The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
As a Chicago native, Anthony Davis is probably rooting for the Cubs in the World Series. No big news there. But there is another, more sinister connection between the Pelicans’ All-NBA power forward and Chicago baseball. It’s the question that Davis-watchers are reluctant to consider after only four years as New Orleans’ brightest – and possibly only - professional basketball star. Is Davis destined to become another Ernie Banks – the legendary Cubs star who was a perennial all-star on a team never quite good enough to contend for a championship?
That question will be addressed Wednesday, a day after the Cubs and Indians throw their first pitches, when the Pelicans begin the 2016-17 NBA season at home against Denver. I must admit that rooting for basketball success in a city where football is king has been a task not unlike rooting for football success in Lexington, Kentucky. And therein lies the twine that binds both. Watching Kentucky take the 2012 NCAA championship in the Superdome behind Davis was ecstasy for this Kentucky fan, and three months later when the Wildcat star was drafted No. 1 overall by the then-NOLA Hornets I knew NBA titles surely would follow.
Success came quickly. Davis won a gold medal that summer with Team USA in the 2012 Olympics, and was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. The next season, he became an All-Star for the first time and led the NBA in blocked shots per game. He has since become a three-time All-Star, the youngest player to score 59 or more points in an NBA game, and last year was named as the one player NBA general managers would want if they were building a team.
But today, after four NBA seasons, the personal performance has far outweighed the team results. He is a force on the court, but only when he is on the court. A series of lingering ailments have slowed Davis to the point that he has missed 20 percent of his team’s games. His injuries have ranged from concussions to chest contusions to hip strains to sprained ankles and shoulders. In all, Davis has missed 68 games with injuries to an incredible 13 body parts. I would have a hard time naming 13 body parts without Grey's Anatomy! In his only season at Kentucky, Davis never missed a start in 40 games. His absence has doubtless contributed to three losing seasons and a cumulative .414 winning percentage during his time in New Orleans.
You will hear about his historic counterpart over the next couple of weeks when a wizened announcer inevitably intones the legend of Ernie Banks. He played for the Cubs between 1953 and 1971, but his first winning season was in 1963 when the Cubs won 82 and lost 80. It was Banks’ 11th season at 1060 W. Addison street. He did not enjoy even a sniff of team success until the end of his career when Leo Durocher was hired as manager in 1966. The Cubs had winning records from 1967 through Banks’ retirement year of 1971, but the closest they came to a pennant was in 1969 when they finished eight games behind the Miracle Mets. The Cubs had other quality players in those years such as Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo and Billy Williams, but they did not have enough to contend for a pennant.
That sounds hauntingly familiar for the Pelicans. GM Dell Demps made the decision a year ago to keep his team intact and re-signed 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 then expected the roster to fit into Alvin Gentry’s system, whatever that was intended to be. The results were disastrous, and the failure to fit plus an ER full of injuries doomed the Pels to a 30-52 record and another missed playoffs. Demps and Gentry have retooled for this season, hoping to give Davis some help. No. 1 draft pick Buddy Hield gives Gentry the guy who could start the transformation to the Warriors’ fast-paced offense that Gentry helped put together in a previous lifetime. (It’s frightening when you think that Hield is only six months younger than Davis. Has Davis been too young for the NBA until now or is Hield too old to be a rookie? Hopefully, at 23 they are the perfect age to become a core of success.)
But it takes more than two to tango in the NBA. Demps signed former Bulls’ guard E’Twaun Moore and ex-Pacers forward Solomon Hill to help patch up the team’s erratic defense. He then gave Davis some familiar support, signing 6-9 ex-Rocket small forward Terrence Jones, who helped AD hoist the 2012 NCAA trophy at the Superdome. Only the Shadow knows how effective these new players will mesh with Davis and the cast of usual suspects from last year. Tyreke Evans will miss the first month of the season after surgery on his leg and former all-star PG Jrue Holiday’s ETA is unknown after he missed the entire pre-season to be with his wife who recently underwent brain surgery. Neither centers Alexis Ajinca nor Omer Asik would be on the roster if Trump were commissioner, and their expected contributions in the paint are just as elusive.
So, my advice as we look ahead at another basketball season in Football Town? Enjoy the World Series, light a candle to Anthony Davis’ good health and hope Ernie Banks gets the recognition he deserves this week!
A friend contacted me a couple of months ago with an “opportunity.” Red lights and sirens immediately went off in my head, but I listened politely. She said that sometime during the NFL season, a new sports app would be introduced that promises to hit the country by storm. I know about apps. I have an IPhone and I use apps to tell me the weather or give me up-to-date news and sports or even allow me to access my bank account. I’m not much into recreational apps that play word games or shoot pigs with Angry Birds or whatever they do, but my wife and my kids, who are much more attuned to modern habits that I consider wastes of time, are avid participants.
My friend gushed over the possibilities of the upcoming sports app that allows “players” to click on the app during their favorite team’s games and predict what plays the team will call and other game-related decisions. It’s free to download, free to play, and you can compete with your friends in a “game within the game.” And there are benefits! Calling a play correctly allows a player to earn points and reach levels of achievements that earn rewards like shirts, hats, game tickets or even trips to games.
So, I asked, how do you earn tickets and trips for free? If something sounds too good to be true, then it usually is. If the game is free for most players to play, where does the money come from? That prompted a brief education that now has convinced me what my children have been trying to tell me for years, that I am a Total Troglodyte who no longer understands how the world works.
This new sports app, which will carry the name FireFan, operates on a platform that is now common in the ever-growing world of games and gaming. I had never heard of the app “Candy Crush,” but I’ve learned that 96% of its players play for free and the site generates nearly $1 million a day in revenue. Every day! The FireFan model is similar. Major sponsors apparently are so concerned about viewers’ ability to fast-forward through their very expensive TV commercials that they are willing to pay a player one game token – equal to $1 - to click on the app and watch a 15-second ad of their product. Players may watch up to five commercials in a 24-hour period and accumulate tokens for gameday. Players who want to play more may purchase token packages, starting at 99 cents. The FireFan developers expect most players to play with the house’s – or sponsor’s - money.
Speaking of developers, you can judge the potential of any enterprise these days by the investors and management. To wit, I learned that Mark Cuban, Michael Jordan and Ted Leonsis (majority owner of the Washington Wizards and Capitals) have given the developers $44 million to create initiatives that can tap into the growing enthusiasm surrounding sports games. The FireFan app was developed by Mark Mongie, the former Creative Director at EA Sports who developed the mega-popular Madden NFL game and the successful NASCAR Thunder game. I am convinced.
The “opportunity” my friend mentioned came to some of us who have platforms in the sporting business and would be willing to spread the word. And that is what I am doing. Pre-register now for free to play when the app comes out by clicking on or pasting into your browser: https://www.firefan.com/?code=JWMsports and become a member of the “JWMsports” team. Send it to your friends so you can create some gameday competition of your own.
Full disclosure compels me to acknowledge that every player who signs up for my team generates a small percentage of sponsor money for my team, the proceeds of which will likely go to charity. My reward is showing my kids that dad is no longer a Total Troglodyte.
That legendary soothsayer and part-time football coach Vince Lombardi once dropped this tidbit of wisdom on his acolytes: “Winning is a habit.” But he added in the same breath: “Unfortunately, so is losing.” The Saints know all about the losing habit, so many times racing out to a lead, maybe a big lead, and then watching helplessly as the other team suddenly wakes up and the margin fritters away. The script has been played out so many times in recent years that now it’s almost expected. The celebrants of Who Dat Nation, who start off drinking toasts to their favorite team, switch to the hard stuff in order to endure the inevitable.
But in the past two games, our heroes have shown the other side of Lombardi’s Law, that they might finally have learned how to win. Sunday’s 41-38 victory over the slumping Carolina Panthers had elements of both qualities. The team took a 21-0 lead in the second quarter, thanks to the wizardry of QB Drew Brees and some unexpected heroics from his mates, including a 59-yard punt return by rookie water bug Tommylee Lewis and an interception in the end zone by DB newbie Sterling Moore.
In the Saints’ past, such abundance has been reduced when the ephemeral intangible called momentum suddenly and without reason shifts the other way. That happened Sunday when the Saints had the ball 4th and 2 on the Carolina 31-yard line, leading 21-0. Coach Sean Payton had several options, including the fans’ pleas to “go for it!” Had he gone for it and made it, the team might have been on their way to a fourth touchdown and it would have been “Turn out the lights, Agnes.” The team had gone for it earlier on fourth down and scored a TD on Coby Fleener’s sneaky inside sweep around right end. In the alternative, Payton could have gone conservative and sent out K Will Lutz to try a 48-yard FG, which I think would have been the weenie pick. I was with the crowd on this one, expecting Payton to dial up something magical that would keep things going in the positive direction. Even if they failed, the worst thing that could have happened is that Carolina gets the ball on their own 31.
Payton, unexpectedly, instructed Brees to take a long count and try and draw the Panthers into an offside. Being the grown men that most Panthers are, they kept their collective cool and didn’t budge. So now the Saints had a 4th and 7 on the Panthers’ 36 and poor Lutz trotted out to attempt a 53-yard FG, which he pushed wide right. That is when the Saints became mere mortals and Big Mo shifted to the Panthers’ side of the field. The reigning Super Bowl runner-up proceeded to abuse a cowering Saints’ defense that appeared to return to the bad habits of losing. The visitors outscored the Saints 38-17 over the next half-hour of game clock, and the score was tied with just under three minutes to play.
And that is when Brees showed that just maybe his team has changed its worst habit and now has learned how to win. He marched his mates down the field, and with 11 seconds remaining, he turned the baton over to Lutz. The rookie kicker, who had grooved a 33-yarder to close the first half, calmly secured his spot on a Mardi Gras float by hitting the bulls-eye from 52 yards out for the win.
One game does not make a habit, but coming on the heels of a similar ending in the Saints’ last game, we might be seeing a total change of personality. You can’t always do it on your own, though. Two weeks ago at San Diego, trailing 34-21 with five minutes to go, the Saints got the breaks they needed through two inexplicably gift-wrapped fumbles. Still, you need to convert the breaks, and the Saints did on their way to a 35-34 win. And that’s what teams that have established a winning habit have learned how to do.
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I am an NFL lifer, but my old league needs to loosen up. The latest hubbub was the apparent threat to fine Saints WR Brandin Cooks if he repeated his “archer” TD celebration. Kentucky fans will remember the same last year when sharpshooting guard Jamal Murray followed each made three-pointer by pulling an invisible arrow out of his quiver and firing into the worshipping crowd at Rupp Arena.
So, when Cooks outran the Panthers’ secondary for a first-quarter 87-yard TD pass from Brees, inquiring minds wondered what the third-year receiver would do. Sure enough, Cooks appeared to pull the arrow out of the quiver, but the only thing he launched was a kiss to the fans between outstretched arms. Cooks took the high road and avoided another tempest in the media teapot, but he shouldn't have to do that.
One of the announcers made reference to Cooks’ gesture, saying the NFL has declared that “shooting a bow and arrow is an act of violence.” Excuse me? Maybe the slashing motion across your throat or maybe even pretending to pull the pin out of a grenade with your teeth and tossing it at your opponent. Or maybe abusing your spouse or girl friend or a child or even yourself with drugs. But a TD celebration? C'mon!
No wonder the reputation of the “No Fun League” continues to grow!
I had great plans for today’s column, I really did! In their first game after Les Miles was thrown overboard, the LSU Tigers under interim coach Ed Orgeron pounded Missouri 42-7 and set coordinates for Florida. The Gators were ripe for an upset because of the uncertain health situation of QB Luke Del Rio and other starters. After the Tigers’ victory, cries of “Choot ‘em, Ed” would ring through the bayous and provide a great reason to lobby for Orgeron to be named permanent coach. Then Hurricane Matthew blew through and caused terrible devastation, loss of life and, to a far lesser extent, delayed Orgeron's inauguration.
Matthew also fouled up the SEC championship race. Florida AD Jeremy Foley took a lot of criticism for the cancellation of the game after South Carolina and Georgia promptly rescheduled their game for Sunday afternoon. That has led to some questioning whether Florida was trying to use the weather to its advantage to earn an SEC East title by avoiding a game against a resurgent LSU team. Meanwhile, the SEC is trying to come up with various scenarios to assure that all contenders play the same number of games.
Orgeron's supporters did get some relief over the weekend when the popular darling for the Tiger job, Houston Coach Tom Sherman, saw his undefeated Cougars unceremoniously get blown out of the water, 46-40, by Navy. One loss does not turn Sherman from a hot candidate into guy unworthy of free meals at Mike Anderson’s, but it does provide those making the decision to take a longer and harder look at Orgeron. All the candidates mentioned are good football coaches with praiseworthy coaching and recruiting records, but I believe Orgeron’s unique home grown qualifications give him the edge.
The native of Larose played at South Lafourche High School, joining future Saints QB Bobby Hebert on the school's Class 4A state championship team in 1977. He rejoined Hebert at Northwestern State and then boarded the assistant coaches' version of the milk run, stopping at nearly a dozen locations sharpening his craft. Ross Dellenger in the Advocate provided other stories that give you a feeling that Oregeron is a natural fit: “Did you know about his morning marches through the hallways of the Ole Miss football offices? Orgeron banged a massive bass drum that was strapped to his wide chest at 7 a.m., at least three cans of Red Bull flowing through his system as he filled his assistant coaches’ offices with ear-piercing booms.
"Are you aware of his long-past drinking issues? One summer night in 1992, Orgeron head-butted the manager of a bar in Baton Rouge and was arrested. The charges were dropped, but the incident, and perhaps others, resulted in his resignation as defensive line coach at Miami … Or this one? In his first meeting with the Ole Miss football team, he tore off his shirt. Bare-chested, he then challenged Rebels players to a wrestling match. He’s the perfect fit, some have said, whose Louisiana roots are as rich as his mama’s gumbo. His friends call him Bébé, a French word meaning "baby" and a nickname handed down from his father. His acquaintances call him "O," and his players called him "Coach O."
“This is his audition,” LSU athletic director Joe Alleva has said. But those who have known him and coached against him know it’s his time. “There is nobody better to get LSU going based on who he knows and how he would do it than Ed Orgeron,” ex-Auburn and current Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said on an Alabama radio show. “I would be shocked if Ed Orgeron didn’t get that job at LSU.”
Giving the permanent job to one of their own should compel Alleva to take down the chalkboard on Orgeron’s door that says “Head Interim” and spend money on a plaque that says: “Ed Orgeron, Head Coach.”
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The Les Miles fans did have their final say, as evidenced by a column from Mark Story in the Lexington Herald. “Let’s play a game of Name That Football Coach,” Story wrote, asking his readers to guess the name of Coach A, who went almost a decade at the same school where he won almost 80 percent of his games (79.8 percent), multiple Southeastern Conference championships and at least one national championship, but then hit a rough patch where he went 19-10 in a 29-game stretch. He then asked his readers to name Coach B, who went almost a decade at another school where he won almost 80 percent of his games (82.6 percent), multiple Southeastern Conference championships and at least one national championship, but then hit a rough patch where he went 12-10-1 in a 23-game stretch.
Give up? Coach A is Miles, who, in 11 years and four games as LSU head coach, went 112-32, won two SEC championships and the 2007 BCS national championship - and got fired. Coach B is Bear Bryant, the most revered coach in Southern college football history, whose Crimson Tide suffered through back-to-back six-win seasons in 1969 (6-5) and ’70 (6-5-1), before righting the ship and winning eight of the next nine SEC titles. I guess the message here is that even Bear Bryant might not have been able to satisfy the persnickety fans in Baton Rouge.
I have been fortunate in my career as a sports executive and journalist to have attended a number of prominent sporting events. I was in Shea Stadium when Mookie Wilson’s grounder bounced through Bill Buckner’s legs, and I was at Candlestick when Dwight Clark make “The Catch” that beat Dallas and put the 49ers into a Super Bowl. I saw Pele play soccer and the young Cassius Clay fight and have attended Super Bowls, the World Series and the NBA championship. But with Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA basketball championship in New Orleans running a close second, the most exhilarating sporting event I ever attended was the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Louisville.
And that is why I am thrilled that the USA team finally revived my fond memories of 2008 with a 17-11 Ryder Cup victory Sunday at Hazeltine, and in fine fashion. The duel between American Patrick Reed and Europe’s Rory McIlroy was the best one-on-one matchup since Larry and Magic but with a little more gamesmanship. Reed outdueled and outshouted McIlroy in a match so dynamic that they halved three straight holes with birdies. McIlroy holed a 60-foot putt up the slope on the par-3 eighth and cupped his hand to his ear to a loud and occasionally obnoxious hometown American crowd. Reed followed with a 35-foot birdie putt, wagging his finger at McIlroy.
You almost expected them to pull out sabers and go at it like Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. But to their credit, the pair shared smiles of mutual respect, then bumped fists and patted each other on the back. Even a better match was Phil Mickelson’s shoot-out with Sergio Garcia. The two giants birdied fourteen of the eighteen holes in a match where neither gave ground. And when Mickelson snaked in a 15-footer to half the 18th hole and split the match, the oldest player in the field at 46 leaped into the air like a kid and pumped his fist in joyous relief.
The crowd at Hazeltine only enhanced the atmosphere like two dozen high school football games played all at once on adjoining fields. The noise from the crowds left little mystery who was winning. Cries of U-S-A, U-S-A or the European soccer theme Ole-Ole-Ole-Ole bounced off the rolling hills after a long putt or chip-in won a hole. But there was more than fan emotion to the USA victory. It was a product of the new selection method that allowed Love to expand from using only rankings to the flexibility to select grinders, team players and players on the upswing.
Top-ranked players such as Dustin Johnson (2-2) and Jordan Spieth (2-2-1) had their moments, but overlooked veterans such as Brandt Snedeker (3-0-0), Brooks Koepka (3-1-0) and Matt Kuchar (2-2-0) were superb. Hot rookie Ryan Moore (2-1-0), the last man picked for the team, shook off an erratic Friday with steady play down the stretch. His eagle took the lead over Lee Westwood late in their match Sunday, and when Westwood conceded Moore’s final putt, the Cup belonged to the USA.
Another poster boy for the new system was J.B. Holmes (1-2-0), who joined Mickelson as the only other American who was a member of the 2008 championship team. In 2011, Holmes was diagnosed with structural defects in the cerebellum known as Chiari malformations. He underwent brain surgery, and a month later, doctors discovered he was allergic to the adhesive used on the titanium plate at the base of his skull. He was airlifted from his home in Kentucky to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for another surgery. Holmes returned to the PGA Tour in late January 2012 and has made a steady rise ever since. Despite Holmes’ current No. 21 ranking, Davis Love III wanted guys who knew how to meet challenges and prevail. Although Holmes never found his putting stroke at Hazeltine, he won a point, is undefeated as a Ryder Cup participant and can join his teammates in savoring victory for two more years.