Response to Scott Van Pelt’s Comments on Maryland Students

Scott Van Pelt came out last week and blasted Maryland students for poor attendance at the Maryland-Florida St., basketball game.

“[The University of Maryland] started letting in a lot more smart people that are really driven about their futures, and you guys had to study last night, and good for you,” Van Pelt said last Wednesday during an appearance on ESPN 980.  “We had class back when I went to school, too.  And we went to games.  Because part of a college experience is a well-rounded experience, and going to athletic games is a big part of that.”

Van Pelt was angry, and he certainly had a reason.  The crowd was the lowest since 2003, when a snowstorm postponed a game and even the rescheduled game was played in slippery conditions.  The Terps were also still in the NCAA Tournament hunt for this year’s game—and they ended up winning in exciting fashion.

Schools can’t force students to go to games, and many outsiders would consider it admirable for students to be focused on their studies.  Van Pelt has every right to be disappointed in his school.  I was at the game and I was disappointed in the turnout among the students.

But Van Pelt expressed something else: anger.  He said college was about “living a little bit, outside I have to do my econ homework.”  Van Pelt proceeded to admit his GPA was pitiful, but it all worked out for him—and he didn’t miss games.

Yet Van Pelt fails to acknowledge that not everyone is destined to become a sports anchor at ESPN—a position where your knowledge of sports is more important than your college GPA.  Undoubtedly, that Economics major working on his econ homework needs a high GPA out of school to get a job in economics.

Sports are supposed to be a positive influence on young people, a fun outlet for people to let go.  If students don’t want to go to games, no one should make them, nor can anyone get angry at them.  It is sad for sports fans when we realize that not everyone love sports as much as us, but to say that it is an obligation for students at a University to attend sporting events is a stretch of the highest degree.

My brother plays football at the U.S. Merchant Marines Academy.  There, students are required to go to games.  They are also required to do push-ups whenever the team scores.  Forcing students to go makes them hate the football team.  If students were mandated to attend games, the games wouldn’t be fun.

If students don’t like sports and would actually prefer to study, it does not help for a prominent alumnus of the University to attack them—it reflects as poorly on the University as poor attendance at a basketball game.

The Terps have an exciting team this year, regardless of any game’s outcome.  Terrell Stoglin is an explosive scorer, Pe’shon Howard makes electric passes and Jordan Williams is the best big man in the ACC.  There will always be a contingent of students that only show up if the team is winning.  But there is an equally large group of students that truly enjoys watching the game—just for the hell of it.

 

Advertisements

Review of Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls”

Loose Balls by Terry Pluto is not a book so much as an ongoing dialogue between the major figures of the American Basketball Association (ABA).  Pluto lets the characters that made the ABA so compelling tell their own stories.  The culture of the ABA made it unique and transformed the NBA into a similar product.

After the ABA folded in 1976, four ABA teams moved to the NBA: the Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets.  But the most significant import was the ABA’s culture.  The ABA was a league of stars.  Starting with the hiring of George Mikan as ABA commissioner, the ABA became a league of personalities more than teams.

The pre-merger NBA was defined by team basketball.  The Boston Celtics of Bob Cousy and Bill Russell consistently dominated the outstanding individual performances of Wilt Chamberlain.  Yet, since 1980, you can trace every championship save three through eight star players: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.  Julius Erving, George Gervin, Rick Barry and their contemporaries created the modern, star-oriented basketball environment, for better or worse.  The ABA era merged the Russell days with the Bird, and helped change the culture of basketball forever.

The ABA was a unique league, which allowed Pluto to write a unique book.  Pluto compiles a great number of interviews to weave together a story spanning nine years.  I thought Pluto walked the tightrope between truth and fiction masterfully by making sure everyone knew the source for every story—because the source was telling the reader the story.  The story was not told linearly; instead, Pluto put names in front of each paragraph to signify who was talking, rarely narrating on his own.

Pluto immediately captured this reader’s attention by telling a story about one of the ABA’s most engaging figures: Marvin Barnes.  Barnes was a basket case; a crazy, uncoachable guy who played for the Spirits of St. Louis. Pluto tells a story about a flight Barnes was supposed to catch.  The flight departed at 8:00 p.m., and arrived at 7:59 p.m., due to a time zone shift.  ABA teams flew commercial and did not hold planes to wait for players.  At the game the next day, Barnes was nowhere to be found because he missed his flight.  When his coach called to ask where he was, he said he wasn’t “getting on no damn time machine.”

From there, Pluto went back to the modest beginnings of the league, when Dennis Murphy came up with the idea for a football league and, when that failed, decided to make a basketball league because, well, why not?  He then took the reader chronologically through the history of the league.  From Larry Brown through Coach Wilt to Dr. J and George Gervin.  Along the way, teams folded, players fought and owners quit.  But the league remained resilient and lasted long enough to force a deal that worked for four of the ABA’s teams, revolutionizing basketball along the way.

There was no better way to arrange the book and Pluto took a ton of information and successfully allowed it to flow in a way that was logical for the reader.  The main character of the book is the ABA itself.  There is no summary, as the story of the league involves varied stories carried about by varied players.  Each season had its own storyline, its own highs and lows shared by fans and players.  Yet, in the end, the book was defined by what each season had in common: committed, albeit often overmatched, ABA leaders trying to force a merger; self-marketing players that had personalities big enough to fill the league by themselves; and a bouncing red, white and blue ball that has become as legendary as the league itself.

Although the book was entertaining, it was longer than it had to be.  The chapters that focused on the owners and creators of the league were often dry.  Once Pluto returned to the players and coaches who made the league what it was, the story regained its pace.

Readers of “Loose Balls,” will find their views on the NBA change quickly.  Following personalities instead of players, getting fired up by an explosive dunk or watching your favorite team hit a three-point dagger late in the game are all elements of basketball that began in the ABA.  Readers will begin to recognize parts of the modern game that stem from the ABA.  No basketball fan should neglect a league with such an enormous impact on basketball’s present.  Every NBA fan, player, coach or staffer should read this book.

The American Basketball Association was, naturally, quintessentially American.  Entrepreneurial in spirit and unique in practice, the ABA brought out the best in American innovation and creativity, even if only by accidents of fate.  “Loose Balls,” strings this happy series of accidents together into a logical timeline, telling the story of a league that never should have been, by legendary players who otherwise might have been exiled to all but the deepest annals of history.

 

My return to THATV, and girls and guys wrestling

Ethan and I have been busy with other writing jobs recently, but I’m trying to get back on the THATV horse, starting by posting my assignments for my sports and culture class on this blog.  Enjoy, and let me know your thoughts on my weekly take in the sports culture world:

 

Joel Northrup, 16, forfeited in the first round of the Iowa state high school wrestling tournament.  His opponent was not some behemoth with lies on his birth certificate prepared to beat the crap out of him.  She was a 14-year-old girl named Cassy Herkelman.

 

Northrup has taken fire from critics (including Rick Reilly) and received a great deal of publicity for his default.  Was his decision an affront to women?

 

No.

 

Women should have every opportunity men do, whether in the workplace, classroom or locker room.  But women and men are undeniably different.  Wrestling is a physical contact sport that could be described as fighting.

 

Most self-respecting young men are taught by their parents not too fight, but all little boys are taught not to lay an unkind hand on a female from the time they leave the womb.  Whether the reasons are religious (as Northrup said), moral or just plain discomfort, boys and girls should not be in a situation where fighting one another is necessary.

 

To solve the problem, women should have their own wrestling tournament.  There is boys’ basketball and there is girls’ basketball, there is baseball and there is softball, there is mens’ tennis and there is womens’ tennis.  Separation of men and women in sporting environments is a logical decision, especially in a sport as physical as wrestling—where many of the moves can put opponents in compromising positions.  So why not mens’ wrestling and womens’ wrestling?

 

Women can do any job men can do.  But it is obvious there are physical differences that make it appropriate to separate men and women in sporting arenas.  And that is not to say that Herkelman would have lost.  Without a doubt, she is a remarkable athlete who beat boys for much of the year.  But in the long run, a girl could get hurt wrestling a guy.  And when she does, let the firestorm begin.  Friends, classmates and parents alike would pillory the poor guy who beat her.

 

Wrestling should separate boys and girls just like almost any other sport.  Otherwise, the outcome of the fight will always end in a loss for the boy, even if he is the one raising his arm at the end.

 

Finally, an award white boys can win

Although insignificant, a groundbreaking award was handed out for the first time this year to nine athletes: the “Radbourn Award.” For the young people who weren’t born in time to watch Old Hoss Radbourn win 59 games in the 1884 baseball season, it was a sight. Never have I seen with my own two eyes a more gritty and determined player.

 

The Old Hoss himelf. This is my brah, brah.

 

Author Edward Achorn was just as taken with Radbourn as I was, and wrote the book Fifty-nine in ’84 about Radbourn’s season and old-timey baseball in general, I guess. He also decided to give out the ridiculously arbitrary and undoubtedly racist Radbourn Awards for the first time, in all likelihood to promote his book further. The team?
P – Tim Lincecum
C – Ivan Rodriguez
1B – Albert Pujols
2B – Dustin Pedroia
3B – Evan Longoria
SS – Derek Jeter
OF – Josh Hamilton
OF – Ryan Braun
OF – Ichiro Suzuki

 

I’ll let that sink in for just a minute…

 

Yes, there are three non-whites on the team (three and a half if you factor in Jeter’s oft-forgotten black father), the acceptably mainstream Pujols, Rodriguez and Ichiro. Other than those guys, this team is literally just the best white guy at every position. Except Jeter, who, as Joe Buck can attest, just wins games despite his obvious limitations as a ballplayer, because he’s gritty, I suppose.

 

What is the point of naming this team? To prove that white guys with worse statistics, injury problems, natural limitations and drug problems provide even more value to their teams than the threatening minorities who play better do? Heck, other than Hamilton and Pujols, every damn one of these players had a worse season this year than the year before. Did they get grittier because they played worse? Should we award them for “sticking with it?”

 

I don’t have a problem with grit as an aspect of the character of an athlete to evaluate. But the fact is that grit, heart, hustle, intelligence and “love of the game” have long been euphemisms to describe white athletes, regardless of how athletic they may be. Those same terms have also rarely been used to describe black athletes, so it’s not surprising to see this list is 66 percent white.

 

In fact, when I think of grittiness and overcoming a lack of talent and ability to make a positive contribution to the team, this past season, only one player comes to mind: Livan Hernandez. The guy is 35 years old, has been pitching a full season’s worth of games since his mid-teens, and was almost out of the league a few years ago. Last year, he comes out and tosses a 3.66 ERA and wins 10 games for the woeful Nationals. He averages about 82 m.p.h. on his pitches. Lincecum can throw in the high 90s, yet Tiny Tim’s ERA was just slightly better last year at 3.43.

 

And I’m sorry if I don’t see what’s so damn gritty about Josh Hamilton. Is it the fact that he was the #1 overall pick in the draft? Is it that dozens of scouts have their own stories of when they realized Hamilton was the most talented ballplayer they had ever seen? Or is it that he was a crackhead and an alcoholic not too long ago? He somehow managed to defy the odds and be the ballplayer that he was always supposed to be. Meanwhile thousands and thousands of gritty everyday people have overcome drug addiction to lead lives based on hard work, not on talent that was always there.

 

Give me a break. Achorn should name himself to the all-gritty author team, because he’s certainly overcoming a severe lack of judgment to become a successful writer.

The last time the Giants won the World Series, my thumb was in my mouth.

That it was my dad said to me tonight when I called him to talk about the World Series. My dad, who was born and raised in Washington Heights, New York, was a fan of the New York Baseball Giants in his youth. They moved to San Francisco when he was nine years old, but what nine-year-old kid hasn’t already fallen in love with a baseball team?

 

Photo Credit: John G. Mabanglo/European Pressphoto Agency

 

 

So, like millions of little kids, he moved, begrudgingly, on to rooting for the hapless Mets, who in their first year of existence (and best chance to win over millions of fans of support) set the record, still standing to this day, for the worst season ever. He still followed his favorites over on the West Coast. Willie and Willie were doing their Hall-of-Fame thing, but the team never psychologically recovered from leaving their beloved lopsided stadium and prime Manhattan real estate (just north of Central Park), and failed to capture a title in 53 years.

I don’t need to tell you all that the Giants won the World Series, because the picture I put up there was a pretty definitive statement on the major story of tonight’s news cycle. However, the length of time that the Giants of baseball went title-less should be considered serious, top-story news.

It may not be 84 or 86 years like the Red Sox and White Sox, but the Giants and Dodgers, when they moved out West in 1957, were the only teams on that side of the country. If you weren’t a Dodgers fans, you didn’t have the benefit of watching Sandy Koufax with anything other than dread and despair, because you were a Giants fan.

You were watching some of the all-time great players. Mays. McCovey. Marichal. Gaylord Perry. Orlando Cepeda. You never saw them win it all, then go out and see them at a bar later, like so many Yankee fans and so many unfortunate women had the pleasure of doing with Mantle and the boys. Then, you saw decade after decade of mediocre baseball. No all-time great players. Sure, there were the Kevin Mitchells, the Matt Williamses, the Will Clarks.

Then, in 1993, your team traded for Barry Lamar Bonds. You had one of the all-time greats, and then some. You also have one of the most hated and unfriendly baseball players as your hero, on the posters on your wall. You don’t get Cal Ripken, who if you met would buy you a drink if you say you’re from Baltimore. You don’t get Ken Griffey Jr., who, though he may have been an inferior ballplayer, was just so much more fun than Bonds.

It was easier to say Griffey was your favorite player than Bonds, just because you feel like you’d want to hang out with your favorite player all the time and play arcade games and throw snowballs together. Bonds would just cheat at snowballs and pack his with ice. You would hate him.

Fast forward to the present.

Bonds left a couple of years ago, for better or for worse, and the Giants have struggled to stay above water. They’ve had the game’s best pitcher the past few years, despite his maybe-soon-to-be-legal extracurricular activities, but struggled to score for him, even in the Majors’ worst division.

Tonight, and this month, everything came together for the Giants, who, I suppose, were always destined to win in The Year Of The Pitcher, because that was the only way they could win. They didn’t have Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, or even a Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. Their punch was Lincecum and Cain. Sanchez and Bumgarner. Wilson and The Machine.

So congratulations to all Giants fans, of all ages, on both coasts. It was a long time coming. The Yankees will win it again next year. Just like old times.

The NBA is back, y’all

Many of you are fully aware of my NBA obsession, but for those whose only connection to the NBA is my blogging whimsy, let me inform you that it returns tomorrow night with a ridiculous slate of games: the Miami Heat start their run of unachievable expectations against the Boston Celtics at 7:30, the Blazers and the Suns play somewhere out west that no one cares about because it’s not on national TV. At 10:30, my Rockets will be the first team to beat the two-time defending champion L.A. Lakers.

 

These guys are playing together for the first time. You should watch

 

 

Now, I know basketball isn’t for everyone. Most Americans don’t have the attention span to love a sport that happens continuously instead of for 10 seconds out of every minute. It’s why this country has never caught on to soccer – it forces fans to pay attention for far too long. 45 minutes and no commercials? Can you imagine such tomfoolery? The same goes for basketball, to a lesser extent. For minutes (MINUTES) on end, the play is continuous, and at any second something like this can happen (maybe not like that, but certainly like this). Sometimes it’s frustrating when you need to pee and miss a Kemp-on-Lister moment, but that’s life.

The reason I’m so in love with the NBA is because it has so many moments that will take your breath away. In any innocuous game over the course of the season, you’re going to see something downright incredible, because basketball is the sport that athleticism, timing and aggressiveness turn into physical art. College basketball is grunge rock and the NBA is The Notorious B.I.G. Yes, we all love Nirvana and what they did for white people in the ’90s, but look closer and you’ll see what the real art is.

That’s why I campaign so much for everyone to watch the NBA. If you love sports, you should love the NBA. No other “Big Four” league can touch it right now in terms of talent (sorry, NFL, but there’s nothing like the fivesome of LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Durant, and Chris Paul in your puny league), and no other team sport is quite as team-oriented as basketball (any time a Randy Moss-type effort is put forth by a player in the L, he’s systematically driven out of the league. Just ask Eddy Curry). You should all tune in tomorrow night, if for no other reason than you can always watch Glee on Hulu the next morning.

 

A serious post

This is a fundamental tackle. Notice how the guy does not lead with his head. Also notice how the guy is not dropping really quickly (it's actually kind of ridiculous how little he appears to be moving). Less exciting, smaller hit, safer play.

I could be like every other blogger out there and write about BIG ISSUES.

For example, this past weekend, there were a number of big hits, some called, others let go.  The post/column/argument begins with the scene: a wide receiver crosses the middle, jumps up to catch a pass and, while in mid-air, a ripped defensive back comes up and lays his helmet into the receiver.

Then, naturally, come the facts.  You’ve probably heard them before…that the average American male lives to be nearly 80 years old–and the average NFL player lives closer to 50 years.

The conclusion comes in the form of a call for action.  Our righteous colleagues call for suspensions instead of fines, condemnation instead of recognition and sorrow for the victim over glory for the hitter.

But every other blogger misses the complication:  America likes to talk about safety in sports, but safety is boring.  For better or worse, danger reigns supreme.

NFL athletes work out more than athletes in many other sports.  As workout routines become more advanced and supplements (not all legal) more prevalent, today’s athletes are basically weapons, weapons that are put against each other in a confined area for 60 minutes so people can watch.

And people do watch.  Sure, they cringe after a bad injury, but it’s only momentary.  The player gets put on the stretcher, helped off the field and the crowd cheers.  Play resumes.  No one thinks about what is going on with the player except his own mother.

I will not stop watching the NFL.  Neither will you.  There’s a reason ESPN puts big hits into its top ten plays.  There’s a reason defensive players jump up and celebrate while their opponent lies on the ground.  And there’s a reason the NFL will not put rules in the game to prevent big hits.

Want to know what that reason is?

Us.

Because for those of us watching on the couch, the vicarious danger coming through the screen is not as real as for the players. Yet it still quenches our primal thirst for danger that we would never be able to satisfy on our own.

It’s a flawed system, and I do hope it is changed.  But if it is, don’t be surprised if the NFL loses primacy in American sports.

Is touch football the answer?  Not with this guy…