SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Larger Than Life

In Philadelphia, everywhere you go, people still talk about him. When he was alive, everyone had a story about him. Or a sighting. When he died, the papers talked about him for days; it was as though the President had died. They talked about how he had changed his profession and the way others who came after him had to go about it. They talked about how he, and not some rival up in Boston or someone from a younger generation who did his work in Chicago, was the best that ever was. They all were talking about Wilt Chamberlain.

Well, on Monday they dedicated a statue in his honor outside the Wachovia Center, and more stories were told. About his generosity, about his inspiration, about his community involvement and, of course, his athletic ability. It was good to read. SportsProf has missed you, Wilt.

For too long SportsProf had to put up with the negative comparisons to Bill Russell, the knocks on Wilt's ability as a team player, the knocks on his defense. Yes, Russell was a great player and yes, Russell was the greatest defensive player ever. You'll get no quarrel here. But Wilt, perhaps, was the second-greatest defensive player. Ever. And, perhaps, the greatest offensive player. Ever. (Especially if you're from Philadelphia, you won't let anyone from Boston, Chicago or anywhere else win this argument). He set over 100 records, and, sure, he was not a good foul shooter, but at least once he led the league in assists! How many centers do that? He averaged 30.1 points, 22 rebounds and 4.4 assists a game! 22 rebounds a game? Who does that? How many basketball players are referred to by their first name alone? Still? Yes, the Celtics were a great team, perhaps the best ever. The '66-'67 Philadelphia team that unseated them is heralded as one of the best teams ever too, and it was the case that for most of the time Wilt was in Philadelphia the Celtics had more talent than the 76ers. No one will argue; the Celtics usually were the better team. Looking back, there shouldn't have been a whole lot of shame in being second best.

It's also probably the case that had Wilt Chamberlain played on those teams instead of Bill Russell the Celtics would have won all those titles just the same. I believe John Wooden said that, and I also believe that Red Auerbach would agree (after all, given the way the NBA had territorial drafts back then, he tried to convince Wilt to go to Harvard so that the Celtics could have first dibs on him. Smart man, that Coach Auerbach!). While some Boston fans will argue until they're red in the face that Russell made the Celtics and that he brought so much to the team that Chamberlain never could, they are forgetting that Chamberlain brought a ton to his team too. Again, SportsProf isn't knocking Bill Russell; he's just giving Wilt Chamberlain his due.

But this post is not meant to compare legends. There's room in the NBA's pantheon for all of them, for the Russell-led Celtics, for Michael Jordan, for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and, of course, for Wilt Chamberlain. The warm comments that poured out when he passed away several years ago were quite touching, and they came from people from all walks of life and from, among others, his former teammates and his former competitors (Bill Russell's comments were quite good). At 63, he died way too young (SportsProf had wanted to watch him playing beach volleyball at 80 -- and holding his own!).

No, the purpose of this post is to just give a nod once again to a Paul Bunyan-like figure, not only in West Philadelphia, where he grew up, or in Kansas, where he played (and where, decades later, they honored him in a ceremony at the Jayhawks' arena and Wilt came out in a Kansas letterman's jacket and brought down the crowd by leading them in the "Rock Chalk" cheer), or in Philadelphia or Los Angeles, where he played most of his professional career.

Sure, there are plenty of Wilt stories, and many of them are great ones.

But the greatest part of Wilt now is not a statue, which is nice, but all of the warm feelings that his legacy engendered. It was a shame, Dipper, that you felt the need to defend yourself and your career during most of your post-basketball life, and, that, as a result, some people didn't get to see the sides to you that people so fondly remembered on Monday.

Your legacy is not only of your revolutionary hoops exploits, but of your kindness and your heart. There may never be another player or person quite like you, but we were happy to have watched you while you were with us. Thanks for the great memories. Again.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Omens for the Fall (for Beantown and Texas, at least)

SportsProf spoke with a Friend of SportsProf today (given that in the Blogosphere we give people nicknames, perhaps we should call him "Bubba from Westchester County (NY)" regarding Bubba's prowess as a little league coach for his daughters' softball team. Because he couldn't get the Mets as his team's name, Bubba settled upon the Red Sox. Well, these Red Sox were good enough, as the real-life Red Sox, to make the playoffs, where they faced the mighty Yankees in a one-game elimination for the right to play for the championship. They led 5-2 going into the bottom of the seventh and last inning, whereupon in real Red Sox' style they surrendered 3 runs and the Yankees had a runner on third with two outs. Unlike the '86 BoSox, however, these Westchester County BoSox hung in there, no bouncing ball went through the first baseman's legs, and no pitcher poured gasoline on the fire. They won in extra innings.

That led them to an uphill fight against the favored Cubs, who, by their performance in the regular season, only had to win one game (to the Red Sox' two) in order to win the title. And, to top it all off, these BoSox had to play a morning game after a night game, and, if they won the first one against the Cubbies, another game only 15 minutes after the first game.

So what happened? Did these young girls from Westchester County fold? To the contrary, under Bubba's magnificent leadership (his motto: "Have fun, kids") they swept the mighty and favored Cubs to win the title. And Bubba's girls played a significant role in the outcome.

Red Sox beating Yankees to get to the championship, where they face the Cubs for all the marbles? Sounds like another league that many of us watch. As this Westchester (NY) little league goes, perhaps, so goes Major League Baseball. If I'm in Boston, I'd want to trade my lucky charms for the jerseys of these little leaguers.

And, speaking of heavily favored, perhaps this segment could be entitled, "Forget the Texans" after what apparently transpired after the College World Series championship game on Sunday in which Cal State Fullerton upset the Texas Longhorns 3-2 to win the NCAA baseball title. The Longhorns stayed in their locker room after the game and did not come out for the awards ceremony. And they're getting buried for that choice in the national media, with writers and commentators questioning their leadership and their sportsmanship.

Let's see, now, Texans angry about finishing in second place. Could this be an omen for, well, what happens right after the World Series -- the U.S. Presidential election?

Monday, June 28, 2004

More on the Ohio State Men's Hoops Coaching Job

Apparently Ohio State told Bob Knight "Thanks, No Thanks" after he indicated to his alma mater that he would accept the job if offered. ESPN.com reports that now the Buckeyes are interested in Vandy head coach Kevin Stallings, and in the same report they indicate that University of Pennsylvania head coach Fran Dunphy also is a candidate. Dunphy was a runner up to John Thompson III for the Georgetown job this past spring and was a candidate for the Penn State job last year (that ultimately went to Penn State alum Ed DeChellis, who did a great job at East Tennessee State and left the cupboard there so full that his successor coached the team to a 27-6 record and a berth in the Big Dance).

ESPN also reported that other candidates are ESPN analyst George Karl, Laker assistant Jim Cleamons, and, possibly, Xavier coach Thad Matta (whose name surfaced in the early rumors regarding the vacancy).

Ohio State would do very well if it hired the current dean of Ivy League coaches. Dunphy hasn't been a finalist for other jobs because those schools want to remind themselves that they are coaching student athletes and because it would look good to have an Ivy coach in the pool. To the contrary, he's been a finalist because of his won-loss record and his outstanding accomplishments at Penn. He is a great blender of talent, a good teacher of the game, and a class act. He's always been able to navigate the difficult waters that are recruiting student-athletes in the Ivies, so with the ability to give full athletic scholarships in the Big 10, he shouldn't have a problem getting top talent to matriculate in Columbus.

Perhaps he's destined to be a bridesmaid once again. But if, somehow, Andy Geiger is able to lure Kevin Stallings from Nashville to Columbus, the Vandy folks should not look any further than, well, Fran Dunphy, who has proven he can coach student-athletes that satisfy the Commodores' expectations.

Fran Dunphy is no one's bridesmaid. At least not for long.

Remember These Titans

At mid-season, the Cal State Fullerton baseball team was 15-16 and its star pitcher, Jason Windsor, had tendinitis in his throwing arm. So what happened? They went on a 32-6 run, culminating in an improbable national championship with a 3-2 win over heavily favored Texas yesterday. Windsor put up great numbers as the winning pitcher. The CWS title was the Titans' fourth in the past 25 years, first since 1995, and first for coach George Horton, whose mentor, Texas head coach Augie Garrido, won the other three when he was at Fullerton. Windsor, by the way, was a third-round pick of, you guessed it, the Oakland A's, which goes to show you that not only does a smaller-market major league team know where to find value, so does a non-Pac 10 team as well.

Only LSU, with 5, has won more CWS in the past 25 years. Miami, like Fullerton, also has won 4.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Six Degrees of Separation (Ivy League Style, with a Nod to the Philadelphia Big 5)

SI published a list of who it believes are the 101 most influential minorities in sports. Among the 101 anointed ones were two members of the Princeton Class of 1981, Steve Mills, who is President and Chief Operating Officer of Madison Square Garden Sports (coming in at #16) and Terdema Ussery, President and CEO of the Dallas Mavericks (coming in at #36).

Mills was an all-Ivy player (a shooting guard) who helped lead Princeton to a share of the Ivy title his senior year and then helped the Tigers engineer a dominating playoff victory against archrival Penn that enabled the Tigers to advance to the first round of the NCAA tournament -- and a date with a BYU team led by Danny Ainge. Some who watched the Ivies closely back in 1981 thought that Mills should have been named the Ivies' player of the year. Among Steve Mills' teammates at Princeton were PG Dave Blatt, assistant coach for Maccabi Tel Aviv, the very dominant team in the Israeli League that won the European championship this past year, and Craig Robinson, who would go on to win two Ivy Player-of-the-Year awards, who currently is an assistant at Northwestern under former Princeton mentor Bill Carmody, and whose brother-in-law, Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, is the odds-on favorite to take the U.S. Senate seat currently held by the retiring Peter Fitzgerald. Look for Craig Robinson to be the head coach of a Division I program within the next few years.

Terdema Ussery did not play a sport at Princeton. He just got elected to his alma mater's board of trustees.

Coming in at #55 is former Penn hoopster Craig Littlepage, who played on those great Penn teams in the early 1970's under Dick Harter (ironically now an asst. for the Philadelphia 76ers under Jim O'Brien, who is former St. Joe's coach and Portland Trail Blazers' head coach Jack Ramsay's son-in-law), and who is currently the AD at UVA (Littlepage had served as an assistant basketball coach and, later, an assistant AD under Terry Holland, was the prime recruiter of Ralph Sampson, and also served as head hoops coach at his alma mater and Rutgers, and he played at Penn alongside former NBA player Corky Calhoun, current NBA assistant Dave Wohl and current Penn AD Steve Bilsky, among others). There may not be a nicer person in all of intercollegiate athletics than Craig Littlepage. Coming in at #92 was the St. Joe's star at the time Littlepage played at Penn, Mike Bantom, who is the NBA's Sr. VP for Player Development. Bantom was a member of the ill-fated 1972 U.S. Olympic Basketball team.

Overall, it's a fascinating list, and SportsProf guesses there are more Ivy connections than meets his eye.

Small world? You bet. Big-time people, absolutely. They may not herald from the "major" conferences, but, then again, it all depends on how you define "major", doesn't it? They seem "major" enough to SportsProf.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

A Tale of Two Cities (and Three Players)

SportsProf can't figure out why Phillies' fans boo Scott Rolen. Sure, he can understand why they boo J.D. Drew , because J.D. dissed them by not wanting to come to Philadelphia. But booing Scott Rolen? Especially when they still love Curt Schilling, and he "committed" (if that's the right word) the same sin that Rolen did -- and earlier -- he wanted out of Philadelphia.

It shouldn't be that way for Rolen. First, Rolen played very well in Philadelphia and gave his all, mostly on (very) bad teams. Second, it was Rolen (and, to a certain extent), Curt Schilling, who woke up the Phillies' wealthy but cheap ownership out of their Rip Van Winkle-like slumber that took place from the mid-to-late 80's through 2000 and got them to take their fans, and good players, seriously.

The Phillies' records for 1997 through 2000 looked like this:

1997 68-94 33 games behind
1998 75-87 31 games behind
1999 76-85 26.5 games behind
2000 65-97 30 games behind.

Around the late 90's, Curt Schilling had been saying for a while that the Phillies' ownership was not committed to winning. Reading between the lines, what Curt was saying that while perhaps his teammates all belonged in the majors, they all didn't belong on the same team. There were many fourth and fifth starters, many would-be back-ups on those teams. The fans agreed and stayed away in droves. Why pay to see a team that would be out of the running by July? The Bill Giles-led ownership insulted the fans' intelligence while complaining that the Phillies were a small-market team that had troubling keeping apace with the big-market teams. That line of thinking was among the most foolish thinking espoused in the history of a poorly run franchise. Small market? Hey, Bill, didn't you forget that Philadelphia then was the fourth-largest city in the U.S. and now is the fifth-largest? The simple truth was that they didn't want to spend the money to pay for the quality of talent needed to win a championship.

Yet, the brahmin ownership didn't care, and didn't want to get burned again after having signed Greg Jefferies as a free agent and not getting a good return on their investment. So they put out a mediocre team, and the results showed.

And the hard chargers on the team got fed up. Schilling was first, and he drove management crazy with his public ruminations. In 2000, he forced a trade to the Diamondbacks for Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee and Vicente Padilla. Daal was an innings-eater, Figueroa somewhat of a prospect, Lee was potentially a starter at first and Padilla, they said, had closer written all over him. Figueroa, a Brandeis grad, centerfielder Doug Glanville, a Penn grad, and Rolen, who didn't go to college (he turned down a basketball scholarship to Georgia) but who read the great books on team flights, certainly gave the media some folks to talk to on a more than grunting basis. But the team faltered. Daal and Figueroa are long gone, Lee was too inconsistent (and too mellow) for Larry Bowa, and Padilla still is trying to harness his tremendous talent.

No one really got angry with Schilling. He was right, even if it hurt. The ownership was lame, and Schilling was only doing what many of the fans had done before -- voting with his feet. He was so popular that many Philadelphia fans root for him to this day and cheered him when he helped lead the D-Backs to the world championship several years ago.

Rolen was the next to leave, albeit two years later, in 2002. He made the mistake of confiding to Schilling in 2000 that he wanted out for similar reasons, a bad ballpark and an ownership that didn't seem committed to spending the money to win a title. Schilling then relayed this to the local media. The Phillies threw big bucks at Rolen, desperate as they were for him to remain as they were on the verge of opening a new ballpark, and he and his agent went back and forth with Ed Wade, the Phillies' GM, but Rolen decided not to talk contract during the 2002 season. That strategy seemingly infuriated GM Ed Wade and manager Larry Bowa, the stalemate went public and turned into a rift, the Phillies and some local media cast Rolen as a greedy modern ballplayer (the contract offer was generous and, I believe, better than what Rolen ultimately got in St. Louis), and the climate was tense. Rolen was roundly booed for reasons that remain unclear to me and to this day, still gets booed. He was right, and he told the truth. He always gave his all.

So in 2002 the Phillies shipped Rolen to the Cards for Placido Polanco, Bud Smith and Mike Timlin. Makes you think of an Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock scenario. Attendance remained bad, and the Phillies were on the verge of opening a new stadium.

In the off-season that followed, they signed Jim Thome, who is 5 years older than Rolen, to a whopping contract, and then this year they opened a new stadium, which, by all accounts, is a very nice place to watch a game (but perhaps not to pitch one). They showed, correctly, that the money they would have spent on Rolen got them Thome, free agent 3B David Bell and pitcher Kevin Millwood, as salaries dropped during that off-season. Thome is very popular, the Paul Bunyan type who hits mammoth home runs and always seems in a good mood. Bell spent most of the time on the DL with a bad back, and Millwood had trouble during crunch time in September. Still, it was the Phillies' gas-can bullpen that faltered most during the playoff run, and the Phillies finished behind the Marlins. But the future looked bright, they spent more money in last off-season (adding Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell and Eric Milton), and they are once again contending for a division title.

The numbers for the dramatis personae this year are as follows:

Rolen: .341, 18 HR, 75 RBI.
Thome: .320, 25 HR, 53 RBI.
Schilling: 9-4, 3.17 ERA (1.12 WHIP).

All are great players. One gets cheered in Philadelphia because all now is well, the gingerbread house stadium was built, and he's hitting majestic home runs. That's the way it should be. Another gets cheered because in a big game he still might be the best pitcher of the past 10 years, and the fans remember his heroic efforts in the 1993 post-season very fondly. Even though he created his share of controversy, he was very media-friendly and savvy, and the fans like his guts.

But the third, who always charges hard, who always is graceful and gracious, gets roundly booed as a visiting player. He was greedy, the fans think. He was an ingrate. And there the fans are wrong. First, he's no more greedy or an ingrate than any other major league player. Second, no one can fault him for wanting to win (even if St. Louis has proved, ironically, that it's a few pitchers short from seriously contending). Third, no one ever could question his effort or his class.

And, because of the stance he took, the comatose (if not catatonic) Phillies' management awoke from its deep slumber. And started spending the money that now makes a Phillies' fan want to watch the games closely, because the Phillies are in contention.

So the next time they see Scott Rolen, they should give him a standing ovation. Because, without the stance he took, you would have a 74-88 baseball team playing in Citizens Bank Park today.

Philadelphia fans will go see a good team in a cow pasture (or a decaying concrete saucer, for that matter), but they won't go see a bad team in a palace. At least not for long.

And they can watch all three of those stalwarts in this year's All-Star game. Which is as it should be.

Friday, June 25, 2004

From Iran, with Love

SportsProf noted in an earlier post that two Iranian players, Hamid Hadadi and Jaber Rouzbahani, had applied for early entry into the NBA draft. SportsProf noted this and questioned whether either player could possibly gain entry into the league, given the various proscriptions the U.S. and Iranian governments have. It doesn't help (at least in the sense of the overall international hoops scene) when the former refers to the latter as part of the "Axis of Evil" and the latter refers to the former as "The Great Satan."

Those questions have apparently been answered, as Jaber Rouzbahani is living with an associate of powerful agent Aaron Goodwin (he's the agent for LeBron James, there's an article in this week's SI about him and he's #8 on SI's list of most powerful minorities in sports). Rouzbahani has a visa, is living in the SF Bay Area and is working on his game and his English. He wasn't drafted last night, so it will be interesting to see where he goes next to improve his game. Perhaps the more interesting story is how and why the Iranians decided to let him come to America in the first place.

Click here, here and here to read about Jaber Rouzbahani, who held Yao Ming to 15 points in a game between China and Iran in last year's Asian games. He's 18, he's 7'5", 300 pounds (as a result of a pituitary gland disorder that has afflicted the likes of former Washington Bullet Georghe Muresan and current Maverick (as in for one-day) Pavel Podkolizine), and, he has some serious skills. And he really wants to be the Iranian pioneer in the NBA.

A thaw in relations between "The Great Satan" and the capital of "The Axis of Evil?" Don't bet on it. Jaber Rouzbahani is just a kid, and it's not clear how good he'll become. But it would be nice if somehow the game that Dr. Naismith invented to keep his football players in shape in the wintertime has some role in making both countries look more human to one another.

At least for Jaber Rouzbahani's initial 15 minutes of fame.

Reflections on the NBA Draft

SportsProf watched ESPN's coverage of the NBA with great interest last night (at least the first round), and couldn't help but notice that a college degree just doesn't mean what it used to (perhaps, more realistically, exhausting four years of eligibility isn't worth what it used to be). In the first round, four seniors, eleven underclassmen, eight high school players and six overseas players were taken. Most definitely, those who toil in front offices for NBA teams aren't familiar with the line that legendary Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty once authored: "Potential means you ain't done it yet."

To SportsProf, the winners of the night were Orlando and Chicago. With the first pick, the Magic took Dwight Howard, who the draft gurus say has a better chance of turning into Kevin Garnett than Kwame Brown. The Magic also engineered a trade for Jameer Nelson, who should be an upgrade at the PG position over Tyrone Lue. (Imagine had the Magic taken Emeka Okafor instead of Howard, and then you'd have Okafor and Nelson, the two best players in college basketball in 2003-2004, running together in Orlando. That would have been fun to see). The Bulls still have to figure out what to do with Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, but in landing both Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, they are building for the future once again (although Bulls fans have to ask how many times can they land big-name prospects and not propel the team forward?).

You'd have to argue that the two best backcourts in the country in college last year belonged to teams in, take a deep breath, the Atlantic Ten. Jameer Nelson of the St. Joe's Hawks went 20th in the first round (to Denver, who traded him to Orlando) and Delonte West, who went 24th to the Boston Celtics (who claim they had him rated as the second best PG in the draft after Shaun Livingston). West, as it turned out, made absolutely the right decision in opting for the draft and not to return to St. Joe's for his senior year. While he could have had the opportunity to work on his game as a PG, he might not have had a great unit to distribute the ball to had he returned. Kudos to West for making a courageous decision that worked out well for him. Said St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli, "Now I have to go back home and explain to people how we lost two games last year with two future first-round picks in the backcourt." (Let's just hope for West's sake that the Celtics know what they're doing, as they have made some curious front office moves over the past several years).

The second best backcourt might have belonged to Xavier, who had both of its guards selected in the second round -- Lionel Chalmers at 33 to the Clippers and Romain Sato at 52 to the Spurs. It wasn't that long ago that these two players helped the X men shellack the St. Joe's Hawks in the A-10 playoffs. The second round is a big dropoff from the first round -- no guaranteed money, much longer odds of making the team, but it's a nice nod toward a very much underrated duo.

It was a good night for Slovenians, the two best players from that country, Sasha Vujacic and Beno Udrih, who played their pro ball in Italy and Israel, respectively, were drafted at the end of the first round (by the Lakers and Spurs, respectively). Give those players props for showing up at the NBA draft get-together in NYC despite not getting an official invite to appear at a table in the ready room. Only in America.

The last player to get the guaranteed money is David Harrison, the big center from Colorado whose father, Dennis "Big Foot" Harrison, played defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles for Dick Vermeil back in the day when Vermeil was a young coach out of UCLA making good in the NFL. Harrison is a big presence in the low blocks, but needs to work on various aspects of his game to advance to more than backup status in the NBA.

The most interesting (or amusing) item I saw about the draft was when I glimpsed at the second-round list and found two players taken with "Georgia" listed as where they last played. The last player in the draft, Rashad Wright, played his college ball at the University of Georgia, while the 42nd player taken, Viktor Sanikidze, played in Georgia (not in Athens or Atlanta, but the birthplace of Josef Stalin, among others).

The 76ers also were a winner, relatively speaking, when they got Andre Iguodala of Arizona with the 9th pick, precisely because in taking Rafael Araujo of BYU with the 8th pick, the Raptors brain-cramped. Araujo was a good college player, but he's somewhat immobile, and he went way too early.

Drafts are fun because they enable us to try to predict the future. Will any of the foreign players turn out to be stars, or will they just be a bunch of guys with good fundamentals who can't speak English well and who seemingly have misplaced consonants in their last names? Where were the Serbians and Croatians, formerly the darlings of the NBA scouts? Have players from the Baltics (at least Latvia this year) and the former Soviet Republics replaced them as the hot commodities? And how will Chris Duhon fare? The Bulls took him in the second round after he didn't fare well in the Chicago workouts. Will he make the roster? Will he have an impact?

Whatever the case, the NBA GMs who took HS players are playing a dangerous game. On the one hand, the trend has been to draft for potential. On the other hand, the demand has been win now or lose at the box office and lop off the head of your coach. Which means for someone like Mo Cheeks, who gets Sebastian Telfair (whom he supposedly loves) and two Russian teammates from CSKA Moscow, good luck. Perhaps the GMs can be patient, but coaches like you cannot.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

How the NBA is Unlike the U.S. Congress

SportsProf remembers watching the nightly national news several years ago, during a time when there was an off-year Congressional election taking place. The results were rather predictable -- most incumbent members of the U.S. House of Representatives were reelected, despite the public's opinion that Congress was doing a bad job and that most members of the House should not have been reelected. One pundit quipped: "I suppose that what the public is really saying is that their representative is okay, but it's the other guys who are plum awful and should be voted out."

The reverse holds true this time of the year for the average NBA fan. Most fans are realists, and most can tell whether or not the home team has the goods to contend for the title. Most sports talk shows on the radio conclude (rightly so, given the odds), that the home team is lacking in some fundamental way and that it cannot possibly compete against, say, the four best teams in the league. Are the fans that smart, or are the barriers to a championship so formidable (Sisyphian, for the literati among you) that you have to be a complete fool, ostrich or non-fan to realize that parity is as lacking in the NBA as it is present in the NFL? Put another way, it's hard to imagine a doormat turning into a contender in one or two years' time in the NBA, but in the NFL seemingly it happens every year.

Prime evidence that management realizes that it must do something to shake up a team that either hasn't contended for a while or is on the verge of bigger things is the day of the NBA draft. Already two big trades have taken place, and from what SportsProf has read on the wire services, more are in the offing. In fact, one key prognosticator has offered that all of the lottery picks could be up for trading tonight.

So, while it seems like the names Howard, Okafor, Gordon, Pokolodzine, Harris, Deng, Childress, Iguodala and others will populate the top 10, it's hard to predict where they will be going. The NBA draft, though, usually is a pretty good show, and tonight should be no exception.

And, after this spectacle takes place, Commissioner Stern should act with the candor that most fans do about their local teams and hit the NBA's biggest problem head on: your product, the average game, is over-priced and suffers from major quality-assurance/qualiity-control issues. In plain English, it's bad.

So while you can take your game to China, to Western Europe, and all over the globe, the best think you can do, Commissioner Stern, is to take some of the pixie dust that resides in the NFL Commissioner's office (initial formulary by Pete Rozelle, enhanced by Paul Tagliabue) and sprinkle it all over your operations.

Because perhaps for an NBA fan in the U.S., the one thing more frustrating than watching Congress in action is to pluck down $65 a ticket, $15 for parking, $60+ for bad food, and more for souveniers to watch, say, the Hawks play the Clippers. That's a bad product, and that's got to change.

You can sell a lot of merchandise, you can have celebrities sitting in the front row, and you can have cool songs as the intro to your playoff games, but despite the fancy clothing, the game, stripped down to its essentials, is almost naked.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

SportsProf Will Be Away for a Brief Hiatus

SportsProf won't be able to post through Friday, June 25. In the meantime, here are a few topics to think about:

1. You can check out the June archives of SportsProf for my recommendations (actually, you'll need to scroll down a little bit) for some good (sports-related) summer reading. If you have any recommendations of your own, please post them in the comments section. If any of you are reading or going to read "Ben Hogan: An American Life", please let me know what you think. I heard the author, James Dodson, interviewed on ESPN Radio yesterday, and the book sounds like it could be an interesting read. Also, I reiterate for baseball fans the greatness of "The Glory of Their Times." If you've never read it, you're really missing something wonderful.

2. Phil Wallace has posted some good stuff on the demise of the Laker dynasty and who might be the next Lakers' coach. Click here (and scroll down a post or two) to read about it. Check out the part that suggests that Shaq may be headed to the Mavericks.

3. Mark Cuban has posted his thoughts on the Pistons' championship and what it means for the NBA. Click here to read about it. It makes for interesting reading, but I can't be sure from reading this whether Cuban is confident about his Mavericks' future. Mark, here's one thing to think about -- the willingness of your players to play great team defense. You don't have to be a great manager to realize that some people have talent to do certain things and some don't (and some of your folks may be defensively challenged, and, perhaps your coach is too). To Mark Cuban's credit, he'll probably do the necessary tinkering to improve his Mavericks. The old adage still holds true -- offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships. Exhibit A: Detroit Pistons. Shaq in Dallas? It's not out of the question, given Mark Cuban's hunger for a title.

4. For those of you eager for news about both college basketball and the NBA draft, check out the College Basketball blog. There's lots of good stuff here, and, yes, the College Basketball blogmaster did just pay me a compliment. There's a nice piece in a recent post about Maurice Lucas's son, David, who is a fine college player in his own right. Taking you down memory lane, Maurice Lucas was one of the first "bad-boy" power forwards in the NBA (for those of us who don't date back to the days of Tommy Heinsohn and Clyde Lovellette on the Boston Celtics).

5. The US Open has a wonderful finish in store for all of you today, with Retief Goosen looking to repeat. Even if you're not the biggest golf fan, check it out, as there's always good drama in this tournament. Besides, for the dads out there, you should get a pass of some sort, it's Father's Day.

6. The NBA Expansion Draft is Tuesday, the NBA Draft is Thursday, and there are a lot of big names whose careers are in flux at the moment. Kobe has opted out of his contract, Shaq has demanded to be traded, Tracy McGrady has said he won't sign with the Magic when his contract expires after this year, the 76ers can't really be happy with Allen Iverson, and lots of teams have said they might want to trade up into the Top 10 of the draft. The result: could be a very active week in the NBA.

7. Please post if you care about Wimbledon or, frankly, if you can name the top five seeds in either the men's or women's draw. What is happening to professional tennis? Does anyone follow this sport that closely anymore? It used to be fun to watch the major tennis tournaments, but the sport has lost, well, its oomph.

It should be a fun week. I'll see you at the end of it.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Philadelphia Phillies Will Do Something . . .

with their roster, with their manager, or both.

Going into the season, the Phillies were viewed as a playoff-caliber team and, by many, as the winner of the NL East. Well some funny things have happened since they were so anointed.

1. The New Stadium. It's a nice park, not as dramatic as Camden Yards, but aesthetically a big improvement over The Vet, and the fans sit much closer to the action. But the Vet was a rather neutral park in terms of whether if favored pitchers or hitters, and the local writers now refer to Citizens Bank Park as "Soars Field", a takeoff on the launching pad in Denver known as Coors Field. While the home team is built for power, it was also built for pitching, and the new park has taken away the advantage in the arms' race the Phillies thought they had.

2. Hitting. Many prognosticators liked the Phillies' lineup and thought they'd improve on 2003. Pat Burrell has definitely improved, and his OBP is great, but three of the eight position players are having bad years. Marlon Byrd, in center, had a good season last year, but he's hitting .220 and his OBP is .295. Ouch. Catcher Mike Lieberthal's OBP is a paltry .305, and SS Jimmy Rollins, whom the Phillies hoped would be their leadoff hitter, has an OBP of .330 (not good for the top of the lineup). Regardless of whether you're a Billy Beane disciple, the Phillies' offense is not getting the job done.

3. Pitching/Injuries. For the Phillies, they go together, and the other night the pitchers who worked were Paul Abbott, Geoff Geary and Elizardo Ramirez, a castoff, a AAAA pitcher and a guy who was in A ball last year. As for the starters, the bad ERA and WHIP of Kevin Millwood is making Phillies' fans wish that the Phils hadn't traded Johnny Estrada, who's having a good year for the Braves, for Millwood 2 seasons ago. Eric Milton is 8-1, but his ERA is about 4.40 and his WHIP is 1.55, not exactly dazzling numbers.

4. The Skipper. When the Phillies were trying to regain their respectability, the argument was that Larry Bowa was bulletproof because he was their biggest marketing advantage, the link to the 1980 World Champions. Now, the Phillies have Jim Thome, a revived Pat Burrell, and a starting pitching staff, when healthy, that includes perhaps 5 of baseballs top 50 starting pitchers (although none would be in the top 25). And Billy Wagner. So, Bowa is expendable, but the irony here is that the bad start isn't Bowa's fault. The injuries to the pitching staff have been staggering, no one could have predicted how the home field would turn out (at least in terms of giving the home team an advantage), and the hitting hasn't been there. In Bowa's defense, much of this hasn't been his fault, and the stories about clubhouse tension with Bowa just haven't been there either.

5. So What Might Happen? Some type of big trade has to be in the works, in order to get some players with better OBPs in the lineup. It will be hard to get into the playoffs when 3 of your 8 position players are having bad offensive years. Center field is the obvious spot where the Phillies might make a change, and I also wouldn't be surprised to see the team move Jimmy Rollins if they can get a better offensive SS and one who listens to coaching about his hitting. Larry Bowa, though, should be safe for now.

A Little More on Delonte West (and Other Bubble Players)

Look for a helter-skelter NBA draft next Thursday night. What once was thought to be a deep draft may no longer be. Why? All but 6 of the "serious" international prospects opted out of the draft because they couldn't get guarantees that they would be first-round picks. Even the best name in the draft, Tiago Splitter of Brazil, pulled out, and for that reason.

Sometimes kids are enticed to stay in the draft because a team with a late first-round pick tells him that they'll take him if he's around when they pick. But this year teams were reluctant to do so because many of them would like to trade up. Which means in the crazy world of professional sports drafts, where teams don't like to tip their hands, they at least were honest enough in the NBA to tell kids from the U.S., Eastern Europe and South America that they might not get chose in the first round.

What does all of this mean? It means that kids like Delonte West now actually have a chance to go late in the first round, because the depth just isn't there. Perhaps West had all of this intelligence when he opted to stay in the draft, and perhaps it will turn out that he is wiser than the pundits who questioned his decision.

The projections for his teammate Jameer Nelson are that Nelson will go somewhere around twenty-third in the first round. It would be quite fitting if his running mate would be there too, albeit a few slots behind.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Interesting Names Among NBA Early-Entry Draft List

ESPN.com serves up for us the list of all of those players who have declared themselves eligible for the NBA draft as "early entrants." There are the familiar college names -- Emeka Okafor, Josh Childress, Devin Harris, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng -- and the familiar HS names -- Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston, J.R. Smith, Sebastian Telfair -- and the European names (some of which have transliterations from their native Russian or other Eastern European languages that are hard to pronounce now but could be easier to pronounce in the future if Eastern Europeans make deeper inroads into the NBA). Then there are some sadder cases, such as Jason Parker, once intended for Carolina, spent some time at Kentucky, and is now a person without a team. Ditto Imari Sawyer, formerly of DePaul (last played there 2 years ago).

And then there are the two 7'4" Iranians, 19 year-old Hamid Haddadi, and 18 year-old Jaber Rouzbahani. Most certainly, their size would intrigue any scout (as has the size of the 7'5" Siberian who played in the Italian League (level one), the 7'4" South Korean who played against Yao Ming in the Asian games last summer, and the 6'10", 300-pound nimble Brazilian who was found at a construction site near Rio, and as did the size of 7'4", 280-pound Eric Gingold, who played some college ball at Division III Williams, and who got some ink from the national press surrounding his NBA prospects about 5 years ago). But these guys, so far, haven't gotten that much press. They're young kids, and, well, they're playing an American game in a country that, well, hates America.

Which raises all sorts of fascinating questions, such as, where will they play next? Are they any good? Do they somehow get access to NBA telecasts in Iran? Wouldn't the government in Teheran try to jam any signal of this type of American culture? Would the U.S. Executive Order prohibiting trade with Iran prevent these kids from playing in America even if they were any good (which might be a sad consequence of these laws, as was the consequence of having Sydney Maree banned from international track competitions years ago because, even though he is black, because he was from South Africa).

So remember the 7'4" one-two punch straight from Iran, Hamid Haddadi and Jaber Rouzbahani.

Just don't look to hear their names called at the NBA Draft on June 24.

Go West, Young Man (or Not Quite -- or Quietly)

Last year, the big story in Philadelphia college hoops during the post-season was whether St. Joe's guard Jameer Nelson would forsake his senior year on Hawk Hill and enter the NBA draft. After a stellar junior year, Nelson participated in post-season workouts to assess where he would fall in the 2003 NBA draft, and he learned that he wasn't going to be a first-round pick. So, he returned to St. Joe's for his senior year, won many Player of the Year awards, and now will be a first-round pick in this year's NBA draft (originally projected to be a lottery pick, Nelson will probably go anywhere from 19th to 25th in the first round). Needless to say, Nelson made a very wise decision.

What hasn't been said is that it's tough for twenty or twenty-one year olds who are outstanding at their craft to make a decision that requires such wisdom. After all, part of what defines their greatness is their belief in themselves to do amazing things on the court. So it's hard for a great player to entertain the type of doubts necessary to make the type of wise decision Nelson did. As a result, Nelson tempered his belief in his own ability, listened to some excellent advice, worked very hard on his game, and he'll get guaranteed money this summer. He did have confidence in his overall game, but he weighed that against a tough self-assessment that he did need to improve.

But Nelson was an unusual college junior whose career admittedly was on the bubble -- to stay or to go was a hard choice -- until he learned he wouldn't be taken in the first round. To stay or to go was a very tough decision. Others might have taken the plunge, even if it meant falling into the second round. Why? Because deep in their hearts they believe they can play with anyone.

As does Delonte West, the two guard for the St. Joe's Hawks during the past two seasons, Robin to Nelson's Batman, the "other" guard who starred for this nifty mid-major team and helped them get to within a few baskets of the Final Four. Listed as a 6'4" shooting guard, but measured as a 6'2" tweener, West was told that he would need to learn to play the point-guard position to make it in the NBA.

And, to a degree, he did make the conversion, and he did impress scouts with his versatility both at the NBA evaluations (including the recent one at the Moody Bible Institute outside Chicago) and in private workouts for teams. But while he impressed many scouts, he didn't impress them enough to displace other guards out of the first round. Which meant that were he not to elect to pull out of the NBA draft, Delonte West would be taking the risk of a contract without any guaranteed money.

Which is precisely what he did. Yesterday at noon was the deadline for underclassmen without agents to pull out of the NBA draft, but Delonte West did not do so. Instead, he opted to remain, rolling the dice on a promising career. True, there is a shot that he could turn into another Steve Blake or Keith Bogans, and, despite not being a first-round pick, finish among the top 20 rookies in minutes played. True, he could end up being the one who slipped through the complicated radar screens that the NBA puts up to review prospects.

Truer, though, that West would have been wise to follow in the footsteps of his now former teammate, Nelson, return to St. Joe's, play the point, hone his craft in a serious way, and then emerge as a top PG prospect in the 2005 NBA draft. The reasons for West to return to Hawk Hill were more compelling than those for Nelson, in that Nelson already knew how to play PG, he just needed to take his game to a higher level. In West's case, he needs to prove he can play PG, to add to his value. Going tback for his senior year at St. Joe's would have enabled him to do just that.

Instead, Delonte West has decided to take the plunge and jump into basketball's deep end, the National Basketball Association. The odds are that he might last in the league for a couple of years, perhaps at the end of someone's bench, perhaps getting 10-day contracts here and there and shuttling back from the CBA to the NBA. And it's hard to say whether the odds would be any better for Delonte West had he opted to go back to college for his senior year.

The June 24 NBA draft now will contain the guards who formed the best backcourt in college basketball this past season. The forecast for the duo is partly sunny, partly cloudy.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Here's to You, Mr. Robinson

He manages in a baseball wasteland, perhaps the last stop on the road to diamond hell. He manages a team that nobody wants, that its owners neglect, that its home city could care less about. He's a Hall of Famer who played during a time where ballplayers didn't make the megabucks they do today, so perhaps he really needs the money he makes, but you wonder whether he does this for any other reason than he just loves the game.

His team flirted with some glory for the first half of last year, only to then wilt during the final turn the way 6 of the past 8 contenders for horse racing's Triple Crown found mortality during the home stretch of The Belmont Stakes. Secretariat or Affirmed -- or even Rocky Balboa to mix the metaphor -- the 2003 Montreal Expos were not to become.

So why does Frank Robinson continue to manage a team that has no chance of winning? And how does he manage to do it with such conviction? Last night in Montreal, before 3,700 or so true baseball fans, the T-NOWs Team No One Wants) lost to the Minnesota Twins, another franchise just a few steps ahead of baseball oblivion, on a controversial (read: bad) call by the umpires who somehow deemed Luis Rivas' foul ball a fair ball and a home run that gave the Twins the game, 5-4.

Did Frank Robinson simply bear the bad call by the Men in Blue? Why didn't he just say, "Aw, heck, had we done x, y and z, we wouldn't have been in a spot where that hit should have mattered?" Isn't that what some coaches and managers do?

Instead, Frank argued vociferously, taking on each member of the umpiring crew before getting ejected after he made choking gestures to the umpires. Instead of going quietly, as, supposedly, the T-NOWs are supposed to do, their skipper gave 'em hell.

He gave 'em hell because to him each game does matter, and no one will tell him that his team or their games really are just filler for teams with new parks or teams with much better traditions. He knows how to approach the game only one way -- with great fire.

Here's to you, Frank Robinson, for doing your job in the only gear you know how to do it. You could simply have taken the job as a caretaker, mailed in your lineups and your baseball knowledge, and no one would have thought twice about it. No one expects much out of the T-NOWs, and most would have understood.

But not you. You didn't make it to the Hall of Fame by just going through the motions, and SportsProf, for one, is glad to see that you're making your opponents know that a game against the T-NOWs isn't the same as a free space on a Bingo card.

You wouldn't have it any other way, would you?

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

As If the University of Colorado Football Situation Couldn't Get Any Worse

This affair knows no limits.

You have to check out the sworn deposition testimony of U. of Colorado President Betsy Hoffman in the sexual harassment case surrounding the Buffaloes' football program. This whole sad saga has had its bizarre moments, but this one tops them all.

The testimony involves the use of a horrible slur that denigrates women and President Hoffman's interpretation of that slur (President Hoffman said that the term could be used in an endearing fashion; to open up a gas can on this inferno, a University spokesman defended Hoffman's statement because of Hoffman's background as a medievalist). Thanks to ESPN to bringing this to light, and thanks to Mike Greenberg and Sean Salisbury of "Mike & Mike in the Morning" for taking the university president to task on no uncertain terms.

Rightly or wrongly, the University of Colorado has decided to reinstate head football coach Gary Barnett. This decision did not come without a significant amount of reflection, and only time will tell whether the university acted wisely. Many coaches would not have received a second chance here, so I hope that Coach Barnett realizes how fortunate he is and what example he and his players must set from now on.

But what will Betsy Hoffman's fate be?

Think of yourself as an alumnus, like Rick Reilly, who wrote of his shame in his column in SI, after the football recruiting scandal broke. Think of yourself as a parent of a high school senior who is thinking of applying to the University of Colorado. Think of yourself as a parent of a current undergraduate.

Is this the type of leadership you want your kids to follow? Would you trust this college president to stand up and do the right thing in the face of this type of situation or another crisis?

University presidents (and universities themselves) must be held to higher standards. If I were a citizen of Colorado, I'd be concerned about the type of operation they're running in Boulder.

And I'd ask for a new leader.

All is Well in Detroit

Congratulations to the Detroit Pistons, who closed out the NBA Finals last night with a convincing 100-87 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the NBA converted to the 2-3-2 playoff format umpteen years ago, the Pistons are the first team to win the three games in the middle of the series at home. No team had ever done that before.

Of course, that's not the big news.

The big news is that the Pistons, with a tall, fluid front line and gritty guards, beat the team with the best 1-2 punch in the league. In a league where they lament the lack of big post players, perhaps the trend now will be to have about three 6'10" guys on your roster who can play inside and outside (with a few on the bench for relief). The Pistons showed great hoops evolution -- if you can't have the big diesel of your own, adapt, improvise, and win despite his presence. You have to love the way Ben Wallace (love the hair), Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince played together on the front line for the Pistons; the choreography was excellent.

The big news is that a guard whose career had more trips in it than Gerald Ford's found ultimate resurrection in not only leading his team to the NBA title, but in winning the MVP award for the playoffs (Chauncey Billups, who declared as part of his post-game press conference, that "God is good.").

The big news is that a coach with a wonderful resume that lacked basically one thing got that one thing -- the NBA title, in his 21st try (and that's a record too). Larry Brown won an NCAA title as a player (North Carolina), won an Olympic title as a player ('64 Olympics), won an NCAA title as a coach (Kansas in '88) and now has won an NBA championship. Given how NBA-centric the world is, I'm not sure whether he won titles as a player or a coach in the old American Basketball Association, but somehow I wouldn't put it past him. This summer "LB", as his players affectionately call him, goes for another milestone when he coaches the US Olympic team in Athens. And for all those players out there who are backing away from the US team, think twice -- you'll learn more about hoops in your month plus with Coach Larry than you had previously in any month in your life.

The big news is that the "other" great 2 guard from the Philadelphia suburbs quietly had a very effective series. When will they stop underestimating Rip Hamilton? He led his Connecticut Huskies team to an NCAA title, upsetting a favored Duke team, and now he's on an NBA champion, having played a critical role. The kid may be skinny, but he is a winner.

As for the Lakers, the big news, is, well, that they didn't have enough players to spread out Detroit's vaunted defense. The off-season will be a very interesting one for the Purple and Gold, as Kobe goes on trial, as Kobe is a free agent, as Phil Jackson says there is only a slim chance he will be back, and as everyone wonders whether Karl Malone and Gary Payton will be back. Shaq and Kobe held out their version of olive branches to each other last night in the post-game press conference, and while it may be difficult for those two to live with one another, their futures without one another on the basketball court don't hold the promise that a future together does.

So, who would have thunk it, a team from, yes, that much-maligned Eastern Conference won the NBA title? Over the Los Angeles Lakers with Shaq and Kobe. In five games. A result few had predicted.

That's why they play 'em.

Thank you, Detroit Pistons, for reminding us of that fact.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The Potentially Great Story That Just Won't Go Away (or, "Hello, Columbus")

First we read about how Ohio State dismissed Jim O'Brien, its head men's basketball coach, over allegedly improper payments made to an Eastern European player on his roster. Next, we read somewhere that Bob Knight could be on the list of potential replacements, because Bob Knight, as everyone knows, played with Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek at Ohio State. Then, just a few days later, we read where Texas Tech gave Coach Knight a three-year contract extension.

So, we all had reason to conclude that Texas Tech AD Gerald Myers answered the rumor mill and put any and all rumors to rest about where Bob Knight would be wearing his loud red sweaters in the fall. But, if we drew that conclusion, we were wrong.

There are reports on various networks that Bob Knight just might be a candidate and might be interested in coaching at his alma mater. And, as we all know, sometimes those reports turn into press conferences and do turn into hirings.

And, sometimes, they do not. Andy Geiger, the AD at Ohio State, seems an unlikely candidate for bringing in Bob Knight as his men's hoops coach. On the one hand, the program has underachieved in recent years. On the other hand, after the initial publicity, after the honeymoon, the reality will be that AD Geiger will have to live with Coach Knight. And, despite his great coaching ability and his almost equal ability to graduate players, Coach Knight has proven to be a major-league headache at times.

But the story is too tempting to resist -- Bob Knight, back in the Big 10, playing at Indiana. Bob Knight, perhaps building a team to get one final chance at a Final Four, a result that might be unlikely in Lubbock.

So let's follow this one closely. If it happens, the news of Bob Knight's return to Buckeyeland will dwarf every other college b-ball story this summer or fall.

Will it be "Hello Columbus?"

Monday, June 14, 2004

Just Call Her the. . . Mailwoman?

Karl Malone's daughter, Cheryl Ford, is leading the WNBA in rebounding while playing for the Detroit Shock. That is, the defending WNBA champion, Detroit Shock. Between her bloodlines, her skills (she was a standout at powerhouse Louisiana Tech, her father's alma mater) and her coaching (she plays for ex-Piston tough guy Bill Laimbeer), Cheryl should be at the top of the WNBA's rebounding stats for years to come.

Image Isn't Everything

His image, was, well, bad. They said all sorts of things about him. That he was immature. That he was temperamental. That he could act like a jerk, was hard to coach, was a bad guy. And the facts supported some of the comments. After all, he didn't just lead the league in technical fouls, he dominated. Lapped the field. Several times. No, we're not talking Charles Barkley or Ron Artest here. We're talking Rasheed Wallace.

When he was traded to Portland, the proverbial "they" said he'd be a perfect fit with the other malcontents, ne'er-do-wells and miscreants. Why not add yet another oddball to Paul Allen's curious collection of dysfunctional basketball players? Yes, that's what they said.

But who were "they", really? Because the image belied the overall truth. The truth was, and has always been, that Rasheed Wallace is a great teammate, good in the locker room. The truth is that he has multiple skills and that he has frustrated his coaches sometimes because he has not been more selfish, more dominant. Yes, he had a major problem with officials several years back, but that seems under control now. And because it's under control, we now see his savvy, his outstanding ability to do what it takes to help his team win.

Last night's line tells it all: 41 minutes, 26 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks and 2 turnovers. A great night's work for a big man who makes those around him better and who doesn't need the ball to be effective. And who can deliver when you give him the rock in crunch time.

And, guess what, he's an unrestricted free agent after the season is over.

A 6'11", shot-blocking, 3-point shooting, defending, passing, quick free agent -- with a championship ring, in all likelihood, in tow.

Not a bad image to present to any team desperate for frontcourt help, is it?

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Father's Day Gift if He's Already Got "The Sopranos" Boxed Set

Some movies go straight to video. Some TV shows are worthy of "boxed set" status, such as "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City." Then there's "Playmakers", the short-lived ESPN series about life on a fictional NFL team, replete with an aging star on the verge of losing his job, an owner who combines the bad qualities of Dan Snyder, Jerry Jones and Al Davis, a rookie from the wrong side of the tracks who has trouble with crack, a linebacker who hit someone too hard once too often and a quarterback trying to hide an injury.

Good stuff? Depends on who you ask. Some of the characters are believable, some of them less so, and the question that comes up occasionally is, "Could all of this happen on one team?" The answer, perhaps, is maybe. Some critics said that the reason ESPN canceled the series is because it hit the NFL too close to home. Some critics said that the series just wasn't believable enough, and others said that it just wasn't very good.

The verdict from SportsProf: about two stars out of four (based upon having watched about half the episodes). Don't give it to dad as a gift. If he's a real sportsman, check out the newest in drivers at your local mega golf shop (and spend a little more on dad in the process).

And, instead of giving him videos about football, take the time to go to a game with him. SportsProf's father passed away a long time ago, and some of SportsProf's fondest memories are of going to games with his father. SportsProf isn't able to do that anymore, but many of you can. So make plans for that game --you'll be glad you did.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Frank Robinson's Traveling Class AAAA All-Stars and Charter Flight Kings

Off Wing Opinion addresses the issue of where the Expos will be next year and mentions a comment that Peter Angelos made about Washington D.C.

The Washington Expos? Hard to figure that when push comes to shove Peter Angelos really would agree to that, even with whatever political pressure that is thrust upon him. He is, after all, a king of torts, so I doubt that anyone can muscle Mr. Angelos to do anything he doesn't want to do.

That said, where could the Expos go? San Juan on a permanent basis? Doubtful. Las Vegas? Tough to see the tourist trade wanting to go to a baseball game. You don't go to Vegas for baseball; you can get that in your home town. You go to Vegas for something other than baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolets.

Portland? Sacramento? Charlotte? Jacksonville? Columbus? Buffalo? Indianapolis? San Antonio?

Whatever happened to the talk of contraction? The Brewers struck out 26 times in a 17-inning game a week ago (4 Brewers combined for 20 of those whiffs), and the Expos haven't exactly been setting the world on fire. The chariot that some of the teams in the NL Central have turned into are going to turn into pumpkins when the summer heat comes. And Tampa Bay, Detroit and Kansas City aren't exactly world beaters either.

Tough problem for baseball, but it will be even tougher if the Lords of the Game do nothing and let the Expos continue to linger like the barge of trash that floated around the world for about 14 years (it was sent from NYC to the Caribbean, couldn't find a home, and ended up back, of all places, in Pennsylvania). Bud Selig and Company should solve this refugee problem before it happens.

Hit the problem head on and find the Expos a home. Find a city that wants them, and then establish ownership the way the Packers have in Green Bay. Baseball, the players and the fans deserve better than having a team owned by the other teams.

And Frank Robinson deserves some sort of medal.

Hey, Play with Kids Your Own Age

And he did (for the most part).

And he won.

You'll remember Danny Almonte, the kid from NYC who pitched his team to a 2001 Little League World Series championship only to be outed subsequently by Sports Illustrated as being too old and having his team stripped of the title. Well, Almonte is still pitching, now as a 17 year-old tenth grader (hence the "for the most part"), and yesterday he pitched his HS team to the NYC public league championship, striking out the fifth-round pick of the Angels twice. Good to see that Almonte is out there still, pitching away, and that he actually beat some older kids in the process.

The irony about the Almonte birth certificate story was that it broke around the time that Major League Baseball also figured out that many of its Dominican prospects had "age" issues. A supposed 19 year-old prospect at low A ball turned out to be 23 and not a prospect at all, and even some major leaguers had a few years added to their ages.

Thankfully, for Almonte's sake, his problem was fixed before it was too late.

After all, right now in Major League Baseball, performance enhancing drugs might get some bad press, but they're not outlawed. Lying about your age, however, is un-American.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Whither, or is it Wither, the Lakers?

SportsProf is getting a good laugh from all of the punditry that has gone on about the Pistons-Lakers series. Yes, SportsProf has predicted that the Lakers will win in 6, and yes, SportsProf has Young SP chanting "Slava Medvedenko" at every opportunity (try meditating to it, it's quite relaxing). Most pundits (with the exception of Mike Greenberg on ESPN Radio, who picked the Pistons to win the whole thing -- at the outset of the playoffs) did pick the Lakers to win this Series. After Game 1, they still thought the Lakers would win. After Game 2, they talked about how the collapse of the Pistons would haunt them forever (visions of Scott Norwood and the missed field goal against the NY Giants in the Super Bowl came dancing into my head), and that the Lakers would seize upon this moment and turn the series around.

Well, the Lakers looked out of sync, old in parts, hurt in parts and tired in other parts last night. Larry Brown's team played excellent "help" defense, went at Luke Walton when they had the ball, and, really, quicker than you could utter "Slava Medvedenko", the game was over. Gary "The Glove" Payton played more like "Thing" from "The Addams Family" (he's scored a total of 2 points in the 51 first half minutes he's played in this series), and Kobe Bryant's game was AWOL for most of last night. Put simply, the Lakers laid an egg and now trail 2-1 with 2 more to play in Motown before they'd get a chance to return to L.A. Looks bad for the Lakers, right?

Yes, it does (ESPN ran a stat showing that in the past 5 years, every team that won Game 3 of the Finals Series won the Finals), but don't count them out yet. They trailed a very good Spurs team 2-0 and rallied to win that series. They have 2 of the top 5 players in the game in Shaq and Kobe, and those guys, along with Derek Fisher, know how to hit the clutch shots and win big games. Fisher has to get more playing time over Payton, so the big question is who will be the answer at the 4 spot with Karl Malone playing on one wheel? Brian Cook? Luke Walton? Slava Medvedenko?

Larry Brown versus Phil Jackson. Shaq and Kobe versus Ben and Rip. But then there's Chauncey, Tayshaun and Rasheed.

Sunday night should be a lot of fun.

Final Wrap on Ivy Players Taken in Major League Baseball Draft

They should break up the Ivy League, or, perhaps, just the Princeton Tigers, as the Ivies saw 13 of their players taken in the Major League Baseball draft last week. Perhaps even more impressive was the showing of Ivy champ and NCAA tourney representative Princeton, which had five players taken in the first 20 rounds, including OF B.J. Syzmanski in the second round and P Ross Ohlendorf in the fourth round. Many Ivies had players taken, and it will be interesting to see how many of the four Princeton juniors taken in the first 20 rounds (2B Steve Young graduated) will sign and forfeit the remainder of their eligibility. SportsProf believes that Syzmanski and Ohlendorf will sign, but that OF/DH Will Venable will not, thereby ensuring his return to the defending Ivy champ basketball team, and that C Tim Lahey, a power hitter, will not sign either.

SportsProf's Recommended Sports Books for Summer Reading

SportsProf has read a bunch of good sports books over the years and finds them to be a welcome relief from the bad news he watches occasionally on his local Fox channel, long New Yorker articles on topics that sometimes relate to the end of the world, management books on how to run a better company and the occasional John Lescroart/Stuart Woods/Steve Martini/John Grisham/Tom Clancy/David Morrell novel. There are some good choices out there (some are old and perhaps hard to find), so here goes:

1. "The Glory of Their Times" by Lawrence S. Ritter. Originally published in the mid-1960's, this book is simply a classic, an oral history of baseball players who played at the turn of the century. Ritter, who passed away a few years ago, was a professor of money and banking at NYU, and he turned oral history into an art form. Just a great, great book.

2. "Friday Night Lights" by Buzz Bissinger. Bissinger spent a year in West Texas, covering a team there. A great look into the culture that is Texas high school football, and, where it is said, "We have two sports -- football and spring football."

3. "Big Game, Small World" by Alexander Wolff. Wolff, who writes for SI, traveled around the world and wrote about what Dennis Hopper's character in "Hoosiers" called "the greatest game ever invented." I especially enjoyed the part about hoops in Angola while fighting was going on.

4. "Teammates" by David Halberstam. Part of the eloquence of this book, now in paperback, is how short it is. Halberstam wrote about Dominic DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr, Boston Red Sox teammates in the 1940's. This is a warm, moving book and a very good read.

5. "A Good Man: The Pete Newell Story" by Bruce Jenkins. Jenkins writes about the Cal Bears coach who won a national title with Darrell Imhoff and others in 1960, who is known for his big men's basketball camp, and who is a mentor to Bob Knight. If you wonder why John Wooden had a somewhat lengthy gap from the time he got to UCLA in the late 1950's to when he won his first national title in 1966, look no further than Newell's Cal Bears, who were 8-0 against UCLA during a four-year stretch in the early 1960's. Newell retired from coaching because of the stress, and the book is worth reading not only because Newell is a good man, but also because of a joke attributed to Bob Knight in the book.

6. The Mark Harris novels on baseball, starting with "The Southpaw", where Harris introduces his narrator, the thoughtful pitcher, Henry Wiggen. His most famous book of four is "Bang the Drum Slowly", which was made into a movie starring Michael Moriarty as Wiggen and Robert DeNiro as Bruce Pearson, a slow-witted third-string catcher who was dying of cancer. Good stuff for adults -- and your young teenagers as well.

7. Finally, check out the McFarland Publishing website for its fine selection of scholarly baseball books. Some are better than others, and because it's a small press the books are a little pricey. Still, I've found some good reads at McFarland, including a very nice biography on one of the best pitchers of all time, Lefty Grove.

By no means, of course, is this an exhaustive list, but it's a good place to start. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 10, 2004

The NBA According to Larry Bird(brain)

Jim Gray has sprung another story again. Tonight (I think it's tonight) ESPN will air an interview Gray recently did with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Among Bird's tidbits were that he was offended when the other team sent a white guy to guard him and that the NBA doesn't have enough white players. Also, in the snippet I saw, I believe Bird said he didn't think that foreign white players were the answer for the fans because the majority of fans are white Americans.

Please! Larry, you were a legend on the court, but that's probably about it. A friend of mine once said that you never want to meet your heroes, and in this case you just don't want to hear a legend. As Morton Downey, Jr. (remember him?) used to say to his guests, "Zip it." Downey was a boor, and, in this instance, so is Larry Legend. Larry, race has no place in the discussion. Isiah Thomas was wrong when he categorized you as "just another white guy" (and you did fire him this past season when you took over the reigns of the Pacers), and you're wrong in saying what you've said.

White American fans are like any other fans -- they want winners, plain and simple. Sure, there are pockets of people who want their white stars, but those people are wrong too.

So, for now, if you want a Bird to root for on the basketball floor, check out former UConn great Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm. Outstanding player, Olympian, good student, class act.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Mike and the Mad Dog Talk Politics

Drive-time talk radio tonight was at almost a comical peak when I had to endure (at least for the five minutes before it became unbearable) Mike Francesa and Chris Russo talking about Ronald Reagan. Those fellows are very knowledgeable about sports. Period.

It was bad enough having to endure George Will on baseball (Leigh Montville reported in his recent biography of Ted Williams that Williams didn't agree much with Will on baseball, and I'm surprised Will is able to walk given how much he can pat himself on the back). But having to listen to Mike and the Mad Dog talk about Ronald Reagan?

The only image I can conjure up to do that situation justice would be of one of the guest judges banging the gong on "The Gong Show" to stop the audience from having to endure a terrible act.

Small suggestion, guys: stick to what you know.

Deja Vu for Larry Brown (and some Phila. B-Ball Geography)

It seems like so long ago when the Philadelphia 76ers met the Lakers in the NBA Finals in '01, but Larry Brown must have had a nightmare last night. In that final series, the 76ers won the first game in Los Angeles, let the second game in L.A. get away, and ended up getting swept at home to give the Lakers the championship.

So what happened last night? The Pistons had 'em. Yes, they had 'em, had 'em on the ropes the way Apollo Creed had Rocky in the first fight, and before you can heap probably too much praise on Luke Walton for his "intangibles", you have to reckon with the fact that if the Pistons don't win the championship they'll look no further than last night.

In the meantime, Kobe Bean Bryant hit a jumper with a few seconds left to force OT, and, down the stretch, including the OT, the Lakers outscored the Motor City 5, 16-2. The legend of Kobe Bean (yes, that's his real middle name, being the son of Jelly Bean) continues to grow.

In Game 1, Rip Hamilton of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb, got the better of Kobe Bryant of Lower Merion, another Philadelphia suburb. In Game 2, Kobe's team won.

In the Philadelphia suburbs, when you talk hoops, you'd bet for Coatesville to beat Lower Merion. All the time.

Unless, of course, they were playing Chester. That's where NCAA Player of the Year (at least in some circles) Jameer Nelson went. Chester beats everyone.

Unless you cross over the city line.

And then very few, if any, beat Simon Gratz.

That's where Rasheed Wallace went.

Stay tuned.

Is There a SportsProf Blessing?

SportsProf has talked about the jinx enough, but he wants to share with you perhaps a turnaround in the fate of his predictions or his actions. SportsProf was joking around with young SportsProf, a precocious little boy, and working with him on pronunciations of major sports figures. During the NBA season, and especially when the Sacramento Kings were hot, he would ask Young SP who his favorite NBA hoops player is, and with all the mellifluousness of a little boy, Young SP would thrust out his right arm and say, "Peja Stojakovic." Nailed it. Of course, the Kings ended up fading down the stretch, but this exercise in diction took place well before the Kings' problems, and even before Stojakovic was en route to having the MVP season that didn't turn out to be.

A similar thing, with better results, happened during the NHL playoffs, where SportsProf worked with Young SP on the pronunciation of Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ruslan Fedotenko. This took place around the time of Game 5 of the NHL playoffs, and by last weekend Young SP was nailing the pronunciation. So what happened? Fedotenko became only the 8th player in NHL history to score 2 goals in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final, and he was one of the heroes as the Bolts won their first Stanley Cup (SportsProf gives a big nod to Bolts' captain, Dave Andreychuk, who waited 22 years in the league before getting to his first NHL Finals, and to star Martin St. Louis, was was cut by Calgary years ago and had trouble making it past the third line on the Bolts but who has emerged, after lots of hard work, as one of the stars in the NHL).

Of course now the question is, what next? SportsProf is considering working with Young SP on the pronunciation of the name of Lakers' back-up frontcourter Slava Medvedenko, but SportsProf doubts that this player will be able to make that much of a difference in the NBA Finals. Still, given the iffy status of Karl Malone's knee, it might be worth a shot.

Life Imitating, Well, Your Worst Little League Experience

Great game last night between the Angels and Brewers, in which Ben Sheets of Milwaukee retired the first 20 batters he faced before losing his perfect game, which the Brewers won, 1-0 (in 17 innings), and in which the Brewers struck out 26 times! Geoff Jenkins, Ben Grieve and Keith Ginter of the Suds combined to strike out 16 times, with Jenkins tying a major-league record by striking out 6 times. That's a lot of cool air.

SportsProf harkens back to hot, humid springs where somewhat wild flamethrowing eleven year-old pitchers, overheated umpires with balloon chest protectors and undisciplined hitters combined for zany boxscores like that one. Only trouble for the Brewers is that, well, they are in the NL Central and not your local Little League. One thing's for sure, though -- Ben Sheets could pitch for my team.

Will Bob Knight Make His Way Back to the Big 10?

The big story in college basketball is that Ohio State fired head coach Jim O'Brien yesterday, primarily because of payments made to a Serbian player five years ago. Ohio State AD Andy Geiger, who has been AD at many schools, including Penn, Maryland and Stanford, acted with dispatch in his investigation.

Speculation is that among the candidates to succeed O'Brien (who led the Buckeyes to the Final Four with Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd about 4 years ago) are Xavier's Thad Matta (who led his team to the Elite 8 last season) and NC State's Herb Sendek. Of course, Bob Knight is an Ohio State alumnus, and it will be interesting to see if his name surfaces as well.

Bob Knight back in the Big 10? Now that would be something. Imagine the buzz the first time the Buckeyes would visit Bloomington, Indiana.

Monday, June 07, 2004

And You Think You Know Your Tradecraft Well

You have to check out the draft-day tracker that Major League Baseball provides. The scouts' reports are priceless. Believe it or not, they write that a certain pitching prospect reminds them of Mike Maroth, and another of Curtis Leskanic. I'm sure if you're an avid fan you'll realize that emulating either a 21-game loser from 2003 or an oft-injured fastballer is not something your team wants if it wants to be a contender. Still, if you're a baseball junkie, you'll like this stuff.

And, yes, let the speculation begin. Princeton's Will Venable was drafted on the 15th round. With Venable, Princeton basketball is a strong favorite to win the Ivies. Without him, the Ivy race could be most interesting indeed. Let the speculation end here too: unless we hear otherwise, Venable is staying put. We haven't read that he's a super prospect the way we did about Chris Young (former Tiger center) or about B.J. Syzmanski (whom the Tiger football team is in danger of losing). As a result, it would be a surprise if Venable were to sign a pro baseball contract, thereby forfeiting his Ivy hoops eligibility because of the Ivy rule that if you're a pro in one sport, you can't be an amateur in another.

Big Surprise: Get Scott Boras to Represent You and. . . Drop in the Draft

SportsProf had read for weeks that the first two picks in the draft were going to be Jered Weaver, a pitcher from SoCal who is the brother of Jeff Weaver, now trying to resurrect what was a promising career (he's with the Dodgers, a good place to resurrect your pitching career unless you're Andy Ashby) or Stephen Drew, an SS from Fla. State who is the younger brother of J.D. Drew and AAAA (not a typo) pitcher Tim Drew. So what happened -- they dropped in the draft to 12th and 15th respectively (okay, so not a big drop, but big enough to cost the clients millions). Why: they are represented by Scott Boras. Scott Boras has become shorthand for "they are asking for much more money than they are worth."

Then again, perhaps this is an omen for the Grand Old Party, as the first pick in the MLB draft was Matt Bush, a HS OF from SoCal.

Ivy Baseball Players Taken in MLB Draft

There isn't an SP jinx, but Princeton's B.J. Syzmanski wasn't taken in the first round of the ML draft. He was taken in the second round by that modern-day juggernaut, the Cincinnati Reds. Syzmanski made waves earlier this spring when he bombed a 450-foot HR over Justin Verlander, who was the #2 pick in the entire draft. Princeton hurler Ross Ohlendorf, like Syzmanski also a junior, was drafted by Arizona in the fourth round. Other Ivy players were drafted on the first day, so for a complete rundown, click here.

(Last?) NHL Finals Tonight

I suppose that if you've been focused on horse racing, your favorite baseball teams, watching the USA Women's National team tie Japan in soccer yesterday, watching the NBA playoffs (or, for that matter, washing your car, watering your impatiens, trying to solve the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, calling your Aunt Cordelia in Murfreesboro or serving food at your wife's mah jongg tournament, or even reading about the scandlous blog "Washingtonienne" on the web), you might have missed some good NHL playoff games. Tonight is the final game, in Tampa Bay, between the Lightning and the Calgary Flames (you'll be sure to see at least one shot of Dick Vitale in the stands), and it should be a barn-burner.

Which begs the question? Why are the ratings worse than say the NFL Draft? Or women's softball? There are many possible reasons. First, there are too many NHL teams. Second, too many of them make the playoffs, Third, there are too many games. Fourth, there is too much violence.

American fans like the "violence" in comic book form in terms of the WWE (nee WWF), with cans of whupass, smackdowns, Texas Steel Cage matches and the like. But they don't like it when head shots are legal, when fighting is part of the game, and where violence can predominate during the regular season. Playoff hockey is much more watchable (because the stakes are so much higher, the cheap shots and fighting are kept to an absolute minimum!), as is the Frozen Four (the NCAA Division I Final Four in ice hockey), as is college hockey, and there fighting isn't legal. So, NHL, you have some great opportunities in the off-season -- get your salary structures in order, clean up your teams' balance sheets (many are bleeding money and laying off employees), restructure the entire league and take some serious stands as to what you want your game to be. Is it Pro Wrestling on skates, with designated goons, or is it a pure athletic event with crisp passing and play (see Calgary versus Tampa Bay).

The NHL and its players have a unique chance to determine the fate of professional hockey. They are already on the precipice, and time will tell whether it's too late to pull the NHL from the abyss.

Okay, So the Lakers Won't Sweep (But is There a SportsProf Jinx?)

You don't have to be a rocket scientist or even Phil Jackson to determine why the Lakers lost 87-75 to the Pistons last night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The answer: 6-30 shooting from players not named 0'Neal and Bryant and 16-57 shooting for players not named O'Neal (as Kobe shot 10-27). Ouch! The Pistons relied on a balanced attack, and I thought they sent an interesting message at the game's outset when Rasheed Wallace hit a three. The Pistons will try to open the floor by forcing Shaq to move around a bit to guard his man -- looks like it worked in Game 1. Query for Game 2: Will Shaw try to track Rasheed, or will the Lakers put him on the easier-to-guard Ben Wallace? Will other Lakers show up offensively?

Lakers fans must be worried, though, because SportsProf hasn't exactly been right when he's called the action lately. Just remember 1 thing: Detroit isn't a sacrificial lamb here. The Pistons can play.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

SEC Posts Rules for Turning in Rival Schools

Okay, now, we're talking about the Southeast Conference, which has had enough scandals in recent memory (Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky are on probation) to confuse it with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which also has been busy in the past several years looking into scandals in corporate America.

Those of you familiar with corporate law will know that publicly held companies are required to adopt and enforce Codes of Conduct. Well now the SEC has a policy for its schools to turn in other schools where cheating is suspected.

It's hard to say what really compelled the SEC to create this policy now, and it will be interesting to see whether this policy will bring about change. SportsProf doubts that the public view of the SEC -- that of a conference with big-money boosters driving loudly colored gas-guzzling cars with vanity license places doing things they shouldn't be doing -- will actually change. All of this talk reminds me of a comment that has been attributed to many schools over the years, where perhaps a university president of a big-time athletic power was said to have remarked, "If only we could have a university that the football team could be proud of."

Let's throw down the challenge to the SEC -- get your priorities straight. Football is a game, but it's more important to prepare your student-athletes (and your non-athlete students) for life in an ever-competitive world.

Brief SportsProf Prediction for the NBA Finals

I suppose that given SportsProf's record of predicting games, they don't want to hear this in Los Angeles, but SportsProf believes that despite the clutch play of Rip Hamilton, the grit of Ben Wallace, the savvy of Rasheed Wallace and the overall solid play of Chauncey Billups, not to mention the coaching of Larry Brown, that the Los Angeles Lakers will defeat Detroit in 6 games to win the NBA title.

Phil Jackson will get his 10th title, and the debate will rage as to whether he's the best coach in professional sports, ever.

Wonder if Red Auerbach will send the Zenmaster a box of Montecristos (or is it Macanudos) to celebrate this accomplishment.

Reason for the prediction: the tag-team of O'Neal and Bryant will prove too tough for Detroit. Now, again, that's going out on a limb, isn't it?

Is there a SportsProf jinx?

Only say a quarter day after SportsProf extolled the virtues of not only Smarty Jones but also the Princeton baseball team, the Vanderbilt Commodores thrashed the Tigers in the Charlottesville regional, 11-1. The Tigers play UVA today for the right to play Vanderbilt to see which team from this sub-regional will go on to play in the Super-Regional.

This tournament, you will remember, is NCAA Baseball. How many schools are still in session? When will the College World Series take place -- in July?

Saturday, June 05, 2004

No Joy in Muddyville (or, What the Heck Did I Know?)

SportsProf should have taken a page out of Rick's book. You remember Rick, the proprietor of Cafe Americain in Casablanca, who was wont to say, "I stick my neck out for no one." SportsProf should have known better, predicting a hometown horse to win the Triple Crown and to give Phila. its first winner of something major since the '82-'83 76ers. Is there a Phila. curse along the lines of the Curse of the Bambino?

The Phillies are the losingest team in the history of Major League Baseball. The Eagles have lost 3 straight NFC championship games, two of which were played at home (the Buffalo Bills were comparatively better, getting to four straight Super Bowls). The 76ers have been jinxed since they traded Moses Malone for Jeff Ruland and his balky knee, only to compound their problems that same year by trading their #1 pick (in '86) for Roy Hinson (the pick turned out to be Brad Daugherty), and in the 90's they traded Charles Barkley to Phoenix for five guys named Moe (actually three guys, but can you remember who the third guy was after Jeff Hornacek and Tim Perry?). The Flyers have not won since 1975, although they have reached the Stanley Cup final twice, losing to Edmonton in the late 80's and then losing to Detroit in the early 90's. And the Flyers spend a lot of money on their payroll, too.

And then there's Smarty Jones, who didn't have a horse to pace him in the Belmont the way he did at the Derby and at the Preakness. He grabbed the lead earlier than he did in the other two premier races, and at one point during the home stretch it looked like he would fend off the charge from a surging Birdstone. Instead, Birdstone summoned an extra gear and charged past Smarty Jones to win the Belmont.

So instead of becoming an immortal, Smarty Jones joins a long list of horses in recent memory who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to find the Belmont a Sisyphian exercise.

At one point today, I heard a commentator from Philadelphia remark that the Smarty Jones story was more like "Rocky" than say "Seabiscuit." I didn't necessary agree at the time, but perhaps I can now.

Rocky, you will recall, lost the title in the 1976 movie that won Best Picture. Unfortunately on the American sporting stage, losing the title doesn't get you the ultimate award. But thank you, Sporty Jones, Mr. and Mrs. Chapman, John Servis and Stewart Elliott just the same. For those of us in the Southeastern Pennsylvania area, you gave us five weeks of great excitement.

Hold the Tigers?

There's a developing story in Charlottesville, in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Baseball tournament, where Princeton, behind top prospect Ross Ohlendorf, beat the Cavaliers this morning 4-2. The Tigers play Vanderbilt tonight. You can read about the regional on ESPN.com, which made the tragic error already in its blurb about Princeton of posting Penn's catching red-and-blue logo next to the Princeton entry.

As for Tiger baseball, former Major League catcher Scott Bradley (who played for the Mariners and Yankees and once caught a no-hitter twirled by the Big Unit), has built quite a juggernaut in central New Jersey. Former Tiger hoop star and mound stalwart Chris Young was a third-round draft choice (signing for over $1 million) three years ago, and last year righthander Thomas Pauly was a second-round pick. This year football WR and outfielder B.J. Syzmanski is expected to be one of the top 10 picks in the Major League draft this Monday (apparently in a game against ODU this spring, Syzmanski crushed a 90 plus m.p.h. fastball off an ODU hurler who also is expected to be a top pick and hit it 450 feet for a home run; that hit put Syzmanski on the scouts' radar charts, as before then he wasn't listed as a top-100 prospect before then). Other key players for the Tigers are catcher Tim Lahey, a power hitter who is expected to be drafted, and dh/of Will Venable, a first-team all-Ivy player -- in basketball.

Watch this team. They have the arms to do some damage against big-name schools.

SportsProf Will Go on the Record on the Belmont

SportsProf doesn't want to be one of those doubting native Philadelphians and publicly doubt whether the hometown horse, Smarty Jones, will win the Belmont Stakes. SportsProf is concerned that in the overall holistic nature of things, the Phila. area papers have gone so overboard on the thoroughbred that he has been jinxed to the high heavens. Then again, the high heavens have been opening up on the East Coast today, and this great colt has proven he can run on a fast track or a slow one. Some of the competition does have trouble running in the soup, although it's been wet, not soupy, back East. SportsProf picks Smarty Jones to be the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 -- and by at least 10 lengths.

Now that's going out on a limb, isn't it?

Friday, June 04, 2004

Hooray for Julio Franco

Sports Prof gets excited when players of his vintage perform amazing feats and is somewhat remiss that he did not herald the perfect game of Randy Johnson. Note the use of the word "somewhat", however, because SportsProf doesn't always try to write about the things that everyone else is writing about. Randy Johnson, at his advanced age, still draws a lot of press, as does Roger Clemens.

But 45 year-old journeymen, 45 year-old part-time players, are about as rare as a player with a personality on the professional men's tennis circuit. Last night, Julio Franco, at 45 the ageless sometimes first baseman for the rather ordinary Atlanta Braves, hit a grand slam off of his old (and I mean, old) team, the Phillies, thereby becoming the oldest player in Major League history ever to hit a grand slam home run.

Franco's heroics, however, shouldn't inspire comeback thoughts from any long-since-retired professional athletes. Boxing has had them, thereby making a suspect sport worse. Still, we'll take these heroics when we can get them, so hoory for Julio!

And I Thought They'd Be Writing About Julio Franco

SportsProf checked out the local Philadelphia papers today to see how much ink they'd give to Smarty Jones and horse racing on the eve of the Belmont. Smarty Jones, the Bucks County horse, is a 2-5 favorite going into the Belmont, and could be an even bigger favorite at race time tomorrow. Rain is in the forecast, and Smarty Jones runs well in the mud (witness the Kentucky Derby), so there is a decent chance that Smarty Jones will be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. (SportsProf is almost certain that similar things were written about the Belmont favorites in six of the past eight years, when the favorites were the ones with a chance to win the Triple Crown). At any rate, the Philadelphia Daily News has 20 articles on its website about horseracing, including one by Dick Jerardi whose headline states that the horse is just too good to lose. For those who are not in the Philadelphia orbit on a regular basis (and it's a great place to be during the college basketball season), Jerardi did pick the St. Joe's Hawks to win the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. I do believe that there he thought there was a chance they could lose.

Poor Philadelphians. The Bucks County-ites seem rather mellow, as they try to distinguish themselves because they have Bucks County Coffee, proximity to the Delaware River, they might work in central New Jersey, you name it. But the Philadelphia sports fan has a bit of a swagger at the moment, owing totally to the notion that a potential all-time champion is in their midst.

Forget the Phillies' injury problems, the combination of McNabb and Owens, the NBA Draft -- all eyes are upon Smarty Jones. And his owners. And his trainer. And his jockey. And probably forty-two other people who are friends of the cousin of the guy who prepares the horse's food. An autographed horsehoe, anyone?

Thursday, June 03, 2004

You Can Look It Up (Actually, You Really Can)

Want to look up the roster of a favorite team? Want to find out if the dad of the guy you went to high school with (who said his dad played in the majors) actually did? Want to find out a lot more? Such as, who actually was on the 1964 Phillies, the team that was up 6 with 12 games to play, only to blow the lead and the pennant and sending Philadelphia into an almost Boston-like sense of dread about its hometown team? Then check out www.baseball-almanac.com. You'll have a lot of fun with the website and settle many disputes and answer many questions in the process. Have fun!