Monday, April 15, 2013


                On opening day of the baseball season I retrieved my Arizona Republic from my front walk, took it inside my house and opened it to the sports pages, as usual. The main headline made me want to throw the darned thing away. It read “Kennedy Driven By Detractors.”
                I didn’t have to read the piece that followed to know what it would say, but did so anyway. Sure enough, it aped the “critics as motivators” theme that’s impossible to escape in the echo-chamber world of sports. In it, players strive to excel to “show” the people who doubted them, whomever they may be (they’re rarely identified). Teams strive to win on the same ground.

                As you may or may not know, the Kennedy in the headline was Ian Kennedy, who would be the Arizona Diamondbacks’ starting pitcher that day against the St. Louis Cardinals. Kennedy has been the D’Backs’ top starter for three seasons now. He’s a baseball golden boy-- a high-school star in his native California, a PAC-10 pitcher of the year at USC, a first-round draft choice of the New York Yankees (in 2006) and a 21-game winner and Cy Young Award candidate with Arizona in 2011. At age 28 he will have collected some $9 million in salary and bonuses through this season, with his best earnings years ahead.

                Yet what does Kennedy think about when he takes the mound according to Republic baseball writer Nick Piecoro? That somebody once said he was too small to succeed in the Bigs (he stands 6 feet tall and weighs 190 pounds), that he “didn’t throw hard enough” and that he was a “back-end starter at best.”  My goodness, in the face of such obloquy it’s a wonder the young man can muster the courage to appear in public.

                Kennedy no doubt knows the “detractors” stuff is bunk but mouths it because he thinks it adds the touch of adversity that makes his professional odyssey seem more heroic. Writer Piecoro knows it, too, but better knows an easy story when he sees one. Multiple that by a couple thousand and you have the stuff that fills our daily newspaper and TV sports menus, to the betterment of few.

                Indeed, to hear our scribes and commentators tell it top athletes have just two major sources of inspiration: the abovementioned desire to prove “critics” wrong and dedication to a teammate, relative or homey who is ill or deceased. The fact that just about every adult can identify someone in that last list, and the nobility inherent in a memorial quest, makes it that story irresistible to teller, newsman and audience, ensuring its perpetuation.

                The dedicated-victory line probably predates the Trojan Wars but on these shores traces mostly to a tale involving Knute Rockne, the famous Notre Dame football coach. Trailing Army at halftime in a 1928 game, Rockne told his players that he’d been present at the premature-death bed of George Gipp, an ND football hero of several years before, and that Gipp’s dying wish was that, when things looked dark, Rockne should ask his team to “win one for the Gipper.” He did and so did they, pulling off what has come to be regarded as a monumental upset. The legend was burnished by the 1940 movie in which Pat O’Brien, who made his acting bones playing saintly Catholic priests, was Rockne, and darlin’ Ronald Reagan was an angelic Gipp.

                A bit of research casts doubt on the story. While Army was favored in that long-ago clash ND was a not-bad 4-2 in wins and losses going in, and had enough talent to win national titles the next two seasons, so it wasn’t exactly corned beef hash.  Further, contemporary accounts had it that Rockne wasn’t present at Gipp’s death and that his teams well knew his habit of ignoring the truth in his halftime orations. For example, he once told his troops to win one for his hospitalized son even though the lad was hale and home at the time.

                Gipp died in 1920, so the players whom Rockne exhorted didn’t know him. That probably was good because history has it Gipp was a card sharp and pool shark better known in South Bend’s after-hours clubs than around campus. The fact that he was an almost-26-year-old undergrad at the time of his death from strep throat, and had been expelled from school for poor attendance (later reinstated), attests to his lack of diligence as a scholar.

 He resurfaced in the news in 2007 when his body was exhumed, and his DNA taken, to check rumors he’d fathered an out-of-wedlock child with a teenaged girl. He beat that rap, meaning that in that case, at least, the Gipper hadn’t been a dipper.

 The latest manifestation of the “win-one-for” syndrome involved the University of Louisville team in last week’s NCAA men’s big-school basketball tournament and Kevin Ware, one of its players. When Ware went down with a horrendous broken leg during a quarterfinal game with Duke the cry immediately went up that L’ville was on a crusade to succeed for him. One radio guy I heard on Semifinal Saturday declared that the fallen teammate gave L’ville a “huge motivational edge” in the games to come, meaning, I suppose, that Ware, a useful reserve guard, was worth more on the bench with his leg in a cast than healthy and on the floor. That doubtful premise was repeated throughout Louisville’s triumphal march.

Let’s try that again, though. Louisville entered the tournament No. 1 in the national polls and as the top overall seed. It was favored in every game it played. It had a deep, athletic roster and an A-List coach. It was leading Duke when Ware was injured late in the first half of a game it won, 85-63, so it must have been otherwise motivated to get that far. But—hey!—never let the facts get in the way of a good story.    

                 So what really motivates top jocks? One thing is that winning feels better than losing, something every weekend athlete knows.  Another is that on the pro level winning pays better, and if money is an abstraction to an athlete (it often is after a certain point) it’s very real to many of the people around him.

                The best description of what makes a champion came to me from my friend Carmen Salvino, the Hall of Fame bowler with whom I wrote a 1988 book (Fast Lanes; Bonus Books).   “It takes a big ego and tunnel vision,” said he, adding “neither of those things go over big around the house.” He might have added that those attributes also don’t look good in print, which is why they’re not often part of the journalistic jockographies we read.

                Given the way athletes are lionized, the big-ego part should be obvious. Just about every player in every big-time sport is a physical genius, having grown up as the best athlete in his school, town or maybe even state, and petted, pampered and protected from age 10 or 11. That’s not the kind of background that breeds humility. It’s a miracle any of them turn out to be fit to live with.

                Tunnel vision is what turns that ability into victories on a field full of others similarly endowed. Lots of people are good at games but few can perform them at a high level amid the myriad distractions presented by any athletic venue, hostile or friendly.  Such concentration is an intensely selfish skill that must be ruthlessly developed. The memory of a departed loved one or a carping naysayer can spur greater effort, but this usually comes when the athlete is alone at the end of a hard workout, debating whether to run that extra lap or complete the extra round of shots or lifts. When the clock is winding down, and the fans are screaming, and the opponent is in his face, any extraneous thought can be ruinous.

                Athletes say they’re at their best when they are “in the zone”—so engrossed in the tasks at hand that they’re unaware the rest of the world exists. Time slows, sound blurs and focus narrows to a laser-like dot.

 It’s world without other people.


Monday, April 1, 2013


                It’s good sport in some sports to compare the top performers of various eras and debate which were best, but basketball isn’t among them. With the possible exception of the Michael Jordan-versus-LeBron James argument, there’s no doubt that today’s players are the best ever, with the trend line pointing upward. 
               The reasons behind this are several. Coaching has improved throughout the sport, and with coaches at the microphones and stop-action and slo-mo video technology advancing, every televised game is a clinic for young players.  Add better nutrition and physical-training methods and you have a level of athleticism that’s unmatched historically.  High-school kids today can do what top collegians couldn’t 15 or 20 years ago, and ditto for the collegians and pros. Watching games in the current NCAA men’s big-school tournament is like watching “The Matrix” with the players providing their own special effects. The Flying Wallendas had nothing on those guys.

                 Amid all the wonderfulness, though, are a few head-scratching facts.  One is that team scoring averages in NCAA Division I have declined over the last 40 or so years to just a tad over 68 points a game last year, the last for which full-season figures are available, from a peak of almost 78 points in 1971 and ’72, when shorts were short and sideburns were long.  That’s despite such offense-friendly rules changes as the shot clock (introduced at 45 seconds in the 1985-86 season and cut to 35 seconds in 1993-94) and the three-point basket, which debuted in 1987.

National field-goal shooting percentages are down, too, to about 44 in recent seasons from a high of about 48 in 1984. Last year’s mark of 43.6% was the lowest since 1966. That decline has led some to ask the question “Why can’t Johnny shoot?” more earnestly than those concerning the lad’s other failings.

The usual answer to the above is that John-boy is a showoff who’d rather spend his playground time slammin’ and jammin’, rehearsing for an ESPN highlights reel, than putting in the hard work needed to improve his marksmanship.  But for those who prefer to think well of the young there’s an alternative explanation that rings truer, and is endorsed by the game’s leading thinkers. It’s that there’s been a whole lot of defense going on of late, and its effectiveness is most responsible for the scoring dearth.

The technical side of that proposition should be apparent to even the casual basketball fan. Back in the day most college teams played either man-to-man defense or zone and pretty much left it at that. Today there’s a whole zoo of exotic schemes (the zone press, box-and-one, triangle-and-two) with variations aplenty, and teams switch among them from one ball possession to the next or even during the same one. You don’t have to be an x’s and o’s person to recognize these—the TV commentators will do it for you. It’s one of the main ways they display their knowledge.

More importantly, the increased athleticism of today’s players is making itself felt more on the defensive side of the ball than on the offense. Any coach will tell you that great athletes aren’t necessarily great shooters but anyone willing to move his feet can play defense, and the better one moves them the better one does it.

  “Coaches always stressed defense but now they have more kids who really can play it,” Eddie Sutton, a three-decade veteran of the major-college coaching ranks, told me some years ago, and what he said then is even more true now.

I think there’s another side to the game’s current D-domination, though, and it isn’t nearly as upbeat as the first. It’s that the refs are permitting more rough stuff than ever before and this is turning the game into a scrum. Indeed, with all the slapping, scratching, grabbing and bumping that’s ignored on the court it’s a wonder a shot ever gets off.

The NBA has set the pattern for this, and probably with reason. Today’s pros are so skillful that they can score under any regime short of house arrest, and without giving the “D” an edge every game’s score would be on the order of 125-123. The collegians aren’t quite that good, so defensive permissiveness often leads to turgidity.

A certain amount of physical contact is inevitable in basketball, especially around the hoop where the behemoths grind for position. Recent-year changes have been on the periphery, where the ball handlers operate.  The refs used to enforce some open space out there, but lately defenders have gone beyond an in-your-face stance to in-your-shirt, often contesting the ground on which ball handlers stand. If I were a collegiate guard I’d load up on garlic before games in the hope my breath might earn me and extra inch or two of daylight.

The refs could reverse this pattern if they chose, but the word from their bosses at conference and national headquarters seems to be “let the boys play.”  One upshot has been to reinforce the sense of unfairness that’s felt when close fouls are called. The other day I was watching a tight Georgetown-Syracuse game in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden when a foul was whistled against a G’town  player in the late going, setting off a storm of protest from his team’s bench and fans. The play was reviewed several times on TV, and both commentators agreed that a foul had been committed, but one noted that “they don’t call that foul in this league,” and the other concurred.

 The natural follow-up question—What fouls do they call?—went unasked.  If it had been, the truthful answer would have been “not many.”

The game would be better if they called more.