Sunday, May 15, 2016

MAY MIRACLE

              A Chicago baseball fan, just back from a long trip up the Amazon River, this week would have been shocked to read the Major League standings. There were the Cubs and White Sox in first place in their divisions, and with the best records in their leagues. The guy could be excused if his first reaction was that he’d contracted a tropical disease and was seeing things upside down.
             
              Yes, the Cubs were supposed to be good this year after last season’s 97-win romp, but not THIS good, starting 25-6 before tailing off a bit. The Sox were a question mark coming in, as they are most seasons, and their fast start surprised everyone, probably including themselves.
            
               As is well known, baseball prosperity has been rare in Chicago generally, and the across-the-board variety rarer still. The Cubs haven’t won a pennant since 1945 and the Sox just two since 1919, a record of futility that impresses even geologists and others with long frames of reference. What Bob Verdi called “the city of broad shoulders and narrow trophy cabinets” has had two annual chances at the World Series since it began in 1903 and only once—in 1906—did its representatives meet for the sport’s top prize (the Sox won, four games to two). By contrast, New York has enjoyed 14 so-called “Subway Series,” and if it had three shots back in the Dodgers-Giants days that’s still a huge edge. No doubt, the disparity has been a contributor to Chicago’s eternal “Second City” complex.

              Popular wisdom has it that there are two kinds of Chicago baseball fans: Cubs fans who hate the Sox and Sox fans who hate the Cubs. That means that those types’ happiness is being marred by the success of the object of their enmity. I’m here to tell you, though, that some bighearted Chicagoans or ex-pats (like me) are smiling broadly these days, basking in both teams’ good fortune. It probably won’t last but it’s fun while it’s here.             

              I was a Cubs’ fan first, having grown up a short bike ride from Wrigley Field, and as a kid considered the Sox’s South Side bailiwick a foreign and dangerous place, but when I was a teen in the 1950s the Cubs were lousy and the Sox pretty good, so I sometimes braved the trip to Comiskey Park to watch them.  The Cubs still are my team No. 1 to the Sox’s 1A but I cheered when the Sox broke the ancient drought by winning the 2005 championship and I’d cheer just as loudly if they did it again.

              Chicago has been a Cubs’ town for the last 30 or so years, but that wasn’t always the case. The two teams fought it out about equally at the box office into the mid-1980s before the Sox made the ill-fated decision to go off “free” TV and onto cable before most people had cable. The gap widened in the 1990s when the Sox accepted a state-legislature ultimatum and built their new stadium next door to their old one on the sagging South Side while the area around North Side Wrigley Field turned into a year-round fun mecca. Now all the Cubs have to do to draw a crowd is show up, while the Sox have to win, a position no sports team relishes.

              The two teams’ different situations dictated their recent roster strategies. When he took over the going-nowhere Cubs’ front office in late 2011, Theo Epstein felt secure enough to tank the next three seasons in order to stock up on high draft choices and other prospects. He did it brilliantly, drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and trading for the likes of Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. With a little luck (like the low-profile trade for late-blooming pitching wonder Jake Arrieta) and young, low-budget lineup in hand he paid up for starting pitchers and a few others to round things out.  He’s got money to play with if new needs arise.

              Always having to produce immediately, the Sox by contrast have rolled the dice with young pitching draftees (Chris Sale, Carlos Rondon) and a big-money slugger spirited out of Cuba (Jose Abreu) while cobbling together an everyday lineup and bullpen with mid-and low-level trades and free agents. They’ve done that before with little effect but this time seem to have scored. They’ll last as long as their pitching does.

              While the Sox’s success this season has been the more surprising, it’s also pretty remarkable that the Cubs are doing as well as they have. In a sport where the best teams win six of 10 and the worst four of 10, their .806 start came despite a lineup that mostly didn’t include young-slugger Schwarber, lost for the season in a first-week injury, and starting catcher Miguel Montero, off for the last few weeks with back ills. Jason Heyward, the team’s big off-season free-agent acquisition, is barely hitting .200 and has no home runs through six weeks. Jorge Soler, their usual left fielder, can’t get his BA above .200.  When (if) those guys start to hit the team really will be dangerous.

              Even more remarkably, the Cubs have assets they have yet to tap. These include that rarest of commodities, a young catcher who can hit. Willson Contreras, a 24-year-old Venezuelan, led the Double-A Southern League in batting last season, excelled in the Arizona Fall League and was hitting .347 at Triple-A Iowa at midweek. If he keeps it up they’ll have to bring him up before the season is over. Twenty-two-year-old Albert Almora, their top draft choice in 2012, is hitting .322 at Iowa. He’s projected as the Cubs’ center fielder for the next dozen years. Maybe they can loan him to the Sox until they have room for him.

              So yeah, I’m dreaming, but dreaming is free so why not dream big. A Cubs-Sox World Series is as big as it gets.

              DERBY NOTE—If you read the blog below you know I had the Kentucky Derby exacta (1-2) finishers Nyquist and Exaggerator in my boxes. That was swell but my bets cost $40 and my winning tickets paid $30, so I lost on the race. It happens sometimes. 
             
             
             
                  

              

Friday, May 6, 2016

DERBY PICKS

              The Kentucky Derby is Saturday and it’s always a challenge for the handicapper. That’s because the race’s distance of 1 ¼ miles is longer than any of the contestants has run and its big field of 19 or 20 rambunctious colts makes a lot of slamming around inevitable. That’s not good for the animals being slammed or the people who bet on them.
             
              The Derby’s length makes many handicappers look especially for horses with “late” run but that can be a mistake, I think. The saying that the lead dog has the best view still applies; he also has the easiest trip. That’s why one of my go-to horses on Saturday will be the favorite NYQUIST, who likes to press the pace. Although his name suggests a cold remedy (he’s really named for a hockey player), he’s done nothing but win so far, having gone seven of seven, and hasn’t been cowed by large fields or big events. He’ll be in my tickets.

              But Nyquist is 3-to-1 in the morning line so to make some money I’ll be pairing him with longer shots in combination bets. The horse I’ll really be rooting for is DESTIN, who is 15-to-1 in the morning line. He runs on the pace and has won three of five starts including the Tampa Bay Derby, where he beat a very good field. I’ll also include EXAGGERATOR. Although he’s a closer his winning run in the Santa Anita Derby was eye popping and his nine races to date (he’s won four) give him an experience edge on the field. His morning-line odds of 8-to-1 seem like a bargain. A Beyer Speed Rating of at least 100 is a usual prerequisite for Derby contention and each of those three horses has achieved it, as has only one other entry.

              I’ll be betting two five-horse, $1 exacta boxes, which means my picks must come in 1-2.  I’ll put Nyquist, Destin and Exaggerator in both boxes, barring late scratches, of course. In one box I’ll add the 12-to-1 MOR SPIRIT, who always runs well (three firsts and four seconds in seven starts) and MO TOM (20-to-1), who might have challenged in the Louisiana Derby if he didn’t have to be pulled up twice. That will be a 4-9-11-13-17 ticket by post position. In the other I’ll add the 15-to-1 OUTWORK, who has early speed, and MOHAYMEN (10-to-1), a winner of four of five. That’ll be 9-11-13-14-16.

My bets will cost me $40, which is more than I usually put on a race, but it’s the Derby, so what the heck.

              

Sunday, May 1, 2016

HOT-AIR HURRICANE

              My dictionary defines a “draft” as “a current of air,” but that doesn’t nearly do justice to the National Football League’s version, the latest edition of which wrapped up on Saturday. The NFL Draft has become a veritable hot-air hurricane, one that sweeps all other hype before it.
       
       ESPN and sports pages throughout the nation obsess for weeks about which NFL teams will choose which players in the three-day annual draw and TV gab fest, which in any endeavor other than sports would be illegal. (How would you like to have been “drafted” by, say, an accounting firm in Green Bay, Wisconsin, when you completed college?) The thing has become has become a capital “E” Event, with last week’s host city, Chicago, renaming itself “Draft Town” for the occasion and setting aside parkland to  stage satellite entertainments to surround it.

 Then, once the picking is done, the abovementioned news outlets scurry to grade the teams on how well they did, heedless of the fact that no one has much idea how, or if, the young men involved will perform in actual professional football.  So thick is the dust cloud the blow generates that it takes weeks to dissipate.

The draft succeeds as show biz because, as we illustrate in many ways, we love to be conned, and because the NFL has mastered the art of conning.  It does this partly by exploiting another national trait, our fascination with technology. Not content with merely scouting its prospects in action the way our other professional sports do (pretty much), it has erected an elaborate structure it would have us believe has made drafting into a science. The February before the selections are made it summons candidates to a week-long “combine” in Indianapolis in which they are measured, weighed, timed, tested, poked and prodded, all the better to take chance out of the drafting equation. This has become a news-media event in itself and things like weight-room reps and vertical-leap heights are breathlessly reported, as though they held the keys to gridiron excellence.

If some teams are to be believed, they’ve also developed techniques to discern a prospect’s “character,” which in NFL Speak means ferreting out the predilection of these big, aggressive and over-trained individuals to do things like beat up their girlfriends or drive while intoxicated. You’d think that the frequency with which such things occur anyway might cause skepticism of such claims, but usually it doesn’t.

 Quarterback is football’s most important and closely inspected position, and most drafts hinge on quarterback prospects. This year’s was no exception, with Jared Goff from the U. of California and Carson Wentz from North Dakota State U. (!?), being the top two overall picks. Nonetheless, the big brains who do the selecting frequently err on QBs, registering a long list of high-choice failures (JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Rick Mirer, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Matt Leinart, Cade McNown, Johnny Manziel, etc., etc.). It’s worth noting that the best pro quarterback of recent years, Tom Brady, didn’t go until the sixth round of his draft year (2000), with 198 players picked ahead of him.

Top defensive selections often don’t fare much better. Jadeveon Clowney, the lineman/linebacker from the U. of South Carolina who was the most-hyped defensive player in recent years, was the first player chosen in 2014, but he’s proven to be a fragile sort who has missed almost as many games (15) as he’s played (17) in his first two seasons with the Houston Texans and hasn’t starred in most of the ones in which he’s appeared.

Further, the crapshoot that the draft always was has become more so in recent seasons. That’s because of the gap that’s developed between the NFL’s game and the one being played at most of the colleges that happily serve as the league’s feedlots.

Sports Illustrated magazine devoted a recent article to this subject. It’s worth quoting at length:

“On Saturdays, most college games are high-scoring affairs ruled by simple schemes on both sides of the ball and even simpler techniques. Quarterbacks rarely call plays or take snaps under center. The receiving routes are basic and offensive linemen don’t often get into the three-point stances which are the norm in the NFL.

“This affects the defensive side as well.  Ends can’t develop pass-rush moves because the ball gets out so quickly. Defensive backs need to protect space so few of them have ever played man coverage, again the norm in the NFL. Linebackers in college are more adept at dropping into a passing zone than shedding a blocker. College safeties are like goal keepers in soccer, just trying to keep the ball in front them.

“Sundays, on the other hand, are a chess match. Quarterbacks bark out complicated play calls in the huddle and then change them at the line. Defenses bluff in and out of different looks and then bring an unorthodox blitz with press-man coverage. The offensive line has to execute double teams from three-point stances or the running game doesn’t go anywhere.”

“A [prospect] can have all the talent in the world but our [NFL] game is all about fundamentals and these players don’t have them,” summed up Dave Gettleman, the Carolina Panthers’ general manager.

“In my 25 years in the NFL I’ve never seen a larger disparity between the college and pro games,” added Stephen Jones, director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys.

So I hope you enjoyed the show but save the grades for later; your team’s prize selection probably will look like Tarzan but might play like Jane. To paraquote Forrest Gump: “The draft is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”


              

Friday, April 15, 2016

A TAXING SITUATION

              Whenever people have told me they were turned off by the money professional sports teams and athletes rake in these days, I’ve shrugged. “That’s your problem only if you make it one,” I’ve told them. “We fans are volunteers. The jocks get our money only if we choose to give it to them. If you don’t like it, don’t go to their games or buy their gear.”
             
               Upon reflection, though, I must confess that statement is false. Many if not most of us are compelled to support our cities’ sports establishments through the tax money that goes to buy and maintain the stadiums in which our teams play. Their paws are in the pockets of fans and non-fans alike; the only way to escape (at least for a while) is to put on camo, grab an AK47 and take to the hills.

              That thought intrudes increasingly of late, especially in the Phoenix, Arizona, area in which I live. Three of the four major-sport teams here—the hockey Coyotes, basketball Suns and baseball Diamondbacks— are agitating for new or upgraded playgrounds, paid for mostly by the taxpayers, of course.  The only local team not queuing up to the trough is the football Cardinals, but that’s only because state and local sources anteed up about $310 million of the $455 million it cost to build them a new stadium that opened in 2006.  Give them a few more years and they’ll be there, too.

              Every other U.S. major-league city is generous to its teams, but a few things set Phoenix apart. One is the lack of accomplishment of the aforementioned four. They have made Arizona their home for a total of 113 seasons and have only one championship—by the 2001 Diamondbacks—to show for them.  It’s a record of ineptitude few can match.

              More basic, however, are the area’s economic and political realities. Although the parts of it most tourists see sparkle with palm-lined wealth, the city remains a low-wage, Sunbelt burg whose average per-capita income trails the U.S. as a whole and is down from what it was in the year 2000. Further, it lacks the sort of corporate-home-office base that supports luxury-box and season-ticket sales in other places.

              The area and the rest of Arizona are notoriously tax averse, a trait that’s been worsened by seven-years-and-counting of one-party, Republican state rule, during which public budgets for education, health care and just about every other social service have been slashed. The state ranks 46th nationally in per-pupil K-12 funding and tuitions at its three four-year universities have about doubled in the last eight years as tax-based support declines. Getting blood from such stones is no mean feat.

              Finally, the once-popular notion that new stadiums are a boon to a locality’s economy has been debunked by just about every study of the subject that’s been published in the past several decades. Any kind of major building project brings a brief employment spike, but the big majority of long-term jobs that teams and stadiums create (ticket sellers, ushers, vendors) are part time and low paying, and almost all the money that passes through their box offices is locally generated and comes at the expense of such other entertainment enterprises as theaters, bars and restaurants. Indeed, the economic importance of sports generally usually is overblown; an analysis by Michael Leeds, a sports economist at Temple University, recently concluded that if Chicago were suddenly to lose all four of its big-league franchises the hit to the city’s economy would amount only to about 1%.

              With such givens it’s hard to rate which of the Phoenix teams exhibit the most chutzpah. That’s also because, while they’ve made clear that they want to leave their 24-year home in downtown Phoenix, the Suns have yet to make their demands clear. Maybe that’s because they had the fourth-worst record in the just-concluded National Basketball League season and want to wait until the odor clears. But maybe not.

              The Coyotes, in the area since 1996, initially shared the Suns’ playpen before quarreling over sight lines and revenue splits and began agitating for one of their own. They want out of the arena in the western suburb of Glendale that they’ve occupied only since 2003. They might qualify in the chutzpah race because theirs was the sweetest deal initially, with taxpayer-backed bonds paying the place’s entire, $180 million cost. They landed there after the arena’s developer, real-estate skate Steve Ellman, teased a subsidy from east-side Scottsdale only to jilt it for the better offer and steal off in the night leaving a derelict shopping center in his wake.

 Alas, but perhaps deservedly, the team has languished in the low-rent west, where it has gone through bankruptcy, National Hockey League receivership and numerous lease squabbles with its host city.  Now it declares that after next season it will stiff Glendale with a 17,000-seat white elephant and a $144 million debt and move to a more-foolish municipality, not yet named. Good luck to all concerned with that.

Until a few weeks ago the Diamondbacks had been laying low in their state-of-the-art, publicly financed ballpark now called Chase Field, where their 30-year lease is supposed to run until 2028. The place cost $364 million to build, of which $253 million has come from a quarter-cent, county-wide sales-tax boost that wasn’t enacted without bloodshed (a county supervisor who supported it was shot in the butt by a deranged citizen after attending a meeting on the subject). Then the team suddenly presented the county with a $187 million bill for improvements it says the stadium needs over the next few years. It’ll sue if the money isn’t forthcoming, it avers.

The Diamondbacks have taken heat for killing its season-opening buzz with its heist demand. It’s also been noted that the team is flush, having just inked a $1.5 billion local TV contract and committed a reported $206.5 million to a six-year contract with a single player, and a pitcher at that (Zack Greinke).

The cherry on the sundae is that the team’s principal owner, data-tech billionaire Ken Kendrick, is a generous donor to right-wing politicians and causes that say they want to get government off people’s backs.

And replace it with sports teams, apparently.
  


             
    
             
             
             

              

Friday, April 1, 2016

SPOILED SPORTS

              Back in my working days I was among a small group of reporters interviewing Ken Griffey Jr. in the Seattle Mariners’ locker room after a home game. As we spoke Griffey’s small son, maybe five or six years old, did what kids his age do, which was jump around, interrupt and pull on daddy’s leg.

 Griffey good naturedly tried to shoo him away. “Go play a machine,” he told the boy. “I gave you $50 this morning. You can’t have spent it all.”

The remark stuck with me long after the subject of the interview had faded. The notion that a parent would give a little kid $50 for a day’s spending money boggled my mind, and still does. Even 15 or so years go rich athletes like Griffey lived in a different world from most of the rest of us, one in which normal calculations of money and privilege don’t apply.

That thought returned forcefully a couple of weeks ago when the Adam LaRoche story hit the baseball spring-training news. It seems that LaRoche’s 14-year-old son, Drake, had been a Chicago White Sox clubhouse fixture since the veteran first baseman and designated hitter joined the team last season, wearing his own uniform, having his own locker, sitting in the dugout during games, joining in team drills and even accompanying it on road trips. When a White Sox executive told the player that professional considerations dictated that the boy should be an occasional rather than a constant presence with the club, LaRoche abruptly announced that he was quitting the team and the game. Family came first, he declared.

The episode led me to wonder how a 14-year-old could hang out all day with dad from March to October instead of being in school. It raised other questions as well, such as in what other business could a mid-level employee expect to take his child to work daily, get him a desk, have him take trips and sit in on meetings.  I can’t think of one.

Much was made of the fact that LaRoche forfeited the $13 million left on his two-year contract to make his statement, but less of the almost $72 million he’d already collected in a 12-season big-league career during which he never much rose above the rank of journeyman. aH Even after taxes that’s enough money to secure his family’s future for several generations if no member of it worked another day. A ballplayer who is a household name only in his own household is a card-carrying member of the top one-tenth of 1% of the nation financially and more than rich enough, at age 36, to tell his bosses to take their job and shove it.

Also instructive, I think, were the reactions of LaRoche’s fellow athletes both outside and inside the White Sox clubhouse, or at least of those who spoke for attribution. Several Sox players were vociferous in support of his action and rumors that the team would boycott a spring-training game in his honor made the papers (but they didn’t). Bryce Harper and Chipper Jones tweeted their approval. Derrick Rose of the basketball Chicago Bulls called the team’s stance “devastating.” By their lights, apparently, no athlete of any stature should ever hear the word “no.”

The same sense of entitlement pervades other facets of life in the jockocracy. Most adults understand the relationship of risk to reward when making investment decisions, but some (many?) rich athletes believe that reasonable returns on their money amount to “chump change” and are beneath them. They thus are easy marks for hustlers with the pie-in-the-sky promises. Just last week an “investment adviser” to whom ex-basketball star Scottie Pippen entrusted $20 million was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud. That was only the most recent in a long string of such developments.

Similarly, while the dollar amounts of the contracts top athletes sign now are routinely reported publicly, the non-monetary perks some get don’t receive as much attention. These can include  private hotel rooms when their teams travel, season tickets or a stadium suite for family and friends, team contributions to favorite charities and the use of the team’s or owner’s private airplanes.

Perks are especially important to the big-time college football and basketball coaches whose riches belie their sports’ amateur pretentions. Their seven-figure annual salaries often are supplemented by cash bonuses based on wins or home attendance, country club memberships, free use of autos, sneaker deals and fat fees to sit still for an hour or so of softball questions on their weekly TV or radio shows. I read that when Mack Brown reupped as the football coach at the University of Texas a few years ago he got a $750 gun-shop gift certificate in addition to the aforementioned swag.

About the only edifying part of the LaRoche affair was the light it shone on how baseball clubhouses are run these days. When players or teams want to limit news-media access their digs, as they do from time to time, they’re fond of saying that their inner sanctums are sacrosanct places where only serious business is conducted. In fact, they’re more like sports bars to which pre- or post-game credentials routinely are issued to players’ kids, male pals, agents and other business associates, “personal assistants” (i.e., gofers) and anyone else to whom favors are owed.

 When Pete Rose managed the Cincinnati Reds his weight-room buddies, who doubled as his bet runners, had free run of the place.  Try getting away with that at work sometime.
  







Tuesday, March 15, 2016

STARS WANTED

              It may sound odd to say it but the year 1994 may have been the high-water mark for American soccer. The U.S. hosted the World Cup that year and for the first time the American public got to see the rest of the globe’s most-popular sport at its highest level. The response was electric— total and average attendance during the month-long tournament set a record that’s yet to be exceeded despite the fact that the field was expanded to 32 teams from 24 at the next go-round, in 1998.
              
              Maybe better, the U.S. National Team, which had never qualified for the true World Series over a 32-year span (1954-86), and which fielded a semi-pro lineup and went winless when it finally made it in 1990, did far better than expected, tying Switzerland and upsetting Columbia to qualify for a round-of-16 berth and there losing to eventual-champion Brazil by a respectable score of 1-0. For a sports-proud nation that was just discovering the game of the foot, quick graduation to soccer’s highest level seemed inevitable. Hey, we’re Yanks, and when it comes to sports we can do anything we set our minds to. Right?

              But here we are 22 years later and the expected improvement has not come. Yes, the U.S. did reach the Cup’s quarterfinal round in 2002, and now fields solidly professional national teams, yet we’re still on the outside looking in at the game’s elite. The national team stood 30th in the latest world rankings, just one place ahead of the Cape Verdi Islands (no kidding), and while it’s still favored to make the next World Cup, to be staged in lovely Russia in 2018, that’s not a foregone conclusion. It finished 2015 with five losses and a draw in its last eight games, and didn’t make it to an important regional tournament. A home-and-home World Cup qualifying-round series with Guatemala will be played March 25 and 29, and “should win” has become “must win.” Nothing is being taken for granted any more.

              The problem isn’t that soccer hasn’t gained in popularity on these shores. Youth participation rivals that of our native sports of baseball, basketball and football, a national men’s professional league has taken root after several aborted starts and our women’s teams rule the world.  But while American men now can be found on the rosters of pro leagues around the globe they still aren’t among the best players on the best teams.  In brief, we’ve developed journeymen but not stars, and until that changes we’ll be soccer also-rans.

              The U.S. has produced some very good players but none of first-rank quality. The best, probably, was Landon Donovan, the scoring star of the 2002, ’06 and ’10 World Cup teams. Close behind him were the goalies Brad Friedel and, later, Tim Howard, who just about singlehandedly kept U.S. hopes alive into the playoffs of 2014 Cup play. Donovan, though, never really registered on the world scale, and although Friedel and Howard had solid careers in the English Premier League both were, after all, goalies, so their glow was muted. When your team’s best player is a goalie, you’ve got a problem.

              Our occasional phenoms, kids who showed preternatural skill, similarly haven’t panned out—the names of Freddie Adu and Jonathan Spector come quickest to mind. The Ghanian-born Adu, who came to the U.S. at age eight, was signed as a pro at 14 and moved to Europe at 18, but quickly plateaued there. Spector was signed as a teen by the powerful Manchester United franchise but never made the varsity.

 DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, John Brooks, Julian Green and Jordan Morris, all in their early 20s, have showed flashes of brilliance as young national-team members but have yet to develop dependable, well-rounded games. They may or may not be important parts of the current World Cup qualifying process. If they aren’t, that will leave any improvement to such veterans as Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, good players but ones that don’t set the sport afire.

One reason the U.S. still lags in soccer, even after some strenuous trying, is the multiplicity of sporting options open to American kids. In most of Europe, Latin America and Africa, where soccer is supreme, any child who shows notable athletic ability is quickly funneled into the sport and heaped with all the attention and praise he needs to prosper. Here, basketball, baseball and football compete for the best, and in recent years that table has slanted so strongly toward basketball that baseball and football complain of talent deficits. What kind of soccer player would Stephen Curry have made? What kind of shortstop, for that matter?

 Another reason is, perhaps perversely, the recent establishment of Major League Soccer as an American sports presence. Offering good salaries and a comfortable playing environment, the league provides employment for most U.S. National Team members, but it’s a second-tier circuit, well behind the top leagues of England, Germany, Spain and Italy, so its players don’t get whatever benefits obtain from competing against their betters. Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. National Team’s German-born coach, is engaged in a running squabble with MLS over his preference that the better American players hone their skills abroad rather than staying home. So far he’s been losing.

My view is that soccer hasn’t been part of the national consciousness long enough to have made a genetic impression on American boys, who are happy enough playing the game as children but turn to the hereditary staples of B, B and F once they reach high school age. Darwin taught us that species change in time, but the span can be long.  The year 1994 was only about a generation away and it may take a couple more before our gene pool can create a Messi or a Ronaldo. As a nation we’re not long on patience, but it may be necessary here. Sorry.

             
                           


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

UNDERHANDEDNESS

              When I attended Roosevelt High School in Chicago (1951-55), Sam Edelcup was the basketball coach.  I wasn’t on his team (not nearly) but he was my gym teacher a couple of semesters, and I wrote sports for the school newspaper, the Rough Rider Review, so we became more than nodding acquaintances.

              He was a very nice man and a good coach—the 1952 Public League championship his team won was the school’s first and, as far as I know, last such title. But any athletic ability he’d possessed as a youth was hard to discern in what I judged to be his middle 50s. At 5-feet-3 or -4 inches tall he was a good foot shorter than some of his players, and his stocky build did not attest to agility.

              Nonetheless, Mr. Edelcup had a standing challenge to his team’s members to try to beat him in a best-of-10 free-throw-shooting contest, and legend had it they rarely did.  His method was to stand on the free-throw line with feet wide apart, grip the ball with a hand on each side, bend his knees slightly and from between his legs flip it basketward underhanded in a soft arc. Not only did the shot almost invariably go in, it usually did so cleanly, without troubling backboard or rim.

              Back in peach-basket days, I’m told, many players shot their charity tosses that way, but even by the 1950s two-handed shots of any kind had all but vanished from the sport, and not even many Roosevelt varsity players followed their coach’s lead. That’s despite the fact that his was a simple, natural motion that’s easily to emulate and usually effective. Rick Barry, a basketball Hall of Famer, learned it from his dad and used it throughout college and a 14-year pro career that he concluded, in 1980, as the best free-throw shooter in league history. His near-90% mark from the line still ranks fourth on the NBA’s all-time list, less than 1% behind that of the leader, Steve Nash.

              Barry was a flinty individualist who didn’t much care about appearances or what others thought. That’s crucial to this discussion. Athletes usually are the most suggestible of people, eager to try any fad or gimmick that might improve their fortunes. Yogurt diets, meditation, old sweat socks and all manner of equipment oddments come under this heading. If a baseball player shaved one side of his head and let the other side grow, and raised his batting average by 20 points, pretty soon you’d see half a league full of half-bald players. But ask them to try something that might make them look a bit awkward or uncool—or worse, feminine—and they’ll balk, even if what they’re doing patently doesn’t work.

              Harking back to the underhand method is pertinent because the NBA now has a problem with the consequences of bad free-throw shooting.  The phenomenon dates from the days when late in games trailing teams intentionally fouled Wilt Chamberlain, who was awful at the line (51% careerwise) in an attempt to gain cheap possessions, but it’s popularly called “Hack a Shaq” because the practice was revived during the more-recent tenure of the almost-equally-inept Shaquille O’Neal (and because “Hack a Wilt” doesn’t rhyme). 

              Today the most-popular targets are the Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond and the L.A. Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, whose FT success rate (Drummond’s 38%, Jordan’s 42%) make fellow big men Shaq and Wilt look like Annie Oakleys.  Fouling them and other poor shooters down the homestretch of games, as opponents are wont to do, can turn the last two minutes of playing time  into a half-hour slog instead of the usual 20 minutes or so. Worse, some teams have taken to employing the tactic earlier, irking fans by slowing things further.

              The practice has reached the point where Adam Silver, the NBA’s commish, is saying he’ll be looking into rules changes to prevent it.  Any change, though, would require two-thirds approval by team owners, and such consensus can be hard to reach.

              A better way out, I think, would be to make the perps in question better free-throw shooters, possibly by going underhanded. A few weeks ago I was spinning my TV dial in search of after-dinner entertainment when I chanced on a University of Louisville basketball game involving one Chinanu Onuako. There he was, on the line in front of everyone, flipping ‘em up the way Sam Edelcup (and Rick Barry) did.

              A computer search revealed Onuako, who stands 6-feet-10 and weighs about 245 pounds, to be a good player on a good college team. A sophomore from Lanham, Maryland, he is employed primarily as a rebounder and shot blocker, but often scores in double figures as well and is rated as a good NBA prospect.
            
             He’s also a smart young man—an ACC All-Academic teamer as a freshman-- who has reasoned that better FT shooting would make him more valuable to his team and more attractive to the pros. That was what prompted his style change this season even though it has required a thick skin. “My teammates laughed at me when I started,” he told a writer from the ESPN website. Indeed, the writer couldn’t restrain himself from adding some rhetorical jabs, calling the practice “funny looking” and “granny style.” Such is the lot of the nonconformist.
             
              It would be nice to say that underhanded free-throw shooting has made Onuako into an ace. It hasn’t, but he’s upped his percentage to about 57% from 47% last year, and he’s just getting the hang of it. So let’s hear it for the boy.  I hope he thrives and prospers.