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KD Is About to Experience the Ultimate Feeling of Ambivalence

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Tomorrow night Kevin Durant will receive the MVP award for the 2013-14 season. The ovation will be overwhelming because, if there is a segment of the population that appreciates its team, it’s the folks from Oklahoma City. There’s no other professional team (big three sports) in the state. They realize they caught a major break when the franchise from Seattle, another city whose fans truly understand the value of having a team, changed ownership and the new owners decided to move it to Oklahoma City.

Durant had an MVP year and you will hear no one deny it. But he will accept the trophy with his team, not at 1-0 in the series, as he and the rest of OKC - those working for the team and those cheering for it - believed they’d be on that date, but at 0-1. And coming off total annihilation at the hands of the LA Clippers. The fans will, no doubt, give him a salute befitting an icon. To them, he’s as much a superhero as anybody they’ll see on the big screen. For his part, he’ll have to acknowledge their fanatical reaction (and support), all the while thinking how much of a total superhero effort it will take (in just a couple minutes) - by everyone on his club - for them to return to OKC this season. Yeah, they were so overmatched last night, some “experts” are, if not calling for a sweep, whispering about it.

Obviously, the Okies have to figure it out. Fast. It’s nothing short of their responsibility for their loyal fan base. And the problem got more difficult when their “other best player” reverted to a pouting little baby - showing his ass during a time out when he left the huddle (he had been subbed for) and went to the end of the bench and sat down, in front of the thousands of fans who actually stayed ’til the (bitter) end. Whoever thought the immaturity issue Russell Westbrook had when he began his career was behind him, well, he must have just turned around and found it.

The Thunder will have a raucous crowd for Game 2. It’s up to Scott Brooks, his staff and, mainly, the players to figure out how to solve the multitude of issues they dealt with so poorly last night, e.g. not being able to pressure Chris Paul (forget his shooting rampage - that was out of character for him, especially the 3s, but the fact he got to anywhere on the floor he wanted) and being able to force turnovers/bad (or, even just contested) shots, finding a way to attack the Clippers’ defense so they’re a pass ahead of the defensive rotations (like the Clippers have done to their offense), as opposed to a pass behind it.

Otherwise, they’ll be saying the same thing Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said last after Game 1:

“We just had one of those nights.”

Really, How Important Is Home Court Advantage?

Monday, May 5th, 2014

According to most everyone who’s voiced an opinion, the first round of NBA playoff games - which concluded yesterday - was the most exciting of all NBA first rounds ever. At the beginning of the season, the Indiana Pacers made it perfectly clear they wanted to earn the #1 seed in the East because they thought they lost the chance to be World Champions (or at least represent the East in the Finals) because Game 7 was played in Miami (they did win Game 2 in Miami but dropped Game 3 in Indy). The got their wish - although the Heat could have put up more of a fight. Heading into the next to last contest of the regular season, with the top seed in doubt, Coach Erik Spoelstra chose to rest LeBron James and Chris Bosh, and limit Dwyane Wade’s minutes considerably. One on hand, the Pacers’ goal paid off; they used home court to beat #8 seed Atlanta in Game 7. Meanwhile, the Heat’s strategy worked as well as their rested bunch dispatched #7 seed Charlotte in four straight.

Maybe, however, Indiana is on to something. In the other six playoff series, four of them went to Game 7s with three of the home teams winning (the top three seeds in the West - San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the LA Clippers). The only road victory went to Brooklyn, who “dumped” their last regular season contest in order to avoid #4 seed Chicago and play #3 seed Toronto. Had they lost yesterday, they would certainly have regretted their plan as the Bulls were so depleted that, while they gave maximum effort, they dropped their series in five games to the #5 seeded Wizards who disposed of the “feared” Bulls, by beating them three times in Chicago. If all the Raptors fans who showed up for their historic Game 7 were allowed in the building, Toronto might have pulled it off. As it was, the Nets squandered a ten point lead in the fourth quarter and won 104-103 when a last second shot was blocked by Paul Pierce at the buzzer.

Home court played a big part in the eighth and final series as, by now every NBA fan knows, #5 seed Portland advanced on Damian Lillard’s three-pointer with .9 seconds in Game 6 on their home court. Had the Blazers lost, #4 seed Houston would have strongly considered selling tickets to Round 2 prior to Game 7.

So it looks as though home court does, in fact, rule. After all the excitement and statements regarding the fact no one could figure who was going to win, in the West seeds 1, 2, 3 and 5 moved on while in the East, 1, 2, 5, and 6 were victorious. As is usually the case, the home teams will be favored to win in the second round. In the first two home games of Round 1, seven of the road teams pulled off upsets. Ruling out the Heat who swept, that means every one of the home teams lost one of their first two games (the Bulls lost both). Four of them (Indiana, the Clippers, OKC and San Antonio) won Game 7s.

Other than sweeping, what we can learn from all this is that the Pacers were wise at the beginning of the season to set as their goal to get home court advantage all the way through the Eastern Conference Playoffs. It wasn’t just for the advantage of playing four home games (look at all the early home court losses) but, as they bluntly stated at the time:

“We want Game 7 at home.”

Fans Should Rejoice for What We Have Been Given

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

As we get older, our memories fail us somewhat. Yet, even if they were crystal clear, this year’s NBA first round playoff games have surpassed any other year’s first round contests. They’ve been so good we should send thank you notes to each of the teams. Except, maybe, the Bobcats - but even those guys had a season that showed the ball club has a future, which had been questionable for . . . since they were granted a franchise. And while the Bulls were eliminated, who would have given them a sliver of hope after losing (again) superstar Derrick Rose for the season. Certainly not their front office who reacted to Rose’s season-ending injury by trading away Luol Deng, their most reliable scorer, for, basically, draft picks. Tom Thibodeau made the higher ups look bad for that move - but good for hiring him - when he transferred his “refuse to use excuses” attitude and had his guys, behind Joakim Noah, competing in every contest - even though it was a major miracle for them to crack 80 on the scoreboard.

The East was supposed to be Miami and Indiana and a bunch of D-League squads. Miami seemed to be the only team to get the memo. Brooklyn played (or didn’t) like they wanted the Raptors rather than the Bulls in the first round. They got more than they bargained for, but in their last game, down 22 heading into the fourth quarter, they put up 44 points and, if not for a bad pass by Andray Blatche, might just have pulled out, possibly, the greatest playoff comeback ever. Should they pull out a victory at home tonight, there will be a Game 7 north of the border on Sunday. Some people might be disappointed by that series but disappointment is one word that can’t be applied to the Atlanta Hawks. After last year’s battle against the Miami Heat, the Indiana Pacers made the statement that, had Game 7 been in Indy rather than Miami, they might have been NBA Champions. The Hawks seem to care more about this year than they do about last.

Indiana’s Holy Grail was the #1 seed in the East. They started the year like gangbusters but limped though the second half. The did get the #1 seed (some may say the Heat forfeited it to them) and began the playoffs against #8 seeded Atlanta. Due to the Pacers’ poor play - and a move by President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird trading away the longest tenured Pacer, Danny Granger, for Evan Turner, a player who scored big for the 76ers (hey, somebody had to score points for them) but whose addition to the squad might have upset the Pacers’ chemistry - Indiana looked vulnerable. The team played awful (although they’ve battled back to host Game 7 Saturday), including bad losses at home. It took about 35 years but Larry Legend finally had a move of his questioned, showing no one is above the wrath of fans scorned. Jeez!

Out West the playoffs have been sensational. There’s been #1 San Antonio finding in-state rival #8 Dallas more difficult than expected, #2 Oklahoma City really being put to the test against #7 seed Memphis (only because the West was so strong are the Grizzlies a #7 seed). Just to show the Pacers’ fans they won’t be outdone, the headline in the newspaper in Oklahoma referred to the NBA’s MVP (although it is not yet official) Kevin Durant as “Mr. Unreliable” because KD hasn’t duplicated his regular season stats (32ppg, 7.4 rpg, 5.5 apg) in the playoffs (29.3ppg, 9.8rpg, 3.7 apg - so far). In reality, it’s because the Thunder hasn’t already advanced - although each of the middle four games went to overtime. Then again, neither have any of the other top four seeds, the Houston Rockets facing elimination in Game 6 at Portland tonight.

Of course, everybody in the world knows about the Clippers-Warriors series but for all the wrong reasons - which we’ll let rest for a day blog. Golden State staved off elimination last night by winning a war of attrition (injuries and foul trouble/disqualifications). Game 7 at Staples has become a scalper’s dream.

It’s obvious the playoffs are terrific thus far for one major reason: nobody’s fans are happy. Thinking about it in another way, we all should be thankful. Usually at this time of the year, fans are complaining about how boring it was watching a sweep or having to sit through 4-1 series victories by the favored teams. So, for the first time in NBA history there will be three Game 7s on the same day. Tomorrow. And, depending on tonight’s contests, we might have another triple serving of 7s on Sunday.

Rather than complaining about how your team is not yet in round two, how about showing appreciation for some nail biters, independent of whether due to sensational play or “less bad” execution. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius:

“Dwell on the beauty of (the basketball). Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”

Was There Ever Any Doubt the Lakers Coaching Job Was Going to Be Open?

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Mike D’Antoni forced the hand of the Los Angeles Lakers when he kept pushing them to pick up the team option for 2015-16 on his contract. He didn’t want to be a lame duck coach (who does?) next season. When they hesitated, i.e. refused, he resigned - no doubt with a LARGE severance package. It’s always astounded me, admittedly an outsider, how professional sports teams seem to have no problem paying coaches not to coach.

After all the years I spent in athletics, granted none were on the professional level, you’d think I wouldn’t try to reconcile wasting so much money in a country that so desperately needs it to solve so many problems, e.g. the economy, advances in medicine, the homeless, education, etc. I’m not talking about the guy (or group) who will soon buy the Clippers for a billion. No, I understand that’s an investment. I mean the owner who gives a coach a 3-5 year contract, knowing (based on past history in their league) that the overwhelming odds are that they will fire him before the contract runs out. And then pay the next guy more.

It wasn’t that D’Antoni was a bad coach - although if you tune into 710 AM in LA you’ll find a whole slew of folks who’ll swear he was worse than their kid’s youth coach (except when they’d bitch about him because their kid, who is a natural, wasn’t used properly) - it was there was no way to tell. Most people are rational and realize when the best players can’t play because they’re injured, the team’s record is going to suffer. That’s just an excuse - and it’s lame in a big city like Los Angeles (or New York).

At the beginning of the season Lakers fans would chat it up at the water cooler, telling everybody who’d listen that Nash, Kobe & Pau had to be the best 1-2-3 combination in the NBA (even though they weren’t, taking account their age and the fact other teams had trios who could match, or even, outplay them). Nah, defense wouldn’t be a problem because if worse came to worst, the Lakers could outscore people. How . . . you get the idea. But then it became apparent that Steve Nash, who’s played years and years beyond what I’m certain his doctors advised due to his bad back, wasn’t going to be able to be a full-time starter. When he was, it wasn’t going to resemble the last time he and D’Antoni hooked up.

Still, there was optimism in the Lakers camp because of . . . tradition. “We’re the Lakers, we’ll figure out a way to make it to the playoffs, then pull out some Lakers magic. Like Kobe always does. Then, Kobe missed the first 19 games. And the last 57. C’mon, fans, that’s got to put a downer on any season. And it did - but the season still went on.  And the Lakers lost and lost and lost.

When you’ve been the King, others wait for you to falter. When you do, the “peasants” will enjoy watching your demise. And they did. “Well, just because we’re not as invincible as we used to be, it doesn’t mean we have to endure your ridicule. We will do what every other once proud (big city) franchise would do.” Start finding others to blame. And who better than the coach. Hey, he ain’t injured.

For his part, D’Antoni didn’t do much to ease the pain. There were records set for largest margins of defeat (to those lowly Clippers, no less) and other displays of ineptitude. General Manager Mitch Kupchak took hits from the fans as well. After all, wasn’t it his job to put the team together? The same players the fans wanted, no matter the price, he was now criticized for bringing in at such exorbitant salaries.

Kupchak was reasonable when looking at next season, realizing that, even with a healthy Kobe Bryant (healthy but who knows at what percent of “the real” Kobe he’ll be), the team doesn’t have the ability, meaning cap space, to be competitive.  Kobe has his “I’ll do anything to win” mentality - except when it comes to restructuring his contract (he’s on the books for $30 million). Nash has already said he’s not leaving his money on the table, which is admirable for a guy who’s played in so much pain throughout the years but not so for a GM (since his salary next year is $9.7M). Kupchak knew nobody could coach the team to “Lakers expectations” so, he figured, why fire Mike?

But D’Antoni pushed for the following year - no doubt knowing they didn’t want him AND that he didn’t particularly want to coach the Lakers again, especially not next season. Shrewd business move. It would have created quite a scenario had the front office agreed to his demand. D’Antoni might have passed out - along with a good portion of the fan base, and many of the players. Now, though, it’s expected the Lakers will bring in whomever Kobe wants because, although they have no chance to win (even though Kobe’s competitive desire will always feel he can find a way), that front office move will appease their superstar.

One early candidate is Byron Scott whose coaching record doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of Western Division foes. Then again, since Dr. Jack Ramsey passed, Scott probably is as good a choice as any. For next year, the best advice for the Los Angeles Lakers may just be what the late, great Arthur Ashe once said:

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”


As If We Needed It, Another Donald T. Sterling Story

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Adam Silver came down hard on Donald Sterling as everyone was expecting him to do - as he should have done - but don’t think for a minute that the situation is anywhere near resolved. Donald Tokowitz, who legally added “Sterling” to his name when he was an adult “to give himself an aura of success,” according to David Suissa’s article in the Jewish Journal, is used to spending time inside a courtroom.

Silver was so upset with the (for now) Clippers’ owner that the lifetime NBA ban he imposed on Sterling, along with the max $2.5 mil fine he levied, wasn’t enough. The new commish let it be known that he was doing everything in his power to work with the other 29 owners to force Sterling to sell his basketball empire. The newly banished owner has already told people he has no intention of selling his franchise, even though the club he purchased for $12.5 million might be able to find a bidder who’d gladly fork over a billion dollars. In any case, the opening round bid is rumored to be $700 mil (especially after the Milwaukee Bucks just fetched $550 million for a franchise nowhere near as attractive).

Many people questioned why it took so long for the NBA to sanction Sterling. After all, it’s not like he didn’t already have a history of racist actions. First, there was a Justice Department suit in which Sterling said he didn’t want to rent to black people because they “smell and attract vermin.” To show he wasn’t prejudiced against blacks (at least not only blacks), he also made derogatory statements against Hispanics. This came out of a 2009 column (yeah, five years ago) by Bill Plaschke in the Los Angeles Times. In other words, we’ve known Sterling was a racist for some time now. Undoubtedly, people who’d known him longer figured it out way before then. What may have mixed us up was that it was in 2009 that Sir Donald received the NAACP Lifetime Award. Or maybe because that same organization was about to give him a second Lifetime Award this month. With the sanctions Adam Silver laid on the old guy, he’s going to need another lifetime.

Why is it, knowing what a racist and jerk one of their own was, did the owners put up with his inhumane actions? That answer is less complicated than you’d think. Keep in mind, the NBA is a highly competitive business. Independent of David Stern’s remark, prior to the last negotiations, that several (or was it most) teams were losing money, the value of every franchise has continually skyrocketed. The owners are all multimillionaires, or better. They’re not in this business to make money. That’s what all their other ventures are for. The NBA offers something they desperately want but they can’t buy: an NBA Championship. 

Who gives a damn if one of the club members is a racist as long as he’s the least threatening and most incompetent owner when it comes to obtaining what they really want? With the built in advantage of being situated in LA (certainly one of the four most desirable locations for young, virile, wealthy men), do you really believe the other owners wanted another businessman like themselves owning the Clippers? While it’s not that simple (it never is), the recording made by Sterling’s girlfriend/mistress/hooker, and its timing, just couldn’t be overlooked. The point is, if someone really wanted him out years ago, the ethical challenge he exudes today has been part of his moral being for quite some time.

Whatever the case, this entire ordeal has produced some amusing questions, statements and thoughts. Of course, there were the asinine ideas - and self-serving ones - to go along with some zany notions. Here are some examples:

One person came out and said he thought last night’s game between the Clippers and Warriors should have been cancelled. Let’s take a (brief) look at this suggestion. If the game was cancelled, no one wins. Then again, there is one winner: Donald T. Sterling.  Believe it or not, a talk show call-in fool said he thought the Clips should have forfeited. Probably a guy who bet the Warriors on the money line.

Another absurd remark, although because it was by Mark Jackson, Golden State’s coach, we’ll consider it gamesmanship: Play the game with no fans. He might have a point. There would be no worries about distractions or demonstrations and the game would be pure basketball, yet I wonder if that would be his feeling for Game 6 - at Oracle?

There were also a couple questions that popped up in the past couple days.

Retroactive query #1: How did Doc Rivers feel when he was playing for Sterling? The simple answer to that is, in general, players don’t play for owners. Do fans ever cheer for the owner? Only at the parade. Or possibly, for guys like Mark Cuban or Mikhail Prokhorov, i.e. the new Jacks. The players know these employers better. Yet when it comes down to it, as far as non-basketball issues, a player deals with his GM (and most have their agent do that for them) rather than the owner. Owners are much more insulated. Does anyone think for a second that any of the guys currently on the Clippers’ roster had an agent who brought up Sterling’s racist views during negotiations? 4% of more is better than 4% of less - even if it means your client has to play for a racist. It’s not like he’s having his kids frolic around the owner’s mansion alone.

Retroactive query #2 (two parts): Wonder what David Stern thinks of squashing the Chris Paul to the Lakers trade now? And, wonder what CP3 thinks about it (he was pissed when Stern pulled the plug on it)?

Retroactive query #3: it was Rockets’ owner Leslie Alexander (although Charles Barkley claimed it was originally Jeff Van Gundy) who threw out the idea that every one of the Clippers ought to be declared a free agent. If anybody thinks that such an edict would shut the team down, they probably believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny. There are guys who are unhappy with their current situation; others (possibly even stars) on other NBA rosters, and still others in the D-League, who would jump to the Clippers in a second. If it meant money (and, in many instances, it wouldn’t even have to be that much more money), relocating to LA and having a chance to play in SoCal, you can bet there are players who would play for Satan’s team .

Finally, I heard both Steve Kerr and Ernie Johnson say that, surely, the owners will unanimously favor Adam Silver’s plan to request (force) Sterling to sell his ball club. On the surface, that’s exactly how it might appear . . . BUT, let’s stop and analyze that line of thinking. Every owner is pressuring Sterling - a racist and overall bad guy - to sell his “baby.” There isn’t a person in the group who doesn’t have money to burn. How certain are we that there isn’t another Donald T. Sterling?

Maybe not a racist but, when someone has so much money that they can buy whatever they want, could Silver be opening up a can of worms? Make no mistake about it, everybody has skeletons in his closet. In today’s world of the Internet, texting, emailing, sykping, instagram, tweeting - even electronic surveillance - will Donald T. Sterling become just another footnote?

As far as a wrap on this, later on in his article, David Suissa summed up the Sterling saga:

“We can’t legislate decency, but we can shame bigotry like never before. In a digital world, where millions of sound bites can spread in seconds and never go away, unleash your bigoted impulses and watch your legacy go down in shame.”

Why Would Cuonzo Martin Leave Tennessee for Cal?

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Cuonzo Martin was never a good fit at the University of Tennessee mainly because no one would have been a good fit there. Not after Bruce Pearl - who was the perfect fit - was fired. Pearl had revived a moribund program. He was exactly what Vols’ fans had longed for - a successful strategist, a terrific recruiter with an effervescent personality and, to boot, he was a true showman. Then he broke (minor) NCAA rules. The university came out in support of him but after it was proven he’d lied to the NCAA authorities, they cut him loose. When the coach is beloved, that never matters to fans. Nothing does. I was an assistant coach at UT from 1980-87. Even got married in Knoxville - to a Tennessee graduate. Consequently, to this day, I have many, many good friends who are diehard Big Orange supporters. Quite a few told me Bruce Pearl reminded them of a certain former beloved Tennessee coach.

The history of Tennessee basketball, more or less, begins with the late Ray Mears, a coach from Division II power Wittenburg (see how the natives react if UT’s administration tries hiring a D-II coach, even one who won a national championship and whose record is 121-23 overall and 69-7 in conference like Coach Mears’ was). He blew into Knoxville and coached there for 15 years without a losing record, until he retired. Most importantly, however, he bucked the notion that the SEC was a football-only league. Back then, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp was the bully of SEC basketball and the rest of the conference didn’t mind as long as UK remained a doormat in football.

This infuriated Ray Mears who felt his school, the others be damned, would fight and claw against the Wildcats. He turned everything in Knoxville orange during prospects’ recruiting visits - including the toilet paper. If ever a man was consumed by his job, it was this Ohio native. He had been thinking that although UT’s mascot was the Volunteers, he needed to separate his program from the others. One day while driving to work, he saw the giant billboard, advertising Marlboro cigarettes, proclaiming “This is Marlboro Country” and, eureka! he found his solution. Yeah, it was Ray Mears who coined the phrase Big Orange Country. He also proudly wore a flamboyant bright orange blazer on the sidelines. Battled Kentucky tooth-and-nail, too. The SEC is now known as a football and basketball conference because of Ray Mears.

Tennessee had been searching for him ever since. And then Bruce Pearl appeared from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, fresh off of a 26-6, Sweet Sixteen year. His tenure at UW-M was preceded by nine years at Southern Indiana - and a Division II national championship (maybe UT ought to look at a D-II coach after all). He embraced football - and Pat Summitt (the best coach, male or female, regardless of sport, I’ve ever been around in 30 years of college coaching at 9 different schools). Pearl was smart enough to know that being third in Knoxville was better than being first most other places.

As far as Martin’s departure from Tennessee for Cal, “in-the-know” basketball people will claim that being the basketball coach at Cal is actually a better job than its counterpart at UT. Granted, money in Knoxville goes a heckuva lot farther than it does in the Bay Area - and there’s a lot more of it for the hoops coach. There are two major reasons for this: the schools in the SEC get more bowl and television revenue than those in the Pac-12 and there’s this structure in Knoxville. The football stadium at UT is named after General Robert Neyland, the former director of athletics and football coach who made the Vols a national football power. Ground-breaking was in 1921 and the stadium, which had an original capacity of 3200, has been expanded 13 times - to its present capacity of 102,455 (although the attendance record is 109,061).

There are season tickets available but the least expensive will average out to be over $100 per game (based on 8 home games), once the cost of the annual donation is included. Multiply that times a whole lot of tickets and that will give you several million in revenue per game - just in ticket sales. Throw in concessions, souvenirs and parking (example: there are shuttle buses from Farragut HS, about a 30 min drive, for $15 so figure . . . a lot for parking/shuttles).

Yet, as the cliche goes, “recruiting is the lifeblood of college athletics” and I’ve held a strong belief that the more fertile recruiting base a college has around it, the easier it is to recruit (football is different due to UT’s gridiron tradition). My philosophy is not just that young kids want to play in front of their family and friends but that, if you don’t have a strong local recruiting base, you’re always in someone else’s backyard, trying to convince them to leave home. Oakland has a history of producing great players, plus the state of California sends more college players than any other. Sure, Memphis has more than its share of big-time basketball players but, while I can’t recall the exact number offhand when I worked there, it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 32 Division I colleges that are closer to Memphis that the 300 mile distance that’s between there and Knoxville, so while they share the same state, Memphis is in many other’s backyard. On another note, while UT has successfully recruited the Memphis area in football, keep in mind that the University of Memphis has always been at the bottom of the college feeding chain in football while their hoops’ squad is a perennial top 20 team.

Martin was anything but loved - even after he took the Vols to the Sweet Sixteen - because he wasn’t Bruce Pearl. Now he doesn’t have to be. Nor does he have to be Mike Montgomery. Or Pete Newell. Or even Dick Edwards (who coached there in the ’70s). Although thousands of Tennessee fans signed a petition to bring Pearl back (while Martin was still coaching), they didn’t get him (Auburn did, further upsetting Big Orange Country). UT will hire someone (soon) and, if history is any indication, the fans will adopt the “Show Me” philosophy of one of their bordering states. Yet, the old adage will in all likelihood still remain true:

“Things turn out best for people who make the best out of the way things turn out.”


A Short Synopsis Heading Into Masters Weekend

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Everyone knows that the biggest thing on a television executive’s mind is ratings. The almighty ratings. No one knows what the exact definition of totally devastating news to a TV exec is but you’d be hard-pressed to top “Hey, did you hear, Tiger won’t be playing in this year’s Masters.” There just isn’t enough Kleenex. Sharp objects are removed (except for those tiny pencils).

But no executive ever rose to that exalted position without being able to pull himself (or herself) together - whether through motivational sayings, meaningful affirmations or deep diaphragmatic breathing. Soon the thought process becomes, “OK, so Tiger’s not playing. Let’s give fans a great show. At some point we won’t have Tiger anymore and golf will still continue (Oh, God, I just hope it doesn’t happen until after I’ve moved up or retired . . . or died). Before long undoubtedly, there would be positive attitudes abounding throughout the studio. After all, wasn’t it an executive who coined the phrase, “The show must go on?” (Actually, I don’t know who said it but if I had to guess, it was probably the owner who sold out the house and didn’t want to refund all that dough).

Then, Friday’s play concluded. Golfers all over the country were wearing their thumbs out sending texts to their weekend playing partners, “Did you see Lefty fly the green from one trap to the other - and back again? I told you my game and his had something in common.” That line lost all its humor when Mickelson missed the cut - by one stroke. No Tiger, no Phil. Ouch!

“Is there any good news?” asked the executive. At this point it would take unbelievable job security, e.g. the owner’s kid or someone with compromising pictures of people really high up in the organization, to bring up the fact that Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson also missed the cut. Heck, no wonder Bubba Watson has a three stroke lead.

If ever a company line was heard, it was in the evening wrap up show with Jim Nantz and David Feherty when the affable Feherty made the statement (with a straight face), “I love this leader board.” When people speak of this Masters (barring anything other worldly happening during the weekend), “A Tradition Like No Other” will definitely not be what’s attached to it, but rather:

“Sometimes people don’t notice the things others do for them until they stop doing it.”

Kentucky-Louisville Game Brought Back Memory of a Similar Game

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

The year was 1983 and Stokely-Athletics Center, on the campus of the University of Tennessee, was packed to overflowing. This game, however, didn’t involve the hometown Vols. Rather, it was an NCAA Elite Eight contest between two teams that hadn’t played since 1959. The reason for the lapse wasn’t coincidental. The two institutions were located in the same state and the reason they hadn’t played was because one of the teams was THE state university, while the other was an institution in the same state who desperately wanted to compete against Big Brother. The general consensus of the basketball world felt that an annual series between the two would be great for the game, as the University of Kentucky was one of the nation’s blue bloods (along with UCLA, Kansas and North Carolina) and the University of Louisville was not only an up-and-comer, but a legitimate threat for a national title ever since they won it all in 1980 (their third of four Final Fours up to that time under coach Denny Crum). Yet, Louisville’s every attempt was rebuffed by Kentucky even though losing to U of L at that time wouldn’t be considered an embarrassment to anyone who knew anything about college basketball. It’s just that, for Big Blue Nation, losing to anyone was, and still is, an embarrassment.

During that time, I was an assistant at the University of Tennessee when Knoxville was the host city for the Elite Eight fray between the two squads from the Bluegrass state. As if there wasn’t enough at stake, the governor of Kentucky was John Y. Brown who just happened to be married to the former Miss America, Phyllis George - also known as the trailblazing female sports journalist. I can still vividly recall Brown entering the game, displaying his understanding of politics, wearing a blazer that was Kentucky blue on one side (exactly down the middle) and Louisville red on the other. I can’t recall which side was which because I was too focused looking at George more than the governor’s sport coat. Without a doubt, though, I can attest to the fact that it, like the crowd, was loud.

As was the game last night, the ‘83 contest was a terrific battle, one not for the faint of heart. Half of the tickets were sold to UK, the other half to U of L. Unlike last night, however, the result differed, with the #2 ranked Cards beating the Wildcats, who were #12 in the country’s poll. It was announced that, beginning the following season, the two schools would play a continual home and home series, the first of which was to be played at, naturally, Rupp Arena in Lexington. Louisville gladly conceded the site of the initial game (of a series that continues to this day). The ‘Cats won that meeting and, possibly to prove that a divine spirit hovers over Big Blue Nation, the two combatants met again that season in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament - in Lexington. Kentucky won both games - and the rivalry, which had existed everywhere but on the hardwood, flourished on the court as well.

Besides the annual series, started the season following the game in Knoxville, there have been three additional NCAA tournament games (the ‘84 contest, the 2012 semi-finals and, of course, last night, with UK winning all three, the ‘12 game just prior to claiming the national crown). The Wildcats owning bragging rights in the series, winning close to two out of every three times they take the court. Had they not come together - possibly with the aid of some good, old fashioned backroom politics, likely headed up by Governor Brown (he couldn’t afford to be seen in public with that hideous sport coat ever again) - college basketball fans would have been deprived one of the sport’s most intense rivalries. In a sports, score is kept. There’s a winner and there’s a loser. At the end of the contest, combatants shake hands and go about trying to improve.

There are some who say this only works in sports, that life is different. But as the saying goes:

“The problem isn’t that sports is not enough like life; the problem is that life is not enough like sports.”

Oh No! No More Dunking in Football

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

So dunking in football is disallowed. In reality, all the NFL did was tell the referees to enforce an already existing rule. Why? One reason was that last season the New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham dunked and tilted the crossbar. Although this occurred only once all season, it did cause a delay in the game, with the field crew coming out with a level to get the goalpost back in the proper position. Forget for the moment the unbelievable amount of entertainment we as fans are about to have snatched from our viewing experience and think about this. Does football really need additional delays? Aren’t seeing the refs “under the hood” enough to make you say (unless you have money on the game or are a fantasy player - I realize, in some cases, that’s redundant), “Jeez, just flip a coin and let’s get on with actual football!”

Those poor people in Green Bay, Buffalo, Cleveland and all the other cold weather cities that don’t have domed stadiums, is it right to make them freeze their tushies any more than they already are? Or, for the people at those sites who say they don’t mind it, is it right to force them to further lubricate themselves? Because if they say they don’t mind sitting outdoors in the cold, have them tell their faces when the cameras take crowd shots.

As stated, all the league did is to inform the referees to enforce the current rule. Could another reason be to avoid the “loophole lawyer.” We all know the guy who loves to sue big business over technicalities. Hypothetical case: a player goes up to dunk and breaks his wrist. His lawyer (actually, the lawyer his agent got for him) can almost be heard railing now, “The NFL claims it is concerned about player safety and has been working feverishly on decreasing injuries (yeah, like concussions) and they allow something as obvious and serious as this type of potential career-ending injury?” Career-ending. Yeah, his career.

“Well, they allow it in basketball,” says Joe the Fan. Well, in basketball, it’s done to score points for the team. In football the player has already scored! “Here’s another example of how NFL stands for the No Fun  League,’ ” bemoans Joe. We’ve heard that refrain before and some of the people complaining were the players! Hey, isn’t scoring a touchdown enough fun?

Face it, if taking away the “dunk after a TD” is lessening the excitement of watching - or playing - the game that much for you, it might be time to find another sport. UFC might fit the bill. And, then, at the end of the fight, they allow the winner to dunk a ball over the octagon. Or maybe the loser gets dunked over the octagon.

If the announcement bothers you to such an extent you think you might explode, Google “15 simple ways to overcome anger.” One example is #9: breathing relaxation techniques. They are:

  • Sit up straight in your chair, or stand up.
  • Loosen up clothing, especially if your stomach feels tight.
  • Inhale through your nose. Exhale through your mouth.
  • Put one hand over your belly.
  • When you inhale, feel your hand expanding as air is filled up in your diaphragm.
  • When you exhale, feel your hand retracting to the initial placement.
  • Count in your mind the number of inhales and exhales, and gradually level them off such that both take equal counts.
  • Slowly, add a count to your exhale.
  • Keep adding a count to your exhale until the count for exhales doubles that of the count for inhales.
  • Repeat this breathing rhythm for 5 to 10 times.
  • Keep your eyes closed in silence for a few minutes afterwards

If none of these work, try technique #10:

“Laughter”

Keeping Up with the Latest Hoops Jargon

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Taken - and edited some - from my 5/15/09 blog.

The game of basketball is relatively simple, i.e. put the ball in the basket and keep your opponent from putting it in his (or hers). Today’s analysts and talking heads, presumably in an attempt to create more of a mystique about the game, have expanded the dictionary of basketball terms. Why people feel this is necessary could be due to the popularity of Dick Vitale (”diaper dandy”, “PTPer”) or Clark Kellogg (”stat sheet stuffer”, “squeeze the orange”). Or maybe it started when Hubie Brown, lecturing at a clinic in the South in the late ’70’s, spoke about “sticking the J.” I was actually at this particular clinic, in which Hubie was interrupted by a coach in attendance who asked the question, “What’s a ‘J’?”

It was kind of funny at that time seeing Hubie try to conceal, a little, a smirk at the question. Earlier in his career, Hubie’s retort might have been, “How the f… can you coach basketball & not know what a ‘J’ is?” but he’d mellowed somewhat by then. I have to admit the guys in my group felt bad for the coach who asked the question, but felt relieved - although not as relieved as the coach would have been - had Hubie answered with the response we anticipated.

Players in this era have so many terms running through their heads, the only two groups that can be effective are the “thinkers who can play” and the “players who can think (some),” i.e. something along the lines of the NCAA’s sliding scale. To some coaches, namely my old boss, Jerry Tarkanian, thinking is a detrimental skill when it comes to being a basketball player. Tark’s mantra always was, “The more a player thinks, the slower his feet get.” While today’s game is quite similar that of Tark’s day, the “lingo” has certainly changed..

For example, players now “score the ball.” When I was coaching, I always took pride in keeping up with different strategies, but today I would need an answer to the following question, “What the hell else can you score?” I mean, have you ever heard, “Manny is really having a tough time scoring the ball tonight, but he’s been on fire finding the bottom of the net with several pairs of socks, a few rolls of athletic tape and three Gatorade cups he found lying around.” For the more sophisticated announcer, the term has recently morphed into. “score the basketball.” They must think the listener has to pause for a moment to ponder their brilliance.

Today’s players are no longer accomplished dribblers. They have “great handles.” I thought for a minute I might be able to make a comeback as a point guard because my wife keeps telling me I have great handles, but it turns out anybody can get those - as long as a person has enough discipline to overeat on a daily basis. Another new term is “touches” which is how many times players get the ball in scoring position. Coaches now talk about the need to get their best player “touches.”

To use dribbling to “score the ball,”  players used to be very good at driving it. Today, the scouting report will tell the guys to play the opponent’s wings as drivers because they can really put the ball on the floor or, in today’s verbiage, “deck it.” The last time I saw one of my friends deck it was when some guy insulted his girlfriend at a bar. “Deck it” was the phrase used, but “it” was the guy who unwisely opened his mouth about my buddy’s girl. Seemed like my buddy objected to him trying to get too many touches.

Also, guys who used to be great shooters are now considered wet. In years past those same shooters were called “silky smooth.” Apparently, silky smooth has been replaced by “wet” although you’d think a player would rather be smooth, especially of the silky variety, than wet but, with more and more announcers and people in the studio attempting to carve their own niche, it’s become a way to separate one personality from another. It’s certainly easier than being more knowledgeable.

When a shot goes up, the coach no longer tells players to “rebound” but to “board it.” Playmakers don’t get assists for passes that lead to scores, they drop dimes. The more dimes you have, the more guys want to play with you - especially wet guys. It’s evidently the same story in the inner city, i.e. people want to hang with the guy who has the most dimes, but they’re of a different variety. When that guy gets his picture taken, there’s a better than even chance it’s going to be both front and side.

There are those who wonder how anyone understands anyone else. No one is clear when they speak today. That wasn’t the case, however, when Harry Truman was asked why he felt that Dwight Eisenhower was struggling when he switched careers from the army to politics. Harry did his best “Give ‘em hell” answer to a question most politicians would have waxed poetic or sidestepped altogether. Instead, Truman’s response was:

“Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t used to being criticized and he never did get it through his head that’s what politics is all about. He was used to getting his ass kissed.”