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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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Do You Want a Piece of. . . the Mets?

Most will remember the Seinfeld episode where Elaine saw Frank at the jail when they were there to bail out George. Elaine and Frank got into it, and Frank said to Elaine, "Do you want a piece of me?" You'll also remember that episode for outtakes that were shown around the time of the series finale, where Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jerry Stiller lost it and cracked up because of the silliness of the whole confrontation.

Well. . . the Mets have liquidity issues. Rumors abounded after Bernie Madoff's star crashed to the earth that the Wilpon family went way back with him and that they lost a lot of money with him. The Mets denied that they were having problems, as it was plain to most baseball observers that they had enough problems with long-term contracts that either weren't panning out or players succumbing to injury or both. Carlos Delgado left, David Wright had a bad season (for him) two years ago, Jose Reyes has been hurt, Carlos Beltran has been hurt, Johan Santana got hurt, John Maine hasn't been healthy, and, as Billy Joel once sang, "we didn't start the fire." Atop that, apparently, the Mets have had some financial issues, or, otherwise, they wouldn't be seeking to sell a 25% interest in the club.

Which is ironic, because if the Mets have liquidity issues, they are trying to sell a very illiquid asset -- a minority interest in a private company. Which savvy investor -- outside a friend of the Wilpons -- would want to do that? Or, would want to do that without some significant protections, such as an option to buy the company down the road? Otherwise, you're buying a non-voting, 25% interest and you'll be at the mercy of the Wilpons, who, last we checked, if they're having cash flow problems, it's because they trusted an old friend without due diligence, with disastrous consequences. Why would an investor want to do that?

The dynamic is interesting, but I think that the Wilpons might have a hard time raising the cash from investors whom they'll want to be as passive as possible. (Also, the track record of the front office hasn't been stellar for the past 5 years). So, the investors will vie for a seat at the table and try to extract significant concessions from the Wilpons, perhaps to the degree that the Wilpons will have no alternative but to sell the entire club. That might be the best alternative for Met fans, but not for the Wilpons. The drama will build and remain compelling.

It's just hard to see anyone ponying up for a 25% interest as a minority shareholder with little, if any, ability to force the hand of the Wilpons.

Watch this one closely.

Texas High School is Spending $60 Million on a New Football Stadium

Click here to read all about it.

The article reports that the high school needs the facility, that the current facility is outdated, that the school is in the third-largest school district in Texas, that the academics are top-notch and that 44 kids got scholarships to Division I schools for athletics this past year.

Got all that?

What are your thoughts?

Is this a wise expenditure of $60 million? Well, 63% of the voters in the school district thought so when they approved the bond issue? Even in a recession, even with all the hue and cry about the diminishing quality of education in the United States. My take is that local school districts should determine what their priorities are, and this local school district decided to allocate this money not just for football, but for other athletic teams and programs, most of which support athletics. That said, in the scheme of things, it also shows a disparity between "haves" and "have nots", as, in this day and age, the expenditure of this sum of money on athletics will seem extravagant to those whose districts are cutting programs just to provide basics for their students. From that vantage point, the expenditure does seem extravagant to me. But, I'll be the first to point out that I do not live in this district, don't understand its priorities, and will be the first person also to acknowledge that it's not my role or right to tell them how to spend their money. That's up to the residents of the district, and time will tell whether this was a wise decision or the money could have been better spent elsewhere.

No matter how you look at it, it is a lot of money.

How Much Influence Should a Booster Have. . . and What is the Required Ante

I once read an article where a fan of a Pac-10 school not named Oregon joked that Oregon had gained an advantage in the conference because it had the best "owner" in Phil Knight, an Oregon alum and the founder of Nike. Knight's largesse is well-known, and the Ducks have benefited as a result, particularly on the football field (and they have more uniform combinations than Imelda Marcos had shoes, Larry King has had wives, the Redskins have expensive veterans who don't quite pan out, pick your analogy).

Now the bright lights focus on UConn, where there's been a very public spat between a large donor and the athletic director, presumably over the failure of the Huskies to keep football coach Randy Edsall, who bolted for Maryland. The story involves $7 million, naming rights, the request for the money back, a public venting, name-calling and the like. All this brings into question how much influence should a big donor have over a school, its priorities, and its athletic program. This article from The New York Times sheds light on the dilemmas schools face. They want and need the money to remain competitive, but at what cost to their priorities? Put differently, who should call the shots -- the donor, boosters' groups, the athletic director or, of course, the university president?

My take, for what it's worth, is that the university president and the trustees should set the tone and should take all steps to ensure that the university is preparing its students for the job market -- and not for whetting their appetites to pay large sums to spectate. Sure, it's fun to watch big-time games -- no one will doubt that -- but college is expensive, and the debate at all colleges and universities should focus on the preparation front -- for all students, and not just for a selected few who get athletic scholarships. After all, most of them, also, will need preparation for the job market that goes beyond the ability to pound a blocking sled, swim the fastest time or hit a softball.

The debate at Connecticut should bring a discussion of priorities to the forefront. Where is anyone -- and there are those out there who have done so -- to challenge the precept that big-time football and basketball are a top -- and sometimes if not frequently -- disproportionate -- priority? In these economic times --and with the world rapidly changing -- despite all the attention that basketball and football get -- I'd bet in 20 years most alums will care more about how well their schools prepared them for the job market and living a life they imagined than reminiscing over teams that made a BCS bowl game or the Final Four. The latter simply are part of the conversation about a fun experience at college; the former, well, is life.

Princeton 67 Yale 63

Princeton escaped its opening Ivy League weekend with a 67-63 nail biter against a gritty Yale team that refused to quit. You can get the recap here and a more full one at the Princeton Basketball blog. I was there last night and have the following observations:

1. It's not often you win a game when the other team had 12 assists to 11 turnovers and your team had 8 assists to 15 turnovers. Typically, the team with the better assists-to-turnover ratio wins the game. Give Princeton some credit that despite a night when it didn't do a good job protecting the basketball, it came out with a win.

2. Following up on point #1, the assist-turnover ratio tells a larger story -- the lack of discipline and creativity -- to a degree -- of Princeton's offense. Princeton's basic strategy, especially in the second half, seemed to be to pass the ball on the perimeter at the beginning of an offensive set and then get the ball inside, where a big man would go 1-on-1, 1-on-2 and occasionally 1-on-3 on the Yale front line. There wasn't much passing or movement (outside perhaps two low-post give-and-gos in the second half). The offense doesn't appear to honor Pete Carrils' adage, "the strong take from the weak and the smart take from the strong," or, at least, all of it. Clearly, by pounding the ball inside, the strong took from the weak, as overall, Princeton's front line was better than Yale's. But, it's not finesse play, and while it might work against my league opponents, it wouldn't appear to be able to translate against every Ivy opponent, let alone higher-level Division 1 opponents, whose front lines can more than match up with the Tigers. And, okay, while the teams today can't compete against bigger-time competition the way the teams of 30 and 40 years ago could (not to mention teams of 10 and 20 years ago), this Princeton offense doesn't seem to be as clever as Princeton offenses of old. The Tigers are one of the favorites to win the league and have talent, but I'm not sure how difficult this offense will be to defend against. There weren't any back-door cuts (and Yale played man-to-man defense for a good part of the night), and the screens were mostly high screens for the ballhandler that Yale defended reasonably well.

3. Princeton needs to work on its inbounding plays. How many times last night did the Tigers have difficulty inbounding the ball? They played into Yale's hands on too many occasions to count, and the coaching staff needs to do a much better job on this fundamental play.

4. Princeton's inside players carried the night for the Tigers, as Ian Hummer and Kareem Maddox combined for 18 rebounds (the Tigers outrebounded Yale 33-23, and outshot them 52% to 44%). Normally stellar senior guard Dan Mavraides had an unusually off night in his 36 minutes of play. Yes, he had 11 points and 4 assists, but he also turned the ball over 8 times, an effort he probably would admit was one of his worst in a couple of years.

5. Give Yale credit. Princeton had several opportunities to push the lead from 11 or 12 to 15 and higher, only to have Yale battle back because the Bulldogs played with high intensity the entire night. Yale is a well-conditioned, physical team, and I thought that Yale coach James Jones outcoached Princeton's Sydney Johnson last night by keeping his Bulldogs in the game, making some good substitutions and putting his team in a position to tie the game with under a minute to play.

For Princeton, overall, an excellent weekend, its first weekend back after a long break for exams. This is an important weekend to get through, and, in the end, the Ws are what matter the most. I'm sure that Princeton's coaches, loyalists and diehard fans might disagree with my dissection of the offense, and that's fine. The Tigers are playing to their strengths, and, thus far, that strategy has worked out very well for them.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Defending Jay Cutler

It was long ago, but it seemed like only yesterday. Andy Reid's Eagles were a hot team, and they hosted Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game. They were favored, but they lost the game. One of the main reasons was that their starting strong safety, acquired to upgrade the position in the off-season, made a decision on his own that hurt the team.

You see, this player tore his hamstring earlier in the game, but he manned up, so to speak, toughed it out, and stayed in the game. Why? Probably because he thought that the decision demonstrated the size of his heart (if not his brain), probably because that's what he thought NFL players were supposed to do -- play through an injury and stay in the game to help the team. So he did. I don't think he conferred with his coaches, who actually had a good rookie on the bench who could have filled in reasonably well. Instead, he soldiered on.

With disastrous results.

I still have visions of an injured Blaine Bishop chasing relatively slow-footed receiver Joe Jurevicius down the sidelines, unable to stop the tall possession receiver en route to a long score that thrust a dagger into the Eagles' collective hearts. It was hard to fathom, how the supposedly fleeter-than-a-possession-receiver defensive back couldn't keep up with the possession receiver. Actually, the possession receiver left him in the dust. Only later was it revealed that Bishop had hurt himself but chosen to remain in the game. Ironically, a unilateral decision by a tough guy who thought that he was toughing it out actually hurt his team. It was hard to believe that a lame Bishop was preferable to Michael Lewis, a high-round draft pick and promising strong safety.

So, when Jay Cutler came out of yesterday's game he must have had a reason. Big-time quarterbacks don't opt for the sidelines, for the cloaks and the heated benches. They want in, and Cutler wanted in all season. He played well, and it's hard to believe that he didn't want to tough it out and play yesterday. Except for one thing -- Cutler's a pretty smart guy, and he must have thought that his back-ups could have done a better job on healthy legs than he could have done on a sprained MCL. Sure, the tweets abounded, as did the criticism on ESPN Radio this morning. I read or heard most of them. But what Cutler might have done was actually unselfish -- trying to help his team win by not playing hurt. What Bishop did was actually selfish, even if the strong safety must have thought that he was taking one for the team by playing hurt.

Yet, had it been known at the time that Bishop had decided to play hurt, he would have been lauded before the disastrous results ensued. Cutler had decided not to play hurt, and he was roundly criticized. Go figure.

Cutler's teammates closed ranks behind him yesterday, as they should have. Sure, you can argue that an injured Cutler couldn't have fared any worse than his back-ups, Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie, but Cutler obviously didn't think so. It could have been the case the he couldn't push off or that it hurt to step, as can be the case when one sprains his MCL. Only Jay Cutler knows for sure.

So, before you condemn Jay Cutler for not playing hurt, remember that there have been times when players who think they're unselfish by insisting upon playing hurt are actually hurting their teams. Jay Cutler probably thought he was being unselfish in making the call that he did, only to be called selfish. Go figure.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jets-Steelers

Who does it say more about --

that the Jets and Steelers are playing in 10-degree weather, or

that 60,000+ people are sitting outside watching the game?

Just curious.

Would you sit outside in that weather to support your team, or would you prefer the comfort of your own home?

Retirement Home in Florida

Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon are joining the Tampa Bay Rays.

I like Florida. I hope to spend some time during the years I'm retired in Florida. I particularly like the West Coast of Florida.

But I worry about the Rays.

No stadium deal, a bunch of good young players fleeing the nest, and now to fill some holes they're signing aging stars. If you go back, way back, to the Philadelphia A's during the gap years (after the great teams of the early 1900's, for example), you'll note that many a good player (including Ty Cobb) ended his career with the A's. Unfortunately for the A's, Cobb at 42 wasn't Cobb at 24, and, no, Hall of Fame owner and manager Connie Mack wasn't dyslexic.

Just financially challenged.

Perhaps Manny and Johnny have something left, and for them, the Rays and their fans I certainly hope so. The Rays have a great organization and have been one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball in decades. Let's just hope that they have to sustain their rise to stardom, lest they fall victim to being a fast-fading supernova.

Latest Sportscasting Cliche -- "Extending the Play"

How many times have you heard this comment over the course of the past several weeks, particularly about the best quarterback since a) Johnny Unitas, b) Joe Montana, c) John Elway, d) Dan Marino, well, you get the idea -- Ben Roethlisberger? Do the producers of the studio shows think of these things for the talking heads to say, or did one of them think of this description on his own and then post it on a website for the others to copy? Sure, I get the point about Roethlisberger, but if extending the play were the major, let alone sole, criteria, for a quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory, then the following would have won multiple Super Bowls:

a) Bobby Douglass (you can look it up, but he was quite the rushing quarterback when with the Bears over 40 years ago -- problem was that he pitched the ball as well as Steve Blass);

b) Randall Cunningham (Eagles' QB was adroit at rushing the football, which he had to do out of fear because his defensive-minded coach -- Buddy Ryan -- either couldn't recognize a talented offensive lineman or refused to draft one, and his receivers wouldn't make you forget Jerry Rice, John Taylor or, heck, David Tyree);

c) Kordell Stewart ("Slash" of Steeler fame was called that because he could run/pass/catch, but the problem was that he could do none of those memorably, although the name was pretty good, but he didn't do his job as well as the guitarist for "Guns 'N Roses" did his);

d) Donovan McNabb (Eagles' QB in his younger days was all about extending the play, labeled a "football player" as the highest compliment by many a talking head. McNabb running in his early days was like a freight train you didn't want to step in front of -- think trying to draw a charge from Charles Barkley after he stopped dieting on Twinkies); and

e) Michael Vick (One-time Falcons' and current Eagles' QB is the poster child for extending the play. He has more moves than the back-up dancers for P!nk and is better at escaping a (pass-rushing) jail than the all-time bank robber from the city he now plays in, Willie Sutton).

Look, no one will knock the fact that if your quarterback can make a lot out of a down where the defense has done its job but still gives the QB a bunch of time to make a play isn't a skill that will distinguish that QB from, well, Pete Liske, Rick Arrington, John Reaves, Doug Pedersen, Bobby Hoying, and, well, you get the idea. Roethlisberger has won a couple of Super Bowls, and he didn't do so by being average. He is very good, and, sure, he's good at making things happen.

Let's just try to keep the English simple, fellahs. There's enough jargon out there that you can end up making more out of qualities that you should. Look, Slash Stewart had his moments, but I'm not sure that his ability to extend the play would have propelled better Steelers' teams to the Super Bowl. Likewise, I do think that had Randall Cunningham been surrounded by anything resembling an offensive line and skill position players, he would have led his team to a Super Bowl (and was a Gary Cox miss of a chip shot very late in his career to having done just that with the Minnesota Vikings).

That dispensed with, what will the experts come up with for the Super Bowl?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Coaching 5th and 6th Grade Rec League Basketball, Continued

It's hectic, practice is, when you have 1/2 of a court in a gym with roughly 3 full courts, with the middle one designated to be empty because its wings spill over into the wings of the practice courts on either side. It's noisy, there's no place for the parents to sit, and the boys are a little tired after a long day. Yet, they come, many early, and they're eager not only to play ball, but to learn how to get better. Thankfully, their parents are supportive, which explains the dedication of most of the players. My co-coach and I also would like to think that our communication with the parents helps create a dynamic where the kids are focused on teamwork and, yes, winning.

We do a few things that work pretty well, so I figured that I'd take the time to share them with you.

1. We start out practice with a few reminders of what we did well and didn't do well in the last game. We continue to emphasize the fundamentals, and we also make sure that they don't rest on their laurels after a win. For example, we won one game pretty easily, but we could have put up a dozen or so more points had our best players not turned the ball over too much. The players didn't blanche at the comments -- they knew that we had a point. It also helps that we convey our messages with a smile -- a knowing smile -- one which makes the point but which also says, "you know that you can do better than that, and so do we."

2. We emphasize the same themes repeatedly. One of our major themes is crisp passing (you'll note from the previous paragraph that the messages don't always get through). We tell our players that a bad pass helps the other team play better defense, helps the other team, and takes an opportunity away from us. They nod, and their passing has improved. But they're just kids, so sometimes they'll telegraph a pass from too far or get too ambitious. That's better than not caring or just being plain lazy, and they work too hard for that.

We also talk about the importance of being disruptive on defense. Sure, we'd like the kids to steal the ball or yank it out of an opponent's hands, but we also talk of how major college teams keep statistics on how many times their players deflect a passed ball. I also relayed that Michigan State's Tom Izzo thinks that this is a key statistic. This particularly piece of advice has worked -- our kids fight hard on defense.

3. We get the oldest and best kids to take the lead. This is a key aspect to creating good chemistry. As a coach, you might be in a bit of trouble if you're trying to enforce discipline or get the kids to play hard. Thankfully, we have two leaders who give the last full measure during the two quarters they play -- one's our leading scorer, the other's our leading defender -- and their hustle creates a dynamic where everyone else wants to keep up with the best players. What's even better is how unselfish they play and how supportive they are of the other kids. The past couple of weeks, our first-quarter unit staked the second-and-fourth quarter unit (consisting of the older and better players) to big leads, playing their best basketball of the season. When the younger, less experienced players came off the quarter, the older kids chest-bumped them and high-fived them. It was great to see.

4. We try to have structure but to let the kids improvise. Okay, this seems contradictory, but here's what I mean. We do have several set plays on offense and an inbounds play, and sometimes we switch roles to give more kids a chance to run the offense. We like that structure, because even when the plays break down we've taught the kids sufficient fundamentals to set a ball screen and roll and create something. It doesn't always work, but without some set plays we'd have kids running to the same spot on the floor and bumping into each other, and the team would play poorly. That said, we typically run the set plays after either the other team has scored or if they've done a particularly good job of getting back on defense. But if they don't do a good job getting back on defense, we'll shout to our point guard to rush the ball up the floor and try to convert a layup. Why? Because it's easier to score in transition, when the other team hasn't set up its defense.

5. At this age, defense is the keystone to success. We create many opportunities on offense through a steal or a deflection, so that's one reason. The other reason is that if you continue to play hard on defense and cover well, the other team tends to stagnate on offense. They tend to force things, they tend to turn the ball over, and they tend to take bad shots. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't defend, you'll have trouble winning. Many of our opponents work hard on defense, but there's an occasional team that doesn't focus on it, and that makes for an easier game for our offense.

6. Our drills in practice are elements of the plays that we run. No, I'm not claiming to be Mr. Miyagi from the original Karate Kid series of movies, but the basic pick-and-roll, shoot off the blocks, jab-step drill, give-and-go and other drills are building blocks for the plays that we run. First we do basic dribbling, passing and screening drills, then we run the drills I just mentioned, then we highlight our plays. It seems to work.

7. They keep score, so we play to win, but. . . It's the rec league, it's fun, and we try to encourage each kid and will work patiently with any player so long as he's willing to work. The kids seem to feed off the structure of our practices, over how the drills are designed to help them improve, and over the fact that the team is successful. Yes, much of the success stems from the talented group that we have, but we've put a structure and process in place to help ensure that they achieve.

Preparation (drilling and repetition), organization and motivation = a recipe for a good season.

Good luck!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thoughts on the Eagles' Firing of Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott

When Buddy Ryan coached the Eagles (and failed to win a single playoff game despite how good his defense was), many fans wondered why Buddy had such an aversion to offense. When the stat wonks get to football the way they've dissected baseball, they'll probably come up with stats that compel the conclusion that Eagles' then-QB Randall Cunningham was one of the ten best quarterbacks of all-time and warrants a perch in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Why, you ask?

Because he had a limited offense line, no running game (RB Keith Byars was known for his ability to catch the ball), receivers who did not command double coverage (even if Fred Barnett made the Pro Bowl once) and a tight end who, despite all of the advanced hype (Keith Jackson) tended to drop the ball in key situations. Put differently, Randall had almost no supporting cast, and Buddy did little to improve upon it during his tenure as head coach. That Randall didn't have his career shortened is testimony to his creativity on the gridiron. While some might summarize the Buddy Ryan years in Philadelphia as the era of his dominant defense (and, yes, they were very good), others would note that the team's offense was its (and Buddy's) Achilles' heel and that it was Buddy's fault for not making it better.

Fast forward to the 2010 Eagles. Now, it's not fair to say that Andy Reid's solely an offensive coach. He took a risk bringing in Jim Johnson as his defensive coordinator (Johnson was the Seahawks' linebackers coach at the time and had failed in his one stint as a defensive coordinator in Indianapolis), and he also was instrumental in drafting or bringing in some pretty good players, among them Troy Vincent (as a free agent), corners Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, and so forth. But, the team hasn't had good linebackers during Reid's long tenure, and its interior defensive linemen aren't memorable. Sure, there has been good play at defensive end (Hugh Douglas and Trent Cole), but free agent Jevon Kearse played more like Mike Mamula (egads) than either the 2010 version of either Jason Babib (Tennessee) or Chris Clemons (Seattle), both of whom had over 10 sacks in 2010 and both of whom the Eagles let go after hardly playing them in 2009. So, while it might be reasonable to sack the defensive coordinator -- if not for his 12th-rated defense but for the fact that that defense was the 2nd-worst in giving up TD passes, it also might be reasonable to question the head coach for a) personnel decisions on defense, b) never making certain positions a priority and c) being steadfast in not looking to balance out his West Coast passing attack with more running plays.

Which brings us back to the 36 year-old McDermott, who was put in a difficult position replacing the dying and then deceased Johnson in 2009. Johnson was innovative and creative, and he did a very good job with the personnel he had (typically good outside rushers and defensive backs). He was popular with the fans, got good marks with the press, and then thrust into the situation was McDermott, who a) wasn't Johnson and couldn't have been at the time and b) didn't necessarily have the personnel or lack of injuries that Johnson did. Sure, there were comments in today's papers that Reid didn't like what went on with the defense in 2009 and that he took more of a role with it in the second half of the season, but all of the team's problems cannot be put on McDermott's doorstep.

The Eagles were a young team this year.

It was even money whether they'd make the playoffs.

They did so a) because of the resurgence of Michael Vick and b) because the rest of the NFC East, well, played worse. By season's end, other teams had figured out Vick, and the defense was depleted in the secondary and its lack of good linebacking when compared to the teams still in the hunt was obvious. Was all of it coaching? Doubtful. Some of it? Sure, because good coaches adapt their schemes to the personnel they have and the Eagles' weaknesses at times looked glaring. That said, I believe that this is the first time during his tenure that Andy Reid has sacked this significant a coach (other than his special teams coordinator after last season). This move, in and of itself, speaks volumes regarding the state of the Eagles' defense and Andy Reid's confidence in it.

Is this a crisis? No.

Is Reid a bad coach? Hardly.

Is McDermott a bad coach? No.

Was McDermott in a difficult situation? Yes.

Do the Eagles need better players on defense? Yes. (They also need a right side of the offensive line to protect Vick's blind side, too).

Was Sean McDermott in the wrong place at the wrong time? Yes.

Will we hear from Sean McDermott again? Probably.

What should Eagles' fans make of all this? That on occasion changes need to be made, that this is the nature of the business, and that decisions like this are a reflection of many things, such as the GM's decisions about personnel, the head coach's emphasis on defense and his mentoring of his coordinator, and the development and acumen of the coordinator as this stage of his career.

Put differently, finish the year poorly on defense, and the ownership and head coach will make changes. In this regard, the Eagles are no different from anyone else.

The best here is that both Sean McDermott and the Eagles turn this situation into an opportunity for themselves.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Carmelo Anthony to Play for Kentucky?

He's been linked to every professional team on the planet (and perhaps one or two on others), so why not the Wildcats?

The Nets? (May the Russian Oligarchs do or not do for the NBA what they've done or not done for the English Premiership).

The Knicks? (Most fans have fading memories of Earl the Pearl, Clyde and Willis Reed).

The Ft. Wayne Zollner Pistons? (Most fans have zero memory of this team).

How about the Virginia Squires? St. Louis Spirits? Washington Generals? And1 Streetballers?

Cincinnati Royals? (Ah, the Big O!)

Tark's Runnin' Rebels?

The South Philadelphia Hebrew Association?

Where will Melo go?

Or will he stay put in Denver and then put himself on the market for the highest bidder after the season is over?

What do you think?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Collins: I Want Allen Iverson to be a Part of the 76ers' Family

That's not a misprint.

Upon hearing that Iverson might return to the U.S. for good because his b-ball career in Turkey might be over (to me, reports of AI's demise are greatly exaggerated; he'll play somewhere until he cannot walk), 76ers' head coach, Doug Collins, gushed (for him) about Iverson yesterday and said that he has so much to offer the organization, including wisdom.

So let's think of a few analogies:

First, when Collins talks about "family,' what type of family is he talking about? The Sopranos? Addams?

Second, when Collins is talking about "wisdom," what does he precisely mean? Many corporations talk about how their important intellectual property includes know-how about all of their attempts in research and development that failed, because those failures help give them a roadmap to potential successes elsewhere. Look, AI had a great run, and for me it's just fine that his teams didn't win the title because, well, AI liked the spotlight on the one hand and, on the other, he couldn't do it alone. There's no shame in that, as many great players haven't won titles. That said, what made AI a luminary is the same thing that makes him the least likely person to be a mentor or a coach. He had his own muse, and he played to it. He didn't seek out or listen to advice or mentoring. So what makes anyone -- especially Collins -- think that he'll like any role where he's not close to being the center of attention.

Wisdom?

Mentoring?

Leadership?

For what purpose?

To what end?

I don't see Allen Iverson in a suit, sitting on a bench, providing advice on plays or guidance about which free agents are appealing. That's not who he is. He's also not a community relations person, not a greeter, not a sideshow.

Old luminaries don't sit anywhere other than front and center.

And, if they cannot do that, they fade away.

At least for a while. . . until they become statesmen and ambassadors, commanding great appearance fees for a few hours worth of work.

AI is not there, not yet.

I'll allow that Doug Collins is being gracious and magnanimous, but perhaps it's along the lines of the big shot saying, "Hey, whenever you're in town, look me up, I'll show you a good time, and I mean it," only to say to his friends or his spouse when the actual offer is taken up, "Sheesh, I can't believe that the guy called me. Now I have to taken him around. What type of boring goofball actually takes up an offer like that?" Then again, Collins is sincere, and I'm sure if he said it, he really means it. He just should be careful what he wishes for.

And so should AI.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

For Those Mired In Cold Weather and Snow

Pitchers and catchers report in about a month.

(This is especially critical if your professional football team's season is over).

Hope springs eternal.

When Gene Banks Didn't Get the Headline

The passage of time can be cruel. Google "Gene Banks" and you get information about, well, banks for genes. I can understand that, as there have been significant advances in medicine, but what that signifies is how yesterday's headline grabber became yesterday's news and remained there.

I was getting ready to recycle a November issue of ESPN the Magazine when I happened upon a feature story of the first games of John Wall, the first pick overall in the NBA draft. Wall is a Wizard and a wizard, and the article featured different photos of Wall -- on the court and off. One of them struck me particularly -- Wall standing at attention for the national anthem, flanked by a teammate on one side and an assistant coach on the other. And the assistant coach looked very familiar.

So, I went to the website of the Wizards to figure out who their assistants are, and, yes, it was him. Gene Banks, one-time Duke all-American who, with Albert King from Brooklyn, was one of the two most highly sought after high school basketball prospects in 1977. Banks, out of West Philadelphia High School, was a boy among men, and his West Philadelphia teams were so good that several times his senior season they opened for the Philadelphia 76ers, themselves an elite team at the time. West's front line of Joe Garrett (who went to UTEP at least for a while), Clarence Tillman (a year younger, went to Kentucky and then transferred to Rutgers) and Banks was big and strong, and the guards (whose names escape me at the moment) were quick and adept at getting the ball to the big fellows. Banks could elevate and levitate, and he had a great basketball IQ. He excelled at Duke, got them to the NCAA title game against a big Kentucky team (with Rick Robey, Mike Phillips and swingman Jack "Goose" Givens) and then ended up in the NBA for a while, where the headlines faded because, well, Gene never grew and he had a big man's game in what today is a shooting-guard sized (at least height-wise) body. Today, around the age of 52, he's a single parent, having raised 5 kids (his wife passed away from MS a few years ago).

Rolling back the tape to 1977, the college hoops scene was all about Gene Banks. There wasn't cable TV back then, texting, the internet or anything like that, so there was intrigue and mystery about this kid from Philadelphia, a city with a great history of developing hoop stars, about this team from West Philly who had a great rivalry with neighboring Overbrook High School (Wilt Chamberlain's alma mater) and its star forward, Lewis Lloyd (who went to Drake and played in the NBA), and about Banks, a great kid with a great game. Today, there is so much information on the media few but the insiders know who the most sought after high-school basketball prospects are, if only because we can get English Premier League soccer on ESPN 2 and the NFL all the time. Back then, while the information wasn't as easy to access, the myths spread, and reputations were based not on what we saw on ESPN or on YouTube or on streaming video from a website, but what some lyrical writer saw at the Five-Star Basketball Camp in Honesdale, Pennsylvania the summer before (there wasn't AAU or "travel" basketball back then, and there weren't these specialized prep programs dedicated to developing high school basketball players for college; your high school team was everything). And, of course, there was the word of mouth. "Did you hear about this kid at West Philly? He's the real deal, the total package." And the raves and comparisons started.

He was the story in a city where the Eagles were recovering under Dick Vermeil after a decade and a half of mediocrity, where the Phillies were in the midst of winning NL East titles, where the 76ers had just gotten Dr. J from the Nets and were about to embark on a very solid run for the top, and where the Flyers were still among the NHL elite. Yet, amidst all that, I recall that Gene Banks rose to the top to become the story. Why? Because Philadelphia had a rich high school basketball tradition, and because most fans are totally intrigued about the "what might become of this great kid" story perhaps more than the present-day stories of excellence, which might be hard to believe today given what a golden age the Philadelphia pro sports scene was experiencing.

Dr. J.

Bobby Clarke.

Dick Vermeil's Eagles.

Mike Schmidt.

Steve Carlton.

Gene Banks -- for a window of the winter of 1976 (when he was a junior) through the spring of 1977 (after his senior season in high school and to the time he declared for Duke -- there weren't early signing periods then) -- eclipsed them all.

He was that good. His story and his future were that compelling.

The story wasn't going to last forever; stories like that never do. But, for that window in 1976-1977, the story was terrific, we couldn't wait for the next chapter, and we couldn't wait to hear the college selection.

I'm sure that Gene Banks' life -- and the compelling aspects of it -- continued to be interesting even after a great career at Duke. It's just that you don't hear about the good and sad aspects of the lives of most people, especially ones you never knew except through press accounts that most likely didn't give us a total sense of the kid beyond his ability on the basketball court.

It's just that once you're star has faded from the bright lights of the court, you don't get the coverage you used to.

And you don't even draw a mention in a photo caption in a story about a current bright star in a magazine dedicated to people who weren't even born when you were drawing the headlines and the attention, even when you have something very much in common with the star kid standing next to you while the National Anthem is playing.

Because three decades ago, they talked about you the way they talk about him.

Different position, perhaps, but you, like him, propelled your college team to great heights.

Three decades ago.

You were that good.

And, coming out of high school, more talked about.

It's good to see you, Gene Banks.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bennie Briscoe, R.I.P.

They buried a legendary Philadelphia fighter yesterday, a guy who fought in one of boxing's last golden ages, a touch middleweight with a shaved head who worked a day job as a garbageman in the City of Philadelphia. Bennie Briscoe was 67.

I remember reading of boxers like Briscoe, Stanley "Kitten" Hayward, Bobby "Boogaloo" Watts, Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Mathew Saad Muhammad, along with, of course, Joe Frazier, whose gym was near the railroad tracks not far from Broad and Lehigh. They would fight at the Blue Horizon on North Broad, a place right out of a Damon Runyon story, or at the Spectrum. You'd read about the fights these guys fought in the next day's papers, and the story telling was so good retrospectively you might have thought that battles among warriors from ancient Greece were being described. The world was smaller then, boxing more important, and, well, Philadelphia had a lot of very good middleweights.

Bennie Briscoe was one. The linked article recalls a kind and generous man, and reflects the who's who that showed up at his funeral to pay respects. Bennie Briscoe never won a title (he came close), but there's no doubt that he went out as a champ.

Baseball's Problem?

I saw a stat in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that offered that interest in baseball has dropped off 26% in the past 16 years.

And then I started to think why that is, despite great interest in my home town of Philadelphia.

1. Kids are playing soccer more than they're playing baseball. True, although as my good friend Jeff from Manhattan says, "Soccer is the sport of the future in the U.S. and always will be." That is, until we get the future Derek Roses and Chris Pauls playing soccer, and until we stop training the players like robots and let them improvise like Brazilians.

2. It's hard to play pick-up baseball. You need too many kids, kids are overscheduled, etc. True, it is, but there are derivative reasons for this that go beyond "baseball is boring; there's not enough action," although my 11 year-old told me that after a particularly uneventful rec league season this past year.

3. Dads act like maniacs in baseball, taking the fun out of it. Oh boy, here we go. This is very true. I ran into a friend on Saturday night who coaches his eleven year-old's travel team. He didn't want to coach; he played college baseball well at a high level and had his fill. Friends told him he'd end up coaching; he said he wouldn't. But he did, and for the reason his friends advised, "You'll coach not because you'll really want to, but to protect your son from the other dads out there." Touche. That's precisely what happened, as the landscape is littered with wannabe Tony LaRussas, stage fathers, dads who get no joy out of their jobs and have too much time on their hands, etc., and not necessarily dads who have any training, experience or talent at coaching. And, they behave badly, by hectoring umpires (including teenage kids in the rec leagues, whose parents come to protect them), by fudging pitch counts so that their stars can pitch longer, by only letting their kids play the good positions, and by stacking travel teams with their friends' kids and not necessarily the best players. This behavior leads to attrition, serious attrition -- the dads take all the fun out of the game, and otherwise decent athletes will stake their fortunes to games that the dads have less of an emotional connection to, like soccer or lacrosse (unless, of course, there are dads who played those games overly involved, but the chances of that for this generation are less likely than they will be in future generations).

4. The pitching is a variable. Either your kid will walk too much or not be able to hit the very mature kid who might top out or flame out in high school but who, at this age, looks like Roy Halladay. That's different from soccer or basketball, where more kids get a chance to touch the ball and make something happen. Let's face it, it's very hard to hit a baseball, perhaps the most difficult feat in all of sports. That takes away the fun.

5. The lack of a salary cap is killing baseball. Imagine NASCAR if all the cars didn't have similar specs -- the guy with the most money to build the best car will win most of the races because his car not only will go faster, it will handle better at higher speeds. No one wants to be the next James Hylton, a guy who raced for years and perhaps had one top-10 finish to his name. Likewise, what's in it for the kids who live in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and other places that have had losing season after losing season, haven't had the discipline of the Twins or the creativity of the A's? Why should they care at all?

6. There is more competition. The Game of the Week on NBC used to be a big deal. Now, every sport seemingly is on all the time -- there is much more competition for baseball. Also, any sport should take note of the declines of horse racing (because gambling is everywhere now and not just at the track), boxing (corruption finally weighed it down) and tennis (where there seemingly is little interest except at the majors, perhaps because the equipment is so advanced that smurfs can rocket serves at 140 mph and there is much less art in the game than there was 30 years ago). Dinosaurs were big and powerful and became extinct; all sports should take note (even football, which, while riding high, is so physically brutal that unless things change in terms of protecting players, why would anyone want to risk permanent brain damage at 30 for the glory of playing in the Horseshoe, in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus and the like?).

At any rate, I wouldn't be happy if I were an owner with that statistic, and I'd try to do something about it.

Especially if I were benefitting from the golden geese in Boston, the Bronx and Philadelphia, among other places.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Musings on the Eagles' Season

Here goes:

1. That They Made the Playoffs Was an Accomplishment in and of Itself. Eagles' fans who are expressing their disappointment today forget that going into the season the NFC East was deemed to be a horse race at best, and that many didn't have the Eagles' making the playoffs. So, that they made the playoffs this season was an accomplishment. To me, that they did not go further was not, despite the unfounded optimism that met the team about a month ago, where some were calling them the team to beat for the Super Bowl. Was I happy that they lost yesterday? Of course not, but they lost to a good team.

2. Was David Akers the Goat? Not really. Sure, if you do the math, had Akers converted on two very makeable (distance-wise) kicks, the Birds would have won 22-21, and all would be happy in Mudville this week. But, Akers missed, and those misses underscored greater shortcomings in the team as a whole. Put differently, Green Bay was the aggressor for most of the game and had the Eagles on their heels. In playoff games, a team's weaknesses get magnified, and I'll get to those later in the post. In the end, losses are team efforts, and the Eagles made too many mistakes and didn't adjust well enough to Green Bay's defensive schemes often enough to force the action. Akers' misses certainly didn't help, but I'm not sure that the Packers wouldn't have found a way to eke out at least one more field goal had Akers made both of the attempts he missed on.

3. The Configuration of the Eagles'Offensive Line is Counterintuitive. The team took a victory lap two seasons ago when they traded for Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jason Peters, a left tackle. Right now, the Eagles are very strong on the left side, with Pro Bowler Peters and first alternative for the Pro Bowl, veteran guard Todd Herremans. The rest of their offensive line is average at best, with center Mike McGlynn, guard Max-Jean Gilles and tackle Winston Justice, whom King Dunlap replaced in the fourth quarter yesterday. If you do the math, the Eagles aren't protecting Michael Vick's blind side well at all because most teams invest heavily on their left tackle (which is what the Eagles did when they acquired Peters, figuring he'd protect both Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb -- righties -- in succession). Now, I think, the Birds will have to improve vastly on their right side, particularly at right tackle. The bet here is that they're looking for veterans and free agents who spent their college careers protecting the blind side of lefthanded quarterbacks. It makes perfect sense, but they have to do something on the right side or else give up on Vick (heresy) and keep Kolb (double heresy).

4. What are the Eagles' Weaknesses in Addition to Part of the Offensive Line? They need to improve their offensive playcalling when faced with all sorts of blitzes. I'm not so sure that Vick was well enough prepared to find the "hot read" receivers, unless, of course, the blitzes were so overwhelming that even Tom Brady and Peyton Manning wouldn't have had time for the hot reads. Vick looked either underprepared or overmatched, and the Eagles need to focus on that. As for the defense, well, they need to get more of a surge on the defensive line, and I'm not sure that anyone other than Trent Cole and Antonio Dixon are keepers at this point (okay, so, probably, is rookie Brandon Graham). But what about Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson, for whom any adjective above "serviceable"might be a stretch? The linebacking corps is thin, and there are question marks at defensive back as well. It's one thing to throw defensive coordinator Sean McDermott under the bus, but remember this, a strategy is only as good as the people you have to execute it. So, it's hard to tell how good a theorist McDermott is if he doesn't have the personnel, but, then again, if he's a good theorist, he's not creating a strategy that his current crop can execute well. Andy Reid will have to think about both the coaching and the personnel on defense.

5. Would Eagles' fans trade the possibility of a 5-11 or worse season for a greater likelihood of having a better record than 10-6 and a better chance to win a Super Bowl? In a heartbeat. Look, Andy Reid is one of the top 5 coaches in the NFL, as I'd put Bill Belichick first, followed by, in no particular order, Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton and perhaps Tom Coughlin (after all, he's won the Super Bowl). And, some might argue that Reid is the best coach not named Belichick. The question remains whether Reid can get back to the Super Bowl and win it, and whether management can make the right moves to fortify the roster. To many fans, the team typically goes into the season with an obvious flaw, or the team can be bold about free agents only to misfire and leave open other holes. Few, if anyone, question the commitment of ownership and Reid to winning. Under owner Jeffrey Lurie, the team has played very well. The big question is whether they have the right combination of decisionmakers to win a Super Bowl. And that question remains.

6. Who Will be the Quarterback in 2011-2012? Michael Vick.

7. Will Kevin Kolb Return? No.

8. Who Will Be Vick's back-up next season? Not Mike Kafka. Donovan McNabb? Not likely, but intriguing. Could there be a good enough lefty out there to back-up Vick? I like Tampa Bay's Josh Johnson, but I'm not sure he'd be available. Given how much Vick runs, the team will need a capable back-up.

9. Which Veterans Will Not Return Next Year? Assuming that there's a season, of course. One of Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson will not be back. David Akers will be back. Jamal Jackson will not return, and I don't think that Winston Justice will start at right tackle (if he returns). It's hard to see that Ernie Sims will return, but, then again, who will play linebacker next season. Given his serious injuries over the past 2-3 years, I find it hard to believe that Ellis Hobbs will return.

10. Prediction for the Eagles for Next Season. Schedule doesn't look too difficult, NFC East rivals not the robust, and Andy Reid remains a wily fox. 11-5, win the NFC East, get a #3 seed, win the first-round game and then who knows.

It's about 5 weeks, I think, until pitchers and catchers report to the Phillies. Can't wait.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Phillies Might Pay Arbitration-Eligible Kyle Kendrick $3 Million for 2011

So posits Matt Gelb.

Gelb did his homework, and what he says makes sense, but. . .

On the one hand, the numbers -- and what is baseball without them -- make a compelling case for Kendrick, especially when compared to those of other pitchers who got similar awards. On the other hand, Kendrick's performance is one of those "two steps forward, one step backwards, one step forward, two steps backwards" type of careers. He got shelled mid-summer, got sent down, then came back up a week later and pitched reasonably well. He outpitched Andy Petitte in June in Yankee Stadium on a night that I suggested that the Yankees would win on the mercy rule. Then, at season's end, he got too cute with an inside pitch, gave up a three-run homer, and had Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee furious with him. For a pitcher with perhaps 1 1/2 pitches, you can't get too cute; you need to be precise, and every now and then Kendrick -- seemingly at the most inopportune moments -- forgets that his a #5 starter (the Phillies contemporary version of Steve Fireovid, who wrote a book about himself called "The 26th Man") and thinks that he's Roy Halladay. And that's when he gets into trouble.

So, posit this -- if the Phillies trade Blanton, do you want Kendrick at $3 million a year in the #5 spot (he has a career winning percentage over .550) or do you want to take a chance on Vance Worley or someone else, a non-roster invitee looking for that one good gig? Given that the Phillies raided the piggy bank for some time to come by signing Cliff Lee, and given that they say they don't have enough money to go after an outfielder to put into the mix with the four or five that they have, how can they justify spending $3 million per on Kendrick? He's pretty much a #5 starter, a long reliever, a combination of both, but that's about it. Then again, he wins more than he loses, he's known to the team, they have a shot to return to the World Series after a year's absence, and he's still young enough to benefit from the mentoring of three wise men in Halladay, Lee and Roy Oswalt (not to mention Cole Hamels, who's close to him in age). Perhaps some of that mentoring will pay off. Then again, for the guy who once thought he was traded to Japan (something that the collective bargaining agreement prohibits but that former Phillies' pitcher Brett Myers convinced him was true in one of the all-time pranks), training alongside those aces doesn't necessarily mean he sees it for what it is; heck, last year, at times you could have sworn that Kendrick thought he was also an ace, and when he pitched like that he gave up a ton of runs (because he doesn't have the stuff).

So, GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. has an interesting decision on his hands -- whether to make an offer or to let the arbitration play itself out. Give Kyle Kendrick a ton of credit -- he tries hard, he hangs in there, he has a good record and, well, if he gets the payday, he'll have earned it relative to what others in a similar position have gotten over the years.

And to think, the brains behind the development of the strongest union in the world, the Major League Baseball Players Association, Marvin Miller, isn't in the Hall of Fame.

Kyle Kendrick's ability to get $3 million a year is prima facie evidence that he should be.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Unintended Consequences or Goofiness or Worse in the NFL: St. Louis (7-8) at Seattle (6-9) for NFC West Title and First-Round Home Game

That's not a misprint. Whoever wins this game will host the defending Super Bowl Champion, the New Orleans Saints.

Why? Huh?

Well, because that's what the rules say, namely, that a wild-card team may not host a first-round playoff game, that the division champions who don't get the first-round byes must. So, that means that the Eagles, the NFC East champs, will host one game, as will the NFC West champs, because the NFC South champs (Atlanta) and NFC North champs (Chicago) get the first-round byes. That the two wild-card teams, New Orleans (11-5) and Green Bay (10-6) have better records is of no consequence.

None.

Zippo.

Zilch.

Nada.

So, it's probably time to put up the stop sign after the accident and change the rule to avoid the unintended consequence of having a mediocre if not sub-.500 division champion (which will be the case if Seattle wins tonight) making the playoffs, let alone hosting a first-round playoff game. At a minimum, the owners should change the rules to prevent a sub.500 division champion from hosting a first-round playoff game. Instead, the wild-card team with the better record should get that honor. At a maximum, the no sub-.500 division champion should make the playoffs, period, out of a view that a non-winning season shouldn't be rewarded with a playoff berth.

So, under the "minimum" scenario, New Orleans should be hosting the winner of the St. Louis-Seattle game. Under the "maximum" reform scenario, New Orleans, the best wild-card team, should be hosting a playoff game, with the next-best wild-card team making the playoffs instead of the sub-.500 division champion. That team, I believe would be Tampa Bay (10-6) and, if not, the New York Giants (also 10-6). Under this scenario, Atlanta and Chicago still would get the byes, the Eagles, as the #3 seed, would host Tampa Bay, and New Orleans, the #4 seed, would host the now-#5 seed, Green Bay. Under this scenario, the NFC playoffs would be as competitive as possible.

St. Louis fans, who have reason for optimism, and Seattle fans will not like this commentary or this proposal, but Tampa Bay's and the New York Giants' fans will. If the NFL really means that the playoffs are for the best teams, its competition committee should review the playoff scenario that will arise after tonight's contest in Seattle and see if it can improve upon the status quo.

Especially if Seattle wins, because sub-.500 teams should not make the playoffs.