Thursday, April 9, 2009

Working The System


While 72,000 people were sitting miles away from the action at the Final Four in Detroit, praying that a local team’s good fortune would serve as a catalyst for their state’s economic recovery – but ultimately realizing that its ignominious defeat was a cruel metaphor for crushingly elusive prosperity – there were some big doings in the coaching world.

The big story, of course, was Johnny Cal’s arrival in Lexington to take over the program Rick Pitino once described as “The Holy Roman Empire of college basketball.” Anyone fortunate enough to watch Calipari’s introductory press conference saw a man at the peak of his powers. This wasn’t so much a debut as a coronation befitting the importance Wildcat fans assign to their roundball team. Had Calipari donned a crown and a velvet robe, it’s entirely possible his subjects would have bowed to him. They’ll continue the supplication, too, at least until Calipari loses to Gardner-Webb.

Despite his claims of being a “regular guy,” Calipari is anything but, at least in the world of basketball coaching. He’s one of the few people in the business with the ability not only to win the press conference but also to pile up the victories on the court. And make no mistake, he won the press conference. Kentucky is paying him about $32 over the next eight years, and he earned a good chunk of that with his performance in front of the fawning media and rabid UK supporters. Calipari said he’s not the “grand poobah.” Nor is he the “emperor.” Given his frenetic personality, it is kind of hard to imagine him hanging with the royals. At Kentucky, where champions are treated like monarchs, he certainly has the potential to achieve some sort of imperial status.

There are those who consider describing Calipari in regal terms na├»ve and practically scandalous. This is a guy who rehabbed his reputation at Memphis by hiring the parents of former players, in order to lure them to his program, and consorted regularly with William Wesley, aka “World Wide Wes,” a dodgy basketball impresario who was capable of delivering – at who knows what cost – Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans to the Tigers. Calipari has never been brought up on charges by NC2A gumshoes, but he does walk close to the edge. For that reason, some believed Kentucky’s decision to hire him was a mistake, especially given the school’s history of recruiting shenanigans. Why bring in someone who blurs the lines when your history is littered with trouble?

Because that’s what college sports have become, and don’t try to deny it. As much as there are those out there holding on to the quaint notion that big-time football and hoops are still the province of amateurs and a forum for competition in its purest form, one look at the Final Four proved otherwise. There was nothing about the event that accommodated fans, athletes or even coaches. This was a show staged by the NC2A for its own aggrandizement and profit. The players didn’t like the raised court or the Ford Field configuration, which had locker rooms well removed from the arena floor. The coaches didn’t appreciate standing three feet above the bench. And anybody in attendance (El Hombre was there) felt so removed from the action that true engagement in the proceedings was practically impossible, even if microphones captured every sneaker’s squeak and missed shot’s clank. By putting the court in the middle of the cavernous dome, the NC2A sold the maximum amount of tickets, sight lines be damned. The cash registers sang, and college sports took another step away from their intended purpose.

The corporate sponsorship part of the program was most impressive, as anything that even threatened to mention a rival company was eradicated from the area. It would have been interesting to see how the NC2A would have reacted had someone walked into the stadium wearing a Pepsi T-shirt, considering that Coke is an advertising partner. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario involving a SWAT team’s pouncing on the offender and tearing off the sacrilegious article. The stadium was completely locked down, and the city, the Lions and the hosting institution (Detroit Mercy) were perfectly content to let the big dog do whatever it wanted.

But that’s okay, because the Final Four brand is so well established that fans and media choose to look away from the corporate culture, so long as they get a seat at the table. Given the state of sports in this country, we shouldn’t be surprised by the event and its operation. Similarly, we should not be gnashing our teeth at the idea of Calipari’s arrival at Kentucky. The Wildcats just fired a man after giving him a mere two years to produce a winning program. That’s what it’s about today in college sports. Win fast or die. Billy Gillispie didn’t get to the tournament, so he’s out of work. Forget that garbage about his not fitting into the culture of the program. He could have driven around town in an ice-cream truck and spoken Esperanto in his press conferences, so long as he won 25 games a year and made a significant excursion into the round of 65. But he didn’t, so he’s gone.

And what’s wrong with Cal, anyway? He’s a pretty straightforward guy who never tried to hide the things he did to get players. He called World Wide Wes a “goodwill ambassador” for his Memphis program. He was up front about hiring Dajuan Wagner’s father, Milt, as an assistant coach. He finds great players. He recruits great players. He signs great players. And he often says good-bye to great players after just one year in his program. He plays the game as the current rules are set, and that upsets some people. Well, they had better get over it. If the NC2A wants to conduct its business with a cold, corporate touch, it had better make room for Calipari, who wins big, lives big and operates within the framework that has been established. You don’t like it? Change the rules. Don’t worry, Cal will adapt. He’s a survivor. And now, he’s Kentucky’s coach. Get ready for the Wildcats to be great again. Just don’t blame Calipari for working within a system that has become anything but pristine.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Former NBA center Marvin Webster’s tragic death Wednesday from complications of coronary artery disease was a blow to anyone who enjoyed watching the shot-blocking pivot dominate and deter around the hoop. At a time when “D-Wade” passes for nickname creativity, Webster’s handle, “The Human Eraser,” is a reminder that there was a time when such monikers were earned, not merely tossed out with no thought…Let’s hear it for Majoke League Baseball’s continued insistence on staging season-opening series north of the Arctic Circle. Snow in Chicago torpedoed the Sox’ debut. Near-freezing temperatures in Philadelphia made the Phillies’ second game an endurance test. Let’s see now: L.A. (twice), San Diego, Houston, Texas, Florida, Tampa Bay, Oakland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Milwaukee (dome), Toronto (dome), Seattle (dome), Arizona and Minnesota (dome). That’s how you open the season, in places where snow is not a possibility, or at least it is kept from the public by ceilings. Everywhere else gets a home game when the frost warnings go away…Wide receiver Plaxico the Kid may have won his grievance hearing against the Giants and might have recouped nearly a million bucks, but give the team credit for cutting his misfiring backside. That shows some real fortitude, because New York’s passing game is a joke without him. Someone will sign him, but The Kid will get less money than his former contract would have paid and could be looking at some time in stir. The guy’s trouble, and any team that signs him deserves all the heartache it gets…Speaking of NFL miscreants, Michael Vick is having trouble convincing a judge that his bankruptcy plan, which is heavy on speculation about future earnings regarding a book and movie deal (“Dog Fight Club?”) and light on swallowing hard and doing sensible things like selling one of his two houses. Looks like Vick is still having trouble making good decisions, which should definitely endear him to NFL teams looking for reliable a QB…The trustee for disgraced Ponzi cheat Bernie Madoff is trying to convince the Mets to let him sell Madoff’s season tickets, the better to bring a maximum return and more money to help offset victims’ crippling losses. He had better move quickly, because once the Mets start their annual tank job, September tickets won’t be worth much at all.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Let’s see now, Brett Myers gets roughed up in the Phils’ home opener. Pop-Pop Moyer lasts five whole innings and digs a first-inning hole two nights later. Wednesday afternoon, Joe Blanton celebrates the arrival of his World Series ring by giving up seven earned in four innings. Meanwhile, the condition of Cole Hamels’ elbow remains a mystery, after he couldn’t get his fastball out of the mid-80s in an exhibition tune-up last weekend. The season is only three games old, and the Phils are notorious for starting slowly, but if you’re not concerned about this club’s rotation, you must be still hanging out on Broad Street, waiting for the rest of the parade to come by. The Phils’ strong bullpen and potent offense give their rotation plenty of wiggle room, but not even the ’27 Yankees could withstand a full season of early-innings conflagrations, not to mention a prolonged arm problem for Joe Cool. Let’s hope this isn’t an indication of what lies ahead, or all that world championship merchandise is going to look like throwback stuff pretty quickly.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Okay, golf fans, listen up, because here comes your exclusive Masters preview: Figure Jim Nantz for 27 uses of the word “cathedral” to describe Augusta National. Expect 56 breathless descriptions of Tiger’s latest miraculous shot. And don’t forget to dress for the occasion, since both espn and The Eye will treat this golf tournament as if it were high Mass. Please, people, it’s a game. And if you want to call these guys great athletes, refer back to the photos of the guy who stripped down to his compression shorts to rescue his ball from the mire a few weeks ago. He wasn’t quite the Pillsbury Doughboy, but he didn’t look like Chuck Norris, either. As for Phil Mickelson’s training bra, well, let’s just not go there. The Masters is a fine event, but the way its propaganda partners behave, one would think it’s live coverage of the cure for brain cancer. And if one more person declares a victory in the tournament a “win for the ages,” there will be blood.


No comments: