Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Death of History-Basketball Division

Listening, but not too closely, because Stuart Scott was involved, to an NBA-related discussion on ESPN the other night, I was astonished to hear the following question put out for debate. Has Kobe Bryant now surpassed Michael Jordan as the best OFFENSIVE (emphasis mine) player in pro basketball history?

Not best player ever, mind you. That would have been as arrogantly dismissive of the past as the actual question, but at least would have been a subjective sports argument where well-defended opinions mean more than boring old facts. No, Jordan and Bryant were being cited as the two players who scored and/or helped their teams score more points than any others.

Unlike baseball offensive statistics, which have been statistically divided up into more complex, math-choked tranches than your mortgage, basketball offense remains simple. There's points scored, then, a very poor second, and maybe only third, is assists. Oh, throw in offensive rebounds finishing up the track somewhere. But mostly, it's points scored.

A quick turn on Google, which apparently they don't have at ESPN, brings us to Wilt Chamberlain. And Michael and Kobe's numbers bow their heads in respect and quietly walk away. When one of those two AVERAGES 50 points a game for a season, they can come back.

The Dipper's scoring statistics are literally fabulous, they don't seem real to people who didn't him play. I had a copy editor at the Phoenix in the '80s who became a basketball fan due to the Celtics of that era. Once I referenced Wilt's 50 point, 25 rebound average for a season. She was going to make me take it out, on the grounds it was impossible until I showed her accepted reference documents.

Oh, yeah, Wilt led the league in assists once, just to show he could. Bryant and Jordan never have, which is no knock on them. In one way, an assist is a wasted possession by your best scorer. Nobody gets fouled on assists. I'm going to go out on a limb so I can keep writing without going back to another section of the Internet, and guess that Chamberlain had more offensive rebounds than Bryant or Jordan, too.

As overall basketball players, I'd rate Jordan ahead of Wilt for a number of reasons, mostly his ability to win championships with only one real great player (Pippen) as a teammate. I don't think there's much doubt Bryant is a Hall of Famer and was the league's MVP this season on merit. But that's not the same thing as thinking they're better scorers than Chamberlain. For him, until about 1965, 30 points was a BAD game. It meant his team lost, and he got blamed, even if he was being guarded by Bill Russell, then and I hope now still seen as history's greatest DEFENSIVE player.

Why make such a ridiculous claim about two innocent great players? Alex Rodriguez is the best hitter in baseball and will go on to set many records. But nobody says he's better than Babe Ruth, not even MLB's marketers. That would be stupid.

The NBA loves to eat its history. It's another part of David Stern's short-term focus on quarterly earnings as opposed to his real job as steward of a sport loved by millions. I'm perfectly prepared to enjoy the 2008 Finals as a superior sports event without having to think that the current Lakers and Celtics are better teams than their 1984-85 forefathers. That just isn't true, and more importantly, isn't relevant. Let the current teams create their own history.

This becomes impossible when you deny there's a history for them to be part of.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Political Journalism: A Thought

Yours truly has a great deal of professional admiration for Keith Olbermann. It ain't easy to have had so many jobs when one is rated so difficult as an employee. For what it's worth (nothing and plenty of it). I agree with Olbermann's political viewpoint.
Unfortunately, I hate Olbermann's show on MSNBC. A news broadcast which spins reality towards the side I favor is as objectionable as one that spins it in the opposite direction.
No offense to Keith, who is the benefactor/victim of market forces, but news skewed through his perspective is as false and useless as news skewed by his arch-enemy Bill O'Reilly.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Rabbit Ears

For those of you under 30, or maybe under 50, the title of this post is an anachronistic baseball expression. It refers to a player who is overly sensitive to crowd abuse and bench jockeying (does that even exist anymore?). It was not thought to be an attribute of winners.

Rabbit ears, many of them longer than Bugs Bunny's, are one of the main flaws of the news business. It's a serious problem, one I believe is a main reason why fewer and fewer people are bothering with traditional news mediums. Simply put, the public believes my former profession can dish it out but not take it. That's not good for the old quarterly earnings report. Nobody wants to buy something from people they think are punks.

To find stuff out, reporters must be snoops. To be a worthwhile commentator on current events, one must occasionally voice strong and unpopular opinions (not always, but sometimes). But if that's your business, then you had better be prepared to expect that your customers will demand to look in all your closets, and to occasionally, you know, BE unpopular. You'd better be able to stand the gaff.

This used to be understood. Look at the movies of the '30s with newspaper people in them. They were portrayed as people who were proud to be hard-boiled. Their pride gave them thick skins. This was fiction, sure, but it had to have had some connection to reality, or audiences would have rejected the image and laughed AT Hildy Johnson, not rooted for Rosalind Russell.

Somewhere along my life's passage from young Turk to old fart, this changed. Journalism today is so sensitive it appears to be auditioning for the role of Blanche DuBois. Oddly enough, this is counterbalanced by an increase in aggressive, annoying, unprofessional journalism. Psychiatrists call this "compensation."

The Internet, which has facilitating bitching on the grand scale, has brought the complaint department to every journalist's attention. Back in the day, the desk had to handle phone complaints while the reporters went about their business. Those were good times for scribes, albeit times built on delusion. Now, unhappy customers have an outlet.

In a sane business, the reaction of management and labor would be "Good for them!" The key word in the phrase "unhappy customer" is the noun, not the adjective. In journalism, the reaction has been fear mixed with contempt. In what other business on earth are people allowed to cite consumer complaints as EVIDENCE they're doing a good job? Yet in political and sports reporting, this is done on a regular basis.

Earth to newsies: If everyone thinks you suck, it may be because you're operating as you should without fear or favor. Or it may be that you do suck. Take the time to check out which it is. The customers don't expect you to be perfect. They do expect that you won't pretend you are.

As a sports columnist, dealing with opinions, I was wrong more than once. Negative feedback is never pleasant, but if dealt with in good humor, most critics come away satisfied their voice was heard. If you can't take a good razzing, librarian might be a better line of work. It's only freakin' sports after all. A certain amount of occasionally abusive give and take is part of the game. Fans are insane. So what? I was a Philly sports fan before I was a newspaperman, and I was as insane as you'd ever want. That's the point of fandom. It is a socially acceptable form of lunacy.

Economic pressures are creating a skewed set of rewards and punishments in my old business. If the best thing that can happen to a sports columnist financially is to get a gig yelling real loud on ESPN, it's no surprise to me or Adam Smith that we see an increase in the number of columnists who write loud. If there's no punishment for putting paid government propagandists on your TV news show to lie about a war, then the percentage of your broadcast composed of lies will go up.

The people left inside my old racket know this better than anyone. I think their rabbit ears stem from old-fashioned guilt. Without self-respect, there's no respect at all.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Home Cooked

At this point, the Celtics might as well go ahead and win their 17th NBA championship without winning a single road playoff game. This would give their title a historical significance it would not otherwise possess. Weird significance, but so what?

Home court advantage is a well-known phenomenon, and we need not examine it in detail here. Just imagine trying to do any mundane task, mowing the lawn, say, with 20,000 loonies shouting either encouragement or abuse. Under which circumstances would you expect to do a quicker, better job? Nor is the fact referees succumb to this influence a shocker. For reference, see Frank Drebin calling ball and strikes in "The Naked Gun."

Howsomeever, in the second round of the 2008 playoffs, the score stands home teams 21-visitors 2. That's more than an anomaly. So is the fact the Celtics, the team with the best regular season record, which by definition means they had to win many road games, has yet to win a single playoff game held beyond spitting distance of Causeway Street. Really. If tomorrow's game seven was to be moved to the U-Mass Boston gym, the betting line would make the Cavs five point favorites.

So what is happening? Here's a guess. The remaining teams in the playoffs aren't doing so well on the road because of their own natures and makeup. Or, to be blunt, they're not winning road games because they're not able to do it.

Some of the playoff clubs aren't winning road games because, well, they're not good enough. We can put the now-departed Jazz, Hawks, and Magic in that category. Also the Cavs. They ain't winning tomorrow. I heard the ESPN babblers talk about how Lebron could win a game seven singlehanded at the Garden. No. I grew up watching rooting for Wilt Chamberlain, a slightly more dominant offensive force than James, and I saw Michael Jordan set the all-time playoff scoring record at the Garden in a game his team lost, and that's just not the way basketball works.

This leaves teams that are plenty good enough to win road games, but so far in the second round, or in the Celtics' case any round, have yet to do so. Here matters get subtler. Winning on the road in the playoffs is difficult even if you are good enough. It requires a tremendous amount of mental energy and strength, along with what the sociologists call "group cohesion." The ability to actually derive pleasure and fulfillment from 20,000 people hating your guts with all their might is an unusual trait. What made the Celtics-Lakers wars of the '80s so much fun was that both squads had it and then some.

Young teams like the Hornets have trouble winning road games against equals because they have yet to form the required group cohesion. Old teams like the Spurs have trouble because they are running out of the group mental energy necessary. The Celtics? Well, in some ways, they have the worst of both worlds.

Boston is built around three veterans, Garnett, Pierce, and Allen, along with an energetic core of youthful supporters. They are not overall an old team. But they are a new one. Group cohesion is still forming. As anyone past the age of six knows, the regular season does not truly bond a team. Only the playoffs can do that.

It is the destiny of these Celtics of the present that they will be compared to Celtics of the past. It's the price of belonging to a historically great franchise. The Celts of the '80s were constantly compared to the Russell gang by old-timers. Can't be helped.

The 2008 Celtics most remind me of the 1979-1980 club, the team of Larry Bird's rookie year, which didn't have Parish and McHale, but did have Dave Cowens, Pete Maravich, and Cedric Maxwell. It had an astonishing regular season turnaround and the NBA's best-regular season record. It couldn't beat the 76ers on the road in the playoffs, and didn't win a title.

NOTE: Analogies are not predictions. I compare those two teams to show how group cohesion takes time to build, not to forecast Boston's destiny. There is no team remaining in the 2008 playoffs that is 75 percent as good as the 1980 76ers or 1980 Lakers.

PS: Has Doc Rivers ever been to a playoff game? He's SURPRISED that a superstar like James got the benefit of a bad call at home in crunch time? Remember the old referee's rule. In case of tie, call goes to the man with the biggest shoe contract.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Jumping Shark Makes the Rubble Bounce-Football Edition

One inestimable blessing of no longer being a professional sports commentator is that I no longer must comment on sports matters in which I have no interest. As far as life satisfaction goes, getting excused from writing about "Spygate" (the lame name alone tells you what a stupid story this is), is worth any chance I had of getting sent to China for the Olympics on someone else's dime.

The Pats cheated, got caught, were punished severely, and life rolled on. I wrote a couple things about it at my leisure. Had I still been at the Herald, well, it would have been both arduous and awkward. Loyalty to the brand is an important concept for me, and suppressing my sentiments that the paper's big front page story was no big deal would have called for diplomatic skills I do not possess.

Now that we've all actually seen the videotapes, it's all over but the ridicule. The idea Bill Belichick gained any useful knowledge from them is too ludicrous to be considered unless one is as foolish as a U.S. Senator. The reason people went ape over this story was simple-people go ape over every story. Belichick, who incurred the hatred of an entire American city (Cleveland) because his boss screwed the place, surely knew that would happen, and removed himself to the Fortress of No Comment accordingly.

The only question that interested me about Spygate (sorry, English language) was Why did Belichick do it? Why did a master calculator of the percentages undertake a venture with such a poor risk-reward ratio? Belichick has stated the tapes were of almost no value to the Pats. Why take the chance of getting caught and punished> The penalties, a $500,000 fine and a first round draft pick, weren't hay, and the humiliation inside and outside the NFL community was intense. Why borrow trouble, the very last thing any coach wants to do?

I have a guess about the answer, which is why I'm writing this post. Belichick taped all those signals because they made him feel good. I'm serious. The knowledge he had pushed the NFL rules envelope to breaking and past in the effort to do his job comforted Belichick. He could prepare the Pats for each game secure in the faith he had done his utmost, turned every stone, measured every angle. Since the primary element of NFL coaching is getting one's players to believe what you tell them, belief in oneself is essential-even if, maybe especially if, like Belichick, you knew the dodgy elements of one's work were pretty much useless.

That's my explanation for Spygate. Belichick was a guy who self-medicated himself with a potentially dangerous drug in order to get its placebo effect.

Whatever life hands you today, readers, give a moment of thanks you're not a professional football coach.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Tabloids Are Where You Find Them

Headline of the week, taken from the May, 2008 issue of that racy scandal sheet, "Computing in Science and Engineering:"
(First, imagine the following in much larger type.)


It's nice to see the gang on the copy desk of the late, great "Weekly World News" found work. This could revolutionize scholarly publishing, which sure needs it.