The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
College basketball purists should thank Kris Jenkins for his buzzer-beater shot that won the NCAA men’s championship on Monday night. Why? Because the network showing the 2017 NCAA championship now has a shot worthy of reflecting the excitement and true nature of the national championship game. You know where this is headed, don’t you? Hey, it’s my column!
For nearly a quarter century, Kentucky basketball fans have cringed every time an NCAA tournament broadcast comes on with Christian Laettner’s last-second shot that beat Kentucky in 1992. But the shot did not come in a Final Four game! It was the East Regional in Philadelphia, for crying out loud! But that has not stopped the networks for dragging the shot out of mothballs every March in the most blatant example of deceptive advertising any network could foist upon its innocent viewers. I’ll bet if you polled a group of self-proclaimed fans, as I did this week, most would respond that the play probably won the NCAA championship, and Laettner became a national hero who deserved to be honored every year.
If it was for a national championship, then even Kentucky fans wouldn’t have much beef, other than the fact that the NCAA keeps trumpeting a shot by a guy who should have been kicked out of the game earlier for stomping on the chest of an opposing player. But let's not get petty. Just look at the other major sports.
The Super Bowl broadcast does not show a big play from a past wild card playoff game any more than Major League Baseball touts the World Series broadcast with shots of a league series game. And both sports have experienced dozens of great moments in their preliminary rounds. You can’t get any more dramatic than Kirby Puckett’s walk-off home run to win Game Six of the 1991 ACLS that propelled the Twins to a World Series title. But in their wisdom, the baseball broadcasts show Carlton Fisk pushing his long fly ball over the fence in Game Six of the 1975 World Series, even though the Reds eventually won. So maybe the Turner networks, that have the NCAA broadcasts for the next few years, will finally feature a shot that won a championship.
On a related subject, Mark Story of the Lexington Herald had a great piece this week on the "almost" heroes such as North Carolina guard Marcus Paige. If you missed the game, shame on you, but Paige’s impromptu, twisting, double-pump three-pointer through two defenders was as unlikely as it was exhilarating. Paige’s shot tied the game with 4.7 second to go, but it only set the stage for Jenkins’ wide open three-point bomb that was still in its arc when the clock on the basket hit 0.0.
Story mentioned other "almost" heroes, including Kentucky’s Mark Woods, whose shot might have been talked about through the ages had Rick Pitino ordered one of his bigs to guard Grant Hill’s throw-in to Laettner. Woods hit a running, 12-foot bank shot with 2.1 seconds left to put UK ahead of the defending national champions 103-102. As Story wrote: “Some years back, Woods told me he wondered just how famous he would have been had his basket decided the outcome of that hoops epic … Outside of Kentucky, Woods’ runner - by degree of difficulty, a much tougher shot - has largely receded into the mists.”
Woods, now the head men’s basketball coach at Morehead State, said Wednesday: “But the shot (that) people remember is the one that wins the game. That’s just how it is.” And that is why Jenkins’ shot, that won a national championship, should become a symbolic moment and future billboard for NCAA championships.
College basketball fans have their lives back this morning after Villanova’s thrilling victory over North Carolina for the NCAA title Monday night. For reasons obvious to regular readers of this space, Miller could not get too fired up about the Final Four this year, but I will admit the uncertainty of the outcomes made for a unique and exciting tournament. No single team dominated this year, and a handful had their turn in the top spot. But in the end, it was Villanova’s great defense and clutch shooting that carried the day. And, to repeat one of my favorite lines: "Go, Wildcats!"
For avid college hoops fans, our lives are once again our own, unshackled by our devotion to an exhilarating and frustrating passion, and it comes at a good time. We are in the first week of what I believe is the best month of the year for sports and entertainment fans, especially in New Orleans. You might say that April is “a month unlike any other,” but then the Masters Golf Tournament would sue you for paraphrasing a phrase they are trying to copyright.
The "tradition unlike any other" tees off Thursday and is the greatest show on bent grass. Sure, the Masters is snobbish and even the broadcasters are a bit self-righteous, but it’s the first sporting event of the spring where the players are rivaled by the beauty of the venue. Azaleas bloom around the greens, the birds sing in the tress and viewers can almost smell the jasmine. Devine! Competing with the Masters, at least in New Orleans, is the free French Quarter Festival which rocks the Quarter with outstanding live music and great Creole and Cajun foods.
Did anybody notice that the Major League Baseball season opened over the weekend? All the off-season trades and free-agent signings have improved your favorite teams, and, well, it’s baseball, for crying out loud! We can live and die with our favorite college or pro basketball or football teams, but baseball still trumps all the others when it comes to history and optimism. Go Red Sox!
Then the big Trifecta Weekend arrives on April 28-May 1. The Zurich Classic PGA stop is where many up-and-coming players made their mark. In recent years, Jason Dufner and Billy Horschel won their first tournaments at the Zurich Classic, although the established veterans have their day, too. Justin Rose won last year, and No. 1 in the world Jason Day has committed to play this year. The Zurich conflicts with another major event in New Orleans, the Jazz and Heritage Festival, which is not exactly a sporting event until you begin to measure the endurance of some fairgoers. Anybody who attends more than two or three of the seven-day music festival spread over two weekends is an athlete in my book!
However, the most exciting event of that weekend, at least for Who Dat Nation, is the NFL Draft. The NFL’s biggest off-season event prompts fans to become personnel gurus in predicting where their team will focus. The Saints have the No. 12 pick, and will they continue to bolster their defense after signing such veterans as LB James Laurinaitis and DT Nick Fairley or will they give QB Drew Brees another weapon at wide receiver? Draft day is the epitome of optimism where every pick will be a Pro Bowler.
And I didn't even mention the run-up to the Kentucky Derby, which is run on the first Saturday in May. Tom Benson has two horses that are still in the hunt, and April will determine whether one or both meet at Churchill Downs. Yes, April can start off as a cruel month, taking away the dreams of college basketball fans, but there is a lot more to the month that provides new hope for the sporting fan.
The Saints are certainly doing a lot of wheeling and dealing for a team that reportedly doesn’t have any Salary Cap room left. The most recent example was the news Monday morning that the team has come to a one-year agreement with defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Reports said Fairley will be paid $3 million this season, which seems to conflict with other reports that say the Saints have as little as $273,000 remaining in their team cap.
A few weeks ago, they signed TE Coby Fleener for a contract that will average $7 million per season, and they have agreed to a three-year contract with LB James Laurinaitis whose numbers have not been disclosed. Laurinaitis earned a base salary of $3,625,000 with the Rams last year. They have also re-signed TE Michael Hoomanawanui, matched a restricted free agent offer to TE Josh Hill and signed some minor free agents.
It’s to the Saints’ credit that they continue to add players they think can help, but how can they do it? The answer is as simple as walking up to your friendly ATM and making a withdrawal, although there is a little more to it in the NFL. Since the Salary Cap period, teams that are close to their limits have learned to legally game the system by designating one or more of their higher-priced players as “the bank.” In other words, the Saints will be able to sign contracts with some of their new acquisitions after filling out the paperwork at the Bank of Brees.
QB Drew Brees is due to receive $20 million this year in base salary and a roster bonus. The team has already begun discussions with his agent to turn most of that $20 million into a guaranteed signing bonus that, spread over two or three additional years, will provide the bulk of cap space needed to make their other moves. In past years, it has been common for the Saints and other teams close to the edge to renegotiate contracts with their higher-priced players in order to free up cap room. But it is seldom that one player's base salary is large enough for the team to accommodate multiple actions with one stroke.
More likely than not, renegotiations are intended to accommodate rising base salaries of important players to keep the roster intact. The Saints have become extremely adept at using the renegotiations to also add free agents whom they believe are upgrades to key positions. It hasn’t always worked. Brandon Browner was a bust, and injuries have prevented Jairus Byrd from justifying the money spent, but as long as “the guy,” in this case Brees, is performing at a high level, you do whatever you can to beef up his supporting cast. And it makes even more sense when Brees' own base salary can be used to do that.
There is an obvious downside, as we have written many times in this space, that renegotiations require a team to push today’s money into future seasons. That “dead money” limits the cap room you have in future years, so the moves had better be worth it. The Saints’ had less available cap space that any other team in the NFL in 2015 with about 23% of their Salary Cap paying for past renegotiations and decisions that did not turn out as expected. They are on the same pace now, as just under 20% of their 2016 cap is dead and unusable.
That means that this season the team is investing heavily in the Bank of Brees, hoping for positive returns. But there is no FDIC in this business for protection or bail outs. At some point, the bank closes, or retires, and a foreclosure is sure to follow.
Okay, let’s get it out of the way! Kentucky lost, they are out of it, my bracket is busted, my pride is covered with Indiana sweat bees and sorghum, so let’s move on. Thankfully, I was spared the pain of watching the Wildcats’ loss to Indiana Friday night. I watched until halftime, when I was bound and gagged and taken to a family event by the Lovely Miss Jean who ultimately deserves thanks for sparing me the agony of watching my team disintegrate. There are worse things than being denied watching your favorite team play a big game. Like watching your team perform miserably in a big game. On the bright side, I am free until next year when Kentucky probably will be the preseason No. 1 and the agony of expectations will resume.
But, other than my flag-lowering ceremony on Vicksburg Street, the other Kentucky-related news in New Orleans this past weekend was the loss of Pelicans star Anthony Davis for the season. Davis, who has been hampered by injuries during each of his four pro seasons, will undergo surgery on his knee and also his shoulder, to repair a torn labrum. This latest setback means that by the end of the season, Davis will have missed the equivalent of a full year – 82 games – since he was drafted No. 1 overall out of Kentucky in 2012. After thinking about it, the injury history of the Pelicans, and Davis in particular, could also fall under the “agony of expectations.”
After putting together a starting six that, arguably, has the skill to compete for a conference title, Pels GM Dell Demps has seen his efforts sliced away by the surgeon’s scalpel. In fact, since the marvelous Davis came aboard, the only NBA list in which the Pelicans haved annually ranked high has been the injury list. For the current season, the team ranks third in the NBA, behind the Wizards and Grizzlies, in total games lost to injuries, according to a macabre website that tracks NBA Man Games Lost.
This year alone, Tyreke Evans had surgery to repair a right knee injury and will miss a total of 57 games. Eric Gordon had surgery to repair a fractured right ring finger and will miss a total of 37 games. Guard Norris Cole has been sidelined with a lower back injury, and there is no timeline on his return. Supersub Quincy Poindexter has missed the entire season after surgery to repair a left knee injury. The Pelican woes have not gone unnoticed throughout the league. After Davis’ latest setback was revealed, ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard commented that the team is “snakebitten” and suggests that the training staff should be placed in a small boat and pushed into the Mississippi River current without a paddle or roll of tape.
This is not a new issue for the team. Point guard Jrue Holiday missed 42 games with injuries last year and another 58 during the 2013-14 season. Long-range bomber Ryan Anderson, whose left groin injury is keeping him sidelined currently, missed 21 games last season and 60 the year before. Gordon missed 21 last year and 18 the previous year. Is there a solution before the NBA alters Pierre the Pelican’s mascot uni to include a wing sling, neck brace and webbed foot cast?
ESPN’s Broussard said Monday the Pelicans need to look “outside the box” at how Davis and the other players are being conditioned. “They need to look at his knees, his shoulders with the intention of rebuilding his body and redistributing his weight to prevent these injuries.” Will that help? I’m not sure, but do you want to hear about Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo?
Stop it! It’s over! They lost! Stop it! The agony of expectations will not leave me alone!
It is not surprising that after LSU was drummed out of the SEC tournament by Texas A&M on Saturday, Coach Johnny Jones decided to spurn further embarrassment by rejecting a bid to the NIT. What is a minor surprise, however, is the late-breaking news that star center Ben Simmons, who could be the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick, is moving forward toward hiring LeBron James’ agent, Rich Paul.
The paperwork for Simmons’ withdrawal from classes probably is already working its way through the registrar’s office at Thomas Boyd Hall which means Simmons will have spent less time at LSU than Porky Pig at a cochon de lait. That isn't surprising since Porky reportedly went to more classes than Big Ben! But, hey, it’s only basketball which is usually an afterthought at this time of year anyway, behind spring football and baseball.
In other NCAA tournament news, it is acknowledged by management that, yes, I hung my Kentucky flag in front of the house Sunday afternoon after the Wildcats won the SEC tournament with an 82-77 overtime win over Texas A&M. It’s a lonely blue banner in a neighborhood of Saints, LSU and seasonal flags, but it’s a tradition. When the madness begins, March that is, the flag goes up. Last year, of course, the flag was up by Christmas as Kentucky fans threw off all semblance of reason in the belief that their powerhouse team would add a ninth NCAA title to the crowded rafters at Rupp Arena.
That did not happen, so now Big Blue Nation is partying like it’s 2014, when an underachieving team seeded No. 8 peaked at the right time and went all the way to the final game. The current team is much like that group, puzzling the UK faithful for most of the season until teasing us in the last two weeks with a solid string of victories. That hope is not total fantasy since this has been one of those rare seasons where a half-dozen teams have had their turn at the top. The eventual champion will be the one that gets hot at the right time. For that reason, my annual selection of Kentucky as champion of my Final Four bracket this year is not totally, categorically, unequivocally fiction. Stay tuned…
And what about the Saints’ signing of Jimmy Graham Lite last week when they inked former Colt Coby Fleener? I applaud the team for signing good young players, but I’m having a little problem with the math on this one. Fleener received an $8 million signing bonus and a contract averaging just over $7 million a year. Last year, he had a career-high 54 catches that averaged 9 yards each with three touchdowns. The man Fleener is replacing, Ben Watson, caught a career high 74 balls for an 11-yard average and six touchdowns from Drew Brees. Watson signed a two-year contract with the Ravens for a reported $7 million, around $3.5 million per year.
The math doesn’t work based purely on the numbers, paying a player twice as much for 40% less production. I guess that tells you the premium teams put on a younger player (Fleener will be 28 in September; Watson will be 36 in December) who they have locked up for five years.
And speaking of football, is anybody feeling sorry for Denver? Their Hall of Fame quarterback retires, and they did not have his heir apparent locked up? Brock Osweiler signed a four-year deal with Houston for $72 million, affirming once again The Pink Floyd Syndrome, which we will explain below! As Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote: “Osweiler had to decide between Houston’s four-year, $72 million offer, with about $37 million guaranteed; and Denver’s four-year, $65 million offer, with about $29 million guaranteed ... The Broncos are a better team, even with the recent defections. But if you’re Osweiler, and you’re realistic, you have to think there’s some doubt about whether you’re going to be an above-average NFL starter, which is how Houston is paying you. So the guarantee is significant. Very significant. If he busts after a year or two, he knows he has $8 million more locked in if he signs with Houston versus signing with Denver.”
Cue the Pink Floyd Syndrome: “Money, money, money, MON-ey!”