I love March. Long before you could actually watch any of the games on TV, I was infatuated with the NCAA tournament. It was an unimaginable thrill when my school went in 1967 and I was the student play-by-play broadcaster. Boston College defeated UConn and St. John’s, which got us to the Eastern Regional Finals in Cole Field House, the great home of the University of Maryland Terrapins. Our opponent was none other than North Carolina, making its first trip to what we had not yet dubbed the Final or Elite 8 under Dean Smith. I can still remember our Jim Kissane dunking a fast break follow-up to make it 12-3 and forcing Dean to call time out. Too bad we couldn’t have stopped the game right there. They had caught us by the half and they went on to win, 96-80, thereby sending Dean to his first Final Four. The guy who really killed us was Bobby Lewis. They got to the Finals, but there awaited a tall young man named Lew Alcindor, and that was that. It was the first of Alcindor’s three consecutive NCAA titles.
So much for nostalgia…
Take a look at the contenders for the 2017 championship and tell me what most of them have in common. Simple: Chalk rules. Of Last week’s Top Ten, eight of them have won at least one NCAA championship, and that definitely includes Oregon, who won the very first one back in 1939. Surely you remember coach Howard Hobson’s “Tall Firs.”
The Ducks featured — and how much do I love this name? — 6-8 Slim Winterlute at center. Other featured players included Lauren Gale and Bobby Anet. The Dicks liked to run, and they usually controlled the backboards. OKI, I’m guessing this group led by Dillon Brooks is a tad more, you know, athletic, but we know they have no Slim Winterlute; that’s for sure.
You might not realize what a closed shop the NCAA tournament really is. You begin to understand how a commitment to Getting It Done matters when you consider that 44 of the 78 NCAA men’s basketball championships have been won by just eight schools, and six of them have a shot this year. That list consists of UCLA (11), Kentucky (8), North Carolina (5), Indiana (5), Duke (5), Connecticut (4), Kansas (3), and Louisville (3), with only the disappointing Huskies left out (I am assuming they won’t shock the world and win the AAC Tournament). I mean, we are talking college hoop aristocracy with these people.
The other two in the Top Ten are Gonzaga and West Virginia, and the Mountaineers have knocked on the door, most notably in 1959, when Cal’s Darrall Imhoff tipped one in at the buzzer to give the Bears a 71-70 triumph in the championship game. They were in the Final
Four as recently as 2010, losing to Duke in the semifinal game. This means only Gonzaga among the Top Ten has never been to the Final Four. The moral of the story is it’s damn hard to do and harder to sustain if you don’t have a complete top-to-bottom commitment from administration. Either basketball really matters, or it doesn’t. The school has to decide. And if it’s a state-funded U, as most of the elite are (Duke and two-time winner Villanova being conspicuous exceptions). The legislature has to care, too. So appreciate what Gonzaga is up against. All this goes ditto for football, which is even harder.
Adam Silver is talking about making changes for the 2018 NBA All-Star Game. The only change needed is the restoration of a little pride among the major participants. I’m not suggesting they should approach it as a Seventh Game, but it wasn’t that long ago that players cared abut playing hard and showing up their peers. I cannot believe anyone over 10 found that eyesore in New Orleans anything but ridiculous. Anthony Davis, whom I love as a player, had 18 unmolested dunks en route to his record 52. Now I’m sure Wilt Chamberlain had his share of dunks when he set the record of 42 some 55 years ago, but I can assure you they were contested. I honestly don’t know what incentive to play hard would reach this crop of AAU-bread show-offs, but perhaps if the Commish just shows them a few examples of well-contested All-Star Games from the 80s and 90s, they might get inspired to play some real basketball next year. Otherwise, just extend the Dunk, Three-Point and Skills contests to everyone and let it go at that.
They are making a huge fuss at the NFL Combine over Washington wideout John Ross running a 4.2 40. Great. Congratulations. But I have a couple of pertinent questions. How are his hands? How well does he run routes? Can he block, even a little? Can he make adjustments on the fly? Is he tough? In short, can he P-L-A-Y? Beware of the Combine. I give you Mike Mamula (speaking of BC guys). He killed it at the combine to become the number 5 pick in the draft. Problem is, he couldn’t play NFL football very well. Remember Justin Ernest? Neither do I. But he set a bench press record of hoisting the 225 lbs. 51 times 18 years ago. But if he made it to Canton I must have been out of the country. The Combine has taken on a life of its own. It’s great TV for football mavens. It keeps NFL writers off the streets for a few days. It’s good for the Indianapolis economy. And that’s about it.
Don’t you love the Buss siblings fighting over control of the Lakers? Why don’t they do the Laker fans a favor and sell the team to someone who could run it properly? Magic Johnson as the basketball cheese will be interesting. He has made himself a phenomenal business success so I wouldn’t discount the possibility he’ll be effective. I just find it fascinating that Magic, Michael and Larry, basketball’s HolyTrinity of the 90s, are each running a team. Can’t wait for the first Larry-Magic deal.
I think the Cavaliers have done what LeBron asked. Kyle Korver, Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams make them a better team. But the sneaky great move was by Houston. They have added Lou Williams to what was already an offensive powerhouse. You know he will win them a playoff game or two.