Friday, November 13, 2009

It Ain't Hatin' If It's True


Back in the early 1990s, a movement started among sycophantic media and fans that branded anyone with the temerity to criticize an athlete a “hater,” particularly if said performer was talented and entertaining. A cottage industry of products, publications and videos sprouted, celebrating pure ability and shucking aside inconvenient sporting tenets like team play and fundamentals. If someone could thrill, that was enough. Failure to lionize that was a sin punished by ridicule from fawning supporters, who deemed the critics unable to recognize the new way and branded them hopelessly old school and out of touch.

One of the faces among the vanguard of this new phenomenon was Allen Iverson, whom the Sixers drafted first overall in 1996. The jet-quick guard was a powerful intoxicant for the new fan order. He dazzled with his talent. He scored in bunches. He even looked the part, what with his ever-expanding canvas of body art, myriad hairstyles and ubercasual wardrobe. If there was anybody who was begging to be “hated,” it was Iverson.

There were indeed some people who couldn’t stand him for how he looked. There were plenty of people who couldn’t handle such an out-front manifestation of the hip-hop culture. To them, Iverson’s look – ball cap askew, oversized sweater/sweatshirt, baaaaaggy jeans, Tims – was an insult to society and proof that the rap culture was not only infiltrating everyday society but threatening it. Of course, we heard the same thing in the ‘70s, when Bill Walton was wearing tie-dyed shirts, growing that mangy beard of his and leaving tickets for Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir at Trailblazers games.

Those who protested Iverson’s look weren’t going to debate his basketball worth honestly. To them, he was a nightmare in high-tops and an emblem of the league’s imminent demise. They were every bit as unreasonable as the Other Side, which glorified Iverson’s talent, to whatever end he put it, and labeled anyone who dared to criticize him as a “hater.”

The short story of Iverson’s time in Philadelphia goes like this: Lots of points, lots of excitement, one thrilling playoff run, plenty of acrimony with coaches, the legendary “Practice?!” rant and a departure a year or two too late. Since that time, he has played for Denver, Detroit and (briefly) Memphis, with sketchy, unsatisfying results. Today, he sits at home, ostensibly sorting out “personal matters,” but mostly pouting over his role as a reserve on the dog-ass Grizzlies. Iverson still believes he should be a front-line NBA star. The apologists out there who care little about winning basketball agree.

Anybody who knows the game, and that includes executives from the 29 teams who wouldn’t go near Iverson, think differently. And therein lies the problem with Iverson today and throughout his career. It has always been about him and only him. Never once has he volunteered to sublimate his own numbers for the good of the franchise. Just as he thinks he has never committed a foul in his life (try to find a time when he was called for one and didn’t complain), Iverson is not about to listen to anybody who says he must adapt in order to be attractive to teams. To him, basketball is a game about scoring points, and if Iverson gets 40 minutes and 20 shots a night, he can produce big numbers. Whether that helps a team win or not has nothing to do with it. Nothing.

Back in the fall of 1997, El Hombre was at Big East basketball media day in New York. In a cramped hotel ballroom, coaches from the league’s teams sat at tables and fielded questions from the media huddled around them. The crowd near John Thompson was about three deep and eager to hear everything he said. Thompson began by giving assessments of his players and the coming season, delivering answers in his bottom-of-the-well baritone. Then the topics started to veer a little, offering El Hombre the opportunity to ask about Iverson, then a second-year Sixer, and the speculation that he would eventually become a distribute-first point guard. Thompson, who had gone out of his way to get Iverson to Georgetown, to the point of visiting him in jail while Iverson served a sentence for his part in a bowling alley riot, was one of Iverson’s staunchest defenders. His comments that day reflected two years (Iverson left after his sophomore season for the NBA) of dealing with a me-first player.

“You can’t change a zebra’s stripes,” he said.

The message was clear: Iverson is a shooter first, second and third, and those who dreamed of his becoming a lethal point man were wasting their sleep time. Since that day, Iverson has proven Thompson correct every minute he has been on the floor. And now that he is clearly no longer wanted as a first (or even second) offensive option, Iverson has taken his ball and gone home. What is so amazing about this guy is that only one team wanted him during the off-season, and that was Memphis, which needed someone to put a few posteriors in the seats. Yet Iverson is acting as if he chose the Grizz from a long list of suitors. (Actually, he said at the time that “God” chose Memphis for him.) This is a guy who has become so irrelevant and proven himself to be such a detriment to a winning team that nobody wants his talents. They know he has no commitment to winning basketball, rather only to himself. And they know after this recent tantrum that he has no desire to help a team. So, Iverson sits at home and waits to hear that he’ll get a chance to start and play 40 a night. It won’t happen.

The saddest thing about all of this is that he could be a huge piece on a title team, if only he understood what it took to win. Using him 20-25 minutes a night to penetrate and kick or blast through plodding defenders on the break would be a contender’s dream. Instead of embracing that opportunity, Iverson wants to pump up his own numbers. Worse, he still has a choir of voices behind him extolling his ball-hogging virtues. If a team wanted to build around him, he would be employed. None does. So, he’s a Grizzly, solely to sell a few tickets. What did he expect?

Sorry for hatin’, Allen, but you need to get a bit of reality in your life. If you want to play in the NBA, you had better become a team player.

If you can change your stripes.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: On the surface, LeBron James’ announcement that he is giving up his number 23 in honor of Michael Jordan seems like a magnanimous gesture, but trying to get the NBA to “retire” MJ’s number pales in comparison to Majoke League Baseball’s decision to shelve Jackie Robinson’s number 42. Jordan was great, but he didn’t break barriers. If players want to choose other numbers, fine. It shouldn’t be a league mandate…Jeez, why is Roger Goodell so mean. All Chad Ochocrazy did was mention the word “bribe,” in connection with a referee, and the NFL commissioner slapped him with a $20,000 fine. He was just having some fun, is all. Right. Shut your mouth, Chad, and write the check…How tough must the last 10 years have been for Jim Riggleman? He can’t stop telling people how happy he is to be a manager again after a decade out of the main chair, but he’s leading the Nationals. That’s barely an MLB team. Things must have been pretty tough, Jim…The NASCAR Chase for the Cup is getting wilder and wilder, thanks to Jimmie Johnson’s problems in Texas last week. Why, if things get any more exciting, the other 90% of the country might start paying attention. Might.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Phillies’ decision to let Pedro Feliz go, rather than pay him $5.5 million next season (there was a $500,000 buyout), is risky business. Although we have heard about all the candidates for third base out there, few could be considered an upgrade. Those who are may cost too much. Placido Polanco will be 34 and is coming off a shaky season. Plus, he has played two games at third since leaving Philadelphia. Chone Figgins hit five homers last year and wants about a five-year, $50 million deal. We’re not sure how old Miggy Tejada is. Adrian Beltre has injury questions and a huge price tag. Mark DeRosa is a possible solution, but he might be better as a utility bench guy. Yes, Feliz didn’t hit lefties well, but he’s a strong fielder who knocked in 82 runs from the seven spot last year. Even if the Phils bring him back at a discount, will be he be upset, and perhaps hurt the team’s chemistry? The team gets a huge benefit of the doubt for what it has done the past two years, but this was a curious start to the post-season.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: In his never-ending quest to show how ridiculous the BCS (Big College Swindle) El Hombre submits this week’s polls as exhibits S and T. One week after tearing apart the USC defense for 613 total yards in a 47-20 romp, Oregon lost to Stanford. So, the Mensa candidates who vote in the Harris and USA Today polls decided to drop the Ducks four (Harris) and six (USA) spots behind the Trojans, even though the teams have identical records and Oregon thumped ‘SC. USC’s win over Arizona State last week wasn’t even all that impressive, so it’s impossible to say the Trojans rebounded in style. It’s heinous that the world’s greatest sport is being hijacked by a “system” best suited for chimpanzee skateboard racing.


Friday, November 6, 2009

What A Season It Was


There is always a temptation to focus on the outcome of a long journey, rather than the process of reaching the destination. If you drive for hours to watch a game, reveling in the company and discussion along the way, little of that is remembered if the contest’s outcome is dissatisfying. Over the river and through the woods is no fun – in retrospect – if the turkey is overcooked, and the eggnog is sour. No matter how much enjoyment can be found along the way, if the end doesn’t measure up, the whole production suffers.

That’s particularly true in sports. No matter how much enjoyment a team provides throughout a long, arduous season, if the odyssey doesn’t end in a championship, fans find it hard to deem the campaign a success. Think Patriots supporters remember the warm glow of 18-0, or the misery of their Super Bowl loss? Ask the folks from Oklahoma whether they think about last year’s 13-0 start or suffer nightmares of the “national title game” loss to Florida. It’s almost universal.

Winning it all is important, but sports can’t be a zero-sum game, unless you are a Pirates fan, in which case every season
is a disaster. There is one champion per sport per year. If you apply the win-it-all-or-bust theory to a 30-team league, there will be 29 sets of miserable people scattered throughout the country, with their dreams crushed week-by-week as the schedule unfolds. Or, in the case of the Browns, the minute training camp begins. For those fans fortunate enough to enjoy regular-season success, followed by playoff intensity, a win-or-bust mentality will erase any happiness created by months of relative prosperity should the trophy end up somewhere else.

It shouldn’t be that way, especially when it comes to the Phillies’ World Series loss to the Yanks. It’s right to be sad and
even a little bit angry (okay, when it comes to Brad Lidge’s meltdown in game four, mad as hell; more on that later) about the defeat, but to judge the season anything less than terrific is ridiculous. Are Philadelphia fans’ memories so short that they cannot remember the euphoria that took hold of the city after the NLCS triumph over the milquetoast Dodgers? Is it that hard to recall the sense of pride that prevailed when Cliff Lee mastered the Yankees in the first game of the World Series, in the Bronx? It remains remarkable that people who accept – and often cultivate – mediocrity in their own lives, refuse to appreciate excellence in their sports teams, even if the ultimate outcome isn’t perfectly palatable. It would have been historic and remarkable had the Phillies won a second straight Series, but they ran into a better team and couldn’t scale the final peak. For that we’re supposed to deem the season anything less than great? Come on.

Thursday night, El Hombre had a wide-ranging conversation with compadre and financial whiz Roger Ramjet. During the discourse about the Phillies and their off-season mandates, RR said something that should be remembered as fans try to put the 2009 season into perspective. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without a game to watch,” he said. There it was, crystallized in its purest form. From April until early November, the Phillies had given the city seven months of nightly enjoyment and excitement. As other Majoke League Baseball teams were rendered irrelevant one-by-one (the Nationals became meaningless in early May), the Phillies marched along, through the regular season and its highs and lows, through the playoffs and their high drama and onto baseball’s biggest stage. No matter how heartbreaking the outcome, fans cannot forget the remarkable ride. They can’t do anything but adore their heroes, even if the New York triumph ceases all ridiculous talk about “dynasties” and “greatest teams ever.” For the record, the Celtics’ 11 titles in 13 years from 1957-69 constitute a dynasty. The Yankees’ seven World Series championships from 1936-47 were dynastic. The Canadiens’ nine Stanley Cup wins from 1956-69 equaled a dynasty. The 806-year (1027-221 B.C.) Zhou rule in China, now that was a dynasty.

Anyway, the 2009 Phillies season goes into the books as giant W, despite the final shortfall. Let’s face it; as much as we wanted the Phils to knock off New York, it was rather hard to compete with the all-star laden lineup the Yanks put forth, especially with some of the small showings by previous Philadelphia stalwarts (see Hamels, Cole; Lidge, Brad; Howard, Ryan). Watching the Yankees win the World Series is like watching a rich guy buy his way out of legal trouble. There’s something antiseptic about seeing Standard Oil celebrating a stacked deck. Worse is hearing network apologists saluting the “great group of guys” and “tremendous camaraderie” the Yankees showed, when the real reason for the title was a team payroll obscene enough to generate protests from the Moral Majority.

While the Yankees plot their next move and continue to print money, the Phillies must address some questions during the off-season. In no particular order, they must find a new backup catcher (so long Paul “Master Builder” Bako), a utility infielder who doesn’t look like a Civil War re-enactor and play like a Daughter of the American Revolution, a pinch-hitter who can do more than hit one homer every Halley’s Comet sighting and a reliable middle reliever (Chad Durbin) who doesn’t find his way onto the field courtesy of some compromising photographs of the team manager and Lainie Kazan.

More important are the futures of Cole “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” Hamels and Brad Lidge, who needs to 86 the Amish beard and find his mojo. Forget about Hamels’ comments after game three of the Series. He needs to focus on developing an effective third pitch, or he’ll never be an ace again. And Lidge needs to understand that pitchers with ERAs hovering near 8.00 don’t get to pitch for contenders. That’s why the Orioles are still in business.

Answers (we hope) to all of these questions will emerge in the coming weeks and months. For now, fans should relish the memories of a tremendous season, despite the disappointing dénouement. Things may not have ended perfectly for the Phillies, but they provided the city with one helluva ride. Think about that for a while, and you might just get something more important than a championship.


* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: People who railed about the ridiculous length of the World Series games focused on mound conversations, batters’ stepping out and various other time-wasting tactics. The real culprits were the four-minute commercial marathons that Fox unfurled between each half-inning. Add those up, and you have enough time to play five innings…U.S. skier Bode Miller has announced he will return to the slopes and take part in a “full schedule.” Of course, that means something different for him than most people in his sport. Included on the itinerary are beer pong, nightclubbing, late-night hot tub liaisons in Gstaad and maybe even some skiing…How about that Andre Agassi autobiography? There’s some strong stuff in there. Love the part about the wig. And revealing that he wore lifts to marry Brooke Shields is priceless. Could do without the information about playing while not wearing underwear, though. Now, if Gabriela Sabatini wants to write a tell-all and reveal that information, she should have at it. Now…Fox is bringing its NFL pre-game show to Afghanistan to support the troops and perhaps use Terry Bradshaw as a weapon against the enemy, but the biggest reason for the road show is that Minnesota has a bye this week, so there will be time to fill in lieu of the usual weekly posterior-polishing of Brett Favre. Undaunted by the schedule gap, espn is planning a 15-minute segment detailing Favre’s leisure-week activities, including in-depth interviews with his couch and lawnmower.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Now that the main sports season in Philadelphia has concluded, the Eagles have a chance to take the stage and capture the city’s fans – at least until pitchers and catchers report next February. A win over Dallas Sunday night would go a long way toward accomplishing that. If there is one thing that has characterized the Birds this year it has been their inconsistency. They certainly looked great trampling the overrated Giants last week, but the Cowboys are hot, and another desultory effort (Raiders, Redskins) will put the Eagles in a tough spot in the NFC East. Injuries have been a concern this year for Andy Reid’s team. So has continuity. The good news for Sunday night? Reid vs. Dallas coach Wade Phillips is a mismatch. And though it isn’t January yet, you can usually count on Tony Romo to choke it up in big games. Win this one, and the Birds’ bandwagon will be filled. Lose it, and the spring training countdown might get cranked up a couple months early.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is smart, he has begun the process of investigating the allegations that Raiders coach Tom Cable physically abused his former wife and girlfriend. And should Goodell find compelling evidence that Cable did indeed hit them, he should be fired. Goodell has been hard on players who have broken the law and acted inappropriately, and he cannot back down on Cable, if the coach indeed struck the women. There is no room for that kind of behavior in society, and there should be no tolerance for it in the NFL. We heard all about the need to preserve the league’s image when Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Tank Johnson and Pac-man Jones were being disciplined, and rightly so. The league’s image is at stake in this situation, also. If Cable did it, he must go. That’s all there is to it. Goodell needs to find out what has happened and act quickly, or his credibility as a law-and-order commissioner will take a hit, and the NFL will look like an organization that condones physical abuse of women.