Thursday, December 30, 2010

In College Football, Even the Nitpicky Rules Matter

There are still 11 days until college football’s national championship game between Oregon and Auburn in Glendale, Arizona.

Let’s hope head coaches Gene Chizik of Auburn and Chip Kelly of Oregon are reminding their players that not following every rule on the field could be the difference between becoming national champs and becoming, well, the Buffalo Bills of college football.

Even the nitpicky rules matter in college football, something we were reminded of during Thursday’s Pinstripe Bowl between Syracuse and Kansas State at Yankee Stadium.

Let’s hope Kelly and Chizik show their players the video of Kansas State wide receiver Adrian Hilburn catching a touchdown pass that cut Syracuse’s lead to 36-34 with 1:13 left after which Hilburn cost the Wildcats a legitimate chance to tie the score because of an “excessive celebration” penalty.

According to the rules, any action by a player that draws undue attention to himself is guilty of excessive celebration, resulting in a 15-yard penalty.

How did Hilburn break the rule?

He raised his right hand to his helmet and saluted the crowd in the back of the end zone.

So what, you say?

You’ve seen other players do much worse than Hilburn without being penalized, you say?

I agree with you.

The night before, in the Alamo Bowl, Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackman decided to run parallel to the goal line for several seconds just to call more attention to himself before he scored a touchdown.

Blackman was not penalized.

But he should have been.

Whether you like the excessive celebration rule or not, it exists and it’s supposed to be enforced.

If not for Hilburn’s act of self-aggrandizement, Kansas State would have attempted a two-point conversion from the 3-yard line as usual. But the penalty pushed the ball back to the 18-yard line.

From the 18, a low-percentage pass by Kansas State into the end zone fell incomplete and Syracuse held on to win.

Never mind that Hilburn’s behavior in the Pinstripe Bowl was not nearly as self-absorbed as Blackman’s in the Alamo Bowl.

Never mind that the way zebra-shirted officials call college football games is wildly inconsistent.

What matters is the excessive celebration penalty has been on the books for years, yet players continue to violate the rule by diving into the end zone, or dancing, or pointing contemptuously at an opponent, or pointing vaingloriously to himself in nearly every college game.

Since coaches don’t know whether the crew officiating their game will be strict or lenient until play actually begins, the best thing to do is remind players not to do anything stupid on the field—something that could cost the game a national championship and force that player to wear a figurative pair of goat horns for the rest of his life.

Think about it. The only thing saving Hilburn from a lifetime of national ridicule is he committed his selfish act in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl, a game most sports fans didn’t bother to watch.

But if an Auburn Tiger or an Oregon Duck who worships at the Shrine of Kanye West decides to behave like Hilburn on January 10 and costs his team a chance to win or tie the national championship game, then he will deserve every bit of criticism that comes his way.

And so will the head coach who should have taught him better.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Letterman's Ironically Funny Take on LeBron James

Now it should be clear why LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to, in his words, “take his talents to South Beach” and join the Miami Heat:

He wanted to be more than just another great basketball player whose team fails annually to win an NBA championship.

And he wanted to transcend basketball and become a hot topic of general conversation.

While it remains to be seen if James will achieve the former, there’s no doubt he has accomplished the latter.

Broadcasting legends David Letterman and Marv Albert had a spirited debate last night on Letterman’s “Late Show” about James’s decision.

“If LeBron had announced that he’s staying in Cleveland for three more years, he would be the most beloved athlete in sports today,” Letterman opined, although he failed to get Albert (or me) to agree with his take.

“As a free agent, LeBron had a right to leave,” retorted Albert, the indisputable voice of the NBA. “He spent seven years in Cleveland, and he no longer believed he could win a championship there.”

But Midwestern states like Ohio are hurting, Letterman argued, and James would have given a boost to Cleveland’s economy by staying with the Cavaliers. By turning his back on the Rust Belt in favor of the fun and sun of Miami, James had unwittingly become the most vilified athlete in sports.

At that point, Albert served up a facial, comparing James’s decision to leave Cleveland to Letterman’s decision to leave NBC’s 12:30 am time slot in 1992 for CBS’s 11:30 pm slot and a head-to-head battle against Jay Leno.

Remember that game?

When “Tonight Show” icon Johnny Carson retired, NBC executives bypassed Carson’s choice Letterman and gave the coveted gig to the less edgy, more generic Leno.

“NBC didn’t want me,” Letterman told Albert as his studio audience applauded.

Actually, NBC still wanted Letterman, just not at 11:30. Letterman did not have to leave NBC. He chose to leave, because his ego had been hurt.

James chose to leave Cleveland, because of management’s failure to surround him with the kind of complementary talent Michael Jordan played with in Chicago and Kobe Bryant plays with in Los Angeles.

Letterman’s take, then, is at once ironic and funny. His decision to shun The Peacock for The Eye stemmed from a desire to better himself while sticking it to his former boss. Just like James’s.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear Letterman and James discuss how much they have in common on a future “Late Show”?

As Albert would say, Yesss!

Monday, December 20, 2010

ESPN does UConn Women a Disservice

ESPN has been around since 1979. I’m old enough to remember when the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network used its flagship program, "SportsCenter," to report news, not to try to create news or shape public opinion.

I remember when a credible SportsCenter anchor like Bob Ley or the late Tom Mees would have reported the story of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team this way:

"The UConn Lady Huskies extended the longest winning streak in women’s college basketball history to 88 games with a victory over Ohio State at Madison Square Garden yesterday."

That’s it. Concise and, above all, accurate.

But that’s not the ESPN of today. The S in ESPN now stands for Selling hyperbole.

The ESPN of today wants you to believe that any significant athletic accomplishment in this era is better than anything that happened before. If ESPN can convince you of that, then the network believes you will be more willing to buy whatever it wants to sell.

And the ESPN of today is always selling.

Here is how ESPN anchor Hannah Storm — a middle-aged broadcaster who should know better — breathlessly reported the Connecticut women’s story on SportsCenter this morning:

"The UConn women won their 88th consecutive basketball game yesterday, tying the record set by John Wooden’s legendary UCLA Bruins from 1971 to 1974….The Lady Huskies can set the all-time record with a victory at home tomorrow night against Florida State."

It is asinine to compare women’s basketball to men’s basketball. They are completely different sports.

ESPN does a disservice to the Connecticut women by trying to force a comparison between their winning streak in a sport that has not yet evolved into a game played above the rim to the achievement of the Wooden-coached, Bill Walton-led UCLA teams of the 1970s.

Such a bogus comparison insults the intelligence of the ESPN audience. It also gives people license to dismiss women’s basketball, for that sport will never be on a par with the men’s game, given the stark differences in athleticism and physicality between male and female players.

It does not matter if the Connecticut women win 150 consecutive games. Their streak will never be better than, or comparable to, the UCLA streak.

The streaks are different, because the sports are different.

Unless Maya Moore or any other member of the Connecticut women’s team is capable of stepping onto the court and performing creditably against today’s male players — and we know that would not be the case — there should be no attempt to equate women’s basketball, past or present, to men’s basketball.

Yet ESPN insists on forging an apples-and-oranges comparison between the UConn women and the UCLA men, apparently after arriving at the simplistic conclusion that apples and oranges are both fruits.

ESPN did the same nonsense several years ago when Tennessee women’s hoops coach Pat Summit got close to winning as many games as Dean Smith and Bob Knight won in men’s college basketball.

For weeks, we heard babbling from "SportsCenter" anchors about Summit’s bid to "break Smith’s record" or "pass Knight."

The Summit hyperbole became so unrelenting that I switched channels whenever ESPN aired a story about her. Many viewers did likewise, not because of any harsh feelings about Summit, a marvelous coach and teacher, but because of the contrived nature of ESPN’s reporting.

I sent ESPN a letter at the time, urging the network to stop doing a disservice to Summit. That she has won the most games in women’s basketball history is enough. Just report it that way. Don’t try to force down our throats a comparison between her and Dean Smith, or her and Bob Knight, as if their sports are exactly the same.

Since ESPN has ignored my advice, I will have no choice but to respond this way during Wednesday morning’s "SportsCenter":

"Last night, the UConn Lady Huskies broke UCLA’s record with their 89th..."


Monday, December 6, 2010

Fantasia Goodwin: A Hoopster You Should Know

from the archives comes the story of fantasia goodwin, a young woman who overcame adversity as a child and an unexpected pregnancy during her collegiate basketball career to become a star player at syracuse university. She also earned her degree.

Someone making the giant leap from Division III Player of the Year to a major Division I program would usually be wracked with anxiety, wondering if she truly belonged in the big leagues.

Not former Syracuse junior swingman Fantasia Goodwin. Not after surviving a childhood so harrowing it would have crushed the spirit of someone less determined.

"Basketball saved my life," said Goodwin, who as a preteen was placed on suicide watch and shuttled among more foster homes than she can remember. "Where I am now compared to where I was is something I owe all to basketball."

Where she is now is at a Big East school with a domed stadium that seats 30,000-plus for basketball. Where she is now is on campus taking summer courses with the goal of eventually earning a Master’s degree in sociology.

"I want to work with kids because there are plenty of kids in group homes who were like I was," she said. "They don’t know what they want to be. If I can inspire them, then it would be worth it."

Goodwin, 20, had to grow up fast to avoid becoming a victim of the hardscrabble Brooklyn, N.Y. neighborhood in which she was raised without a responsible parent close at hand.

"She’s been on her own since she was very young," said Keith Cieplicki, Goodwin's first coach at Syracuse. "And she has demonstrated an extraordinary level of maturity on and off the court."

Goodwin recounts her tumultuous upbringing in such a relaxed tone that it would seem to indicate she won’t be intimidated while competing against Big East powers such as Connecticut, Rutgers and Notre Dame. She has already defeated foes more formidable.

"My mother didn’t have a job," she said. "She was a drug fiend. That’s why she died (in 1997). She was in a coma for a year and a half before that. I was living with my two younger sisters at the time, and I had to try to take care of them because my mom was never around."

Nor was her father, who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"My relationship with him is getting better," Goodwin said. "I don’t know if it’s because of basketball, but he’s real proud of me. He’s got my press clippings and he’s starting to play his role (as father)."

Goodwin’s sisters, Essence and Natasha remain in New York’s foster care system. Like Goodwin, they are considered wards of the state until age 21.

"I remember wanting to kill myself," she said, "because I was in so much pain and I didn’t know what else to do."

Fortunately, she found basketball at age 11 — and found herself.

In two seasons at Monroe College in New York City, Goodwin scored a National Junior College Athletic Association Division III record 1,681 points, smashing the old record of 1,456 set in 1995.

Goodwin established NJCAA D-III records for career scoring average (27.1), season scoring average (28.0) and points in a season (867), and twice she led the nation in rebounding (17.0 and 15.6).

A 6-0 southpaw with enough versatility to play in the backcourt or up front, Goodwin joins an Orange team in need of rebuilding after a 9-18 season.

"Fantasia is a tremendous player and person," Cieplicki said. "She shows a great love of the game and a toughness to find a way to succeed. These are very attractive characteristics to us."

In 2005-06, Goodwin led Monroe to a 36-0 record and the national championship. Twice a first-team D-III All-America, she became the only D-III player named to the 10-member Kodak All-America team for junior colleges and community colleges in 2005-06.

But her exploits occurred far from the bright lights and big arenas of the Big East. Usually, less than 100 people attended her D-III games at a high school gym in Bronx, N.Y.

Nevertheless, she has no doubts about being ready for prime time.

"Playing for Syracuse against better players is just going to make me better," said Goodwin, who sports on her left shoulder a tattoo of a basketball surrounded by the words TRUE TO THE GAME.

"Syracuse is a young team and I want to be one of the team leaders. I don’t want anybody to underestimate me. I’ve always proved people wrong whenever they’ve underestimated me."

Goodwin discovered basketball at The Graham School, a foster care facility in the New York City suburb of Hastings-on-Hudson. Jerry Leventhal, Graham’s vice president, became her first coach and legal guardian.

"There was a vulnerable, fragile side to her at that time," said Leventhal, who signed Goodwin’s national letter of intent. "She didn’t have structure, consistency and care in her past."

What she had was a knack for basketball, an innate sense of what to do on the court and when to do it. But her prowess did not surface immediately.

"In the first game she ever played," Leventhal said, "the referee threw the ball up and the girls started running. Except Fantasia. She froze. I called time-out and told her to play. At the time, I think she didn’t want everyone watching her considering everything that had happened in her life. But now, she’s very comfortable in the spotlight."

Comfortable, yes. Ostentatious, no.

While at Monroe, she used to keep her press clippings — including a Faces in the Crowd selection in the March 14, 2005 issue of Sports Illustrated — and awards in a box under her bed. This she did not because of concern about theft but because she didn’t want to seem like a show-off.

The box of hoop awards did not accompany the WNBA hopeful to Syracuse but are instead in the care of Charles and Deborah Mathis, who became her surrogate parents four years ago.

"We’ll always have a room in our home for Fantasia," said Charles Mathis, who lives in Reading, Pa. "We’ve done everything for her but adopt her. We really love this young lady."

The ranks of those singing Fantasia Goodwin’s praises could grow exponentially at sports-crazed Syracuse. Her name is a headline writer’s dream. Her multifaceted game and personal triumph over adversity make her easy to root for.

"I’m not afraid to let people know what I’ve been through because I’m still here and I’m succeeding," she said. "My story lets people know that if you find something you love to do and work hard at it, anything is possible."

Friday, December 3, 2010

LeBron James Gives Cleveland Beating It Deserves

On the day LeBron James returned to Cleveland to play for the first time against his former team, the Cavaliers, a woman in the city known as “the mistake by the lake,” looked fiercely into a camera and said, as if addressing the man himself, “LeBron, you are definitely the most hated man in Cleveland.”

Well, even if that comment were true, what exactly would it prevent LeBron from doing?

How would being “the most hated man in Cleveland” restrict his life or career options?

Just try convincing the people of Cleveland that life goes on after a basketball player decided to exercise his right to leave one team and sign with another as a free agent.

Clevelanders may never understand that the Cavaliers organization failed LeBron for seven years by not acquiring enough star talent to complement his unique and multifaceted skills.

Michael Jordan, brilliant as he was, won nothing in Chicago until the Bulls added future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen to the “supporting cast.”

Together, Jordan and Pippen won six NBA championships.

The best player with whom LeBron played in Cleveland was an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal last season.

One more time, Cleveland: LeBron signed with the Miami Heat because he knew the Cavaliers’ organization would never make the moves necessary to give him the best chance to win an NBA championship.

LeBron is not in basketball just for the money. He has plenty of money. He yearns to do what Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Elgin Baylor, among other NBA greats, could not—win at least one NBA championship.

Time will tell if LeBron’s partnership in Miami with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and team president (and perhaps future head coach) Pat Riley produces that coveted league title.

But it is undeniably clear that LeBron’s chances of holding aloft the Lawrence O’Brien Trophy, presented yearly to the NBA champions, improved exponentially when he packed his bags and, in his words, “took his talents to South Beach.”

As the Heat bludgeoned the Cavs 118-90 on December 2, LeBron heard numerous insulting chants while scoring a game-high 38 points.

Just one of those insulting chants bears repeating here: “Who’s Your Daddy?”

Why repeat that one? It underscores how ugly and despicable “fans” can be when things don’t go their way. (LeBron was reared by a single mother in an Akron, Ohio, housing project after his father left the family.)

Obviously, those hateful people were never truly fans of LeBron. Instead, they thought they owned him. They saw LeBron as their own athletically gifted version of Dred Scott—the former slave who was ruled three-fifths of a man in the worst Supreme Court decision ever.

“We made him rich,” one visibly disgusted Cavalier fan was heard saying on ESPN.

So this dolt believes no other NBA team would have paid LeBron a King James ransom as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft?

Not the New Jersey Nets? Not the Los Angeles Clippers? Not the Toronto Raptors?

Only Cleveland?


Cleveland, a city that has not won a league championship in any sport since the 1964 Browns, was extremely lucky to have LeBron represent its city for seven years.

Problem is the Cavaliers never put championship-caliber talent around him—the way the Bulls did for Jordan, the way the Los Angeles Lakers did for Kobe Bryant, the way the San Antonio Spurs did for Tim Duncan.

And that, Cleveland, is why he left.

So brace yourselves for more beatings. LeBron will be visiting you twice every season.