Monday, July 26, 2010

A Yawn Greets A-Rod's Pursuit of Baseball History

On this his 35th birthday, Alex Rodriguez will take mighty swings for the New York Yankees in pursuit of career home run No. 600.

Normally, this fact would be of great interest to this lifelong baseball fan and former Yankees beat writer. But A-Rod’s bid to become the seventh man in major league history to hit 600 homers only reminds me of B.B. King’s biggest hit: “The Thrill is Gone.”

To cheer A-Rod’s every at-bat, as many fans will tonight at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, is to deny reality.

That is because Rodriguez is a tainted player. Tainted by his own weakness of character, which compelled him to use performance-enhancing drugs.

Rodriguez has said he used illegal drugs for three years, from 2001-03, in what he described as an ill-advised attempt to justify the then-record $273 million, 10-year contract he signed with the Texas Rangers. But he still cheated the game whether he did it for three years or three games, or whether he’s still cheating in a league that does not give players in-season blood tests to detect use of human growth hormones.

It’s impossible for me to get excited about A-Rod hitting home runs because it’s impossible to know how many of his long balls have been artificially enhanced.

It’s hard to look at A-Rod and not see the player who lied to Katie Couric’s face—and to ours—when he said on “60 Minutes” he had never used illegal drugs and never, ever would.

Because of his nationally televised turn as Pinocchio, A-Rod will always be an athlete of immense talent, and almost no credibility.

The Yankee fan in me wants to see A-Rod do well only because it helps my team. But as an adult who believes it is always best to do the right thing, I find him an extremely difficult player for whom to root.

That will be the case three years from now when A-Rod is likely to hit his 700th homer. And in the year 2015 when a 40-year-old A-Rod figures to supplant another morally challenged slugger, Barry Bonds, atop the all-time home run list.

I’ll never forget the excitement of watching Monday Night Baseball on NBC on April 8, 1974, the night Henry Aaron—baseball’s true home run king—hit No. 715 off Al Downing. “Hammerin’ Hank” had eclipsed Babe Ruth, “The Bambino,” “The Sultan of Swat,” as the greatest home run hitter ever.

But on August 7, 2007, the night Bonds hit No. 756 off Mike Bacsik to surpass Aaron, I didn’t even watch the game on ESPN.

Bonds was not worthy of the most coveted individual record in team sports then, and he isn’t now. Nor is the almost certainly drug-stained Sammy Sosa worthy of his current position of sixth place on the all-time home run list, just below Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr.

A-Rod, barring injury or a sudden act of vengeance from the baseball gods, will pass Sosa, Griffey, Mays, Ruth, Aaron and Bonds in the next five years. And he’ll do it in the uniform of the most successful franchise in all of team sports, a franchise representing the media capital of the world.

It will be treated as a big story in many quarters. Not this one.

When A-Rod hits No. 763, I won’t hear cheering but instead the sound of B.B. King’s famous guitar Lucille:

“The thrill is gone

“The thrill has gone away…

Friday, July 9, 2010

Cavaliers' Dan Gilbert is NBA's Worst Owner

Sports don’t build character. Sports reveal character.

This is as true of athletes as of those involved in the business of sports.

A lack of character is what compelled Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert to rant like a petulant child after he lost superstar LeBron James to the Miami Heat and got nothing in return.

Now, Gilbert tells visitors to the Cavaliers’ website, the Associated Press and anyone else willing to listen that LeBron is "cowardly," "selfish" and "a quitter."

If that’s how Gilbert honestly feels, then why did he offer LeBron $120 million to re-sign with the team?

Why did he not make it known through the NBA grapevine that the Cavs would do a sign-and-trade deal with any team that wants (and can afford) a "cowardly, selfish quitter?"

That way the Cavs and their fans would have come away with something other than the usual pain and ennui associated with life in Cleveland.

And the Cavs would now have a chance to back up Gilbert’s boast that Cleveland will win an NBA title before LeBron does.

The unavoidable fact is, if you look at the Cavs’ roster today — sans LeBron — the team will not win 30 basketball games.

Gilbert needs to explain why he offered $120 million to a player he now says "quit" in Games 2, 4, 5, and 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics?

"You can look at the tapes," Gilbert whines.

Actually, there is no need to review the tapes of the four games Cleveland lost in that series. If you’re a basketball fan, then you already know LeBron played in that series with an inflamed right elbow.

Why did he do that? He was trying to win a championship on a one-man team. As LeBron knew throughout his seven years in Cleveland, if he didn’t do it, it was not going to get done.

Cavs’ management and ownership, which includes Gilbert first and foremost, never surrounded LeBron with the supporting players necessary to win a championship. There were no Pippens and Rodmans, no Odoms and Artests, no Gasols and Fishers.

After seven years, LeBron concluded that the Cavs had failed him. Thus, it was time to move on.

And being born in nearby Akron should not mean LeBron must die on his sword every spring like some tragic Shakespearean character in pursuit of an NBA crown.

Although I find LeBron as self-absorbed as any athlete I’ve seen, he is also smart and shrewd. I believe LeBron sensed that with Gilbert as owner, the Cavs would never take a by-any-means-necessary approach to winning an NBA championship. From Gilbert, he would hear only rhetoric, not see substantive action.

Gilbert bought the Cavs from the respected Gund family, which had signed LeBron straight out of high school with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft.

But for all of Gilbert’s wealth — a substantial portion of which was generated by LeBron himself — the man has a serious character deficiency. And no clue about how to maintain a successful franchise.

Now, Cleveland has no LeBron and no new players from a sign-and-trade deal. Just a petty, bombastic owner. A corporate mistake by the lake.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Late Show with Meb Keflezighi

On the day after the New York City Marathon, I always watch "Late Show with David Letterman" and wait for the moment when that year’s marathon champions jog onto the stage during Letterman’s monologue and, without saying a word, run down the steps, up the aisle and out of the theater as the audience applauds.

Letterman always tells us who the runners are, but we never hear from them. Often, that’s because the winners are Africans who aren’t fluent in English.

That’s not the case with this year’s men’s champion: Meb Keflezighi (Kef-LEHZ-gee).

He was born in the African nation of Eritrea, in a village without electricity. He’s also a U.S. citizen, a San Diego resident and a UCLA graduate with a compelling story.

He deserves more than the usual token jog on "Letterman."

Meb’s parents moved his family of 11 children out of Eritrea when a war against Ethiopia would have forced a boy his age into the military.

The Keflezighis lived briefly in Italy, as a safe haven. But the family’s intention was always to come to the USA and live its version of the American Dream.

Meb became a U.S. citizen in 1998, and became a four-time NCAA champion in middle-distance running. He still holds the U.S. record at 10,000 meters (27 minutes, 13.98 seconds set in 2001).

Meb then turned to the marathon and became one of the world’s best, winning the Olympic silver medal in 2004 and, less than two months later, finishing second in the New York City Marathon.

But Meb’s career was thought to be over two years ago when, at age 32, he suffered a stress fracture in his hip during the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in New York. The pain was so intense he had to literally crawl to the bathroom.

The self-appointed experts in distance running wrote Meb off. He had never actually won a marathon.

Meb was too old, they said. Broken down. Washed up.

Ryan Hall, a fair-haired Californian and Meb’s close friend, was America’s great marathon hope, they said.

But Meb refused to quit.

He had already proven an American could compete well against the best marathon runners in the world. On Sunday, he proved an American could beat the best.

Pulling away from a strong field in the 24th mile, Meb won the race in a personal-best time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 15 seconds.

He is the first African-American champion in the 40-year history of the race, and the first American to win in New York since Alberto Salazar in 1982.

And because the New York City Marathon and USA Men’s Marathon Championship were held concurrently, Meb won his first two marathon titles on the same day.

"You visualize it and visualize it and when reality hits, it’s pretty sweet," said Meb, who defeated runner-up Robert K. Cheruiyot of Kenya, a four-time Boston Marathon champion, by 41 seconds.

Meb wore a USA jersey to which he pointed with pride as he had ran alone to the finish line. He pocketed $200,000--$130,000 for the New York City Marathon title, $40,000 for the USA Men’s Marathon crown and a $30,000 time bonus for finishing in under 2:10.

Meb, a married father of two, now has a "platform." Now, he’s a "name." And that's why he got a well-deserved speaking role on "Letterman."

"Ladies and gentlemen," Letterman intoned, "here is tonight’s Top 10 List delivered by your 2009 New York City Marathon champion, Meb Keflezighi!"

It was a moment worth staying up for.

Monday, July 5, 2010

An excerpt from Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis

It was a turbulent year, 1968. On April 4 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support a strike by local sanitation workers.

On June 9 Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., was assassinated in Los Angeles, at the Ambassador Hotel, minutes after speaking to cheering supporters following a victory in the California primary that might have carried him to the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States.

The civil rights movement raged on, with scenes of rioting, looting, police brutality, and major urban cities set ablaze by those who, in the words of Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer, were "sick and tired of being sick and tired."

And the Vietnam War continued apace with its disturbing visual images of death and inhumanity reaching into America’s living rooms.

In August, after he emerged as champion of the U.S. Nationals amateur tournament and shortly before play began at the inaugural U.S. Open on the new professional circuit, Arthur had dinner with a friend and fellow tennis player, a white South African named Ray Moore.

As they dined, they watched on television sickening scenes of rioting and police clubbing protesters and journalists on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.

The two men often discussed politics and social issues, including the human rights struggle in Ashe’s homeland and the human rights struggle in Moore’s, to which much of the world had turned a blind eye.

The rule of law in Moore’s homeland was apartheid—the systematic separation of races, categorized in descending order as whites, coloreds, and blacks, and the oppression of a black majority of twenty million persons by three million whites of Dutch descent called Afrikaners, who were convinced that God had mandated their right to rule.

"Arthur and I used to discuss interminably what to do about apartheid: what’s meaningful and what’s not," Moore said. "We were both vehemently opposed to apartheid, however we differed on how best to fight it."

Apartheid outraged Lt. Arthur Ashe, Jr., then a tennis-playing officer in the United States Army. Acceptance of injustice was never part of his persona.

In 1967 he disturbed his superior officers with a public reference to South Africa’s capital city:
"Somebody should drop a hydrogen bomb on Johannesburg."

As Ashe and Moore continued to watch all hell break loose in Chicago, they talked about a quote they had seen in that day’s newspaper from rock musician Frank Zappa, leader of a band called Mothers of Invention: "The way to stop all the violence in Chicago is for the hippies to cut their hair and infiltrate the police force."

The two discussed the concept of fighting against apartheid from the inside. Arthur then decided he needed to reach out to the South African government to receive permission to visit the country to compete in the South African Open tournament—not as an "honorary white" but as a black man—and build a platform in the United States to support such an unprecedented act. That, Arthur believed, would be the most effective way to show the apartheid regime in South Africa the error of its ways and begin to sway public opinion.

It would take years for Arthur to cut through the swath of political red tape and get a visa to visit South Africa.

In 1969 and 1970 his applications were rejected by the South African government. In 1970 Arthur, then the No. 2 player in the world, and top-ranked Stan Smith visited four African nations (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria) for a series of tennis exhibitions and social events.

Arthur would also visit Cameroon the following year. He spoke of his wish to be appointed U.S. ambassador to South Africa, but that notion sounded as fanciful at the time as his ever setting foot in that country.

After all, why would a racially oppressive regime grant entry to someone who said its largest city should be A-bombed?

Arthur filed another visa application in 1973, and negotiations with South African officials continued. Among those advocating for Arthur were Robert Kelleher, a federal judge in Los Angeles who was Arthur’s first Davis Cup captain; Donald Dell, a Washington, D.C., attorney and Arthur’s agent; and Andrew Young, who in 1972 became Georgia’s first black congressman since Reconstruction.

The South African government did not want Arthur to visit, but it felt swayed somewhat by the argument that a trip by Arthur without incident could benefit the country’s image enough to lift the international sports ban that kept South Africa out of the Olympics and other high-profile events.

With both sides determined to get what they wanted from the deal, the visa application finally was accepted. In November 1973, Arthur visited South Africa.

"That trip was the start of change in South Africa—very small change," Moore said. "It was like Rosa Parks refusing to get up from her seat on the bus [in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955]. It was one small act that would have a much bigger impact."

Before the trip Arthur faced opposition from African-American activists. "People said, ‘No, you shouldn’t go. Why go all the way to South Africa for a cause when we’ve got problems right here?’" Moore remembered.

"Uncle Tom" became one of the kinder criticisms leveled at Arthur. But Ashe argued that the situation for blacks in South Africa under the foot of apartheid was worse than the situation facing African Americans.

As a black man he was not told by the U.S. government where to live. He could travel freely to any country on the globe, which would now include South Africa, whereas South African blacks were forced to live in government-created dwellings called homelands.

South African blacks did not have the right to vote. South African blacks were forced to carry passes with their personal identification that were to be presented to white authorities on demand.

South African blacks could be officially labeled "a banned person," or jailed by the government, as in the case of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, imprisoned since 1963 on Robben Island.

"I feel I have some credibility in talking about South Africa," Arthur wrote in his 1981 autobiography, Off the Court. "I was brought up under a similar situation, having lived in the segregated South. I have more feeling being black, intuitively, than some northerner who may have a false feeling of integration."

Arthur believed that in going to South Africa he "could play a significant role as far as raising the level of awareness within the white community both in South Africa and the United States."

Arthur set several conditions for his trip, all of which were approved by the South African government: (1) there would be no segregated audiences at the tournament in Johannesburg; (2) he would not have "honorary white" status, rather he would be recognized by white South Africa as a black man; (3) he would not have to stay in a segregated area; and (4) he could go anywhere he pleased and say anything he wanted.

A few American sports journalists accompanied him on the trip, including Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated, with whom he wrote his first memoir, Portrait in Motion, in the 1970s, and Bud Collins of the Boston Globe.

Shortly after Arthur’s arrival he had a chance meeting on the street with a colored South African poet and activist named Don Matera, regarded by his fans as "the poet of compassion."

The apartheid regime had declared Matera a "banned person," meaning he could not work, could not appear at any public event, could not speak publicly, could not be quoted by any media, and could not be in the presence of anyone other than a family member.

But when Matera heard that Arthur would be meeting that evening with a group of black South African journalists, he risked breaking an unjust law to try to talk with the American.

"When we were approaching the hall, there was a man standing by a telephone pole; it was Matera," Bud Collins recalled. "Arthur knew who he was. I didn’t. He introduced himself, and there were guys across the street watching him. The police. He said, ‘I can’t talk to you long, but good luck.’ The meeting with the black journalists was a real emotional setback for Arthur, because when he got up to speak—and we were told there were a lot of plants in the audience—a lot of people there were very critical of him. They were saying, ‘Why did you come, Arthur? You’re just making the government look good for letting you in. When you’re gone, they’ll still be kicking our black asses.’ Things like that were said. I remember that very well. Arthur was very unsettled."

Had his critics in America been proven right? Was Arthur being used by a South African government intent on getting back into the Olympic Games with no real intention of granting basic human rights to an oppressed black majority? Had he done the wrong thing by setting foot in the land of apartheid?

When Arthur left the hall Matera was still waiting outside. The words of an artist and activist whom Arthur respected, a man he did not expect to meet because of his "banned" status, fortified him and renewed his commitment to the cause.

"Obviously, Matera had known those sorts of statements would be made inside, and he could see Arthur was shaken," Collins said. "He said, ‘Arthur, you have done the right thing to come here, because you have shown our black children that a black man can succeed in a white world.’"

Arthur also visited the South African homelands, white-created dwellings for blacks designed to disfranchise them and dilute their political strength. He visited the impoverished township of Soweto, where in 1976 a violent uprising would take place resulting in the massacre of hundreds of blacks.

On this day in 1973, a makeshift tennis court was fashioned under a bridge near a schoolhouse and hundreds watched, some hanging on to fences, as Arthur, the black tennis champion from America, and Moore, the white South African tennis star, shared their craft and instilled a sense of hope.

A young black man named Mark Mathabane, wrote that he was inspired by the 1973 trip.

Mathabane’s life under apartheid and subsequent journey to America was chronicled in an autobiography, Kaffir Boy. ("Kaffir" is an Afrikaner slur equivalent to "nigger.")

The 1973 South African Open at Ellis Park was the first event under apartheid rule to have integrated seating. Moore, who did not compete in the event, made a point of sitting in a section previously reserved for blacks.

There were black ball boys, and a few black South Africans competed in the tournament—dressing side by side with whites in an integrated locker room for the first time. The atmosphere in the locker room was said to be cold enough to store meat.

Blacks, who had essentially been taught not to look a white person in the eye, did not initiate any locker-room chatter with their white counterparts.

Whites, not used to being on equal footing with blacks, silently simmered rather than bring their resentment to a boil. For South Africa this constituted radical change.

Arthur partnered with Tom Okker, a Dutchman, to win the doubles championship, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, but he lost to Jimmy Connors in the singles final, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3. He played quite well considering his full itinerary of meetings and fact-finding tours, and his startling encounters with the black journalists and with a distinguished professor from Stellenbosch University in Capetown who could not believe the intelligent and well-spoken Ashe was really black.

"You are an exception," he told Arthur. "You are not completely black. You have some white blood in you."

Arthur hoped his trip would raise consciousness about South Africa among pro athletes, particularly tennis players, boxers, and golfers, who were accepting substantial appearance fees to compete in the country.

"I asked Arthur what South Africa was like because I had considered going there for a tournament," said Kim Sands, the black pro from Miami. "He told me being in South Africa was like stuffing yourself with twenty pancakes and then having to eat twenty more. It just made you totally sick inside. After hearing that, I didn’t go."

Arthur also hoped the international media would begin to hold accountable white South African athletes such as Gary Player, who routinely dismissed queries about apartheid with the line, "I’m a golfer, not a politician."

But Arthur truly hoped that his first of several trips to South Africa would help bring an end to the apartheid regime. Change did not come as swiftly as he expected, but eventually it came. He had made a difference.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In 1992 South Africa returned to the Olympic Games for the first time in thirty-two years. In 1994 Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first all-races election.
Arthur remembered feeling "semi-satisfied" with his tennis performance on the 1973 trip to South Africa, because of the loss to Connors. Two years later he would have another shot at Connors and a chance to write history of a different sort.