The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry probably misspoke when he called the current turmoil surrounding the team “a dumpster fire.” I think that was a subconscious urge to say “DEMPSter Fire” after the club terminated the tortuous nine-year reign of GM Dell Demps. The team is in flames fed by the fact that generational star Anthony Davis wants out, the team has failed to reach the playoffs on a regular basis which is probably because they have failed to acquire – and keep - a solid supporting cast. That perfectly describes the series of curious decisions, dead-end trades and pure bad luck that Demps presided over.
It’s unfortunate that the situation became so discouraging for Davis that he wants out, but it’s probably better for him than my fear he was going to become another Ernie Banks – the legendary Cub who was a perennial all-star on a team never quite good enough to contend for a championship. Watching Kentucky take the 2012 NCAA championship in the Superdome behind Davis was ecstasy for this Kentucky fan, and three months later it looked like new owner Tom Benson’s magic was working when his team drafted the Wildcat star No. 1 overall. It seemed that Demps, Benson’s inherited GM, had fallen into a field of clover. The franchise was stable and NBA titles surely would follow.
After Davis’ first year, Demps traded two first-round picks to Philadelphia for Jrue Holiday. He also swung a deal for Tyreke Evans, which sounded good at the time, but injuries devastated that team. In the summer of 2014, he traded a first-round pick and received center Omer Asik. He was respectable in his first season but after receiving a 5-year, $58 million contract was an injury-plagued bust.
Demps made the decision in 2015 to keep the team intact, re-signing all of his potential free agents. That tactic has been a proven path to success, but only if you also retain the coach. Demps dumped Monte Williams and expected the roster to fit into Alvin Gentry’s system, whatever that was intended to be. The results were disastrous, and the lack of fit plus an ER full of injuries doomed the Pels to a 30-52 record and another missed playoffs.
Demps and Gentry retooled for the next season, hoping to give Davis some help with No. 1 draft pick Buddy Hield. It sounded good, giving Gentry the guy who could start the transformation to the Warriors’ fast-paced offense that he helped put together. Demps signed former Bulls’ guard E’Twaun Moore and ex-Pacers forward Solomon Hill to help patch up the team’s erratic defense, but those moves did nothing but take up valuable cap space. Demps’ boldest move was in 2017 when he shipped Hield, Evans and 2017’s first- and second-rounders to Sacramento for All-Star DeMarcus Cousins. That might have been a good deal – torn Achilles notwithstanding - if Cousins had not been on the last year of his contract and could walk.
Demps’ efforts to build a team around Davis by trading first-round picks for veterans clearly failed. Today’s quiz: How many players the Pelicans drafted are still on the roster? The answer is Davis, who likely will be gone next year, and Darius Miller, who was drafted in the 2012 second round after Davis, but was released and played in Europe before being re-signed. In other words, the last six NBA drafts have not produced one player who is still on the roster. I know player acquisition is different in the NBA than the NFL, but that seems odd even for basketball. A quick glance at rosters shows Golden State with six players they drafted and Boston with five.
I get it. You make changes that your current situation deems logical. Cutting 35-year-old Morten Andersen after he’d gone 1 for 11 from 50 yards the previous two years made sense at the time. It didn’t make sense after Andersen hit three field goals beyond 50 yards his next game in the Superdome. Not re-signing Bobby Hebert and Sam Mills, two aging players who wanted sizable raises, was logical. It wasn’t logical after they led their new teams to victories over the Saints. Just as trading for DeMarcus Cousins made sense at the time.
But a GM’s crystal ball can’t predict injuries or a spurned player’s resolve to turn logic on its ear. The results are what matters. And the GM who thinks his team is better than the results should heed Bill Parcells’ time-proven wisdom: “You are what your record says you are,” The Pelicans are a team in flames with a losing record whose star wants to be traded. And that’s why Dell Demps is out and Anthony Davis, sadly, is looking to prove he will not be remembered as the NBA version of Ernie Banks.
Football is over for a while, thankfully so in the Saints’ case, but now comes the big letdown. I sat at my terminal today and tried to decide what I could write about that could snap Who Dat Nation back to consciousness. Oh, there’s plenty going on, but nothing equals the magnitude of football. Is there a subject that can peel that vacant, unconscious stare from the eyes of a loyal Who Dat? Well, talking about the Pelicans won’t do it.
After watching the Anthony Davis trade-me debacle unfold, I am more turned off than ever at the NBA. I never thought AD would want out of New Orleans in the first place - Who wants to leave New Orleans? - but I’m a slightly naïve, hopeful traditionalist. The NBA system confuses me. Damn luxury taxes! Damn Bird Rights! Damn mid-level exceptions and maximum contracts! My old boss, Jim Finks, is spinning in his crypt at all the shenanigans that have taken over sports, particularly the NBA.
In fairness to Davis, Pelicans’ management has bobbled this one out of bounds. GM Dell Demps never really seemed to have a consistent plan on how to build around Davis for the long term, although the organization was snake-bit by injuries over the years. I will be very surprised if the Quality Control unit of the Benson Sports Empire keeps Demps or Coach Alvin Gentry on board another year. Whoever comes in to right the ship should have some good young players and a bagful of draft choices to work with, although my take on NBA draft choices is not very optimistic. So you trade a generational player like Davis to obtain draft choices in the hopes of drafting a generational player? I am still watching Who Dat Nation stare straight ahead and begin to drool.
My chagrin of the NBA intensified at the NBA trade deadline, which was like watching a Groupon auction. Teams would offer 40 percent of their roster trying to snag The Guy who could put them over the top while others were talking three-way deals that sent players all over. We are most familiar with the Lakers’ quizzical offer for Davis that included Kyle Kuzma, a pretty good player, and Lonzo Ball, whose father, LaVar, should be arrested for child abuse. When news of the offer came out, the biggest mouth in sports said his son would never play in New Orleans. Good! Because now we don’t have to put up with your crap!
The rules also allowed the Lakers to throw in Michael Beasley, who is 53 years old and does crossword puzzles while riding the bench. Then, when he was eventually traded to the Clippers, he was immediately released. Cap management, they call it. A team takes a player in a trade not with the purpose of playing him but to toss him out like an expired gallon of milk to make cap space for a potential move three years from now. And the Celtics were prohibited from offering the Pelicans anything for Davis because they could not take on another maximum salary as long as Kyrie Irving is on the roster. They will be laying in the weeds until the season is over and the salary system readjusts. Cha-ching!
I suppose my ultimate displeasure with the NBA is because the league has evolved to the point that the players have taken control of what happens with individual teams. Free movement allows them to stack a team like LeBron did in Miami and Cleveland and won championships. Golden State could add to a championship team, and others are looking to do the same. So if the better players around the league are trying to create a small handful of super teams, where does that leave the Little Sisters of the NBA Poor and their fans? They really don’t have much control because the finances of sport comes down to leverage, and the NBA players have it. An employee-controlled industry sounds like a good idea until you realize that the inmates truly are running the asylum. There’s no stability. It’s more like controlled chaos!
And what about our poor Who Dat in withdrawal? He is still staring longingly into space, saliva dripping from the corner of his mouth. But wait. Do I see movement? Never mind. He’s now sucking his thumb.
Only New Orleans can turn abject disappointment into a party. Of course, just about anything that happens in New Orleans is reason enough for a party. Even deaths are celebrated by jazz funerals in which the sorrow of passing is replaced by a celebration of a life well lived. And that’s what happened Sunday when thousands of fans turned off their televisions and descended downtown to protest the game they should have been in.
The impromptu Blackout and Gold parade marchers second-lined at Jackson Square, down Canal and Poydras streets and gathered at Fulton Street in a massive display of anger. And the world noticed, especially after a relatively dull Super Bowl that featured the least points and the most punts in the game’s 53-year history. The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay summed it up when he wrote: “I’m half convinced this sleepy Super Bowl was the result of a hex from the good people of New Orleans, still seething that a missed call in the NFC Championship prevented their beloved Saints from being here. This is what the NFL gets, for messing with New Orleans."
The NFL probably could have done something to curb the anger. Commissioner Roger Goodell could have flown to New Orleans a day or two after the game, stood beside Gayle Benson and selected Saints representatives and addressed the fans. He could have explained why he was prevented by NFL rules from interfering, why the league will encourage the Competition Committee to amend the rules and prevent it from happening again. And, oh yes, he could have apologized to the fans. But he didn’t, and every day the infected wound grew more raw and toxic.
Although it may be difficult to reconcile New Orleans’ strong tradition of Catholicism and professed religious faith with its penchant for ribaldry and revelry, Who Dat Nation apparently took a cue from Scripture to get through their grief. Luke 4:23 contains the well-traveled phrase, “Physician, heal thyself.” And that’s what the Who Dats did. They confronted their demons, particularly Goodell, and celebrated one of the greatest seasons in team history.
QB Drew Brees added to the suddenly upbeat mood by proclaiming his team is still within the window of opportunity. Next season it will welcome back its maturing stable of young stars such as Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk and Marcus Davenport along with its solid group of crafty veterans such as Cameron Jordan, Demario Davis, Max Unger, Terron Armstead and Brees himself. If Sheldon Rankins recovers from his torn Achilles, they re-sign Mark Ingram and can pick up a wide receiver in free agency or the draft, the table would be set for another run. Indeed, the Westgate Las Vegas morning line today has the Saints, Patriots and Rams at 8-1 behind the Chiefs at 6-1 to win Super Bowl LIV.
Sunday’s fan protest turned into a cathartic celebration that put the travesty of the past two weeks behind them and allows them to look ahead. They won’t soon forget they were cheated and are less likely to forgive it, but another run at a Super Bowl next year would make No Flag Gate far less painful.
YES!, I’m still ticked off, and NO! I do not plan to watch the Super Bowl or any other football until training camp, and I will only watch the NFL draft because Kentucky might have its biggest draft-day haul in history. But before we leave the subject of football, some news items have popped up the past couple of weeks that reminded me of some interesting tales from the Saints past that might help ease the pain.
SAINTS PAY OKAFOR FOR MISSED INCENTIVE. The Saints paid Alex Okafor a $400,000 incentive bonus for making five sacks, although the rush lineman only recorded four sacks during the season. He fell one sack shy of the target, but the Saints paid him anyway. “The Saints have given me opportunities since I got here, and I’m just blessed and grateful that they still believe in me and are taking care of me the way they are,” Okafor said.
That brought to mind my annual post-season meetings with GM Jim Finks when we would go over the incentive list to confirm who earned bonuses and who did not. Our typical playing time incentives were $2,500 for playing 25% of the total snaps, $5,000 for playing 50% or $7,500 for playing 75%. They were not cumulative; the higher level the player earned is what he got. One player achieved 24.5% of the offensive plays, and I marked it as earned. “Wait a minute,” Finks said. “We don’t round off here. He didn’t earn it.” And that’s how QB John Fourcade missed out on a few extra bucks that season. I wonder if Okafor would send him a check?
SAINTS ANNOUNCE DEAL WITH CASINO. In December, the NFL and the Saints announced a new partnership with Caesar’s Entertainment Corporate as the first-ever official casino sponsor of the NFL. Caesars owns Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans. After Chris Hemmeter opened the first casino in New Orleans in 1993, the printing company that printed the Saints GameDay program came to us about accepting some rather lucrative ads the casino wanted to buy. I requested permission at an NFL meeting to accept such advertising, but I was rebuffed based on the NFL’s longtime aversion to any form of gambling.
The growing proliferation of casinos around the country had other clubs asking the league office the same question and some were receiving different answers. The Redskins were allowed to accept signage advertising from the Maryland Lottery. The Patriots were allowed to accept advertising from a Native American casino. But I had to tell our GameDay sales group that casino advertising was off limits to us.
Fast forward into the season, and I got a call from Jay Moyer, Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s legal counsel, who informed me the Saints were being fined for accepting casino ads in GameDay. I adamantly denied it, and Moyer asked if I had a program handy. I did, and he instructed me to look at “page 82.” I flipped to page 82 and saw a K&B drugstore ad, and I told him so. He told me I must have the wrong page or the wrong game, because his copy contained a full-page ad for the local casino.
I was flabbergasted, and I called the head of the GameDay sales group, who sheepishly confessed. The 100 GameDay magazines that were delivered to the Saints office contained the drugstore ad, but the 10,000 or so that were sold in the Superdome carried the casino ad. Needless to say, the third-party sales group paid the fine.
FANGIO IS NEW HEAD COACH OF THE BRONCOS. Vic Fangio was Jim Mora’s linebackers coach and one of my best friends when we were both with the Saints. He has made the circuit over the years for his defensive acumen and most recently served with distinction as the Bears’ defensive coordinator. Vic is a great defensive tactician, but my favorite Fangio story reflects his good nature and his calm demeanor in the face of adversity. I remember it so well because it was his cool that calmed my adversity.
We were frequent golf companions, because Vic was a good player and generous, but not intrusive, with tips that tried to improve my game. On the day in question, we were out at the original Eastover Golf Course, which was a challenging tract off Bullard avenue. It was on a par 3 hole that had a long, wrap-around sand trap guarding the right side of the green, a frequent landing spot for my shot. Sure enough, kerplunk!
I took my sand wedge and swung hard, but it dug in and moved the ball about three inches. I swung again with a similar result, although the ball did not move quite as far. My third swing was even uglier than the first two but not nearly as ugly as my mood. I turned and flipped my sand wedge in a whirlybird toward the cart. The club hit the roof standard, bent into a “V” and fell to the ground. I walked over, picked up the offending stick, snapped it in two and threw both pieces into the woods.
If Eastover was known for anything besides double- and triple-bogies, it was snakes and gators. But Vic calmly walked into the woods, retrieved the portion of club that attached to the clubface, handed it back to me and said: “You can get this re-shafted.” Feeling like the doofus I was, I apologized and have never thrown a club since. Thanks again, Vic, and good luck in Denver!
There are three ways to lose a game. First, you get beat by a better team. You can understand that and you go back to the drawing board to get better. Second, you can lose a game with poor execution or an ill-timed mistake. But stuff happens, and you can understand that, too. Third and the worst of all is when you do nothing wrong, your execution is good enough to win but you get it taken away from you. And that’s the one you can’t understand nor forgive. And that’s what happened to the Saints Sunday in the Superdome.
In case you missed it, the game was tied, the Saints were driving, trying to kill enough clock to kick a game-winning field goal at the buzzer. They were one play from achieving that when Drew Brees’ pass to Tommylee Lewis was interrupted by a helmet-to-helmet mugging by Rams DB Nickell Robey-Coleman while the ball was in the air. Both side judge Gary Cavaletto and down judge Patrick Turner were in position to make the obvious interference call or, at worst, a personal foul against the defender.
But instead of making the call that all America saw, Cavaletto looked at Turner and Turner looked back at Cavaletto, each expecting the other to pull their flag. But neither one acted. No flag, fourth down, and the Saints had to kick with plenty of time on the clock for QB Jared Goff to rally his team, which he did. The Rams tied it with 15 seconds to go, then won it in overtime. Former official Dean Blandino, working the broadcast for Fox-TV, said they missed the call. Coach Sean Payton got a phone call in the locker room from the NFL director of officials who admitted the crew blew the call. Payton threw off the risk of a fine and said afterwards: “They blew the call.”
The Saints had the game taken away from them. So where does that leave thousands of grieving, angry Who Dats who can’t understand how the system failed them. I can’t make them feel better except to encourage them not to react the way Kentucky fans reacted nearly two years ago in a similar situation.
It was the NCAA Elite Eight in 2017 when Kentucky and North Carolina met with the winner advancing to the Final Four. But in the first half, an official named John Higgins decided to control the game. He called two early fouls on Kentucky’s three best players – De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo – virtually taking them out of the game. The three sat on the bench for much of the first half as North Carolina took control. The Wildcats fought back and tied it with seconds to go but lost the game on a last-second shot. Coach John Calipari commented afterwards: “It was amazing we were still in the game after they nearly fouled out all our players.”
Big Blue Nation was angry but a small proportion of fans decided if Higgins made their lives miserable, they would return the favor. A video appeared after the game titled “John Higgins’ Sabotage of Kentucky,” featuring footage of the game and a picture of Higgins next to one of his roofing business’ trucks and a invitation to rate Higgins’ business at a Yelp-type website. A Kentucky radio show host posted Higgins’ home and business phone numbers and fans took the cue. They inundated social media and clogged the website of Higgins’ business with negative reviews and comments about his company’s work and even his personal habits.
“You’re gonna pay,” one Kentucky fan wrote to Higgins, and threats and harassment followed. For his next games, Higgins, in fear for his life, hired a bodyguard. A few months later, Higgins filed a harassment suit against the radio host that is still pending.
So does that give Who Dat Nation any ideas? I hope not. The love and passion that our sports teams engender often compel us to go overboard. We can be angry, and it’s going to hurt for a long time, but let’s not be stupid. It is unbelievable that two officials didn’t have the stones to make the right call in a huge game. Even Referee Bill Vinovich distanced himself, saying he did not see the call. Errors of omission can be just as devastating as errors of commission.
I almost wish John Higgins would have moonlighted for a weekend and been part of Vinovich’s crew. He wouldn’t have been afraid to blow the whistle.