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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

Trip to Cuba puts our blessings in perspective!

by J.W. Miller on 04/16/18

Forgive my absence these past couple of weeks, but I was participating in my church’s annual mission trip to Cuba. We’ll get back to sports soon, but my experiences are worth sharing, especially if you’ve never done it. The trip was eye-opening for many reasons, not the least of which was exposure to an oppressed people who exist by means that Americans can’t even imagine. 

Some of my observations might make a typical American shake their head, but the Cuban people I met meet their problems with grace, a smile and a will to survive. Cubans are a resilient people. They don’t have the creature comforts that we take for granted, such as air conditioning, wi-fi in their houses, 24-hour television channels or a family vehicle. Obtaining food is a difficult process, as much because of availability as prices. If they want to travel across town, they either walk or pay the equivalent of $1 and ride in a horse-pulled carriage. An alternative is a pedi-cab that looks like a leftover from a Mad Max movie. 

Six of us flew into Veradero, near Cardenas, which is about 75 miles east of Havana. Our church's sister church in Cardenas lodged us in small guest rooms, each of which snugly accommodated two bunk beds. A little window air conditioner was the only relief we had from the humid near-90 temperatures for the first five days of our visit. The sanctuary and the fellowship hall, in which most of the contact with parishioners occurred, were not air conditioned although large fans operated at strategic locations. But personal comfort took a back seat as the good people of the congregation treated us royally, from feeding us three squares a day to providing lessons in Cuban dancing!  

It doesn’t take a trip to an impoverished land to make us thankful we live in a land of plenty, but it certainly puts an exclamation mark on it. Sure, we have poverty, but Americans born to poverty have a chance to escape it through determination, hard work and seizing opportunity. The Cubans I saw do not have that ability. They have little to aspire to in the Communist/Socialist system that eliminates incentive to excel. I met an orthopedic surgeon whose medical training was paid by the government so he could be sent to other Communist countries as a bargaining chip for oil. You would think a doctor would have a greater ability than other wage-earners to earn a decent living. But in order to make ends meet, this doctor moonlights (literally) as a night watchman, and he wants to be a chef. 

If you still believe socialized medicine is a good thing, consider that an anesthesiologist I met has a side business exchanging foreign currency at a higher rate than the government’s rate. We were told that the average wage for a Cuban worker is the equivalent of $18 per month. We did some random checking on our own and found one man who earned about $30 per month and a clerk at a government-owned grocery who was paid only $8 per month. 

Low wages would suggest low prices for goods, but that is not the case, even if the goods were available. Government grocery stores make it known which items might be available on a certain day, and we were there on “egg day” when shoppers could purchase eggs. We saw dozens of people walking the streets carrying a couple dozen eggs, but shoppers in line for eggs might be forced to buy whatever is available if supplies don’t last. Even our church hosts admitted going to the “black market” to secure some of the food we ate. 

After five days in Cardenas, we were driven to Havana for some sight-seeing and relaxation, and we were greeted by the biggest rolling Classic Car collection in the world. Chevrolets, Fords, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Studebakers and Plymouths, most models between 1948 to 1959. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, no American cars were imported. Owners of American vehicles kept them and have maintained them, even when they had to fabricate parts from whatever was available. Havana was a pre-revolution time warp where the newest structures were odes to Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the Communist manifesto. 

It was good to get home to our pampered life of air-conditioning, golf, a full refrigerator and the blessings of freedom. It should not take a trip to Cuba to remind us that. For all the bickering and complaining we do, we Americans have it pretty good.

Losing can be welcomed relief from hoops fatigue

by J.W. Miller on 03/26/18

There’s one more week left in the NCAA tourney, but I likely won’t watch any more games. I suffer from college basketball fatigue. It comes this time most every year after your favorite team teases you with delusions of sugarplums and title trophies before dragging you back to reality with a performance that sends them home for another year. Kentucky fans – and maybe North Carolina fans, Virginia fans, Arizona fans, Duke fans, Gonzaga fans, and others - know what I’m talking about. 

I don’t think even Kentucky's most enthusiastic fans expected the Wildcats to win it all this year – except maybe in my wildest fantasies while I was filling out my bracket. And, yes, my son beat me again in this year's bracket attrition competition. Kentucky fans have been skeptical most of the season with uneven performances that Coach John Calipari explains by reminding us that his team is “the youngest team ever in the NCAA.”  How many times have we heard that “freshman sometimes forget what you’ve told them and they revert to the way they played in high school.” Those are direct quotes. 

Do you know how many freshman will start among the final four teams in San Antonio this weekend to contest the national championship? Three, and none are projected as one-and-done NBA Draft targets. Bottom line, 24 of the top 25 teams ranked in 247 Sports' 2017 recruiting wars are all sitting at home today. Kansas, which ranked No. 9, will join No. 28 Villanova, No. 43 Michigan and, ye gods! unranked Loyola of Chicago. If any season ever confirmed the value of veteran teams, then the 2017-18 season surely made that point. 

I hope the makeup of the Final Four teams encourages Calipari to recruit players who will stick around for at least two or three years. I also hope the two sophomores who played considerably this season - Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones - stay and are joined by a handful of current freshmen next season, like Jarred Vanderbilt, Quade Green, P.J. Washington and Nick Richards. Cal knows the value of veterans, like in 2012 when freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were ably supported by upperclassmen like Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. 

Forgive my expert opinion, but I've been in this basketball fatigue thing for a long time. My earliest memories of Kentucky basketball were listening to games on the radio with my grandmother Connor, who would not hesitate to turn off the game if it got too close. The suspense ate her up inside, and that was in the Fifties. This year, I often did the same thing in the modern context when I ignored a televised Kentucky game to watch NCIS. After all, Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ team is undefeated. 

But after Kentucky lost four in a row in February, they won four in a row, and, after losing at Florida, swept the SEC tournament. Hope, which is a symptom of basketball fatigue, was restored! Excitement built to a fever pitch and the adrenaline flowed again. We were convinced our team, young though they be, actually had a chance to go all the way, a belief fueled when Arizona and Virginia were upset and Kentucky, the ranking seed remaining in the South Region, headed for the friendly confines of the city they call “Catlanta.” So they were a lock for the Final Four and our thoughts turned to a possible ninth national title.  

And just as suddenly, a veteran Kansas State team clogged the middle, took advantage of turnovers, hit 40 percent of their 3-pointers and watched freshman P.J. Washington miss 12 free throws in a 61-58 victory. I don’t want to say I welcomed losing the game, but basketball fatigue is in remission for another year. I am a much calmer person. An evening cocktail with the Lovely Miss Jean is peaceful with light conversation about the children and what’s coming up this week. If I miss a two-foot putt, I do not blame John Calipari. My fatigue level dropped even further after Kansas beat Duke Sunday. Nyuk! Nyuk! 

So our favorite sport is over for another year, and we are cursing the “one and done” rule, but we move on. A handful of our players will believe they are ready for the NBA draft and will bid us farewell. And now a Kentucky fan's  favorite sport gives way to our second-favorite sport: Basketball recruiting for next season is in high gear.

I witnessed Chapter 1 of the Tom Benson evolution

by J.W. Miller on 03/16/18

When I first met Tom Benson, I thought he was the janitor. It was January, 1986, at the Super Bowl in New Orleans, and I was in town to interview for a job with new Saints President and GM Jim Finks. I had been in the Saints’ Superdome offices many times in my position with the NFL Management Council, but I had not yet met the team’s new owner. I was waiting in the lobby when a rather rumpled gentleman walked from some back offices and extended his hand. “Tom Benson,” he said in a thick drawl. “Welcome to the Saints!” I did not realize it then, but my life had changed forever. 

Memories flooded back after news Thursday afternoon that Benson had passed away at age 90 from complications with the flu. You don’t have time to hear all my stories here, but I’ll share a few that I hope reflect the man I knew who became the most prominent individual in New Orleans sports history. The many different sides of Tom Benson could be encapsulated in a character study called “the evolution of an NFL owner.” I witnessed the first chapter between 1986-96 when the Saints went from zero winning seasons to a league power. 

First, I remember the images. There was the ebullient Tom, parasol high, second-lining around the Superdome field after a Saints win. There was the playful Tom, intent on winning a few bucks from his entourage in intense Saturday night bourré games during road trips. There was the Imperial Tom, striding through his dealerships among fawning employees who showed proper respect to “Mister Tom.” And there was the ruthless “bidness” Tom who would raise his voice, slam his palm on the table and use any other tactic to intimidate his target. 

I go back to the beginning and consider why Tom Benson got into a business he knew nothing about. The popular answer is that he wanted to preserve a community asset that was being courted by outside investors. That might have been true in the context of Chapter 2 of Benson’s evolution when he spent freely to buy the Pelicans, WVUE-TV and revive Dixie Beer. Add in his recent endeavors to endow the athletic programs at Tulane and Incarnate Word University in San Antonio and the numerous philanthropies of the Archdiocese and you have the current consensus. 

But the early Tom Benson realized that the preservation of a local asset could also enhance his automobile empire. In his first season as owner, Benson wanted to use a preseason game to showcase his vehicles, and he ordered cars from every dealership to be positioned around the Superdome playing field. Fortunately, Saints PR guy Greg Suit, a veteran NFL hand, rushed to Benson and informed him that NFL rules prohibited such  advertising. 

The early years with GM Jim Finks were part of a learning experience for Benson as he evolved from a hard-charging business man into an NFL owner. Finks was in control, and Benson deferred to the Hall of Fame GM, who affectionately called him “the tire kicker” behind his back. But Benson was the owner, and soon his fellow owners began to hear what he was saying and not how he said it. He was named chairman of the prestigious Finance Committee, whose authority extended to nearly every business aspect of the League and member clubs. His acumen was on display, and his reasoned judgment and sound recommendations were seldom opposed. 

During this time, the Saints went from a sideshow a few years earlier to one of the best operated franchise in the league and one that other owners wished to emulate. In 1989, Benson informed Finks that a new owner had asked if he could bring his top people to New Orleans and learn how to put together a winning franchise. That was my first meeting with Jerry Jones and his son Stephen, who listened and asked questions of us for a full day. After that, every time I saw Jones at League meetings or games, he would ask if I had any more advice for him. 

Chapter 2 in the Tom Benson evolution began in 1993 when Finks resigned to begin a futile battle against lung cancer. For seven years, Finks had served as the buffer between the owner and the rest of us, but now Benson was in full charge, and it became a learning experience for us. We saw parts of his personality that we had not seen before. I remember 1995 when the Saints started out 0-5, and Tom called Coach Jim Mora, VP of Personnel Billy Kuharich, and me, the Executive VP, into his office. He was agitated and told us in no uncertain terms: “This is unacceptable, and if you can’t fix it, I will!”

Benson proceeded to tell Mora to fire some players and coaches, Kuharich to fire some scouts and me to fire the least-seniority person in each department. Three hours later, we had talked him off the ceiling, but he was not convinced, telling us that he would think about it. Fortunately, the team started playing better and we got our reprieve. That was Typical Tom, who never would settle for mediocrity without using radical measures to try and fix it. Whether he was charming or abrupt, Tom Benson challenged his employees to rise to his own definition of success, and we bought in. We knew that behind every decision was integrity, facts and a passion to succeed. 

Sometimes things did not go the way we would have liked, particularly the morning of May 17, 1996, when Benson called me into his office and told me I was “terminated.” It was not a good time for us because two days later my wife Jean would give birth to our son, Charles Connor. But Tom honored the remaining months on my contract without question and even made calls to other owners that led to my next position as VP of Administration of the Buffalo Bills. In my first league meeting representing the Bills, in 1997, Benson took me aside and said he had something to say. “I made a mistake in letting you go, and I just wanted you to know that,” he said. I told him he didn’t have to say anything because I understood the business, but I appreciated it. I truly did.

Those are just some of my impressions and memories of Tom Benson during the early years. Buy me a beer sometime, and I’ll tell you a few more. And, oh by the way, thanks, Tom, for being a major influence in my life, a mentor, and a friend.

Brees signing would bring sanity to March Madness

by J.W. Miller on 03/12/18

I got my first taste of March Madness, 2018 style, Sunday while watching the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game. A couple of weeks ago, I probably would have spent the day playing golf or participating in another event tied to my mother-in-law’s 91st birthday festival. By the way, Happy Birthday, Nanny G! But noooo! My beloved Kentucky Wildcats, who have bedeviled Big Blue Nation most of the season, put together three inspiring performances and once again have its loyal legions by the short hairs, pulling us sadistically into another fog of hope that they can somehow play above their No. 5 seed and win their ninth NCAA title. 

So, in the context of knowing what lay ahead in the next excruciating weeks, I say thanks to Drew Brees! In the next 48 hours, Brees is expected to provide the pre-tournament respite that I need when he signs a new contract with the Saints. Brees has two days left to sign the contract or send the Saints into Salary Cap purgatory with an immediate $18 million hit. Of course, the local heroes have been there before, and may be forced to take the hit now rather than later if agent Tom Condon plays hardball. 

The good news is that Brees has sounded like Ghandi so far, spewing peace and love while declaring he wants to play out his career in New Orleans. That suggests a deal will get done before Wednesday, likely another multi-year contract that spreads the guaranteed money out over several seasons until a voidable option kicks in and creates another expensive deadline down the road. But that’s down the road, a mysterious place where NFL front offices are loathe to acknowledge. Their existence depends on the here and now, improving the team they have, which in the Saints’ case is a reasonable strategy. 

Saints brass could use that $18 mil to attract some free agents to bolster areas of concern, including tight end, defensive line and cornerback. The most discussed free agent is former Saints TE Jimmy Graham, who has spent the past three seasons in exile in Seattle, but whose return would be a fitting punctuation mark to his career. Other free agent names have been well documented, and I’m sure the Saints will bring in two or three before concentrating on the Draft.  But right now, it’s March, and after Brees re-ups,  I’ve got to get through the madness that torments basketball fans. 

You think I’m kidding? Sunday was a great example of what I mean. It was a day of conference tournaments whose purpose is known only to television moguls and moneychangers in conference offices. The title game is only a tune-up of sorts to the real thing. Win or lose, your team will play again, but it doesn’t matter. It’s March, and the spouse, children or pets you normally cherish know better than to be near you today. Here's why:

The game starts, and your television sits there, teasing you as your team looks great in the early going. Your team hits 16 of their first 19 shots and you fret about the three they missed. You know that leads are ephemeral, subject to inexplicable droughts that in the past have become 3 for 33 nightmares! Predictably, that fickle quality called "momentum" shifts and the opponent comes roaring back as if your team’s sneakers are nailed to the floor! 

Your stomach is tight. You are grinding your teeth. You are shouting at the TV as if your demands will waft through the ether and into the ears of these kids who hold your life in their feckless hands. You shout instructions, but the TV becomes the golf ball that you beg not to keep slicing toward the water. Like the dimpled sadist, the TV doesn’t listen, either. It taunts you when your team can’t hold a 17-point first-half lead any better than Germany could hold a first-half advantage in World War II. But at the end, it’s your mirror double in Knoxville who is tossing his 65-inch Samsung over the balcony as your team is victorious.

I sat there enjoying my Maker’s Mark on the rocks, knowing all along that this game didn’t really matter. The brackets were set, and my team was likely going to open the tournament in Boise  anyway. But I also know that the NCAA tournament is a plague of palpitating hearts and sweaty palms where a loss is the true meaning of  “one and done.” Does that make every game a “must” win? 

World War II was a “must” win. This is merely March Madness. 

Open NBA to prep stars, but don't pay the players!

by J.W. Miller on 03/05/18

Even Dick Vitale, the No. 1 ambassador for college basketball, is fed up with the sport after the recent scandal named players who accepted under-the-table money and coaches who lost their jobs. Vitale told the Tampa Bay Times Sunday that the sport is “broken” and needs a fix. “I don’t like what’s out there,” he said. “I don’t like the sleaziness, the corruption. I don’t like the fraud that college basketball has become.” 

Can’t disagree with that, but I have a problem with Dickie V’s solutions. Vitale would do away with the one-and-done rule, because “it’s a joke.” I don’t disagree and have said so in this space. If a high school player is good enough to play in the NBA, then he should be allowed to pursue that dream. But then the 78-year-old former coach joins the chorus who sing loudly to pay the players, and we fall out of bed. Vitale reasons that since college sports makes billions of dollars and  coaches make millions of dollars, some of the profit should go to the players. “The only ones who don’t (make money) are the ones we need the most for this sport. The players are really the only vital ones in this whole thing.” 

I believe that pairing the one-and-done rule with paying the players who are left raises too many insurmountable and conflicting issues. If a system is adopted to “pay the players,” and the exceptional prospects are in the NBA, why is a fair pay system required for the remainder of college athletes? And how would it work? Would only men’s basketball and football players get paid since their games generate the money to support the other 15-20 sports in a college program? Title IX advocates might have an issue with that. 

So where do you draw the line? I believe you draw it when you end the one-and-done rule and allow the best prospects - the ones susceptible to scandal and the cheaters - to go pro after they finish high school. That leaves the great majority of student\athletes who are in college to get a free education. 

I still believe in a free market society in which high school graduates can choose to enroll at any college that admits them. They work, study and practice their craft to obtain the skills that prepares them to go out into the marketplace – whether in professional sports or society. A small percentage of student-athletes who spent at least three years in college will go on to professional careers, while the great majority will join their classmates and use the education and skills they have learned as a platform to becoming productive citizens. The difference is that in the athlete’s case, most if not all of their tuition, room and board and fees are paid. If you don’t believe that a free education counts, just ask the 44 million college graduates who are carrying an average of nearly $40,000 in debt, according to today’s Wall Street Journal. 

What makes anybody think that paying the athletes will change anything? Payment might even perpetuate the greater problems, calming the critics and freeing the system from the constraints that have lately tarnished the excitement and wholesome nature of competition. I agree with Dickie V. that something needs to be done, and ending the one-and-done rule is the first step. But paying the players en masse would do little but increase the financial burden on low-revenue schools like UNO that see their state aid cut every year.

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Big Blue Nation is everywhere! Look closely at the biker on the far right riding down a street in Cardenas, Cuba, and you can see he is wearing a "Big Blue Nation - UK" tee-shirt touting the 2012 NCAA champs.