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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Saturday, July 31, 2004

Game Time

SportsProf would like to alter his format a bit today and make observations on a variety of topics:

1. Charades. U.S. Men's Basketball Coach Larry Brown has got to be kidding himself if he thinks that Allen Iverson can truly shoulder a team captain's responsibilities. The headline today is that Iverson, Amare Stoudemare and LeBron James were suspended for tonight's game against Puerto Rico for missing a team meeting. Perhaps now we can enjoy Iverson rant to the press, saying, "Team meetings. Team meetings? You're just talking about team meetings. Bleep." Because we know what AI thinks of practice, we probably now know what he thinks of team meetings.

But watch, you'll hear Larry Brown, who detests confrontation, say in his monotone that he still "loves the kid." I'm sure that when Coach Larry was a younger man and watched Leave it to Beaver, he thought Eddie Haskell was really cool. But AI as a captain? Perhaps Larry Brown spent some time in Ricky Williams' world (or adopted his unique form of inhalation therapy) when deciding to make AI the captain. Come on, Larry, you're not coaching the guy anymore, there's no need to [fill in the blank -- mollify, appease, stroke] him.

2. Boggle. Hard to say if anyone has been helped by these trades. The Mets traded many prospects for a pitcher with an iffy wing (Kris Benson) and a pitcher whom the D-Rays think they can do without (V. Zambrano). The Phillies got 2 relievers, but they weakened their CF platoon, the Giants weakened their bullpen for a lefthanded bat off the bench, and the Dodgers and Marlins gambled (especially the first-place Dodgers) by trading some big names. Brad Penny and Hee Sop Choi might help L.A., but they traded their emotional leader in Paul LoDuca (leaving them a hole at catcher, which, the last time I checked, was an important position) and a very solid reliever in Guillermo Mota. Time, as it always does, will tell. But none of these trades probably will put these teams into the playoffs, and while the Dodgers are in first, losing LoDuca will hurt and could give a team chasing them a better chance.

3. The Price is Right. Mike Tyson, in an attempt to satisfy about $38 million in debt, fought a relatively unknown Brit, Danny Williams, last night and lost in 4 rounds. Tyson was once the most feared fighter in the ring, and, perhaps, ever. What is he now except a caricature, and even those who poke fun at some of his sound bytes should think twice about doing so. Because Iron Mike isn't even remotely funny any more. His predicament is downright sad.

4. Survivor. There used to be some magic to the Olympics. Remember in '72, when the Bowling Green alum Dave Wottle ran the middle-distance races wearing a baseball hat and staged some amazing come-from-behind victories, or when the Finn, Lasse Viren, won the 5,000 meters and then the 10,000 meters and then ran the marathon for the heck of it and finished in fifth? Remember when the U.S. hoops team was made up of the best collegians, and how you used to read about the day jobs of many of the people who competed? Remember when the summer almost stopped because there wasn't an internet and there weren't satellite dishes or cable packages with 100 TV channels, so that basically all you could get were the Olympics on TV? Remember Jim McKay's priceless commentary, Howard Cosell's doing the boxing, where every punch was riveting?

What happened to those games, those times? When everything was better?

SportsProf doesn't know what happened, but he senses that people don't seem to care as much about these Olympics as they have about past Olympics. There are too many security concerns, too many blood-doping scandals, too many over-hyped athletes and, while we're at it, over-compensated ones. Here's to the Olympians who toil in the obscure sports, where there isn't a lot of money, and where they have legitimate day jobs. Here's to clean competition, impartial judges (SportsProf will argue that any sport that can be determined by a judge might not be a sport at all, but an exhibition) and some great efforts. The Olympics need a bunch of virtuous stories to improve their image.

Let's watch to see if the best stories are a product of the competitors themselves, and not the NBC ratings' machine.


Friday, July 30, 2004

The Last Holdout in the Patriot League

Two interesting stories about the Patriot League's Lafayette, and they create a good juxtaposition that is worthy of some discussion.

First, the Patriot League Hoops blog questions whether Lafayette can continue to cut it in the Patriot League since every other school in the league is giving athletic scholarships and the Leopards are not.

Second, after seeing their head coach's name bandied about with openings at other northeastern schools, the Lafayette administration gave head men's b-ball coach Fran O'Hanlon a ten-year extension, ostensibly making the fifty-six year-old O'Hanlon coach for life.

So what gives up in Easton, Pennsylvania? Can Lafayette compete or not? The Patriot League hoops blogger seems to think not; the Leopards seem to think they can.

Of course, with the elite colleges (and I count Lafayette among them), what is and is not an athletic scholarship can be the subject of some debate. (See Ivy Basketball's excellent interview with Chris Lincoln, author of "Playing the Game: Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League"). In other words, given the availability of financial aid at some of these schools, kids can end up getting full rides because, ostensibly, of their body of academic and extracurricular work combined. Seemingly, it happens a lot in many places (given antitrust concerns, the financial aid battles for potential Ivy hoops and football stars might be fierce). Of course, the JV roller hockey player who plays the French Horn and teaches the Israeli Army's brand of self-defense to senior citizens might not get that type of aid, but if that kid can play defensive back or point guard, he just might.

So where is Lafayette going? Would Fran O'Hanlon have stayed put if he didn't think his beloved Leopards could not continue to compete in Division I? Will Lafayette soon roll out a financial aid program for athletics? Or will Lafayette simply try to do it the way some of the Ivies apparently have done it for some of their kids? Or, will Lafayette be passive about the tough Darwinism that transpires at elite universities? (As to the latter question, you don't become an elite by being passive about anything).

Sports Prof's guess is that Lafayette gave O'Hanlon good money and job security without requiring him to make a buyout payment if he decides to leave. It's hard to imagine O'Hanlon staying if he continues to finish behind schools like Lehigh, which he used to paste with regularity, because Lehigh's aid packages are better than Lafayette's. That's not to say that Lehigh doesn't have a good coach (it does) or that it hasn't recruited good players (it has), but when the playing field was level, Lehigh was a doormat, year in and year out.

The old coaching saw is that you can be a great coach, but if you coach against a bad coach with great talent, even the great coach would bet on the bad coach because the talent makes the difference. A corollary to that old saw is that scholarship money attracts better talent to a school with a so-so coach than just an acceptance letter with a happy face drawn on it from a school with a great coach that doesn't offer comparable aid. After all, schools like Lafayette are very expensive, and SportsProf's guess is that 2/3 of the kids there get some form of aid. As a result, it's easy to respect a kid for turning down a chance to play for O'Hanlon if a rival school pays for his education and he doesn't come out of college burdened with debt in the high five or low six figures. And, if he's capable of getting into Lafayette, he's capable of figuring out the math all by himself.

SportsProf has a great deal of respect for Lafayette and Coach O'Hanlon and hopes that everything will work out for the Leopards of Easton, Pennsylvania.

But, given the aggressive Darwinism of college athletics and the increasing costs of going to a great place like Lafayette, he gives credence to the Patriot League Hoops blog's warning that Lafayette might be on a course for Division III.

Given that none of the Patriot League schools will contend for a national title in basketball anyway (or most major sports, for that matter, with Navy's tough loss for the DI lacrosse title notwithstanding), going Division III might make a whole lot of sense in the frequently misguided world of intercollegiate athletics.

What You Shouldn't Miss in This Week's SI

No, it's not all of the reporting on the Olympics, about the 1896 games in Greece or the U.S. men's basketball team (trying this time to win the international game without any bona fide shooters on their roster; for a precedent, see Seoul, 1988) or the Brazilian women's gymnast who has created her own move or the Israeli Greco-Roman wrestler (a Georgia native -- that is, the former Soviet Georgia) who is favored for a medal and whose first name is, yes, Gotcha, which is great name for a wrestler (and perhaps a better one for an investigative journalist).  Yes, there's lots of good stuff about the Olympics, which is good, given that it's already 2004 and you thought that the East Germans were long gone and the Chinese women swimmers were off the juice only to learn that so many full-time athletes are suspected of doing something wrong.  (SportsProf actually misses the Soviets and East Germans in the Olympics, because not even J.K. Rowling could have penned more dramatic scripts for non-boycotted Olympics).

You have to dig for this great morsel, all the way near the back, and, it's not an article, it's a photograph.  A great, two-page photograph of 52 of the 60 living members of the Baseball Hall of Fame photographed in front of Lake Otisaga at the time of the most recent Hall of Fame inductions.  All are in coats and ties, and the only two non-Hall of Famers are Bud Selig (this photo and his speech are probably as close as he'll get) and the head of the Hall of Fame, Dale Petroskey.

The first person who probably catches your eye is the bald (except for white hair at the temples) Gaylord Perry, who is well over his playing weight, and who, with his white mustache, still has the twinkle in his eye of the crafty pitcher who just snuck a 3-2 fastball by you.  He's in the first row at the far left.  Moving to your right, sitting in the center, is Willie Mays (as befits the "best living baseball player"), wearing glasses and a baseball hat (team unknown).  Two seats away from Mays is Sparky Anderson, still with the great, enthusiastic expression that made him the manager that he was.  The photo of Sparky captures the true essence of him.  Earl Weaver is three seats down from Anderson, looking content and contained, resembling more your retired high school civics teacher than the fiery mentor whose genius shone in Baltimore for years.  Two seats down from him, in a wheelchair, is Willie McCovey, who brought fear into opposing teams every time he stepped up to the plate.  SportsProf doesn't know what is ailing the former Giants' first baseman, but he always has been a huge Willie McCovey fan and wishes him the best.

In the second row, at the far left, is Orlando Cepeda, looking rather fit, and displaying a calm that shows that the recent years must have been better to him than his first decade out of baseball.  Two people down the row is the Chairman of the Board, Whitey Ford, hoisting a glass (the only one doing so), perhaps to his old friend, Mickey Mantle, who, along with Billy Martin, was probably trying to figure out how to set some hotfoots on the attendees from far above.  As you make your way past Joe Morgan and Ozzie Smith (who still looks like he could go deep in the hole), you get to the humongous Kirby Puckett, who is standing between Phil Rizzuto and Al Kaline (and you wonder how things are going for the once-popular, since fallen Twins' centerfielder -- by the looks of his weight, not too well).   Next to Kaline are Eddie Murray (almost looking like he wants to find a good exit away from the writers), Billy Williams and Tony Perez, and it's Tony Perez who probably looks the best of anyone in the photo and who still looks like he could go out there and bat cleanup for the Big Red Machine.  When you think about the best clutch hitters of any era, you put Tony Perez on the list.  Jim Palmer also looks very good, and he's next to Perez, although Palmer has a bit of that "Dick Clark" thing going -- he'll always look like he just jumped out of the shower.  Robin Roberts is next to Palmer, and he looks rather short compared to the big righties who frame him (Fergie Jenkins is on the other side of Roberts).  Who said "shorter" righties couldn't fare well?  Roberts was great, and for the most part he pitched for bad teams.  Terrible teams.  All right, teams who must not be named.

Near the far right of the second row are Johnny Bench, who still looks larger than life, Juan Marichal and Reggie Jackson.  Jackson is on the far right, and, with his body language, he still looks like the defiant and misunderstood Mr. October, a great player perhaps wondering how he fits into the entire picture.  With sunglasses on too (although Yogi has them on too).

In the top row at the far left you have Bob Gibson, still looking like he's in playing shape, and probably still capable of mustering one more 90-plus fastball to deck a hitter who got too close to home plate.  Two players down is the huge Carlton Fisk, with long hair and a fu manchu, looking more like a contemporary closer than a catcher (and probably hardly containing his glee that he doesn't have to crouch anymore for part of his living).  Rollie Fingers is next to Fisk, this time with a small mustache and closely cropped hair that is gray at the temples, no longer the swashbuckling A's closer.  The names are incredible. . . Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Brett, Brock and then you stop at Sandy Koufax, who also looks like he's in playing shape and who looks like he could have engaged in a 0-0 nine inning classic with Gibson on that very day.  Senator Jim Bunning is flanked by Robin Young and Dave Winfield, who dwarfs the Kid, Gary Carter, who is on the other side of Winfield.  Steve Carlton is a few players down, still with great posture.  Next to him is Tom Seaver, who looks every bit the General Electric board member (in his blue sport coat and red tie) to Carlton's general manager of a Zen Buddhist chain of Rocky Mountain dirt bike stores. 

SportsProf has spent more time with this photograph than he has with the next ten photographs combined, if only for the memories these men bring back of great baseball and shared times watching and talking about the national pastime with his late father, with whom he shared a love for the game.  It's a great photo and guaranteed to bring back memories if you are old enough, and, quite frankly, even if you aren't but if you're a fan of the game.

In a few weeks SportsProf will take Young SportsProf to his first Major League game ever, and he hopes to start up a whole new conversation with the next generation about the magical powers of this great sport.  Being a realist, SportsProf will settle for three innings, ice cream and some conversation about the mascot.  But he'll see the game through the dancing eyes of a fun little boy, the same way his father did at a stadium that no longer exists more than thirty years ago. 

We might even take our gloves. 

Just in case.

 

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Bobby Knight and the Love of the Game

You can say a lot of things about Bobby Knight.  You can use a good number of adjectives that all amount to the same result -- he's a complicated guy.  On the court, when not blowing a gasket, he's as good a fundamental basketball coach as anyone who has ever coached the game, with the possible exception of John Wooden (whose national titles put him in a class by himself, although Coach Knight can take satisfaction that Coach Wooden didn't win any national titles until Coach Knight's mentor, Pete Newell, retired from his post at Cal-Berkeley, where at one point in the early 1960's Coach Newell's record against Coach Wooden was 8-0).  As good as, say, Dean Smith?  He's won more national championships.  Mike Krzyzewski?  He's won as many.  Adolf Rupp?  Absolutely. 

He has problems with authority and problems with an ego that has led him to believe that he can be bigger than the institutions he is supposing to serve.  The irony there is that while he demands respect and holds to old-fashioned values about courtesy, he hasn't exactly followed the Golden Rule in that department.  That sad irony is a troubling part of his legacy and detracts, to a degree, from all of his accomplishments.  He's won a ton of games and 3 national titles, and he's always made it a priority to graduate his players.  That's no small feat.  Actually, it's quite a huge feat, and he should be commended for it.

Right now he's in the news because he's suffering from the "no kind act goes unpunished" rule (it's either the second or third line on the famous "Murphy's Law" poster).  Why?  Because after last season he vowed to return his salary because he didn't think he earned it.  His team had fared poorly, in his view, so he wanted to make it up to the school that saved him from coaching college basketball somewhere up in northern North Dakota at a DIII school that would annually challenge for the NCAA curling championship.  Good PR, good gesture, great for the coffers of Texas Tech.

But, as ESPN.com reports, it's not so easy, because of legal and tax ramifications.  Still, he and his friend, AD Gerald Myers, are working together so that Knight can give Texas Tech the $250,000 in equivalent economic value.  Most likely, they'll restructure Coach Knight's contract so that he can make it up to Texas Tech.

It's a nice story in a time where the average fan is sometimes left wondering whether the shoe companies run the kids or the kids run their universities' hoops programs (see the Michigan teams in the late 1980's).  Coach Knight has always tried to do the right thing, and, with the exception of some glaring examples of bad personal comportmant, he usually has.  It's a shame that this story doesn't get the same press as a chair-throwing incident or a harangue against Myles Brand. 

But it's a good story just the same. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Searching for Bake McBride

Philadelphia Phillies' fans and the local media are forever searching for a prescription to solve the hometown nine's problems.  The callers to the local sports talk show are rife with suggestions to help the team win a division title. 

The suggestions have been interesting.

"Fire Larry Bowa," advised one caller.  This suggestion has popped up the most frequently.  The problem with the suggestion, though, is that the Phillies' lackluster performance isn't Bowa's fault.  Yes, he has been combustible, but he hasn't been responsible for the construction of a strike zone-challenged lineup and an oft-injured pitching staff.  You can't even blame Bowa for the fact that the Phillies have lost 20 out of 23 to the Florida Marlins.  Larry Bowa may be a lot of things, but he isn't the reason the Phillies aren't in first.  Not this year. 

"Fire Greg Gross," suggested another caller.  Gross, a one-time pinch hitter extraordinaire, is the Phillies' hitting coach.  It is true that the Phillies' batting has been inconsistent, but are Mike Lieberthal's problems at the plate because Gross is a bad tutor or because Lieberthal has more injuries than an NFL offensive lineman on a Sunday morning?  Gross has helped Jimmy Rollins go from dismal to good, and Pat Burrell's slide back into the woes that befell him last year have to transcend the teachings of any batting coach.  Burrell could baffle the best of hitting coaches.  Gross shouldn't be sacked, at least not now.

"Fire Joe Kerrigan," suggested a third caller.  But you can't blame the pitching coach for injuries to Billy Wagner (who is heading home to Philadelphia from the road and probably back onto the DL), rookie phenom reliever Ryan Madson (who has something like a 1.19 ERA in relief but is now on the DL) or Vicente Padilla.  You can't blame Kerrigan for the pitching of Josh Hancock, Ryan Powell or Paul Abbott, or even for not figuring out how to help stubborn young thrower Brett Myers.  Kevin Millwood has proven he's not an ace, but is that Kerrigan's fault?  Kerrigan hasn't excelled, but his coaching isn't the reason the Phillies' aren't in first place.

"Fire Ed Wade," suggested yet another caller.  Wade is the Phillies' GM, and he looks more like the head of human resources who just announced that a 1000 manufacturing jobs in Peoria have just been outsourced to Bangalore than a GM.  After all, it was Wade who thought that signing over-the-hill (he should have read "Baseball Prospectus") reliever Roberto Hernandez was a good move (few others did).  And, it was Wade who signed disappointing 3B David Bell and seemingly through OF Doug Glanville as a back-up.  Of course, it was Wade who traded Johnny Estrada for Kevin Millwood (a trade that looked great through the All-Star game last year for the Phillies and since then has looked like a steal for the Braves) and who inked Jim Thome.  It's probably not Wade's fault either.

At least not yet.  The Phillies' have half a AAA pitching staff in the show right now because of injuries, and they desperately need a hitter.  Unfortunately, they haven't been in position to make the pre-trading deadline trade that will help put them over the top in a long time.  SportsProf remembers fondly the Pope, GM Paul Owens, and his penchant for pulling off magical deals in subtle ways that helped the Phillies.  In 1977, with the Phillies in need of some batting help, Owens traded Tom Underwood, Dane Iorg and another player to the Cardinals before the trading deadline for fleet RF Bake McBride, who was a balky knee away from superstardom.  McBride became a mainstay for the Phillies for several years, and his brilliant season in 1980 (89 RBI on 9 HR) contributed mightily to the Phillies' only World Series victory. 

And it's been slim pickings after that.  And it's been even slimmer pickings under Ed Wade.  Right now, the Phillies' fans are expecting that nothing will happen.  They've heard that the Phillies fanned on re-acquiring Terry Adams and that the Diamondbacks' Steve Finley doesn't want to come east.  They've read that the Pirates don't want AA homer machine Ryan Howard for Kris Benson, and they're basically frustrated that despite all of the hoopla surrounding their new ballpark, the Phillies appear to be headed to rolling the dice with who they have.

And who they have just aren't good enough.  There was talk earlier today that they might participate in a three-way trade with the Yankees whereby the Bombers would get Randy Johnson, the Phillies would get Kenny Lofton and the D-backs would get some of the Phillies' prospects because the Yankees have none.  Sounds like a deal for everyone but the Phillies. 

And then there's the lightning that could strike if Drayton McLane has decided to throw in the towel in Houston.  Carlos Beltran beckons.  And while reaching financially for a player of Beltran's caliber would be something that the Phillies' wouldn't normally do, it's somewhat logical that in another effort to please their hungry fans, they might just do it.  Ryan Howard could be a logical candidate to caddy for Jeff Bagwell for a while, and young pitcher Elizardo Ramirez has some serious stuff.

How about this lineup:  Rollins, Abreu, Beltran, Thome, Burrell etc.?  Now that would be really something.

But you still have to get people out.  You still need another starter and at least another reliever.

And, guess what?  Jose Mesa is available.  The Pirates are peddling him to the highest bidder.

It should be a fun time until midnight on July 31.

The Interesting Tale of Willie Williams and

the Miami Hurricanes.

Okay, suppose you're a college admissions officer at a school that is private and wants to be considered more among the elite than it is.  You get lots of applications, and, like most schools, your scholarship money -- for athletics and academics, is rather limited.  You're looking for outstanding kids, whether they're well-rounded (a standard which use to prevail) or outstanding (i.e., among the very best) at just one thing (the standard that currently is in vogue because the elite schools now favor the well-rounded class over a class full of well-rounded people).   You're looking for leaders; you're looking for people of character.  Kids who will add to your community, and kids who have the maturity to live with others and get along with them in a relatively unsupervised environment. 

Suppose you have a kid who will be the best drum major that ever walked into the school, or an outstanding composer, or a kid who already has started his own internet business that grosses $100,000 a year, or a kid who scored 1500 on his SAT's, or a kid who was president of Boys' State (which is in stark contrast to Boys' Town), or a kid who has published a volume of haiku.  You might want that kid in your freshman class.  And, if those kids are from Nebraska, Namibia, a family of 16, an underprivileged background, all the better.  All the better because it's great to have kids from all walks of life.  Colleges know that kids learn from each other as well if not better than from their professors, so it's great to have your students share diverse life experiences.

But suppose one of those kids with an outstanding talent has an arrest record.  Not just one arrest.  And not just one arrest for a juvenile prank of firing a fire extinguisher or stealing the rival high school's mascot.  But a series of arrests for burglary.   What do you do then? 

Do you want that kid living among your student population right out of high school?  Do you think that kid is ready to respect the lives of others?  Will you let that kid into your freshman class?

The answer, in all likelihood, would not take your dean of admissions that long to formulate.  You'd probably send a rejection letter and be done with it.  You might even think, "what nerve, is this guy kidding?"  Perhaps, if, say, through connections, you heard more about the kid, you might say "go to junior college, stay clean and do well, and we'll see what we can do or take a post-graduate year at a prep school, do well and stay clean, and then reapply," but that's probably about it.  End of story. 

There are plenty of kids with unique talents, and there are many without the baggage of a disciplinary record.   The competition for spots and financial aid is fierce; the Darwinism is absolute.

But suppose that kid with 11 arrests on his record plays football.  And suppose he led his HS to the big-school championship in your football-crazed state.   Then what?  Do you a) admit him, b) admit him with stipulations as to behavior, c) require him to go somewhere like a military academy for a post-graduate year to get his act together and get some discipline, d) require him to go to a JUCO and then come back with a clean record in two years or e) reject him outright?

Hard choice?  Do you agonize over it?  Do you even think about how the kid will fit in on the campus?  Or do you say, "11 arrests by the age of 19 is 11 arrests" and can't they find someone who can hit like a sledgehammer but spends his spare time bugling instead of burgling? 

Apparently it wasn't that hard a choice for the Miami Hurricanes.  The University of Miami clearly chose football over its quest to come closer to the academic elite.  They opted for option b), and President Donna Shalala indicated that there are behavior stipulations but didn't go into what they are (in fairness, the Buckley Amendment prohibits colleges from revealing private information about their students).  So, despite the fact that Miami had 6 players drafted in the first round of this past April's NFL draft, they were feeling insecure on defense.  And, as you know, while offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.

Former Kentucky coach, Baltimore Colt and Green Bay Packer Bill Curry, a regular on Mike & Mike in the Morning on ESPN radio (a favorite of SportsProf), didn't exactly defend the decision, but he did stick up for his friend Larry Coker, the Miami head coach, by saying that Coker is a straight arrow, an honest guy, and if he sees something in Williams he should be given the benefit of the doubt.  Curry is not a hard-case former football coach but a thoughtful guy, and he indicated that there were times when he was a head coach where they took chances on a kid.  Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't.  Curry thinks that Coker should be given the benefit of the doubt here.

SportsProf respects Bill Curry and his opinion, but wonders where all of Miami's priorities are.  Clearly, Curry's opinion is valid if you accept the great premium that universities place on the success of their athletic programs.  Because Miami fights for championships in the BCS and makes that goal a priority, Williams is an acceptable risk.  My guess is that at a marginal program, Williams' admission would be more than an acceptable risk, it would be a necessity.  After all, how could a gate-starved Division I-A program turn down the next Ray Lewis, especially if he could help fill the seats?

But SportsProf, while he likes sports, doesn't like them at the expense of common sense or where colleges lose sight of their priorities (and he'll debate whether "saving" Willie Williams should be a priority for Miami, especially right out of HS).  SportsProf for one does not think that players like Willie Williams belong on a college campus, not at least until they do their penance in a post-graduate year and really get ready for college.  His admission sends the wrong message on many levels -- to HS football stars (that they'll continuously get second, third, fourth and twenty-second chances), to professors (that learning may not be paramount), to past, current and future students (that academics aren't necessarily the priority).   But the 'Canes probably couldn't risk the chance that Williams might go to Florida or Florida State.  That's just the way college football is down there.

Unfortunately, there is no minor league for HS football players who probably should not go to college.  Wags can joke that the SEC may just fit this bill, but that wouldn't be fair to the large majority of the football players in that conference who want their degrees and want to leverage their scholarships into good careers.  But until there is a meaningful minor league, and because of the pressure to win, football schools will be admitting players with issues like Willie Williams' for years to come.  Hopefully there aren't that many with 11 arrests before matriculation. 

SportsProf only hopes that Williams' admission is good for Williams, who hopefully views it as his last chance to do things the right way, and good for college football as a whole.  Miami has worked hard to undo the image of an outlaw football school, the UNLV of the gridiron.  The admission of Williams has those who watch football closely wondering what Miami is up to this time.  Maybe they are doing a good deed here.  But remember this, they want that national title.  Badly.

And, as we know in the world of sports, it only takes one incident to undo two decades' worth of solid work. 

Good luck to Donna Shalala, Larry Coker and Willie Williams. 

And to college athletics and universities struggling with their priorities.

You need every bit of it.

Because everyone will be watching you.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

What is Wrong with the NFL Draft Structure?

We all hate to wait.  Yogi Berra said it best about a popular restaurant:  "Nobody goes there; it's too crowded."  Most red-blooded American sports fans don't like to wait in line to get into a game, to get tickets, to get their hot dogs, their beer.  And when they have to wait, they don't like it.

Which is why it's surprising that NFL fans put up with the nonsense of the games of chicken that NFL teams play with their top draft picks year after year.  As of mid-day today, only 6 or 7 first-round picks had signed.  And that's out of 32 first-round picks.  And many second- and third-round picks remain unsigned.

"Why is that?" you ask.  Well, because unlike the NBA (whose draft was held, oh, two months later than the NFL's and whose regular season starts, oh, two months after the NFL's), which has a set salary structure (and where more first-round picks already have signed with their teams than in the NFL), there is no lock-step set structure for rookies, and each first-rounder wants to make sure that he doesn't sign for less than someone who gets drafted after him.  And some teams treat their cap dollars like manhole covers, whether because their management is cheap or because they are so tight on cap space that they really don't have as much as they should to sign all their draft picks.  

 Part of the reason why the rookies don't sign is that they don't want to screw up.  Part of the reason they don't sign is that the clubs think that the opprobrium of not signing, of not getting into camp, is an incentive for the rookies to sign and start their careers.  There are plenty of stories, some of them old wives' tales, of rookies whose careers just never get going because they didn't get into their first camp on time.  So the clubs play the waiting game too, trying to use the weight of public opinion to get the rookies to sign.

But the reasoning runs deeper than that.  Unlike the NBA, where careers are longer and the union has done a better job in terms of getting its players to free agency more quickly, for many of these players their rookie contract might be their best contract in their entire career.  Especially in terms of the money they get up front, which, if they manage it wisely, can make them set for life.  The stakes, then, are much bigger than in any other professional league.  The union hasn't negotiated a scale for rookies the way the NBA has, and, most certainly, a scale like the NBA's would end this perennial game of chicken that takes place and that is not good for the game.  And it would ensure that the players don't get overpaid, and that some of the huge signing bonus dollars that the first ten picks get actually would go to veterans, who have done more to earn them.  But if the union were to agree to do so, the owners would have to give up something too. 

And don't think for a moment that they would accede to better free agency terms for veterans.  That probably would be more costly and more disruptive than overpaying players who have never played a down. 

So the silly system will continue, and the NFL will continue to be this amazing cash machine, regardless of this flaw. 

And maybe, if you're lucky, your team's first-rounder will glide into camp without having missed too many repetitions in training camp.

Abject Stupidity in the SEC

Great news report from a conference about which it recently was reported that an opposing coach told South Carolina men's hoops coach Dave Odom that his school would only schedule four teams in the SEC because of the ethical reputations of the rest of the schools.  Actually, this new story is a rather sad report about the state of affairs in the SEC.

Several years back, Tennessee Vols football coach Phil Fullmer reported to the NCAA what he thought were recruiting violations by Alabama boosters.  The NCAA investigated, and Alabama got some serious sanctions.  

Which had the Crimson Tide faithful hopping mad, calling Fullmer a squealer, a tattle tale, and, no doubt, creative names at the more profane end of the continuum.  A former assistant football coach at Alabama has brought a lawsuit alleging what on its face to be an Oliver Stone-like conspiracy theory between the NCAA and Tennessee (and Fullmer) to sock it to Alabama.  To make matters worse, the attorneys for the plaintiff had planned to serve Fullmer with a subpoena at the SEC 's media day in Birmingham this week.  (You have to hand it to the former Alabama assistant -- there isn't a better place to win than on your home turf with your own referees calling the game).

Except for one thing:  Fullmer elected, with the blessing of his athletic director and university president, not to go.  He didn't want to give more credence to the litigation, obviously, and he said that the media day is for the players and a sideshow like this litigation shouldn't detract from that.

Makes a good deal of sense, at least to many.  Fullmer has the right not to submit to jurisdiction if he doesn't want to (especially in state court in Alabama, where a jury once awarded almost $4 million to a plaintiff who didn't like the paint job on his new BMW), and given that he was the whistleblower, he also has the right not to give credence to what seems to be a bitter vendetta. 

Except for one thing:  the SEC Commissioner, Mike Slive, fined Fullmer $10,000 for missing media day.  The Tennessee administration tried to get the fine overturned, but what could Mike Slive possibly be thinking?  Here he has a coach who did the right thing by the NCAA, and here's how he thanks him?  What message can Slive possibly be sending -- that SEC teams shouldn't turn one another in, no matter how bad the cheating is, because they should settle all scores either in-house or on the field?  Can he really be serious?  Is cheating okay so long as it happens in the family?  Has Forrest Gump taken over the SEC head office?

Fullmer said that when he reported the violations, he did so in accordance with "our code of conduct."  It is unclear whether he meant Tennessee's, the SEC's, or the NCAA's.   But, whatever the case, he did the right thing.

And it also isn't clear what code of ethics Mike Slive is operating under.  Or perhaps, better phrased, what code of clues Mike Slive is operating under.  Because if he really wants to make a mark on the SEC and ensure that the college athletics that transpire in his conference are excellent and further the true values of higher education, it appears that he needs to get a serious clue. 

Because the fine sends an awful message. 

And it also could give rise to another lawsuit:  Fullmer v. Slive.  Someone can come up with a theory somewhere, and perhaps Fullmer should file in Tennessee.  Where he knows the field and the refs.

The SEC always has been known for its great games -- on the field.  Some of the wiser heads in the NCAA should put a stop to the Alabama lawsuit and move on from this most recent, sad chapter in Crimson Tide history.

And they should worry more about winning their football games through the quality of the kids they recruit honestly and the quality of the coaching and support they give them.

Blocking and tackling.  Just like they used to.

And not fines and subpoenas.

Monday, July 26, 2004

More on the LaSalle Head Coaching Job

Scratch Niagara head coach and LaSalle alum Joe Mihalich from the list.  Bill Dooley, former Richmond head coach and recently hired as the now-departed Billy Hahn's top assistant, is running the team now, but he doesn't seem to be a candidate.  SportsProf mentioned before that Fran Dunphy, the Penn mentor and a LaSalle alum, is a candidate, as is Fran O'Hanlon, the Lafayette coach.  Two other names have surfaced, Penn State top assistant Kurt Kanaskie, once the head coach at Drake (where his teams posted just plum awful results), and West Virginia top assistant Jeff Neubauer, another former LaSalle guard.  Dick Jerardi of the Phila. Daily News provides a good rundown of the sweepstakes in today's edition.

Dunphy, if interested, would appear to be the frontrunner.  SportsProf has always thought Dunphy to be ready for the next level, and his window of opportunity will continue to narrow as he ages past 55.  But there appears to be another reason for Dunphy's wanting to leave -- his relationship with Penn AD Steve Bilsky.  According to www.ivybasketball.com, the relationship isn't great.  Even though Dunphy enjoys great status on the Penn campus, if he doesn't have a good relationship with his boss, who knows how much fun he's having.  Stay tuned for this one -- getting Dunphy would be a great coup for LaSalle (which, until they anted up for Billy Hahn's contract extension, had a reputation for having one of the lowest paying men's head coaching jobs).  

O'Hanlon is a viable candidate; you can read my previous post about him.  Kanaskie (scroll down) would be a mistake.  While a good shooter and scorer when a player at LaSalle, his coaching record at Drake was so bad that the LaSalle faithful's groan at his election would be heard all the way down on South Broad Street (for the uninitiated, LaSalle is located not far from the most northern reaches of North Broad Street, and, yes, Broad Street is the straightest street in the U.S.).  Neubauer (scroll down) seems to be a solid pick if Dunphy isn't interested.  He's a LaSalle alum, he's young, he assists an excellent coach in John Bellein at West Virginia, and he has a bright future ahead of him.

The question remains whether LaSalle will feel compelled to stay within the family.   If so, they'll push hard for Dunphy.  If not, they'll have to find a combination of ethics, solid basketball knowledge and good recruiting.  And, at their (usually low) price. 

There are only about 330 Division I coaching jobs, and there are thousands of coaches who would want a shot as a DI mentor.   The candidates mentioned above are the logical choices.  But if heralded Duke of the ACC picked a relatively unknown Mike Krzyzewski in 1980, why can't the LaSalle administration take the right coach with the right pedigree -- even if he's in his early 30's. 

The guess here is that Fran Dunphy will say no; the LaSalle job, as much as he would hate to admit it, is not a step up.  And without its ace to complete its inside straight, the LaSalle administration will be praying for guidance to pick the right guy. 

Here's to hoping they do. 

 

Paradise Lost

It probably never was a paradise, not, at least, in baseball terms.  Sure, one franchise had its moments, on average, once a score, while the other fielded great teams twice in its first say 30 years of existence (including, perhaps, the best team ever, '27 Yankees included), before moving its sad former self out of town where, as a major league team (in K.C.), it became a veritable farm club for the Bronx Bombers.   The question:  Who are Philadelphia, the Phillies (WS appearances in '15, '50, '80 (winning it), '83 and '93), and the A's (the '29-'31 team with Foxx, Simmons and Grove arguably was better than the Yankee teams around the same time).

The A's were the favored bunch until they moved out of town, because Mr. Mack when he had the cash knew what to do with it -- he fielded winners.  But more often than not he was cash-strapped, and, as a result, sold off great player after great player.  The Phillies, for most of their existence, were utterly clueless (if you look at baseball results from the Phila. teams from say the mid-30's to the late 40's, well, it wasn't a pretty sight).  Under their manager "Alabama" Ben Chapman, the Phillies taunted Jackie Robinson mercilessly in his rookie year (1947) and at one point tried to get the Dodgers to come to Philadelphia without him.  They waited 10 years after that to sign their first black player, John Kennedy, who was a back-up, and when their first bona fide African-American star showed up -- Richie Allen -- they treated him poorly and rode him out of town.  They had some great days from the mid-to-late '70's through the early 1980's when Ruly Carpenter owned the team, but a few years after the '81 strike the young Carpenter became disillusioned and sold the team to a group of wealthy suburbanites (who at best feigned interest in their investment) led by then- team President Bill Giles.  With the exception of what must have been a harmonic convergence in 1993, when Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton and John Kruk led the team to an almost inexplicable World Series appearance, times have been rather bleak under an ownership that many fans believed lacked leadership, lacked vision, and, well, really didn't care about winning. 

Until two seasons ago, at least.  The fans had fled in record numbers, refusing to pay for an inferior product, a team that just couldn't win the division.  So two years ago, after the public relations fiascos that took place with Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen, the Phillies had to do something.  The Schilling and Rolen trades were bad (how many involving superstars are good for the dispensing team except, in recent memory, the Richie Sexson for half the Diamondbacks starting 8 that has worked out wonderfully for Milwaukee?), and the Phillies then signed Jim Thome and David Bell and traded for Kevin Millwood.  Part of this, of course, was enlightened self-interest -- they had to do something on the even of opening up a new stadium. 

Paradise.  Citizens Bank Park.  Green Grass.  Seats closer to the action, great views (okay, so the parking isn't perfect yet until they tear down The Vet and the food is horribly overpriced, but you can't have everything).  Paradise and a team that going into the season in its inaugural season had a chance of winning the title.  Paradise.

Sounds good.  But Paradise isn't a building; it's a state of mind, and they've never had the success in Philadelphia baseball circles to breed the confidence that fosters a continued cycle of winning.  This weekend, several things took place to shatter the peaceful thoughts that the new ballpark has engendered.

First, Eric Milton lost a no-hitter in the top of the ninth.  Paradise really lost.  That happens, but there were two fielding plays in centerfield by supposedly the team's best centerfielder, Doug Glanville, that made you wonder whether he was auditioning for the part of Willie Mays -- in the 1973 World Series.  It may soon be time for Mr. Glanville to put his engineering degree from Penn to good use.  The Phillies were up 2-0, and then they found themselves tied 2-2 after 8 and a half.  Thankfully, the Cubs have similar pressure issues, and LaTroy Hawkins blew his save opportunity, giving up a single to Pat Burrell that gave the Phillies the victory.  Paradise saved.

Second, GM Ed Wade blew up at a reporter from a suburban paper who had written that pitching coach Joe Kerrigan might not last the year.  Cursed at him in front of 200 fans who were standing around, presumably waiting for autographs (and, no, Wade did not ask those people, "Don't you people have homes?") .  Wade later apologized to the writer, but he thought the report to be unfounded.  Everyone denied that Kerrigan's job is in jeopardy, but he hasn't worked the magic with this pitching staff that he did with average pitchers in Boston.  Vicente Padilla hasn't emerged as a star, and Brett Myers seems all fouled up.  Hard to say whether Kerrigan's work is a problem, but the Phillies' pitching staff has underperformed.  Paradise confused.

Third, the ball park has proven to be a launching pad, thereby negating some of the advantage the Phillies thought they were getting after building what they thought was a formidable staff.  And it was Ed Wade who traded for Billy Wagner, which is a big plus, and for Eric Milton, which was huge.  But it was also Ed Wade who signed Roberto Hernandez, the latest of the gas-can school of relief pitching that has tortured the Phillies over the past few seasons.  Still, Wade rates a plus in this department, but he's tight because expectations are so high.  Paradise, well, in this department, never created.  The Phillies didn't want Coors Field, but they have something like it.

Fourth, the Phillies are desperate for another reliever and another bat in the outfield, and rumor has it that they're mulling over trading for 39 year-old Steve Finley and rescuing that career good player from the scrap heap that has become Arizona.  But how much should Wade give up for Finley?  AA home run talent Ryan Howard, the bruising first baseman?  Who else?  The Phillies did offer Howard to the Pirates for Kris Benson, but apparently they were shot down.  Ed Wade is definitely feeling the pressure here.  One of his predecessors, Paul Owens, was masterful at making the late July trade that helped put the team over the top in the late 70's and early 80's.  So far, Ed Wade has been reluctant to pull the trigger at this time of the year.  Paradise paralyzed.

So there the Phillies sit, in the unusual position of being in the middle of a pennant race.  They have some excellent pitchers and excellent hitters, and they need to show their fans that they can stay calm when they're in the cockpit over the target.  

And, right now, the guy flying the plane is the general manager, Ed Wade.   Take a cleansing breath, get some confidence, and make the trade you need to make.  In Philadelphia, you won't get criticized for the act of commission, but after years of waiting patiently and watching for good pre-deadline trades that never materialized, they will barbecue you on Labor Day at the Jersey shore if you commit the sin of omission. 

That doesn't mean that you have to follow or yield to the angry crowd (even if they do know their baseball rather well).  No, you don't have to do that.

Just allow for their doubting.  This time, they could be right.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

SportsProf Has Returned

SportsProf has returned to the U.S. after a whirlwind trip to Europe (3 cities, 5.5 days), with the following observations:

1.  Tour de France.  SportsProf noticed a few things about the Tour when he was in Paris.  First, Lance speaks passable French, which must endear him to the French crowd.  Second, the French still like their hometown favorites, and who can blame any country for not rooting for its countrymen?  Richard Virenque, kind of the mountain stages (for something like the fifth year in a row), is the best of the Frenchmen and probably destined never to win the Tour.  Third, there were a bunch of Americans in Paris, and SportsProf ran into a family from suburban Dallas eager to route on Lance Armstrong.  Fourth, fans of Armstrong standing along the route yell, "Go, Postal," and, thanks to this cycling great, the U.S. Postal Service team has given "Going Postal" a new and better meaning. 

2.  Red Sox versus Yankees.  This is getting to be almost as fun as the Rocky-Thunderlips battle in Rocky III.  Memo to the Red Sox:  it's great to get all macho against the Yankees, but why don't you keep your emotions in check and start winning games before you start popping off like that and getting into ridiculous fights.  Emotion without results looks, well, like bad sportsmanship.  SportsProf likes fiery rivalries, but where the fire is real because the rivalries are close.  The last time he checked, the BoSox weren't that close and were in danger of losing out on even the wild card.

3.  Jaber Rouzbahani.  Apparently the name of the Iranian hoops wunderkind only has traveled so far.  SportsProf sat on the plane with some Iranian-Americans from Northern California and they have never heard of the 7'5" player who is in agent Aaron Goodwin's stable.  Note to Jaber:  get some more game, then you'll get some more name (recognition), even among your own countrymen.

4.  LaSalle College Basketball.  This is the one DI job that is now open, as the LaSalle administration accepted the resignations of the men's and women's basketball coaches in light of the sad circumstances surrounding some alleged rapes.  SportsProf hasn't read enough to comment whether or not the LaSalle administration has done the right thing, but the Explorers need both a good recruiter and a coach whose reputation is beyond reproach.  Joe Mihalich, the Niagara coach who is a LaSalle alum (his father was a LaSalle prof) has said he isn't interested.  Speculation now is falling to Penn coach Fran Dunphy, a LaSalle alum, and Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon, a Villanova alum.  You all know what SportsProf thinks of both of these coaches.  SportsProf doubts that Dunphy will be interested, and he thinks that O'Hanlon would be absolutely terrific.  The Explorers will be lucky to get O'Hanlon, who has carved out a good niche in Easton, Pennsylvania (although it isn't exactly a hoops hotbed).  Philadelphia's Big Five beckons.  Loudly.

5.  Street Ball.  In trying to counteract his jet lag, SportsProf watched some of the "And1 Street Ball" show on ESPN.  I have a few observations on the topic.  One, if you can get into the genre, some of the stuff can be quite entertaining.  Two, some of the players probably couldn't play organized basketball even if they wanted to (one, J Roc, said that there are too many politics and too much money in the NBA, so he wouldn't be interested anyway).  Perhaps I didn't see the whole interview (I doubt there was one), but I am sure that all of the guys on the And1 team would love to play in the NBA if they could.  There is a huge guy, about 7', 350 pounds they call Escalade (take a look and you'll know why -- and all of these guys have rapper-like nicknames), and I think that he's the brother of NBA PG Mark Jackson (I know they don't have the same body type, but I do recall that Jackson's younger brother played a bit at Louisville and is a 767-type size-wise).  Okay, what's the point?  The point is that it is easy to dismiss the phenomenon, but it might be a mistake.  Some might have thought that rap music wouldn't have lasted, but where are we today.  Now I'm not saying that the NBA has anything to worry about (it doesn't, at least not from these guys), but, well, the And1 luxury bus kings might just find their niche in some way.  And all of them, to a person, would love to get a guaranteed contract from the NBA.  The odds, though, are that no one will get one.  But if J Roc is right, do they really care? 

6.  Paul Tagliabue.  The NFL commish quietly had his contract renewed for a few years last week, and the news hardly drew any publicity.  Which is unfortunate, because of the 3 major sports in the U.S., his by far is run the best.  The NFL owners did the right thing, and the NFL is fortunate to have a successor to Pete Rozelle with a far different background and a different style who has taken the NFL to the next level.  So who said that practicing lawyers aren't good managers?  Bud Selig, take some notes on how to do things the right way.  Look no further than the entity that has seized the mantle of "national pastime", the NFL.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

July Craziness Leads to March Madness

John Wooden is famous for having said, "failing to prepare is preparing to fail."  Practice hard (sorry, Mr. Iverson, but most of the champions do practice well), prepare well, and the wins might come more easily.  The adage sounds simple, the statement is quite eloquent, but the principles sometimes are hard to instill.  Especially with teenagers.

All college hoop fans love March Madness, especially the first two days of the tournament where the field of 64 narrows to 32 and there's a Coppin State or Hampton or Princeton pulling an upset in the first round.  And, the frenzy that is early- to mid-March is quite something, what with conference tournaments and then the waiting for the bubble teams. 

A natural predicate to an invitation or automatic bid to the Big Dance is a tough schedule chock full of wins.  That resume, in and of itself, constitutes a solid form of preparation.  But, as that other great collegiate influence, Albert Einstein (and not, as Joe Theisman once said, "Norman Einstein"), "life is in the details."  Or something like that.   And the details go far beyond the resume.

The details extend to developing talent, getting your choreography down, making sure you turn on your players' light bulbs and getting the team to fire on all cylinders.  Lots of individual instruction, weight room work, film work, lot of time spent in the office and on the practice floor.

But it all starts with the talent.  If Wake doesn't have Chris Paul, if Arizona doesn't have Mustafa Shakur, if Carolina doesn't have Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton, they're not looking at the Big Dance.  The coaches have to get the players, and given that it's not sure for how long the Top 50 kids will stay in college, the elite teams really have to work hard to find their players.  Perhaps not as hard as the mid- or low-majors, who have to work even harder.  SportsProf is writing this from an internet connection from Paris on a French keyboard, so it is not that easy to type or to figure out how to link.  There was a good article in USA Today about 3 days ago on the July recruiting period, and I recommend that you find it (I think that Dave Sez might have linked to it within the past couple of days).  Basically, college coaches spend the bulk of July moving from tournament to tournament (all of which seemingly are sponsored by the shoe companies) letting their recruits know that they are really interested.

It is easier for the top schools, because they are only looking at between 20 to 30 prospects.  It is harder for the mid- and low-majors, who can look at as many as 100 prospects.  Talk about a grueling summer!

So, you see, it really all is in the preparation. 

It's just that the preparation starts almost 15 months before a rising high school senior becomes a freshman. 

Being a good technician and a good practice coach is one thing, and it's certainly helpful.  But at the end of the day, talent does win out, so in certain respects a DI college b-ball coach does his most important work withstanding the grueling travel and blistering heat of July.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Early Line on College Hoops

Most people like lists, and, most certainly, the popular media loves to publish the "top [you fill in the blank]" people who can decline Latin nouns while dunking a basketball with two hands, switch-hitting outfielders or wife-swapping pitchers (okay, so there were only two of those).  Well, not to be outdone, Andy Katz of ESPN has published his top 50 college hoops teams going into this season.  3 of the top 4 and 7 of the top 33 are ACC teams (which, yes, means that #33 is an ACC team), and those who fall into the top 3 are Wake, Carolina and Georgia Tech in that order.  Which just goes to show you that despite all of the laments about the best HS players going pro, the ACC is doing just fine (and, yes, Duke comes in at #10 despite losing Luol Deng and despite Shaun Livingston's not matriculating).  And, for those of you who were looking, Gonzaga (very much overrated last year) comes in at #22, Villanova (very much underachieving) comes in at #30 and Air Force (despite having lost Coach Joe Scott to Princeton) comes in at #39 (his replacement, Chris Mooney, was Scott's top assistant). 
 
SportsProf loves college hoops and will focus on them more closely once the season inches closer.  That said, because the best HS players aren't going to college and because many good college players are leaving, SportsProf contends that these lists don't have the meaning that they once did.  Why?  The talent level is more even than it was, say, when Patrick Ewing was at Georgetown or when Hakeem Olajuwon was at Houston.  Back then, say, twenty years ago, the talent really separated itself, and the elite teams were head and shoulders above the rest. 
 
Today, it's much harder to know.  The Ewings and Olajuwons are going straight to the pros, and without the super-elite players in the college ranks, perhaps 16 teams can win it all these days, instead of the three or four twenty years ago.
 
Now, Dukies may argue that their beloved teams have been head and shoulders above the rest within the last decade, and for certain seasons they might even win that point.  But, by and large, the talent is more even, and that makes the results more exciting.  Gonzaga thrilled people last year but laid a big egg in the Big Dance, proving that either they weren't great against top competition or that the competition they played against wasn't that great.  St. Joe's, though, more than held its own (and it made SportsProf wonder that had UConn's Josh Boone gone to his second choice, St. Joe's, whether the Hawks, with that wonderful backcourt, would have gone to the Final Four and perhaps beyond).
 
It's usually the case that many of the teams on these lists will be among "the chalk" at the end of the year, when it comes time to seed the NCAA Tournament, and that some of them will hit the hardwood with a "thud" hitherto best exemplified by Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV."  But it's also the case that there's some team out there that no one is counting on who could crash this party and cause trouble for the big names. 
 
Last year, that team was Air Force. 
 
Who will it be this year?
 
So thanks to Andy Katz for starting the armchair college basketball discussion in the middle of the dogs days of July.  SportsProf personally was interested in the heat of last night's Cardinals-Cubs rivalry and is confounded by the zero-sum baseball being played in the National League East.
 
That said, who will that surprise team be?  The Northwestern Wildcats, perhaps ready to make a permanent break out of the Big 10's second division?  The Temple Owls, returning from the ranks of the forgotten?  The Princeton Tigers, perhaps with their best squad in five years?  The Cal Bears, with tons of talent to burn but so far not too much to show for it?   And how about the St. Joe's Hawks, whom most are counting out because they lost 2 first-round draft picks in Jameer Nelson and Delonte West?  Maybe the Rutgers Scarlet Knights with their high-octane sophomore backcourt will break through the ceiling that has been the bottom of the Big East's first division.  Could Vermont, with heralded PF Tyler Coppenrath, go further than they did last year (when Coppenrath played in the first-round NCAA Tournament game with a huge cast and a barely healed, if healed, broken wrist)?  Who will be the relative unknown from the Mid-American conference who will give people fits?  And could the Rice Owls do some damage and show the world that Georgetown's and Ohio State's interest in their head coach, Willis Wilson, was justified?
 
Those teams are out there, motivated, no doubt, by the fact that they didn't make Andy Katz's radar screen.  Or Dickie V's, or, especially, Billy Packer's?
 
But come late November, you'll be reading about one of them, how they beat Kentucky in Lexington or Michigan State in East Lansing (which Bucknell would have done last year had they not shot something like 1-20 at the foul line for the game) or Maryland in College Park, and then a new buzz will emerge.  More powerful than the hum of the cicadas that comes every 17 years, more sonorous than your favorite diva.  That's what we love about the game, and that's what makes it so compelling.
 
So be patient a little longer, for the sound of the ball hitting the hardwood or the squeaks of the sneakers or the horn announcing that the game is ready to start.  It should be a great season (it usually is).

More on NCAA Men's Basketball Proposals

The NCAA has upcoming meetings in Baltimore to discuss proposals by the National Association of Basketball Coaches that would a) permit a school to stage tryouts for 18 high school recruits during a recruiting season (whereby they would play with existing players on a team for no more than 2 hours, something which Division II already permits) and b) permit a school to give 5 years of eligibility to a men's basketball player.  In addition, the proposal would increase sanctions for various rules violations.  USA Today has been all over this story, and reports that the coaches believe these proposals will strengthen the mentor-player relationship.
 
SportsProf posted about some of the proposals earlier, and here are his current thoughts:
 
1.  The tryouts seem harmless enough.  Given that there are scholarship limits and given that many people dress up well and say the right things in an interview, he sees no harm in a 2-hour tryout.   Such tryouts might aid in the Darwinism of the recruiting process, in that kids who don't belong at a high-end major might find that out in several tryouts, spare themselves the pain of riding the deep bench and go where they should go in the first place, to a mid- or low-major.  Where, perhaps, they can blossom precisely because they'd be getting the playing time they wouldn't get riding the pine at Kentucky.  Such tryouts also might prevent schools from overrecruiting, because you'd have to figure that the recruits, who get to know one another well enough at summer camps, will keep tabs on one another.  No one wants to be the third PG in a three-PG recruiting class at a high-end major.  So long as there is a limit as to number and time, this suggestion could work out pretty well.
 
2.  The five years of eligibility sends a bad message if it gives kids five years on the floor.  That shouldn't happen.  Given them five years to get their degrees, so that if they exhaust their eligibility in four they can get the fifth year to finish up their school work.  That is a great solution and sends the right message.  But that extra year of eligibility doesn't necessarily help anyone and suggests that a school's primary mission is not education, it's keeping a full arena.   SportsProf laughs at the suggestion that all of these reforms are designed to improve the coach/player mentoring relationship.  Given all the resources that DI schools throw at their hoops programs, how can this rule, absent putting a man of character in the head coaching position, improve this relationship?  Either the head coaches take the time to get to know their kids and to teach them, or they don't.  The graduation numbers, while slightly flawed, don't lie.  Many schools today do a terrible job of graduating their players.  They shouldn't be rewarded with any incentive to keep them their for a fifth year of eligibility.
 
3.  The NABC clearly is a male-dominated if not exclusively male organization.  They seemingly limit their suggestions to men's basketball, which would be understandable but for the Federal legal ramifications of some of these suggestions.  What's to say you wouldn't have to offer the same accommodations to women basketball player or other women athletes for that matter?  Why should basketball be so special?  What about ice hockey, lacrosse, riflery?  The possibilities are endless.
 
SportsProf acknowledges that men's college hoops does have some issues.  The best teenagers aren't going to college any more; they are going to the NBA, or they're leaving college after one or two years.  That said, it's somewhat comforting to know that kids who merit going straight to the pros can get there, and that there is somewhere to go for kids who shouldn't go to college in the first place (although the creation of a meaningful minor league system in professional hoops is a must).  It's more comforting to know that because of that phenomenon, more teams have access to the Sweet 16, and a Cinderella can get further.  That makes the Big Dance a tournament that everyone can embrace, precisely because you can get a bunch of fourth-year seniors who don't have an NBA future to capture lightning in a bottle for a six-week period starting in March.
 
SportsProf is all for improving amateur athletics as best as they can be improved, just so long as the powers that be in those sports remember a principle maxim every time they tinker:
 
These are still games for our kids.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Some Things to Think About -- SportsProf Might Not Be Able to Blog for a Week

SportsProf will be out of the country for about one week (and no, he will not be standing on the Champs Elysee watching Lance Armstrong capture his sixth straight Tour de France or Greg LeMond throwing ripe tomatoes at him while he does so) and is uncertain whether or not he'll be able to blog, so he wants to leave his devoted blog readers with some things to think about, as follows:
 
1.  The Big Unit.  Reports on the wire services today indicate that Randy Johnson is more likely to stay in Arizona than he is to accept a trade anywhere else.  Which means, of course, that a trade well might be imminent.  In the past, SportsProf has always thought that the big late July trades are part of the suspense that makes baseball fun.  Who will give up say AA first baseman Jeff Bagwell for reliever Larry Andersen or Class A pitcher and home state prospect John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander?  SportsProf is worried, for reasons he cannot fully articulate now, that a payment by the Yankees of millions for Johnson would be bad for the game.  The Yankees would have to make a big cash payment because they don't have many prospects to trade.  If the Commissioner has the guts he's been trying to display, he'd step in and prevent that type of transfer from happening.  If he doesn't do something, then, well, he'll prove that he's no Bowie Kuhn.  Kuhn, while a flawed commissioner, did step in and prevent Charlie Finley from fulfilling the legacy of Connie Mack's A's and selling key players to the Red Sox and Yankees in the mid-1970's (he called Bowie Kuhn "the village idiot" at the time).  So while you're flexing you're muscles against the players' union on the steroids issue, Mr. Commissioner, flex your muscles against the Yankees for the other problematic substance issue -- throwing too much money around.  Let's see if you're truly looking out for, gulp, the best interests of baseball. 
 
However they are defined these days.
 
2.  Andy Reid.   The pundits are circling around now like sharks.  Not only is the pressure on the Eagles to finally get to the Super Bowl after losing three straight NFC championship games, the last of two at home, but now the Eagles have to play 2 games against both Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells, not to mention 2 against Tom Coughlin.  Oooh, the watchers are saying with the tone of voice that middle schoolers use to get someone in trouble, the Eagles should be really scared -- the competition is just too touch. 
 
And, of course, the pundits are saying that the Eagles are weaker at corner because they failed to re-sign either the self-named blanket, Bobby Taylor, or Troy Vincent.  They do give the Birds credit for inking Jevon Kearse (one of many feet-challenged defensive linemen on the Eagles) and trading for Terrell Owens, and they're right to, because the Eagles' front office was very silent up to the first-day of the free-agent signing period, only to sign Kearse on the first day.  Still, though, you get the sense that they doubt Reid can be more than a poor man's Merv Levy and get to the Super Bowl.
 
There is enough to doubt, but Reid seemingly has done a masterful job on the personnel front, along with the team's capologist, President Joe Banner.  Last year they let Hugh Douglas and Brian Mitchell walk, and those players laid eggs with their new teams.  Douglas was ineffective with Jacksonville, and Mitchell had an awful year returning kicks for the Giants.  And, by letting Mitchell go, the Eagles paved the way for Brian Westbrook, who had a masterful season for the Eagles. 
 
This past off-season, after a lot of public discussion (where the fans on the talk shows lamented the Birds' moves), the Eagles decided to let Bobby Taylor, either 31 or 32, and Troy Vincent, 33, go the route of free agency.  The Eagles seem content to let third-year players Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard man the corners, with rookie Matt Ware, a tall corner out of UCLA, backing them up.  "Mistake," said the water-cooler GMs.  "There's not a shutdown corner among them.  Awfully risky."  True, Brown and Sheppard didn't have great seasons filling in for Taylor and Vincent when both were injured, but Vincent showed signs of age and Taylor showed signs of being brittle, and, further, the Eagles' had a woeful pass rush last year.  Even the best corners could have trouble covering if their teammates in the trenches can't put pressure on the other team's QB.   SportsProf isn't guaranteeing that Brown and Sheppard will be all-Pros, but he does demand that Bird watchers give them a fair chance.
 
A few years ago, the Birds let their starting middle linebacker, Jeremiah Trotter, go the way of free agency instead of heeding his loud demands and signing him to a 5-year, $25 million contract.  Trotter was vocal about the lack of appreciation he was being shown, and he took his skills to division rival Washington for a lucrative contract.  Oh, the water-cooler GMs criticized the Birds for letting "The Axe" go (they loved how strong and physical he was), but Trotter had a bad two years in Washington, got hurt, and was released after last season.  The Eagles had let him go in the first place because they were worried about his gimply knee (which he had hurt in college at Stephen F. Austin) and his frequent overrunning of plays, and they didn't (and still don't) view linebackers as all that important to their defensive schemes (relative to linemen and backs).
 
So what happened?  Trotter is back, having mended fences with Reid, to whom he apologized for handling his situation badly two years ago.  He signed for the veteran minimum, and he'll back up starting MLB Mark Simoneau, who, after winning the NFL's defensive player of the month in October, wore down as the season progressed.  Simoneau is a small middle linebacker, and he doesn't appear to have the "fight in the dog" talents of that other small middle linebacker, Zach Thomas, which goes to show you that at some point, even in the pros, size does matter.  So enter Trotter, who should, at least, give the water-cooler GMs something to talk about.
 
The point in all this?  Andy Reid knows what he is doing.  Vincent is a better instinctive corner than Taylor, and he might have a decent year left in him, and Taylor might as well.  But thus far, Andy Reid has shown that he knows what he is doing, both as a coach and as a GM.  The bet here is that no pundit will be crowing about how the Eagles erred in letting these two players become free agents.
 
And while Joe Gibbs is back and the Tuna is toiling in Dallas, in 2004 it is they who have to show they can outdo Andy Reid and knock the Birds off their perch, and not vice versa, strange as that may sound.
 
3.  There are other topics to talk about, such as the U.S. Track and Field doping scandals, the NHL's labor situation, the basketball venue for Iranians Jaber Rouzbahani and Hammid Hadadi this fall, the Olympics (and whether, despite the "defections", the U.S. will win the gold), and the story about the two Air Force Academy football players who will be court-martialed for steriod use.  Funny how our tax dollars' priorities go -- use steroids at a Division I school that is not an arm of the U.S. government, go undetected and be a football hero; use them at Air Force, and go to jail.   Character, after all, is fate.  SportsProf will cheer a bit for the Falcons this fall.
 
Have a good week; I hope to blog when I can.

Possible Redemption for Adrian McPherson?

After having written the post on Art Schlichter, for whom redemption in the professional sports world seems highly unlikely, SportsProf ruminated about another QB who has had mostly downs (and not first downs) in his short-lived post-HS career.  His name:  Adrian McPherson.
 
Only four years ago, McPherson was a hotshot athlete in Florida who was a huge basketball recruit as well as one of the top football recruits in the country.  He went to Florida State for football and ended up getting into trouble with the law on what publicly is viewed as the most egregious sin a football player can commit:  gambling.   (You may recall the conversation between Caretaker and Paul Crew in the movie "The Longest Yard," where Crew, a former professional QB (played well by Burt Reynolds), asked why some of the inmates hated him so much.  Caretaker replied that most of the people in the prison were in for murder, arson, robbery and that sort of thing.  But then he looked at Crew said, "But you bet on football games.  That's un-American." ).  
 
In contrast to McPherson, the lengthy rap sheet of U. of Miami linebacker recruit extraordinaire Willie Williams  didn't create as much furor (even though it probably got as much attention) because it almost seems that extra-legal pilfering and violence is expected of gridders who play on the defensive side of the ball.  And Williams has been arrested something like 11 times in his 19 years.  Williams did get his share of publicity, but his rap sheet hasn't cost him the privilege of playing football for the U. of Miami Hurricanes (the original Miami U., in Ohio, to its credit probably wouldn't have let the kid in).   
 
McPherson, meanwhile, left or was dismissed by Florida State and found himself on trial for gambling charges, and in the summer of 2003 the jury was unable to reach a verdict.   So there he was, twenty years-old, having been accused of an athlete's cardinal sin, and ostensibly without a future.
 
Until he found Arena Football, the sport that brought you Kurt Warner and his three subsequent amazing years with the St. Louis Rams.  McPherson surfaced this past season with the Indiana Firebirds, and won the Arena League's Rookie of the Year award at age 21.  Click on the Firebirds link and check out McPherson's results.  He had a very good year.
 
He also seems to be making the most of his second chance, and he may be a candidate for entry into the NFL Draft in 2005.  In the interview with NFL Draft Blitz, McPherson seems humble and focused on becoming a better football player.  At eighteen, he might have been a kid who just couldn't handle all the attention thrust upon him, and, in the process, he made some bad choices that took him away from Florida State and to the Arena League.  
 
Most guys who play in the Arena League play there because they can't play anywhere else.  They're too something -- too short, too light, too heavy, too slow, too weak -- to get to the next level, and ask any competitive athlete and he or she will tell you that you always want to play against the best competition.  Most, if not all, of the huge talents coming out of college wouldn't even give the Arena League a second thought, for to do so would be to lose that "eye of the tiger" that is so necessary for an elite prospect to get to the pinnacle.  Many respect the effort that the players in the Arena League give, respect the fact that Kurt Warner played in that league and that those guys play for the love of the game under conditions you wouldn't find at Florida State let alone an NFL locker room.  But in the end, the Arena League is for people who you have never heard of and most likely, in our society's obsession with celebrity, never will.
 
And that may be so.  But for Adrian McPherson, the Arena League is just fine.  And, if he continues to work hard and fulfills the great promise he once showed as a HS senior and even at Florida State, well, he could end up being the next Kurt Warner.  And not the next Art Schlichter.
 
And the Arena League Alumni Association would have its second great story.
 
 

Saturday, July 17, 2004

The Sad Case of Art Schlichter

Do you remember Art Schlichter (pronounced Shlee-ster for those of you who may not remember)?  The three-sport wunderkind from Ohio who was going to lead the Buckeyes to renewed glory on the gridiron and perhaps help out on the basketball court?  Great HS athlete destined for bigger things in the Big 10 Conference and beyond?
 
You probably remember his fall, a resounding thud that would have been more scary hadn't it been so pathetic.  Schlichter fell in with a bad crowd, got suspended by the NFL for gambling, is currently serving a sentence in federal prison for money laundering and just copped a plea for another eight years for a fraud scam.    ESPN reports on this former HS hero's sad circumstances.
 
Even Michigan fans couldn't boo these circumstances or derive any pleasure from the awful descent into hell that this guy who had a wonderful life in front of him has had.  Hard to say whether Schlicter just fell in with a bad crowd or just never developed an appropriate sense of right from wrong.  Ohio State fans and Ohioans probably know better.
 
Thankfully, for every Schlichter there are more Craig Krenzels, the since-graduated Ohio St. QB who was drafted in the recent NFL draft and who will go on and become a doctor some day.  Yet, it was Schlicter who was one of the most heralded QBs ever to walk into the football locker room in Columbus, the most heralded since Rex Kern.  
 
And, that, in retrospect, says a lot about how we choose our heroes.  (Ironically, Krenzel, and not Schlichter, led the Buckeyes to a national title).
 
You read about the Art Schlichters of the world and the linebacking recruit for Miami with a rap sheet that is perhaps longer than his 19 years on this earth, and you wonder where all the Craig Krenzels are. 
 
There are many of them out there, and SportsProf for one would like to see more articles on where those guys are today.  In classrooms, in laboratories, in operating rooms, picking up in life where their college educations left off.  Helping others become better people or healthier people.  Or both.
 
No doubt there could be more Art Schlichter stories and perhaps even a book or made for TV movie, and Craig Krenzel might play a couple of years in the NFL before going to med school and becoming an oncologist or orthopedic surgeon.  Perhaps no one will ever write a book about him.  Too nice.  No scandal.  Too boring.
 
But, in all likelihood, he'll probably be writing a book of his own some day.
 
Probably a medical textbook.
 
And that's the best story of them all.
 
 

Friday, July 16, 2004

When They Crash in the Northwest, They Really Crash

SportsProf confesses that he's one of these East Coasters whose daily routine prevents him from giving West Coast teams their absolute due.  Of course, that "absolute due" cuts both ways, because while he's wont to follow Pac-10 hoops (and, naturally, the good teams), he's less prone to following the really bad teams.  In any sport.
 
Let's face it, unless you have a relative, a kid from your school or your neighbor's nephew playing on a bad team that's three time zones away, you probably don't pay poorly performing teams much attention.  Which should be the case with the Seattle Mariners, who, after years of great seasons, have finally hit their wall.  Hard.  And those great seasons were especially so because how many franchises could lose Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr. and A-Rod and then still win over 100 games in a season?  For several years?
 
Perhaps none, but somehow they cultivated a stable of young pitchers (such as Freddy Garcia) and rehabilitated a lefty whose career almost ended in the early 90's (Jamie Moyer), and they had some stellar position players (Buhner, Boone, Olerud, Edgar Martinez, who, while not really a position, has swung a mean bat for a long time).  And SportsProf, no doubt, has missed some names (such as Mike Cameron, who played very well while Junior languished with injuries in Cincinnati).  Somehow, the Seattle ownership and front office did a great job with what they had.
 
But now, the magical formula on which the Mariners relied for so many years has run out of whatever special elixir fueled it for years.  The Mariners are in dead last, they traded their best pitcher, they designated their SS (Rich Aurilia) for assignment and have just designated their 1B, and a Washingtonian to boot, John Olerud, for assignment (Olerud turned down a trade to SF and still might be dealt during the 10-day designation period).  Not that the SS and 1B are great, either, but their designation for assignment within a week or so of one another is a stark sign that they've all but given up in the Great Northwest.  Moreover, the fans aren't turning out, and that's hurting local businesses.  For more on that, click here and read Sports Economist's post on the local eateries and how they are suffering.
 
Many managers would confess that they don't make a great deal of difference during a season, and the pundits and cognoscenti (which can be a mutually exclusive group at times) can argue that a good manager might win you an extra 10 games in a season.  If that's the case, then Lou Piniella was an excellent manager, because with Sweet Lou aboard perhaps the Mariners would still be in the race (especially given the strong showing of Piniella's current team, the D-Rays).  Then again, the Sparky Andersons of the world would counter that the secret to becoming a winning manager would be to get a team with great talent and then pretty much stay out of their way. 
 
Still, the problem at Safeco isn't the manager, because he just doesn't have enough players.  The Mariners miss Sweet Lou, but probably not as much as A-Rod and the Big Unit and, yes, even the oft-injured Junior.  They're conducting a fire sale in Seattle, and they're talking to all bidders.
 
Seattle, you had a great run, but it was bound to end.  It didn't have to (see:  Atlanta Braves), but fate dictated it to be so.  The baseball deities just couldn't let you keep on keeping on like that, having jettisoned three future Hall of Famers within about 5 years of one another.  While the so-called "small market" teams might have been cheering you on (as perhaps was Bud Selig) because you had the gumption to keep your payroll in line and still win 100 games, you just can't keep on letting huge stars go and getting away with it.  Time, and the lack of talent, finally catches up to every franchise.  So, instead of being compared to the Atlanta Braves, you deserve to be compared to the Boston Red Sox.
 
And when was the last time they won it all?
 
Right before they traded the greatest player of all time.

Don Haskins Shouldn't be Too Sad. . .

that Ben Affleck turned down the role of Don Haskins.
 
Disney is making a film called "Glory Road", about the upset victory that Texas Western, coached by a young Don Haskins, scored over Adolph Rupp's favored Kentucky squad in the 1966 NCAA title game.  Texas Western, now known as UTEP, started five African-American players, the first time that a team starting five African-Americans won the NCAA title.  It's a great story, and the time is ripe to make it a feature film.
 
SportsProf thinks that the producers can get someone to play Haskins better than Affleck, who is more a ubiquitous sports fan (he's becoming the Zelig of celebrity sports fans) than he is a great actor.  (See Ben hanging with the Red Sox or the Patriots or at some other sports venue, but what has he done with his day job lately?).  Better to get a lesser known (albeit not too lesser known, given what damage the producers did to "The Junction Boys" by casting Australians in the roles of Texas football players to save money) actor who can really act to play Haskins. 
 
Besides, casting Affleck perhaps would have focused more attention on Affleck than Texas Western and Haskins.  And that wouldn't have been right.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The BCS Changes Its Formula

SportsProf couldn't help but think of Gomer Pyle, that goofy misfit of a private first class who used to bug the heck out of Sergeant Carter, and whose trademark line was "Surprise, Surprise, Surprise." Well, golly, Sergeant Carter, after there was so much controversy as to how USC was left out of last year's BCS championship game, the BCS up and changed its formula.

And it's very interesting how they went about it.

One might argue that the BCS had to re-visit its formula when the new-and-improved New York Times had a born-again moment with journalistic ethics and (rightly) determined that it should not have its poll be part of the BCS formula because then how could it cover BCS teams objectively since it was playing a part of the BCS (controversy)? So, the Times yanked its poll from the BCS. Not that the Times doesn't have bigger issues to address, and most haven't considered the Times to be at the forefront of sports journalism, at least since Red Smith passed away in the winter of 1982. But in the age of journalistic self-examination in NYC, the Times did the right thing, perhaps even for the right reason (although another right reason would be to remove itself from the silliness of the BCS formula).

But re-visit the BCS formula the BCS did, and, interestingly enough, ESPN reports (and I hope the link works), that, in essence, the BCS has reduced its reliance on computers in creating its new formula. In addition, it appears that they went back in time to test the new formula, with the result that had it been in play last year, LSU would have played USC for the national title, and not Oklahoma, and there wouldn't have been a split national championship. The BCS Committee did this for the 2000 season as well, where Miami (I think it was Miami) would have played Oregon instead of Nebraska, whom Colorado had pummeled 62-36 late in the season. So, at least the BCS Lords can claim gleefully that the BCS formula works -- at least in retrospect.

Revisionist history? Perhaps. A formula guaranteed to work? Definitely not. SportsProf is certain that some scenario will come up in the next couple of years that will make people dislike this formula too.

It's funny that the people in charge of running the games are playing games with the games themselves, still fiddling with a formula that the Absent-Minded Professor would have put in the compost heap a long time ago. The answer, of course, is quite simple: let's have a post-season tournament. No one complains about the horrors wrought on scholar-athletes because of the College World Series or the NCAA Basketball Tournaments. No one complains about the rigors of the Division I-AA, II and III football post-season tournaments.

It's pretty simple, actually. The solution is right there, right in front of the BCS, plain for everyone to see. The Lords of the BCS should figure out a way to have a short enough season (no more than 11 games) and then a meaningful post-season playoff. Even in an age where computers are doing more and more things, the more all-American thing to do is have a playoff. Imagine the suspense and the audience a national title game would generate. Huge theater. Great drama.

After all, championships are supposed to be won on the field.

And not anywhere else.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Wilt Chamberlain traded for Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrell Imhoff

Oops, wrong year, wrong team trading the big guy.

Yes, there are comparisons. It's not totally fair to paste the Lakers for trading Shaq for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and a first-round draft pick. That is a far better haul than Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrell Imhoff for Wilt. And the 76ers that traded Wilt didn't have a Kobe Bryant on the bench after the trade was done. And these Lakers probably won't turn into a 9-73 pumpkin the way the 76ers did a few years after losing Wilt. That's unlikely.

But somehow a team doesn't get equal value when you trade one of the top 50 players of all-time. And, okay, so he's an irrepressible egomaniac, he played out of shape, and he may be on the downside of his career. Still, not many can guard Shaq, and when you ask NBA insiders about the one player you can't stop on a given night, they'll answer his name (even if Kobe and Jerry Buss have turned him into the Lakers' version of "he who must not be named" a la Harry Potter). It's that simple.

And while Mark Cuban can blog all he wants that the Pistons changed the paradigm of what the model team is in order to win a title, remember this: there is an absolute famine in the NBA when it comes to big men. Which makes them, like beautiful women in "Casablanca", so valuable, is that they are so scarce (and therefore shouldn't be dispensed with so easily). Which also makes the good ones hard to defend. And Shaq is the hardest offensive player in the NBA to defend.

So, the Heat now have Shaq, and Dwayne Wade, and Eddie Jones, and those players alone could well make them one of the top four teams in the East (which isn't necessarily saying a lot, given how weak the Eastern Conference has been over the past few years and given that after those 3 players, the Heat have very little to brag about on their roster). Still, anytime you get one of the 50 best players of all-time in your league, your fans get a rush. Miami is buzzing.

And the Lakers? Well, they have three players who are stars or stars in the making who are either two guards or small forwards or both -- Kobe (assuming he re-signs), Odom and Caron Butler. The last time SportsProf checked, a team with that type of talent made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs after an 0-7 start and then fizzled out. The team: the '03-'04 Miami Heat. It's hard to expect the Lakers, even with Kobe, faring all that much better in the talent-laden Western Conference, because the obstacles in the West are more formidable than in the East.

NBA scouts can talk all they want about the talent that the Lakers got, but then the question becomes who's tall enough to play 96 minutes a night at the 4 and 5 spot? Slava Medvedenko? While SportsProf loves the way Young SP tries to pronounce his name (it's much cuter than the way Stephen A. Smith of ESPN says it), a combination of Medvedenko, Brian Cook, Luke Walton and an aged Karl Malone won't cut it at those key positions. You saw what happened when Shaq went out of the game in the NBA Finals. It wasn't pretty.

Caron Butler is a real talent. As is Lamar Odom. And, of course, so is Kobe Bryant. But who will rebound? Who will block shots? Who will defend Kevin Garnett? Tim Duncan? Chris Webber? Dirk Nowitzki? Who will help the Lakers hold their own on the boards? Because of those unanswered questions, the Lakers can hope to fare not a whole lot better than the Heat did last year (and, remember, the Lakers are in the (much) tougher conference).

So now the Van Gundy brothers coach two of the most feared big men in the game, Shaq of the Heat and Yao of the Rockets. Shaq and Dwayne Wade versus Yao and Tracy McGrady. Could be quite an excellent show. Stan Van Gundy versus Jeff Van Gundy. And yet, given that the Pistons probably improved their roster (signing Antonio McDyess)and the Spurs and Kings are still hanging around, even that "dream" matchup might not happen for a while, if ever.

And what about the NBA? A league whose product is suffering now has a weakened flagship franchise in Los Angeles, a woeful once-upon-a-dynasty in Boston, a tortured onetime pillar in New York, a going nowhere onetime pillar in Philadelphia and a lost-at-sea once-upon-a-time impossible team to beat in Chicago. Not great news for this mighty league, whose popularity internationally may be stronger than it is at home. Which goes to show you, that where they're starved for hoops entertainment and don't know the game all that well, they'll watching anything.

But these aren't your older brother's Lakers, your father's (or grandfather's) Celtics, your uncle's 76ers. And that faded glory for those franchises, and those in Chicago and New York, isn't likely to return any time soon.

A great post-season so far for the Van Gundy family. And a pretty darn good one for Carlos Boozer's pocketbook if not his reputation.

But a lousy one so far for the NBA.