The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
When I was 11 or 12 years old, my father would take me on his truck to pick up milk from the farms and haul it to the processing plants in Louisville. One of his stops was not a traditional farm but a dairy operation attached to an African American high school named Lincoln Institute.
We turned off the main highway and drove up a one-mile access road toward what appeared to be a castle on a hill but was in fact the Lincoln administration building. When we arrived in the milk room, students were usually around, completing their duties as part of their vocational training. I don’t recall them ever talking about farming, especially when their basketball team was one of the best in the state. My writing career took some twists and turns in and out of the profession over the years, but I always believed the 1959-60 Lincoln Institute Tigers, one of the first African American schools to participate in the boys state tournament, would make a good book.
Whether it is a good book will be answered by readers like you, but at least it is now a book. I am happy to announce that “Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanished Tradition” was released on March 15 by the University Press of Kentucky and is available at Amazon.com and your local Barnes & Noble and other bookstores.
The book is not simply about a basketball team that defied all odds to achieve excellence but about a school and a community that endured one of the most transitional periods in our nation’s history. When I started talking with former Lincoln students, teachers and supporters, all remembered the team, but many wanted to talk about it in the historical context of desegregation. That such a narrative is written by a white author makes it easy to jump to the inaccurate conclusion that the book is an indictment of integration. Far from it. Rather, it reveals that the mandated upheaval of integration threatened the cherished institutions of a society that had too few. Integration was the right and proper course to assure equality of education, but many in the black community resisted. In the book, I call this resistance a “dissonance” that exists when emotion and logic collide.
Before the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education prohibited segregation in public schools, more than fifty high schools competed in the Kentucky High School Athletic League (KHSAL), an association formed in 1932 by principals, coaches and administrators of African American high schools across the commonwealth. The ruling raised a litany of unanswered questions for these administrators, their students and parents. The questions were new and frightening, and the most asked were “will my school be forced to close?" and "when will it happen?”
There was no easy answer. Kentucky ordered its local, mostly white, school boards to come up with their own plans for integration with one directive, to quote the high court, “with all deliberate speed.” Some boards heard “speed” and integrated quickly, while others heard “deliberate” and dragged their feet. The result was that black students whose schools closed quickly soon integrated into white schools, while the majority of students - including those at Lincoln Institute - remained in limbo, their schools remaining open while a sword of uncertainty hung over their heads. Compounding this period was the fact that blacks in Kentucky still could not eat in most restaurants, shop freely in many establishments or even try on shoes in white-owned shoe stores. Public restrooms were divided into “Men,” “Ladies,” and “Colored,” and black patrons had to sit in specific, marked areas in movie houses or on public transportation.
The details of “Integrated” came predominantly from former Lincoln Institute students, teachers and coaches, now in their 70’s but whose memories were sharpened by courage and resilience. Their stories enrich the book, such as the coach at a white high school who convinced his administrators and fans that playing the black schools was not only the right thing to do but it was necessary. One former Lincoln Institute standout became an Armed Forces All-Star and later impressed University of Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp on the Wildcats’ home floor. A young tennis prodigy who had his dreams denied because he could not play at the white country club became the first African American to start for an integrated Kentucky high school basketball champions.
In 1960, the Lincoln Tigers men’s basketball team defeated three all-white schools to win their regional tournament and advance to the state tournament, the 2017 version of which concluded Sunday. I wonder how many of those young black men who participated the past week even realize there was a day not too long ago when they would not have had the opportunity?
Selection Sunday is over and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee has officially taken over March with its copyrighted madness. With the field selected, a little-known clandestine force goes into action. The March Madness Underdog Posse is preparing its talking points for the talking heads and ink-stained wretches even as we speak. Their task: to select the biggest underdog in the 68-team field and instantly generate massive public opinion to jump on the bandwagon. And this year, Ladies and Gentlemen, their choice is simple and familiar. There is no greater underdog in sports today than the University of New Orleans Privateers, who will play Tuesday in the opening games of the 2017 NCAA tournament.
The champions of the Southland Conference regular season and tournament played their way into the magic circle for the first time in 20 years, and they are beginning to be noticed on a national scale. UNO’s glory road is one of the more poignant stories you will ever read and one unlikely enough to have been dialed up even before the Privateers defeated Texas A&M Corpus Christi in overtime Saturday to win the conference tournament. Kevin Connors of ESPN called the Privateers “one of the best stories in sports and not limited to basketball. It is nothing short of a miracle and it’s about time America heard their story.”
The Privateers’ journey has been well documented on these pages, and in the book to your upper right. After enjoying the good and suffering through the insufferable in my seven years as UNO Athletic Director, I wrote “Where the Water Kept Rising” to document how far one program could be humbled by the nation’s worst natural disaster and then gross mismanagement in the aftermath.
But in light of the Privateers' success this season, and the positive prospects of Blake Dean's baseball team this spring, the book has become a testament of hope for the University of New Orleans and its athletics program. The main hope now is that this year is a reset and that continued success and rising enrollments will follow. The book is a bargain on Amazon.com both in hardback and Kindle versions, so do yourself a favor while watching the Privateers this week to find out just how far Cinderella has come.
Speaking of bargains, Coach Mark Slessinger has done as good a job as any coach in the NCAA this year at a bargain price. Slessinger signed a new contract in 2014 that called for a base salary of $114,000 and bonuses that can run it up to $120,000. That’s not a bad salary in most professions, but in the high-powered college basketball profession, the top coaches make that much in one week! No kidding! John Calipari’s published salary is $6,356,756. Divide that by 52 weeks, and you’ve given Slessinger a raise.
In fact, Calipari, Coach K and a handful of others make more than the entire $5 million budget of UNO Athletics. Sadly, that amount has not changed much over the years. When I took over at UNO in 2003, the athletic budget to operate 15 sports was $5.3 million at a time when UNO was treated like dog scat on the heel of the LSU System. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the program, the budget was cut to about $3.4 million, and we dropped down to six sports. And today they are only back at $5 million? That alone is a travesty in a time where revenues have skyrocketed for those at the top, a largesse that only squeezes those at the bottom even more.
But this is supposed to be a column to celebrate a great basketball season. My only complaint is the Privateers are forced into one of four play-in games before actually making it in to the final brackets. UNO will take on Mount Saint Mary’s of Emmitsburg, Maryland, Tuesday night at Dayton, Ohio. The winner has the dubious privilege of playing Villanova, the overall No. 1 seed and defending national champion, on Thursday in the East Region in Buffalo, N.Y. But, hey, why quibble? It’s the first time in 20 years that UNO is back in the big show, so let’s enjoy it while it lasts! Go Privateers!
Once again, we are confronted with one of those conundrums (conundra?) of sports: Logic or Emotion? We know that emotion is quick and loud: “WHAT, ARE THEY CRAZY? HOW COULD THEY…” Emotion is your nosey neighbor’s reaction when the leaves from your magnolia tree litter his yard. Emotion is our immediate reaction to something we had never considered and immediately sounds like the dumbest idea we ever heard.
You remember the guy in your office who had this little gizmo the size of a Cracker Jack box that weighed two pounds and he carried in his brief case that meant he could get telephone calls no matter where he traveled? Nah, you said, that’s stupid. Too expensive, too unwieldy, too much trouble. But after the second guy in your office got one and then the third, you thought about it, and suddenly that portable telephone idea might not be a bad idea. Until you told your wife you were buying “A WHAT?” and you had to sit on it for a while. But, eventually, it made sense when she learned she could call her Aunt Harriett from the grocery, and today do you know anybody who has a mobile phone they use only for phone calls? No, because it has spanned the gap from an emotional rejection to a logical purchase.
Logic is dull and plodding, like your favorite uncle, the guy with the pipe and pocket square who greets your invitation to go kayaking down the Amazon: “Hmmm, let me consider the existential ramifications of this for a moment. Hmmm …” So in that context, let us consider the Saints’ offering Brandin Cooks on the NFL’s Craigslist with the caption: “Best offer.”
When I heard the news, my reaction was purely emotional. “What? Why get rid of the team’s only downfield threat?” The long ball opens up the middle, which is why Saints’ tight ends and running backs have racked up years of receptions in the intermediate 10- 20 yard zone. Cooks sprints down the field, usually taking two defensive backs with him, which leaves a big open space for Drew Brees’ shorter darts. And every once in a while Cooks just flat outruns the other guy and makes a home run play, as he did last year when he grabbed the NFL’s longest pass play of the year, a 98-yard touchdown against Oakland.
So, my emotional side says, why would the Saints give all that away? Then sit back and look at it logically, like an investor who seeks to double his money. Smart investors know the market, see the trends and then hope for a sizable return, which is what the Saints appear to be doing. They looked at their defense, which has been held together recently by duct tape and bailing twine, and decided to seek something more permanent. Cooks as a major talent, but one that can be replaced if you believe Brees will continue to prosper by finding whomever is open.
The logic behind trading Cooks was tested with the Jimmy Graham Daily Double. C Max Unger came at a time when the offensive line needed an anchor, and Seattle’s No. 1 draft pick should have become an instant starter. LB Stephone Anthony has not yet fulfilled the second part, but the logic of the deal was sound. And so it is with the logic behind trading Cooks.
If the Saints believe enough difference makers exist within the draft slots they might get in return - the two most avid suitors appear to be Philadelphia with pick No. 14 or Tennessee with No. 18 - then go for it. If they can get two defensive starters with their own No. 11 and another high pick, and they can replace Cooks’ catches, then it’s logical. But if it doesn’t work, emotions will run wild!
In case you’ve been stranded on Bourbon Street since Sunday night’s NBA All-Star game, you need to know that after the game the Pelicans’ brass kidnapped all-star center DeMarcus Cousins, sequestered him at an unspecified location and delivered a ransom note, whose terms the Sacramento Kings quickly accepted. The result is that Boogie Cousins - Mobile native, the scourge of eight head coaches and frequent resident of the league penalty box – is now on the same team with the best young player in the league, Anthony Davis.
I know you are thinking this is a figment of some Kentucky fan’s New Year’s prediction that the local team should acquire as many former Wildcats as possible and rename the team the Pelicats! It’s not going to work out quite that way, especially since another former ‘Cat, Terrence Jones, will likely be shipped off before the trade deadline, but in reality the transaction could be a game changer, literally, for New Orleans’ erratic basketball franchise. The Pelicans gave up their current No. 1 pick Buddy Hield, No. 1 and No. 2 draft choices in 2017, plus former King Tyreke Evans and reserve guard Langston Galloway. It seems like a lot, but even if New Orleans had thrown in the Bacchus Bacchagator float, six tickets to the Rex ball and an autographed photo of George Shinn, very little of what the Kings received will help them more than an all-star center will help the Pelicans.
Cousins did not exactly drape himself in kingly robes of ermine in Sac City. He was pouty, petulant and resistant of any suggestions made by his coaches, and he was sometimes accused of dogging it just because he could. But maybe this is a guy who is not comfortable being the Face of the Franchise. Even at Kentucky, Cousins was rarely “the guy,” usually taking a supporting role to John Wall, Patrick Patterson or Eric Bledsoe. Life is not always comfortable for the guy in the bulls-eye unless your name ends in Jordan or James. Or Davis!
In New Orleans, Cousins comes to a team where his fellow former Wildcat Anthony Davis is clearly one of the top handful of players in the NBA, as he ably displayed with a record 52 points Sunday night. Davis handles his role as team leader superbly, always respectful of ownership and his coaches and giving generous time to the media, while becoming the darling of devoted fans and local charities. Davis will be a positive influence on Cousins, who can now concentrate solely on basketball, the thing he does the best.
How did all this happen? Big trades have been the hallmark of GM Dell Demps, who has treated draft choices like American Express points to be redeemed for gift cards. Sadly, most of Demps’ redemption awards, including Evans, Jrue Holiday and the forgotten Omer Asik - have wound up on the training room floor alongside the ghosts of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Not wishing to give Demps credit for landing Cousins, the more suspicious blogospherroids credit consultant Danny Ferry with triggering the trade.
Whoever is responsible, I applaud you. Getting to the top in the NBA these days requires a team willing to put together a core of all-stars who will carry them to a championship. Miami did it with Lebron, Wade and Bosh; Cleveland did it with Lebron, Irving and Love; Golden State did it with Curry, Thompson and Green and now Durant. Will the triumvirate of Davis, Cousins and Holiday, also a former all-star, become the next Holy Trinity in New Orleans?
We shall see, but at least the Pelicats have a far better chance today than the Pelicans did before the All-Star game.
Criticizing basketball officials, especially if your team loses a game, is a fool’s mission. The biggest excuse in sports is that the “refs stole the game.” Look closely and you will find only two reasons your team came in second: They either lose the game or the other team wins it. That isn’t as elementary as it sounds. Your team might be expected to prevail, but it could lose the game by poor shooting, defense or turnovers or the other team could win the game with good shooting, great defense and no errors. It’s not because of bad officiating.
But perception is often reality in the sporting world, and game officials are self-immolating targets. If officials make a call one way early in the game and appear to call the same play differently later, they must be bad! I’ve watched enough college basketball over the years to know when a crew should have stayed in the bar instead of getting in the car and proceeding to the game. I’m not accusing all referees of drinking before games, but there is no question that some of their calls drive fans to drink. Rarely do officials really make a significant difference in favor of one team. If they are not good on a particular night, they are usually bad for both sides. And judging by what I have seen this season, they might not be bad but they certainly appear inconsistent.
This isn’t just me whining about officiating. Jay Bilas, the former Duke star and ESPN announcer is an unabashed critic of referees. “I believe there are three teams on the floor in every college basketball game: the home team, the away team and the team of officials,” he wrote in an ESPN blog post. “The officials are the only team on the floor getting paid and the only team on the floor that does not have an opponent trying to stop it from doing its job correctly. While some mistakes must be expected in any endeavor, there is no excuse for officials making so many mistakes … It has become clear to me that college basketball is at its lowest point in the past 30 years . And I believe the manner in which the game is officiated is the primary culprit for the decline in the game’s quality.”
Let’s take the Kentucky-Alabama game Saturday as our petri dish. It did not take long to conclude that the officials did not understand the concept of walking, or taking more than two steps before passing or shooting the ball. Kentucky was the benefactor of at least two of these oversights, one in which guard Isaiah Briscoe appeared to take at least four steps before passing the ball to a teammate for an easy lay-in. On another occasion, veteran analyst Bill Raftery said the officials must be fond of ballet after Briscoe performed a “three step pirouette” on a drive through the lane. Similarly, the officials later made two other walking calls that did not appear to be walking at all.
This apparent inconsistency may come from the constant reinterpretation of the rules by the NCAA. Every year, officials are given new “points of emphasis” that are intended to clarify a situation but which, ironically, contribute to the perception of inconsistency. To my complaint above about traveling, before this season commenced officials were instructed to focus on pivot feet to call traveling. If a player catches a pass and makes a small hop to set his feet, it sounds like a travel and it should be called. Briscoe made at least one small hop, catching the ball in the air, and then landing, which does not sound like a travel until you see it in action.
Probably my biggest complaint about current officiating has little to do with points of emphasis but on the officials’ insistence on controlling critical moments that slows the momentum of the game. It often seems like a game is a series of fouls volleyed back and forth like ping-pong balls. Touch fouls, those that could be ignored, add up and bolster Bilas’ complaint that the game is declining. The idea of an exciting basketball game is to have each team’s best players on the floor for as much of the 40 minutes as possible. When a team’s best player picks up two fouls in the first five minutes, the game suddenly becomes tilted.
One play on Saturday is of particular interest. A Kentucky defender knocked the ball away, and a scrum commenced. Players were jumping over one another, diving on the floor and grabbing for the ball that suddenly became a greased pig unwilling to be caught. But in the midst of this example of great hustle came a whistle. One official felt compelled to call a foul. Again, Raftery lamented the fact that a penalty was called on what he termed “just good basketball.”
I agree. I believe that inconsistent and overly tough officiating is having a negative impact on the game. Let’em play, for goodness sakes!