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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Intangible Becomes Tangible in NBA Playoffs

Playoff experience may be classified as an intangible, but it's beginning to seem pretty tangible in the NBA's conference championships.
The playoffs so far have followed the seeding very closely. There were two mild upsets in the first round, Indiana (6) over Boston (3) and Washington (5) over Chicago (4). Otherwise, the favorites have won every series.
But now both top seeds are having trouble. The Miami Heat, after sweeping their first two opponents, are 1-1 against the Pistons. Both of those games, of course, were in Miami, so now they're going to Detroit for two, and they'd better win one of them.
The Phoenix Suns, seeded No. 1 in the West, are in even deeper waters. They've lost the first two games, at home, to the San Antonio Spurs.
Notice something about those troublesome No. 2 seeds?
Right. They won the last two NBA championships, the Pistons last year and the Spurs the year before.
The Heat have never reached the championship round and have been to the conference finals only once before, in 1997. This is the farthest the Suns have gone since 1993, when they won the conference title but lost to Michael Jordan's Bulls in the championship series.
In both losses, the Suns led after three quarters only to be blown out in the final period. Phoenix guard Steve Nash, the league's regular season MVP, commented after the second loss, "They have all been here before while our guys are pretty new to this and I think it shows."
Of course, the Suns have also been hurt by the absence of Joe Johnson, who returns tonight. But playoff experience still appears to be the major factor in this series.
Entering this year's playoffs, the Spurs' starters had appeared in a total of 224 playoff games as opposed to 82 for the Phoenix starters. San Antonio's bench had an even bigger lead, 220 to 67.
The Miami-Detroit series is considerably different. Miami actually has more playoff experience than Detroit. The trouble is, most of that experience belongs to Shaquille O'Neal, whose playing time has been limited because of injury. Three of Miami's starters had 15 or fewer playoff games under their belts before this season, while the five Detroit starters had all appeared in 38 or more playoff games.
Miami does have a clear advantage in bench experience, though, with 150 playoff games to 103 for Detroit. The advantage is bigger than those numbers indicate, though: Detroit's Elden Campbell has appeared in 96 playoff games, so the rest of the Piston backups have hardly any playoff experience at all.
Incidentally, the player in the NBA's version of the final four with the most playoff experience is San Antonio's Robert Horry, with 175 games. Shaq is second with 158.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Behind the Scenes in NFL History

I've just finished a fascinating book about the NFL, America's Game by Michael MacCambridge (Random House, 2004).
The subtitle is "The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation." Unlike too many books I've read, this one fully justifies its subtitle.
America's Game is basically a history of the league since World War II that focuses on what happened off the field: The battles with rival leagues, the lawsuits, the television negotiations, the personality meshes and clashes.
It's not only an epic story, it's a very complex tale. On the whole, MacCambridge does an excellent job of sorting it out and pulling it all together.
To a great extent, it's the story of Pete Rozelle's long commissionership. But MacCambridge makes it clear that Rozelle was building on a foundation laid down by his predecessor, Bert Bell, with the help of the pioneer team owners who were often willing to put aside their differences for the sake of the league's survival and, ultimately, success.
The book's biggest drawback is that MacCambridge doesn't always have a firm grasp of the changes that were taking place on the field. His treatment of changes in strategy is often cursory and sometimes misguided.
But those things are purely secondary, anyway. The off-the-field, behind-the-scenes story is the point and purpose of the book, and I can't find much fault with MacCambridge's telling of it.

Monday, May 16, 2005

I'll Sell You the Shirt Off My Back

When running back Clinton Portis joined the Washington Redskins last year, he wanted to wear Number 26, the number he'd worn during his two seasons with the Denver Broncos.
But the number belonged to defensive back Ifeanyi Ohalete, who had been wearing it for three seasons in Washington, so Portis agreed to buy it.
Now Ohalete is suing Portis for breach of contract. He claims that Portis promised to pay him $40,000 for Number 26, but stopped making payments after Ohalete was cut by the Redskins last August. The suit alleges that Portis still owes him $20,000.
This numbers racketeering is a relatively new phenomenon among professional athletes.
When the New York Yankees became the first team to make numbers a permanent uniform feature, in 1929, a player's numnber was simply his spot in the batting order. Babe Ruth was Number 3 because he usually hit third and Lou Gehrig, as the cleanup hitter, wore Number 4.
(Steve Sax wore Number 3 for eight seasons with the Dodgers. When he joined the Yankees in 1989, he was foolish enough to ask for that number. Any baseball fan could have told him that no Yankee except Babe Ruth had ever worn Number 3, but Sax was a second baseman, not a fan.)
Numbers meant even less in pro football. A player usually, but not always, wore the same number for an entire season, but it was likely to change from one season to the next. Mike Michalske, the Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, wore nine different numbers, ranging from 19 through 63, in his eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers.
Since then, numbers have become closely identified with players, and vice versa. I would guess that trading cards, television, and the sports memorabilia industry have been the chief engines of transformation.
On the other hand, the player identifying with the number is probably simple superstitition. If a player has had success wearing a certain number and wants to keep wearing it, that's understandable, sort of. It sure beats wearing the same pair of socks for an entire career.

Friday, May 13, 2005

A Whatsinator?

You may have been puzzled by the news that Onterrio Smith of the Minnesota Vikings was briefly detained after Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport police found that he was carrying something called a "Whizzinator."
Here's a link that explains it all. Caution: Some might find some (even all) of the information offensive.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Sunday is Dress Down Day for NFL Coaches

The National Football League has two dress codes, one for players, the other for coaches.
Players are supposed to look spiffy, if not downright snazzy. Socks must be pulled up (but not too far up), jerseys must be tucked in, pants must cover the knees.
But for coaches, grunge bears the league imprimatur. Tom Landry's suit-and-tie look is not merely out, it's banned. Bill Belichick's let's-roll-around-in-the-leaves look is not merely in, it's compulsory. (Provided, of course, that the Reebok label is visible through the leaf mold.)
Sorry, Mike Nolan, this is not your father's NFL.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The More Things Change, the Less They Remain the Same

USA Basketball's decision to put Jerry Colangelo in charge of choosing the men's national team underlines how rapidly the state of international basketball has changed.
From 1936 through 1968, the Olympic gold medal was a slam dunk for the United States, to coin a cliche.
It was a pretty simple process during those years. The Amateur Athletic Union and then the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States simply picked a team of college all-stars, gave them a few days of practice, wound them up, and shipped them off the Olympics, where they always won all of their games.
Until 1972. With a little help from the officials, the Soviet Union ended the U. S. 63-game winning streak and won the gold medal at Munich.
That wasn't the end of the world, of course. The United States won gold medals again in 1976 and 1984, sandwiching the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
But the Soviets struck again in 1988, relegating the Americans to bronze medal status by beating them in the semi-finals. No help from the officials this time, and no fluke, either. The Soviet Union led virtually all the way and kept beating back U. S. challenges to pull out the 82-76 win.
Less than a year later, the International Amateur Basketball Federation decided to admit NBA players into the Olympics.
That wasn't a dirty capitalist plot to put the U. S. back on the top step of the podium, by the way. The vote was 56-13, and the United States cast one of the 13 Nay votes.
So why did all those other countries want NBA players in the Olympics?
There were several reasons. Some nations, most notably Yugoslavia, knew that they'd have some players in the NBA within a fairly short time, and they wanted to be able to use those players in the Olympics when the time came.
Others felt that NBA stars would enhance the television appeal of international basketball. And there were undoubtedly countries that voted for the proposal simply because the United States was against it.
We all know about Dream Team I, of course. They breezed through the 1992 Olympics, winning by an average margin of 43.75 points. That number was brought up over and over to show how dominant the team was.
Here's another number: 53.5. That was the average margin of victory for the 1956 Olympic team, a group of college all-stars led by Bill Russell.
Think about it for a moment. Even though scores were lower, the U. S. won by a bigger average margin in 1956. In fact, that team outscored its opponents 793-365, a factor of 2.17 to 1. Dream Team I outscored the opposition 938-588, a factor of "only" 1.60 to 1.
Based on those stats, it looks as if the rest of the world gained on the United States between 1956 and 1992, especially considering that the 1956 players were amateurs. Imagine what the scores would have been like if Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Neil Johnston, Larry Foust, Dolph Schayes, and a few other NBA stars had been allowed to play for the U. S.
The rest of the world has kept on gaining. The average margin of victory went down to 31.7 in 1996, 21.6 in 2000, and 4.6 in 2004, when the United States lost two games for the first time in history.
There were NBA players on eight of the 12 Olympic teams in 2004, but it's hard to find any correlation between the number of NBA players and how a team finished. Gold medalist Argentina had three while silver medalist Italy didn't have any. Lithuania, which lost to the U. S. in the bronze medal game, had just one NBA player. Greece, with no NBA players, finished fifth, ahead of Puerto Rico, which had three.
Serbia-Montenegro had four NBA players, more than any team except the United States, and they finished 11th, ahead of just one country, Angola.
No one could have predicted in 1992 that participation by NBA players would be irrelevant to Olympic basketball results by 2004. But it does look that way.
It will be interesting to see what kind of team Colangelo puts together. He says he wants players to make a lengthy commitment to the national team, leading up to the 2006 world championships and the 2008 Olympics. That makes sense, in theory at least. But where are those players going to come from? Few, if any, NBA players will make that kind of commitment. In fact, it's hard to imagine many college players doing it.
But there are a lot of Americans playing overseas. Anthony Parker, for example, who was recently named MVP of the Euroleague. He never quite made it in the NBA. Neither did Marcus Brown, who finished third in the Euroleague MVP voting.
Parker, Brown, and others like them are not only very good basketball players, they know the international rules and style of play. And they might welcome a chance to represent their country in the world championships and the Olympics.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Beyond Dumb and Dumber

If someone ever decides to make a sequel called "Dumb, Dumber, and Dumbest," Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics can join Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as one of the movie's anti-heroes.
In case you missed it, the Celtics were leading Indiana, 84-83, with 12 seconds to play last night when Jamaal Tinsley of the Pacers fouled Pierce deliberately to stop the clock.
Pierce makes more than 80 percent of his free throws, so there was a pretty good chance he'd make both shots to put Boston up by 3 points.
But Pierce blew his top instead. He was hit with his second technical foul, so he was out of there.
Reggie Miller hit the technical to tie the score. The Pacers were then allowed to pick someone from the Boston bench to shoot Pierce's free throws. They chose Kendrick Perkins.
Good choice. Perkins missed both shots.
Fortunately for Pierce, the score remained tied at the end of regulation and the Celtics won in overtime.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

When Is a Backfire Not a Backfire?

Here's a headline that turned up repeatedly today: "Roddick's sporting gesture backfires"
Here's the story that appeared beneath that headline: Playing Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals of the Rome Masters tournament, Andy Roddick had a 5-3 lead and triple match point in the second set. The line judge called Verdasco's second serve out, apparently giving Roddick the match. But Roddick said the serve was in, so the point went to Verdasco, who ended up winning the set and the match.
Roddick is to be applauded, though he downplayed the whole thing. "The umpire would have done the same thing if he came down and looked," he said. "I just saved him the trip. He's working hard up there."
But how did his "sporting gesture backfire?"
That would mean that the result was the opposite of what Roddick expected. He could hardly have expected that his sportsmanship would win the point, or the set, or the match.