The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
This is usually the time of year when readers of this space climb into their hyperbaric chambers, set the dial for “Training Camp,” turn out the lights and then hibernate until the Saints tee it up at the Greenbrier. We are in the dreaded summer “lacuna,” or news slowdown, when any talk of Kentucky basketball is over for a while and Saints training camp is still six weeks away.
The severity of the Summer Lacuna varies, but is especially pronounced when the Red Sox are not playing well, which they have not been for much of the spring. The last bit of Kentucky basketball news was the NBA Draft, that auxiliary portion of the Kentucky season after the Final Four when NBA teams look to Lexington to improve themselves. Check my math, but this year NBA teams selected six Wildcat players, five recruits, 14 cheerleaders and ten cases of Makers Mark.
I would normally have included the Pelicans in this conversation, but after they selected Anthony Davis with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, they traded all their No. 1 draft choices through the 2025 season for Omer Asik. The Pelicans did have a second-round pick this year and selected 6-6 swingman Branden Dawson from Michigan State. Dawson’s value in Alvin Gentry’s hurry-up, shoot-a-lot offense is questionable, especially since he failed to hit a single three-point shot in his four years with the Spartans. He did average 11 points somehow, and there's always a chance he can boost his other skills enough to carve out a role.
During the Summer Lacuna, I normally have to dredge up stuff that will hold your interest until the Saints go to training camp. And that is why I am rooting hard for the USA Women’s Soccer team this week in the global game’s version of the Final Four. On Tuesday night, the USA plays No. 1 Germany, while Japan and England battle in the other bracket on Wednesday, with the winner meeting in the final on Sunday. You will recall that the German men took the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and along the way defeated a plucky USA team 1-0. For the German women also to be ranked No. 1 is about as unfair to the rest of the world as when Connecticut wins both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball titles in the same year. But, as the great philosopher Anonymous once said: “It is what it is.”
The USA team has not exactly been winning new fans at the Women's World Cup, but its defensive approach is paying off. "If they don't score, we can't lose," defender Becky Sauerbrunn said after Friday's 1-0 win over China. Keeping the Germans scoreless will be about as easy as keeping Warren Sapp out of trouble. Germany is the tournament's top scorer, with 20 goals in five games. The Americans have dominated defensively, conceding just one goal, in the opening match. USA goalkeeper Hope Solo has not been beaten in 423 minutes, while China managed just two shots on target. Carli Lloyd's 53rd-minute goal against China was just the seventh goal the team has scored.
The USA does have some tradition going for it, winning the title in the inaugural cup in 1991 and again in 1999, and this year becoming the first team to reach the semifinals of all seven Women’s World Cups. Even Kentucky fans and Saints fans recall one of sport’s great pictures, Brandi Chastain’s sports bra moment during the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Chastain scored the fifth kick in the penalty shootout to give the United States the win over China in the final game, then celebrated by spontaneously whipping off her jersey and falling to her knees in a sports bra, her fists clenched, her arms flexed. A win over Germany Tuesday and a repeat of the Brandi bra moment on Sunday would certainly enliven the Summer Lacuna, at least for another week!
Sunday was my tenth Father’s Day without a father, and I’m still not used to it. Charles Edwin Miller died on June 8, 2006, ten days before Father’s Day that year, which left my brother Jerry and me orphans at 58 and 54. We had lost our mother in 2002, and after Dad passed, we were on our own in many ways. Oh, we had our own families by then and were fathers ourselves, every day hoping that we had picked up something that Dad had taught us about the job. While his presence is missed every day, Fathers Day has become an annual celebration of the valuable gifts he gave us over the years.
It’s hard to think about my father without putting him into a sporting context. The greatest bond that Jerry and I shared with Dad was our mutual love of sports, especially Kentucky basketball and the Boston Red Sox. But there was, oh, so much more to our Dad, as Jerry and I tried to express in a tribute we wrote in 2002 on the occasion of his 80th birthday titled "80 reasons why we love our Dad." I’ve written variations of this memory the past few years, but I again present this on Father’s Day, hoping you can relate memories of your father or even think about what your own children would write about you.
Dear Dad: The first things you read to us were the Bible and the comics. We loved how you would wax nostalgic about the glory days of Clark Station, Kentucky, Pap’s store and when the train would stop. We marveled at your tales of picking beans for 50 cents a day. You taught us the love of vegetable gardening. Jerry will never forget how Mema scolded you for not cleaning off your garden tools, like Pap did. We first saw you cry when Pap died.
We remember our fishing trips at Cattail Lakes with Lee Druin and how we loved going to the County Fair and the State Fair, especially to see the dairy cows. You taught us the love of sports. You showed us how left field was supposed to be played, but you knew when it was time to put away your glove and spikes. Your love of the Red Sox taught us perseverance. Your love of the Kentucky Wildcats taught us there’s nothing wrong with riding a winner.
You taught us responsibility when you bought us each a calf to raise and how you played along when Jerry’s “Nosey” became a pet. Riding on the milk truck, our job was to open all the gates and scare away the mean dogs. Vacations were the best of times. How we loved “Ogle’s Creekbend Cabins” and those times in Gatlinburg. You instilled in us a love of history during those drives through the Chattanooga and Chickamauga battlefields. We embraced your love of Florida. You taught us honesty when you argued with a Daytona Beach restaurant cashier after she had given you too much change. The importance of family, particularly the visits with Uncle Fred in Florida, taught us a love of genealogy. You taught us that four people could have a great vacation for $300.
The years passed, but you kept playing ping-pong with us, long after we started to win. When Jim turned 16 and almost wrecked the pickup, you gratefully stepped aside and let Mom teach him to drive. You had the last laugh with a lesson in humility, by buying Jim a 1960 Ford Falcon as his first car. As we grew, you tolerated our preferences, from our politics to hair over our eyebrows. You endured our mistakes, but you let us learn from them. And you always waited patiently until we came back from the edge.
The guys’ trip to Fenway Park in 1991 is the best trip either of us ever took. We remember the pride we felt every time we saw your old army uniform and scrapbook. Even before Tom Brokaw told us, we always knew that yours was the “greatest generation.” Jerry will never forget how proud you were that he followed in your footsteps and became President of the Lions Club. You personified the term “quiet dignity.” You taught us to turn the other cheek. You were no activist, but you taught us that racial differences just boiled down to a question of respect for each other.
You were always there when we needed you. If there is anything as important to you as your family, it’s your faith. You continue to show us how to keep going when you don’t feel like it. You wanted us to do better than you did. We later realized that we’d never do better than you did in things that really matter. All either of us ever wanted to achieve in life is for you to be proud of us. And over all these years we are strengthened every time you tell us you love us because we love you.
Father's Day is not only a day to remember and honor our fathers, but a day to celebrate the pride and joy of being one and the hope that I can be as good a father as my dad was to us.
The LSU Tigers baseball team had a less than auspicious start in the College World Series Sunday, losing to TCU in a 10-3 walkover. But Tiger fans are still confident, and rightly so. Paul Mainieri’s group has timely hitting and outstanding defense up the middle with C Kade Scivicque, SS Alex Bregman and CF Andrew Stevenson to back up their outstanding young pitching. The remarkable thing to me is that four of the eight finalists, including the top 1-2-3 seeds of Florida, LSU and Vanderbilt, are from the Southeastern Conference.
So far, only top-ranked Florida is playing to its ranking as it got off to a rousing start, thumping Miami 15-3 on Saturday. Arkansas lost its opener to Virginia 5-3 and Vanderbilt was trailing CSU-Fullerton 3-0 Sunday in a game that was suspended by weather and will resume today. But, hey, they are here and having half the field from one conference does not happen every year. In fact, the last times it did occur was in 2006 when the ACC sent four and in 2004 when the SEC sent four. For your information, a four-team conference has only won the CWS once, in 1997 when LSU beat Alabama for the title. But enough about stats.
The SEC's current prominence in baseball sounds strangely like the early part of the 2014 college football season, doesn’t it? After Week 6, the composite rankings had Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Alabama ranked as the top four teams in the country. Although fans of other conferences are raising their hands, I still believe that, top to bottom, SEC football is the best in the country. But, you know, SEC baseball just might be even better, at least as judged by who gets to the final round.
The culprit that will forever hold SEC football in check is the scheduling format. Everybody knew last fall that the SEC would not end up with the top four teams in the playoff format because the cannibalistic scheduling eventually would result in rank-killing losses. Baseball does not have that problem, primarily because the playoff format is like NCAA basketball, with 64 teams participating. If your team gets an invitation, and gets hot at the right time, they have a chance to win it. More teams, more games, more chances to win.
LSU’s roster is full of guys who have either been drafted or will be in future years. But one sentimental omission is the absence of New Orleans area players. Only former Brother Martin slugger Greg Deichmann, who has been troubled by injuries, is on the roster despite the rich history of local baseball. LSU has signed two local players for 2016, C Cody Ducote of Brother Martin and IF Cole Freeman of Lakeshore, but most of the signees, particularly projected impact players, come from elsewhere in Louisiana or out of state. Of course, nobody in Alex Box Stadium is complaining so long as Mainieri is winning. Sounds a lot like John Calipari’s roster, where players from Kentucky have not made a major impact on the Wildcat program since Darius Miller of Mason County (2009-12) or even back to Rajon Rondo of Louisville (2004-06).
But since we are talking baseball, this is a good time to remind LSU fans that the University of New Orleans has a little bit to do with the Tigers' successful run. Mainieri played two seasons of college ball at UNO under Ron Maestri after one season at LSU and another playing for his father, legendary JUCO coach Demie Mainieri at Miami-Dade North Community College. A second baseman, Mainieri helped the Privateers win two Sun Belt Conference titles and advance to the 1979 NCAA Tournament during his senior season. After he left, UNO became the first Louisiana college team to participate in the College World Series, in 1984. Of course, Skip Bertman came in later and transformed the LSU program, leaving UNO with fewer and fewer opportunities to shine.
Speaking of which, the two stars of Tom Walter’s 2007-08 NCAA teams are having outstanding seasons in the big leagues. Johnny Giavotella is the Angels’ starting second baseman and batting a credible .272. In Tampa, Joey Butler has been swinging a red-hot bat since he was called up on May 3. Used primary as the Rays’ DH, Butler is leading the Rays in batting with a .339 average and also is tops in OPS (on-base plus slugging) at .885 with four home runs from the No. 2 slot in the order.
But this is Mainieri's week, and as we wish him and the Tigers well the rest of the CWS, let’s not forget to tip our cap to Ron Maestri, who just announced his retirement. Maes took UNO to the pinnacle and tried valiantly the past two years to resurrect a program that had been destroyed by UNO's post-Katrina administration. He didn’t have a chance, but he tried, and every baseball fan in Louisiana owes him their thanks.
I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant 25 miles from Churchill Downs when American Pharoah went to the post at the Belmont Stakes Saturday. The location was appropriate for two reasons. First, Churchill Downs is where trainer Bob Baffert’s prize 3-year-old launched his bid to become only the twelfth Triple Crown winner in racing history, and, second, because his jockey, Victor Espinoza, is of the Mexican persuasion. I was in Kentucky for the funeral of a close friend, but more about that after we talk about the most significant horse race in the past 37 years.
The tables were littered with glasses of Dos Equis and margaritas and similar beverages, and all eyes were on the multiple televisions hanging from the walls. Of course, we all were hoping to see something that nobody had seen since disco controlled the airwaves with such classics as “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” Kentucky’s Goose Givens was the toast of college basketball and Bleepin’ Bucky Dent broke the hearts of Red Sox Nation. Most patrons were concentrating on their chips and salsa when the eight starters broke out of the gate, but the emotion picked up after Pharoah immediately took the lead and held it into the backstretch.
His lead was only two lengths at that point, but when Frosted challenged him with a furlong to go, Espinoza shifted him into another gear, and everybody in the restaurant went berserk. I, of course, maintained my customary dignity, standing on a chair and waving a white napkin over my head like a helicopter, a fitting tribute to the greatest race horse of the current generation. American Pharoah’s seven-length victory put him into an elite group, and deservedly so, but his wire-to-wire dominance in these races made me think about the most dominating performance of all time to close out a Triple Crown. So let’s take a look back at the great Secretariat.
It’s not hard to believe that oddsmakers liked Secretariat before the Kentucky Derby, but at post-time Secretariat and Angle Light were the 3–2 co-favorites with Sham next at 5–2. The horses broke evenly, but Secretariat trailed the 13-horse field at the far turn. He began to edge up at the half-mile pole while Sham was battling Shecky Greene for the lead. In the backstretch, Secretariat was still lying fourth when jockey Ron Turcotte stepped on the gas. Big Red took the lead in the stretch and won by a modest two lengths, although his 1:59 2/5 time is still the Derby record.
His performance in the Preakness featured another slow start, and he trailed the six-horse field entering the far turn. Turcotte rated him well and did not ask much of him until the backstretch when he opened a three-length lead over Sham. It was like flicking a gnat off his nose as he held to the wire in 1:53, another record that still stands. But it was the final race, the Belmont Stakes, that cemented Secretariat’s legend.
Only four other horses challenged him that day, including Sham, who took the lead out of the first turn. But Secretariat’s legs began to churn like pistons as he took the lead at the far turn, and from that point on it appeared as though the rest of the field stopped for coffee. He opened a ten-length lead in the backstretch and just kept on coming, lengthening the margin with every step. Turcotte did not ease the horse, but let him run on. All that power. All that balance. All that heart. All that speed. Secretariat was rolling, and the margin kept widening and widening and widening. Fifteen, eighteen, twenty-two lengths between Secretariat and the field until he crossed the finish line thirty-one lengths in front.
Do yourself a favor and click on the following link or paste it into your browser to watch the most dominating Triple Crown finale of all time. It will only take you a little over 2:24 to see it, which is still the Belmont record and two-and-a-half seconds faster than American Pharoah: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V18ui3Rtjz4
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I was in Kentucky for the funeral of Arnold Thurman, former athletic director and coach at Shelby County High School, who died May 30 at 82. Arnold was an assistant football coach when I was a fat tackle for the Rockets many years ago, and he was everybody’s favorite teacher. I last visited with him in December, plumbing his memory for thoughts on a book I’m writing about the transition for African American high school basketball after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education banned segregated education. Until then, the white schools had their state tournament, and the black schools had theirs, but black schools could not play white schools. Arnold was one of few white coaches who welcomed the opportunity, and the team he coached, Bagdad High School, was the first to schedule the local black school, Lincoln Institute.
That’s only one peek into the character of Arnold Thurman, who influenced a generation of young Shelby Countians, including me and my brother Jerry. One of his former players, Norris Beckley, an African American who is now a pastor, gave a fitting eulogy and spoke for all of Arnold’s former students when he said: "Arnold Thurman was my friend, my mentor and my coach.”
Alvin Gentry was not my knee-jerk first choice when the Pelicans let Monty Williams go a couple weeks ago. No, it was not John Calipari, who makes more money and has more control at Kentucky than any NBA team will ever allow him. I was thinking more in the direction of Tom Thibodeau, the Louisiana-soundalike who took the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs five straight years while compiling a winning percentage of .647 (394-255).
I don’t know how a Cajun grew up in Connecticut, but his college degree at Salem State was in counseling which sounds like perfect background for an NBA coach. However, written in bold on his resume is the fact that his specialty is coaching defense. That, along with his frequent run-ins with the Bulls’ front office, made him persona-non-candidate for the Pelicans.
GM Dell Demps has been given the keys to the team Buick and would not hire any coach with a mutinous history. So, he went with Gentry, who is considered first an offensive coach and second, a “safe pick.” We all know that decisions are made for either good reasons or real seasons and whatever the reasons for Demps’ selection of Gentry are now past. And, as we all know, past performance does not guarantee future results, either in the stock market or sports. But at least Gentry will not disrupt Demps’ master plan, whatever that might be other than “Give the Ball to AD!”
Gentry's offensive cred is hard to question. He has been given credit for the Golden State Warriors’ ascension into the NBA championship series against the Cleveland Lebrons. Gentry helped the Warriors rank No. 1 in pace and No. 2 in offensive efficiency, an approach that he explained to Sports Illustrated: "We want to keep the defense on its heels by always staying in attack mode." That wasn't necessarily the Pelicans’ guiding principle under Williams. Despite the presence of Davis and the attack-minded Tyreke Evans, the Pelicans ranked No. 27 in pace this season. During Williams's tenure, the Pelicans were the league's slowest team twice, and they never ranked higher than 22nd in pace.
It is just such a change that Demps hopes Gentry can bring to the local hoopsters. Gentry is no rookie in the NBA coaching wars, having been the head guy at the Pistons, the Clippers and the Suns, although without much other than pension points to show for it. His three stops all have common threads that include taking over a team at mid-season, enjoying mixed success in the next season or two and then being replaced in the middle of his final season.
Gentry's .475 win percentage as a coach was not for the lack of having good players, and even a couple future Hall of Famers. In Detroit, Grant Hill was in his prime, but he did not get enough help from journeymen like Jerry Stackhouse, Lindsey Hunter and Christian Laettner. With the Clippers, Gentry had steady players like Jeff McInnis and Elton Brand, but also people like the well-traveled Lamar Odom and Corey Maggette. In Phoenix, Gentry coached the incomparable Steve Nash but spent too much time manning a revolving door that included Amar’e Stoudamire, Jason Richardson and Channing Frye. Good players all, but do you see the pattern? Good players make good coaches, and Gentry hasn't had enough of them.
With Davis, Gentry has an opportunity he has not enjoyed at his previous stops. But it will take help from his GM to provide Davis with a solid supporting cast. After the playoffs, Gentry’s first job when he reports to work must be to convince Davis to sign the maximum deal that will guarantee him in a Pelicans uniform for the foreseeable future. If Gentry can do that, then whatever magic Demps works with the remainder of the roster could elevate Gentry from a “safe pick” to a brilliant choice.