Archive for the ‘Basketball’ Category

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.