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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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Happy 50th, Charles Barkley!

I had the pleasure of driving home last night from work and listening to Philadelphia's 97.5 FM sports talk.  The host featured clips from Mike Missanelli's interviews with Charles Barkley over the years, and there were some hilarious quotes.  Charles waxed eloquent on his poor supporting cast when he played in Philadelphia (among them Charles Shackleford and Armon Gilliam) his views on giving autographs while in a restaurant, and when to do so and about stopping giving money to relatives.  I wish I had a "best of" podcast that I could download and take on my next long flight, as they were that funny.

And that got me to remembering a story about Charles, Rick Mahorn and the late Manute Bol.  I won't tell the story here, but suffice it to say that this link does it some (if not total) justice (as the video "ruins" a potential surprise).

There is a broader, grander celebration planned for the "best player of all time" -- Michael Jordan, but perhaps there should be the roast to end all roasts for perhaps the most quotable and hilarious player of all time, Charles Barkley.

Happy 50th, Charles!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

And the Olympics Kept Cycling Because. . .

The IOC has determined to eliminate wrestling from the Olympic Games, a sport that took place in the ancient olympics, too.  You can read about the decision here.

Okay, so wrestling isn't all that viewer friendly.  But, then again, about 30 years ago boxing was and captivated the audience, especially during the Cold War.  The interest in boxing fell off -- at least in the U.S. -- during the summer games in South Korea in 1988, where Roy Jones, Jr. was so ripped off that boxing as an Olympic sport lost all credibility.  Boxing's popularity is way down, too.  The U.S. networks used to emphasize gymnastics, boxing, track and field and basketball.  Boxing in recent years has been nowhere to be seen. 

Wrestling hasn't been a popular viewing sport, either, but the tradition is there.  Hasn't it also been cleaner than cycling, which has done more laundry publicly about its dirt than the next three sports combined?  Since that's the case, why is cycling still an Olympic sport?  Perhaps it is more aesthetically pleasing, but is that the real reason?

With the IOC, though, you never know.  It was hard to get a straight answer out of the cycling world for years, as it's been hard to get a straight and reasonable answer from the IOC for years, either. 

Wrestlers of the world, unite! 

You can kick the rear ends of the average cyclist any day of the week.

If you can catch them.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Recently Seen on Netflix: "The Jay DeMerit Story"

The documentary has a better title than that, but it's about the former Watford player and U.S. National Team member Jay DeMerit, and how he made his way to play for a team in England's Premiership (he's now the captain of MLS's Vancouver Whitecaps).  DeMerit's story is nothing short of amazing, a lesson in persistence, self-belief and determination.  All the while, he seems like a likeable guy, someone you'd root for, because somewhere along the line he just "forgot" to listen to people who thought that a kid from Wisconsin, unrecruited out of high school, via University of Illinois at Chicago (where he landed because his high school coach knew the coach there), who helped lead them to the NCAA tournament, ends up in Europe with an English friend, knocking on doors of clubs, failing, ending up trying to latch on with a pub team (the lowest of England's soccer ranks, earning about 40 pounds a week and living with his friend, his family and their dog in a three-bedroom house on a mattress in the attic), gets a tryout with Watford, plays well, gets a contract, and helps them get to a spot where they play Leeds in a playoff game to get into the Premiership, a game worth about 70 million pounds to the winner, and, well, just rent the thing and watch it or show it to your kids because this is a guy who had a vision and a dream and kept at it, because it's what he absolutely loves to do. 

Okay, so I liked the documentary, and it was good to watch on a miserable weather weekend. 

Enjoy!

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Yale 69 Princeton 65 at Jadwin Gymnasium (Subtitle: Yale's Head Coach, James Jones, is a Coaching Genius)

I was sitting in the stands before the game, digesting an undistinguished meatball sub from the Backcourt Bistro, when Yale coach James Jones walked by.  I got his attention and said to him, "Coach, I'm a Princeton fan, but I love the way you coach."  He was gracious, thanked me and kept going -- after all, he had a game to coach.  (Here's the recap from ESPN).

The reason I love the way that Coach Jones coaches is that he always tries to outwit his opponent and frequently does.  He might not get the "stars" that other Ivies do, but he does the best with who he gets, plays about 8 guys 25 minutes a game (I'm exaggerating a bit), and is big on strategy.  Tonight, 7 Yalies scored more than 6 points, and someone forgot to tell them that the were playing about .350 basketball for the season and should have lost to Princeton.

Instead, Jones outcoached Mitch Henderson, the Bulldogs were better prepared, and they wanted it more.  (Okay, there was some horrible officiating at times from the youngest ref on the floor, who blew several travel calls and a goaltending), but. . .

1.  Jones showed his acumen early by having the Bulldogs come out in a full-court zone trap.  The reason for this was simple -- the Tigers play only a single guard (Yale had as many as four on the floor at once).  So, they made the Tigers work to get the ball up the floor, and typically Princeton took 8-9 seconds to cross the time line.  Edge:  Jones.

2.  Princeton looked somewhat lost against the Yale zone.  Instead of crisp passing constantly and bounce passes to get the ball inside, they looked lost at times, throwing the ball away, forcing it in and dribbling against it too much.

3.  Jones also showed his acumen against the Princeton zone.  Yale was a perpetual motion machine, using their quickness to throw passes over and behind the Princeton zone.  How many points inside the paint did the smaller Yale team get?  How many rebounds and second chances?  Jones made the bigger Princeton team look like their feet were stuck in molasses and leaden.  It's hard to make a lack of height work to your advantage, but Jones did so for Yale tonight.

4.  Yale had the "gottawannahaveit" much more than Princeton tonight.  Sorry, Tigers, but they rebounded better, defended better, and Princeton's inside help defense was sporadic at best and sieve-like at worst.  They should have been an iron dome against the Yale offense, and they were not.  To Princeton's credit, Yale shot the lights out in the first half and the Tigers came out of halftime and ultimately took the lead, but Yale held in there, stuck to its game plan and executed better than Princeton.

5.  Among Princeton's problems tonight -- 1) only T.J. Bray is a bona fide ball handler and no one else really could help him against the Yale trap.  2) The Princeton bigs did a bad job on the boards and overall defensively (as to the latter, their help defense was not good all night and they looked slow).  3)   While Ian Hummer put up good numbers and helped lead the rally early in the second half, he made numerous mistakes with less than 7 minutes to go that resulted in turnovers.  Perhaps he was selfish, but the better explanation was that no one else really was stepping up outside him and soph Denton Koon at that time.  4) None of Brandon Connelly, Will Barrett, Mack Darrow or Hans Brase did much memorable on defense.  5)  Barrett shot the lights out so to speak and helped keep the Tigers in the game, and soph Denton Koon is a potential future Ivy Player of the Year.  6) The Tigers need more guard play.  Other Ivies will see the Yale film and use their entire bench to trap and pressure Bray and the Tigers.  7) The Tigers didn't seem to have any answers for Yale's strategy.  The culmination of the frustration was when Princeton had the ball with about 30 seconds to go down 2 and passed the ball around the perimeter and turned it over with three seconds left without getting a shot off.       That's a tribute to Yale's defense, but it's also testimony to Princeton's confusion tonight.

James Jones did what I thought/feared he would do tonight.  He came up with a strategy to beat Princeton.  It took everything he had, but he did it -- on offense, on defense, and with the energy his team showed tonight.

Someone forgot to tell the Yale Bulldogs they weren't supposed to win tonight.

James Jones told them that they were.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

U.S. Loses First Game in World Cup Qualifier. . . to Honduras

Yikes.

Just goes to show you when a tiny nation focuses on one main thing and a huge nation does not.

You can read about the details here.

Sure, we can't win everything and perhaps we shouldn't.  But a loss like this underscores the point that U.S. soccer still has a long way to go.  Until the top 100 U.S. players populate the rosters of top teams throughout Europe, get meaningful playing time and star, the U.S. will continue to qualify for the World Cup, lurch in at say a #22 ranking in the world, perhaps get through the group stage and then lose in the Round of 16. 

It's hard to say what the root cause is, but here are a few points:

1.  The best athletes in the country do not play soccer.  They play football, basketball and even baseball.  So, imagine if Calvin Johnson your center back.  Imagine if Chris Paul were your central attacking midfielder.  And imagine if they started when they were six.

2.  The kids who do play perhaps do not have the right balance of training to free play.  My guess is that the nifty moves we see from Iniesta, Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar do not come from some older coach teaching them how to improvise in space.  They come from time spent playing pick-up soccer without any adults present or too many rules.

3.  The U.S. has a target on its back in the region because a) it's so big and b) it's trying to beat the smaller countries as their own game.

There are probably more points to consider.  Makes you wonder whether the second string in places like Spain and Brazil could beat our best team.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

As the Electoral College Goes, So Goes.. . College Football Recruiting?

About 40 years ago, Philadelphia had five Congressional districts, none of which overlapped with any municipality in the four counties that surround it.  Today, Philadelphia has two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, each of whose districts covers suburban municipalities as well.  Pennsylvania also has many fewer seats in the U.S. House.  This results from a few factors -- an aging population (by some accounts, Pennsylvania, next to Florida, is the "grayest" state in the nation), stagnant or extinct economies in certain parts of the state (for example, coal and steel production aren't what they once were, with the result that there are fewer families in those regions and fewer kids trying to "escape" a life in the mines or mills and the growth of populaton in other regions (namely, California, Texas and Florida).  As this article tells us, that means that Pennsylvania is not the fertile ground for recruiting college football players the way it once was.

That's not a huge surprise to us veteran Pennsylvanians (and we didn't really think that Philadelphia, proper, or the surrounding counties were all that fertile even back then).   Sure, there was the great Leroy Kelly, who played running back for the Browns by way of the Philadelphia Public League, Marvin Harrison, who played for Roman Catholic, and Matt Ryan, who played for Penn Charter.  Perhaps that's a good statistical representation unless you compare it to, say, Pahokee, Florida.  But apparently the number of Division 1 recruits from Pennsylvania now doesn't even make the top 10. 

And it used to, especially when you consider kids from the coal regions in the northeastern part of the state and the steel regions out west.  The names are legendary -- Dorsett, Ditka, Marino, Montana, among many others.  It's just that there are not as many of those types of players as there used to be.

Could it be that it's expensive for a school district to run a program?  (The article reports that in some districts kids are asked to pay a fee to play).  Could it be that kids have to work after school?  Could it be that for what's asked of the kids, an increasing number of parents believe that the game is too dangerous.  Or could it be that kids are playing other sports, whether real ones, such as soccer, or pretend ones, like anything EA Sports puts out for the Play Stations or XBox?

The linked article is as much a discussion of what happened to some of these feeder towns such as Shamokin, up in Pennsylvania's coal country, as it is about the lure of the game itself (or the lack thereof).  Perhaps it's also not all that compelling, as the theme of the article isn't all that new.  What would be more interesting is to examine the overall population of kids and see what year-to-year numbers are for matriculation in football, soccer, lacrosse and other sports and whether, in certain sports, travel programs are cannibalizing school programs. 

I don't know what the morale of the story is, except a) to enjoy the "Glory Days" when they're glorious and b) to help foster an environment where the possibility for "Glory Days" lies in the present and the future, and not just in the increasingly distant past, when excitement constantly filled the atmosphere.  Good memories are important to have.

As are outstanding current experiences.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Rec League Chronicles

I've posted from time to time about my experiences coaching my son's team in the recreational basketball league.  I've coached with the same friend for six years, and up until this year we won about 80% of our games.  Each year, the league assigns you a time, so the only guarantees are that we get our own kids.  In fourth grade, we were undefeated.  In the fifth grade, we got to the finals and lost.  Last year, we won 75% of our games with a small, inexperienced team and got to the Round of 8.  This year. . .

The league asked for kids' height on the sign-up forms, only not to provide the heights to the age group's commissioner when he formed the teams.  Some teams's members look like Harry Potter's Hagrid, while others' -- such as ours -- resemble the 7th and 8th grade versions of hoops' Lilliputians.  For starters, we're small.  The league then have to move two brothers -- very good players -- from our roster because of a scheduling conflict and replaced them with two very nice boy's whose abilities pale in comparison.  So, when we boiled it down, we have 3 of 10 players with a solid understanding of the game, 6 of 10 who are good athletes, and 4 -- all nice kids -- who don't know the traveling rule, don't know that you have to take the ball behind the baseline after the other team scores, haven't watched much basketball and are there for the team spirit and exercise.

So how do you coach such a team with only one hour of practice a week?  How do you coach a team when you are not always sure you'll get that practice, because you're hostage to the school district's calendar and with holidays and in-service days, the schools aren't always open?  What do you focus on when other teams are much bigger and when they are more skilled?  The league allows all types of defense, which means it's even harder to prepare, because not only might you not have practice, you also won't know whether you're facing a zone or a man-to-man defense.  The league mandates that your top 3 scorers must play in the first quarter and may not play in the second quarter.  Atop that, not every kid shows up for games every weekend because of other commitments or illness (which means that if an opponent were to be missing its worst 2 of its 10 players, they are at an advantage, although that can cut both ways).  Finally, the league has strongly suggested that you play your best five in the second quarter, but time and time again opponents skew their lineups to have their #4 scorer play in the first quarter to help open up a lead. 

Got all that? 

Of course, it's the rec league, and we're not playing for titles (really, although there are playoffs) or money, we're playing for fun, for teaching the game and to encourage the kids to get better.  We coaches can learn from them as much as they learn from us.  Our basic premise -- at least on our team -- is to work on fundamentals, teach a few of the game's finer points and try to connect with each kid to help him improve.  For the best players and the good athletes, we try to work on their team work, their "complete" game (translated:  throw bounce passes, screen, make your teammates better).  For those who don't know the game, we try to get them to work on something each week -- getting set for a good shot, defending better, rebounding better or moving without the ball better.  Right now, we're a game below .500.

Two weeks ago, we had a tough situation.  We didn't have the gym available, and we we're coming off a game where we were missing four kids, three because of flu and one because of injury.  We were scheduled to play the league's best team, and a big team at that.  We play four eight-minute quarters, and we lost by 21.  With four and a half minutes to go, my son, our second-leading scorer in that game, sat next to me on the bench.  He asked, "Dad, what are you thinking?"  I responded in a whisper, "That this game cannot end fast enough."  He laughed, and it was a funny father-and-son moment, but not one that I'd like to repeat.  Sure, the other team was better, but we didn't help ourselves.  They zoned us, and kids didn't move without the ball, they threw chest passes against the zone (many of which got intercepted), tried dribbling against the zone (sometimes going one on three, which guaranteed a bad shot or turnover) or dribbling, back first, against the zone, guaranteeing that a crafty defender could steal the ball.  They also generally had trouble creating space.

It would have been one thing if we played our best and got drubbed, but that didn't happen, and because that didn't happen the game spurned on my creativity.  I thought hard about the team's deficiencies and devised a practice to help address some of the shortcomings.  First, I created a "dribble drive" drill, in which I had a dribble go one-on-three as far as he could against a zone we instructed to collapse, only to have him turn and find two shooters whom we stationed on the perimeter, who could rotate closer to the ball to get an open look (the dribbler was instructed to pass the ball back to the shooters).  Second, we worked on some quick, bounce-passing drills, designed to have the passers make effective passes against a collapsing defense.  Third, we did a pick-and-roll drill.   Fourth, we worked on "jab step" and pump fake drills, designed to enable the ballhander to get his defender to take a few steps the wrong way.  Fifth, we walked our players through an offensive set, instructing each with a few guiding principles regarding moving without the ball.  It was a 55-minute practice, but it was the best we can do.

So what happened? 

Admittedly, our opponent this past weekend wasn't as good as our opponent the prior weekend, but you play who you play.  We were trailing by two near the end of the first quarter with about 10 seconds to go.  My son had the ball, and we yelled to him to take it as far as he could and shoot it.  So what did he do?  He took it as far as he could, but pulled the "dribble drive" drill out, took a few defenders with him, penetrated near the paint, and then executed a perfect chess pass to a teammate, who nailed a three before time expired.  In the second quarter, a player who the week before was prone to go one on three against a zone, hit a slashing teammate with a nifty bounce pass for a layup.  And, best of all, a kid who had scored one basket all season took in all the techniques, got open and was 4-5 on three-point shot attempts.  He worked to get open and shot the lights out. 

How did that happen?  Because each week it seemed that there were two kids -- the kid who showed flashes that he knew the game and the kid who was nonchalant, who didn't defend well, chewed gum and didn't give his best effort.  So every now and then I took him aside and said, "You know the game, but you cannot expect it to come to you.  You have a decent shot, but you have to work hard to get open.  And if you get open, take the shot."  Truth be told, his shooting style is a bit unorthodox (he shoots from over his head), and one of the shots seemed to be a bit of a brick (a laser that hit the backboard and banked -- hard -- through the hoop).  No matter, because sometimes you take good shots and they go in and out.  For this boy, he'll have a game to remember for the rest of his life.

As for the team, it grew the 1-point lead after one to a 9-point lead at the half, only to give most of it back after the third quarter.  Then, our fundamentals kicked in.  We defended better, moved without the ball well, rebounded better than all season and hit key shots when we had to, all for a comfortable victory. 

Okay, so we're not the most talent team, but what the boys proved after the drubbing they took a few weeks ago is that they forgot about the bad things quickly, focused on what they needed to work on, concentrated better and won a winnable game and finished strong.  There's an old saying, "practice well, play well," and I think it held true for this past weekend.  The kids know that they need to improve, and we gave them some principles that they could put into motion to win a game.  It was great to see the resilience after a bad week, and it was great to see the effort in practice get rewarded.

Best of all, it was great to see a wide smile from a kid we were not sure we connected with, a kid who, at least that very day, was a rec league hoops version of the "Little Engine That Could."  This particular weekend, this engine believed in himself and kept believing in himself.  I'd like to think that our encouragement helped, but in the end, he was the one who had to step up and make the plays.  That -- and the team play -- were great to watch.

The morale of the story and the season?  Do the best with what you have, play hard and don't give up.  Sure, other teams might be bigger and have more talent.  We cannot control that.  What we can control is our will, our level of effort and our execution.  That's what the kids learned this weekend, and they learned it well.

The International Soccer Match-Fixing Scandal, the Media and the PEDs Scandals That Plague U.S. Sports

Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic talked about this on ESPN Radio this morning.  Greenberg offered that if you switched the words "baseball," "basketball," or [American] "football," for soccer, this would be the biggest story/scandal in American sports history (you can go to ESPN.com and click on links regarding the involvement of a crime syndicate in Asia and the fixing of matches all over the globe, and allegedly in big tournaments, such as the World Cup, too).  Greenberg and Golic agreed that because this is international soccer, though, it won't get that much attention in the United States. 

Both observations are correct, but Greenberg and Golic missed a huge point, and, by doing so, underscore my point -- throughout the posts on this blog over the years -- that the sports media really consist of glorified fans and not journalists.  Why?  Because there were -- and probably still are -- huge scandals in the U.S. sports world that the U.S. sports media has missed and that should bother all Americans -- the pervasive use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Where were the members of the baseball media when players started showing up looking like puffed-up super heroes and were hitting ball after ball out of the park at statistically significant differentiated rates when compared to past history?  Should we really have believed that Lance Armstrong was a superluminary who somehow transcended his sport when all others were either taking Epogen or blood doping?  Is Major League Baseball clean now?  What about Melky Cabrera and Carlos Ruiz?  What about football, where there are no tests for HGH (and the continuous use of pain-killing shots before games)?  It goes without saying that the head-injury scandal still plagues football, but arguably doesn't get the attention that it should, what with all the former aggrieved players walking around (if they can walk unaided and if they can remember where they are going).  Baseball also had its problem with amphetamines, hockey with at least players' pumping themselves full of drugs like Sudafed before night games.  Only the NBA seems clean, either becuase it is or because the attention paid to other sports eclipses any attention it might otherwise get from those who choose to cover it. 

Yes, it's fun to cover games, to be at events, to be inside the stadium, to have access to those who "make it happen."  It's also uncomfortable to create confrontation by asking the skeptical question -- a reporter risks ostracization, ridicule and perhaps even assault.  No one, also, wants to go through life being a skeptic, questioning premises, because it can lead to becoming a cynic and wondering if anything is worth it, even the simple act of getting out of bed in the morning.  Done the right way, though, these reporters can do more than just tell us who won, who lost and what special sauce an offensive coordinator cooked up for the game plan.  There are layers of stories out there, and, over the course of the past quarter century, the sports media have missed most of them, at least in real time.

The world soccer match-fixing scandal is a huge story, and credit should be given to those who have dug hard to unearth it.  That's what good journalists do.  We all know who won the World Cup in 2010 -- we all have eyes, we all can watch TV.  But there were suspicious calls back then, too, including in a game involving the U.S. where one or two obvious bad calls were made.  My guess is that that game, as well as some others, will emerge among the questioned.  It is shocking.

At least as shocking at the roster of venerated baseball writers who somehow missed the fact that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire ended up with physiques resembling those of linebackers and offensive linemen, and not the skinnier home run hitters of a decade earlier.  That was dishonor -- to all of baseball tradition and its cherished records and its loyal fans. 

Just as this is.