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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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Kentucky, John Calipari and America's Priorities

Memphis men's basketball coach John Calipari is mulling over an 8-year, $35 million deal to coach the men's basketball team at Kentucky.

While the President had time to spend in the White House with ESPN's Andy Katz (who is the reporter on the Calipari story) to fill out a bracket for the NCAA tournament, there has been no comment from the political classes or the chattering classes about Kentucky's offer to Calipari.

After all, it is a lot of money.

Especially for a guy who coaches young men.

Of course, there are many reasons for this, such as:

1. The financial crisis and the White House's rivalry with the major banks.
2. The collapse of the auto industry, a final concession that Detroit has lost its World Cup match to Tokyo.
3. The continued pillorying of AIG, which is now playing the role of the 0-26 team your college schedules to puff up its roster and give its men's team confidence before the league schedule begins.

With all that going on, there is little time to reflect on the fact that while the federal budget is stretched to the max (even the Europeans are criticizing the Americans' spending plan) and states are struggling not only to provide basic services but to figure out how to fund staggering obligations for public employees' pensions, a college basketball coach will get paid $4,375,000 a year.

There are no more than 15 kids on a college basketball team, which means each kid will get about $292,000 worth of the coach's time. Layer atop assistants, the director of basketball operations, tutors, trainers, physicians, publicists, and, well, the high majors do spend significant sums on their programs.

Without outrage. Without even the raising of an eyebrow by any politician.

Now, of course, the argument in favor of keeping one's mouth shut goes like this:

1. If you're a capitalist, Calipari is successful, hasn't cost his school staggering losses (although UMass was put on probation after Calipari left for things that happened while Calipari was there, although then again it's unclear whether Calipari had anything to do with the problems or boosters caused the problems), helps bring prestige and money into the school, and wins, so he should be rewarded, and if that's what the market bears, so be it.

2. If you're an advocate of states' rights, you'll view this as a state matter, so that if Kentucky wants to pay the money, fine, and if Kentucky wants to let its boosters pay Calipari the money, that's fine too.

3. If you're a statist (read: the Federal government should have a bigger say), you'll say "hey, wait a minute", every state university gets Federal money in some way, shape or form, and there should be limits on executive compensation, regardless of how successful Calipari was, is or will be, and regardless of what the market will bear. What those limits should be is open to question, and since the President prides himself on being a hoopster, well, perhaps any such policy would exclude those employed in the basketball world. Makes sense, even though that would be catering to special interests, a term that the President likes about as much as the words "AIG bonuses."

4. If you're a healthy skeptic, you do wonder aloud why it is that guys who coach kids get paid so much, regardless of how many tickets are sold, TV money, booster donations and the like. Especially in these times. You don't want government to be the answer, you don't like populist outrage (because it can be misplaced, based upon falsehoods, prone to violence, etc.), but you want honesty and common sense to take over. Sure, Coach Cal has succeeded and is one of the most successful out there, but why should a coach of an extracurricular make more than the University president? What are the priorities in Kentucky and elsewhere?

Anyway, I just thought that in these times it's interesting how the vitriol is focused on Wall Street and to a certain degree (albeit, perhaps, from slightly different circles), Detroit, and not on this particularly news item.

Perhaps that means that a) America is focusing on what it should and not permitting sports to deter it too much, b) America is out of gas in terms of populist outrage and protests and has nothing left for this situation, c) America just doesn't care or d) America thinks this is just fine.

What do you think?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Review: "Odd Man Out" by Matt McCarthy

Matt McCarthy went to Yale.

He played baseball there.

The Angels drafted him; he played one year in the minors.

After getting released in spring training the following year, he went to Harvard Medical School. He's now an intern at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

He wrote a book about his experiences in the minors -- five years after he left the game.

In it, you will learn the following:

1. That Padres' starting pitcher Chris Young went to Yale on a recruiting visit the same weekend that McCarthy did.

2. That Young thought the Yale baseball team was populated with, yes, assholes. (That observation, in and of itself, would make a Princetonian proud). Young was proven right (Yale was awful during McCarthy's four years there, although the Elis had more players drafted by Major League teams than any other Ivy). McCarthy, though, had fun at Yale. Young probably had fun at Princeton, and he made it to the Majors in his mid-20's.

3. That Major League scouts think Ivy Leaguers are an alien life form.

4. That most minor leaguers (if not all) care more about their personal performances than how the team does.

5. That most American players (whether Caucasian or white) view Hispanic players as an alien life form, and that they waited to take their showers until after the Hispanics concluded for reasons ascribed to cultural differences. Before you get judgmental, read the book, although it is odd and sad that the language barrier separates players who are spending so much time together.

6. That you wouldn't want your teenage daughter hanging around minor-league players.

7. That Casey Kotchman's father, Tom, a long-time manager in the Angels' system, is a good guy and good to play for.

McCarthy kept a diary and wrote the book five years after his career ended. In the book, you'll get a sense of some current Major Leaguers, including Bobby Jenks, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana and Howie Kendrick, among others. McCarthy gives us a great sense of what it's like to be a minor leaguer, how the struggle for consistency plagues all players, but most particularly pitchers. You feel for him ever time he describes his warming up in the bullpen and his going into the game, and you sense his frustration when he cannot put two good games together.

You also learn that most baseball players don't go to college, let alone Yale. McCarthy paints a good picture of the relative intelligence of baseball players without being condescending or mean-spirited, and he writes with a light enough touch to give the reader at least half a dozen moments of laughing out loud.

This is a good, fast read. If you have a long flight or a vacation coming up, get this book and read it.

You won't be disappointed.

Because while Yale didn't teach McCarthy to throw over 90 miles an hour consistently, it did teach him how to tell a story.

Yes, even Yalies can tell one well.

Good Parallel for Villanova to the Phillies

Say what?

When the Phillies' made the National League's "Final Four" last fall, few talked about them. The Cubs were favored to go to the World Series, the Dodgers had Manny Ramirez and his all-world second half, and the Brewers had C.C. Sabathia. The Phillies? They didn't hit for 2 1/2 months during the summer, got hot in mid-September and won their division over the fading Mets. They were an afterthought.

As is Villanova. Yes, Dante Cunningham is the most improved player in all of college basketball since the beginning of the season. Yes, Scottie Reynolds is clutch, yes, they can shoot it and defend it. And, the scuttlebutt out of New York after the Big East tournament was forget who won it and forget the six-overtime game, the team to watch was. . . Villanova.

So here we are in the Final Four, and while they're not George Mason, they're being treated like their guests, poseurs, the long-lost relatives from the Ozarks who really don't belong at the Four Seasons overlooking the park. They haven't been to the Final Four in 24 years, and while Jay Wright is a good coach, his pedigree pales in comparison to that of Roy Williams (in his seventh Final Four and one national championship under his belt), Tom Izzo (five Final Fours and one national title) and Jim Calhoun (two national titles).

So, while 'Nova played a great game against Pitt to win its region and got good ink, that ink flowed away after the Final Four was set. All of a sudden, Carolina is the favorite to win the whole thing, Michigan State gets a serious look for busting the brackets and knocking out Louisville, the favorite of many, and Connecticut has returned, again. So that leaves Villanova as the odd team out.

And they should like it that way. The pressure, of course, will be there, but the pressure will be greater on Carolina in the semifinal game. I love the Carolina program, and I like Roy Williams' strategy of getting the ball down the floor before the other team sets its defense. But Carolina's defense has disappointed me, and I'm not certain that it was the Tar Heels' defense that compelled a decisive victory over Oklahoma or whether the Sooners' outside shooting was so bad that the defense could collapse on first-team All-American Blake Griffin with impunity. Put differently, the Sooners had plenty of good, relatively open looks that they missed.

Villanova plays very hard, they shoot it well, and they might run by Carolina. The Tar Heels will know that they've been in a fight, and while they have a size advantage, to quote old, sage philosophers, it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. It's hard to go out on a limb to pick Villanova, but I'll do just that. They gave the last full measure of basketball battling against Pitt and prevailed, and their confidence is high. Their program might not be as storied as Carolina's and their coach not as well-known or successful, but theirs is a fine program with a mighty good coach.

I know that to a degree this is hometown wishful thinking, but the 'Cats have that certain spark about them.

Call it Villanova, 94-89.

Support for Villanova in Philadelphia

I grew up rooting for Penn and Temple, the alma maters of my parents. I like the coaches of the other Big Five schools and check the morning papers during college basketball season with a hope that they all won the night before. I rooted for Penn against Temple as a kid because Penn was more prominent nationally, only to shed that allegiance when I went to Princeton (although I rooted hard for Penn on its improbable trip to the Final Four in 1979 -- Penn's star, Tony Price, is the father of UConn's A.J. Price). I still root for every Ivy champion to do well in the NCAA tournament, and I close ranks behind any Philadelphia-area team in the Big Dance.

A few years ago, it was St. Joe's, which reached the regional final behind the splendid guard play of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. I've rooted for Temple in the tournament the past two seasons (and I root for the Owls now first among the Philadelphia-area teams). This year, its Villanova, and we'll be rooting hard for the Wildcats this weekend.

I've listened to talk radio in Philadelphia during my commute to and from work, and outside some partisans (mostly St. Joe's alums, who must resent Villanova's "lace-curtain" image), almost everyone will shed aside the traditional rivalries to pull for the 'Cats.

It should be a fun weekend.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Princeton-Brown: Women's Softball

My daughter and I ventured up to Tigertown in the mist today to watch Princeton dismantle Brown, 8-2, in the first game of a doubleheader (their bats went silent as they dropped the nightcap, 2-1). Brown went up two zip before the Tigers got hot in the middle innings, enjoying home runs by Kat Welch and Jamie Lettire. There weren't many fans in attendance, but the play was crisp and the Tigers excelled.

Women's softball doesn't get a ton of publicity, but lots of young women play the game, including my daughter, and I enjoyed my afternoon with her watching an excellent team execute well on the field.

Villanova-Pitt: One of the Best Games I've Ever Seen

I've been watching college basketball for over 40 years, and this game was one for the ages, as Verne Lundquist correctly pointed out at the end of last night's regional final. Both teams played so hard, contested after possession, dove for every loose ball, went at it hammer and tongs for ever rebound, it was both a privilege to watch and a shame that someone had to lose.

There are plenty of accounts of the game, so I'm not linking to any, but I just wanted to say that I enjoyed watching the game tremendously and look forward to watching the Final Four.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Anthony Grant for the Kentucky Job

Who?

Yes, Kentucky canned head basketball coach Billy Gillispie after only two years on the job. Click here for the story.

Now, this is one of the most prestigious programs in college basketball history, up there in the pantheon with Duke, Carolina, Kansas, Indiana and UCLA. So, it figures that the Kentucky brass will pick a big-name coach to try to turn the program around and put it perenially in the top 10. So, the speculation will run rampant about successful coaches in big-time programs, as is what usually happens. The question will remain whether Kentucky can lure that type of coach. Apparently, they reached out to Villanova's Jay Wright and Texas's Rick Barnes when they hired Gillispie, only to be rebuffed. Quietly, apparently.

Speculation has begun with Florida's Billy Donovan, who assisted Rick Pitino when Pitino coached in Lexington, but that same post says that Donovan is staying put. Speculation will begin about other big-name coaches in big-time programs, so we'll see what Kentucky does.

But I have a thought: Anthony Grant, the VCU coach. Grant assisted Billy Donovan for years at Florida (and was there when Florida won its consecutive national titles). He moved on to VCU, where he's excelled (one question to which I don't know the answer is whether Grant won with talent he recruited or talent that his predecessor recruited). Still, there's an SEC pedigree (not that that's any great shakes today when it comes to men's hoops), a Donovan connection, and success at VCU. That's pretty good.

I also read a report where Alabama is recruiting Grant hard, and that Grant already has toured the campus. Perhaps that tour will now include a detour through Lexington.

This is one hot job. It's a great job, but how great will the pressure be to win quickly? And why would a coach atop a successful program with a long-term contract at good money go all in and risk it for a chance for glory in Lexington?

Watch this drama carefully. It ought to be interesting.

This Stuff Still Can Happen

If anyone has wondered why boxing is going the way of the eight-track player, read this story regarding former welterweight champ Antonio Margarito. To entice you to click the link, the crux of the matter is that before Margarito's fight against Sugar Shane Mosley, Mosley's trainer, Nazim Richardson objected to Margarito's hand wraps.

With good reason, as it turned out.

They contained elements of plaster of paris.

In 2009.

It's hard to believe except that it's boxing, which conjures up images of guys in slick suits, back-room deals, smokey arenas and the like. And, in this case, Margarito apparently tried to cheat, unless he'll make a Major League Baseball Players Union member's defense of "well, I didn't know what I was injecting in my body." Yeah, right, Margarito got the wraps from GNC.

At any rate, this is another bad situation for boxing, as it continues to slide into oblivion.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Stupidity of My Daughter's Middle School Gym Curriculum

They might as well have trial lawyers teaching my kid's middle-school gym class. What I'm about to write is so bizarre that you'll think that this blog specializes in sports fiction, with a science fiction twist.

Here goes:

1. The girls are not allowed to set picks in basketball because someone could get hurt.
2. They play field hockey with sticks with styrofoam ends because someone could get hurt.
3. They play soccer with styrofoam-like balls because someone could get hurt.
4. They taught the kids how to bench press -- with a four-pound limit -- because someone could get hurt.

And it goes on and on. You just cannot make this stuff up.

We're at a time in America's existence where obesity is an epidemic and the country has lost its competitive edge. So, instead, we'll play fake games with toy products and give everyone a certificate for showing up.

Meanwhile, few will learn how to compete meaningfully and American kids will continue to get fatter because few will learn in school that games can be fun and, yes, it's fun to win.

Basketball without picks?

Field hockey with styrofoam sticks?

Bench-pressing four pounds?

(In reading the first part of this post to my wife and my son, a third-grader, he told me that they're not allowed to steal the basketball while playing defense in their elementary-school gym classes. Again, what the. . .? Isn't the purpose of playing basketball on defense to steal the ball? Doesn't offense sell tickets, but defense win championships?)

So, in thinking deeply about the subject, you can guess that what's in the closets of the gym teachers results from a discussion with the school district's head of risk management, who discussed it with the outside insurers and, of course, the outside solicitor (read: legal counsel) to make sure that the risks of providing state-mandated physical education don't outweigh the rewards (the state could remedy this by placing limits on awards for tort damages arising from gym class accidents, but that would provide a clash among teachers' unions, which would support the limitation on liability for their members, trial lawyers, who pump big bucks into politicians' coffers -- as do the unions and live off of the contingency fees they make from, among other things, tort cases -- and school districts, which are under increasing pressure to do more with less).

No, I'm not wont to play the blame game -- I'm a generally positive person who laments mob mentalities and broad categorizations of groups of people, because that's dangerous and not what we want our society to be all about. All I can say that the current situation is tragicomic and troubling -- that we can't let our kids play meaningful games in gym class because the potential legal and financial liability is too much.

But what about developing healthier kids -- of mind and body, because studies have shown that those who exercise are probably better performers all around than those who don't?

But what about developing good, future leaders? Don't meaningful games in gym class and on playgrounds help create those?

Many would tell you that a measure of a person is not how they celebrate a victory but how they rebound from adversity -- getting hit accidentally by a stick, running into a pick and falling down, getting hit by a ball, coming back from a deficit, chasing down someone who stole the ball from you on the basketball court. The examples are endless. And apparently vanishing from the current physical education curriculum (and not all kids are good enough to play after-school sports, intramurals are vanishing, so where will kids get these experiences?).

Instead, we're warehousing our kids in badly needed and now poorly conceived physical education classes because we're playing to our fears and not to our hopes and dreams. This is a situation screaming for a common-sense solution that says "let the kids play games" and limit or eliminate the liability on all involved -- before its too late.

Because, after all, we're a better society than to permit risk managers, trial lawyers and insurers dictate how we develop our kids and how we play our games.

Or are we?

Lamar Odom

Did anyone notice in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated (March Madness issue) that there was both an article on professional athletes' losing their money and an elegy on Lamar Odom, the Lakers' forward who's had a difficult life, is seemingly in a good place, and, from the article, seems like an all-around nice guy?

But when you put the two articles together, do you wonder a) if the SI editors intended this juxtaposition, as Odom seems to be committing some of the financial errors that the players who are subject of the article on bankrupt former professional athletes, b) they missed the connection or c) if, in fact, Odom is doing better than most players financially and it's we who are missing the point? Somehow, I hope that Odom reads the whole issue and makes sure he puts away a good amount of his $14 million plus salary in safe investments, or else we'll be reading about his financial problems 5 years after he is playing.

Lamar Odom seems like a really good, wise guy who's learned from his experiences and makes everyone around him a happier, better person. Or so it seems from the article. Hopefully, he won't become another financial tragedy, as the financial corpses of many former players are discussed in an article in the same magazine.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gripping Statistics About Pro Athletes

The current issue of Sports Illustrated (sorry, there is no available link) contains a sad story about the financial plight of many professional athletes. Here are some troubling statistics:

1. 60% of NBA players are broke within 5 years of leaving the game; and
2. 78% of NFL players will suffer the same financial fate (the time frame wasn't mentioned).

The article is replete with stories of plum awful (read: stupid) investments (such as investing $500,000 in a sofa with a flotation device in it so that if you suffered a flood you could use it to float away), unscrupulous investment advisors and inept clients, who are clueless about saving and how to handle money (and who are surrounded, at times, by people who think that they have an entitlement to the money (and we're not talking about the Federal government here). We're also talking about conspicuous and excessive consumption (a friend told me a story about his girlfriend, who works in a luxury shop in the S.F. Bay Area, where a prominent football player came in with an entourage and dropped $60,000 on items). Oh, yes, there's the entourage problem too.

And these pro athletes are supposed to be the lucky ones -- they made it. The sad thing about the whole story is that you could draw the impression that it's better not to have made it at all than to have made it and lost a fortune -- with absolutely no chance of getting it back, given that the player's skills will have eroded pretty quickly.

This SI edition is worth picking up just to read the story. It's the "March Madness" preview edition, and what you'll read will just astound you.

Before you get too judgmental, though, or judgmental at all, remember that many of these athletes were rushed through the educational system, sometimes getting passes because they were stars, sometimes coming from backgrounds with few if any role models they could trust later to help them with money, and, also coming into money so young that they don't have wisdom about thrift and value. I wouldn't buy a $20,000 Rolex, but if I were the type to, I probably would stop at just one. The problem is that many of these athletes cannot stop spending, because the well seems so deep. Some get married too early and end up getting divorced, which is costly, while others father children out of wedlock (in the case of NFL RB Travis Henry, 9 children by 9 different women).

To a certain degree, it's probably hard to get these stars to listen. What has made them great is that they follow their own muse, they're determined, and they shun the naysayers because they'll be the ones who drag them down. So, it could be hard for them to listen to someone at Merrill Lynch when it was their AAU coach who helped put them on the map (and, in one instance in the article, a player has his former AAU coach manage his affairs, but he doesn't get statements and doesn't know how much the AAU coach is charging).

I'm sure that there are many athletes who are well-provided for, who've saved wisely, and who can have good lives after sports. But it does strike me that many present huge targets for those with unsound, even whacky, investment ideas, unscrupulous motives, and the like. I don't know what can be done to protect the athletes from being targets for financial slaughter, except a) better education, b) honing their ability to say "no", c) impulse control and d) taking more of an interest in their finances. Short of that, this trend will continue and perhaps get worse.

Buy the magazine and read the whole thing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

NCAA Predictions

I'm not going to go through a whole bracket, because that's been done before. I'm also not going to pick any wild upsets, because it's hard to predict an upset. Try to pick, say, a #14 beating a #3 is like trying to draw to an inside straight in poker. It's something that a good uncle or grandfather should have told you is not a wise thing to do.

The seedings have been around for a while, long enough that the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee (or whatever it's called) is getting better at getting it right. Last year, each #1 seed made the Final Four, and I believe that's the first time that ever happened. This year, I don't think that's going to happen. Somehow, I think that UConn will falter, and I also am not bullish on Carolina, a program that I admire, even if they were to have a healthy Ty Lawson. UConn misses Jerome Dyson, and Carolina doesn't defend well enough to win. With all that by way of background, I do think that VCU could pull an upset, thereby propelling former Billy Donovan assistant Anthony Grant into the sweepstakes for whatever high-major job comes open. Outside of that, I'm going with the chalk for the most part.

My Final Four consists of Louisville (over West Virginia, an underrated team that fights hard, in the regional final), Memphis (beating UConn), Pitt (over Villanova in the regional final, the significance of which I'll discuss in a moment) and Syracuse (over Carolina, as the Orange's magic carpet ride continues). Then I have Louisville overtaking Memphis, and I have Pitt beating Syracuse, with Pitt defeating Louisville to win the whole thing. The significance regarding a Pitt victory over Villanova is that were this to happen and were Pitt to win the whole thing, it would mark either the fifth time in seven years or the fourth time in the past six years that Villanova would have lost to the eventual national champion. I'm not (that) superstitious, but there is some karma there.

That the Big East is very strong goes without saying. That the Big East might get 3 teams to the Final Four is an eye opener, but still not as headline-grabbing as it was in the mid-1980's, when Georgetown, with Patrick Ewing, St. John's, with Chris Mullin, and Villanova, with Ed Pinckney, all made it to the Final Four in 1985 ('Nova, the lowest seed ever to win the tournament at #8, upset Georgetown in the Finals by shooting 80% in the second half). Then, there wasn't meaningful cable TV, and there weren't nearly as many games on TV as there are today. We all knew of the prime-time players because the tournament -- in certain ways -- was larger than life then that it was now, even if it's larger today in terms of size, attendance and revenue. Which players on any of my Final Four selections are household names? Johnny Flynn of Syracuse? DeJuan Blair of Pitt? Tyreke Evans of Memphis?

Still, the tournament is as gripping as ever, and it usually makes for good theater, especially in the first two days. We'll miss Stephen Curry of Davidson, as his team failed to make the Big Dance. We'll hope for a #16 to beat a #1, or a #15 to beat a #2, but it's been a while since Coppin State pulled the latter and came within a hair of getting to the Sweet 16. How long has it been? 15 years since that happened?

Let the games begin, and let the pace of work slow down just a bit, and let's enjoy our games. It's March Madness, and deep down we're all pulling for a Cornell to beat a Missouri, for a #1 to go down. It's unlikely, but we'll all be watching for that type of upset just the same.

More Evidence That Bob Hurley, Sr. is a Great Coach

The Patriot League Player of the Year, Derrick Mercer, is an alum of St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City, New Jersey.

The Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, St. Joseph's Ahmad Nivins, is an alum of the same school.

You can read about the team they played on in a great book that I once posted about here.

It's great to see that both of these guys had such outstanding college careers. When I read about their high school team, there were concerns about both playing well at the next level. With Mercer, his size was an issue. With Nivins, the question was whether he was tough enough. Both have answered those questions with their play -- making their teams and themselves better in the process.

Cornell Transfer is Reserve on Louisville

Bloomberg has a good article today on Will Scott, a reserve guard who transferred from Cornell after one year. Scott, who will earn his MBA from Louisville this year, is headed to Oxford for post-graduate studies. Scott didn't get along with Big Red coach Steve Donahue, so he transferred to Louisville to play for Rick Pitino, who is an old family friend. Scott's older brother is Director of Basketball Operations for the Cardinals, and his sister was a captain for Penn's women's hoop team this year.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Princeton-Georgetown, Princeton-UCLA -- Haven't We Heard Enough?

A loyal reader wrote to me about the 20th anniversary of the Princeton-Georgetown first-round NCAA playoff game. He reminded me of the importance of that game, which wasn't that it is perhaps the game that the Tigers' Hall of Fame Coach Pete Carril is best remembered for (which is fitting that for a complicated man that game was a loss), but that the near miss came at a time where there was serious talk about eliminating automatic bids for conference champions. Princeton lost 50-49 and put a great scare into the #1 team in the country, and, as a result, sent a message to the lords of the NCAA that perhaps automatic bids were a good thing. As my friend pointed out, that game laid the foundation for Princeton's 1996 upset of defending champion UCLA in the first round (what Princeton fan can forget Steve Goodrich's nifty back-door pass to Gabe Lewullis for the go-ahead layup?). All of those are great memories, to be cherished.

But is it me, or are they re-lived too much? Is the future for Ivy basketball and the Princeton Tigers so bleak that all we have to look forward to is reminders of the past? Yes, the Ivies haven't won a first-round game since 1998, when Princeton beat UNLV and almost beat Michigan State in the second round. Yes, right now it's hard to see a future where an Ivy team can be so good that it will be nationally ranked or strong enough to win a first-round game. Yet, Tommy Amaker's made recruiting inroads at Harvard, Steve Donahue has built a strong program at Cornell, Princeton is on the mend and it's only a matter of time before the Penn-Princeton rivalry rekindles itself, both teams grow stronger, make each other better, and the rivalry (along with that of other Ivies) springs forth teams that will get more than a regional focus.

Right?

Or, wrong?

Don't get me wrong -- I had a great time watching the '89 game in a friend's apartment (my cable TV was out), this before text messaging and cell phone. I'll never forget saying to myself "oh my, I can't believe that they'll do this, I can't believe it" only to see Kit Mueller's last-second jumper fail and be left to wonder whether the refs missed a foul call on Alonzo Mourning. I'll also remember when I watched the Tigers upset UCLA, failing to convince my wife (who had gone to bed in preparation for an early morning meeting) that the Tigers actually won the game when I finally tried to get some sleep. After all, it was the UCLA they were playing, the defending national champs, so what made anyone think they'd win that game? Both are terrific memories, but when will we exhaust them?

As they say in Friday Night Lights, let's make some memories.

New ones.

Because many of us fans are way too young to rely exclusively on nostalgia as a means for rooting for current and future versions of our teams.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March Madness

The Sporting News (which I read religiously as a kid because it was the bible of baseball, well before Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus) published a survey in its March 16 issue regarding the NCAA Tournament. It polled 22 luminaries, including Mark Alarie (Duke), former Princeton coach Pete Carril, Kentucky star Kevin Grevey, Indiana's Scott May, and Carolina's Mike O'Koren, among many others. I'll list the questions and provide my own answers -- you'll have to subscribe to the magazine to get the quotes from the various former players.

1. Think a No. 16 seed will knock off a No. 1 in your lifetime? Suprisingly, 16 of the 22 said yes, and the coach who came the closest, Carril, said it is difficult, but it will happen. My view is that it will not happen for a while -- precisely because it hasn't happened in 20 years and because the seeding has gotten better. The NCAA's Men's Basketball Committee has at its fingertips all sorts of statistical analysis, and today a #1 seed is playing a team which, if the 64 best teams in the land made the tournament, wouldn't be there. Put differently, despite all romanticism about the "Little Engine That Could" or "Hoosiers", unless the No. 1 team gets food poisoning or has such a bunch of vain chuckleheads (which is unlikely because you have to be hardworking to get to a #1 seed), that type of upset is unlikely.

2. Is there any change you'd make to improve the tournament? The NCAA already did when CBS didn't renew Billy Packer's contract. Most of the recipients said no, but somehow having 65 teams is troubling to me, and I still don't know the justification any more for the NIT, which the NCAA owns. I don't like the concept of play-in games, especially when you single out two teams for a single play-in game. My view would be to expand the field to 72 teams, and then have the bottom-ranked 16 teams all play in to get to the field of 64. In this fashion, you'd have the conference champions of the conferences ranked in the bottom 16 play in (unless, of course, any of them are so good that they'd rate in the top 56, at which point you'd substitute an at-large team for a conference champion from the lower half of the conferences). That said, if this were to happen, you'd create a situation where a #16 or a #15, based upon the confidence they got from a play-in win, perhaps on a roll and having a better chance to upset a #1 or #2 seed. Now that I've said all that, despite the sore thumb that the play-in game is, perhaps the NCAA shouldn't touch this tournament.

3. Will you be cheering for North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough to win his first championship, as a senior? I will, because I'm a big Carolina fan and would like to see Carolina win a title, and, therefore, Hansbrough win a title. He's an outstanding player with a lot of grit. I had to laugh at the quote from Grevey, who was overall complimentary of Hansbrough but said "Tyler may be the most overrated player of the year in a long time." I don't agree, and, of course, people forget that Grevey knows what he was talking about -- he was pretty overrated too, perhaps because he played for the Kentucky dynasty. As for Hansbrough's pro prospects, I think back to when Carlos Boozer was coming out of Duke. I liked Boozer and thought he was a battler and a finisher, but he didn't go until the second round. And, since being in the NBA, Boozer has proven he's a battler and a finisher. Somehow, I think that if given the opportunity Hansbrough, for the right time, will prove he's both, too.

4. Who has a shot to create a special March memory this year? The voters were all over the place, and Stephon Curry, who got the most (3 1/2), won't be in the Big Dance because Davidson failed to win its conference tournament. I think it's hard to say, especially since last year the highest rated teams all made it to the Final Four. Is there a George Mason this year, and, if so, which team is it? I have my doubts about teams from the SEC (weak conference this year), Duke (not athletic enough), Memphis (not a strong enough schedule), but am wary of picking 3 Big East teams for the Final Four (a la 1985, when St. John's, Georgetown and Villanova all made it) because that league has been so bruising this year that you wonder if a single participant has enough gas left for a championship run. Something tells me that the Big East will make a lot of noise, that the Big Ten will disappoint, and that all four #1 seeds will not make the Final Four.

5. CBS pays the NCAA billions to televise the tournament. Should some of that go to the players? 12 of the 22 participants said yes, but I disagree, because college should be first and foremost about education. The players are getting scholarships, and that should be enough, but it's hard to say that when there are poor kids who are helping their school's athletic programs bring in millions and they don't have enough money to go out on a few dates. I think that the NCAA should increase its stipend and have a fund available -- payable out of the TV money -- to help players who've exhausted their eligibility go back and get their degrees when their playing days are over. The argument that the kids are getting scholarships and that the scholarships alone should be enough works for those schools who labor to ensure that the kids get meaningful degrees that lead to good jobs after the exhaustion of eligibility. Unfortunately, not all schools do that, which means that some kids make it through without sufficient skills to do more than park cars or do unskilled labor. That's just plain wrong, and, if that happens, the schools should be held accountable to make sure the kids get the benefit of their bargain.

Defending the Philadelphia Eagles, Part II

Reuben Frank's column in today's Bucks County Courier Times is a must read for Eagles fans, particularly if you've counted yourselves among those who are angry at, or frustrated with, Andy Reid and the front office for letting Brian Dawkins and Tra Thomas go.

It's been said that of among the major sports, football is the hardest to figure out, in terms of who has played well and who has not. In contrast, in baseball you can tell from the numbers (and from watching) who has fared well and who hasn't -- in pretty transparent terms. Jamie Moyer of the Phillies had a good year in 2008, while Brett Myers had an up-and-down year. That was pretty easy to tell, as it was that catcher Carlos Ruiz a) had trouble hitting above the Mendoza line and b) transformed himself into a take-charge, leader-like catcher by season's end. You could tell the former by statistics and the latter by watching the team in September and reading the quotes from manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee. Basketball and hockey are not as transparent, but you can tell by the numbers in basketball who is making wise decisions (it's the assist-to-turnover ratio for a point guard), who is defending well as a team, and who is shooting the ball well. I'm less versed in hockey, but you aren't playing 11 guys at a time, so it's easier to see which Flyers' defenseman has played like a statue and which one can cover mobile offensive players better.

The previous paragraph is by now means complete, as I'm trying to paint the picture that outside egregious situations (such as Winston Justice's ill-fated start against the Giants' two years ago, in which the young offensive tackle yielded six sacks), it's hard for the average fan to tell whether a free safety is getting to the ball as quickly as the average free safety in the league or whether a center is doing what he's supposed to be doing. Most fans cannot tell that, but what they can see is their team's won-lost record and the frequency of playoff appearances. Frank makes the excellent point in his column that Washington and Dallas have favored expense veterans over the past decade, and neither has been successful. While the Cowboys have gotten significant ink, they haven't won a playoff game in about 10 years, T.O. or no T.O., and with Tony Romo, Pac-Man Jones and Tank Johnson.

So, before you tee off on the Eagles, pick why you want to tee off. Most of us cannot tell whether their personnel decisions (at the time made) are good or bad. We can tell, years later, from retrospectively addressing how well draft picks fared, how well free agents fared, and how well people that the team let go performed. What we can tell, right now, is that the Eagles seem stuck in a mode that fans in Detroit and Kansas City would take -- perenially having a chance to make the playoffs and win a few games. On the face of it, that doesn't sound so bad.

Unless you're an Eagles' fan, because, if you are, you've gotten so close that you want the title, can taste it, and won't accept anything less. Making matters worse is that the Phillies, usually regarded as an inferior organization that couldn't get out of its own way, won the World Series. So now Eagles' fans are left with reviewing the past 10 years and trying to figure out why the team cannot win the Super Bowl, seeing the last game of last season -- a game most figured them to win -- become a microcosm of the fans' frustrations (the inability to finish the job), and seeing some tried and true performers depart for other teams. They're tired of hearing how well the Eagles manage the salary cap, how great it is to have reached the conference championship game 5 times in the past 10 years, and how good, overall, a judge of talent Andy Reid is (Frank's article is testimony, to some degree, to the latter point).

A wise person once told me that the complaint isn't usually the problem, and, in this case, I think she'd be onto something. While Eagles' fans complain about the recent personnel decisions, what they're really frustrated with is a lack of progress -- in their minds -- to a solution that leads to a Super Bowl victory. So, when they vent about losing warriors like Dawkins and Thomas, what they're really saying is "what's the plan to win a Super Bowl?" And what they're most worried about is whether the Donovan McNabb-Andy Reid partnership will ever get them there.

As Reuben Frank points out, stars have come and gone, and the departure of none of them sank the team. Name a name -- Hugh Douglas, Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Jeremiah Trotter (when he left for the Redskins) -- and the team rebounded just fine. What's frustrating for the fans, however, is that while they know that Andy Reid and Joe Banner can put together a nucleus for 10 wins and a first-round playoff victory, is whether they can finally break through and win it all.

And it's not clear from past history -- despite the overall won-loss record -- that they can.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Happy Loss

I laid down the challenge to my kids over the winter -- if you beat me in chess, I'll buy you an IPod Touch.

My son took up the challenge in December and lost endless games against me, many in fewer than five moves as he was just learning that in chess you have to play offense and defense at the same time.

Well, last night was more of the same. He made a few good moves, which he followed with a few gaffes, such as trading a queen for knight or leaving a rook exposed to a bishop. The results of the first three games weren't pretty, as he must have been tired from a long day. He was somewhat careless, to tell you the truth, and he wasn't stringing moves together consistently.

So much so that after the third game, he grew angry. He had a brief outburst, which is rare for him, and then he said, "let's play again."

What happened next showed me something that made me proud as a parent. He didn't come back defeated or upset, but determined. He mustered his concentration, drew upon a lesson a friend taught him about how to set your opponent up for checkmate rather quickly, and induced me into a trap that caused a pretty fast checkmate. All because, of course, I did something that I had counseled him against. I was so focused on my offense (because he was upset, I figured that he would get aggressive and leave himself open) that I neglected my defense. That left myself open to checkmate, which he achieved.

You couldn't imagine the look on his face or his happiness. At first, he had a little trouble believing it himself, but I showed him the checkmate and he jumped up and down, did a shuffle and smiled. Not only did he persist and beat me, he also picked himself up off the mat after three straight defeats to rally and defeat me. He felt a sense of accomplishment, as he should have, and I felt a sense of gratitude that my son knows how to focus, recover, muster his resources and win.

It was a great thing to see, and, yes, a deal's a deal, and we purchased the IPod Touch today.

Now, of course, I have to figure out how to enable him to listen to his music through the earplugs so that the rest of us don't have to hear it. But that's a happy burden, given the accomplishment.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Memories of the Spectrum

Tonight the 76ers will play a home game at the Spectrum, the place they used to play before it got too old, didn't have enough glitz or luxury boxes, before basketball became entertainment, when fans sat closer to the players and felt more a part of the action. The Philadelphia talk radio hosts are summoning people's memories of moments at that arena, so I'll share with you some of mine.

1. When the roof blew off in 1967. What I remember about this is that my father had tickets to take me to a doubleheader there (yes, the NBA staged doubleheaders featuring out-of-town teams as home teams way back when) the next night. As I recall, the games were moved to Philadelphia's Convention Hall (since torn down). The big bummer was that this was the new arena, and I don't remember when I got there next.

2. When the Flyers beat the Bruins, 1-0, to win Their First Stanley Cup. This was in 1974, and I don't know how my father got tickets, because a) he didn't like hockey, b) he didn't like the Flyers' owner Ed Snider (with some good reason), c) he didn't like a game that permitted fighting and d) he didn't know that many hockey fans. But I was a pre-teenager, and, as a loving dad, he made his way to the Mitchell & Ness sporting goods store weeks earlier to buy a Flyers' jersey for me. I had Moose Dupont's number put on it (because it would have been too easy to put Bobby Clarke's #16 or Bernie Parent's #1 on it) -- Dupont wore #6, and I still have that jersey (no, it doesn't fit). We sat five rows behind the Flyers' bench at center ice -- unbelievable seats.

Before the game, the big suspense was whether one-time (very) popular singer, Kate Smith, now an elderly woman, would appear to sing "God Bless America." The Flyers' had adopted the song (instead of the Star Spangled Banner), and they played a recording of it before selected home games. At the time of this game, they had an amazing record when they played the song, something like 33-0 over several years. Well, as luck would have it, silence gripped the audience when the lights were dimmed, red carpets were rolled out, and Kate Smith walked onto the ice and gave a great rendition of the song. The crowd went wild, and I'll remember that the Bruins' star, Phil Esposito, skated up to Ms. Smith and kissed her hand. It was a classy moment.

The game was a gripping one, and it took a Dupont slapshot (I don't recall whether Rick MacLeish tipped it in or not) to defeat the Bruins, 1-0. I rushed down toward the Flyers' bench after the game ended, and Flyers' winger Don "Big Bird" Saleski handed me a water bottle. I still have that, too. It was a great game, and the first major championship a Philadelphia team had won in quite a while.

3. More 76ers games than you can count, and two funny stories.

I went with my father to a playoff game against the Celtics in the late 1970's. The Celtics were great, the 76ers very good, and in this particular game the Celtics had taken a big lead, perhaps a 20-point lead. The 76ers rallied furiously late in the game to take the lead. The place went nuts, and when it went nuts it got quite loud. The Celtics' coach, Tom Heinsohn, signaled for -- and got -- a timeout.

Many will remember the public address announcer, Dave Zinkoff, a man with a good sense of humor, a staccato voice, and a great sense of timing. So loud was the crowd that the Zink didn't say anything when the Celtics took the timeout, and, if he had, he probably couldn't have been heard.

And then he brought the house down.

As the teams were emerging from the timeout, the fans had quieted down. Right as the Celtics were walking back onto the court, Zinkoff, in his unique style, said "As I was try-ing to saaaaaaaaaaay, the Celtics call tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime." The fans erupted, the place got even louder than before, and the 76ers went onto victory. If you were a fan of the home team, it was an all-time classic from a man who has a banner hanging in his honor at the Wachovia Center.

The second story involved my own feistiness. My father would get tickets behind the basket, and on one night the 76ers and Celtics were going at it pretty good, and I thought that the Celtics' center, a great, undersized player named Dave Cowens, was committing a charge every time he got the ball in the low post against the 76ers' Caldwell Jones. I thought that Cowens was dipping his shoulder as he turned toward the basket and ramming it into the much taller Jones. So much did I think this that I was yelling at the Hall of Fame referee, Earl Strom, that he was missing the call each time down the floor.

Strom was a great ref, he hailed from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and he had an outgoing personality. Anyway, after about half a quarter of yelling at Strom (I was only a teenager), he called a charge on Cowens. The Celtics called time, and I'm standing and talking to a friend when I hear "Hey, what did you think of that?"

It was Earl Strom, trying to get my attention.

I pointed to myself as if to say, "Are you talking to me?"

Strom nodded and then said, "So, what did you think of that call?"

He was about 15 feet from me, and I smiled, gave him the thumbs-up sign and said, "Great call. Keep them coming."

He smiled at me, laughed, and then went back about his business.

They don't make refs like that any more, and the fans aren't as close to the action, either.

I also attended two Final Fours there (Indiana won both times) and passed up tickets to the 1992 NCAA Regional Final (the all-time great Duke-Kentucky game where Christian Laettner made the basket to win it for Duke) to go to a wine-tasting with a girl that I was dating. My friends razzed me pretty hard at the time, and, naturally, they wanted to meet her. After all, who was this girl that could cause me to pass up tickets to a regional final? (By the way, had I known the game would have turned out the way it did, I might have postponed the date). Anyway, that girl is now my wife of 16 years, and we've built a good life together, with nice kids and friends in our community. (At our wedding, in his toast, my father-in-law referenced that game and my giving up my tickets to it. He said, "As a college basketball fan I was appalled, but as a future father-in-law I was gratified.")

I also went to many games with my father. We saw Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham, Archie Clark, Fred Carter, George McGinnis, Clyde Lee, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, Hal Greer, Wali Jones, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and many others. There were some great teams, some plum awful ones (remember Coach Roy Rubin and the 9-73 team?), and some of the all-time best players in the NBA. Most importantly, it was a great ritual for a father and a son to share time together (I would take the train into Philadelphia by myself to meet my father at Reading Terminal and then go to dinner and a game -- who does that with their kids today?) and develop respect and admiration for some of the best athletes on the planet.

I remember Dancing Harry, dancing to Leo Sayer's "Long Tall Glasses," having to go down the stairs to the basement to use the bathroom, I remember sitting near one of the NBA's founders, Eddie Gotttlieb, and his good friend, Jules Trumper, telling stories about the early days of organized professional basketball, I remember when smoking wasn't prohibited and you could see clouds of smoke near the lights just beneath the ceiling of the place, I remember going to the NCAA Final Game in 1981 on the day John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan, and I remember many great plays and shared moments.

So tonight the 76ers will pay tribute to the Spectrum -- before its owners tear it down and build a hotel and gallery of stores -- right across the street from Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park, and right among those two structures and the Wachovia Center. Why those buildings are needed now is a bit of a mystery, but what strikes me is that the buildings I went to with my father -- except for the Palestra and Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania -- will be gone.

Connie Mack Stadium.

Temple Stadium.

Veterans Stadium.

The Spectrum.

All gone.

But the memories, they will live on, forever.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review of Documentary: "Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball"

A former Penn women's hoops player made this documentary, which came out over a year ago. The title is self-explanatory, and the documentary film, an elegy to one of the greatest venues in the history of college basketball, features interviews with the likes of Jack Ramsay, Sonny Hill, John Feinstein, Bill Bradley, Doug Overton and many others who played their games there.

It's a good documentary, one worth purchasing, as the documentary chronicles the building and what made it so special. What the documentary does not do -- and the filmmaker has a great opportunity for an encore, where she can improve her craft and create an even more marketable DVD -- is cover in sufficient depth the great players who played there and the great games that took place there. The viewer is almost charged with knowing that the Palestra is a landmark, and you know that if you grew up in the Philadelphia area, are of a certain age, and watched games on UHF TV or went to a packed Palestra to watch St. Joe's take on Villanova or Penn host Princeton. But if you're not from the area and don't know what makes these and other rivalries so special, you might be left wondering a bit as to why the Palestra is such a hoops mecca.

As a result, the opportunity is ripe for a DVD called "The Big Five: When All Was Perfect with College Basketball." Why? Because Big Five teams played their games in the Palestra from the mid-1950's to the mid-1980's (before Villanova and Temple decided to build their own, big on-campus arenas). For the uninitiated, the Big Five consists of Penn, Villanova, Temple, LaSalle and St. Joe's. To make the DVD even better, this documentary could focus on games from the mid-1950's through the early 1970's, when each school had a team that was ranked in the Top 10, sometimes multiple times. And it could focus on some of the all-time greats -- guys with the names of Rogers, Lear, Kennedy, Baum, White, Durrett, Cannon, Guokas, Inglesby, Ford, Smith, Porter, Siemientowski, Littlepage, Hankinson, Bilksy, Wohl and Calhoun, among many others. It could talk of the rivalries, of kids renewing rivalries from Philadelphia's Catholic League at Villanova, St. Joe's and LaSalle, of how riveting the drama was, even watching packed houses for Big 5 doubleheaders on TV, with either Les Keiter or Al Meltzer calling the games (remember, there was no internet and no cable TV back then, so you had 3 major networks, public television, and 3 UHF channels, which came in fuzzy, and you had to adjust the aerial attached to your TV or bang on the UHF dial to get the picture to hold). It was the best reality show going -- while it lasted.

So watch buy "Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball" and then hope for (and encourage) the "Big Five" encore. I'm not sure that it's in the works, but I hope that it is.

Penn Basketball: Trouble in University City?

The University of Pennsylvania men's basketball team went into the season with 19 players on its roster. Three players ended up missing the season due to injury (Darren Smith, Tommy McMahon and Andreas Schreiber), with Smith and McMahon missing their second consecutive years. Another, sophomore Remy Cofield, who once scored 20 points in a game for the Quakers, announced he was transferring at mid-season. Lay atop that additional injuries, and Penn's season was a mess.

And there's more bad news. Today's Philadelphia Inquirer reports that sophomore guard Harrison Gaines has announced that he'll transfer to a place where the program has better leadership at the top (scroll down to find the small blurb about Gaines). That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of Penn coach Glen Miller and perhaps not the wisest thing for a 20 year-old looking for his next and likely final men's hoops berth to say. Of course, usually when a kid transfers he doesn't agree with the coach's decisions; otherwise, he wouldn't transfer. But in this case Gaines came out and said point blank that he didn't like the leadership.

Ouch.

Penn fans are grumbling a bit. Check out this post from Philadelphia's Citypaper regarding the state of Penn basketball and the Gaines departure. All clearly is not well in University City.

Especially if you're a hoops coach. Penn announced today that it wouldn't re-up on the contract of women's hoops coach Pat Knapp.

I posted the other day about Coach Miller and offered that Penn should be patient with him and let his sophomore class become juniors and see if, with an additional year under their belt, they can amass their talent (which is considerable) and challenge for the Ivy title. I remain convinced that this is the correct course of action. That said, the Penn faithful are used to winning at the Palestra and on the road, and their patience -- and the patience of A.D. Steve Bilsky -- is what counts. Not mine.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Smoke from the NBA -- is Fire Next?

The NBA is not in trouble, so says its commissioner. The league predicts that revenues will be up 2% for the year, but it appears that the NBA is concerned about what next year will bring. With good reason, I think, because most season-ticked holders and sponsors paid up before the financial crisis hit in September. My guess is that had many known the financial storm was coming when it did, they might not have made the commitments they did in the spring and summer of 2008. This linked article talks about the NBA and its labor contract and hints at troubles to come.

One GM has surmised that the NBA has a "Fannie/Freddie" scandal of its own in long-term player contracts. A well-known agent predicts that hard talks will ensure on labor matters. And, of course, equally big questions are 1) how many season-ticket holders will re-up and 2) how many sponsors will hang in there.

If you "Google" SportsProf and the NBA, you'll see several posts over the past 5 years about the concerns that I have with the league. Mind you, I grew up on the NBA, went to many games, and recall fondly the 76ers-Celtics' rivalry, the Magic-Bird Celtics-Lakers rivalry and the Jordan years. I lament the current state of affairs, with players who don't appreciate the fans at all, with too many gimmicks going on at arenas, with ticket prices that are too high, long-term contracts that make it hard for bad or fair teams to excel, too many teams, too many games and too many teams making the playoffs.

I also lament the "too much sizzle" factor that afflicts the NBA. The league is good at marketing itself, good at selling merchandise, good at selling its all-star weekend, and good at making the marquis players into pseudo-rock stars. The problem is that while the packaging is good, the product within is not.

Here's what I would fix about the NBA:

1. Reduce the number of teams to 24.
2. Keep the rosters at 12, with a 3-person reserve squad.
3. Reduce the number of games to 60.
4. Have 4 divisions of 6 teams apiece, and have East and West conferences.
5. Only the top 2 teams from each division make the playoffs.
6. The playoffs will all be 7-game series.;
7. Teams play (many) more games within their conference than outside it.
8. Consider eliminating the three-point shot, widening the lane, making the rim higher, making the court wider and longer. I'm not advocating any of these changes, but the players are considerably bigger and more talented than at the time Dr. Naismith invented the game.
9. Have a hard, NFL-like salary cap. Create a workable system that will enable teams to recover from bad decisions more quickly than they currently can. The current NFL model works pretty well (outside what gets paid to high draft choices -- that should not be emulated). Forget about "Larry Bird" exceptions, the one-year veteran's exception and items like that.

Concentrate the talent. Make the regular season more meaningful. Make the games more scarce and more desirable to watch. And consider making these changes now before the economy gets you to a point where the 15 teams who just borrowed roughly $200 million go on life support and where necessity compels a 16-team league, a 32-game season, and a much-weakened product. Don't wait until the labor contract expires in 2 years.

It's sad to see college stars (plus LeBron and Kobe, among those who either didn't play in college or came to the league from abroad) play a game that is much more about merchandise and entertainment than about competition. No, I'm not suggesting that the NBA is the WWE of basketball, but I do contend that the game has lost sight of what made it such compelling drama years ago.

And there's no time like the present to tap into the past, re-kindle that magic, and re-shape the product to something that emphasizes the best basketball in the world over everything else.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Defending the Philadelphia Eagles

Because someone has to do it, and because someone has to stand up to what can be one-side journalism from the Philadelphia Inquirer (which is entitled to its own opinion when it represents opinion as opinion, but not its own facts). At any rate, I'm defending the Eagles from this piece by sports columnist John "Gonzo" Gonzalez, who blasts Birds' management for firing a seasonal employee because he posted disparaging words on Facebook about his now-former employer.

The employee, Dan Leone, admitted what he did was a mistake and also told Gonzalez that he apologized to the Eagles, who, nonetheless, terminated him and apparently did so on the phone. The Eagles, wisely by the way, elected not to respond to Gonzalez's entreaties (because anything they would have said could have ended up in litigation). On the face of the article, Gonzalez has a point, that it looks like the Eagles were being overly harsh in responding to an admitted stupid mistake. So, if you read the article and don't dig deeply, the odds are that you'll side with the employee and, if you're down on the Eagles, that you'll dislike them even more.

There are only two problems with that approach. One, you'd have missed the fact that the article is one-sided and doesn't consider the Eagles' point of view at all (yes, Gonzalez did contact the Eagles, and, yes, the Eagles declined comment, but Gonzalez still didn't consider the matter from their vantage point). Two, you'd have missed that Gonzalez apparently failed to ask the employee whether he had any other disciplinary issues during his six years with the Eagles. The latter is very significant, because if the employee had performance-related issues in his record, then this incident could have been the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, and an indication that the Eagles determined that after several warnings, it was time to sever ties with the employee. By the way, to be clear on the point, I am not suggesting that the employee had performance issues, just that it would have been a very important fact to know before either the writer or a reader opts to pass judgment on the Eagles.

The bottom line is this -- there are tough times out there all around. Employers might have less of a sense of humor or forgiveness about people who trash their organization publicly. We all need to believe in what we're selling, or otherwise why do our jobs? The employee in question did make a mistake, but the open question is whether the posting on Facebook was an isolated incident or not.

John Gonzalez's reporting on the topic today was incomplete in what otherwise was a well-written article. Gonzalez, though, failed to ask the tough question or, worse, failed to understand that this was an important question to ask. As a result, he stirred up a hornets' nest for the Eagles, who are an easy target because of unpopular personnel decisions and their continued falling short of championships during the Andy Reid era (fans forget that the team's performance was worse during the Ray Rhodes, Rich Kotite and Buddy Ryan eras).

Make no mistake, I don't want anyone to lose a job, let alone someone with a disability such as this particular employee. But I also want fair reporting that addresses all facts before drawing conclusions.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Princeton Women's Basketball -- Things are Looking up in Tigertown

The SportsProf family took in the Princeton-Cornell women's basketball game at Jadwin Gym on Senior Night, a very warm affair where the team's four seniors were honored. The Tiger squad also honored its seniors by blasting Cornell, 76-55, upping their league record to 8-5.

The Tigers had trouble finishing in the first half, but they came out of the locker room smoking, played great defense and moved the ball well. While the seniors fared well last night, it was the play of the underclasswomen that should have Tiger fans optimistic for remaining in the league's first division and challenging for a title in the next few years.

In center Devona Allgood, the Tigers have a forbidding presence at the defensive end, a shot-blocker who can change the other team's approach. Allgood still needs to work on her offensive game and finish plays, but she looked very fluid out there at times and, get this, she's only a freshman, and she's 6'3". Sophomore forward Addie Micir appears to be the team's best offensive weapon, a 6'0" player who is comfortable posting up and then popping out to take a three-pointer, and she made many of them last night. Micir was a first-team all-state player in Pennsylvania, and she is a force out there. Micir is the team's leading scorer. Finally, there was one player who really caught my eye last night, because she seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else on the floor -- the first to a loose ball and the one with the best first step -- 6'0" guard/forward Lauren Edwards, who is the team's second leading scorer. Edwards had 18 points and 10 rebounds last night and played a great game. And, get this, she's only a freshman too. #30 was all over the floor last night. Finally, Edwards is the team's second leading scorer, Allgood their fourth.

Princeton Coach Courtney Banghart's team runs a fluid, active offense and plays aggressive defense. It was great to see 1,216 fans there to cheer on the Tigers, their largest crowd of the season. With this nucleus and the way the Tigers have played in the league this season, Princeton women's basketball team has a great future.

Avarice in the Bronx (or Why Yankee Fans Should Consider Becoming Phillies Fans)

The New York Times reports today that the Yankees are having difficulty selling full-season ticket packages for tickets "between the bases." The reason: they cost $325 apiece.

That is not a misprint. The Bombers are now considering offering half-season and quarter-season packages for these seats. And they're not so sure how that marketing will turn out, either.

The Yankees shouldn't be shocked. Wall Street is in full retreat. The economy is the worst that most of us can remember. Now, the Yankees didn't just decide to build their new palace in the Bronx. They did so when the economy was humming along, and now they're faced with the blunt-force trauma that is the current economic situation. Put differently, they built the stadium on an economic model that assumed that they can fill their building with the ticket prices embedded in the model. Fast forward until today, and the supply far outreaches the demand. That wasn't the case several years ago when the model was put together. Then, the Yankees weren't that far removed from their last world championship, didn't have aging stars (Jeter, Posada, Pettite), the recent history of a prima donna rental player at the center of the steroids scandal (Clemens) and a megastar whose life is as complicated as AIG's financial statements (A-Rod).

So, the Yankees are trying to sell tickets between the bases for $325 each. I don't know if there is a team in major league baseball that sells a set of four tickets between the bases for more than $325 total (excluding the behind-the-plate vanity seats that many teams sell for dollars that can rival what the Yankees are charging for all tickets between the bases). Outside of the pricy Diamond Club in Philadelphia, (which consists of tickets behind home plate) tickets between the bases go for about $40 bucks apiece.

And the Phillies won the World Series last year.

Philadelphia is only 90 miles away from New York, but if you're a New Yorker looking for good baseball at bargain prices, you might want to adopt a different team. The Phillies did sell out 50 of their 81 home games last year, but you could help them sell out the other 31 and see some pretty good baseball in the process -- with a team that has a better chance of making the post-season than yours.

So, buy four tickets between the bases in Philadelphia, say at $55 apiece over StubHub. That's $220. Gas might cost you $25 for a round trip. The tolls might cost you $15 for a round trip. Parking will cost you $11. Toss in food for four, programs, souvenirs and add in another $100. Total for the experience -- between $350 and $400. For four people!

Here's a challenge to the Yankees -- if you really do have more money than every other club, didn't invest with Bernie Madoff, and make so much money from the YES network that your ticket revenues form a relatively small (say 25% or less) of your take, consider dropping your tickets prices so that you can fill the building and not risk the embarrassment of too many empty seats or the ire of your rank-and-file fans, who will also be miffed if many of those seats go vacant because you didn't adjust to the current economy. Your tickets prices are lunacy.

Fans walked in 1994 after the strike that served to cancel the World Series.

This time they may walk away for a long time because they don't have as many marginal dollars to spend and you're rubbing their face in it.

Good luck to you.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Will Anyone Sign Terrell Owens?

Just asking.

The facts that work against Owens are:

1. He's 34 (ancient in the NFL).
2. He's had a lot of drops over the course of the past several years (more than most).
3. He doesn't require double coverage any more.
4. He hasn't gotten along with coaches and teammates in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas.

Yet, there's always someone out there willing to take a chance, willing to see if this time will be the charm and if a one-time Pro Bowler can rekindle the magic to spark his team.

Or is there?

Somehow, I think that T.O. has played his last game in the NFL.

Can Princeton Do the Improbable?

Last year, the Princeton Tigers, in their first year under Coach Sydney Johnson, finished 6-23. This year, most pundits predicted them to finish last in the Ivies. Going into the season, I thought that a good season for the Tigers would be either a 7-7 finish in the Ivies or a top four finish in the Ivies. I also thought that such a finish could be a stretch, because the Tigers only have two seniors on their roster.

Well, they play the games for a reason. Going into tonight's game at Columbia, the Tigers are 7-4 in the Ivies with 3 games left to play (all on the road). The Cornell Big Red, the prohibitive favorite at the season's outset, is 9-4. So, theoretically, the Tigers can win the Ivies outright if they win their last three (which would include a victory at Cornell on Saturday night) and Cornell gets swept this weekend (they'd have to lose tonight against Penn too). Then the Tigers would finish 10-4 to Cornell's 9-5 and be headed to the NCAA tournament. (Remember, there is recent sports' precedent for this type of hectic finish. The Philadelphia Eagles had very little chance of making the playoffs on the final day of the season, only to have a series of events unfold before they played the Cowboys at 4:00 p.m. Because of what unfolded -- key teams lost -- the Eagles' victory clinched a playoff berth).

Of course, Cornell could beat Penn tonight, Columbia could avenge its loss at Princeton earlier this year, and the season could be over. Princeton could either play well on the road -- the way it did early in the season, sweeping Harvard and Dartmouth -- or it could play terribly -- the way it got blown out at Yale and Brown. Or, they could play in the middle, achieve a split, and go into the Penn game with an 8-5 record in the Ivies and still playing for a first-division finish. Yes, it's also possible they could falter on the road, get swept, and then run into a Penn team playing for pride in its last home game of the season in a tough place for a visiting team to play, the Palestra (then again, Penn, for the first time since perhaps Franklin Roosevelt was President, got swept twice at home this season, as unlikely a fate as, well, the Dow's losing half its value in a year). That would mean a 7-7 finish in the Ivies, acceptable from the perspective of the season's outset, but disappointing given that it would signify a slide at the end of the season.

What's the meaning of all this? Why did I just go on about all of those possibilities? Because for the first time in a long time, Princeton is in the hunt for an Ivy title on the final weekend of the season. That's an exciting development for Tiger fans, many of whom sensed a new confidence from the beginning of the season. In Sydney Johnson, the Tigers have a good, young coach. They have size and some shooters, and they're still probably a year or two away from putting it all together (remember, this is only Coach Johnson's second year in Tigertown). So, forgive me, as a loyal and patient Tiger fan, for just being a little excited this morning.

It's been a long time in the making.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Latest Marbury Chapter: The Triumph of Hope over Experience

Either the Celtics' front office is smoking crack or they've found the wonder drug that's eluded everyone. Time will tell.

It doesn't trouble me that the Celtics took a chance on Stephon Marbury, despite what I wrote in the first sentence of this post. As Knicks' coach Mike D'Antoni put it, the guy is talented. What bugs me is that the Celtics' fans greeted him with a standing ovation. That I just do not understand.

Why did the Celtics' fans applaud Marbury? For his body of work? For all of the friends he's made in locker rooms all over the NBA? Because he's going to make everyone forget Sam Jones, Jo Jo White, Tiny Archibald and Dennis Johnson?

Please. You might be bored in Boston, because we're still far away from the NBA playoffs and opening day for the Sox. You might be concerned that you needed more firepower to repeat. But what explains a standing ovation?

Yes, you could have clapped politely. Yes, you could have made a few "welcome wagon" signs to offer New England hospitality. But to accord him a welcome worthy of a true team player seemed a bit much.

Perhaps Marbury knows his role. Perhaps he's learned from his experiences everywhere and will chance. Or, perhaps, he'll do for this team what's he's done for all the others he's been on -- and make them worse.

Experience suggests that Marbury won't do anything other than flaunt gaudy statistics. Hope -- that alluring prospect -- can inspire confidence or cause hallucinations. As has been said many times before, it's not a strategy. Not in politics, and not in sports.

The Celtics' could have done better.

Late Night Silliness -- the Bastards of Baseball

I read in Baseball Prospectus about a lefthanded reliever in the Dodgers' organization named Alberto Bastardo. This morning I did a double-take, because in the Phillies' boxscore for Saturday was a pitching line for A. Bastardo. I did some searching on Google, and lo and behold I found out that the Phillies' Bastardo is Antonio Bastardo. The former is from Venezuela, and the latter is from the Dominican Republic.

As you probably know, the writers of Baseball Prospectus can be pretty blunt, and sometimes that translats into humor. And in their blurb on Alberto they articulated what I had thought -- that it would be cool for this Bastardo (the only Bastardo I had heard of before this morning) to be a lights-out reliever. Why? Because you could just visualize it -- walking in to the haunting gongs of Rocky's "Go the Distance" is none other than Albert the Bastard, reliever extraordinaire. Except, of course, that BP doesn't think that this Bastardo projects to fill that role, but boy oh boy the writers would have a field day with it.

So right now there could well be a race of the Bastardos to get to the Majors. Imagine Antonio's pitching in Citizens Bank Park on a dollar hot dog night that attracts college kids who drink too many $6.75 Budweisers. You can just hear Phillies' public address announcer saying, "Now entering the game, Number 74, Antonio Bastardo." Remember that the Phillies play in South Philadelphia, and that for a while lurid tales of mob intrigue peppered the dailies. So, in a tip of the hat to the days of Angelo Bruno and La Cosa Nostra, you'd have "Tony the Bastard" pitching in relief for the Phillies.

You just can't make this stuff up.

He'd probably be the most popular player on the team for a while.

Until, of course, he'd tip his hand as to which cheesteak he prefers -- one from Geno's, or one from Pat's. And for reasons Philadelphia cognoscenti would understand, I'm sure he'd prefer Pat's.

Only in America.