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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Friday, June 23, 2006

Going Overboard

The mainstream media is having a field day trashing Larry Brown.

And to the degree that at least one writer, Ian O'Connor of USA Today has done it, they're wrong.

Brown is no saint, he's traveled more in his career than Gulliver, and he's done so iffy things in the past several years. Yes, he is not perfect, and yes, he has moved around a lot, and yes, despite his comatose monotone before the media he's a high-maintenance type who can't get along everywhere and moves on when the timing is right for him. But he has won everywhere he's been except New York, has won an NBA and NCAA title, and is generally regarded as a coaching legend.

But he's not the shameful disgrace that O'Connor makes him out to be. Read this, and then figure out whether today's columnists are asked, like they were in Red Smith's day, to write thoughtful pieces on the matters of the day or to trash a legend for sport so people around water coolers can say, "Hey, click onto O'Connor's piece today. He trashed a priest, three nuns and two altar boys regarding a hard foul in the finals of the East Orange CYO league. Really wicked stuff. Glad to see that those holy so-and-sos are brought down a few pegs."

I do agree with the sentiments that it's time for Larry Brown to retire, but I'm not sure that every NBA franchise will stay away from him. They brought Hubie Brown back from a long hiatus, and they brought Mike Fratello back from a shorter one. Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs came back to the NFL after long absences. Heck, Larry Brown has only been gone for a day. That said, given his last two episodes -- in Detroit and New York -- he's a serious argument for caveat emptor.

But let's not gloss over the bigger travesty in this whole drama -- the New York Knicks, owner James Dolan, and President for Life Idi Amin, oops, I mean Isiah Thomas, whose long-lived career belies the lack of success that he's had everywhere in pro basketball since he's stopped playing. The Knicks gave up their first-round picks this year and next for Eddy Curry (this year's is a top 3 pick), they have by far the highest payroll in the NBA and the lowest $ per win ratio in the league. Dolan and Thomas, plain and simple, have failed. A public skerewing of Larry Brown is akin to the President's starting an international incident in Wag the Dog to divert the public's attention away from the major issues of the day. But by gutting Brown very publicly, getting macho about his contract, and then spinning the story to let the press play the role of turkey vultures and pick at the carcass, the Knicks' administration is, again, focused on entirely the wrong issue.

One, the owners should sell the entire shebang, whether is Madison Square Garden, the Knicks and the Rangers or just the Knicks. Second, failing that, the Dolan elders should kick young Jimmy in the seat of his pants and let him try running the Brooklyn Cyclones before running anything at the highest level. Third, they should fire Isiah Thomas. How hard a decision is that?

The fans shouldn't fall for this folly. The writers needed a story and Brown served as today's pinata. Yes, he is flawed, but I would submit no more flawed than writers who have taken to gutting him instead of reminding everyone that Brown's demise is but a sideshow in the bigger story -- the Farce of the New York Knicks.

No, Ian O'Connor, Larry Brown shouldn't be giving a Hall of Shame speech anytime soon. True, he's made mistakes, but most of the players and coaches who get written about have.

Even mainstream sports writers err from time to time.

Or were you the only one who, starting 10 years ago, thought something was funny about the puffed-up sizes of position players in baseball and started crying foul and going into the locker room and asking players whether their muscles were real?

The Lot of the Phillies' Fan

Your best pitcher is accused of punching his wife after midnight in public on a road trip.

Then-GM Ed Wade could have hired Jim Leyland to manage his club two years ago, and instead he hired Charlie Manuel.

Not only is Jim Thome having an all-world year in Chicago, but your team, with the eight-highest payroll in baseball, is paying at least half his salary.

The guy you got for Jim Thome in a trade made a heroic catch, crashed into the CF fence (which was unpadded and which he asked to have padded about a week before the crash) and was on the DL for about a month (he broke his nose).

The list of slights, blunders and bad luck goes on and on. Here's to hoping that the victim is okay.

Looks like it could be a long summer in Philadelphia all around.

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

A former colleague, a very successful one at that, once bragged to me that he was doing business with this guy. I suppose that you have to consider the source, because the boaster was a name dropper who, while successful, was so driven that it was hard for his colleagues to warm up to him. He was also the type that the football players with whom he went to college might have tied to a locker with the same tape used on one's ankles before a game. But I digress. . .

If you read the link, you'll wonder what the former colleague thought he was gaining by bragging.

I don't know whether this former NFL quarterback is a good guy or a bad guy, and I generally subscribe to the notion that we should focus upon whether people's deeds are good or bad. In this case, the guy in question has been around some bad stuff. No, he's not a violent felon, but he's had enough legal problems to make you wonder whether he had a slump or had some serious problems that led him to flee. Right now, he's a fugitive.

This story gets attention from time to time, but the guy has been a fugitive for almost a year. Not as notorious a fugitive as Ira Einhorn, the one-time Philadelphia-area earthie Earth Day darling who a) proved to be one of the all-time B.S. artists and b) murdered his girlfriend in the early 1970's, stuffed her body in a trunk and then fled to parts unknown, was found in France, extradited an sentenced to life in prison. This guy, thankfully, is no Einhorn.

But a fugitive he is, and a former NFL quarterback at that. Which is why, probably, America's Most Wanted picked up the story. It's intriguing and a bit bizarre. Americans can tend to revel in the fall of their golden children and, yet, they revel in their resurgences years latter. Somehow, the "made it, lost it, got it back" story is a compelling theme for many people. I really don't share that interest. This is a sad story for everyone and one unlikely to have resolution any time soon.

But it does go to show you that being the star quarterback in college, making the pros and getting a lot of attention throughout your life because you could throw a football isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

Especially if you don't know how to handle it.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Thud

Ghana 2, United States 1.

The Yankees are going home.

The U.S. sets the tone in the world for many things, but even in 2006 the U.S. is on the outside looking in. Ghana was simply better today. Picked to finish fourth in its group, it sent home the teams that FIFA had rated #3 and #5 (so much for FIFA's ratings).

I recall years ago an ad campaign that preceded the Summer Olympics about two decathletes, guys named Dan and Dave. Both were predicted to finish first and second in the Olympics. To the best of my recollection, neither made it out of the U.S. Olympic Trials. Talk about a lead balloon leading up to the Olympics.

This result feels a bit like that.

Significant hype preceded the American team into the 2006 World Cup, and the records show that little of it was justified. The Americans weren't a well-oiled machine playing synchronized soccer. Casual fans didn't see the talent that the U.S. soccer afficionados swore was there. If they did see it, it was in the form of opposing jerseys. What they saw, plain and simple, was an also-ran, a team lacking in the talent and experience necessary to compete against the traditional powers.

My reading of all the pre-World Cup hype was that the Americans were supposed to make a bigger dent. True, they had a tough draw, getting put into the same group as the Czechs, then rated in the Top 5 in the world, and the Italians, with talent to burn. Only the cognoscenti figured that Ghana would give the others fits, and the insiders were right. Perhaps it was too much to ask of the U.S. team to escape the first round. Even if they were to do that, in all likelihood they were destined for second in their group and a date with Brazil in the next round (Ghana now has that distinction).

So whither U.S. soccer? They supposedly had the players, and they supposedly had the best coach the U.S. has had to offer, but they just didn't get it done.

As for the players, well, the U.S. needs to find better ones. Ones that play against the world's best talent in their day jobs, ones who can play in the Premiership, La Liga and Serie A. Not ones who play in mid-sized U.S. cities in front of middling crowds, many of whom don't have a Major League baseball team as an alternative. It's hard to say that Landon Donovan et al. can measure up against the likes of Argentina and Brazil when they don't play against their best players in their day jobs. The competition in the World Cup is that much tougher, and the U.S. players clearly don't have the experience against the best competition that the best players on the best World Cup teams do. Until you have a core group that is well-regarded in those elite leagues, your team will be on the outside looking in.

As for the coach, it's harder to say. Bruce Arena has achieved everywhere he has been, but the team looked unprepared in its opening match against what turned out to be an underachieving Czech team. Better prepared, the Americans might have been able to sting the Czechs the way the Ghanans did. Instead, the U.S. suffered such a whitewashing that their goal differential -- a key metric in case teams tied for second in the opening round -- was a disaster and bode ill for getting the team into the second round. Arena may be the best American coach, but the question remains whether that's like being the best hockey player in Ecuador. Hard to tell.

In the U.S., only a few commentators will give notice to the disappointing play of Team U.S.A., and that commentary will disappear after the weekend newspapers give their reviews. In any soccer hotbed, the commentary would swirl around for months, churning the intestines of the faithful the way a bad meal does. In the U.S., you'd need a microscope to see the fallout. It will be gone as quickly as it came.

And that, believe it or not, is bad for U.S. soccer. In order for soccer to take off, it needs to become part of the daily conversation. And before you say, well, that's impossible, if you look at the landscape of major sports over the past 30 years, it has changed significantly. Horse racing and tennis loomed a lot higher on the radar screen, as did ice hockey, 30 years ago. Horse racing's popularity waned because gambling became legalized in many venues (it used to be the only thing one could bet on legally outside Las Vegas). Tennis lost its personality and its stars, and NASCAR emerged from being the backroads Bubba sport into a national phenomenon. Ice hockey has little appeal beyond those who attend games. Golf has become a mainstay, more so than decades ago. The possibility for evolution and emergence as a higher priority is there. Think NASCAR. Think golf. Think the NCAA men's hoops tournament (pretty big in '76, but a mega-hit today).

But soccer needs traction. Wins over some international powers, some stars with pizzazz (which are lacking on the U.S. team) and advancement into the second round are what U.S. soccer needed. Instead, U.S. men's soccer faltered on all fronts, akin to a fancy ship losing its rudder and sailing aimlessly at sea.

Sure, kids will continue to play the game, but the best kids will play football, basketball and other sports.

And their dads and grandfathers will continue to take them to baseball games.

The Joys of Outdoor Morning Exercise

The combination of early sunrises and warm days makes summertime a great time for outdoor exercise before work. It's great to get fresh air, and usually it's still cool enough that you can get great exercise without wilting in the heat. Plus, there's something beautiful about the sun rising over a neighborhood that hasn't awaken yet. It's a great setting in which to take a walk, go for a run or ride a bike.

Some people probably would find the suggestion annoying because they don't want to get up at 5 or 5:30 a.m. for any reason, while others might be a little fearful of going outside at that time. Their reasoning must go something like this -- it's too early, no one's out, it could be dangerous (as in, "only criminals are out at that time, right?").

That reasoning, though, is flawed. There are people out, and it's perfectly safe (except for an occasional newspaper deliveryperson or too, as these folks tend to drive on both sides of the road). Plus, plenty of people are out there. On my bike ride, I usually see several people on bikes (old bikes, racing bikes, hybrid bikes), a few joggers (some look more fit than others) and several walkers. One morning I saw a septaguanarian couple doing Tai Chi on their sidewalk.

I've also had to coax a deer out of the road I wanted to turn onto, and I saw a fox about 40 yards ahead of me near a creek bed, probably heading toward his living quarters after a night on the town. (There are a few chicken coops in the area, but they benefit from good fencing). Thankfully, he headed home and not toward me.

Plain and simple, it's a great time to get out there and ride a bicycle. I don't have a racing bike. Instead, I opted for a $300+ hybrid bike (Giant is the brand) whose tires are in between the widths of racing bikes and mountain bikes. The seat is more back-friendly, as you can sit straight up, and there are enough gears to make your ride interesting. I've created a circuit for myself that has a sufficient combination of climbs (not too steep, and I'm getting better at them with each ride), downhill runs and straightaways that gives me ample exercise for the 45 minutes or so that I'm out there each morning (most of the ride is on wide residential streets, with only a sliver on a major road). Plus, there's the great comfort of getting your exercise in before the day begins (at this hour, you have total control over your day) and being outside.

It's just too bad that this opportunity cannot last year-round, as by fall the days get shorter and, well, if you have to get to work at a reasonable hour you can't begin you ride at 7 or so. Plus, it gets cooler too, and I'm not overly fond of wearing sweats to ride a bike. All that said, while the window for this type of activity exists, I try to take full advantage of it.

I'm convinced that if those who want to venture outside at early hours did so and shed any trepidations they had about being the "only" one, more people would be out early in the morning getting their exercise in, and we'd have a healthier population. It's hard to exercise during the day at work (I, for one, wouldn't be able to stop sweating quickly enough after a mid-day workout -- and others might not be able to find the time), and exercising after work is tough because you can be tired for the day and you may have other things to do -- such as spending time with your family. That's why getting up early and getting my workout in before work has worked for me.

Sunrise is a beautiful time of day.

Exercise can be fun if you pick the right activity for you.

Combine the two, and it's just great!

And if you haven't been on a bike in a while, try it again. You'll wished you had not given it up in the first place.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Updates on Duke Lacrosse

The ACC Basketblog has a series of links on today's post about the Duke lacrosse situation, and all are worthy of a read. I channel-surfed on Monday night and caught Dan Abrams on MSNBC, and he was on the verge of saying that the Durham D.A. is about to drop the charges. Abrams, no shrinking violet, had access to all sorts of documents and expressed his incredulity about why the charges were brought in the first place. In addition, I am friendly with a member of the HS lacrosse cognoscenti who apprised me of facts pertinent to the situation that cast light on dysfunction in the Duke administration regarding how disciplinary cases are handled. I do find Coach K's commentary in defending his now former fellow coach of the "too little, too late" category, and I'm hoping to ask my friend the insider to guest blog on the topic of the case.

As you probably recall, I expressed my concerns about the program's being out of control because 15 of the 47 players had misdemeanors for misbehavior. At no time did I attempt to try or convict them of the rape accusations and made it very clear that the two had to be separated. I continue to believe that if roughly 1/3 of your kids have misdemeanors there's a systemic problem. That said, the question remains as to how the Duke administration handled these incidents and whether the Duke lacrosse coach was made aware of many of them and given the opportunity to clean them up. My guess is that more of this will come up as the stories continue to unfold about not only the rape accusations, but the handling of the men's lacrosse program in general.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

World Cup Officiating

All referees in the World Cup should be sent to re-education camp and be taught the following mantra: "The fans in the world aren't paying to see the referees. The fans in the world aren't paying to see the referees." Most fans accept that referees are human and will accept mistakes when the referee blows the calls equally for both sides. But what they won't accept is when referees make de facto personnel decisions that directly affect the outcome of a game.

To put this in perspective, very seldom do players get ejected from any of the major sports in the United States. In baseball, there is the occasional bench-clearing brawl or the player and manager who get kicked out because they argued ball-and-strike calls and the rulebook provides for automatic ejection if you do. In football, which is a collision sport, there are very few ejections a year, usually for fighting. In basketball, players get a technical foul and are ejected upon the issuance of a second technical in the same game. That said, it's not that easy to get a technical, and you usually get one when you direct profanity or a ball in the direction of a referee. In hockey, ejections or long misconduct penalties are a little more commonplace, but the rules are such that if you join a fight that's in progress, you can cost you team dearly in terms of penalties. Seldom, though, do officials' in-game calls on this behavior affect the outcome of a game.

Which brings us to the World Cup. Italy's DeRossi deserved a red card (automatic ejection) for trying to rearrange U.S. striker Brian McBride's face with his elbow. But did Paolo Mastroeni, the U.S. midfielder, deserve a reciprocal one for a late sliding tackle that upended an Italian player (especially when the Italian team was diving with greater frequency than Greg Louganis ever did at the Olympics)? Doesn't that usually warrant a yellow card? Or how about a warning to the players to watch their sliding tackles? That, I hear, sometimes happens.

Importantly, if you get a red card you have to sit out the next game. If you get yellow cards in consecutive games, you have to sit out the next game. France has an important game coming up, and its leader, Zidane Zidane, will have to sit it out because he got a yellow card in each of France's last two games, presumably from referees with different notions about what constitutes a yellow card. Ghana's two best goal scorers will miss that nation's key upcoming game with the U.S. for similar reasons.

There has been some great play in this World Cup. The Argentines are putting on clinics. Spain looks very strong, and Portugal has advanced to the second round for the first time in 40 years. Yet, despite those outstanding efforts, more talk appears to be dedicated to performance and credentialing of the referees than Ronaldo's girth, England's lack of offense, or even the key upcoming game between Italy and the Czech Republic.

And that's too bad.

Because we don't want to notice the officials. We don't want them ejecting the best players for this game and the next one, especially using inconsistent standards and especially when one official cannot possibly view the whole field (especially on a hot day) effectively. The National Hockey League in the U.S. added a second referee several years ago to help ensure that penalties were called more evenly. In that sport and in lacrosse, players who transgress get sent off for matters of minutes than entire games. In several sports there is also instant replay, which certainly would have enabled France to beat South Korea (as the referee watched the South Korean goalie stop a French shot instead of noticing that he was standing in the goal when he did so). Reforms like these will take the pressure off the officials and will give the fans what they want -- letting the players play.

And decide the games themselves.

We want to remember the great scissor-kick, the wonderful sliding tackle (and boy did Ze Roberto of Brazil make a few against Australia over the weekend), the stopped penalty shot and the great inside passing that the Argentines displayed against Serbia & Montenegro. We don't want to remember controversial calls that leave teams without important players in key games.

Coach Bruce Arena of the U.S. team was quoted as saying that until the U.S. gets more international respect, they won't get the calls. That may be so, but let's hope that soccer on the international stage provides itself and its fans with more respect than the federations that run figure skating, boxing and gymnastics give to their sports.

There, the judges have made, and can continue to make, a mess of everything, and those sports do not enjoy the respect they otherwise could if there was more integrity to how outcomes are decided.

World Cup games need to be won on the field by the players.

The officials shouldn't have nearly as much to do with the outcomes as they do now.

What Kind Of Shape Is Hockey In?

The conventional wisdom is that the NHL re-vamped its style of play, recovered nicely from its strike and had a good Stanley Cup final.

The bigger question, though, is whether it was able to expand its fan base?

And, based upon this, I would submit that it has not.

If you click the link and read it casually, you won't notice anything other than that it's an article that appeared in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer. So what, you'll say, the Philadelphia paper had an article on the first page of its sports section about Game 7 between Edmonton and Carolina.

But look at the by-line. It was written by an Associated Press reporter (and not one of the reporters who covers NHL hockey for the paper on a regular basis). Many would concede that Philadelphia is a "good" hockey town (in fact, there's a billboard on I-95 coming into the city that touts Philadelphia as the #1 hockey town in America). The franchise is a cornerstone of the league, and it has spent money routinely to field a winning team.

Fair enough. But its hometown morning newspaper didn't even send a beat reporter to cover the most important game of the year (its sister paper, the Daily News, did, but its subscription rate is far less than that of the morning paper). What does that say about the appeal of the NHL? Would the Inqy fail to send a reporter to cover the World Series? The NBA finals? The Super Bowl? They send reporters to cover Philadelphia-bred horses at thoroughbred races and to NASCAR events in the area. They even sent a reporter to cover the World Cup, and it's hard to argue that soccer is that much more popular in Philadelphia than professional ice hockey.

Sure, you can argue that it's not a statistically significant sampling to suggest that a cost-cutting Philadelphia paper's decision (and the Phila. dailies were just sold because the seller thinks that the fifth-largest media market in the country is weak) about which events to cover is bad for hockey. But then I'd like to find out how many papers sent reporters to Edmonton and Carolina to cover this series and how many dailies used the AP story?

Unfortunately, I don't have the time to run this down, and I don't want to trample on the NHL's good season. That said, it is troubling when the morning paper from one of your bastion's fails to cover the Finals in person.

Monday, June 19, 2006

If You Can't Do It With Honey. . .

Curse.

That's the advice of Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who only has so much patience for the average sports reporter. He makes a point about the occasional and timely use of profanity.

You don't have to agree with his point, of course, but remember that without originals like Cuban we'd be stuck with boring owners as well as players. Despite David Stern's attempts to turn the NBA into a puzzling mix of basketball and entertainment, all the while trying to present a united front -- from dress code to behavior -- he hasn't been able to reign in the league's #1 Maverick.

And that, in my book, is a great thing.

No, the Mavericks aren't necessarily a flagship franchise, especially when compared with the storied franchises over the years (most of which have fallen on hard times recently -- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and the Lakers, to name the most prominent). But they are a critical franchise because you have an owner who is uncompromising in his will to win and who by all accounts has done a good job. After all, name another owner whose team has let a subsequent two-time MVP walk and then contended for the title? I wonder if that's ever happened before.

Mark Cuban turned Steve Nash's departure into an opportunity.

It's funny how the NBA has let Mark Cuban become a thorn in its side, when the Knicks are the real thorn and laughingstock at the same time. Why worry about the accoutrements Cuban offers his players when the Knicks have a bloated payroll of players for whom pass is a four-letter word?

What's right with the NBA: The Mavs.

What's wrong with the NBA: The Knicks.

The NBA, of course, wishes it were the other way around.

Yet, it has survived with the Knicks being about as good as the '62 Mets.

As for the mainstream media, I can't defend them or be too harsh on them. The players play hard and are human, so it's not so easy to ask a player, "How did you blow that wide open fifteen-footer with five seconds to go?" The answer, for those who watched, is obvious: "I missed the shot." By the same token, asking players how it feels -- to win the close one or lose the close one -- is about as unoriginal as it gets.

It would be great to hear a player answer, in response to a question like that, something like this: "Well, when I was a kid I had a bad knee, this congenital thing, and I always was picked last for the teams in gym class. But I had this gym teacher, Mr. Spears, and he always winked at me and told me to work hard and things would work out. I don't know if he ever knew how much that smile -- and that wink -- meant to a shy eleven year-old who had just overcome a speech impediment. So everyday, after school, I went home, and there was this portable basketball hoop that someone put out on our courtyard. We didn't have much, and this thing was a gift from heaven. We could adjust the height, and my aunt came out and would adjust it, and every day I practiced 50 right-handed layups and 50 left-handed layups. Sometimes she would feed me the ball, and she played in her day so she zinged in chest passes. And she made me be creative, would ice my knee afterwards, and she wouldn't let me take just ordinary layups. No, I was dribbling by Bird and Kareem and Shaq, and I hit some good shots. Later on, in middle school, there was this teacher whose wife was an intern, wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. One day, during recess, I stayed inside while the other kids went out to play. He asked me why, and I told him that I had this knee problem but my doctor couldn't solve it. It hurt too much to play. So he and his wife got me to her hospital, and they figured out that something was wrong with my knee that minor surgery and new basketball shoes could cure. After that, I started getting really better fast, and there were many others who took me aside, challenged me and said things to me that I think about almost every day. I'll never forget all of 'em, because they all told me to stay focused on working hard and good things would happen. But if it weren't for Mr. Spears, I would have just quit. If it weren't for my aunt, I wouldn't have developed any skills. And if it weren't for my fifth-grade teacher, I would be limping around."

Instead, all you hear is "great, what a great group of guys, best in the world. . . came together. . .hit shots when we needed to. . . made defensive stops when we had to. . .." All of which, by the way, may be said sincerely.

But it's not worth watching or listening to.

When the answers start becoming cliches, the questions do too.

Mark Cuban is right.

Ask some different questions.

And, in the process, teach us something that we don't already know.

Six Degrees of Separation, This Time From . . .

David Segui.

How wet is this particular well?

How many teammates received career-prolonging advice from this first baseman?

Investigations are funny things. Investigators turn over rocks, and they offer good deals to those whom their nets catch first in order to get them to name names. Fearing big trouble, even those who are known for closing ranks sing like canaries. Remember the New York City mob and its code of silence?

John Gotti died in prison.

No one's suggesting that anyone connected with baseball's scandal is otherwise analagous to the Gambino Family -- except, perhaps, when it comes to closing ranks. After all, the most successful union in the world is the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Its members have made an art form of closing ranks.

But art evolves, and there are new schools and challenges to the craft. That's how dynamic change is, and it strikes me that now that David Segui has 'fessed up, others will join.

And perhaps run faster than the average steroids-and-steak fed thirty-seven year-old designated hitter with a bad wheel trying to play out his last contract -- right into the waiting arms of the investigators.

Jason Grimsley was only the start, and with David Segui's comments we're not even close to intermission.

The World Cup has delivered fun theater so far, as have the NHL and NBA playoffs.

But the baseball steroids scandal, as it continues to unfold, will rival, if fall short of, the gripping attention paid to the O.J. Simpson case and Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.

This is big stuff, and the storm is building.

Names will be named.

Fans will express public astonishment (again. . . and again and again).

Congressmen will sense headlines and ratings.

And no matter how hard the Players' Association's leadership tries to circle the wagons, they won't be able to do it fast enough.

Because it's easier to get out of the way of a 95 m.p.h. fastball than it is to duck a subpoena.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Hits Just Keep on Coming

Read this from the AP wire services on what happened to the U.S. team against the Czechs in the World Cup. Sayeth one of their few bright spots, in essence, "We just didn't have a clue."

Makes you wonder how they got to be ranked #5 in FIFA's ratings, ahead of some serious, traditional powers.

After all of the competition, selectivity and training, the U.S. faltered on the world soccer stage.

Not because the other team played better (even if they really did).

Not because some key player got hurt (one of the two best Czechs, Milan Baros, missed the game, and another, the 6'8" striker Thomas Koller, got hurt and left early).

Not because the U.S. team didn't have enough talent (that's debatable, of course, as some say the talent level is there, but I'd submit that the U.S. team members don't play the type of competition in their "day" jobs that the members of the best national teams do).

But because, well, they didn't know what they were doing.

Here's a hint: when on offense, be nimble, quick, take care of the ball, get it to the open man and set him up to score, and, when in the other team's end, relentlessly attack; when on defense, mark your man, disrupt his progess, don't let the other team get into a rhythm, don't make silly mistakes clearing the ball, and keep the ball out of the goal you are defending.

Sounds simple enough, akin to Tony Gwynn's advice on how to hit a baseball: "See the ball, hit the ball."

But it just didn't happen for Team USA.

Soccer in my area has taken on cult status. The only thing close, and this is somewhat indigenouos to where I live, is girls' softball. There are travel teams, intramural teams that practice 2x a week and play one game on weekends, and then other intramural teams that practice once a week and play one game on the weekend. The travel has been known to tear at families, putting the whole family in the van, turning all but one into a spectator, and leaving little time for anyone else. I don't here friends around the country talking about football for their boys as much as I hear about soccer.

So, you would think, with Darwinism taking hold and the natural selection process that yields the best players, that the same way we can unearth a Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant out of a nation of 280 million plus that we could find our own version of Totti, Deco, Zambrotta, Kaka, Cole, Cisse. Lots of parents, lots of resources, lots of time spent.

So it makes you wonder -- are the best athletes and game players of our children playing soccer? Are the hungriest athletes, those who want to win at all costs, playing soccer?

They are in most places in the world, but I'd submit that they are not doing so in the United States. That's not to say that they aren't good athletes, but the competition just isn't there. At least not yet. Those kids, in the U.S., are playing the sports that offer more notoriety and glory -- football, basketball and, yes, baseball.

So perhaps it was that the U.S. players didn't know what to do.

It also might have been the case that they're just not good enough to compete on this stage, at least for now.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Great Guy Lands Brown Head Coaching Job

Brown University named Craig Robinson, Princeton '83, as its head men's basketball coach. Craig succeeds Glen Miller, who moved from Providence to Philadelphia to take the Penn job.

This is a great step for a great guy. Craig Robinson made great contributions to the Princeton campus when he was a student, and he was an outstanding hoopster to boot -- he was twice named the Ivies' player of the year. Since 2000, he was on the staff of Bill Carmody at Northwestern, and, yes, most of you know that Carmody was Pete Carril's top aide at Princeton for years, and, yes, that Craig Robinson played for Pete Carril.

Now Princeton's family has five former Pete Carril assistants or players who are Division I head coaches -- John Thompson III at Georgetown, Bill Carmody at Northwestern, Chris Mooney at Richmond, Joe Scott at Princeton and now Craig Robinson at Brown. Waiting in the wings, presumably, are former Princeton players Mike Brennan (Joe Scott's top assistant at Princeton), Mitch Henderson (on Bill Carmody's staff) and Sydney Johnson (on John Thompson's staff). That's a pretty impressive group.

Craig Robinson will have a tough act to follow and, generally in the Ivies, his work cut out for him. Glen Miller put Brown basketball more firmly on the Ivy map than any of his predecessors, and he left a winning legacy. In the greater scheme of things, Craig Robinson will have to do something that he didn't have to do as a player -- play Penn and Princeton on back to back nights twice during the regular season. That's a tall order for anyone. One problem for Brown is that he doesn't have any eligibility left.

Coaching against Penn and Princeton is a tough job. Many former Penn and Princeton assistants have tried it with mixed success. Gary Walters fared well enough at Dartmouth to move to Providence, while Jan van Breda Kolff fared well enough at Cornell to get the Vanderbilt. Former Penn assistants Ray Carazo (Yale) and Steve Donahue (Cornell) have fared less well.

Craig Robinson is a terrific guy who should make a great addition to Brown University and Ivy League basketball. As a Princeton alum who knew him on campus, I wish him very well. As a Princeton alum who wants his Tigers to string together some consecutive Ivy titles, my good wishes have their limits. The odds are tough, but Craig Robinson can handle almost anything that's thrown at him. He was perhaps the most lightly regarded player in one of the best recruiting classes in Princeton history, and yet it was he who had the best career of the six or so kids in the recruiting class. His joining the Ivies makes the conference more formidable.

In a sporting world that's dealing with illegal substances, motorocycle helmets (or the lack thereof) and other controversies, this is a true "feel-good" story.

Good luck, Craig!

This is just great news.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Ugh-ly Americans

Or was it "Ugly Americans."

Czech Republic 3, U.S.A. 0.

Okay, so it was a tough draw. Second toughest grouping next to the group of death, playing the first game against one of the top 5 teams in the world and a team who some thought could go very far in this tournament.

Fair enough.

But what wasn't fair -- to the U.S. fans -- was the effort that the U.S. team gave today. The quote from Landon Donovan is priceless, that many guys just didn't show up ready to play to day. What an indictment! Of U.S.A. soccer, of coach Bruce Arena and of most of the guys on the team.

What were they waiting for? This wasn't an exhibition, a meaningless warm-up cap against a team like St. Lucia to get themselves ready for the World Cup. This was game 1 of the World Cup, a game that was supposed to be a coming out party for Team U.S.A., a team which had flown underneath the radar screen and had risen as high as #5 in the FIFA rankings. This game was supposed to show people that the U.S. had caught up a bit in world soccer, and that U.S. players could hold their own against some of the best teams in the world.

Didn't happen.

Not only was this game not a coming out party, it was a setback for U.S. soccer. Always touted as "the sport of the future" in the U.S., it's coming close to a joke that a colleague of mine told me at work the other day -- it always will be the sport of the future in the U.S. I had hoped it wasn't to be the case, but he may be right. If the U.S. team doesn't right its ship and play a whale of a game against Italy, how many kids, despite all of their travel teams, will want to be the next Landon Donovan?

Not many.

I applaud Claudio Reyna's effort and the gutty way he plays in the Premiership. As for Donovan, I can't understand why he considers the MLS the league of his choice when the world's best players play in Europe. To me, there's something wrong when your best player eschews the best competition in the world for playing at home in a league that most of the European stars would only consider as a way to ease into retirement when they're in their mid-to-late 30's. Betting your bank on Donovan over players who are playing in the top leagues in England, France and Spain (although there aren't that many of them) seems to be a risky proposition. You have to give props to midfielder Bobby Convey, who stuck it out in England after a miserable first year in the First Division (not to be confused with the top-drawer league, the Premiership) and helped lead his team to a spot in the Premiership next season.

But an Henry, Kaka, Figo, Nedved, Shrevchenko -- the U.S. players don't have one of those.

Oh, sure, it's easy to bash Donovan now, I realize, but I never bought into the hype. Yes, he's a gifted player, but the best Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan baseball players aren't staying at home to ply their trade. They go to the United States, where the best baseball in the world is played. Sure, it's hard, there are cultural and language differences, but these athletes are competitors, and they want to play against the best competition.

Take a look at the U.S. roster. Brazil has a team laden with stars -- Dida, Kaka, Adriano, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho. Argentina has Crespo, Saviola and a whole host of others. France has Henry. England has Rooney. The Netherlands has Robben and van Nistelroy. Italy has Totti, Zambrano and many others. Portugal has Figo and Deco. Ivory Coast has Drogba. Many of the competing nations have outstanding players whom you've never heard of who are better than most of the U.S. players.

And they play against the best competition in the world -- in Europe.

Yes, U.S. soccer has gotten better over the past half-century. Yes, the U.S. has players playing overseas, some of whom are pretty good. Yes, the U.S. ran into a buzz saw in the opening game. But, no, the U.S. won't get better until it has the bulk of its roster playing in the top European leagues, and until it gives rise to an international star or two around whom the team can rally and who can take over a game and lead the team to victory.

The U.S. isn't there yet. And if today's game proved anything, it showed that the road to international excellence is a longer one than many thought just a day or two ago.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Why Iran Lost Today to Mexico and Other World Cup Rants

Read all about it here.

Apparently the Mexicans were in better shape.

It can't help the Iranians that they got roundly booed inside the stadium (although I wonder what the response will be to the U.S. team tomorrow when it takes the pitch against the Czech Republic).

It could have been worse for the Iranians -- in the bizarre (and perhaps corrupt) world of FIFA bracketing, they could have been pitted against the U.S. in the first round. Would they have boycotted that matchup the way an Iranian judoist forfeitted his first-round match against an Israeli, thereby costing him any chance of a medal?

Interesting question.

Some had argued that the #1 seed that Mexico received should have gone to the U.S. which has dominated the Mexicans in recent years; had that happened, would the U.S. have been bracketed with the Iranians in a first-round grouping? Or does FIFA's brand of politics cater so much to the soft bigotry of low expectations that the FIFA people gave the Mexicans a lifetime acheivement award in order to avoid a public temper tantrum from the Iranians (this, by the way, is a knock on FIFA and the Iranians and not the Mexicans, who have traditionally played well on the international stage) and a serious controversy before the World Cup even began? Before you shake this off, there is precedent. FIFA has pandered to the Arab world by putting Israel in the much tougher European bracket, thereby compelling the Israelis to beat traditional soccer powers (instead of teams like Iran and Saudi Arabia) in order to make the World Cup. This year, the Israelis almost embarrassed Sepp Blatter and his cronies, coming in ahead of Ireland, but they failed to beat out the Swiss and, as a result, are sitting home this year.

Let's hope that FIFA didn't rig its groupings in order to cater to Teheran. Given Europe's (but not England's) overall wishy-washiness over international politics, I can't be so sure. And, by the way, had the logical groupings put the U.S. with Iran and then the Iranians threatened to walk, so be it. Much has been made of the civil war in Cote d'Ivorie stopping so that the national team can play in the World Cup. If that's the case, then what grounds would the Iranians have had to stand on?

In addition, the U.S., which is ranked fifth in the world, finds itself in a group with #2 Czech Republic and #13 Italy. Why is that the case? Why are the Americans grouped in such a difficult foursome. By the way, if the U.S. somehow finishes in the top 2 in this grouping and, say, finishes second to the Czechs, guess who they'll have to play in the round of 16?

Brazil. Look at the same rankings -- the Brazilians, in case you haven't watched soccer of the past several decades, are ranked #1 in the world (heck, their backups probably would be rated in the top 15).

Okay, so the U.S. can't win everything, and, yes, the U.S. didn't invent soccer, and, yes, the U.S. cannot dictate the rules about who plays whom. Fair enough. But prove to me that whoever created this brackets isn't related to the refs who presided at the finals of the U.S. Olympic's men's basketball game in 1972 between the Soviet Union and the Americans?

Because that's how much sense that grouping makes.

The U.S. deserved a much better deal. Now they have to show the rest of the world that they deserved that deal.

All that ventilating aside, there was some compelling soccer this weekend. The home Germans got off to a good start, but I think that the Dutch are a better team and would love to see the orange-clad neighbors to the west win the Cup on the soil of their German archrivals. The Dutch looked quick today, and midfielder Arjen Robben is a special player. Trinidad and Tobago surprised everyone in drawing with Sweden, and the English look like that had better get turbocharged if they want to go deep into the tournament. Argentina looked formidable, and Cote d'Ivorie woke up a little too late. Striker Didier Drogba played with a lot of heart, but his teammates didn't play well together until it was too late.

How will the U.S. fare on Monday? The Czechs play well together, and in Pavel Nedved and Milan Baros they have two outstanding players. Goalie Peter Cech also is one of the best in the world. Few expect the U.S. to win tomorrow, and the pundits believe they need a draw to have a chance to advance to the second round. It's hard for non-European teams to win in Europe, and despite the presence of American fans I would expect the bulk of the crowd to be hostile to the Yanks, given that this will be Europe's chance to boo George Bush. All that said, the U.S. team has some good players in their own right, including a handful who are ready to break out on the international stage. They play the games for a reason -- go to the FIFA top-20 list for May and you'll see that several outstanding teams -- Egypt, Nigeria and Denmark among them -- failed to qualify for the World Cup. If the U.S. wins tomorrow, they'll provide great ammunition for the argument that they should have had a #1 seed. If they lose, well, the international soccer cognoscenti will dismiss the Yanks as a bunch of wannabes without the soccer tradition to propel their national team into the international elite.

It should be an interesting day.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Mia Hamm Gets Honorary Degree from Princeton

Among Princeton's honorary degree recipients over the past 25 years -- Arthur Ashe, Larry Doby and Bill Russell.

Mia Hamm makes a great addition.

Jackass Alert

Terrell Owens, now of the Dallas Cowboys, went to the Mavs-Heat game last night in Dallas.

In a Heat jersey.

This is on the same day where, at his camp designed to build friendships and values in youth, he showed up 2 hours late for a session with his campers.

Be careful what you wish for, Cowboys fans.

Be very careful.

Dumb, Fat and Now They Wake Up and Are Unhappy

The NBA, that is.

For a while I've been arguing that Commish David Stern has to make up his mind about his product. Does he want to stress the purity of the game or does he want to stress entertainment? At best, he's sent a mixed message that he wants both. But at worst, and probably closer to the truth, he's stressed packaging, marketing and, yes, entertainment. No, it's not as bad as pro wrestling, of course, but the quality of the product is bad.

And now the Commish is lamenting the quality of the feeder system that exists in the United States. Huh?

Of course the feeder system is corrupt and bad. There are too many hangers on wanting a piece of good sixth graders, who are told they're so wonderful before they're even on a travel team that they become difficult to deal with. As the linked article points out, the European systems are more humble and stress the fundamentals more -- hence the arrival of so many good non-Americans to the National Basketball Association.

Is the NBA to blame here? Is American society to blame? Is the ESPN "Sports Center"-induced slam-dunk culture indictable?

I think that blame can be apportioned on all fronts. The NBA, with all of its razzmattazz, should have caused Red Auerbach to have a fatal stroke years ago. The NBA itself in the post-Jordan era particularly has stressed individuals over team, has too many teams making the playoffs and has offenses that are about as creative as the lyricist who wrote Allen Iverson's rap songs. The NBA hasn't encouraged the development of players who can hit the mid-range jumper, find the open teammate, play the game at both ends, set a pick and generally do what it takes to make his team win. At least in America, it hasn't. The NBA has sent a message that kids should buy their overpriced merchandise, wear bling and "pump it up."

Whatever the heck that means.

American society is also to blame, because in the neverending search for celebrities, it is telling young stars that it's more important to be a star than it is to be fundamentally sound. Some kids just get bad advice, and there are those out there who give that advice to suit their own ends and not those of the young man. That's plain wrong, but it's not a totally new phenomenon. Neither is selfishness among teenagers. At the heart of the issue, though, lies outside influences on young stars that prevents them from putting the team first.

Finally, the "Sports Center" culture tells kids that to get on "Sports Center", you need to be able to dunk spectacularly. Solid assists, good rebounds, deflections on defense and screens don't get you that mention.

Even if they do get your team to the championship series.

So, Commissioner Stern, take a long, hard look in the mirror. The way you have marketed the NBA -- which has garnered you the moniker of "marketing genius" -- has been a disservice to the quality of your product. Take some responsibility here and then work to fix the system.

Before many fans begin to realize that with many franchises, all that's there is packaging.

And an assemblage of individual talents that belies the name team.