The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
I remember when my older daughter received her driver’s license and she quickly proceeded to display some of her dad’s lesser qualities behind the wheel. Specifically, she had a lead foot! But after a handful of contacts with the local constabulary, I sat her down and asked her what about the speed limit was confusing. I’ll never forget her answer: “Daddy, the speed limit is only a suggestion, not an absolute!” Ah, the wisdom of a 16-year-old in Louisiana!
The same type of logic was on display Saturday night at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center where LSU clinched their first regular season SEC basketball championship since 2009. But before the Tigers pummeled Vanderbilt to assure the title, the LSU student section decided that AD Joe Alleva’s suspension of Coach Will Wade was an affront to Tiger pride and dignity. No matter that the head coach was caught on an FBI wiretap allegedly discussing payments to recruit Javonte Smart’s family.
Alleva, understanding that such an activity violates major NCAA rules, moved quickly to insulate his program from major sanctions if the charges are proven. He suspended Wade “indefinitely” and ordered Smart to sit this one out and maybe all tournament games the Tigers play this year. But the less-than-understanding student body would have none of it presumably because rules are merely suggestions. Or was it because Wade got caught? No matter, their message to Alleva: What are you doing? You are ruining our best basketball season in a decade. The repercussions of your actions will derail any hopes of contending for an NCAA championship! Joe, you’ve got to go.
Thirty minutes before the game, chants and signs clearly stated “Joe Must Go,” and others popped up, urging Alleva to “Free Will Wade.” The message then disintegrated into chants of the more to-the-point “(Bleep) Joe!” Of course, all this is Alleva’s fault. None of the blame can be laid at the feet of a fast-talking, free-wheeling coach who rose up the coaching ladder at a young age. But we’ve been through this before, haven’t we?
Remember “Bountygate,” when Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams rewarded Saints players for big hits and other antics intended to put the so-called bad guys out of the game. Was that against the rules? Of course it was, and the Saints paid dearly for it, literally and figuratively. Cash fines, suspensions and an eternal stain on an organization that was perceived to be a rock of stability and doing things the right way. Head Coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year and draft choices were taken, all of which put the team back at least two years.
But who did the fans blame? Certainly not Payton, whose job it was to know everything about his team and coaches. Certainly not the players who participated in the scheme. Gregg Williams deservedly took his share of blame, but in the fans’ eyes the league was the bad guy. How dare they do this to a recent Super Bowl champion? So I guess in Louisiana the rules against such behavior are just suggestions that bend the interpretation from “thou shalt not” to “thou should not, but if you don’t get caught it’s okay!”
Will Wade will likely never coach another game at LSU, nor should he if he is guilty. I’m with Dick Vitale on his assessment of the LSU situation, which he tweeted Saturday. Vitale said Wade’s actions “humiliated and disgraced” the university and said the true fans are “sick and saddened” at the revelations. Dickie V also had a message for the fans who are protesting the suspension: “Get Real!” Rules are not suggestions to be ignored when it’s convenient.
Today’s screed will be worth exactly what you are paying to read it. The reason? Because it’s all about poor, poor, pitiful me, who is sitting inside my warm little Gulf Coast cottage while that beautiful, beckoning golf course outside my window is being whipped by yet another unseasonably glacial gale. (Try saying that three times in a row!) Presently, the temperature is 40, the wind chill is 32 and I am sitting here wondering why in the first week of March, I can't be where I want to be! Out there, flailing away with a hickory switch!
I know I'm not getting much sympathy from folks further north. My poor brother in Louisville is experiencing another 20-degree day with more snow on the way, and it's worse in other places. But I'm not in other places. I'm in the sunny South, which is sunny and South but that's about it.
Oh, I could Eskimo up and waddle to my cart in a thermal body suit, which is like bundling myself in six down comforters. But try swinging a golf club from inside six down comforters. And even if I chose to do so, we’ve had so much rain this winter that the two courses in my community have restricted golfers to the cart path almost weekly since Thanksgiving. Restricting carts to the cart path really cuts down on the fun and camaraderie of like-minded souls. I play with a senior group, many of whom choose not to walk all over the course to retrieve their ball. They’ve been forced to shut it down for much of the winter.
Oh, the humanity!
No doubt, many golfers tougher than I will ride past today in their tented carts and battery-operated heaters and pretend to be comfortable. I’m the only guy in my group that does not have retractable side panels to protect against wind, rain or cold. It’s not because I’m stubborn. Cheap maybe, but not stubborn. No, my attitude regarding plexiglas drapes on my golf cart is simple: If it’s so cold, windy or wet that I need protection inside my cart, then it’s too cold, windy or wet to play golf!
The only sop to inclement weather that I might consider is a charcoal brazier. That would make sense. I could fire it up, keep it stoked with fallen branches or twigs and even grill burgers at the turn for my buddies. It’s well vented, as the smoke from the brazier would drift out from my open cart. But I’d have to make sure the wind is always “from left to right,” as Jim Nantz would say. Otherwise, smoke blowing into my face would cause bigger problems, specifically the other type of grilling, the one I’d get from the Lovely Miss Jean for coming home smelling like a roadhouse dive.
Even If I could endure the cold or windy conditions, I’d still have to deal with slogging my way around our saturated courses. I have enough problems chipping on dry grass, but my game really gets mired down when I’m forced to chip off mud. Don’t like it. Can’t do it. Even shots a bit further out demand protective glasses so the splash of the club through the muck doesn’t blind me. Maybe I should invest in a biker’s helmet with a strong eye shield. I couldn’t see the ball, but my game isn’t that finely tuned anyway.
Yes, I’m ready for dry, warm and grassy golf. Short sleeves, warm temperatures and divots that fly up behind my shot instead of what we have now. I feel like I am swinging an oar, trying to knock a cherry off the top of a bowl of vanilla pudding. That is soggy golf, my friend! And I’m sick of soggy golf! It’s time for spring.
I’ve known quite a few owners of professional sports teams over the years. Like any cluster of human beings with similar interests, owners run the gamut from solid citizens to those who compel you to count your fingers after you shake their hand. I bring this up after Bob Kraft, owner of the six-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, was charged last week with frequenting a massage parlor where, for the bargain price of $79 an hour, he apparently enjoyed the pleasures of ladies specially trained in pleasuring horny old men.
For an even better bargain price of zero, local sporting fans are taking great pleasure in Kraft’s dilemma, only because it puts their favorite sports commissioner, Roger Goodell, in a precarious position. Goodell and Kraft once worked very closely on league business such as the mammoth television contract, but the relationship cooled after Kraft’s employees started bending league rules to the breaking point. In 2015, they filmed the other team’s defensive signals, which is against NFL rules, and two years later, they were caught deflating game footballs, making it easier for QB Tom Brady, who must have incredibly small hands, to get a better grip on the ball. (Forget what Trump said about small hands. When you’re married to fashion model Giselle Bundchen, it doesn’t matter!)
Kraft was fined for those improper acts, which widened the trust gap between the owner and the commissioner. So what will Goodell do with Kraft now? Since this infraction violates the league expectations of a higher standard for owners, I suspect Kraft will be fined seven figures and suspended from attending games for a large portion of the 2019 season.
Dan Jenkins’ classic “Mankind’s Ten Stages of Drunkenness” reminds me of Kraft. The first or second drink prompts a feeling of “witty and charming,” and anybody who has ever been around Kraft knows he can certainly charm wittily. A few drinks later comes “rich and powerful,” which is a fact of life among team owners. Hit me again and progress to “benevolent,” as every team owner can point to the millions they donate to charities. But then we drop down past several other characteristics of drinkers to the final two, “Invisible” and “Bulletproof.”
That not only perfectly describes smack-faced drunks but also team owners or any other self-important rogue or roguette who thinks they can do anything they want and nothing can touch them.
I had mentioned other owners I have known, and some had their own quirks and shortcomings. One owner worthy of note was Edgar Kaiser Jr. who owned the Broncos between 1981-84. He was not much a factor in league circles during his short term, but he became a legend after he and his wife became embroiled in a messy divorce. After agreeing to a settlement that gave Mrs. Kaiser their huge mansion, Edgar sent his construction crew out with bulldozers and leveled the building. His action was ruled outside the scope of the settlement.
During my three years with the Bears, Michael McCaskey was the team president. Despite being the grandson of founder George Halas, McCaskey was an academic and college professor who, as oldest son, was expected to come home and run the family business when Halas died in 1983. McCaskey never endeared himself to any segment of the organization, including the players. When the team built the new training center in Lake Forest, Michael installed a putting green just beyond one practice field. After one of the first practices in the new facility, a group of players took a slight detour to the locker room, walking across the putting green with two-inch spikes before returning to the building. Terrible fate for poa annua.
But Michael deserves credit for one thing. He once recommended a book to me that he said was ground-breaking and would become a classic. I was skeptical of a book about a boy wizard fighting the dark forces, but I read the book and I have every Harry Potter installment since. Thanks, Michael!
I’ve written enough about Tom Benson and my ten years working with him, and I will say that for all his personal quirks, Mistah Tawhm stands up pretty well against his fellow owners in the areas of integrity and dedication to winning. But I close with a story about my favorite owner, Lamar Hunt of the Chiefs.
When I was with the NFL Management Council, Lamar was a member of our executive committee of owners who helped determine the league’s positions on collective bargaining with the Players Association. During the 1982 strike, we convened a meeting of the executive committee in our New York office for a discussion on strategy. All the other committee members were in the room at the appointed hour, except Lamar Hunt. Nobody had heard from him in those days without texting or cell phones, so his whereabouts was a mystery to all of us.
About two hours after the meeting started, the door opened and in walked Lamar. Tex Schramm looked up and boomed as only Tex could: “Lamar, where the hell have you been?” The self-effacing Hunt looked up sheepishly and confessed: “When I got to the airport, my plane was overbooked. So they asked for volunteers to take the next flight, so I raised my hand.” “Why?” Schramm asked the man who probably could have bought and sold every other owner in the room. “Because I got a free flight out of it.”
Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry probably misspoke when he called the current turmoil surrounding the team “a dumpster fire.” I think that was a subconscious urge to say “DEMPSter Fire” after the club terminated the tortuous nine-year reign of GM Dell Demps. The team is in flames fed by the fact that generational star Anthony Davis wants out, the team has failed to reach the playoffs on a regular basis which is probably because they have failed to acquire – and keep - a solid supporting cast. That perfectly describes the series of curious decisions, dead-end trades and pure bad luck that Demps presided over.
It’s unfortunate that the situation became so discouraging for Davis that he wants out, but it’s probably better for him than my fear he was going to become another Ernie Banks – the legendary Cub who was a perennial all-star on a team never quite good enough to contend for a championship. Watching Kentucky take the 2012 NCAA championship in the Superdome behind Davis was ecstasy for this Kentucky fan, and three months later it looked like new owner Tom Benson’s magic was working when his team drafted the Wildcat star No. 1 overall. It seemed that Demps, Benson’s inherited GM, had fallen into a field of clover. The franchise was stable and NBA titles surely would follow.
After Davis’ first year, Demps traded two first-round picks to Philadelphia for Jrue Holiday. He also swung a deal for Tyreke Evans, which sounded good at the time, but injuries devastated that team. In the summer of 2014, he traded a first-round pick and received center Omer Asik. He was respectable in his first season but after receiving a 5-year, $58 million contract was an injury-plagued bust.
Demps made the decision in 2015 to keep the team intact, re-signing 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 expected the roster to fit into Alvin Gentry’s system, whatever that was intended to be. The results were disastrous, and the lack of fit plus an ER full of injuries doomed the Pels to a 30-52 record and another missed playoffs.
Demps and Gentry retooled for the next season, hoping to give Davis some help with No. 1 draft pick Buddy Hield. It sounded good, giving Gentry the guy who could start the transformation to the Warriors’ fast-paced offense that he helped put together. Demps signed former Bulls’ guard E’Twaun Moore and ex-Pacers forward Solomon Hill to help patch up the team’s erratic defense, but those moves did nothing but take up valuable cap space. Demps’ boldest move was in 2017 when he shipped Hield, Evans and 2017’s first- and second-rounders to Sacramento for All-Star DeMarcus Cousins. That might have been a good deal – torn Achilles notwithstanding - if Cousins had not been on the last year of his contract and could walk.
Demps’ efforts to build a team around Davis by trading first-round picks for veterans clearly failed. Today’s quiz: How many players the Pelicans drafted are still on the roster? The answer is Davis, who likely will be gone next year, and Darius Miller, who was drafted in the 2012 second round after Davis, but was released and played in Europe before being re-signed. In other words, the last six NBA drafts have not produced one player who is still on the roster. I know player acquisition is different in the NBA than the NFL, but that seems odd even for basketball. A quick glance at rosters shows Golden State with six players they drafted and Boston with five.
I get it. You make changes that your current situation deems logical. Cutting 35-year-old Morten Andersen after he’d gone 1 for 11 from 50 yards the previous two years made sense at the time. It didn’t make sense after Andersen hit three field goals beyond 50 yards his next game in the Superdome. Not re-signing Bobby Hebert and Sam Mills, two aging players who wanted sizable raises, was logical. It wasn’t logical after they led their new teams to victories over the Saints. Just as trading for DeMarcus Cousins made sense at the time.
But a GM’s crystal ball can’t predict injuries or a spurned player’s resolve to turn logic on its ear. The results are what matters. And the GM who thinks his team is better than the results should heed Bill Parcells’ time-proven wisdom: “You are what your record says you are,” The Pelicans are a team in flames with a losing record whose star wants to be traded. And that’s why Dell Demps is out and Anthony Davis, sadly, is looking to prove he will not be remembered as the NBA version of Ernie Banks.
Football is over for a while, thankfully so in the Saints’ case, but now comes the big letdown. I sat at my terminal today and tried to decide what I could write about that could snap Who Dat Nation back to consciousness. Oh, there’s plenty going on, but nothing equals the magnitude of football. Is there a subject that can peel that vacant, unconscious stare from the eyes of a loyal Who Dat? Well, talking about the Pelicans won’t do it.
After watching the Anthony Davis trade-me debacle unfold, I am more turned off than ever at the NBA. I never thought AD would want out of New Orleans in the first place - Who wants to leave New Orleans? - but I’m a slightly naïve, hopeful traditionalist. The NBA system confuses me. Damn luxury taxes! Damn Bird Rights! Damn mid-level exceptions and maximum contracts! My old boss, Jim Finks, is spinning in his crypt at all the shenanigans that have taken over sports, particularly the NBA.
In fairness to Davis, Pelicans’ management has bobbled this one out of bounds. GM Dell Demps never really seemed to have a consistent plan on how to build around Davis for the long term, although the organization was snake-bit by injuries over the years. I will be very surprised if the Quality Control unit of the Benson Sports Empire keeps Demps or Coach Alvin Gentry on board another year. Whoever comes in to right the ship should have some good young players and a bagful of draft choices to work with, although my take on NBA draft choices is not very optimistic. So you trade a generational player like Davis to obtain draft choices in the hopes of drafting a generational player? I am still watching Who Dat Nation stare straight ahead and begin to drool.
My chagrin of the NBA intensified at the NBA trade deadline, which was like watching a Groupon auction. Teams would offer 40 percent of their roster trying to snag The Guy who could put them over the top while others were talking three-way deals that sent players all over. We are most familiar with the Lakers’ quizzical offer for Davis that included Kyle Kuzma, a pretty good player, and Lonzo Ball, whose father, LaVar, should be arrested for child abuse. When news of the offer came out, the biggest mouth in sports said his son would never play in New Orleans. Good! Because now we don’t have to put up with your crap!
The rules also allowed the Lakers to throw in Michael Beasley, who is 53 years old and does crossword puzzles while riding the bench. Then, when he was eventually traded to the Clippers, he was immediately released. Cap management, they call it. A team takes a player in a trade not with the purpose of playing him but to toss him out like an expired gallon of milk to make cap space for a potential move three years from now. And the Celtics were prohibited from offering the Pelicans anything for Davis because they could not take on another maximum salary as long as Kyrie Irving is on the roster. They will be laying in the weeds until the season is over and the salary system readjusts. Cha-ching!
I suppose my ultimate displeasure with the NBA is because the league has evolved to the point that the players have taken control of what happens with individual teams. Free movement allows them to stack a team like LeBron did in Miami and Cleveland and won championships. Golden State could add to a championship team, and others are looking to do the same. So if the better players around the league are trying to create a small handful of super teams, where does that leave the Little Sisters of the NBA Poor and their fans? They really don’t have much control because the finances of sport comes down to leverage, and the NBA players have it. An employee-controlled industry sounds like a good idea until you realize that the inmates truly are running the asylum. There’s no stability. It’s more like controlled chaos!
And what about our poor Who Dat in withdrawal? He is still staring longingly into space, saliva dripping from the corner of his mouth. But wait. Do I see movement? Never mind. He’s now sucking his thumb.