(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, February 06, 2018

Thank You, Birds!

The buildup to the Super Bowl was excruciating.  Time moved so slowly in the Philadelphia for the two weeks leading up to the big game.  There were stories atop stories about each player's pathway to the game, the Philadelphia-area connections of Patriots' players, the Pats' mystique, whether Tom Brady would lead yet another comeback, the underdog status of the home team, the pundits' selections (75% of them picked New England).  Would Eagles' back-up QB continue with his hot hand or wilt under the pressure of the Super Bowl?  Could the Pats' offensive line protect Brady?  Questions upon questions, theories upon theories.

I think that most Philadelphia fans went into the contest with the belief that the Eagles could win the game.  I am not sure that most subscribe to any "team of destiny" theory, but the facts were that the team had suffered some staggering losses to its roster and healed them.  Losing  starting CB Ronald Darby on the first series of downs in the first game for more than half the season began a cascade of increasingly devastating losses.  Okay, so you might not thinking losing your kicker (Caleb Sturgis) or special teams captain (Chris Maragos) was a big deal, but then in the same game the Birds lost future Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters and starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, another star contributor.  And then, of course, the team lost starting QB Carson Wentz, who was on his way to an MVP season.  All of those losses aggregated; losing Wentz suggested that perhaps the Eagles' had run their course for the season, that despite some great play all of the injuries would be too much to overcome.

Coaches will tell you that if you give a team an excuse to lose, they'll take it.  Part of the brilliance of head coach Doug Pederson and the teams leaders (among them Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long) was a refusal to offer or take excuses.  Pederson led a culture that was all about accountability and continuous improvement, topped off with a relentless ability and desire to adapt to changing circumstances.  This Eagles team did this time and time again.  They generated a vibe that said that they could run and hit with anybody, but that their true measure was not what they did when things were going well, but what they did when things were not.  And when things were not going well, they dusted themselves off, picked themselves off the canvas, and turned the disappointment into opportunity.

Naturally, all Eagles' fans were hoping for a win.  Desperately.  Deep down, all fans have their doubts.  Sometimes, teams just don't play well on a given day, or they do, only to lose their focus, take their foot off the gas pedal and lose a big lead.  Very much, all Eagles' fans were hoping for a valiant showing from their team, that if they were going to lose, it would be not because of falling asleep at the wheel, but with guns a-blazing.  The reasons for this have to do with much more than football.

The country treats Philadelphia like a poor, developmentally challenged stepchild at times.  Condescending, patronizing, scolding, demeaning, use whatever verb you want.  New Yorkers disdain Philadelphia because, well, it isn't New York, it isn't open 24-7 and it doesn't have all that New York has to offer.  Philadelphia once was home to the government and the financial world, but that was so far back in the day that the legislators used to have summer homes in what is now the Grays' Ferry part of the city, about a 15-minute ride from Independence Mall.  A series of maneuvers and compromises took the financial center to Manhattan and the government to swamp land south of Maryland that became the District of Columbia.  The city has been the butt of jokes, starting with the comedian W.C. Fields, who wanted emblazoned on his tombstone "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." 

The city didn't do itself any favors, either.  Fans did boo Santa Claus (that the version of Santa in question was drunk and slovenly and an embarrassment to the trade gets no mention), throw snowballs at the Dallas Cowboys (led by a future mayor of the city, no less) and get put in a makeshift jail at the old Veterans Stadium (the showboat judge who established the court later got elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, only to later resign in disgrace because of a scandal involving the sharing of pornographic e-mails).  We had a tough-guy mayor show up to a riot with a night stick in the cumberbund of his tuxedo, and another mayor who infamously permitted the police department to drop a bomb on a row house to roust a violent disobedient movement from the confines, only to end up torching several blocks of the city.  Industry moved away, first down south and then overseas.  Take a train into Philadelphia from outside the city or from the suburbs and you might think that you are passing a former war zone, the empty, scavenged, dilapidated and graffiti-laden buildings testimony to a time when the city made a lot of things.  A famous writer, it might have been Veblen, once wrote, "Philadelphia, corrupt and contented." 

Put differently, I've never felt that the city and its residents felt as good about itself as they should.  Instead, they sometimes act like they don't belong or that someone else is judging them and that, as a result, they don't measure up.  It also didn't help that the records of the sports teams pale in comparison to the Yankees to the north and to all Boston teams and even to the Baltimore Orioles in comparison to the hometown Phillies.  And there have been some famous blown leads, notably by the Phillies in the 1977 National League Championship Series and the 76ers from the late 1960's through the late 1970's.  And then there were the Eagles, 1-5 in NFC championship games under Andy Reid and 0-2 in Super Bowls. 

Losers, chokers, poor drafters, soulless stadium (the Vet), hockey team with an antiquated way of doing things, basketball team that holds the NBA record for the worst record in a season, baseball team that was the first franchise to lose 10,000 games (we didn't know anyone was counting).  How many times have we heard it?  How many times have we had our faces rubbed in it? 

This game meant a lot more than just a Super Bowl.  It had to do with the overall identity of our home town.  Now, many of us aren't extreme idolators and realize what a good thing we have -- good houses and schools and communities without the taxes and prices of New England, New York and New Jersey.  We get that.  It's not that we don't think that we have a good thing -- locally.  But it's the national image that irks us.  Sure, we can fight with each other and have internal rivalries.  But pick on us, and we'll get our backs up and defend each other hard.  And fight back with you.  Even with that, though, there was this thing -- that we haven't always done our best on the national stage, and people look down on us -- and our city -- because of it.

The Eagles' victory over the Patriots changed all that.  The Birds played aggressively throughout, charged hard at the defending champs, the dynasty with the best QB ever and the best head coach over and outplayed them.  They even ran a trick play that people will be talking about forever, one that they ran on fourth down and one at the opponents' goal line right before the first half ended that increased the team's lead.  And they kept on coming and coming.  They did so without their starting QB, without their future HOF left tackle, without their starting middle linebacker.  They did so not because one person stepped up above all others, but because they all stepped up, did their jobs, helped each other and took the game away from the Patriots. 

They made a statement.  To be the best you have to beat the best, and they did. 

And, in so doing, they hit the re-set button for an entire region.  Yeah, you can pick on us and make fun of us and talk about how our area stinks.  Most of you who do that have never been here and don't understand what makes the place special in so many ways.  We have heard it all; there's not much more you can say that we haven't already heard, and what there is will not hurt us.  Why?  Because we've been slammed with it for years, and each and every time we shake it off, carry on, move on and stand up strong.  But what the Eagles' did -- overcoming the adversity that they did, staying together and holding true to a common belief that they could achieve what no Eagles' team had done in the prior 52 years -- makes a statement that blankets and elevates an entire region and entire group of people.

We can win the big one in the biggest sport on the biggest stage. 

We are winners.

We always thought we could do anything we set our minds to.

But now we have shown everyone we can.

And made believers out of them.

Thank you, Eagles, for this most special of victories. 

In flying proudly, you have elevated all of us to fly with you. 

And it feels really good.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Questions that the Michigan State Affair (and Others) Raise

Penn State.


Michigan State.

The Sandusky affair, the blatant disregard for sexual assault and the blatant disregard for sexual molestation and assault are stunning, troubling and horrifying.  Imagine, also, if your kids were the victims.  How would you feel?  And, if they're not, how do you feel?  Why should this type of behavior be enabled, tolerated and covered up at these schools?

But there are two other compelling questions that must be raised.  Are we na├»ve enough to believe that these are the only institution with these problems?  Are we now cynical enough to believe that every institution has this type of problem and that there are two types of colleges -- those that have been caught and those who have not?  Which school is next?  And what will the Michigan State do to amateur athletics, college athletics, high school athletics and college administrations in general?  Is the Michigan State affair just the tip of a huge iceberg that is about to surface and ram itself into each and every college?

The second question, equally compelling, is why these patterns of behavior seem to go on an not get hit head on with a sledgehammer and stopped?  Why don't people want to stand up and take on the odd behavior of a Jerry Sandusky, the sexual assault culture at Baylor, the molestation/assault culture at Michigan State?  People saw the behavior, they saw the signs, they knw things were going on and yet, they did nothing.  Or not enough.


I have given this some thought and posit that it takes a lot of courage to stand up because of a few factors.  First, you don't know if you will be believed.  Second, you don't know if you will be retaliated against (look into what happened to Mike McQueary at Penn State) or whether you will be committing career suicide, because who wants to hire a whistleblower?  Third, you don't want to risk losing all the trappings of your job -- the 401(k) or 403(b) match for your retirement funds, the defined contribution that a university makes to your retirement account, the tuition support for your kids' tuition, your tenure and rank at the institution.  Or you think that taking a stand is above your pay grade -- it is for someone else to do.  Or you think that others must know and are looking into it.  Finally, most people hate conflict, like going home to their comfortable chair, big-screen television and ice cream at night.  They like being comfortable, and raising an issue this serious is very uncomfortable.  And for some, there is no safety net, no safe landing space. 

All of these factors are plausible.  Many institutions try to build in mechanisms for people to raise complaints.  Hotlines can be very useful if people feel uncomfortable to raise questions in real time and in person.  But hotlines have some baggage -- the reporter at times only wants to go so far and many times does not want to meet with the investigators.  As a result, incidents reported on hotlines can be unsubstantiated, especially if they occur in isolation.  That said, were Michigan State to have gotten numerous reports about Larry Nassar, the odds would have increased dramatically that Michigan State had a Larry Nassar problem and that Larry Nassar had big problems.  Have one person make a claim that investigators cannot substantiate, and, well, it's an unsubstantiated claim.  Have ten people make claims in a concentrated period of time, and most likely there are enough dots to connect and dominos to fall that the likes of Nassar get outed, fired and prosecuted.

There are many great minds in higher education and law enforcement, and they need to partner to figure out solutions so that these affairs do not happen again.  There will be occasional bad incidents -- it is hard to avoid them -- but the goal would be to knock out patterns of behavior before they come patterns and tsunamis of crime to occur before they even become a two-incident trend.  Cultures must change; the money must not corrupt an institution and institutions need to realize that they need to hit incidents head on to protect their reputations as opposed to avoiding them because no one wants to deal with a scandal.  Deal with an incident head on and dispatch with it, and you'll get a reputation for an accountable institution that does things the right way.  Let things go because you don't want to do the right thing or bring embarrassment to the university, well, look at Michigan State right now.  Their brand is damaged, their proverbial ship is listing mightily.  And why?  Because despite many opportunities, no one in authority did anything.  And no one -- not Tom Izzo, not Mark Dantonio, not Larry Nassar -- should be bigger than the institution.  And in this case, MSU let Nassar and his "global" reputation become bigger than the institution to the point where no one would believe that such a legendary figure could be such a predator.  Everyone is accountable; the bigger the name, the higher the standards they should be held to and hold themselves to.  Why?  It's called leadership.  It's called accountability.

So how much of this remains out there?  The examples are not limited to pedophilia and sexual harassment, either.  For example, before privacy laws came into effect in the U.S. regarding healthcare, employers had free rein to examine which employees were biggest users of their healthcare plans, who had AIDS, and who suffered from mental health issues.  My guess is that the landscape is littered with busted careers because those who ran companies -- through their human resources departments -- scanned these records.  After all, who wanted someone making $40,000 a year in a clerical job using up $200,000 a year in AIDS medicine or who wanted a nut case working for them because the company knew that the rising star went to see a psychiatrist and might have gotten a prescription for a sedative?  I wrote the previous lines pejoratively, because, needless to say, that type of managerial behavior was deplorable.  Lord knows the billions in damages people suffered -- not to mention the damage to their reputations -- because of the speculation that must have swirled about them because of the peek into the healthcare records.  The privacy laws ended those "look ins" but the damage was done.    The AIDS patient was not evil, and neither was the person who was aware enough to get some help for his mental health issues.  Oddly, the evil was in the acts of the management, who wanted to sanitize anything and not give one rat's rear end about others' lives or a sense of community.  Compassion?  That obviously was for someone else. 

My guess is that Penn State, Michigan State and Baylor cannot be the only ones.  North Carolina and Louisville had scandals regarding phony classes and strippers/payments to players, respectively.  The laws that require the reporting of sexual assaults on campus can make any parent worry; it stands to reason that more reports of systematic neglect and aggressiveness against victims will surface, big-name coaches will be involved, and whole administrations might continue to fall.  Put different, the odds are that similar scandals are brewing at between 15-20% of the schools in the Power 5 conferences.  Which means, then, that there might be half a dozen more schools that have serious issues. 

I used to comment on these pages that I didn't want my kids to go to a college where any coach makes more than the university president.  My reason for saying this is that I want the schools to have their priorities in order -- not the bread and circus that can mollify the masses of students that go to the big places -- but an emphasis on learning, community and skills needed to graduate with confidence and become a productive member of society.  While I like sports, I could care less whether the schools' teams win the majority of their games or whether the school has to expel a star because despite what he means to the team he committed an act of violence.  Yes, as the Duke lacrosse debacle taught us, everyone is entitled to a defense, and I don't want to paint athletic administrations, coaches and players with a broad brush, but schools need to deal with acts of aggression or molestation -- against any student, not just an athlete -- with compassion and dispatch.  The accused must be afforded their rights too -- we cannot go overboard with trials by media or angry student groups because an incident happened the night before and tensions are running high.

Lastly, the NCAA is not the organization to deal with this issue.  Oh, it will jump in the way it did against Penn State because there was a huge public hue and cry and because the powers that be -- including the now-questioned Mark Emmert -- figured that they had to do something.  I am not sure that the NCAA has jurisdiction or that it should step in.  Law enforcement seems to be all over the case, as it should be.  That said, I think that the powers that be in the State of Michigan should realize the huge culture problem they have in East Lansing and take decisive measure to change the culture and make sure that they have their priorities in order. 

Something went really, terribly, horribly wrong.  My heart aches for all the victims and their families.  This is a huge crisis, and Michigan State must turn it into an opportunity, so that no person who walks on the campus walks in fear or walks concerned that if she has any concerns about her well being, that she will not be able to raise them and get a good, fast response.  That should not be too much to ask, but, apparently, on many college campuses, it is right now.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Philadelphia Eagles

Team trades for shutdown corner and loses him for 9 games after first series in first game.

Team loses very versatile, veteran, savvy do-it-all running back/return man early in the season, along with its kicker.

Team loses top special teams player not that long thereafter.

Team loses future Hall of Famer/left tackle and very good starting middle linebacker in the ninth game.

Not long after that, phenom QB, en route to an MVP season, tears ligaments in his knee, done for the season.

Team finishes 13-3 and is going to the Super Bowl.

Got all that?

Many pundits predicted that the Philadelphia Eagles would go 8-8, perhaps 9-7 at best with this year's team.  Among the question marks going into the season were depth at running back, the ability of a new receiving corps to out-produce last year's group, whether center Jason Kelce could recover from a bad season, and whether the oft-criticized defensive backfield could at least become average.  Atop that, there were worries about the age of starting left tackle Jason Peters (35) and the natural concerns -- nothing elevated, of course -- that Carson Wentz would continue to progress because despite all of the hype, the last half of the 2016 season didn't go all that well for the ream.  The concerns were marked going into the season and became magnified with the personnel losses that occurred during it.

What no fan could have predicted was the quality of work done in the front office (where once-maligned head of football operations Howie Roseman made few mistakes and should be everyone's executive of the year and head coach Doug Pederson, who, quite frankly, few were excited about when Roseman hired him, adjusted well with the personnel he has and coached the team most ably, weathering the losses).  What resulted by the season's end were the following -- a very much "plus" receiving corps, a vastly improved back-up TE in Trey Burton, a defensive backfield that became a big asset with depth, a starting QB who looks like the next great one, a back-up who looks like he might be in demand for a trade and several good running backs.

Teams need a lot of things to go right to get to the Super Bowl.  First and foremost, it goes without saying that they need to play well.  But more than that, they need to adjust their plans for the personnel they have and need to have sufficient depth, because it's a given that key players will get hurt for periods of time.  The Eagles have played well, and they have adjusted for changes to their roster.  The last result underscored the strength of the depth and the team's ability to insert new players and new schemes and take care of the opposition.  It has been impressive to say the least.

The City of Philadelphia remains giddy after the team's convincing win over the Vikings.  That same giddy group probably was in despair after the Vikings scored the game's first touchdown, but now they are starting to focus on the fact that the Eagles have never won the Super Bowl and must defeat a dynasty to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. 

This is a very solid team, replete with good leadership, an esprit de corps that screams "attack" when you see them walk into a stadium, lines that are good at pushing the opposition off the ball and a variety of skill players who can find the end zone.  The Patriots, deservedly so, are the favorites.   Until someone takes the crown from them, they have the right to wear it.  They can continue to burnish the reputation of an already-established dynasty and add luster to their far-reaching shine. 

And the Eagles can finally get to the top of the hill. 

Were they to do so, the City of Philadelphia will party perhaps like no championship has ever partied before.  Yes, the Phillies drew great crowds in 2008.  Fun time.  But if the Eagles were to win the Super Bowl, the parade and parties that will ensue will make the Phillies' celebration look like a toddler's birthday party at Chuck 'E Cheese's. 

As a lifelong fan, it would be fun to watch that explosion.

Fly, Eagles, fly!

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Jalen Hurts: A Lesson in Character

It has been said that sports don't develop character -- they reveal it. 

Last night, Alabama trailed Georgia at the half.  While the entire team didn't execute well, the focal point of that execution became the Crimson Tide's quarterback, Jalen Hurts.  It just wasn't Hurts who wasn't playing well on offense for the Tide -- his blockers had their mistakes and his receivers had trouble gaining separation.  But Hurts didn't do as well as he normally did, and the Georgia defense did a good job of frustrating Alabama and its running game. 

So, if your running game isn't working, you have to pass the ball.  Well, Hurts isn't known as the best passer in the world, and the Alabama coaches had a decision to make -- stay with the guy who is a team leader and had gotten you this far, or call a huge audible and replace him with a freshman who hadn't played a down of consequence in his career.  That freshman, though, is better at throwing the ball, and the Alabama coaches thought that the change was justified.  We all know what happened afterwards -- the change further cements Nick Saban as a coaching legend, and the freshman substitute had a fairy-tale like game that climaxed with a flawless TD pass on fourth and long at the end of the second overtime to give Alabama its sixth national championship in nine years.  All of that has been written about a lot and many stories will continue to focus on this exciting game and the coaching of Nick Saban.

But suppose you're the quarterback who won 25 games in two years, including a national title as a freshman, played in the national title game last season and then gets benched.  Ironically, his name is Hurts, and there is nothing more than can hurt the psyche of a young man then to be yanked from a game -- the national championship game -- before a live audience of millions of people and with family and friends in attendance.  Yes, that has to hurt.  Young men could get angry, feel frustrated, humiliated, disappointed, upset that they were not getting a chance to redeem themselves, could question themselves, their coach's loyalty to them, the fairness of it all and whatever other emotions could boil over at such a critical juncture in their lives.

Jalen Hurts didn't.  He remained engaged on the sideline.  He remained supportive of this team and very much encouraged his back-up and gave pointers about different coverages.  Jalen Hurts did not play the role of the wounded turtle and retreat to his shell.  He stood tall, summoned the strength and emotional fortitude to know that he is part of a team and something bigger than himself, that a starting position is not an entitlement, and a whole bunch of other thoughts and emotions that went into the algorithm in his head that instructed him, "you are a leader, you have been a leader on this team, your team needs you to continue to lead, especially when the team is behind.  Stand tall, be supportive and continue to lead.  You might not be the quarterback on the field right now, but you are still a leader."

Alabama could have wilted after the half or after it found itself down 20-7 with six minutes and change left to go in the third quarter.  But the Crimson Tide had one more high tide left in them and kept finding the energy and determination to overcome disappointments within the game (an interception tossed by the back-up, a missed field goal at the end of regulation that would have won the game for them) to win the game. 

Jalen Hurts, the quarterback, was not on the field for almost all of that time, save one play where he ran the ball to set up the field goal attempt at the end of regulation.  Jalen Hurts, the leader, was all over that field in spirit, helping his team win in any way he could.  Sure, Jalen Hurts did not throw the game-winning touchdown pass, but he emerged a winner in multiple ways last night -- as a person of tremendous character, and with his second national championship ring.  Okay, so he didn't play at his best level last night, but it would be hard to imagine that he ever has led any better or revealed aspects of his character any better than he did last night.

Alabama wins for a reason.  Sure, the Tide can recruit with the best of them.  Other schools recruit well too.  But it's the culture of maturity and accountability that distinguishes the Crimson Tide from any other program out there.  The Tide have about eight players who will leave early and get selected in the early rounds of the NFL draft.  Jalen Hurts will not be one of them, and it's unclear right now what his future in football will be -- as a quarterback at Alabama, as a quarterback somewhere else or playing another position at Alabama.  And most people will not remember how he took his disappointment on Monday night; they will remember how his back-up -- a freshman from Hawaii -- took over in the second half and helped lead the team to victory.  But deep down, the person to whom Jalen Hurts has to answer -- himself -- should know that how he acted last night was extraordinary.

It's fun to watch exciting games with theatrics, lead changes and dramatic endings.  It's even more rewarding to watch them when you see young men dig deep and reveal a part of themselves that is truly amazing.  Jalen Hurts did that last night, and the Alabama nation should be thankful for it.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Rick Carlisle is Just Plain Wrong

If Rick Carlisle had his way, any network that pays the NBA big bucks to support the private jets, the high salaries, the nice locker rooms and the amazing practice facilities has zero right to provide any content that might stir up a controversy for a team or, heaven forbid, one of his fellow coaches.  That, in essence, is what Carlisle offered in a pugnacious, dismissive style yesterday at a press conference.  Put bluntly, he was trying to intimidate the sports media from doing its job.

The cause of Carlisle's anger is the NBA's current court jester, LaVar Ball, who can provide some compelling flavor in a professional sports world that is too full of sanitized quotes and teams who prevent access to star players.  Should Ball be the story?  In many cases, not really, because he is an attention hound.  That said, he also is the father of the second pick in last year's NBA draft, and that player is a member of one of the league's highest profile franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers.  On most days, Ball is a side show, and the media has come around to treating him as such, someone who is famous, like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, for being famous.

But that doesn't mean that LaVar Ball cannot provide compelling news.  His quote the other day that the Lakers' players were unhappy and that head coach Luke Walton has lost the locker room is, whether Carlisle likes it or not, news.  That quote compels beat reporters to dig in and discern whether this is LaVar Ball's opinion, whether LaVar Ball is relaying his son's opinion, or whether LaVar Ball is relaying his son's report that other players have come to the same conclusion.  Yes, a lot of the above is hearsay, but that is why beat reporters dig in, cover the story and report. 

Many have criticized the media over this story, and Carlisle is not the only one.  There are those who offer that the media should not be listening to LaVar Ball or giving him an audience.  There are those who want to disqualify Ball automatically because his acts like a court jester and seems to say something almost daily that will draw him a headline.  And then there is Carlisle, who offered that ESPN should do whatever it can to make the league look good. 

Carlisle is a good coach and a bright guy; he didn't get a degree from the prestigious University of Virginia for nothing.  His point also has some logic to it, namely, that if ESPN plays big money for the rights to the NBA and wants to offer an outstanding product to viewers, it should endeavor to make the league look as good and robust as possible, presumably, even though Carlisle didn't say it, to make the league look more attractive to fans, who will tune in more, which, in turn, will make the product more compelling to advertisers, who will drive up rates, which will help ESPN's revenues, enable it to pay more for rights in the future, which will enable the teams to make more money and, accordingly, pay the Rick Carlisles of the world more, all the while giving them fewer headaches in the form of the self-appointed and by far best quote in the NBA this year.  Got it?

Good, because the logic is as good as far is it goes.  Look, I think that ESPN is not pure journalism, and it's original name, the "Entertainment and Sports Programming Network" suggests that it is more entertainment and less journalism.  But the journalism is there -- in E60, Thirty for Thirty, "Outside the Lines" and other stories that they cover.  And so long as it is there, they have the right, and perhaps even if in their at times conflicted role (whose Achille's heel Carlisle's comments tweak) to cover a story for which the main source is none other than LaVar Ball.  

That said, ESPN has put itself in this awkward position -- paying big bucks for the rights but also positing itself as the premier provider in the U.S. of sports news  along with content.  It has tenacious reporters who love to be the first source for a story, including Seth Wickersham, Adrian Wojnaroski and many others.  So, it stands to reason that if something is rotten in the Lakers' locker room, ESPN should be covering it.  And U.S. coaches and managers have it relative easy compared to soccer coaches/managers around the world, where the journalistic competition is fierce to break the hot story about what currently is making or breaking a football squad.  You might need to have a thick skin in the U.S.; in Europe, you need cast-iron underwear.

Reporting is a critical aspect of our society, and the better and more thorough the reporting the better off we all are.  Tremendous, withering criticism has been sent the media's way because of the way it has covered certain events (or not covered them) over time.  Emotions are high; allegations of "fake" news abound, even when the news is real and the accuser wants to deflect attention away from himself or the issues that are bedeviling him.  The press isn't perfect, and neither are the sources.  But it stands to reason that a credible person can be wrong on occasion and someone viewed as an abject nut case can be right.  And that is the journalist's job to figure out -- is LaVar right, or is he spouting off again, the NBA's version of "Old Faithful."

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Riflery and the Process

When I was a kid, I was a pretty good shot.  My day camp had riflery, and I shot .22's, pretty well, too.  I remember the range master and how he ran the range.  You were given a rifle, and the first round was for practice.  Correcting for bad sighting was easy if, for example, your first five shots ended up in the upper right hand quadrant of the target.  He'd tell you to adjust your sight two clicks to the left and two clicks down.  Then, when you shot your next round, presumably you would place your bullets in the area of the bulls eye (which actually happened much more often than not).

Contrast that with the shooter who misses the target or places shots in each quadrant.  That shooter is so inconsistent he probably is not controlling his breathing, is jerking the trigger and has no idea whether he will hit the target or not.  The problem is so bad if so fundamental that it is hard to correct.  You need to tell the shooter to control his breathing, but not to stop it, and not to jerk the trigger, etc., etc., etc.  The point being that it is much harder to correct this problem because the problems are manifested all over the place.

And that leads me to the Philadelphia 76ers.  The good news, if you can call it that, is that the team's problems are consistent, analogously in the same quadrant.  They are the following:  1) Ben Simmons right now is either unable or unwilling to shoot the ball enough and well enough to take over a game, for all of the hype behind him; 2) the team has a penchant for blowing big leads in the second half; 3) the team turns the ball over too much; 4) the team has too many one-dimensional guards and cannot guard another team's star guard; and 5) it still does not know whether for all the money they are paying him they can have a healthy and in-shape Joel Embiid on the floor for 75 games a season.

The bad news, if we go back to the rifle range analogy, is that the range master could be dealing with a shooter with an out-of-date gun or bad eyes, as the problems the team is dealing with, while fixable, are pronounced, especially for a team that is in year 5 or so of "The Process."  Problem #6, if there is one, is that there have been a lot of misses in the draft, for all of Sam Hinkie's stockpiling of draft picks (and, to his credit, Hinkie warned that not every move would work).  Michael Carter-Williams was a miss, as were Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, the latter somewhat glaring because the league has almost totally morphed away from needing the type of player Okafor is, which is a throwback to the days where you couldn't win without a center who could dominate in the low post.  And it is hard to say right now what the team has in Simmons, who admittedly missed a season in his formative years and has shown signs of brilliance, and this year's first overall pick, Markell Fultz, whose grade must be an incomplete.

So, how to fix things?  As for #1, Simmons needs to spend the summer working on his jump shot.   His 103 or so touches a game, which the last time I looked were 20 more than the next guy, seem excessive when you consider his overall production.  Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook he is not.  To me, the more touches a player has, the easier it can be to defend his team.  So, patience has to be the watch word.  As for #2, part of that is personnel, part of that is leadership and part of that is coaching.  Robert Covington and Embiid are defensive stoppers; the team has no such stopper at guard and seems to present an opportunity for an opposing guard -- the other night it was Shabazz Napier because the Trail Blazers were without Damian Lilliard -- to show his stuff.  But given that this is a persistent problem, coach Brett Brown, for all of his positivity, has to be held accountable too, as does the front office.   If for no other reason, get a guard who can come off the bench and given  you 15-20 minutes a night of the type of pain-in-the-neck defense that helps define a winning team.  That could help the team prevent some awful skids in the second half.

As for #3,  that's a hard one, but it seems like there are certain players for whom this problem persists -- Embiid, perhaps because he is not in optimal shape or because he has yet to fully realize that backing in and putting the ball on the floor can be problematic and shooting guard J.J. Redick, who the team signed to a one-year, $23 million deal to shoot better than he has, turn the ball over less and defend better than he has.  Again, this has to be a matter of concentration and having the players become more familiar with one another more than anything else.  Coaching figures into this too -- there just are too many mistakes for a team that should make the playoffs but right now does not look like it is going to.

#4 seems like one of the biggest problems.  The guard corps simply does not defend well.  That's why the team drafted Fultz, a comprehensive guard whom they hope can bring the mojo the way the elite guards in the league do.  Teams salivated over him, and it seemed clear from mid-season last season that he was the consensus #1 pick.  But he has missed a lot of time, and other guards in the draft (think Donovan Mitchell) have distinguished themselves, as has Celtics' forward Jayson Tatum, who can flat-out shoot the lights out.  So, the pressure mounts, and given some of the things that manifested themselves when the team shelved Fultz only a few games into the season, you have to wonder what is ailing him.  This ownership group is notoriously non-transparent about player issues, so is it just Fultz's shoulder or did his machinations in trying to play in pain create a hitch in his shot that the team has struggled to correct?  Many questions are out there, but presumably if the team were to get the Fultz that they thought they drafted, they would have an outstanding piece who could help cure some of their core woes -- well-rounded back court play.

As for #6, the team cannot afford the magnitude of mistakes it has made with its top draft picks.  As they go forward, they need to find the right pieces to fit in with some potential superstars.  The future still has a bright tint to it, but now that the misses seem to be consistent and falling into a pattern, they should be easier to correct.  Each and every one of them presents a unique problem.  Fixable?  Sure, but the fixes for some require some depth and consideration in approach and do not suggest that they can be quick.  Are they possibly quick enough to turn around this downturn and enable the team to make the playoffs?  Perhaps yes, perhaps not.

The Process has hit a bump in the road.  The team is not as good as people thought it could be at the season's outset or when the team when on a good run in the early fall.  That said, it is not as bad as its recent play has suggested and the schedule seems to get easier in the second half.  Optimists suggest that the process still has a way to go and that fans should be patient.  Right now, that is all that they can be; they have no choice.

Should the team go on a run, Simmons assert himself more, Fultz become healthy, Embiid stay healthy and the team go on a roll, all will be rosy, the team will make the playoffs and things will be looking up.  And the team might have another key draft pick and will have the most money to spend on free agents, who, presumably, will be willing to come to Philadelphia and help forge a squad that can make a deep run in the playoffs.

Should Embiid's back continue to balk and he miss games, Fultz look more like Carter-Williams and less like a potential Harden or Westbrook or Irving, the team continue to blow leads and the team spiral into a sub-.500 season, perhaps significantly so, then the picture will be different.  Will the fans -- who clearly bought into the hype -- return to the level they upped for season-ticket packages this year?  Will Simmons and Fultz project out to be more than starters, even if pretty good ones?  (The team needs stars, absolute stars -- to contend for at title).  And will Embiid end up on the list of big men who could have been something and could have contributed heavily to a contender but for persistent maladies?  That is the nightmare scenario.

The stakes are higher.  The pressure is greater.  The shine is off.  Potential means, as Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty once said, "that you ain't done it yet."  The clock keeps on ticking; other teams do not stand still.  With each game, the scrutiny intensifies, the patience diminishes.  The Process once was cool, funky, mysterious, intriguing, in vogue.  Right now, it is a bit like yesterday's fashion hit, the car of the year a couple of years back.  Still cool, but neither the latest nor the greatest.

The fans are waiting for it to break out, to yield the harvest that was predicted for it, even if those doing the predicting were those doing the hyping in order to create some magic beyond the fellows who do amazing things with drums during timeout at the Wells Fargo Center.  The place is festive, and there are moments of brilliance.  But that's all they are -- moments.  Not win streaks, not seasons, not eras.  Moments.  The fans like the moments, to be sure.  But they are waiting for what was promised -- the momentous and, ultimately, monuments to those who win championships.

Moments help sell tickets for a season.

The momentous lasts forever.

The Big Ten and Bowl Games

No knocking the results.  That said. . .

The SEC has two teams in the playoff.  The Big Ten has none.

Which means one of many things:

1.  The Big Ten from top to bottom is the better conference.
2.  The SEC is top heavy (see #1).
3.  The SEC is overrated.
4.  The Big Ten is underrated.
5.  The entire system needs a reboot.
6.  The playoff should have eight teams in it.
7.  Those who run the playoff should not whine that the playoff takes the kids away from classes and that adding another round would add to that distraction when there usually is a gap of a month between the end of the (regular) season and the bowl games anyway.
8.  There is so much money involved that the players are getting exploited and that a scholarship is not enough compensation for the (unilateral) commitment they make in that a) scholarships are not for four years but renewable on an annual basis; b) kids have to sit out a year if they transfer to a BCS school, c) kids in the current program can get penalized for the sins of a past program in that they might not be able to go to a bowl game or have an inferior team because their team is not able to award the same scholarships as an unpenalized team and d) coaches can leave at any time for anywhere and not have to sit out a year, but players cannot leave without penalty if a coach does.
9.  Americans are unique people who fixate on this sort of thing when the rest of the world is focused on its professional soccer leagues and the World Cup, which is set for June and July in Moscow.
10.  Saquon Barkley is an amazing football player.
11.  Urban Meyer's lustre might be fading.
12.  Paul Chryst knows a few choice words.
13.  It's hard to win consistently at Vanderbilt.
14.  Wisconsin does not get a lot of respect.
15.  If Alabama's football program were a country, its revenue would put it in the top 50 in the world.
16.  If Alabama's football program were a country, the United Nations would try to sanction it for unspeakable crimes against humanity.
17.  Nick Saban is the [name the dictator] of college football.
18.  People still do not know who Kirby Smart is.
19.  People in the Northeast still think "Securities and Exchange Commission" when they first hear the term SEC mentioned.
20.  How many people care about bowl games except those who sponsor them and those whose schools participate in them, if only because there are so many.  Back in the day, when there were only 7 TV channels in a major city and entertainment options were scarce, as a sports fan you cared and you watched.  But when options abound -- for example such DI stalwarts as Cornell and Harvard were on TV last night on the road (on ESPN, no less) playing basketball at SEC schools, well, if you could tune into that why watch Wisconsin take on Miami, for example, for forego watching a Harry Potter marathon on your cable channel?

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Marlins' Fire Sale

Why should you go to a game if you are a Miami Marlins' fan?  Your team just traded its stars, and I would have said bankable stars but new CEO Derek Jeter recently spoke of netting a gain of $265 million by shedding the long-term contract of uber-slugger Giancarlo Stanton.  His premise is that the Marlins will not win with Stanton because they are lacking too many other pieces, so why shell out that money for him?  In other words, fans need to trust the process with business decisions like that so that the Marlins can re-tool the team the new-fashioned way -- through draft picks, the signing of foreign players and analytics.

The Marlins are an obvious choice to pick on, but so are perennial also-rans in many other leagues with the exception of the National Football League, where parity is such that many of last year's good teams have fallen off, only to be replaced this year by teams who were not all that good last year.  That's great for the NFL, which has some serious issues to deal with, first and foremost of which is the long-term health of its players.  But in Major League Baseball, it has to be hard to root for the Marlins now or the San Diego Padres almost ever.  In the English Premier League, it has to be hard to root for a team not named City, United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal, although admittedly it can be tough to be a fan of those teams too.  That said, with the exception of Leicester's catching lightning in a bottle a few years ago, why would anyone spend a lot of emotional energy to root for anyone else.  True, money does not buy you a title, but it is necessary to spend a lot to get your team into the top six.  And with the NBA, well, it has to be hard to be, among other things, a fan of the Brooklyn Nets or the Phoenix Suns. 

Circling back to the Marlins, they just jettisoned the key players.  Yet, they're asking season ticket holders to renew and new people to subscribe to season tickets.  I'll put it to you another way.  Give me the Astros and the worst sales force in the world or the Marlins and the best one, and I'll bet on the Astros' sales force to sell more tickets than the Marlins' sales force any day of the week.  I only can imagine the sales pitch being made to Marlins' fans.  Among the possibilities are "come see the other team" and "invest in the future of professional baseball in Florida."  As to the former, years ago the Nats and Pirates advertised in the Philadelphia market to draw Phillies' fans to their teams road series in Washington and Pittsburgh.  Could the Marlins do the same?  As to "trusting a process," well, you need some future stars to watch now in order to make that pitch compelling.  The 76ers had amazingly talented Joel Embiid available last year.  By comparison, who do the Marlins have?

After the 2008 season, the Phillies had waiting lists for their full- and partial-season ticket plans.  Because they were not forward-thinking after 2008, the team consistently regressed to the point where they are today, where the team is trying to sell hope to the fans, whose experience is that the team more often than not has not been that good.  Today, you can buy single-game tickets in any section of the ball park, including the section right behind home plate.  I suppose that the business owners and plaintiffs lawyers stop subscribing if the team does not provide a compelling product on the field.  And Philadelphia has been a baseball town.  Sure, it's an Eagles' town, but it also has plenty of baseball fans.  Even then, the team's average attendance has been way down.  The once electric atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park now reflects the current of a third-world island whose power remains constant for about one-third of a day and sputters the rest of the time.

Loneliness is a killer.  Remember "That Natural?"  The New York team that Robert Redford played for and Wilfred Brimley managed played to an empty stadium, where you could hear foul balls clatter off empty bleachers in the midst of a hot summer's day.  The Marlins' broadcasters will be able to hear individual conversations from the stands and distinguish the call of the lonely hot dog or beer vender in the seats near their perch.  Fans will go, some out of habit and some because their dads took them and they feel obligated to take their kids.  But people will not come close to turning out in big numbers, perhaps for a long time.  It doesn't help that the new owner has all of the personality of someone who just underwent a colonoscopy without anesthesia.  Even Derek Jeter does not seem to believe in the product he will be putting on the field come March.  The stadium will be empty; the experience at the ball park worse than loneliness, because encroaching upon a fan's solitude will be awful play juxtaposed against not-so-distant memories of the champions of 1997 and 2003.

The omnipresence of the media offers numerous entertainment alternatives.  It seems like Marlins' fans will save money and at the same time find more joy in something other than baseball, for this season and years to come.  Derek Jeter, if he has not already, will realize quickly that the magic he brought to the playing field does not have any sway in a town where, if anything, its fans footed for him to fail.  Now they need him to succeed -- and in a hurry.