Tony Parker is the worst MVP selection of all time.
2010 | Pau Gasol, 4.3; Kobe Bryant, 3.6
2011 | LeBron James, 3.8; Dwyane Wade, 3.7; Dirk Nowitzki, 3.6
2012 | LeBron James, 5.8; Kevin Durant, 4.0
2013 | LeBron James, 5.2
2014 | LeBron James, 4.3; Tim Duncan, 3.2; Kawhi Leonard, 2.9
2015 | Stephen Curry, 3.9; LeBron James, 3.0; Andre Iguodala, 2.2 (seventh)
2016 | LeBron James, 4.7
2017 | LeBron James, 4.3; Stephen Curry, 3.4; Kevin Durant, 3.1
2018 | LeBron James, 5.2; Kevin Durant, 4.0
2019 | Kawhi Leonard, 4.9
2010-2019 | Tim Duncan, 38.6
2. Kevin Durant, 23.1
3. Kawhi Leonard, 17.6
4. Stephen Curry, 17.1
5. James Harden, 14.4
The constant criticism of Stephen Curry is getting tiresome.