Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Men and Women Are Different, But Not All That Different

No coach can be expected to like the idea that his or her team winning is bad for their sport, so naturally Geno Auriemma, a combative soul, took the heat when Dan Shaughnessy suggested that the UConn women's team 98-38 victory over Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament was both boring and unhealthy for women's basketball as a whole.

Aside from a few locations, of which Connecticut is one, women's basketball just ain't that popular in this country, so its adherents are very sensitive to what they perceive as slurs on their game. A chorus of condemnation fell on Dan's head.

Both sides of this dispute, if we can dignify with that name, resolutely ignored the obvious. Whether it's played by men or women, college basketball has always been a sport of dynasties and dominance (Pro basketball, too). It can't be otherwise, since as the team sport with the fewest players, superior individual players are always going to have more of an impact than in games with more players.

UConn has been overwhelmingly dominant the last four women's seasons. It's won 73 games in a row. Nobody on earth picked anyone but them to win the tournament this year. Why, if I wasn't old enough to remember when Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton played for UCLA, I'd almost call the Huskies' dominance unprecedented.

(We pause here for an historical note. The UConn women play with a shot clock. The UCLA men of the '60s and '70s did not. If they had, they'd have won a lot of games by 50 or more, too.)

It's difficult to say the men's game is built on competitive balance when the Final Four is a parade of very usual suspects Villanova, North Carolina and Syracuse, with Oklahoma as the rogue outsider. The truth is, about a dozen mini-dynasties start out each November with a realistic shot at the national title, with the rest playing for first and second round tourney upsets.

The NCAA women's tournament was founded in 1982. Since then, 13 different schools have won national titles. In that same span, 21 different schools have won the men's title. That's a difference in degree, not kind.

In the 33 years before the women's tournament began, 16 different men's teams won titles. In addition to UCLA's 10 championships in 12 seasons, the other schools (Kentucky, San Francisco and Cincinnati) won back-to-back titles from 1948-1981. For whatever reason, San Francisco's being named Bill Russell, those teams dominated their time almost as thoroughly as the current crop of UConn women.

The evidence suggests that the women's game appears more dynastic than the men's mostly because it's newer. That means the game is played by fewer individuals in general, so the teams with vastly superior individual players will enjoy more complete mismatches than the men do today (the decline of the center position as basketball's vital ingredient plays a role in the apparent parity of the men's game as well).

Time should make the women's game less dynastic (UConn aside, there have been many more upsets in their tournament than in past years). That in turn should make it more popular. One thing I know for sure about fans of any sport. They thoroughly enjoy watching their team blow some opponent away. But nobody wants to watch the home team or dear old alma mater LOSE by 60.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Jollier Answer Turneth Away Wrath and Maybe Even Fines

All performers run the risk of having their act grow stale. Bill Belichick's Grumpy Genius turn may be starting to grow a little mold.

At the NFL owners' meetings yesterday, Belichick treated his mandatory coach's press conference not merely as an annoying part of his job, but as a positive ordeal. Belichick's terse nonanswers to relevant questions sprinkled with even terser sarcastic answers to questions he deems especially dumb can be great surrealistic performance art for spectators who don't have to ask him those questions. But this time, it wasn't. The Patriots coach was just going through the motions of grumpiness. There wasn't a hint of evil genius in the whole event. If playing the villain doesn't look like fun, the whole performance falls flat.

I have some sympathy for Belichick's position. Here he is, Hall of Fame coach, and he's still expected to show up at the meetings and dance to the tune ordered by the spoiled richos who comprise his bosses. It's demeaning. But since he's gotta do it,  I think the Pats' coach would have been better served by breaking in some new material -- like candor.

What if Belichick had started his media availability with the simple truth? "You know, gang, I really don't feel like talking about football today. Why don't we talk about something else?"

Given that opening, even the dumbest reporter would jump at the chance to get Belichick on the record with more than grunts and monosyllables. The problem is, of course, what something else would they talk about? Belichick's too smart to get into the topic of politics. The Oscars are long over, so movies aren't news. Cooking doesn't appear to be a hobby of a man who brags about never going to the market.

There's one non-football topic I know Belichick is interested in, and if he chose to discuss it, he'd have plenty of interesting things to say. Other sports. Like most people in the upper reaches of a professional sport, Belichick is an avid follower of games that aren't his own. His busman's holidays at Fenway Park and the Garden are one of the few photo-ops where he smiles.

What does Belichick think about Steph Curry and the Warriors? How's he see the rest of the NCAA tournament? What has he learned from his participation in PGA Tour pro-am events? Does he have a sports bucket list?

Wouldn't you like to know the answers to those questions, reader? I sure world. I'd rather hear them than hear Belichick issue boilerplate praise of Marcellus Bennett. And it'd be no problem for Belichick to avoid any possible controversy while filling notebooks, tape recorders and video cameras. His long answers to football questions seldom give anything away. At a training camp in the early 2000s Belichick spoke for about 10 minutes on the differences between building and coaching a team in the pre-free agent era and modern times. Afterwards, those of us who heard him split exactly 50-50 as to which era he preferred.

Had Belichick taken this approach, SportsCenter anchors wouldn't be showing his grump highlights and rolling their eyes with poorly suppressed laughter. There'd be stories coast-to-coast about the new, mellower Bill Belichick. These stories wouldn't be accurate, of course, but there's more than one way to manipulate the media to one's own ends. Curt dismissal only works for so long. After awhile, it ceases to be the eccentricity of genius and comes off as being just another asshole.

Besides, even Belichick isn't grumpy all the time. He should save that portion of his personality for when it's really needed -- starting around the Sunday after Labor Day.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Talk About a 1 vs. 16 Seed

During the NCAA tournament this weekend, there were many ads for "Batman vs. Superman: Superfluous Subtitle." Many too many.

There was no escape over at Fox's NASCAR broadcast. Jimmie Johnson's 48 car wore Superman's logo. For the conspiratorial-minded stock car far, that is, all of them, Johnson won to set up yet another delightful round of "NASCAR is fixed" theories.

I am not going to see "Batman vs. Superman." This is not because the trailers look horrible, although they do, but because the movie is operating from a false premise. Any fight between the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel will HAVE to be fixed if the movie is to last more than 30 seconds.

Let's look at the tale of tape.

1. Faster than a speeding bullet
2. More powerful than a locomotive
3. Able to leap tall buildings with a single bound.

1. In excellent shape, very cut body
2. Drives a really hot car
3. Overtly dark and brooding personality.

So the consensus among the wise guys of the superhero fight mob runs as follows: If the two heroes are going to the same bar of a Saturday night to try and hook up with girls, Batman has the edge. In a fight, Superman wipes the floor with the pointy-eared palooka.

Ben Affleck didn't sign up to have Superman clean his clock. The scriptwriters' thumbs will be on Batman's side of the scale 100 times more heavily than if they were reffing an ACC basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Superman will be shown to have other hidden weaknesses beside Kryptonite. Cat dander perhaps.

I've paid money for enough real fight mismatches. Damned if I'm going to pay for a fake one.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Slow Descent From Madness to Ennui

The NCAA men's basketball tournament starts today (yeah, yeah play-in games, my position is if they were real, they wouldn't be on TruTV). I will watch as much of it as I can and enjoy it. or at least large parts of it. The tourney is a sports event where my pleasure is oddly front-loaded. The closer the tournament is to determining a champion, the point of the exercise after all, the less I care.

While I participate in friendly bracket competition, that's never really my motive for following the tournament. As always, I loved my predictions when I filled out the bracket on Tuesday morning and as tipoff time this afternoon draws closer, I hate them more and more. Worse, I know changing them would probably only make them worse. I went to a Division III school, so I have no dog in the fight and never have.

No, for me the appeal of March Madness is the part that's actually insane, not gambling, but the brain-crunching work/play of following as many as four games at a time, most of them involving teams I have never seen before, half of which I'll never see again since half lose. Total immersion in a strange sports universe may not be healthy, but it's uniquely exhilarating. The tournament is the closest I have come to duplicating the altered reality high I experienced reporting on four Olympic Games.

It's a sickness, like all addictions, so the tournament uses arithmetic as a form of methadone for poor sods like me. Since half the teams must lose their games in each round, every round offers only half as many games to follow. It is striking how my interest in the tournament declines at roughly the same rate.

This weekend I'll be up all hours, eating meals in front of the TV and wearing the print off the buttons on the remote. I will have a brief but intense sports fan fling with a team from some school a 1000 miles away and its hypermaniacal coach (all the coaches are that). For the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight, I'll cherry pick games, and it takes a damn good matchup to draw me into the second of two night games or an Elite Eight that might interfere with other weekend plans.

By the time the Final Four rolls around, I am watching more from a sense of duty and because there's nothing else on than for pleasure. Final Four Saturday is still called "one of the best days of the year" in sports. That is an anachronism. It might've been true when Bill Walton was out there, or even when Michael Jordan played. Now, it strikes me as a kind of foregone conclusion. Which of the eight usual suspect powerhouses will take it THIS year? This just doesn't appeal to me. I can no longer even summon up the energy to hate Duke.

Take last year for example. The big question of the tournament was whether Kentucky a/k/a the 2020 Western Conference All-Stars, could win the title with an undefeated season. As I am not an NBA scout nor a Kentucky fan (God forbid), my sports soul was unstirred. In the event, they couldn't, losing to Wisconsin, the mandatory Big Ten squad of big lugs Final Four entry. Duke, a/k/a the 2020 Eastern Conference All-Stars, were champions instead. There's an exciting story for you.

It's two hours until the first game today, a Duke game no less, and I can hardly wait. Come April 4 and the national title game with its 9:18 p.m. tipoff, I might not wait for the second half before I go to bed. Perverse as it may be, One Shining Moment strikes me as more than a trifle dull.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

The Final Audible

Peyton Manning took his last look over a defense and decided the least worst option was to take the sack from Time.

Chris Mortensen of ESPN has reported Manning will announce his retirement from pro football tomorrow. Mortensen has been on leave as he is treated for cancer. His scoop had to come direct from Peyton or John Elway or he wouldn't have made it public. So unless someone changes their mind today or another someone was horribly misinformed, we should regard the career of one of the two greatest quarterbacks of the 21st century to have reached its end.

And thank goodness for that. Injuries have do diminished Manning's skills that all he had left to do on a football field was suffer humiliation and physical pain. Really, one wondered if he was losing the ability to protect himself out there. There's no possible immediate reaction to this news except relief.

After that, we must ponder the mystery of his grand finale. Manning went out on top as a Super Bowl champion, a Super Bowl in which he had less to do with his team winning than in any other game his teams ever won. In his wonderful book "The Game," the old Montreal goalie Ken Dryden wrote he decided to retire after a game in which he stunk and the Canadiens won anyway, thinking "if I can't even create losses, I must be done." I wonder if Manning felt likewise after the title glow wore off last month.

Now for the distasteful but mandatory portion of this exercise. Where exactly does Manning stand in NFL history? First ballot Hall of Famer? Sure. Near the top of the quarterback mountain? Of course. Greatest of his time, greatest ever?

The last two questions are unanswerable except with another question. Who cares? How many quarterback angels can dance on the head of the Vince Lombardi Trophy? NFL quarterbacks come in three basic categories, guys you can't win with, guys you can win with and guys who're the reason you win. The last group are your Hall of Famers. Trying to slot that group into a Top 10 listicle is an academic exercise in foolish frustration.

I have loathed the Manning versus Tom Brady debate since it began, and my hatred has only grown over the years. There's just something that seems hateful about it, because in the end, it's a misuse of the facts of two magnificent careers to prove or disprove what's a matter of taste. People don't go to museums to argue whether Matisse was better than Picasso -- they look at the works of both masters and find joy.

It is likely that in a popular vote (and you know ESPN is staging one as I write this) Brady would be chosen as the better QB by a majority of fans. He has been on four Super Bowl champions, Manning only two. Manning has been voted league MVP a record five times to Brady's mere two, an equally stupid measuring stick that will be ignored. Statwise, there's nothing to choose between 'em so we need not dig deeper.

I'm not saying the majority is wrong. You like Matisse better, fine. But it's funny how fashion changes with the years.

Back in my formative fan years of the early and mid-1960s, there were Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. Unitas won three MVPs, Starr none. In fact, Starr made first All-Pro only once. No fans, no commentators, no coaches and no players outside Green Bay thought Starr was a better quarterback. Johnny U was The Man, period.

Yet Starr's Packers won five NFL titles (still a record for QBs) and Unitas one once Lombardi arrived in Green Bay until he left in 1968. In all those years, Unitas' Colts and Packers met twice a season, usually with a berth in the title game on the line every year. Packers won most of 'em. Starr's 9-1 playoff record is also unparalleled, and his postseason stats are just sick (15 TD passes and three interceptions, for openers).

None of that influenced anyone. Back then, there was a quaint notion that championships were how teams were evaluated, not mere players, even players as important as quarterbacks. Whether or not Unitas was actually better than Starr, well, again who cares? I don't think Lombardi did.

Here's my bottom line on Brady-Manning. If they were healthy, the team that suited up either guy was a championship contender, each and every season they played or in Brady's case have played until now. Whether or not those teams WON titles was up to the rest of their players. Brady wouldn't be any less great if Malcolm Butler had failed to make his goal-line play.

Better than that, you can't get. Peyton Manning was as good a quarterback as could be, just like his rival. I'm glad I got to share the time of his career.

I'm sure I won't have seen the last of him, though. Nationwide Insurance and Papa John won't forsake him.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

He's a Six-Tool Player: He Can Hit, Hit for Power, Run, Field, Throw and Troll

Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets signed a three year, $75 million contract before spring training. He has celebrated by arriving at the Mets camp in Port St. Lucie in a series of customized cars, all of which were very flashy and cost somewhere in the six figures.

Tut-tutters on the Internet and other media criticized Cespedes for wretched excess and forecast that his spending spree on automobiles surely meant he'd end his playing days a bankrupt.

So this morning Cespedes used a different mode of transportation for his commute to camp. He rode a horse. Wore a cowboy hat, too.

I'm a Phillies fan, but Cespedes quickly is becoming my new favorite player.