The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
The Jimmy Graham franchise tag dispute reminds me of a Disney movie. You remember Dumbo the Flying Elephant whose oversized ears gave him the ability to soar like an eagle? Well, imagine Dumbo going to Walt Disney asking for a raise. It might go something like this:
Dumbo: Mr. Disney, I know you hired me as an elephant, and I do have a trunk and big ears and kind of look like an elephant, but I think I should be paid like an eagle. Disney: Dumbo, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard of. You aren’t an eagle. An eagle is the symbol of our country, the epitome of bravery and courage. You are an elephant.
Dumbo: But how many elephants do you know who can fly? (To make his point, Dumbo flies around the room, buzzing Disney once or twice before returning to a soft landing at the negotiating table.) Let me ask you about some of your other stars. Was the Little Mermaid a fish or a girl? You didn't go to that movie to see her fins! Do you pay Roger Rabbit union scale? No, he makes more money than the Easter Bunny. Does Donald get paid like a duck? Donald was the original Duck Dynasty! And what about Mickey Mouse? Disney: Don’t go there, pachyderm. I knew Mickey Mouse, and you are no Mickey Mouse. He was a versatile actor! Could do a lot of things!
Dumbo: And when is the last time he played a mouse in a movie? He was restricted by definitions until he broke the stereotype. He was versatile, valuable and you won big with him! And you are paying him accordingly. Disney: And you are still an elephant! (Dumbo, exasperated, dips into his briefcase with his trunk and pulls out a thick document.)
Dumbo: Mr. Disney, I have in my trunk a copy of the most recent CBA, the Cartoon Bargaining Agreement, and I open it to Section 35, paragraph 12, which clearly states: “Character’s salary will be based on the role at which he participated in the most scenes during the prior cartoon year.” Since most of my scenes are at an altitude where I am soaring above the tallest buildings, I should be paid like an eagle. Disney (rubbing his chin, then scratching his head): But there are no eagles in any Disney movie. There are a lot of Beagles! There’s Bugle Beagle and Burger Beagle in Duck Tales. There’s even the Beagle Boys. If you don’t like that, we could pay you like Dalmatians. There were at least 101 of them.
Dumbo: But they were all cast members, bit players, the seven dwarfs, not stars. I am a star, and I want to be paid like a star! Disney: Look, big ears, what you are asking is for me to create an entirely new character group. Sort of a hybrid that does not exist, and I am not going to set the precedent. Why, the Simpsons and South Park people would kill me!
Dumbo: Well, I guess I'll see you in the grievance hearing. Did you know the hearing officer is the Lion King? Disney: Wait a minute! The Lion King is not a neutral! I protest! Where’s Hercules when I need him?
I have this trusted team of three advisers, you see, who counsel me on every aspect of University of Kentucky basketball and football. We were all fraternity brothers at UK back before laptops and cellphones, but these are not guys who just crawled out of the holler. One is a former Major League Baseball and NFL executive. Another owned a cable-TV company and insurance agency. The third is a dentist who once looked in George Clooney’s mouth. I am not making this up.
I am honored to include myself in this group, which I am happy to report is now technologically cutting edge. This week, we all added the ideograms and smileys called Emogis to our cellphone messaging. Our messages now are spiced with more thumbs-up, happy faces and lightning bolts than we knew existed just weeks ago. All of which adds gravitas to our concern over Kentucky’s young and erratic basketball team.
Flashing back to opening day, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the world after Coach John Calipari snagged an unprecedented freshman class of six McDonald’s All-Americans. The lead-up to the game included Cal’s musing on the possibility of a 40-0 season, which he said he always wanted and wouldn’t it be nice if it happened this year. But the coach always inserted the caveat that freshmen players fresh out of the package carry warning labels and not money-back guarantees. Whether the coach was preparing the fans for possible failure or not, his warning was prescient as his freshmen played like freshmen the first half against then No. 2 Michigan State then made it interesting and actually tied it up before losing. Then followed losses to Baylor and North Carolina, and the Wildkittens looked mortal.
In most civilized countries, a 21-6 record and national ranking would be celebrated. But Big Blue Nation is anything but civilized when it comes to its expectations for Wildcat success. Nothing less than the school’s ninth national championship will satisfy. Right now, BBN is asking why six-loss Kansas is ranked No. 5 and six-loss Duke is No. 6, while the six-loss Wildcats are all the way down at No. 17? The immediate reaction is that everybody hates Kentucky and always has, but the evidence is mixed. The Blue Devils have more quality wins (then-No. 1 Syracuse, Virginia, Michigan and UCLA) than UK’s lone win over Louisville, although the argument against Kansas may be valid. The Jayhawks just clinched the Big Eight Conference for a record tenth year in a row, but Oklahoma State and Baylor are not Florida, which beat Kansas earlier in the year. Kansas has beaten Duke and Baylor but has also lost to Kansas State, Colorado, Baylor, San Diego State and Villanova.
But we are about to enter March, and the past is prologue. I don’t believe Kentucky will win the NCAA title this year. The freshmen and a couple of sophomores who play are too erratic. Each player among the top seven or eight has disappeared at times in games. They are not a good foul-shooting team. They do not shoot well from 15 feet and beyond. They still are too lackadaisical on defense. They do not play well consistently away from Rupp Arena. When they get into the tournament, just one of those faults will kill them against a hot-shooting team.
Can they do it? Absolutely. The list of NCAA champions is full of teams that got hot toward the end of the season and won it all, such as 1983 North Carolina State, 1985 Villanova, 1988 Kansas and 1998 Kentucky. And it won’t be like they have any more true road games in the tourney. Big Blue Nation will match or exceed any other fan base who will travel.
But the current Wildcats were not the topic of conversation this week among my core of advisers. The big news Wednesday was the first commitment to the Class of 2015. Shooting guard Charles Matthews is an athletic 6-5 who plays on the same Chicago club team that produced Derek Rose and Anthony Davis. My advisers like the signing. The Emojis were running wild! The future is secure.
Saturday was the first day of the spring that New Orleans sporting fans really begin looking forward to the first Saturday in May. No, the Jazzfest schedule was not announced, although I hope Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and the Avett Brothers perform on the first weekend. You see, on the first Saturday in May, the second weekend of Jazzfest, I will be on the rail at Churchill Downs in Louisville for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby.
I am not a racing expert, but I can read the Daily Racing Form and I know what a speed rating is and I lamented the recent Washington Post buyout of its legendary racing writer Andy Beyer. Did I also mention I almost tanked my ninth semester at UK because of the Keeneland Fall Meet? Hey, what would you have done: Go the races or attended a Sociology class that I needed to get my degree? In any case, I got a C and the degree, but my current Derby anticipation began forming Saturday.
The Risen Star Stakes at the New Orleans Fairgrounds saw Intense Holiday nip Albano in the stretch. The victory vaulted the Todd Pletcher colt into first place in the Derby points standings, which determines which horses qualify for the most famous horse race in America. Leading the standings in February is like leading at the first turn since the major qualifying races are yet to come, but jockey Mike Smith said his winning mount is still young and has a lot of room to get better. Intense Holiday was coming off a third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream in January, but was the only horse to make up ground on Cairo Prince, the early Derby favorite who ran away from the field. Saturday’s betting favorite, Vicar’s in Trouble, had a tough time starting from the No. 13 post position but battled throughout and made a respectable charge at the top of the stretch to finish third.
The road to the Derby is a long one. Nine weeks remain during which some unexpected turns or wash outs will completely change the minds of the betting public. That's the nature of this journey, with Triple Crown prep races run every weekend until April 19 and with the horses themselves changing dramatically. Keep in mind what Mike Smith said above, that these horses aimed at the Triple Crown are still youngsters, like teens in high school. Although they're officially 3, many of these horses are actually still 2, and at this stage in their development, they can change with shocking suddenness.
We can still have our early favorites, and I usually side with somebody who knows more than I do about it. With Beyer taking a sabbatical, I turn to Jenny Rees, the Louisville Courier-Journal’s respected race writer, who likes Top Billing over Cairo Prince in her early standings. The Shug McGaughey trained son of Curlin came from near dead last to lose by a length at the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream on Saturday. He was gaining on the other horses in the mile-and-sixteenth race and would have caught them at the Derby’s mile-and-a-quarter. Top Billing also has the added benefit of 2013 Derby winner Joel Rosario in the irons.
McGaughey’s other horse generating some early interest is Honor Code, which beat Cairo Prince in the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on November 30. Honor Code has the great Secretariat in both sire and dam bloodlines, which ain’t all bad when you are talking about winning the Derby. So between now and the first Saturday in May, I will be watching the Derby ranking unfold and updating you on the results.
But I still hope that the Boss, Clapton and the Avett Brothers are not playing Jazzfest on Derby Day.
Clarification: An interested reader commented on my column on postgame press conferences. For the sake of fairness, and because he knows a little bit about the subject, I pass on his comments to you: “The Russian coach couldn't carry my jock when it comes to post game comments!!!!! The game I made the Playoff comments was against the 49ers and son Jim was the Defensive Coordinator for SF and I think Peyton threw 5 picks. So give me a break will you? LOL!” (signed) Jim Mora
You’re driving down a darkened road. It’s late at night, and out of the corner of your eye, you see a small animal darting out of the shadows and into the path of your car. You can’t stop and you prepare for the bad thing that is going to happen. You hear the killing “thump” and then the bump-bump-bump as the poor dead creature rolls under your car. And now you understand how losing coaches view postgame press conferences.
They watched as their team took the killing “thump” at the hands of an opponent, then they were rolled, bloodied and left for dead after enduring the bump-bump-bump of reporters’ questions on how the coach screwed it all up. As a reporter and later club executive, I have been both inquisitor and victim in the roadkill aftermath of big games, announcements or other convocations of thrust and parry. So it was with great empathy and even a bit of admiration that I read a transcript of Wednesday’s postgame press conference of Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. The 58-year-old head coach of the Russian hockey team faced a crowd of stunned Russian journalists after Finland eliminated his squad from the men's hockey tournament with a 3-1 win in the quarterfinals. It was a classic example of "you think you know, but you don't. In fact, you'll never know!" Wow, that reminds me of somebody.
To NFL and Saints fans, the poster boy of postgame press conferences was Jim Mora, who left his legacy on the art of the aftermath. In 1987, the Saints lost a close early game to San Francisco after which Mora declared he was tired of all the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” about his team. The bottom line, Mora said, was “we ain’t good enough!” It must be noted that after that press conference, the team went on an unprecedented nine-game winning streak to seal its first winning season and playoff appearance.
But Mora topped himself after becoming head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. His team was struggling with a rookie quarterback named Manning when a reporter asked the coach if that day’s loss hurt the team’s playoff chances “PLAYOFFS?” Mora said indignantly. “Are you kiddin’ me? P-P-PLAYOFFS? Don’t talk to me about Playoffs! I just hope we win a game" Mora has a kindred spirit at the Winter Olympics as Bilyaletdinov's postgame press conference to the ink-stained Russian wretches offered evidence of how much the loss shocked Russia and how the coach handled it:
Q: Is this a catastrophe? A: This has certainly been an unsuccessful appearance. Let's not play with words. I told you, we were unsuccessful. Call it what you will.
Q: Mr. Bilyaletdinov, in what way, exactly, do you see yourself at fault for what happened? What would you have done differently if you could turn back the clock? Maybe you should have played [Alexander] Ovechkin and [Evgeni] Malkin on separate lines? Did you want to try this, and if so, why didn't you? A: I don't want to talk about this now. I'm at fault for everything. I didn't fulfill the task before me.
Q: What do you have to say to the fans? 12,000 came to this match and many more watched on television. A: I apologize to the fans for this result. We were unsuccessful, and the expectations were totally different.
Q: You said that the analysis will come later. But what mistakes can you talk about now? A: There were individual mistakes. That's why we couldn't affect the result even though we had twice as many chances as the opponents. We just couldn't score.
Q: What future, if any, do you see for your own work and for your coaching staff? Because, you know, your predecessor was eaten alive after the Olympics. A: Well then, eat me alive right now.
Q: No, I mean … A: Eat me, and I won't be here anymore.
Q: But we have the world championship coming up! A: Well then, there will be a different coach because I won't exist any more, since you will have eaten me.
Mora's rant has been a You Tube staple for over a decade, but as far as we know, he was never in danger of being eaten alive, at least by the press.
The NBA All-Star game was enjoyable if you like music but a major drag if you like basketball. Basketball obviously was not the point of the game, played at the newly christened Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. Bling was the thing at Sunday night’s soiree, which was like the Essence Festival with a three point line. There were plenty of alley oops and three pointers, absolutely no defense but plenty of glamma glitz and music.
Trombone Shorty must have been guarding Kevin Durant, who threw up a record 17 three-point attempts, and actually hit three of them! The East Squad led Earth, Wind and Fire 113-0 at halftime, but then lost the lead in the second half to a pickup team of entertainers Gary Clark Jr., Janelle Monáe, Kendrick Lamar and Serena Ryder. Gosh, I didn’t know Serena Ryder had game! Dr. John got into the act, but decided he was in the right place at the wrong time and turned his keyboard over to game MVP Kyrie Irving, who dished out 14 assists, most of which were uncontested skyballs to whichever teammate was closest to the basket. One of my favorite parts of the show was a shootout in which Pharrell Williams, wearing his trademark oversized Dudley Dooright hat, won more Grammys (7) than Dirk Nowitzki had points (0).
For sporting fans who were forced to endure the NFL Pro Bowl joke a few weeks ago, the NBA version was worse. It’s nice to see the best players in the league together on the same floor on the same night, but they might as well have been engaging in an episode of Dancing with the Stars. Forgive me if I sound like an old poop, but I admire the skill of Lebron, Carmelo and the stars with two names when they are playing for something. Like winning.
In order for fans to get excited about the NFL and NBA all-star campouts, the leagues must make winning worthwhile. Major League Baseball is the only all-star game that means something, as the winning league is awarded home field advantage in the World Series. That is a worthy goal and makes the game meaningful to fans who tune in to watch the sport performed at its highest level. For anybody who actually did expect a basketball game, here are some random observations:
The 318 points scored were the most points ever scored in the NBA All-Star Game, topping the previous record of 303 in 1987. Need any more proof that no defense was played? If NORAD played defense like that, a flock of homing pigeons could wipe out America’s missile defense system in twenty minutes. Carmelo set a record with eight made 3-pointers and scored 30 points. He also set the record for "Most times grimacing while having to talk about how his team's season is going at the All-Star break."
Kyrie Irving tied a record for points in a single half with 24, tying Glen Rice from 1997. He was 11 of 13 in the second half. He also broke the record for "most questions asked about his relationship with another All-Star" referring to LeBron. Blake Griffin nearly broke an NBA record for scoring, finishing with 38. The record was set by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 with 42. Griffin did set an NBA record for made field goals with 19. And no, not all of them were dunks.
Despite missing 13 of 17 three-point attempts, Kevin Durant still finished with over 50 percent shooting because he's KD. He raised his record All-Star points per game to 28.8. The Pelicans’ Anthony Davis proved he belonged among the elite, scoring ten points in ten minutes, including a couple electric dunks. But even AD was not enough to make this sporting fan want to tune in next year.