Archive for the ‘Basketball’ Category

Ethical Standards

Bart_GiamattiI’d be willing to wager, if that weren’t an inappropriate thought, that Bart Giamatti is smiling today.

I hope, and believe, that the late, great former Commissioner of Baseball smiles in a peaceful place where everyone is surrounded by green grass with a brilliant blue sky overhead. A doubleheader is scheduled and Walter Johnson is pitching to Lou Gehrig. But, the real reason the great Commissioner, whose tenure came and went much too fast, is smiling today is because he knows that what Adam Silver, the new NBA commissioner, did yesterday was all about preserving a public trust.

Bart Giamatti, a president of Yale and a Renaissance scholar, was both an unorthodox and brilliant choice to run major league baseball. He got the job just in time to ban Pete Rose for life for betting on games and lying about it. As the first President Bush, an Eli and a great baseball fan, said in 1989 on hearing the news of Giamatti’s shocking death at age 51, he ”made a real contribution to the game, standing for the highest possible ethical standards.”

That’s it – the highest possible ethical standards. That’s what Giamatti stood for and now Adam Silver, too.

Fay Vincent must be smiling today, as well. He had the guts and the high ethical standards to ban the insufferable George Steinbrenner back in 1990. Unfortunately, that ban was later rescinded, but it had its impact. George, the blustering billionaire bully, became a punchline on Seinfeld and we delighted in debating whether the Yankee owner depicted on the show – and in real life – was a bigger boob than his hapless employee George Costanza. “Were’s Costanza? I need my Calzone…”

How Did He Do It?

There are many lessons from Commissioner Silver’s action yesterday; action that banned L.A. Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling for life from involvement with his team or the NBA, fined the racist and misogynist billionaire the maximum allowed, and set the wheels in motion to force the sale of his team. There are also many questions left hanging, one being how does a guy like Donald Sterling survive so long and thrive so well economically when, it would appear, that everyone who knew him knew him to be a first class jerk?

The simple answer is that the highest reaches of a capitalist system don’t always equate with either merit or – that term again – ethical standards. At some level Sterling survived because he was rich and litigious, and apparently because he was able to purchase protection for his personal behavior from the NAACP, among others, by spreading around a few six figure charitable contributions. By most accounts Sterling’s Clipper’s have consistently been among the most inept professional sports franchises, run by a rich guy with no class and little regard for quality who now stands to walk away, if indeed he does walk away, with hundreds of millions made on an investment of just $12 million. The guy has been characterized as an L.A. “slum lord,” a fact long known to the NBA’s leadership and his other owners. Yet, that sordid past only caught up with him when his girlfriend recorded his racist and sexist inner most thoughts.

Ironically it took an eloquent, dignified, classy African-American coach, Doc Rivers, to help make Sterling’s clueless Clippers a playoff contender this year. Also ironic is the fact that the nerdy Alan Silver, scrambling to establish his credibility as commissioner – and just like Bart Giamatti before him – does the right thing, and having upheld the highest ethical standards, now enjoys and deserves vastly enhanced respect and power.

When I tried to play basketball a lot of years ago we had a term for that once-in-a-while moment when you’re all alone and about to kiss the ball gently off the glass for an easy and uncontested lay-up. Such a shot was “a bunny” and no one wanted to miss such an opportunity. The 29 other NBA owners, all business people in a customer service and entertainment industry, now have their own uncontested lay-up. They better not blow it. They may not want to acknowledge it, but the owners now clearly have a public trust to maintain and not merely a business to run. If they buck themselves up and uphold the highest ethical standard they will honor the old adage of doing well by doing good.

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell might not be smiling today since he must know that once the Sterling hubbub dies down attention will inevitably shift toward his handling – or avoiding – of the demands that the owner of the Washington NFL franchise do something about the name of his team. Goodell’s and the NFL’s moment of truth cometh.

The Larger Institutional Issues

Todd Purdum, writing in Politico today, quotes Santiago Colas, who teaches a course on the “Cultures of Basketball” at the University of Michigan, as saying the sad Sterling episode seems like an important moment in the on-going national struggle to deal with race. “I hope it’s a moment that’s not lost,” Colas said. “The problem is that we get really excited about spectacular demonstrations of racism, and in the process of our excitement, we overlook the larger institutional issues that endure.”

As Neal Gabler wrote today, “Sterling is not only a pariah; he is irredeemable. His sentiments are so out of fashion that no one can defend him.” No one save the nation’s top blowhards-in-chief, the representative of the larger institutional issues that endure, Trump and Limbaugh.

Perhaps it was completely predictable that the champion of the Obama birth certificate “scandal” would take the edge of Sterling’s words by suggesting that the poor guy was set up by his girlfriend. “He got set up by a very, very bad girlfriend, let’s face it,” Donald Trump said and, of course, he said it on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” Trump did add he thought Sterling’s words were “despicable,” but I would suggest only slightly more despicable than having Trump comment on anything.

Rush Limbaugh went even farther into the weeds suggesting that Sterling was a victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy to force him to sell his team to a group led by Magic Johnson. You can’t make this stuff up. Trump and Limbaugh and Sterling do prove one point about America – you can be worth a lot of money, command a lot of attention and still be an idiot, while completely overlooking the issues that sadly endure.

No Problem With That

Back before Bart Giammati became baseball commissioner he was the President of the National League. A guy who had never really played the game, but had written books about Dante, was suddenly in charge of a big chunk of baseball. Naturally he ruffled feathers among some players and managers when he insisted on cracking down – ethical standards again – on enforcement of the rules, including the legendarily difficult to enforce rule about a pitcher’s balk.

In a game in 1988, Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Jim Gott balked three times in one inning and, as a result, gave away a key game to the New York Mets. The next day, Gott was quoted as saying about Giamatti: ”A guy who’s a fan governing the National League – I have problems with that.”

Not many remember Jim Gott today and his life-time 56-74 pitching record, but most every fan remembers the guy who upheld the ethical standards of the game he loved. He’s smiling today. God rest his soul. The old baseball commissioner has found a fellow traveler in the new NBA commissioner and, I for one, have absolutely no problem with that.

 

Post-Racial

donaldsterlingSo much for a post-racial America.

Americans of color may have significantly more challenges to overcome with employment, education, health and housing than most white Americans, but it takes the racist rants of two old white guys to again bring into sharp relief the sobering fact that race is still the nation’s great unresolved issue. The optimists among us thought, for a moment at least, that the election more than five years ago of the first black president ushered in a “post-racial” new day. It didn’t.

If anything the nation’s struggles with race and class, not to mention gender and sexual orientation, remain as corrosive as ever. Fox News and a few pandering Republicans turned a deadbeat Nevada rancher into a “folk hero” before his own ignorant ravings about race showed every thinking person just what Cliven Bundy is really all about. While you can apparently get away with cheating the federal government out of a $1 million in lease payments by just waving around the Constitution, waxing nostalgic about slavery is, thankfully, still un-American enough to draw a belated rebuke from Rand Paul. Maybe Bundy should have read all of the Constitution, including the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The case of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is both more complicated and ultimately more troubling. Bundy is just the latest incarnation of the old John Birch Society/Posse Comitatius mind set that rises and falls periodically across the American West. The rise almost always occurs with a Democrat in the White House. With typical Bircher incoherence Bundy invokes the Constitution of a government he won’t recognize. He likes the 2nd Amendment just fine, but not those pesky provisions of the Constitution related to the power of federal courts. The Bundy mind set has found its perfect foil in the young, self-assured black man in the White House. Enough said, except perhaps that the Republicans who rushed to support this nut case still have plenty of explaining to do.

Sterling, the billionaire L.A. real estate developer, is a tougher case. He has apparently long been known for his racially tinged rants and has been in and out of court fighting discrimination cases that, among other things, alleged that he refused to provide repairs for his black tenants.

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” Sterling allegedly told his mixed race girlfriend in recording she apparently made. “Do you have to?”

Later, just to double down his racism with a gob of sexism, he added: “You can sleep with them, you can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that and not to bring them to my games.”

As the Washington Post reported:

“Sterling’s history paints a picture of a man who has let slip bigoted beliefs for years — and has, at least so far, sidestepped major repercussions. He was sued in 1996 for sexual harassment. In 2003 he testified in a separate court case that he occasionally paid women for sex. The same year, Sterling was sued by 19 tenants of a building he owned, along with the Housing Rights Center; they claimed Sterling’s employees refused repairs to black tenants and frequently threatened to evict them. Sterling settled the case for an undisclosed sum.

“In 2009, Sterling spent $2.73 million to settle another suit, this time brought by the Justice Department, which alleged Sterling refused to rent his apartments to non-Korean tenants, preferring that black and Hispanic prospective tenants look elsewhere. The lawsuit quoted Sterling as saying in sworn testimony that ‘Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building,’ adding that ‘black tenants smell and attract vermin.’”

The National Basketball Association is investigating. Of course they are. It sounds like they might have done some looking around a long, long time ago. How the Sterling matter is handled by the NBA and its new commissioner will be vastly more important in the long run than any shooting-off-the-mouth of Sean Hannity’s new best friend.

Sterling is, after all, a long-time member of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs – the 30 owners of professional basketball teams. Sterling’s team, until last week a serious playoff contender, is coached by a black man. The team’s and the league’s fan base is to a substantial degree minority. The league’s big name stars, many of whom quickly condemned Sterling’s remarks, are African-American. The Clippers low key pre-game protest where white and black players wore their shirts inside out is just a preview of what’s to come from a professional league that owes its popularity, not to mention the money it generates for owners like Sterling, to the success of “black people” like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

It’s not as though the NBA didn’t know about this guy. “Donald Sterling,” Paul Westphal, an NBA coach and great NBA player before that, told columnist Mike Lupica, “was always the worst-kept secret in the NBA.” Now, it’s get serious time – a teaching moment – for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Silver’s response and the response of the other 29 members of Sterling’s exclusive club will tell us a lot about a high profile big business in post-racial America.

The U.S. Supreme Court tells us a lot, as well. The Court’s 2013 ruling throwing out a major part of the Voting Rights Act and more recently upholding a Michigan law that bans race conscious admissions at the state’s colleges and universities are based either on wishful thinking that racial issues in the age of Obama still don’t bedevil our culture or that the courts simply have an extremely limited role in ensuring that all Americans are not merely created equal, but are treated that way, as well. Either explanation ignores today’s front page.

It seems self evident that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 not only failed to herald the arrival of a post-racial America, but rather stoked the long simmering fires of racism that were, we need to remember, originally written into the nation’s founding creed. An ignorant Nevada cowboy and the boob billionaire owner of a professional sports franchise certainly don’t represent the vast sweep of good and decent Americans of all races, creeds, colors and political persuasions, but they still represent too many.

“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything,” Obama said of Donald Sterling. “You just let them talk. That’s what happened here.”

Oh, if only it were that easy.

 

The Jackrabbits!

Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, NO…the Jacks

The Associated Press reported yesterday that some guy from Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania? – called the bookstore at South Dakota State University asking where he could get some Jackrabbit gear. You heard it here first – this logo is going to be popular!

My alma mater made the Big Dance! For the first time! It may be the biggest college athletic moment in the history of South Dakota.

The Jacks beat Western Illinois 52-50 in overtime night before last to claim the Summit League title and an automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament. The Jacks – admit it, you love that nickname – will know Sunday who they face in the first round of March Madness. Even with a 27-7 season record, the Jacks are likely to be a 14 seed, so nothing will be easy for the boys from Brookings.

By the way, the SDSU women’s team is headed overcame a 17 point deficit to win their fourth straight Summit League crown and another trip to the NCAA tournament.

South Dakota State does have a player on the roster from Bulgaria, but most of the Jacks are corn-fed Midwesterners from places like St. Cloud, Minnesota and Viborg, South Dakota. And, while this is the school’s first time to the Big Dance, SDSU has a long tradition of good basketball.

Jim Marking, a legendary high school and college coach in South Dakota, was roaming the sidelines when I was struggling through the snow to get to the old Barn for what were then North Central Conference games. Marking is still the winningest coach in SDSU history and over his entire career he won nearly 74% of the games he coached. The guy taught a fast break offense that when it worked was a thing of beauty.

I was the sports editor of the college newspaper – The Collegian - when a new basketball arena was built on campus. The old gym – affectionately known as The Barn – was a creaking old pile that was hot, noisy and vastly intimidating to a visiting team. The fans, particularly students, were so close to the floor that you could literally touch a player and if you were sitting in the front row you had to get your knees out of the way when a player was inbounding the ball.

It may have been an apocryphal story, but it always seemed true enough, that one visiting coach wouldn’t let his team dress in the crowded locker rooms in the old Barn and then gave them limited time to warm up before a game because he feared that his players would be intimidated, even before the tip-off, by the boisterous Jackrabbit fans.

When the new Frost Arena opened in 1973, I interviewed Coach Marking about his feelings moving into the spacious new digs. I expected he’d say the politically correct thing about being excited about the new venue, but true to Coach he told the truth. “We’re about to lose our home court advantage,” he said.

For years and years, South Dakota State football and basketball has be broadcast on 50,000 watt WNAX in Yankton. Lawrence Welk, the bandleader popular in my parent’s generation, got his broadcasting start, more or less, on WNAX, one of the few radio stations west of the Mississippi River with a “W” in its call letters. Ironically, Yankton is closer to the University of South Dakota in Vermillion than to SDSU in Brookings. As a result, WNAX announcers need to drive 130 miles for a home game. The radio guy I remember fondly – and once hoped to emulate – was the late-Norm Hilson, the radio voice of the Jacks and a worthy member of the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame.

If you want some of that Jackrabbit gear, here’s the link to GoJacks.com. Great logo.

 

He Had Game

And His Name Was Elgin

Some boys with a beat up basketball to dribble, a rim – hopefully with a net – in the driveway to shoot at and a little imagination can become a Michael Jordan or Jeremy Lin. At least you can dream of such things. For me the ideal was No.22 in Laker blue, the great Elgin Baylor.

Mom and dad thought I was sleeping on those long winter nights, but I was only pretending to doze with the radio turned very low, listening to the extraordinary voice of Chick Hearn calling the Laker games over KNX in L.A. I never wanted to miss the introductions of the game starters since – silly boy – the intro to Elgin made me quiver.

“At forward, 6’5″, from Seattle, No. 22, the Captain of the Lakers – El-gin Baylor.”

The announcers never mentioned that Baylor spent a year playing ball at the College of Idaho in Caldwell where he average more than 31 points and nearly 19 rebounds per game. He took Seattle University to the national title game in 1958 and was the tournament MVP. Seattle lost that game to Kentucky and has never been back to the finals.

I’ve been thinking about ol’ No. 22 this week amid the recollections of Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 100 pointgame in Hershey, Pennsylvania in 1962. Wilt’s remarkable accomplishment stands on its own, of course, but it’s worth noting that he broke the single game scoring record that had been set in 1960 by Baylor – 71 points. The case can be made, I think, that Elgin Baylor ushered in many aspects of the modern pro game. His turning, twisting reverse layups and running jump hooks were early versions of Jordan and Erving. Baylor was a great passer and handled the ball with skill and style. In fact, someone said if Erving was the doctor, Elgin was the surgeon.

Like Chamberlain’s 100 point game that went almost unnoticed at the time, Baylor’s career has never been fully appreciated. The guy was one of the all-time greats. Jordan broke Baylor’s single game playoff scoring record that had stood for 24 years. Baylor averaged more than 27 points and more than 13 rebounds a season in a career that spanned 14 years. Not bad for a guy who never played hoops until he was 14 and went to C of I on a football scholarship.

Baylor played in the era before the really big money, before players were able to hold their own with owners – although he helped usher in that era, too – and before African-American players enjoyed the respect, indeed the common courtesy, they receive today.

Elgin Baylor is probably the greatest NBA player to have never won a championship. He deserved one, but the great Laker teams could never get past the even greater Boston Celtic teams.

So, I can still close my eyes today and drift back to 1967 and hear ol’ Chick Hearn tell me that “the Lakers are moving left to right across your radio dial and the ball goes to Baylor on the wing. He’s on the dribble across the lane, he puts it up and he scores!”

Some things only get better with age and, in my memory at least, I’ll always wear No. 22.

 

James and Jeter

A Contrast in Class

I woke up this morning thinking of writing something about the GOP debate last night in New Hampshire. But that encounter, featuring seven Republican contenders, was so completely predictable that a little LeBron James analysis seems more urgent today. After all, the next NBA season will be upon us before the next New Hampshire primary. First things first.

I confess that the last time I was really interested in a National Basketball Association final, Larry Bird was still playing. I really only paid close attention, season-long attention, to pro basketball when the great Elgin Baylor was captain of the Lakers. Back then both the pants and the shots were shorter. While mom and dad assumed I was fast asleep, I can still remember turning the radio down very low and listening to Chick Hearn’s call of a late west coast Laker game from the “fab-u-lous Forum in Inglewood…”

So, for me this year’s playoffs where not a case of eagerly waiting for the great egos from South Beach to get their just desserts at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. I really hadn’t been paying attention and came to membership in the “I really don’t care much for LeBron” crowd late in the game, er, late in the playoffs. And, apparently like millions of fans, I enjoyed the outcome immensely.

On the intense stage of a championship, regardless of the sport, it is one of life’s guilty little pleasures to watch the most hyped guy, the guy with all the press, all the cash and all the big talk, fall flat on his face. LeBron James certainly didn’t disappoint. And, as if to further cement his well-earned reputation for lacking in class, he handled defeat with, well, not a lot of it. Class that is.

Let the jokes begin: “LeBron will never make change for you as he never has the fourth quarter.” Or, “The reason why LeBron skipped college was to avoid the finals.”

The governor of Ohio, LeBron’s home state and the place he “abandoned” in order to bring a championship to Miami, actually issued a proclamation praising the “loyalty, integrity and teamwork” of the team from Dallas. Give LeBron this much: he united most of the country behind a team from Texas, no small accomplishment.

Now for something entirely different – Derek Jeter.

Loyal readers know that I have no love lost for the New York Yankees. Being a Yankee fan is too easy, too predictable. Sure it’s the greatest franchise in baseball history, but Microsoft is the greatest franchise in software. Where’s the romance in that?

Still, sometime soon the Yankee captain, a sure fire Hall of Famer, will enter elite company when he slaps his 3,000 career hit. He’s currently six hits shot of the magic mark. I’ll be rooting for him, despite the pinstripes. Derek Jeter is the antithesis of a guy like LeBron James. He’s played his entire career in New York, the media capitol of the world, and has found a way to not be a constant feature in the tabloids. He survived and thrived through the Steinbrenner years. He’s played along side the not so loved Alex Rodriguez and projected a certain calm professionalism that then A-Rod or a LeBron can only dream about. Of course, Jeter has his detractors, but mostly because he’s a Yankee and not becuse he’s a chump.

So, why is Jeter a widely beloved figure in New York and beyond and also widely recognized as both a consummate pro and a genuinely nice guy, while disliking King James is the national religion of sports fans?

Some would argue, Buzz Bissinger, for instance, that LeBron hatred as gone too far, but “the chosen one” just keeps bringing it on himself. James repeatedly violates the first rule of public relations: quit digging when you’re in a hole. Just a small flash of humility, a warm word for the great play of Dirk Nowitzki, maybe even staying out of the spotlight for a while, would start to alter the LeBron storyline, but of such basic common sense the very wealthy and very sure of himself young man seems entirely incapable. 

LeBron James will never be a fan favorite. Too late for that. He might still be a respected super star, but not if he spends his NBA career behaving like Barry Bonds in short pants. Sports fan don’t like LeBron James for a reason, just like they like Derek Jeter for a reason.

One of these great athletes gets it. The other hasn’t a clue. One guy is self aware, the other self centered. And that, as they say, is the difference in having folks root for you to reach a hollowed mark and being made fun of by the governor of Ohio.