A Few Thoughts

0-for-4.

That would be my Final Four predictions. I thought I was fairly safe going all chalk with Duke, Arizona, Kansas and UCLA. Guess not. But I’ve never been very good at this prediction business.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

So what can I can I tell you about this upcoming Final Four that you don’t already know? It’s Roy Williams’ ninth, but you probably already knew that. The other three are all first-timers, or, as the Brits would say, debutants.  It’s been a long road for Oregon’s Dana Altman, this being his 28th season. For Mark Few it’s a final vindication of a spectacular coaching career that should send him some day to Springfield where he can make a Hall of Fame acceptance speech. He is 18-for-18 in NCAA tournament appearances since succeeding Don Monson for the 1999-2000 season, but this is Gonzaga’s first time past the Elite Eight. Frank Martin? Or, should we say Francisco Jose Martin? H’s only had to wait 10 years for this great national exposure. He has a great back story of being a second-generation Cuban-American raised by a resilient single mom. plus a high school coaching career that brought him state titles and heaps of scorn over alleged recruiting improprieties. And then I find out he spent four years under my nose as an assistant at Northeastern and I never met him. My bad. I will say he has carried himself magnificently this week.
By the way, Roy’s lifetime record ain’t bad, either. How does 814-216 (.790) sound?

 

Ben Margot/AP Photo

Ben Margot/AP Photo

I have nothing against Carolina, Oregon or South Carolina, but I shall root unabashedly for Gonzaga. I just think that what Few has accomplished at that school is one of the great coaching achievements of all-time, and I would be really cool if that institution could get one title for a deserving school and fan base. The Few numbers really are staggering. When the Bulldogs take the floor on Saturday his coaching record will stand at 501-118, which is a gaudy .818 winning percentage. The Zags have won 20 or more every year of his tenure.
For those of you keeping score at home, Gonzaga is bidding to become  the eighth Catholic university to win the NCAA title. They are the 15th Catholic school to reach the stage we now know as the Final Four.  And they are the seventh Jesuit school to do so. This is really apropos of nothing, except that I was hunting for something fresh to impress you with.

OK, I can’t leave you hanging: the seven Catholic school champs are San Francisco (Jesuit), Villanova, Georgetown (Jesuit), Holy Cross, LaSalle, Loyola of Chicago (Jesuit) and Marquette (Jesuit). The Final Four participants are St. John’s, St. Joe’s (Jesuit), St. Bonaventure, Providence, Seton Hall, Seattle (Jesuit) and, oh yes, Notre Dame. Perhaps this info will come in handy at your next cocktail party.
I’m sure it has seemed like a very long 360-some odd days for Williams and his returning players since their last trip to the Final Four. They will forever carry around the dual memories of the Marcus Paige double-clutch three that appeared to have sent them into overtime in the championship game and the answering three-pointer by Kris Jenkins that wiped the smiles off Tarheel faces everywhere and placed them on the faces of Villanova Wildcats the world over. So there’s no doubt Carolina will be supremely motivated, perhaps more than the other three schools put together. Unfinished Business is a powerful motivator.
But I don’t know that for sure, and you don’t, either. Surely, Gonzaga, with its 36-1 record and the heady feeling of having been ranked number one earlier in the season, has a very strong sense of purpose. The Zags carry the weight of 21st century history with them. Oregon likewise expected big things for this season. I was a bit surprised when I hauled out my Blue Ribbon Magazine prior to the tournament and was reminded that the greatest pre-season basketball mag of all-time picked the Ducks number 2 (behind Duke). The Zags were #16. And yet I think Oregon may already feel, you know, fulfilled.
Of course, with regard to South Carolina, no one would ever cop to a “We are just happy to be here” attitude at a Final Four, but if ever there was a team that has already given itself, its coach and its fans far more than they could possibly have imagined, it is this 26-10 South Carolina team some thought was undeserving of a tournament bid to begin with. Come to think about it, once upon a time a team from not too far away from Columbia, South Carolina, lurched into the tournament and then won six extraordinary games. By the way, has Jimmy V found somebody to hug yet? So goofy things can happen, especially when you have a player such as SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell on your side.
I’m not officially picking a winner, but I will rank the teams in logical order of Best Chance To Win. 1. North Carolina. 2. Gonzaga. 3. Oregon. 4. South Carolina. But it’s actually 2. Gonzaga and 2A Oregon. That’s a tough call.
But why should you listen to a guy who was 0-for-4?
One more thing: I have to say it:  Gonzaga’s mantra should be “The Few, The Proud.” C’mon. How many chances will you get for something like this?

A Few Thoughts

There are several intriguing things about the NCAA  tournament. We’ve got a possible Duke-Villanova pairing in the East Regional Final in Madison Square Garden. We’ve got the pairing of resident SEC Eggheads Vanderbilt with resident Big 10 resident Eggheads Northwestern, famously participating in their very first NCAA tournament.

AP Photo

AP Photo

There is Wichita State steaming at their strangely under seeded 10th spot, and then more than likely playing Kentucky in the second round. This would be a rematch of the great game three years ago, when the Shockers entered the tournament undefeated, and the Wildcats won by 2.
But the one topping it all for me is the convergence of three NCAA blue bloods in the South. How cool it that UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina, with a combined 24 championships and 48 Final Four appearances, are all there? Let’s take it farther. Will we see a rematch of the 1964 Finals (UCLA-Duke)? Will we see a rematch of the 1975 Finals (UCLA-Kentucky)? Will we see a rematch of the 1978 Finals (Kentucky-Duke)? Or even the 1966 semifinals (Kentucky-Duke)? I’m sure none of them are happy about the situation, but we, the fans, will be the winners no matter what happens.
Of course, it’s always Whining Season  when the tournament teams are announced. Not for the first time, the most vocal coach has been Jim Boheim, who is staunchly defending the honor of his 18-14 team that defeated the likes of Duke, Virginia and Miami, and which lost to the likes of UConn, Georgetown and Pitt, not to mention my sad alma mater, Boston College (by 15! But, yes, they won the rematch by 23). As usual, Coach Boheim avoided the true heavy lifting prior to conference play. The Cuse’s best non-conference win was probably a 71-50 conquest of Monmouth. Seriously.
Had Syracuse gotten in, their RPI rating of 84 would have been the highest (or lowest) one ever. Boheim made a legitimate point that only a year ago his team was a controversial tournament inclusion and then played its way to the Final Four. He said they could win some games in the tournament and no doubt he’s correct. But this is always an interesting question for the committee. Do they lean on overall body of work to the exclusion of a reality that the Syracuse zone is bothersome to people who have never seen it and thus Syracuse is always a threat to win a game or two, or in last year’s case, four. Bohemia claims there is another inconsistency on the art of the committee, saying that last year they appeared to value wins and this year they are penalizing losses.  And he naturally cites playing in the ACC as sort of a tiebreaker.
So, do you sympathize with him?
I don’t. Not this year. Have I mentioned they were 2-11 away from the Carrier Dome?

AP Photo

AP Photo

The other much-discussed exclusion was Illinois State from the Missouri Valley Conference. The Redbirds finished at 27-6 and had a 17-1 regular season in what was generally acknowledged to be the best mid-major league in the country. But I think their cause would have been stronger had their last two losses, each to Wichita State, not been by (gulp) 41 and 20. This allowed the committee to reason that there was significant separation between themselves and league champ Wichita State. And the fact that the 30-4 Shockers could only bag a 10 seed tells you what the committee thought about the best mid-major conference in relation to the Power 5.
Illinois State coach Dan Muller went very public, explaining that he has sure tried to upgrade his non-conference schedule, but, as has been the overall mid-major case for decades, his mid-major has had difficulty finding a Big Boy who will give him a home-and-home series, or even a 2-for-1.  He took to Twitter, advertising his request, and he did secure a Power 5 deal with Mississippi. The Rebs are hardly a basketball power broker, but it’s a start.
Back to the Bluebloods. Look how many of the usual suspects we have in true contention this year. We’ve got UCLA, Kentucky, Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Louisville all with a legit shot. We’ve got two-time, and defending, champion Villanova, who, incidentally, were among the last four teams in the inaugural tournament 78 years ago, long before anyone coined the phrase “Final Four.” But it goes to show the basketball heritage on the Main Line. I was forced into a pick by my friend Tony Kornheiser on his Podcast, and I gave him Duke. They are hot and they are finally more whole than they’ve been all year. We are seeing why Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles were such touted prospects. But I told him, and I wasn’t making it up, that no matter who is cutting down the nets the night of April 3, if we were to replay the tournament 6 or 7 times, we’d have 6 or 7 different champions. I really believe it’s that kind of year.

The disturbing reality of the women’s game is that there just isn’t enough interest in the sport among the nations’s generic basketball fans to allow a proper geographically balanced tournament to be played. Box office is very important, and thus mighty UConn has a chance to extend its 107-game winning streak and get to the Final Four in Dallas without leaving the friendly confines of the Nutmeg State. They Huskies begin play at home — yes, at home in Storrs — and then advance to the regional in Bridgeport, about an hour or so away  (maybe). Gene Auriemma is trying to pretend this may actually be a problem. “I worry sometimes about being at home,” he claims. “I worry about the distractions that kids have. When you are on the road you can just cuddle everybody up and you can eliminate a lot of distractions. Sometimes the officials get funny against the home team in the NCAA tournament.”
Good try, Geno. You know and I know that your team could play first round foe Albany 4-on-5, get no calls, and still win the game.

It’s always fun to think which 5 seed or lower has an honest chance to reach the Final Four. I’m going with Iowa State. They’ve already beaten Kansas, you know.

Shameless Plug Dept. I have a new Podcast: “Bob Ryan’s Boston Podcast.” But I can talk about anything. Also known as the “Bobcast.” It’s being dropped, as they say, each Friday at 12 noon, Eastern, and it’s available on all the normal outlets such as iTunes, GooglePlay and Stitcher. Do check it out. This week I chat with all-time legend Bob Cousy, someone with whom I go back a long way. I think you’ll like it.

A Few Thoughts

 Jim Boeheim got a lot of publicity with his polemic about where the ACC Tournament should and/or should not be. Probably the best part of the rant was his simple declaration that since he won’t be around much longer (he is supposed to exit after the 2017-18 season) in the end it really doesn’t matter because, “I don’t give a (naughty word).”
    In case you missed it, he took an innocuous question during the post-game presser following his team’s first round loss to Miami and turned it into a dissertation on tournament locale. He applauded the decision to bring the ACC Tourney to Greater New York, in this case Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, and said there was never any good reason to have it in Greensboro, not ever, ever ever, so there! He framed it in terms of business and recruiting. It was classic Boheim, and i say that as someone who has enjoyed his presence on the college basketball scene for all these years.
    I just happen to think he’s wrong. I once covered an NCAA Frozen Four in Anaheim, and that was stupid, too. I guess there is something to be said for spreading a sports gospel, but sometimes you just have to do what’s right for its own sake. The heart and soul of the ACC was, and always will be, North Carolina. The ACC was founded in the 50s as a basketball league, and just because it was hijacked by football interests along the way that will never change. And the ACC Tourney should never be held farther north than Washington, D.C., just as the Big 10 Tourney should never be farther East than Ohio, and Penn State me no Penn State. I still can’t accept them as a Big 10 school.
     And I’ve got news for Coach Boeheim. It’s been a long time since New York and its environs has been a major source of high-level collegiate basketball talent. If it were true, then perhaps St. John’s would be a lot better than it’s been the past two decades. I’d put up Carolina and mid-South recruits against what’s been coming out of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the rest of the land mass known as Long Island any time.
     I just think what the coach is really saying is that when the game is over in New York there are plenty of places to go, whereas in Greensboro it may be, “Hello, Applebees.”  I’ll give him that one.Doesn’t matter.  But the idea of ACC and Big 10 Tourneys (yes, they’re coming, too) coming to New York is just plain W-R-O-N-G.
     Leave New York to the Big East and Atlantic 10.
Getty Images

Getty Images

I have never made it a secret about my love for the Olympics, warts and all. I covered 11 of them, starting with Barcelona in 1992 and concluding with London in 2012. I loved the atmosphere, the competition and the buzz of every Olympics I attended. Now you know there’s a “but” coming.

     But the Olympics have managed to collapse on themselves. What was once fierce competition among great cities for what was perceived to be the “honor” of hosting an Olympics has become a race to see how many cities can run away from the very idea of providing a home for the games. They are too expensive to stage and they leave a host with a complete mess to clean up, financially and otherwise. The candidates to host the 2024 Summer Games are down to just Paris and Los Angeles, and there is even talk of giving them each one, thereby naming not just the 2024 city but the 2028 one, as well. This would be a desperate move by the IOC  to cover its butt. But after what we’ve seen of late with the next Winter Games having come down to a choice between Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, and 2008 Summer host Beijing before being awarded to the latter, we saw how few people were interested in taking part.
      You keep asking yourself, “How did it come to this?” In the not-too-distant past we had glorious and successful Olympics in places such as the aforementioned Barcelona and the postcard-pretty village of Lillehammer. How did we let the Olympics become such a bloated monstrosity? This Olympic fiasco does once again illustrate the Bob Ryan Rule; namely, “There is nothing good in life that won’t get screwed up.” Although I usually substitute another verb.
RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES

RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES

Dirk Nowitzki joined Kareem Abdul-jabbar, Karl Malone, Wilt Chanberlain, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in the 30,000 point club this past week. Can there be any doubt he is the greatest European-born basketball player of all-time? As to whether or not he is the greatest player born anywhere outside the United States, the argument would include Hakeen Olajuwon (Nigeria). Patrick Ewing (Jamaica), Yao Ming (China) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina), among others. Just for the fun of it, I would also submit the name of the wondrous Oscar Schmidt, the 5-time Brazilian Olympian who has scored more points than anyone in total international competition, a whopping 49,737. This does not include his record Olympic total of 1093 points. Oscar was drafted by the Nets in the way back but never received satisfactory contract offers. Well-remembered is the 46 the 6-8 marksman dropped on the USA squad in the 1987 Indianapolis Pan-Am Games. He is in the Naismith Hall of Fame and he stole the show the year of his induction with his witty and charming speech.

     Nowitzki was the 9th pick of the 1998 draft and Paul Pierce was the 10th. As of March 9 they had combined for 56,369 regular season points. You want to know why we love to say that drafts have always been inexact sciences? The first pick of that draft was Michael Olokowandi. out of the league since 2007. By the way, guess who else still remains from that draft? Vince Carter, that’s who. He went 4th to Golden State and was immediately shipped out of the country (Toronto) for fellow  Tarheel Antawn Jamison.

A Few Thoughts 03/06/17

JimKissaneI 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.

Stan Szeto, USA TODAY Sports

Stan Szeto, USA TODAY Sports

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.

Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports

Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports

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.

A Few Thoughts 02/21/17

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

I don’t want to sound too “Get-Off-My-Lawnish,” but the simple fact is I thought the NBA All-Star Game was garbage. 192-182? Anthony Davis breaking Wilt’s scoring record with 18 unmolested dunks? Eight free throw attempts ? Steph Curry lying down covering his head? No thanks.
Looks like there are three kinds of people in the world. There are those who think that this game is exactly what a 2017 NBA All-Star Game should be. There are those who don’t care about any All-Star Games, and therefore don’t care what they do. And there are those who love the game of basketball and would prefer to see the best players engage in at least semi-serious competition. Guess which group I identify with?
Let’s establish something. These NBA All-Stars can all dunk. I get it. But after a while it becomes a case of once you’ve seen one guy throw the ball off the backboard so the other guy can dunk it, you get the point. It gets old in a hurry. And this ludicrous exercise Sunday night consisted almost exclusively of matching dunks, interspersed with three-pointers. It was a neither “entertaining ”nor “fun,” at least not to my way of thinking.   Look, I am on record as saying that past All-Star Games weren’t always great shows. But many of them were, and I was gratified when I instructed people to seek out as an example of what I was talking about the 1987 game in Seattle, and many did just that. Hey, it wasn’t a defensive clinic, either, with the West beating the East, 154-149 in OT. But it was legitimate basketball competition featuring the likes of Kareem, Magic, Larry, Michael, Moses, Doctor J, Isiah, Hakeem and many other greats and you could see the pride manifested in their performance. It was a truly great show. We could have that now if this crop hadn’t decided they’d rather make the game into an extension of the Dunk and Three-Point Contests, and nothing else. What fascinates me is that people actually pay money to see it. I had to watch it because I knew we’d be discussing it Monday on “Around The Horn,” but I couldn’t wait until it was over so I could turn out the lights and go to bed.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

But the All Star Game didn’t turn out to be the big topic of Monday conversation. Nope, the name on everyone’s lips was Boogie Cousins. Hey, what with all the endless chatter over the past year about what the Kings might wind up doing with their controversial Big, whoever thought he’d wind up playing alongside the Unibrow himself? No one saw that coming. And it turns out that I was wasting my time dreaming about him her becoming a Boston Celtic. The Celtics have made it clear they never had any interest in him. Anyway, this is the most intriguing big man partnership since the marriage of an aging David Robinson and a young Tim Duncan in San Antonio at the end of the 20th century. This  time we are talking about 26-year old Cousins and an Anthony Davis who turns 24 on March 11. We’ll see how long they remain teammates, but in the short run I can’t wait to see it because each man is an inside-outside threat who is at least an adequate passer. I’d say rim protection should not be an issue in New Orleans for the tine being. as to how far they can go, the ceiling may not be too high for this season since if they wind up as the number 8 team they would be facing Golden State in the first round. And they still have to ratchet things up just to make the post-season. As for the Kings, fast approaching the 66th anniversary of the franchise’s one-and-only title (surely you are up on the 1951 Rochester Royals), the Kings are the Kings are the Kings, if you know what I mean.

As for the Celtics, based on no inside information whatsoever, I am predicting that when the trade deadline expires this coming Thursday Danny Ainge will still have that Nets 2017 number one pick. But if he does move it for Jimmy Butler, and everyone in the office is tied up, I’d be willing to pick him up at the airport.

Mr. LaVar Ball isn’t exactly shy, is he? Too bad he doesn’t understand that publicly proclaiming that  his son Lonzo is already better than Steph Curry is placing way too much pressure on the young man.  Lonzo says that’s just his dad being his dad and it’s OK, but he’ll see. The kid is fun to watch, though.

Brian Daboll has just gone from tight ends coach under Bill Belichick to offensive coordinator for Nick Saban. When he’s done with that he can go work for Gregg Popovich. After that he can join forces with Joe Maddon. He might as well touch all the best-in-the-business bases.

I bet there’s a good Division II or Division III basketball game being played somewhere near you this week. Check it out.

A Few Thoughts 02/16/17

The NBA All-star Game has come a long way.
I know most of you will have a very hard time believing this, but the first one in 1951 was part of a Boston Garden tripleheader that also included the Boston city high school championship game. It was quite conceivable that some people left when that one was finished. I covered my first one 19 years later in Philadelphia. Everyone arrived the day of the game. There was a luncheon, and that was it for any pomp and ceremony. There was a snowstorm  which held up the arrival of the participants. I had gotten an early ride to the Spectrum. For some reason the West’s Dick Van Arsdale had likewise gotten early transportation, and was the only West player in the locker room before the game for quite a while, and we sat and talked. I would not expect him to remember this, but I can assure you it’s true. That was the Year of the Knicks and Willis Reed earned the first leg of his MVP trifecta, winning the MVP Award that would later be augmented by the league and Finals MVP.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Things are a bit different now. It’s All-Star Weekend and it’s an extravaganza. The game nowadays is part Dunkarama, part Bombs Away with the three. I’’m not going to indulge in an teary lament for the Good Old Days, because, truth be told, they weren’t always so good. The East beat a totally disinterested West, 104-84, in 1973, for example. Can you imagine 84 points being scored by the losing team this coming Sunday? At the half, maybe. It wasn’t much better the next couple of years, either. Things did get juiced up in Milwaukee’s 1977 game because that was the first one played after the NBA-ABA merger.There were nine former ABA players in the game and they wanted to show the world what they were all about, The West won a scintillating game, 125-124, but the MVP was the East’s Julius Erving, an ABA expatriate.

Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

Spare me the outrage over Jim Harbaugh’s latest recruiting stunt. It’s simply big-time college sports as usual. It seems the ever-entertaining, ever-scheming Michigan football mentor has arched many an eyebrow by hiring an assistant named Michael Johnson, until now the head coach at The King’s Academy in Sunnyvale, California.  Hey, I’m sure he’s a good football man. He is also the father of what is being described as “the best dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2019,” that being Michael Johnson, Jr. I wonder where Michael Johnson, Jr. will be attending school? Of course, nothing could be more synthetic. The only thing is, this is nothing new. Many a college basketball coach has found room on his bench for the coaching father of a top prospect. Exhibit A: Ed Manning. Ed Manning was a journeyman forward of the 60s and 70s. He averaged 5.9 ppg in a career that took him from the Bullets, to the Bulls, to the Trail Blazers, to the Carolina Cougars to the Nets and, finally, to the Pacers. When he retired, he disappeared off the basketball radar screen. But Ed Manning had a tall son you made have heard of. First name: Danny. And guess whom the enterprising head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, a guy named Larry Brown, thought was just the man to fill out his coaching staff when that young man was being recruited by Everyone? As my mother would have said, you get three guesses and the first two don’t count.  Danny Manning came to Kansas and the rest was history, as they say. And a grateful Larry Brown took Ed Manning with him when he left Kansas to take the San Antonio job. Let the record show that Ed Maning never coached under anyone other than Larry Brown. I’m just sayin’.

In case you didn’t know, the Wall Street Journal has become a great — I might even go so far as to say indispensible — source of interesting sports information. Thursday’s tidbit was the revelation that if Major League Baseball goes through with its proposal to do away with there necessity of actually throwing four non-strikes to implement an intentional walk by waving the batter down to first, the documented savings would be 14 seconds a game, or, as writer Michael Salfino points out, “just a few seconds longer that it takes a batter to score from first base on a double.” Another tidbit: last year 64.4 percent of all intentional walks we’re issued in the National (or DH-less, pitcher-batting) League.

The larger sports story is that more and more sports are getting very concerned about pace and the time it takes to play. They think the millenials just don’t have the patience there elders have always had. This even extends to golf. I am going to quote from the Thursday New York Times:
“This week in Australia, the Perth World Super 6 is debuting a format never before used in professional golf. While the first three days of the tournament will be conventional, each with 18 holes of stroke play, the final day will feature a series of six-hole matches to whittle the final 24 to a champion. Matches that are level after six holes, including the final, will be decided on a specially-built 90-yard hole. Should the players still be tied after that, both players will hit a single shot; whoever hits the ball nearest the pin will progress to the next round.”
No, I’m not making this up.
Said Stephen Ayres, chief commercial officer for the PGA Tour of Australasia, “We’re trying to appeal to a wider audience, particularly a younger audience.” Discuss among yourselves.

A Few Thoughts 02/13/17

 

ADAM HUNGER/USA TODAY SPORTS

ADAM HUNGER/USA TODAY SPORTS

The Madison Square Garden Follies continued Sunday, with interesting developments both on and off the floor. Beleaguered Knicks’ owner James Dolan responded to the overwhelmingly negative public reaction to his banishment of former Knicks mainstay Charles Oakley by grandstanding a parade of former Knicks to the afternoon contest with the Spurs. I guess this was supposed to be his quasi-Sally Fields moment; i.e. “See? Somebody loves me!”  Included among the former Knicks: Latrell Sprewell, who was himself a Garden pariah for night onto 14 years. Others on the guest list: Larry Johnson, who really shouldn’t count since he’s on the Garden payroll in some capacity; the great Bernard King; Kenny (Sky) Walker;  John Wallace and even — I find this hard to believe — the honorable Bill Bradley. I hope the Garden high-rollers were suitably impressed.
Now what was impressive was the play of the ball club in question. In what might very well have been their best performance of the season, the Knicks fought off the Spurs to win, 94-90. They survived a 36-point outburst by the estimable Kawhi Leonard. They had the lead, lost it and then made the requisite number of key, winning plays, including two big buckets by, yup, Carmelo Anthony. It was the kind of victory that had eluded them time and again during this frustrating campaign. Does it mean anything in the Big Picture? I have no idea. One good game does not a playoff team make.
Perhaps I have been a bit too harsh on Phil Jackson. The Zen Master has his managerial faults, for sure, but he, or his scouts, does appear to have an eye for young talent. Kristaps Porzingis has been obtained on his watch, and he is not the only intriguing Euro Big on the Knicks’ roster. The Knicks got a very useful 12 points and 9 rebounds in 29 of play from Willy Hernangomez, an aggressive 6-11 Spaniard whom the Knicks obtained in a draft day deal with the 76ers in 2015. The lad is getting his minutes with Joakim Noah battling through what seems to be an endless run of injuries, and he is making the most of his opportunity. I’m betting the Knicks have already entered into the “Take-your-time-coming-back’ mode with Noah, whose four-year $72 million contract has become a horror show.

AP Photo

AP Photo

With their victory over primary rival St. Mary’s last Saturday night, Gonzaga more than likely cleared the last hurdle between themselves an an undefeated regular season. That’s very nice, but they know very well out there in Spokane that they will be judged on just how far they can go in the NCAA Tournament this year, and that the minimum requirement is the Final Four. The Bulldogs were the number two overall seed when the Tournament Committee revealed their preliminary rankings last week. Villanova was number one. Standing tall was the Big 12, with number one seeds Kansas and Baylor. And speaking about a Usual Suspect, the ACC checked in with five of the 14 slots. with North Carolina (2), Florida State (2), Louisville (2), Virginia (3) and Duke (4) all represented. I don’t know that we have what you would call true clarity yet. There are many intriguing teams. Note that Gonzaga is the lone non-power conference team among the 16. What a shock.

We’re creeping up on April and a certain golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia. Jordan Speith reminded us what he is capable of at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am (loved it better when it was simply the “Crosby”). Spieth successful protected his first 54-hole lead since the notorious disaster last spring at the Masters. It was a vintage Tiger final day approach as he methodically parred 14 holes in succession before posting birdie on the 17th. Don’t look now but he has put up 16 consecutive rounds in the 60s, 17 if you include his final round of ’15.

I write in advance of the UConn women’s quest for consecutive win number 100. By every expert evaluation, Dawn Staley’s South Carolina team has the talent to end the streak at 99. But do they have, well, What It Takes? Do they have the heart and the head to do what no one has been able to do for oh so long? We are about to find out. By the way, if Dawn Staley herself were going to be in uniform, I wouldn’t be asking these questions. I would be congratulating the Gamecocks in advance. When people start listing the great point guards we’ve ever know, they’d damn well better put Dawn Staley’s  name on the list.

A Few Thoughts 02/10/17

oakley_charles Only in the Alice In Wonderland world of Madison Square Garden (Basketball Division), could one ridiculous off-the-court issue trump — perhaps I should pick a different verb — another.
The Carmelo Anthony-Phil Jackson whatever-it-is business is ridiculous enough. But that has fallen into second place in the ranking of utterly stupid and avoidable affairs transpiring at the building they pompously refer to as “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”  Now if were any other place in sports I would say that the Charles Oakley Ejection would be filed under the category of “Hold All Calls; We Have A Winner” for the rest of 2017. But with MSG and James Dolan, you never know.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of Carmelo Anthony, or his game, I should say, but he has my full sympathy right now. He shouldn’t even be in New York to begin with. He probably should still be in Denver. It’s either that, or he should be in Chicago, a team that a couple off years ago needed him to make them a legitimate championship contender. But these are large gobs of toothpaste that aren’t ever going back into the tube. The issue right now is just how long he will remain in New York, and where could he go? Of course, he’s be somewhere else right now if Phil Jackson hadn’t given him a no-trade clause, which was just another example of Jackson’s ineptness as a basketball executive. Jackson the coach would have been furious with his GM had someone done that to him.
I’m sure you know by now that Jackson communicates by Twitter, not face-to-face dialogue. He has made it perfectly clear he currently has little respect for Anthony’s game . But he never has to explain himself to a fellow human being. No, he allows things to get out one way or another and Anthony has to stand there and respond to the latest indirect pronouncement from the team’s basketball boss. It’s pure lunacy.
The Oakley thing is a farce of a higher order. The background is that Oakley, a Knicks’ mainstay for a 10-year period in which they went to the playoffs every single year, and one of the most aggressive players in NBA history, has been a public critic of Garden pooh-bah James Dolan for some time.  As a result, he is basically persona non grata at the Garden. The Knicks act as if he had never suited up for them, excluding him from various team celebrations, including a planned 70th anniversary something or other bash coming up before the end off the season. Oakley says they stopped giving him tickets years ago. But there he was at the Garden the other night for their game with the Clippers, having purchased a ticket that, it just so happens, was located in proximity to Jimmy Dolan himself. Before the first quarter had concluded, Oakley was in both a verbal and physical confrontation with a whole gang of Garden Security operatives. He was ejected and even arrested, charged with three counts of assault and criminal trespass, all misdemeanors. Yes, he was released.
So what happened? It’s a classic He Said-She Said scenario. The Knicks say Oakley was verbally abusive to Dolan. There was even an intimation that Oakley was inebriated. Oakley denies this. He says he was approached by Security for no reason other than he was there, and he was close to Dolan. Here’s my thing: there were numerous. nearby witnesses. How can there be such confusion about what Oakley said or didn’t say?
That’s Part A. Part B is that in a “normal” reaction — i.e. the reaction anywhere else but Dolan’s MSG — a lone security guy approaches Oakley to inform him he had better cut it out, if indeed he was doing anything at all. There’s no need to send a small army, which is what arrived at Oakley’s seat. There was massive overreaction on both sides. Oakley is a large, physically intimidating man, even at 53, and he did get very physical. He can’t be defended on that score. But the entire incident was preposterous, and it was initiated by Doian. Of that there is no doubt.
Dolan’s Garden is a nightmare. Reporters who displease Dolan have been pursued by security in the past. The Garden is a place where, shall we say, alternative facts, have been spewed out for years. Things go on there that go on nowhere else in this hemisphere, anyway.
The Knicks are a mess, and it all starts at the top. Jimmy Dolan simply does not know what he is doing. Anyone could have told him, and, I’m sure someone probably did, that just because Phil Jackson has 11 rings as a coach is no guarantee he would make a good executive. Oh, sure, he professed his love for the Knicks and a desire to honor the memory of the sainted Red Holzman, but he was never going to roll up his sleeves and do the necessary leg work and there was great reason to think it was all a money grab. Hey, for $12 million a year, any of us would say or do anything to get the gig.
The Knicks, meanwhile, are 44 years removed from a championship and 23 years removed from their last trip to the Finals. Their clientele deserves better.

Richard Drew/Associated Press

Richard Drew/Associated Press

Has major league baseball lost its mind? Could Joe Torre possibly be serious when he suggests baseball is considering reacting to the issue of excessively long games by beginning each extra inning with the team at bat placing a man on second base?
Stop! This is madness. And it does not address the real issue, which is not the existence of too many lengthy extra inning games, which are part of the sport and always should be, but the interminable length of far too many nine-inning games.
First of all, I’ll bet anything that the majority of extra inning games are already settled in the 10th. And if I’m wrong, so be it. I don’t want the sport to be trivialized, as is college football. Yes, put me down as loathing the college football OT for the very simple reason that it’s not real football.
Does baseball need to take a look at the length of games? Absolutely. Baseball’s pace must be improved if it is to remain viable for the 21st century generation of sports consumers, whose sensibilities are far different than that of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. (Also mothers, grandmothers and great-great grandmothers). There are too many idiotic pitching changes, too many needless visits to the mound by catchers and too little general interest on the part of the participants to speed things up, because they wrongly believe the only people complaining about 4-hour nine inning games are members of the media with deadlines. That is false. That is, yes, an alternative fact if ever there was one. Fans do notice and fans do care and fans have to get up in the morning and go to work.
Changing the game into an alternative fact of a game, which is what this ludicrous proposal would do, is not the answer.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Shanahan has taken a lot of you-know-what for his play calling last Sunday night. He basically defends himself by saying he simply kept calling ‘em the way he had all year, and that was that. But this was a situation in which flexibility was necessary. A championship team prepares for any contingency, and one it had better be ready for was protecting a lead. There is no argument, none. Once Julio Jones made the grab that would have been the one play we’d have talked about from that game for the next 50 years, the only proper course of action was to run, run, run and then ask a skilled veteran named Matt Bryant to kick a simple field goal to give his team an impregnable 11-point lead that would have guaranteed a Super Bowl victory. By the way, one of the most intriguing aspects of that game is the fact that Jones’ four receptions were his only four targets, and that his average yards after catch was a half-yard. Yup, he was 4-for-4, with 2 yards after the catch, total. The Patriots really did a fantastic job on him, forcing him to make two highlight grabs out of four receptions.

On the great Terrell Owens Hall of Fame controversy, put me down as a Yes. I’d be more worried about allowing people who have broken the law than a guy who just acted like a jerk.

A Few Thoughts 02/06/17

Tom Pennington / Getty Images

Tom Pennington / Getty Images

There’s no such thing as a dull Belichick/Brady Super Bowl.

   The greatest coach/quarterback duo of all-time have been there seven times. The Patriots have won by 3,3,3,4 and 6. They have lost by 3 and 4, each in the final minute. They have lost to a miracle (e.g. Manning’s once-in-a-lifetime escape and Tyree’s catch in Super Bowl XLII) and won by a brain fart (e.g. Hey, Pete, give Marshawn the damn ball! in Super Bowl XLIX). They could easily be 7-0 or 0-7. After Sunday night, they are 5-2, thanks to the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. Or biggest choke, depending on your point of view.
      There was a great deal of legacy talk in the run-up to Super Bowl LI. Well, the legacies are now cemented. With five Super Bowl triumphs stretched over three presidential administrations and eight Olympics, Tom Brady is the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All-Time for you Social Security folks) among quarterbacks. Bill Belichick is the G.O.A.T among NFL coaches. They have prevailed over time. They have prevailed in a salary cap world in which turnover is enormous. But they have prevailed, one way or the other.
AP Photo/Matt Slocum

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Brady was magnificent when it counted, but he did not do it alone. James White had the game of his life, catching 14 passes for  110 yards while scoring three touchdowns, including the game-winner on which he was hit hard well short of the goal line but demonstrated great strength and determination to reach the Promised Land. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell came up very big with 6 catches for 70 yards, many of those grabs during the comeback. And, of course, Julian Edelman made a catch you can’t make at a most propitious moment. there was an offensive line that did the job in pass protection when it most mattered, and there was a defense that submitted a shutout in the second half and overtime.

    Not surprisingly, the Day After issue is that great modern phenomenon: whom shall we blame? Rather than celebrate the positive act of an historic comeback, many. many people are spewing venom at the Falcons, who are said to be choking dogs. After all, who loses a 25-point halftime lead in the Super Bowl? That’s never been done before.
    Of course, it hadn’t. That’s how it works. In sports or politics or entertainment, something is true until it’s not true. A retired B-movie actor can’t become President of the United States. But somehow Ronald Reagan managed to do it. Lavish Hollywood musicals are relics of the past. But “La La Land” has 14 Oscar nominations and may very well win Best Picture. And no one in Super Bowl history has come back to win from anything larger than a 10-point deficit. Oh, yes, they have.
      What is being lost in the sad vilification of the Falcons is that there has never been a noted sports comeback, in either a team or individual sport, in which the team coming from behind did not profit from the “mistakes” or “miscues” or “imperfections” of the opponent. We have all seen basketball comebacks. Yes, a team, is now making shots when previously they weren’t. But the other team starts missing, or turning it over or missing free throws (or being hosed by the refs; we’ll save that discussion for another day).  Just getting hot doesn’t matter if the other team is matching you. Baseball? I;’m sure more game-winning homers are hit on hangers or bad locations than off “pitcher’s pitches.” Mistakes are made and an opportunistic foe takes advantage.
       Did the Falcons mess up? Absolutely. Poor play-calling with a lead. Poor clock management. Poor execution. Matt, you must throw that ball away and avoid the strip-sack. There were lots of screw-ups by the Atlanta Falcons.
       But was there a guarantee the Patriots could capitalize? No, they had to go out and do it. Brady was Osweilerian in the first half. Yuck. But once he found his mojo he was the G.O.A.T in a way few QBs could have matched. Ask the TV QB analysts. They all marveled at the strength and accuracy of his fourth period and OT throws. Just because the Falcons were screwing up didn’t mean Brady was automatically going to throw for 276 yards, three TDs and no picks in the fourth quarter and OT. No, he had to go out and do it. Which he did.
        One more thing. In order to pull of this great, historic, epic, unforgettable comeback the Patriots had to succeed on two two-point conversions. Consider the fact that the league-wide conversion percentage of twos is less than 50 percent. They got them both, the first on a gorgeous direct snap to White (one of my companions immediately yelled out, “It’s the Faulk play!” remembering that we had first seen that when Kevin Faulk was the all-purpose New England back of choice). The second was a pass play to Danny Amendola, and that required a special effort to break the plane. Had either of those failed, we would not be having this particular session, you and me.
AP Photo/Matt Slocum

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

An aside: I was at a home where there were two TVs, one on a slightly higher floor. with one exception — my wiife, bless her heart — the ladies were upstairs and the men were watching from the lower level. But the TV upstairs was a second or two ahead of ours, and so during the fourth quarter and OT we already knew downstairs that a Patriots play had gone well because of the screaming upstairs. That was pretty cool.

      Once again, it was the kind of experience not available to those among us who do not have sports at their personal entertainment smorgasbord.
      Lucky us.

A Few Thoughts 01/31/17

Bob Levey/Getty Images

Bob Levey/Getty Images

Sometimes it’s best if old-timers just keep quiet about the Good Old Days, rather than make themselves look and sound foolish (Yeah, I know. who am I to talk?).
Number one, in some ways these are in fact the Good Old Days and in some ways they aren’t. We can get around to that some other time.
What has my attention today is a big splashy front page story in the sports section of USA Today. The headline: CAMPBELL’S HARD KNOCKS
The sub-head “Game took its toll, but he raps NFL as too soft.”
According to Earl Campbell, today’s players make too many excuses. Says Earl, “‘I can’t play because I’ve got a hangnail on my toe. I can’t play because I didn’t get a pedicure this week. I didn’t play because my head hurt.’”
What’s a word that’s beyond “preposterous?“ How about “inane?”
Earl Campbell was a great, honored player, a member of both the College and Professional Halls of Fame. He was the archetypical battering ram running back, a man who never saw a tackle he couldn’t break as he ran in the direction we nowadays call “downhill.” No one dared question his toughness. He was all football. And he has paid the price. At age 61 he has the body of a 2000-year old man. Football is the reason, and if you ask him there is no doubt he’d do it all over again. Fine.
But he owes all of today’s players an apology. Today’s players are no less tough than the ones in Earl Campbell’s day. No one is begging out due to a hangnail. No one misses a game due to a missed appointment for a pedicure. But, oh yes, some arena prevented from playing because their head hurts,even though many of them try to play, regardless. Thank God, the sport of football has learned a few things about head trauma.
Quite frankly, I am very disappointed in USA Today for even running this story. I cannot believe that the sports editor, not to mention the writer, a gentleman named Josh Peter, didn’t look at those quotes and say, “This is B.S.; we can’t sanction this.” Just because Earl Campbell speaks doesn’t mean we have to listen to him if he is speaking absolute ragtime.
Years ago football players performed through injuries you and I could not possibly fathom. And they still perform through injuries you and I could not possibly fathom. That has never changed. Never. What has changed is medical science. What has changed is the awareness that a “ding” is actually a “concussion,” and should be treated as such. But today’s football players are every it as tough as the old-timers.
Sorry, Earl. You are full of you-know-what.

Had a very enjoyable weekend in Philadelphia with my friend Dick “Hoops” Weiss as we went to see Philadelphia University take on Dominican Saturday and Villanova play host to Virginia Sunday. Philadelphia U’s 75-65 triumph in that Division II clash was victory number 1046 in the astonishing career of coach Herb Magee, who is now in his 50th — yes, I said 50 — year as head coach at his alma mater, which was known as Philadelphia Textile when he was pouring in jumper after jumper in the 60s. It was about time I got around to seeing one of Herb Magee’s teams take the floor. The man is a Philly treasure. Yup, he is a 2011 inductee to the Basketball Hall of Fame, in case you’re wondering.
The Villanova-Virginia game at Wells Fargo Arena attracted a crowd of 20,907, making it the largest gathering ever to witness a college basketball game in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Nova shook off an incredibly cold start (4-22 at the half) to come from behind and get the win on a flying trip-in of a Josh Hart excursion to the hoop by Donte DiVicenzo with less than a second to play. It was DiVicenzo’s only shot attempt of the day, and I love that stuff.
The atmosphere was electrifying and the affair was great for college basketball. After the game I was equally impressed by the comments of both Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Villanova’s Jay Wright. If any young coach wants to know how he or she should conduct himself or herself at a post-gane press conference, they would have been well-advised to take notes at these sessions.

Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Well, Gonzaga is at the top of the mountain now, and the Bulldogs will now very likely try to remain there as they enter the NCAA tournament as a one seed, perhaps even the number one number one. That will place tremendous pressure on Mark Few and his kids, but that comes with the territory. I hope they can enjoy the ride, as far as it goes.