Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Perfect May Be the Enemy of the Good, but the Good Is the Enemy of NBA Championships

The things Celtics fans need to remember about Danny Ainge is that he has high standards, and those standards were created through intense personal experience.

The Celtics' basketball chief created a little stir over the weekend by giving an interview to my old Herald colleague Steve Bulpett in which Ainge admitted the obvious, that the current Boston team is nowhere near talented enough to be a serious NBA title contender. Just as candid but perhaps less obvious, Ainge also strongly implied improving that situation would be difficult verging on impossible.

Quite a burst of pessimism for the can-do Ainge, an activist of the first order. He's got a team that went to the conference finals, and the number one pick in the 2017 draft. Why the note, make that symphony, of caution?

The vital sentence in the interview tells the story. "We have plenty of good players," Ainge said. "We need great players."

We're all prisoners of our past, and the more glorious said past, the stouter its prison walls. When Ainge thinks of NBA championship teams, he has to be reminded of the Celtics team he started for in the '80s that went to four straight Finals and won two of them. The other four starters are all in the Hall of Fame. Then his mind may go to the 1992-1993 Phoenix Suns. Ainge was sixth man on that team. It went to the Finals and lost. It had Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson.

Of course, Ainge need not dwell on the distant past. The recent will do. He is the architect of the Celtics team that won the 2008 championship and made the 2010 Finals. That team contained three surefire Hall members in Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. It also had Rajon Rondo, who could've made Springfield if Rajon Rondo hadn't kept getting in his way.

Those memories are why when Ainge looks at the Celtics of this season, he doesn't see 53 wins, a conference finals, and a bright future. He sees that most dreaded of entities "a real nice team," the equivalent of the Milwaukee Bucks or New York Knicks the '80s Celtics would dispatch from the playoffs with varying degrees of difficulty, but a constant sense of predestination. Talent was going to win out. Talent always wins out.

That's an oversimplification. Every NBA player, even the league leaders in DNP-Coach's Decision, has talent. Tens of millions of human males play the damn game, and only 400 or so make the league. That's the tiny top of a very big pyramid. By talent, I should say, "historic talent." The kind of talent fans remember all their lives. The kind of talent that sells tickets. The kind of talent every NBA champion ever has possessed.

If the draft class of 2017 contained the equivalent of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or even the equivalent of Garnett or Barkley, Ainge wouldn't have sounded so glum. In his judgment, better than mine I'm sure, it doesn't. Nor are there any Kevin Durant's in the free agent class. In terms of his overall merit, Gordon Hayward is basically the white Al Horford. Any team would be glad to have either and rightly so. No team would do advance Finals planning because they got 'em.

If the 2017-18 Celtics are to meet Ainge's standards, he has only one option. Luckily, it's one that worked before. Find a team with even dimmer prospects and a disaffected superstar desperate to move to a winner. Who might that be? No clue here, but I remember that very few people thought Garnett would become a Celtic before Ainge swindled old pal Kevin McHale to get him. If Ainge has such a target in mind, I'd be surprised if he's told anyone yet, not even Brad Stevens.

But if the draft and its immediate aftermath go by, and all Ainge has to show for his troubles is the use of his number one on yet another teenage guard, don't be surprised if his good cheer seems a little forced. He (and I) will not be fibbing when Ainge states Markelle Fultz makes the Celts a better team.

But Ainge (and I) know that "better" means the Celts might beat the Wizards in six games next spring instead of seven.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Someday They'll Make It to the Salty Show

Stopped at the liquor store after the grocery store this morning to pick up wine for dinner. Also was looking for a single bag of potato chips to have with my liverwurst sandwich at lunch.

The assortment of snack foods by the sales counter next to the lottery machine wasn't promising. The chips were from Uncle Ray's, a brand I had never heard of. Off brand junk food is a risky proposition.

But then I saw the logo of a ballplayer on the right hand top of the bag and the proud endorsement that was its caption. Uncle Ray's is the OFFICIAL potato chip of Minor League Baseball.

Now I had to buy them.  Any company so daft as to use the words "minor league" in its marketing must spend all its capital on product development. Actually of course I bought them for the grins, sure Uncle Ray's were going to be terrible. They weren't. Oh, an Uncle Ray's chip still has some holes in its game, such as inadequate crispiness, but they didn't taste so bad at all, at least not with liverwurst and a beer.

So my scouting report on Uncle Ray's is: Rough but shows promise. Needs further work at this level, but in a few seasons, it could be the official potato chip of the San Diego Padres.

Monday, May 08, 2017

A Brief Paper on Sports Marketing Theory

Gee's Hypothesis was formed yesterday afternoon channel hopping between the PGA Tour, NASCAR, the NBA, the Premier League and the Red Sox, especially the first two.

Here it is in all its elegant simplicity. The brightness of the economic future of any given sport is in inverse proportion to how often one hears the words "erectile dysfunction" during the commercial breaks of its television broadcasts.

Demography is a bitch. It's very hard to grow the audience for a game when the primary fear of that audience is that it's growing old.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Taken Out of the Ball Game

There is a nontrivial number of people who are just complete assholes. They inhabit every city, town, village, hamlet and unincorporated area of plant Earth.

There's also a nontrivial number of people who're nasty bigots, and they too can be found wherever humans dwell. I'd go so far as to say if one drew a Venn diagram of these two groups, it'd look almost like one perfect circle.

Therefore, that some moron shouted racial slurs at Orioles' outfielder Adam Jones from a seat at Fenway Park and that some other moron at Fenway issued similar slurs at a national anthem singer last week is not that much of a surprise. Nor is it an example of a social problem unique to Boston. Well, not most of it anyway.

Boston has a well-earned reputation for white racism. It's part of our image, and we can't say we didn't earn it. But times do change, and having been lucky enough to visit most of the U.S., I now would categorize this city's racial attitudes as following the same trend as most places. That is, Boston is way less racist than it was say 30 years ago, but there's still plenty of racism around.

What is unique to Boston, and more specifically unique to Fenway Park, is that white racists continue to feel that the ballpark is their safe space to indulge their prejudice openly. So many minority ballplayers for other teams, and from the Red Sox, have pointed this out I don't feel we need to go into chapter and verse. Fans who call talk radio to deny it are either deaf or feel shame at their own attitudes and behavior.

The fundamental insanity of abusing opponents for their ethnicity was best summarized by Braves' utility infielder Micah Johnson, who noted on Twitter that "the racist idiot who did this would weep tears of joy if somebody gave him a Mookie Betts signed jersey." Odds are that if that racist idiot met Jones in person, he would ask the outfielder for his autograph. Logic and hatred, of course, never meet. The point of calling Jones a name was to vent hatred in what was seen as protected speech, abusing an opponent.

Well, it's not protected speech. It's shameful stupidity. To their credit, the Red Sox have banned at least one verbal abuser from their home for life. This kind of aggressive policing is long overdue there. I'm sure the franchise is horrified. But it must bear the responsibility for past passivity. The Sox were letting socioeconomic trends drive fan behavior rather than enforcing a conduct code.

Those trends can be summed up in one word, gentrification. Just as Boston is nowhere near as racist as it was in 1980, Fenway crowds are much less rowdy, too. Tickets to a Sox game are hard to get and many many times more expensive than back in the day. This self-selects a more sedate set of spectators. It's hard to imagine that someone capable of unironically singing alone to "Sweet Caroline" is also capable of starting a fight, no matter how drunk they may be.

Gentrification has had an effect on all of Boston's pro sports crowds, all of which were quire rough in my young adult days. Not as bad as the Philly crowds I grew up with, but bad enough. The great Leigh Montville once said of Bruins crowds at the old Garden "it's a shame the 10,000 bad ones have to spoil it for the 4000 good ones." Sitting at the press tables for Celtics games used to include a wary eye for projectiles launched from the second balcony to protest decisions by the likes of Richie Powers and Earl Strom. People REALLY overestimate their throwing arms.

As for the old Foxboro Stadium, it was inconceivable that one would go to a Pats' game in the company of a grown woman, let alone with a child or children. In the '80s the Pats were in no position to screen customers for behavior. So half-full or sellout, the stands were full of every cop's dream, young men in groups who were drinking too much. There were no Monday night games in Foxboro for over a decade because people died at them.

Now, Gillette Stadium crowds are Lady Byng trophy contenders. Gentrification has a lot to do with it, as does New England's status as a historic dynasty. Season tickets are treasured. Fans don't want to endanger them.

More importantly, they know they can endanger them. Security at Gillette is strict, visible, and enveloping. There's never going to be any kind of crowd of 60,000 plus without a few problems, but those get dealt with. The result is that a Patriots game is now a family friendly event, if your family happened to inherit 5000 shares of Google back in the '90s.

Some have even complained Pats' crowds are too well-behaved, too quiet, spoiled by historic success and without their "true" fans, i.e., the sort of feebs who call Felger and Mazz. Maybe so. Given my druthers, I'd rather go to a sports event where I'm SURE I won't get vomited upon. I used to enjoy watching a good fight in the stands (the sainted Roger Angell loves them!). Now, I see 'em as a pain in the ass. Maybe that's from decades of watching games with deadlines in the front of my mind, or maybe my soul's seen some gentrification, too.

And of course I and everyone else can do without hearing racial slurs. Sports are recreation. It is hard to recreate when reminded or our society's most dreadful problem. The Sox have no need to tolerate horrible customers. They have plenty who aren't horrible, and plenty more non-horribles who'd like to get a ticket if they could.

So the franchise did the right thing this week when it banned that fan. Sad to say, it'll probably have to keep on doing the same thing for some time to come. May it not be as long a time as I've been watching Boston sports.