(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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Friday, March 24, 2017

Is College Basketball Un-Watchable?

Even when Dean Smith perfected the "Four Corners" offense (in the days before the shot clock), it was riveting.  Perhaps because there were fewer games on TV, perhaps because fewer teams made the tournament (back in the day, if you didn't win your conference, you didn't get in, period) or. . . perhaps because there aren't an incessant number of timeouts that break up if not inhibit the flow of play and enable coaches to micromanage almost every aspect of the game. 

The NFL is bad enough.  Sure, you need huddles, but then there are about 21 minutes of commercials per contest.  If you've ever been to a stadium to watch a game, you wonder what's going on and why there is so much time when the players and the fans are just standing around.  But in college basketball?  TV timeouts every four minutes?  Plus each team gets a multitude of timeouts per half.  The average final three minutes of a close game can take 15 minutes or more to play. 

So much for riveting, so much for a lot of drama happening fast.  Nope, instead, what we get is a barrage of ads, a few plays, a foul, perhaps a change in possession and then a team calls a timeout.  And then they play for 90 seconds, and then there is a turnover, a few fouls, a few bucket and then -- a TV timeout.  So much for the flow of the game.

I like college basketball for the most part, but the length of the games, the amount of timeouts and ads can drive a fan to distraction -- or to do something else.  Money, of course, dictates this course, and so long as the colleges follow the money, the problem is only going to get worse. 

Let the players play -- and figure out a way to let a beautiful game flow as opposed to have constant interruptions.  Watching college basketball today is like watching a classic movie on a commercial TV station -- there is no good way to break up the movie to place the commercials.  Watching it in an arts theatre or on a pay channel without interruption guarantees the rendering that the writes and directors want you to see.  Right now, we watch the games with too much interruption.  Yes, timeouts always will be a part of the game -- but how many are needed, and how long must they be?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The NBA and Rest

The complaint is not necessarily the problem.  That's what a colleague once told me, and I think that there is a lot of wisdom in that comment. 

Is the complaint that players are resting?  Is it that they are not as tough as players were back in the day?  Jalen Rose didn't take days off, Michael Jordan didn't, neither did Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain or Oscar Robertson.  Ditto for Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and quite frankly anyone mentioned in Kurtis Blow's all-time rap, "Basketball." 

It's not that, really.  Resting players makes all the sense in the world.  Okay, they don't do it in the NFL because the season is too short, but at times they do it in the English Premier League because with cup schedules and international schedules some players need a break.  They also do so in baseball, but then again MLB has a 162-game season and that's a lot of games. 

But the NBA has an 82-game schedule, and a lot of teams make the playoffs.  Analytics tell teams a lot more than they did even ten years ago.  And those metrics tell the teams that they should be resting players based upon their age, injury history, how many minutes they recently played, how many minutes they have played in their career and the likelihood the team can win (or not) without them.  All of that augurs well for the teams and for the longevity of players. 

The problem really is the integrity of the game.  Oh, I'm not talking about whether coaches might be prone to throw games in order to help bettors.  Heck, teams are throwing entire seasons to get better.  The 76ers turned it into a science, and now the Lakers are emulating the Process.  What the problem speaks to is that the league relies upon serious television dollars, and there's no way the networks ponied up the monies they did to see Lebron, Kevin and Kyrie all sit while their game was on prime time on Saturday night.  Likewise, fans are asked to pay serious sums to watch their teams.  Imagine the disappointment if they get a run of games where the visiting teams don't play their stars or the home team rests a few players.  76ers' fans anted up this year with the hope of seeing both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.  The former hurt his foot in pre-season and despite hints from the franchise that he would return after the New Year, he's out for the season.  Embiid played in 31 games with advertised "rest" games in between before being shelved this winter with a knee injury that wouldn't heal. 

Where does this lead us?  Well, for starters, the lucrative TV contract that is punishing ESPN (revenues are down at the worldwide leader) won't be as lucrative in the future if the networks aren't assured that the big names will be playing in games.  The competing bidders won't bankrupt themselves in a "got to have it" bidding contest against other networks if they cannot promise their advertisers that they will draw a certain market share, and how can they do that if they will not be sure whether the stars will play in most of the games.  Likewise, it's hard enough to ante up for a season ticket for most NBA teams, and it will be harder to push the button on the purchase if you aren't sure how healthy your team's young stars are (because there is a tendency to rest them) and if you cannot be guaranteed appearances by Cleveland's big three in your home game against them and appearances by Steph and the gang when the Warriors come into town.  If the resting trend continues, season ticket sales will drop, deservedly, and the market on sites like StubHub will become all the more dynamic.  Translated:  you'll wait to buy a ticket on the secondary market once you get a sense of who is going to play.  Why?  The tickets are just too expensive.

Sure, there are the businesses who entertain, the very loyal fans and the like whose demand for the tickets is inelastic.  But that's not most fans.  Most fans want to see the stars, they want to see them consistently and they demand to see them for the games where they have paid $200 per ticket to go watch.  Top that off with who you might or might not see on TV, and there is an integrity of the product problem surfacing, and it's ugly.

The NBA has a lot of smart people in its front office and in ownership.  What the coaches are doing does make a lot of sense; the numbers back them up.  That said, perhaps the answer is to shorten the regular season or space out the games more or something along those lines.  Change is definitely warranted.  If it doesn't happen, TV money, viewership and attendance will drop. 

People just don't want to pay NBA prices for D-League games.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Ivy Post-Season Tournament at the Palestra

I have to admit that other commitments had kept me away from the Princeton men's basketball team this year.  Good commitments, at that -- family and work, to name a few.  I also have to admit that when I saw that two starters were lost to the season for injury that I had my doubts about the Tigers' chances to win the Ivy title.

True, they had played well last year without center Hans Brase, who missed last season with a knee injury only to get hurt again and miss this season.  But they also had played well with hard charging forward Henry Caruso, a returning all-Ivy pick, and it's hard to replace a player like that and win the league. 

Down two starters, the Tigers adapted and improvised.  Coaches will tell you that teams have a fork in the road when they lose key players.  They can either use the injured teammates as an excuse or as a reason to adapt and step up.  In the case of the Princeton Tigers, everyone -- including coach Mitch Henderson -- stepped up.  Senior Spencer Weisz was named Ivy League player of the year; two teammates joined him on the Ivies' first team -- senior Steve Cook and sophomore guard Myles Stephens, who was named the Ivies' defensive player of the year, too.  Add guards Amir Bell and Devin Cannady into the mix, and, while short, the Tigers best five were mobile and agile.

They went undefeated in the league and drew the first seed in the first-ever Ivy tournament, held at Penn's magical, mystical Palestra.  The basketball gods worked in Penn's favor on the last weekend of the season, as Penn inexplicably lost to Dartmouth at home and then beat Harvard in the regular season's last game to earn the fourth seed.  The Quakers won 6 of their last 8 Ivy games and were peaking at the right time.

The Quakers are a young team, giving only one senior meaningful minutes.  Coach Steve Donahue was the legendary Fran Dunphy's top assistant at Penn, moved to Cornell where he took the Big Red to several titles and a Sweet 16 appearance, struggled and was fired at Boston College and returned to University City to take the helm at Penn.  His Quakers got off to a great start, took the lead into half time, came out hot after half time, played good defense and hit the boards well.  They were up four with under a minute to play -- only to have Princeton tie the game with five seconds to go to send it into overtime.  In OT, it was all Princeton, and the Tiger players should have given their meal money to Stephens, whose outstanding game covered for a middling effort from Weisz, a disastrous shooting display by Cook and a disappearing act on offense by Cannady (who, admittedly, excelled in the last minute of OT by hitting every foul shoot he took -- and there were at least eight).  [Note:  Stephens ended up being named the tournament's MVP). 

It was a great game, worthy of a championship tournament, worthy of the Palestra, and worthy of the Penn-Princeton rivalry.  Strange things can happen in rivalries, and strange things can happen to visiting teams in legendary arenas (okay, so technically Penn was the visiting team because Princeton was the higher seed).  It's also hard to beat a good team three times in one season, and Princeton had to do that twice over the weekend. 

The arena was not packed.  There did not seem to be the fervent atmosphere that populated the Palestra when Penn-Princeton regular season games were like playoff games.  The teams were at the top of the league, and when there were no playoffs you really needed to beat your rival to get a leg up in the standings.  The building used to be packed all the up to the rafters, the arena packed with students, the noise deafening. 

I'll allow for the fact that some schools might have been on spring break, but I'll also argue that the student bodies have so much talent in so many areas and such diversity that everyone has a lot to do.  Whatever the case, there were far fewer students from both schools than say there would have been three decades ago.  I get it, times have changed, but playoffs are playoffs and when the prize for the weekend is a ticket to the Big Dance, you would have thought that there would have been more interest from students.  There was interest -- from faculty, staff, alums and family -- and the atmosphere was good if not electric.

I wore my orange and black, saw some Penn friends, sat with a classmate and watched a good game.  And then I watched the championship game on TV the next day, where Princeton took a half to figure out Yale before winning comfortably and cutting down the nets.  The arena, from my vantage point on TV, looked less full on Day 2 than on Day 1.  But perhaps that's the case with all tournaments -- the losers go home after they lose; their tickets go unclaimed.

It's fun to have your team go back to the tournament after a six-year absence.  It's nice to see Mitch Henderson a great player and really good guy, get his first opportunity to coach in the NCAA tournament.  Whether it's great that the Ivies have a playoff now, well, I'll continue to think about that.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Whither Arsenal?

Arsene Wenger has been the manager of Arsenal for twenty years.  For the past 19 seasons, the Gunners have finished in the top four in the EPL and have qualified for the Champions League.  They also have a change to do so this year.  For the past seven years, they lost in the first round of the knockout round in the Champions League.  Among the excuses -- that the Gunners needed money to pay for their palatial stadium in North London and couldn't pay for players the way their competition did.  While Arsenal fans didn't expect a perennial reprise of the Invincibles squad that went undefeated in the EPL about 13 years ago, they did expect to challenge for more trophies and titles than the team has since that time.

Critics and pundits abound.  The big question is not whether Wenger is a good manager -- he has proven that -- but whether he has exhausted his possibilities in North London and the team needs to move on.  Put differently, Wenger in recent years seems to have been a tinkerer, someone fond of looking for a missing piece, of finding joy in an incomplete player or in the possibilities of youth.  While the Arsenal teams play in the rarified air of the EPL, something has prevented the team from finding a core of players that has the killer instinct to win trophies. 

So, perhaps, the question is whether Wenger can find that core of players again or whether the team needs to move onto a younger generation of manager with a different philosophy and approach that perhaps can relate better to this generation of player and can elevate Arsenal back to its super-elite status amidst fervent completion from City, United, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea. 

A fundamental principle of human resources management is that if you seek to remove any employee, you better make sure that the replacement is better.  In Wenger's case, that's a difficult challenge.  While it might be clear to some that he has gotten someone stale in the job or at least has lost his magic touch, that doesn't mean that there are better managers out there who could fare better with whatever wallet the Arsenal owners have given Wenger or the players current on the roster.  Remember, this is one of the best managers of all time, and remember that both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal struggled at Old Trafford when trying to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson.  (For U.S. fans, everyone knew that Philadelphia had to move on from Andy Reid, who had struggled in his final years on the job -- but Chip Kelly proved to be a disaster after a good first season in Philadelphia.  Put simply, Reid is an excellent coach, and perhaps there are only a half a dozen in the NFL who are better than he is.  Eagles' fans don't lament Reid's departure, but they are frustrated with what they perceive to be lame attempts to find a worthy successor). 

I will not address who possible successors might be.  I had thought several years ago that after his success at Dortmund Juergen Klopp might have been the person, but he moved to Liverpool to replace Brendan Rogers several years ago.  The truth there is that Klopp's record during his tenure at Liverpool is by a hair better than Rogers' was during the same time period.  Then again, Chelsea's succession plan -- Conti for Mourhino -- looks like genius.

It strikes me that after the meltdown against Bayern Munich in the Champions League and after the benching of Alexis Sanchez for a dustup in practice leading up to the Liverpool game, that something is wrong in North London.  It could be that Arsenal rallies and plays great football to earn a top-four finish in the EPL; the odds say otherwise, that they might end up on the outside looking in.  They won't get past Chelsea or, for the first time since Wenger has been at Arsenal, Tottenham, and passing City might be iffy, too.  So, it could be a three-way mad dash for fourth against United and Liverpool. 

Those problems in North London have persisted over the years -- finding the right defensive midfield combination, consistent scoring from the strikers and enough toughness at midfield, plus the many injuries that key players have suffered over time.  Right now, the chemistry isn't there, and typically when it's absent for a while, the master chemist gets sacked.  Arsenal must treat Wenger with fairness and with dignity, but it increasingly looks like they will be looking to make a change after the season concludes.  There just has not been sufficient progress over the past five years to conclude otherwise.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

One of My Favorite NBA Players of All Time. . . And He Still Has Many Chapters to Write

Kawhi Leonard.

There it is. 

Last night, he hit a three and then ran downcourt to block James Harden's layup as time was close to expiring to seal a win for the Spurs.  A few seasons ago I saw him block a shot near the three-point line.  No big deal?  Well, what if I were to tell you that he simply ran down the court, not looking anywhere but ahead of him, trusting his instincts that the ball would end up in the hands of a teammate.  It did, and that teammate through a football-like pass to him for a layup? 

Basketball IQ?  Off the charts.

Humility?  Ditto.

I recall watching the Spurs dismantling of the Heat several years ago in the NBA Finals.  I recall that LeBron and company simply could not keep up with the superior ball movement that the Spurs displayed.  It was quite a work of art, and, in the center of it all, was a unique two-way player -- Kawhi Leonard.

There are great players who will draw more mention -- James, Harden, Russell Westbrook just to name three.  Others in the equation at times are Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins of the Pelicans, the "Greek Freak" up in Milwaukee and of course almost the entire starting roster of the Golden State Warriors.  And, of course, many others.

You don't hear as much about Leonard as some others because, well, you don't hear from Leonard himself.  He is soft spoken, drives his old car and uses coupons to buy his favorite food -- wings.  He does something that many advise on, even if few follow the advice -- he lets his play do his talking for him. 

Look, if you're a hoops fan, you know what I'm talking about.  This player is someone very special.  If you're not a basketball fan or only a casual fan, watch the Spurs and confirm what I am talking about.  He can handle the ball, he can pass, he can shoot it, he can rebound it and he can defend.  He is a very complete player who excels in all aspects of the game.

A real treat to watch, especially for the connoisseur.

Are the Cavaliers Jinxed?

What do you think after this?

Hard to believe. 

Monday, March 06, 2017

So What Does the Ivy League Regular Season Champion Get for Winning the Regular Season?

I don't know whether I am in favor of post-season college basketball tournaments.  There is no denying that they are exciting, and everyone loves a seasonal Cinderella story.  There is also no denying that some under-.500 hot team could get into the tournament after going on a run, only to get unmasked in the first round.  It's different, of course, for a low- or mid-major as opposed to a power conference.  The reason -- the regular-season champion from a power conference usually will get into the tournament even if it were to bow out in the first round.  The mid- or low-major regular-season champion that loses in the tournament -- whatever the round -- risks not getting into the NCAA tournament. 

The inaugural Ivy tournament should be exciting.  You have regular-season champion Princeton, defending champion Yale, Harvard with its top-12 freshman class and perennial power Penn.  That's a good group.  But I posit this question:  shouldn't the regular-season champion -- an undefeated champion at that -- get some benefit from having won the regular-season title?  Holding the tournament is fine and perhaps long overdue -- but no bye, no home-court advantage, no well, to risk a double negative that is abhorrent to Ivy grammarians -- no . . . nothing?

Atop that, regular-season champion Princeton has to play Penn -- on Penn's home court.  And, atop that, Penn is Princeton's arch-rival.  You don't have to be a sports savant that special things can happen in arch-rivalries, regardless of who had the better season.  I know, I know, if Princeton's that good and worthy of the title it should wipe the floor with Penn.  But many experts argue that it is tough to beat the same team three times in one season.

Still, I think the Ivies would have been better off giving the top two seeds some benefit for their outstanding season -- such as a home game.  In this fashion, Saturday's games might have become games on Thursday or Friday (also giving teams more than the current 24 hours they will have to rest before their conference finals) at the home court of the #1 and #2 seeds.  That would have meant that Princeton would play Penn in Princeton and Harvard would play Yale in Cambridge.  The winners would play on a pre-selected neutral floor -- perhaps Lehigh or Lafayette or Brown -- to determine the title. 

Take a look at the ECAC hockey playoffs, where seemingly you get in if you showed up for the regular season.  According to a friend who is an expert, the first four teams get a bye and then numbers 6 through 12 play a three-game playoff -- with each game played at the site of the higher seed.  Each game, mind you!  That shows that the regular season actually meant something more than just a high seed.

The current format seems flawed, especially if Penn improves and is a perennial #1 or #2 seed.  I'm not sure that the rest of the Ivies will agree to let them have one or two home games every year to determine who goes to the NCAA tournament.  Yes, the Palestra is one mighty special place and a great place to play and watch basketball -- one of the best ever.  But that doesn't mean that historic places and monuments should trump neutrality or giving the regular-season championship some type of reward for winning the regular season.  The bet here -- the location will change.

In the meantime, you have an undefeated team (great accomplishment in its own right, but especially noteworthy since it lost two starters at the season's outset), young team, defending champion and a pretty hot and young team.  Great recipe for great theatre come Saturday and Sunday.