(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, March 05, 2006

A Dookie Gets Through the Perimeter

I once posted about how sports fans had to make choices and how they can't root for both sides of a rivalry. For example, if you life in California, you either root for USC or you do not. I recall having seen bumper stickers saying "My favorite team is Stanford and anyone who is playing USC" when visiting Northern California, and I recall likewise seeing a sticker saying "My favorite team is Cal and anyone who is playing USC." Of course, you can't root for both Cal and Stanford the way you can't root for both Harvard and Yale.

I grew up in a house that liked to root for the underdog. I also started out rooting for Duke, if for no other reason than that's where Philadelphia uber-HS star Gene Banks of West Philadelphia High School opted to play his college ball. In the fall of 1976, Banks and a NYC HS star, Albert King, Bernard's younger brother, were the most highly coveted HS seniors. Banks played on a West Philly team whose front line went 6'8", 6'6", 6'5", and in Joe Garrett, Banks and Clarence Tillman, they had a formidable front line. (Tillman, a year later, was one of the country's top recruits, signed with Kentucky, didn't distinguish himself and ended up transferring to Rutgers, which went to the Final Four in 1976) So good were those West Philly teams that they opened for the 76ers at the Spectrum that season, and my father and I would go to the games early so that we could watch this great team.

So it followed that when Gene Banks went to Duke, those who followed him in Philadelphia watched him on national TV and rooted for the Blue Devils. I was among them, if only because Banks was the best player in the city since Wilt Chamberlain, and we were hoping that the magic he showed locally would translate nationally. What we ultimately witnesses was a dual hoops personality, as it were. Banks had a great hoops IQ but he didn't get any bigger. He was a 6'6" power forward at a time when power forwards were at least 6'8" (they're about 6"11 today). He didn't dominate nationally (he was very good, though), but he combined with a talented cast that included Jim Spanarkel and Mike Gminski to lead Duke to the national title game in 1978, where they ran into Rick Robey, Mike Phillips and a 6'4" forward named Goose Givens who careered in the title game and had one of the best final games ever. The Dookies were runners up; Kentucky was just too good.

Banks graduated, and that severed the Philadelphia connection. He would go on to play in the NBA, although his career was cut short by injuries and he ended up playing for years overseas. Ironically, both Spanarkel and Gminski would end up playing for his hometown 76ers.

It was around that time that I got a better sense of Dean Smith and the North Carolina program. I simply loved the way Carolina played, and I also admired Coach Smith for the way he conducted his program and some stands he took off the court. There was something about the Carolina family that resonated with me. They played great, and they conducted themselves with class.

I continued to root for Philadelphia's Big Five teams and was an ardent follower of both Penn and Temple because my parents had degrees from both institutions. Penn was a particular favorite because at that time they were more nationally prominent, and the Big Five still held its sway over an inconsisent UHF TV picture with its weekly doubleheaders. There wasn't much else to watch then, and those broadcasts were magical. The venerated Al Meltzer called the play-by-play, and he was as good as it got.

So I had solidified my rooting into two categories, Carolina for big-time affairs, Penn, and then the rest of the Big Five whenever they were playing meaningful games. Pretty straightforward, it was.

Then a funny thing happened. I was choosing colleges and decided to go to Princeton. I really had thought solely about academics and the experience I would have and actually didn't think twice about what it would mean for my hoops allegiances. Penn was so transcendant in the Ivies in the 1970's (it won something like 7 titles in a row) that I didn't have much knowledge of Princeton's coach, Pete Carril, except that he was this hard-working, bright coach that every now and then in the 70's would give Penn fits. It was only when I got to Princeton that I discerned the true intensity of the rivarly between the two schools and the concept that Penn fans (who obviously went to the Palestra more than I did) loathed Carril. My Princeton friends didn't loathe Penn's hoops team or Penn's coach, Bob Weinhauer, but, well, it took two to tango, and the rivarly intensified at that time.

I supposed I switched sides. I got to know the players. I got to know the coach and spoke with him at length on subjects as diverse as Bill Mlkvy, "The Owl Without a Vowel," a Temple forward who was twice a first-team all-American in the early 1950's, why Princeton's attendance was down, losing kids to scholarship schools and my golf swing. Sure, I rooted hard for Princeton, and, yes, I suppose I rooted against Penn, if for no other reason than I was a diehard convert to the Princeton cause. Yet, when Penn made it to the Final Four in 1979, I rooted for them. Why? They were part of my culture, my sports-rooting history.

Since that time, I have still rooted hard for Princeton, and, again, haven't developed the dislike that certain Penn alums and Princetonians have for one another. While I love Jadwin Gym, I have fond memories of the Palestra and do believe it's a superior venue for a college basketball game. In fact, it's probably superior to most college arenas in the country. I have a great deal of respect for both Princeton's coach Joe Scott and Penn's coach Fran Dunphy, the latter of whom has become the dean of Ivy coaches, the first person to have that moniker since Pete Carril retired from Princeton in the late 1990's. Still, I am a dyed-in-the-wool Tiger, and believe it or not I would derive some comfort if the Tiger's men's team were to finish with a 2-26 record, so long as both victories were over hoops archrival Penn. As I've told friends before, there are fewer sounds more sonorous to a Princeton fan than the silence of the Penn diehards when your team is beating them in their own building. It's like going to a 3-star Michelin restaurant in Paris. You don't get to go to them too often, but when you do, you savor it.

Most of you who read this blog know that I focus on Princeton hoops to the exclusion of almost everything else save Philadelphia's Big Five. I also have posted from time to time on the demographics of DI assistant coaches. Some readers find this focus curious, while an occasional commenter has taken issue with some criticisms that I've thrown Duke's way, particularly over Coach K's American Express ad during last year's NCAA Tournament. I suppose, in a way, that you do have to choose sides. You can't root for Princeton and Penn, and you can't root for Carolina and Duke. I respect all programs. It's just that I've taken sides.

Princeton and Carolina.

Suddenly, though, my kindergartener has developed an affinity for Duke. In the PlayStation game we have (where players aren't identified but #4 for Duke is a great shooter), he likes taking Duke. He saw J.J. Redick play on TV and was amazed at his shooting ability. On Saturday, we were at the local mall at a Five Below store looking at hats, when my son saw a nice New Era cap with the Blue Devil logo on the front for $5. Instant purchase. He wore the hat most of the weekend and asked if we could hire the Duke mascot for his next birthday party.

Go figure.

Duke fans should take heart that my respect for their program is so profound that my son gravitated toward their outstanding program without any interference from me. Carolina might question my true loyalty to the legacy of Dean Smith by not touting Carolina to such a degree that he would have favored them. At this point, J.J. Redick's and Shelden Williams' exploits trump those of Tyler Hansbrough and company. So perhaps, if you think about it, he didn't choose by making a comparison. He simply hopped on the bandwagon of the most publicized program in the country.

See, unlike Coach K, my six year-old's life is about playing games and playing with toys. In that genre, it's easier to visualize a Blue Devil than a Tar Heel, with the most prominent local mascot being the St. Joe's hawk, which never ceases flapping its wings during a men's hoops game. Somehow, though, the St. Joe's brand is like our TaskyKakes -- great stuff, but regional in appeal. They're not plastered on national TV the way Duke is.

I suppose that all's fair in one's sporting life. Right now, in a carpool to an activity, there's a kid named Cameron who drives him crazy (he does a good job of doing the same thing). So, perhaps it's fitting that a current aspiration of his is to become a Cameron Crazy.

After all, this was a kid who at two I taught to say "Peja Stoyakovic" and at four I taught to say "Ruslan Fedotenko."

At six, Krzyzewski is a piece of cake.

For all he knows now, my hero Dean Smith is someone who runs a department at Princeton, Rider, St. Joe's or some other university.

He'll learn that's not the case in due course.

But March Madness is upon us, and the little guy has chosen his team.

He sure knows how to pick 'em.


Anonymous escort45 said...

As a second generation Princetonian whose father grew up next to the Penn campus, it is indeed satisfying whenever the Tigers beat the Quakers in Philadelphia. It may not quite rise to the level of beating Yale, but it's close.

5:26 PM  

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