Friday, May 10, 2019

Indecision Is Always the Wrong Decision

One of the surest ways to be unhappy is to never quite know what one wants, because then whatever one gets doesn't quite suit. It has seemed to me for some time that what many Bostonians see as Kyrie Irving's emotional erraticism (to be polite) stems from the fact the for-now Celtics guard just doesn't know what he really wants from basketball.

Irving wanted to be top banana on an NBA team, so he left Cleveland for Boston. Then being top banana has made him feel very uncomfortable. because it comes with increased public interest. He wants to be a mentor to young players, yet also wants said youngsters to defer to established stars such as himself. And in strict basketball terms, he isn't at all certain how or even if he fits on the team where he thought he could be the hero. There are many things to criticize about Irving's ruinous performance in the Celtics' dispiriting playoff loss to the Bucks, but we should never be shocked if an NBA guard at a loss for ideas reverts to the "shoot more, they'll drop eventually" bromide. It's a confession of basketball intellectual bankruptcy.

As for the future, it's possibilities seem to have put Irving in a perpetual quandary. Does he want to stay in Boston, sign with the Knicks as a free agent, became player-coach of the Lakers? Who knows. All one can tell from Irving's words on this or any other basketball subject is that he doesn't know himself.

This is very bad news for the Celtics, because until Irving figures out what he wants, they can't begin to decide what they want.

It may be tempting for distraught Celtics fans to urge Danny Ainge to let or even force Irving out of town, but this would be imprudent if Kyrie wants to stay. In the sport with the fewest players, teams dump their best ones at their own risk. James Harden has a, shall we say, checkered playoff history, but everyone including the Houston Rockets knows they'd be crazy to get rid of him. Irving isn't nearly as good as Harden, but the same principle applies.

Here's where the indecision kicks in. Suppose Irving wants to stay all summer long, and the Celtics operate on that assumption, then he gets to training camp and once again only sees the downsides of his situation. We know the answer. The 2019-2020 season would be a duplicate of the unhappy to the max 3016-2019 season. And there's no way to guard against that, because Irving's restless mind would be equally sincere in both wanting and not wanting to be a Celtic.

There is Irving's alleged fantasy of signing with the Knicks as a free agent, where he would be joined by Kevin Durant and maybe even Zion Williamson to form another NBA superteam. Probably that's a nice daydream for Irving, but it's totally dependent on Durant to make it come true. If he re-ups with the Warriors, Irving would be left in New York as the star on a bad team, not a good one like the Celtics. He'd have to take 30 shots a game just to keep interested. He'd be unhappy.

For comic relief, there's always the notion (and a restless mind like Irving's has many notions) that he could reunite with LeBron out in LA. The Lakers are currently the brightest, smelliest dumpster fire in the NBA. Adding Irving to the mix would be pouring jet fuel and plutonium to the flames. It would lead to some memorable Charles Barkley monologues though.

Well, Irving's gonna do what he's gonna do. Then he's gonna try and undo whatever it was he did. He's indecisive by nature. What about Ainge's indecision, the kind that afflicts normally decisive people when they realize all their options are bad ones?

If the Celtics lose Irving, they will have less talent than they have now. They will be a  team dependent on 1. A return to the form of yesteryear by Gordon Hayward., 2. Defiance of the NBA actuarial tables by Al Horford and 3. The blossoming of Jalen Brown and Jayson Tatum into All-Stars. Not a percentage bet, that.

(I omit the possibility of swinging a trade to rent Anthony Davis for the last year of his contract because while it could happen, I believe it would have happened back in January if it was a probable deal).

But of course, if Ainge strives to keep Kyrie in green for the foreseeable future, he will have the same old Irving for whom the grass is always greener wherever he isn't. Irving will say the right things, then some wrong ones. He will be great one game and not so great the next two. The truth is, while a gifted player, Irving is just not consistent enough to be top banana of an NBA team. That's in pure basketball terms, no comment on Irving's personality at all.

It MIGHT make the Celtics the NBA powerhouse it was assumed they were last fall if Ainge were to bite the bullet, trade the Celtics' promising youth and mighty depth to get Davis and THEN got Irving to stay. Irving as outside scorer second banana has a fine track record -- in Cleveland. But it might not, too. After all, it was his dislike of being Best Supporting Player that led Irving to Boston in the first place.

So many conditional tenses and ifs, mights and maybes in this essay. Indecision has a bad effect on English prose, too. I'm glad I wasn't born with Irving's brand of restlessness. It's not a formula for happiness.

I'm triple glad I'm not Ainge right now. All I can advise the Celts' decision maker is a trite observation that has nothing to do with basketball metrics and a lot to do with basketball teams.

Unhappy people almost never make those around them feel happy.

Monday, May 06, 2019

The Four Dirtiest Words in the English Language Are?

Such an easy question. They are the announcement"hold all tickets," followed by the flashing sign reading "Inquiry."

That rush you felt picking the winner of a horse race, be it the Kentucky Derby or the 5th at Aqueduct on a February Wednesday? Forget it. Now you will sweat in mystified frustration as the stewards review the tapes to see if the race was conducted on the up and up, or if a horse and/or his jockey violated the rules installed for safety and fair competition.

Sometimes, the majority of times actually, the inquiry lets the results stand, and you cheerfully if no longer triumphantly cash your ticket. But other times, well, the foul claim is upheld, and the race results altered by officiating fiat. Your winner is now a loser. The universe is a hostile entity that hates you. You wuz robbed.

Anyone who's gone to the track more than sporadically has experience that sensation, and come to the realization that they wasn't robbed, just a victim of the random chance that lets many if not all horseplayers to die broke. It doesn't happen all that often, but often enough to make it a universal experience for the shrinking regular audience for thoroughbred racing.

So it was just a matter of racing luck that the Derby, the one race out of thousands for which the audience actually expands to include regular sports fans and even not fans, saw a foul claim upheld last Saturday against its original winner Maximum Security, with second place finisher Country House installed as the victor after an agonizing 20 minutes of delay. The reaction of the 150,000 at Churchill Downs was strong disapproval. Maximum Security was a 9-2 favorite, Country House a 65-1 long shot, meaning there were about 00 Maximum Security bettors for every Country House plunger (BTW, the brave deluded souls who got that payday from Country House are precisely the kind of horseplayers who go broke fastest).

Since this was the first time in 145 Derbies a winner had been disqualified for a foul, and since the Derby audience is the sport's largest, much controversy has ensued. Maximum Security was the best horse in the race, managing to win after shying and cutting across the paths of several other horses, causing at least one to he momentarily pulled up. That horse was not Country House, who was in an outside position of the clubhouse turn safely removed from the incident.

A better formula for sports argumentation could scarcely be imagined, and argumentation we have had. Aside from Maximum Security's owners, trainer and jockey, who lost the most last Saturday, the argument has broken into two rough camps.

The first, and probably larger camp is exemplified by the President of the United States, who tweeted on Sunday that Maximum Security's DQ was a major injustice he attributed to "political correctness."  Whatever that meant, Donald Trump was echoing the emotions of millions of others and also their demographic profile. He is one of those fans for whom watching the Derby may be their only annual experience of horse racing. And if I can judge by social media searching, an overwhelming majority of those fans believe Maximum Security was robbed, that his swerving did not affect the outcome enough to nullify the race's original finish.

(I wonder how many of those people live in Greater New Orleans and remain indignant that a non-call, a decision not to enforce a rule,, knocked the Saints out of the Super Bowl.)

The fans who have defended the stewards' decision are almost all more serious students of the turf, men and women who've been to many racetracks and seen many races. They have learned two things through hard experience, that DQs are a part of the game and more importantly, that they need to be.

Racing has rules in part to insure fair competition. It's sophistry to claim Maximum Security's swerve across the track didn't affect the Derby's outcome. If it had a negative effect on any other horse it did so by definition. No one can say what would have happened if Maximum Security had kept to his lane. We just know he didn't, and impeded other horses in the process.

The truly vital reason racing has rules, however, is because the sport is so dangerous for its animal and human competitors alike. A thoroughbred is not a stock car. It's a hugely powerful and vulnerable living being giving its all, bred for centuries to give its all.  Nor are jockeys encased in a protective steel cage like Kyle Busch. They have a helmet that doesn't even cover their ears, which does a fat lot of good when they're trampled by a horse or two running at top speed.

The Derby has a field of 20 every year. This is by far the largest field of any race in the US. Most have like between 5 and 8.  Since Churchill Downs' track doesn't get any wider, this means the Derby has the highest potential for disastrous accident of any race. It's the one where the rules ought to be most strictly enforced.

It is significant that the officials in horse racing are called stewards, not umpires or referees. The word conveys the idea that their most important responsibility is to take care of the participants in each race, to make sure they all had a fair chance, to make sure there are sanctions for endangering other competitors. It speaks well for the stewards at Churchill Downs that they were willing to take the considerable heat they had to know was coming to uphold their trust.

If you haven't guessed by now, I am, if not a devout, a more than occasional racegoer and have been for quite some time. I stand with the stewards of Churchill Downs for simple reasons based on my own experiences.

I've had winning tickets go up in smoke when my horse was DQ for a foul. It sucks. I have also, however, seen horses destroyed after an injury, and seen jockeys hustled from the track in an ambulance.

Those occasions sucked far, far, far worse.