Saturday, June 28, 2008

Note for Investors

One thing learned from a quarter-century of covering sports is the true meaning of the word "panic."

To wit, whenever a player, coach, manager, front office type or owner says "This is no time to panic," they're right. It's way too late for that. They should have panicked a long time ago.

The second section of today's "Wall Street Journal," the personal finance section, has at least three articles about the stock market dedicated to a single theme.

Remain calm. This is no time to panic.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Great to See You Again, You %*!@*!!

One small but as far as I'm concerned vital side-effect of the Celtics winning the NBA Championship is that next winter, I'll once again be able to spend otherwise long winter nights rooting against them.

I grew up in Philly in the era of Wilt vs. Russell. There is always going to be a part of my soul in which the Celtics are the ENEMY. You know the Philly fans who threw lit cigars at Red Auerbach's head in 1967 when the 76ers finally beat Boston? Well, so do I. I mean, I really know them. Personally, you might say.

Yet I was delighted that the Celtics beat the Lakers in the Finals. For one thing, they deserved it. It would be difficult to imagine a weaker, more contemptible effort than the one LA allegedly put forth. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce have endured a whole lot of losing in their stellar careers. A championship for them is simple justice. And anything on earth that can ESPN to shut up, if only for a moment, about Kobe is a service to humanity.

Most of all, though, I was happy my enemy was back. A pillar of my sports cosmology has returned, a pillar of my life experience, really. Sports enemies have to be good. Rivalries make no sense when the rival is down and out.

I couldn't watch the Celtics last season. Too painful. I was embarrassed for them, and me. It hurt to cover the team from 1994 till I was separated from sportswriting in 2005. The current Celtics owners thought I had it in for them when I was at the Herald. They didn't get it. I was holding the franchise to the standards it set for itself in my youth. The Celtics should be feared, not pitied. The Celtics should greet the world with a self-satisfied sneer, not dancing girls. When the Celts laid down and died in that 7th game against the Pacers, they were killing my childhood.

Hating teams is an underrated element of fandom. I don't mean the fans who always root against the current dominant club. that's just a snobbish form of front-running. I mean fans who hate the other team because they've rubbed their noses in dirt more than once. It's OK for Red Sox fans to hate the Yankees. It's OK for Jets fans to hate the Patriots. I don't want to hear from Seahawks fans, though.

And there are certain teams whose whole sport needs them to be good if the league is to be in cosmic balance. They don't have to win the title every year, but they must at least be a possibility. When the Yankees DO suck, baseball is a poorer experience. Same goes for hockey and the Canadiens. What could be a more sickening sight than the current Oakland Raiders?

The funny thing is, the longer a rivalry lasts, the more hatred and respect mingle. Getting to hang around the 1980s Celtics was both a blast and an illuminating experience. For the firs time, I understood the power being hated could give the hate object. Wilt Chamberlain hated being Goliath, while Red Auerbach taught his players to get off on it, and that was probably worth at least two of Boston's 17 titles.

Most of all, through watching and covering memorable wins and losses, and learned that for me, anyway, the final score was less important than getting my emotional money's worth out of a sports event. I know most fans don't feel that way. After a close Boston win in a big game, I can't count the friends, neighbors, and strangers who've told me "That one was just too much." Not for me. Isn't vicarious excitement the point of watching?

I want a foeman worthy of my steel. I want the Celtics to be good enough so that beating them matters. In 2008-2009, that will be the case. Not that the Sixers will beat them very often, but that's not the point.

The point is, welcome back, my enemy. My brothers.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

'80s Nostalgia, Sort of

A sure sign of advancing age is when events happening in front of one's nose bring to mind events which happened a long time ago. Or maybe I'm not going soft, merely suffering from an overdose of those Magic-Larry games ESPN Classic rammed down my consciousness before the 2008 NBA Finals began.

Whatever the cause, I can't escape the sensation that the Finals so far are eerily reminiscent of the last time the Celtics and Lakers played for the title, the 1987 Finals, only with the identities of the two clubs reversed.

Then as now, the team with home court advantage won Games 1-2 without undue difficulty, lost Game 3, and came big from a big second-half deficit (although not quite AS big) to win Game 4 on the road and basically turn out the lights. Then as now, the team in charge was able to use its trademark strength (fast-breaking for the '87 Lakers, defense for today's Celtics) to dismantle its opponent for long, decisive, and downright frightening stretches of its wins. Oh, and by the way. The losing team's superduperstar, Kobe today and Larry in yesteryear, wasn't much help in Game 4.

In 1987, the Celtics won Game 5 at home, and were duly routed by the Lakers upon return to LA for Game 6. Am I predicting that to repeat itself? Yes, but not for the above reasons. A Laker victory in Game 5 seems likely because of one of sportswriting's laws of physics, Koppett's Law.

The law was formulated by the late Leonard Koppett, a wonderful sportswriter for the New York Times and many other papers. He was a pioneer user of stats, wrote terrific books, but most of all, was a philosopher of games.

Koppett's Law was formulated during a playoff series in I forget which sport. It states the following: The outcome of a game will be determined by which outcome produces the greatest amount of inconvenience for the greatest number of people. In 25 years of covering post-season play, it was my experience gravity was a poor second to Koppett's Law in efficiency.

It would be an enormous pain in the ass for everyone involved in the 2008 Finals, especially those covering it, for LA to win Game 5 and force the traveling circus to return to our fair city. NBA beat writers haven't seen home since last September, and one more airplane ride is not what they crave at this point. Hell, even David Stern has better things to do, such as consulting his attornies, than to drag his besuited self down to Causeway Street on Tuesday night. At this point, I doubt the Lakers themselves have much enthusiasm for the idea.

So that's what'll happen. Koppett's Law. QED.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Jim McKay

Fans hate national sports broadcasters. Always have, always will. It may comfort Joe Buck and Jim Nantz to know that the same dirty names they get called were lavished on their forebearers such as Joe Garagiola and Curt Gowdy, not to mention Howard Cosell. The first national sports broadcast, if I remember correctly, was the 1924 World Series. I'm sure the day after it ended, announcer Graham McNamee was deluged in hate mail.

In his entire career, I never heard a fan say a harsh word about Jim McKay. He was revered within sports journalism, and rightly so, for his performance at the Munich Olympics. To me, anyway, it's what was never said about McKay that's the real tribute to him. The man covered barrel jumping, and nobody laughed at him. That's a pro.

McKay died this morning at the age of 87 on his Maryland farm. He will be mourned by the wide world of sports he helped create.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The '60s, A Turbulent Decade for Chris Schenkel

(Sick of your Celtics-Lakers history yet? Yeah, me too. But before the real games start, here's a story I'm pretty sure you won't get from ESPN.)

Student protest was all the rage (in every sense) on college campuses in the spring of 1969. This put Wesleyan University's radicals in a real bind, namely, what to protest? Leon Trotsky would have found it too much of a stretch to paint the administration of that gentle liberal arts school as agents of warmongering imperialism.

Perhaps as a marketing ploy, the administration invited a Dow Chemical recruiter to campus in May, and the radicals had their moment. The administration building was duly seized in a sit-in. Tense, round-the-clock negotiations (I love newspaper cliches. Sue me) duly commenced. That is, until the clock came round to an unexpected difficulty.

Too late, radicals, administrators, and local police all realized the sit-in had begun the very morning of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The Celts and Lakers were tied at 3 apiece. It was Wilt vs. Russell. It was Jerry West, John Havlicek, Sam Jones. What to do.

Basketball won a 1-0 forfeit over social justice and world revolution. TV sets were duly brought into the building and hippies and pigs suspended their little problems to focus on what truly mattered.

Don Nelson's shot fell through, the balloons stayed under the Forum roof for three more seasons, and the revolution, untelevised, was also canceled. The sit-in ended the next morning, called on account of mutual embarrassment that the above story might generate the national ridicule it surely deserved.

All that remains is the fading memory of that magnificent '60s battle cry: Up Against the Wall, Mendy Rudolph!!

TIme Series Problem

Disagreeing with former sports media colleagues is no fun. Agreeing with NBA Commissioner David Stern causes actual physical pain. Neverthess, on the issue of the starting times for games in the NBA Finals, Stern is right, while Gerry Callahan and John Dennis of WEEI and Phil Mushnick of the New York Post are full of shit.

Finals games start at 9-plus p.m. because that's when they the most money. Having graduated from preschool, I get this. The thing is, those starts are also optimal for the game's customers as well as the NBA's coffers. But greed isn't always bad. If there's such a thing as morality in sportsworld, which I doubt, the late times are the fairest solution to a thorny problem, at least in this series.

Sportwriters on East Coast deadlines covering sports events hate 9 p.m. starts, and they should. There's no time to do a bad job, let alone a good one, when the game's over. Writing 800 words of English prose in 12 minutes can be stressful. I've done it many times, and it sucked on each and every occasion.

But Mssrs. Callahan, Dennis and Mushnick aren't covering the Finals on deadline. Two of them are talk show hosts who get up very early, but can always Tivo the damn game. As the Post's resident scold, Mushnick has no deadlines worth mentioning. So I'd like to remind the fellas about a few elemental facts of physical science.

The earth spins on its axis. This means, among other things, that it's not always the same time every place on earth. For example, let's pick two U.S. cities, Boston and Los Angeles come to mind. Boston is three hours AHEAD of LA in time. That is, when it's noon here, it's only 9 a.m. in LA. Or, when it's a little after 9 p.m. here, it's only 6 p.m. in Los Angeles, the shank of the evening rush hour.

This means that a 9 p.m. EDT start is the EARLIEST a Finals game can start that gives gainfully employed Southern California residents a chance to see the game, or most of it anyway. One reason Chick Hearn became a legend was that he was the only means by which Laker fans could follow the first halves of any games back East while they were trapped on the freeways.

Laker fans have the same moral right to see the Finals as those theoretical kids (New York kids, natch, what other kind are there?) Mushnick keeps wailing about. More, actually. Trying to serve all the people in a big country forces compromises. If those inconvenience East Coast talk show hosts, well, that's just too damn bad. They can always go back to razzing Hillary Clinton. No, wait...

When it comes to time differences and late starts, I tend to agree with the sports fans I met in Australia during the 2000 Olympics. They were universally appalled by the NBC practice of tape delayed broadcasts in prime time, and pitied and scorned the American fans so thin-blooded as to tolerate that practice.

"Suck it up, mate, and set your bloody alarm clocks," one said. "How do you think we see ANY sports from outside Australia?"