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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

Pelicans' top pick should rhyme with gunner Curry

by J.W. Miller on 06/23/16

So who are the Pelicans going to take in the NBA Draft tonight? Wrong question! You should ask: “Are the Pelicans going to draft anybody who can help them in the NBA Draft?” Other than drafting the head of preventive medicine at the Mayo Clinic, which would be my solution to their biggest problem of the past two years, the team should take a player who can play immediately and take some of the pressure off Anthony Davis. AD is one of the bright young stars of the NBA, but so far his career gives all the indications that he will become the Ernie Banks of the NBA. A great player on some bad teams.

GM Dell Demps’ hasn’t picked a player that stayed with the team since Davis fell into his lap in the 2012 draft. Since then, Demps has been content to trade picks for veterans who would spend more time in the training room than on the court. In 2013, he drafted Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel at No. 6 and then sent him, along with the team’s 2014 No. 1 pick, to Philadelphia for point guard Jrue Holiday. In fairness, Holiday was coming off an All-Star season and the prospects of him leading a team that featured Davis must have been enticing. However, Holiday’s injury problems have neutralized his expected effectiveness. 

Demps traded his 2015 first rounder to acquire C Omer Asik from Houston, which sounded like another good idea at the time. Asik looked the part his first year, averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds in Monte Williams’ system. But after handing Asik a five-year extension, Demps changed coaches and Asik disappeared, whether it was overt satisfaction, injuries or the introduction of Alvin Gentry and his up-tempo attack. Asik was frequently benched last season when his plodding style did not mesh with the M*A*S*H unit Gentry was left with to run his offense. 

So now Demps finds himself with another opportunity to draft from a field that most prognosticators say is a strong one. I have no idea if Demps, Gentry and new assistant Danny Ferry are focusing on one player or a package trade for another veteran, but here’s what I think should happen. Gentry should look back on his days as assistant head coach of the Warriors and build thusly. The key to that team is Steph Curry, and Gentry could find his clone in this draft. Some locals who remember how long-range shooter Buddy Hield of Oklahoma torched LSU during the college season might favor him. But my pick in this scenario would be Jamal Murray, whose 3-point prowess and archer-like celebrations almost single-handedly made Kentucky relevant last year. 

Murray gets the edge on Hield because he is three years younger and even more athletic at driving to the basket. The Pelicans likely will have some holes this year through free agency and certainly a couple more next year at key guard positions, so it makes sense to draft a pick and pop guy who can spread the court and give AD even more room to work inside. And here’s how that just might happen: 

The No. 1 Sixers and No. 2 Lakers are locks to pick LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram, respectively. The Celtics at No. 3 are expected to pick a forward from either Jaylen Brown of Cal, Dragan Bender of Croatia or Henry Ellenson of Marquette. The fascination with Bender, a 19-year-old who played only 12 minutes a game for his European League team, is the same that has Kentucky’s erratic Skal Labissiere in the lottery discussion. He is young, raw and the boom-or-bust project that NBA teams want to love. Give the edge to Brown, who is a versatile defender and a good ball handler who can both bully or finesse his way to the rim. 

The Suns are up at No. 4 and will take either Brown and Bender, whichever one the Celtics pass. Minnesota is sitting at No. 5 and likely will choose a guard to go along with Rookie-of-the-Year Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Wiggins. A shooter would take pressure off Towns and Wiggins, which makes Jamal Murray or Buddy Hield a logical pick. But late word has the Timberwolves entertaining offers for point guard Ricky Rubio, which means Kris Dunn of Providence could be their pick, trade or no trade. Dunn is a dynamic floor general, although not a great shooter, but if Rubio is out, Dunn certainly is in. 

And that is where the sphincters of the Pelican brass begin to tighten. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are likely to become free agents, and point guard Holiday and swing man Tyreke Evans have one more year on their contracts. So which anticipated hole do you fill? If you believe Anderson would be the most important loss, you might consider the 6-10 Ellenson, who is no threat at long range but can give the team the mid-range jumper and rebound. But Ellenson is not a great defender and even might not be able to beat Asik in a shuttle drill. You go with the gunner. 

If Gentry has any influence at all on Demps, he will push for the guy who can give the Pelicans a similar weapon to the one that has lifted Golden State to elite status. Murray rhymes with Curry, not just in name but in a style of play that could propel the Pels to relevance.

Two dads take different paths to joy on Fathers Day

by J.W. Miller on 06/20/16

What did you get for Fathers Day? Some of you might have gotten a pass from the job jar or even a gift or two from the kiddies. My very creative munchkins gave me a bag of bourbon candy, a six-pack of exotic adult beverages and a sport coat that has their mother's fingerprints all over it. All much appreciated, but the best thing they gave me was the opportunity to see two other dads take very different routes to their own Fathers Day happiness.

Dustin Johnson and LeBron James enjoyed what might have been their best Fathers Days ever. Johnson finally got off the schneid in major tournaments by outlasting a handful of rivals, and a late penalty, to win the U.S. Open at sinister Oakmont Country Club, while James, in spectacular fashion, finally gave Cleveland the championship he had promised. James had nothing to prove, having won two previous NBA titles in Miami, but Johnson was battling the rap as a guy who couldn’t win the big one. 

Johnson’s task turned into a true war of attrition as rainy weather the first two days helped eliminate such competition as Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose and Patrick Reed. Even Jason Day, ranked No. 1 in the world, needed a 69 just to barely make the cut but was all but invisible until a late surge on Sunday brought him into a tie for eighth. The guy who beat Johnson last year, Jordan Spieth, entered the final round at four strokes over par and then parlayed that into a nine-over finish. The leader going into Sunday at seven under par, the growling Shane Lowry of Ireland, followed Spieth's formula and frittered away almost all his cushion and finished at minus-1. That still was good enough for a second-place tie with Americans Scott Piercy and Jim Furyk, who seemingly finished his round shortly after breakfast but continued to rise up the leaderboard as the rest of the field tumbled. 

Congrats to Johnson, who looked like a proud father on the final hole after he was joined by his squeeze, Paulina Gretzky, and their son Tatum. 

But golf was the undercard to what happened in the NBA’s Game 7. You can love LeBron James or hate him, but there was no contesting his play in the title game. Not only did he become only the third player to complete a triple-double in a Game 7 final, with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, he made the biggest play of the game on defense. The game was tied at 89, and neither team had scored for nearly two minutes when Kyrie Irving attempted to put the Cavaliers ahead, but he missed a layup. Golden State’s Andre Iguodala grabbed the rebound and fired a pass to Stephen Curry, who started a two-on-one fast break toward J.R. Smith, the only Cavalier back on defense. 

As the play progressed, James was focused on Curry, who’s a threat to pull up from three even while on the fast break, but Curry gave the ball back to Iguodala. At this point, James was still on the wing at the three-point line, and once Iguodala drove into the paint, James was still in no position to block anything. That’s when the unsung hero of this play, Smith, contested Iguodala’s layup without fouling, forcing Iguodala to contort himself to get the shot off. Smith’s defense allowed James to streak in to his launching point, leap high and tip Iguodola’s shot. 

The play was as spectacular as it was meaningful. The Warriors hadn’t scored in over two minutes before James's block, and wouldn’t score again. "Cleveland, this is for you!" James, an Akron, Ohio, native, shouted through tears in a post-game interview. He also looked like a proud father as he shared the post-game interview podium with his two sons, 12 and 9, and his 1-year-old daughter. 

I have a new sport coat to commemorate the day, but Sunday was a Fathers Day that James and Johnson both will remember for other reasons. 

Gators save SEC baseball from a shutout!

by J.W. Miller on 06/15/16

It's hard to fathom that the conference that copyrighted College Football and has a patent pending for its baseball darned near did not have a representative at the College World Series this year, an incredulous event that has not happened since 1992! Egad, that would be like a guy from Idaho winning a BBQ cook-off! 

 On top of the SEC’s performance the past few years – a finalist every year since 2008 and titles by LSU (2009), South Carolina (2010-11) and Vanderbilt (2014), it appeared the 2016 CWS would become a showcase for SEC diamond dominance. But in the end only Florida survived, as the Gators won the very last Super Regional game on Monday, defeating Florida State, 7-0. 

Five of the Top Ten teams were SEC schools, according to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America final poll, including No. 1 Texas A&M, No. 3 Florida, No. 4 Mississippi State, No. 6 LSU and No. 9 South Carolina. All won their way into the Super Regional with enough smack to host the final step to Omaha. Playing in their own houses should have given the five all the edge they needed to turn Omaha into an SEC love fest. But nobody told the teams who came to town.

The first indication that things were not headed South came Saturday night when Arizona swept Mississippi State in Starkville, storming back from a 5-1 eighth-inning hole in Game 2. In Baton Rouge, LSU was swept by everybody’s darling when Coastal Carolina won with a dramatic walk-off RBI in the bottom of the ninth. Two-time champion South Carolina was dealt a similar fate, losing two in a row to Oklahoma State. In College Station, Texas A&M, winners of the SEC tournament and ranked No. 1 in the nation, hosted TCU for the second year in a row, and the results were the same. The Horned Frogs took the Aggies in three games. 

Now, with TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech headed to Omaha, the Big Twelve can now claim the title as the top baseball conference in college baseball. Unless Florida can pull the SEC’s irons out of the fire one more time. Hats off to Coach Dennis O’Sullivan, who has done well in Gainesville since he was passed over by a certain Athletic Director when he interviewed for the University of New Orleans job in 2004. O’Sullivan was my third choice to Tom Walter, who I hired, and Butch Thompson, who just finished his first season as head coach at Auburn. That’s pretty good company, and current UNO Coach Blake Dean shows every indication he will be at that level soon. We just hope it’s for taking UNO back to Omaha.

- 0 -

Golf Digest has a nice story this week on a dark horse candidate whose time to win a major tournament just might be the 116th U.S. Open that begins Thursday at Oakmont Country Club, near Pittsburgh. Dustin Johnson will be among the favorites, a position he occupies at just about every major championship even though he has yet to win one. Despite possessing the longest active streak of seasons with at least one PGA Tour victory, dating to 2008, the No. 6 player in the world is better known for the major titles he has ignominiously surrendered.

The most recent disappointment came with his runner-up finish in last year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. On the scraggy 72nd green, needing a 12-foot eagle putt to win or two putts to tie, Johnson opted for door No. 3. His dismaying three-putt par left him a stroke behind Jordan Spieth. 

Many of the game’s finest have had to lose—and lose painfully—before assimilating the necessary tools to win. It took Phil Mickelson until age 33 before he began to correct the conflict between his ability and achievements and win his first major at the 2004 Masters. Johnson’s golfing faculties are so distinctly pure that it’s not inconceivable to think he’ll eventually slam-dunk a major as easily as he can a basketball (barefooted, by the way). The man he beat last year thinks he’s close.

“I think that Dustin Johnson is arguably the most talented player on the PGA Tour,” Spieth said. “I think it’s a matter of time. I think he’s a freak athlete. I think he’s not only a freak athlete, but a freak golf athlete, like he has great hands, great club-face control. He hits some shots you won’t see anybody else trying.”

What’s held Johnson back so far are the more mundane - but just as essential - golfing chores, such as putting. Johnson is ranked 162nd in putting inside 10 feet, which sounds similar to another guy who won at Oakmont in 2007. Angel Cabrera of Argentina, whose weakness is putting, subdued Oakmont with bare-knuckled ball-striking. His comment afterward: “The greens are so difficult nobody can make putts, which helped me.” 

After last year's late collapse, maybe it won't matter so much at Oakmont. 

Here's a Muhammad Ali story you've never heard!

by J.W. Miller on 06/06/16

Every kid growing up in or around Louisville in the late Fifties remembers their first glimpse of Cassius Clay, the young boxer who became an Olympic champion, a symbol of resistance to a controversial war, a three-time heavyweight champion and ultimately a citizen of the world. It was on a popular television show on Saturday evenings called “Tomorrow’s Champions,” a showcase for young men who fashioned themselves as fighters and some who took a few lessons and just wanted to appear on TV.

I knew only one boy who actually appeared on the show, but I watched religiously hoping to see some of the really good fighters, and eventual champions, nurtured in Louisville's avid boxing community. Among them were young boxers such as Rudell Stitch, Marcus Anderson, Jimmy Ellis and the Clay brothers, Rudy and Cassius. Fast forward a tumultuous decade or so, and Cassius, now Muhammad Ali, became the ultimate boxing technician. At 6-3 and 245 pounds, he was bigger than most of his opponents, but he was not a plodder who stalked his opponents and overcame them with sheer power like a Joe Louis or Marciano. 

Ali fought with the speed and grace of a smaller man – like the Sugar Rays, Robinson and Leonard - dancing and bouncing. He always glided to his left, staying out of reach of his opponents’ wild swings while slipping jab after jab on target until his flustered opponent was ready for the takedown. In much the same way, Ali went from a pariah for many Americans to a beloved ambassador of his country. He jabbed at our prejudices and preconceptions until we were ready for the takedown. 

But you know all that, so let me tell you a story you have never heard, about a cameo appearance young Cassius Clay made that defused a riot and reflected his early popularity in Louisville’s African-American community. It was November of 1959, and the head basketball coach at Lincoln Institute, an all-black high school in Shelby County, Kentucky, took his team to Louisville to scrimmage mighty Central High School. For three decades, the Central Yellowjackets had dominated the Kentucky High School Athletic League, an association of  segregated African-American schools. But in the early years of desegregation, a black school, the Central Yellowjackets, for the first time would be ranked as the best in the state, white or black. 

What better test could Coach Walter Gilliard give his Lincoln Tigers than to scrimmage the best team in the state? Lincoln and Central were bitter rivals in the old KHSAL, and after Lincoln defeated Central for both the football and basketball titles during the 1954-55 school year, the rivalry was suspended after a riot broke out following the next football game. Memories keep a rivalry alive as much as the games themselves, and when the Lincoln bus arrived at Central High School, it was met by a crowd of former Yellowjackets players, both recent and past, who had bad memories of Lincoln Institute. They played when the rivalry burned white-hot, and they still were itching for a slice of Tiger meat.

Lincoln took the floor amid catcalls and threats from the former players ringing the court. However, once the ball went up, it became apparent the insults had the opposite effect on the Lincoln players. Central was having a hard time defending Gilliard’s fast-breaking offense and cracking the Tigers’ pressing defense. As word of the scrimmage spread through the school, Central students began drifting in to watch. During one especially heated exchange on the floor, as players were close to fisticuffs, play seemed to stop as attention shifted to a doorway at the back of the gym.

Gilliard watched as a tall, angular young man walked in to watch the scrimmage. Clad in a jacket from one of his numerous Golden Gloves championships, Cassius Clay, a Central High School senior, was a month from his 18th birthday and less than a year from winning a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Gilliard was a boxing fan himself and had seen Clay before on live television and even had attended some of his amateur matches. The Central players were more intent on basketball than on their classmate, but the Lincoln players knew who he was, and his appearance seemed to spur them even harder. 

When the scrimmage was over, the Central coach was ready to declare it a draw, but the Lincoln players would have none of it. They knew they had outperformed the team that would attain the state’s No. 1 ranking during the season and in doing so had re-established bragging rights in the close-knit African-American community. Better still, they had done it in front of Cassius Clay. 

That story was told to me by several former players on the Lincoln team whom I interviewed for a book I’ve written on African-American high school basketball in the early years of desegregation. I can’t say any more than that because the publisher hasn’t made the official announcement yet, but this column is not about a book. It’s about a man whose influence began as a youth in his home town and extended throughout the world. 

Rest In Peace, Champ!

Class of '66 reunion will honor the grad in the empty seat

by J.W. Miller on 05/30/16

On this Memorial Day, I want to depart from our usual topics to remember a man I graduated high school with a half-century ago. Oh, I could put this in a sporting context since J.L. Travis and I played against each other in a summer baseball league, and I remember one game when he was playing first base and I took a too-long lead off the bag and the next batter hit a line-drive right at J.L., who caught the ball and doubled me up. J.L. did not play any sports in high school that I recall, while I was busy with football and baseball, but I remember him well as a handsome boy with chiseled features and coal black hair that fell over his forehead when he smiled. 

We went our separate ways after graduation, and I might never have thought about him until someone else brought up his name later. I was in college and had come back to my high school to watch a basketball game, and at some point during the game, our principal, Bruce Sweeney, took the microphone and said he had tragic news to announce. The last time I had heard Mr. Sweeney say those words was my sophomore year when he announced to a disbelieving young audience on November 22, 1963 that President Kennedy had been assassinated. But this night’s announcement hit even closer to home when Mr. Sweeney announced that exactly four years after the President’s death, on November 22, 1967, Thanksgiving Day, our classmate James Leonard Travis Jr. had been killed in Vietnam. 

That might have been the moment that I walked away from a protected childhood and into an unpredictable and threatening world. Until then, we lived in the cocoon of youthful innocence, aware of things like wars but dismissing them as subjects that occupied the evening news and happened to somebody else out there. We were oblivious to their tragic call and the fact that bad things do happen to good people. 

J.L. was inducted in the U.S. Army in March, 1967, along with his best friend Hubert Waford, who had graduated a year ahead of us. They were both from the Glenyrie section of the county, sons of farmers who spent their lives in the tobacco patches, hay fields and dairies of rural America. They underwent infantry training and were assigned to A Company, 3rd  Battalion, 22nd Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division. On August 22, 1967, their unit arrived near Binh Dinh, South Vietnam, a coastal province about 220 clicks south of Da Nang. Three months to the day after landing, J.L. Travis was killed by enemy fire. 

Hubert Waford served as military escort to bring J. L.’s body back to the United States for burial at the Dover Baptist Church in Shelby County. Hubert returned to Vietnam on December 8, rose to the rank of sergeant and was himself killed on Good Friday, April 12, 1968, in a battle in which he earned the Silver Star for bravery. 

This year is the 50th anniversary of the graduation of the Class of 1966 at Shelby County High School, and we will get together on July 30 to remember the best part of our youth and honor those who will not be with us, like J.L. Travis. We also will remember other classmates such as Billy “Twink” Hall, leadoff hitter on our state championship runner up baseball team, who died at 36 from cancer. And Barry “Buck” Cottrell, who might have been the funniest boy and man I ever knew until his death at 43 in a car crash. Earlier this year, we lost Hugh “Turkey” Smith, who hit the key free throws in a state tournament semi-final game on our way to the 1966 state basketball championship. And, of course, the star of that team and my all-time best friend, Mike Casey, died at 60 after a long struggle with congestive heart failure. 

There were others, and those of us who have survived will share stories about each. But on this Memorial Day, we should pay special attention to our classmate J.L. Travis and his buddy Hubert Waford, two young Americans from the heartland who fought and died so that we could grow to adulthood, have families and enjoy all the good things that a free country can provide. 

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