Monday, February 21, 2011

Perhaps Phil Spector produced the halftime show

Halftime shows and national anthems have made the news the past month and the only time that usually happens is when someone grabs a crotch or flashes a nipple. First Christina Aguilera performed a tribute to the late Leslie Nielsen while belting out some - but not all - of the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the Super Bowl. A few hours later the Black Eyed Peas performed at halftime, and a few seconds after they left the field people began asking questions like, "Can their career recover from this?"

Really, why does anyone agree to ever sing the national anthem anymore? At this point, no one wants to hear anyone's interpretation of the song and every time someone mangles it, people engage in a fresh round of speculation about whether it's time to stop singing the song before sporting events or finally change the anthem to "America the Beautiful." That's if the singer's lucky. If the populace is in a particularly foul mood, the singer will stand accused of being a commie hellbent on destroying the good ol' United States of America. What's the upside for the artist? A note of appreciation from one of Francis Scott Key's heirs?

When I attend a sporting event these days, I'm always a little grateful when someone simply pushes a button before the game and a pre-recorded version of the song - perhaps made by some high school band in 1982 - blares over the speakers. No kids, no grannies, no choirs and no American Idol finalists. Just a canned version that's over in a few minutes.

And halftime shows? Has anyone actually ever enjoyed watching one of those performances? If it's a band that made its name when LBJ sat in the White House, their fans whine about how the group sold out while others wish they'd simply die out. And younger acts inevitably make people yearn for the old folks, you know, the people who made music back when it was real music. Before they sold out.

Of course, during major sporting events we only get to the national anthem after a pregame show that spans hours, if not days, and includes interviews with everyone from presidents to peasants, anything to fill the time until the big game. Remember the commercials about the guys who have attended every Super Bowl? How about a commercial for the guys who have watched every hour of every Super Bowl pregame show? Throw a parade for them. Identify them. We need to know their names, so they can be immortalized by Visa, enshrined in Canton or institutionalized elsewhere.

But for awkward pregame festivities and halftime entertainment, it would be difficult for anything to again match Super Bowl XXVII, from January 1993, when the Cowboys crushed the Bills. The anthem that year? No major problems. Garth Brooks sang it, while Marlee Matlin signed it.

No, the pregame weirdness that year came courtesy of NBC and the NFL, though at the time nothing seemed out of the ordinary. During the 32-hour pregame show, NBC decided to shed some light on the hot new video game, Madden NFL, by pitting a pair of legends against each other: Mike Ditka and O.J. Simpson.

The Juice wasn't finished. Before the game he walked out for the coin toss. He arrived to cheers and left with them. And after the Cowboys rolled through the Bills in the second quarter, the spectacular halftime show began:

Michael Jackson, surrounded by thousands of screaming children.

At the time the halftime show proved a big hit. Viewership reportedly increased during the halftime show compared to the game. Obviously no one could have predicted that within a year Michael Jackson would stand accused of molesting a child and Simpson would be charged with brutally murdering two people. O.J.'s video game and Jackson's performance only look creepy when looking back, because we now know what was ahead. Even if no one foresaw a crime of the century in O.J.'s future, someone - a producer, a family member, Paul Tagliabue, Bob Costas, Dick Ebersol, John Madden, Al Davis - should have prevented Ditka and Simpson from clashing in the "Computer Bowl." NBC billed it as a matchup of "wit, strategy and luck," but only one of those was present. The ending was actually remarkable, as O.J. pulled off an improbable victory that left an entire nation sitting in front of their televisions in stunned silence, unable to comprehend the injustice they'd just witnessed. It wouldn't be the last time he did that in his life.

Simpson, who most likely had never played a video game until someone bullied him into that basement, rallied from a 13-0 deficit in the final three minutes. The Juice - whose arthritis did not appear to be bothering him during a brief celebration dance - takes the lead in the closing seconds and holds on when Ditka's hapless kicker botches the potential game-winning field goal.

Despite this exhibition, Madden still managed to become one of the most successful video games in history.

The Juice on the pregame and the King of Pop at halftime. Imagine another Super Bowl prominently featuring two people who, within a year and a half, are involved in two of the most sensational criminal cases of the century. Seems impossible. Yet, in a world where someone approved "Computer Bowl '93," anything's possible.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

All-Star Weekend: Where defense goes to die

Trivia question that no one other than an IBM-designed supercomputer should know: When's the last time a team in the NBA All-Star Game failed to score 100 points?

Answer (I know, putting the answer one line below the question sort of takes the drama out of it): 1966, when the East beat the West 137-94, behind the MVP efforts of Cincinnati's Adrian Smith. Before that, you have to go back to 1957.

All-Star weekend is no place for defensive purists, the people who revel in shutdown man-to-man defense and befuddling zones. But the actual game remains my favorite of the all-star contests. Baseball has history and the poets on its side, but also gives us second-stringers deciding homefield advantage in the World Series, as by the time the game ends four hours after the first pitch and two hours after Tim McCarver stopped making sense, the main stars are long gone. In the closing minutes of a close game in the NBA All-Star Game it's the best in the West against the best in the East. It's the players everyone wants to see and the ones voted in and in the final minutes the exhibition often turns into something resembling a real game. Give me that over MLB's pageantry.

Well, usually the stars shine. Back to that 1966 defensive showdown. Adrian Smith, MVP? The East's starting lineup that year? Chamberlain, Havlicek, Jerry Lucas, Sam Jones, Oscar Robertson. They brought guys like Willis Reed and Hal Greer off the bench. And an aging center named Russell. Yet Adrian Smith - who scored a game-high 24 points off the bench - took home the MVP. It seems like something that would be the result of a bet between, say, Wilt and Russell. Is it possible for us to turn the most obscure player on the roster into the MVP?

The West somehow only managed to hit 29 percent from the field. Smith likely remains the unlikeliest MVP in the game's long history. For the most part, players whose post-basketball careers include trips to Springfield for induction into the Hall of Fame win the All-Star Game MVP. Even the exceptions - guys like Ralph Sampson and Tom Chambers - weren't anywhere near as shocking as Smith's triumph.

Defense really is just a rumor, though. Forget a team not reaching 100 points. The last time a team failed to score at least 110 points was 1975, when the East won 108-102. Most years the winning team hits 130 or 140 and the losers aren't far behind. And somewhere, as he breaks down film of a 77-72 Knicks victory over the Heat in 1998, Jeff Van Gundy vomits.

All-Star games are about scoring. They're certainly about dunking. But best of all they're about passing. Here are some of the best. No. 1 is, of course, by Magic.

A lot of people don't enjoy the All-Star Game because it is unlike anything we see during the NBA season, but even the purists can appreciate passing like that. And don't worry, soon enough scores of 90-82 and 79-75 will litter our TV screens once again.

In the meantime, enjoy just a little offense.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"He was a great neighbor. So nice and quiet. And bespectacled."

"I don't think of someone with glasses as being a psycho killer," said one potential juror in an upcoming murder trial. "I'd wear them too if I was in their shoes."

Weird story in the Daily News today. It's sort of a trend story, the type that is pretty much impossible to prove but still sounds fascinating. In this case, "Accused felons hoping to beat the rap are increasingly using the 'nerd defense' - wearing glasses at trial to come off as less menacing to the jury."

Is this really something that's increasing? Or have defendants always looked for advantages such as this? Even though my courtroom experience is limited to being called for jury duty and everything I know about trials I learned from Law & Order, I feel like it's pretty common knowledge that lawyers always tell their clients to dress nicely for court. It's at least a common thing on TV. Look presentable. Don't swear at the jury or threaten to kill them. Put on a nice suit. Perhaps wear a piece to cover up the swastika tattoo the defendant so lovingly displayed on the top of his bald head for 10 years. I would think attorneys would have long ago instructed defendants to ditch contacts for specs. But apparently this is a tactic that's increasing in popularity.

Still, what is it about glasses that makes someone appear more innocent? And how did OJ get off even though he never donned a pair for his 1995 trial? According to the story, a 2008 study "found specs led to more acquittals. 'We found that eyeglasses tended to make the defendant look more intelligent and less physically threatening to jurors," said Michael Brown, the SUNY Oneonta psychology professor who conducted the study. 'It's the whole idea of presenting yourself as intelligent and a little emasculated.'"

Yes, maybe it makes them look more intelligent. Which makes me think they're cunning, brilliant, capable of murder and cover-up.

The one time I was called for jury duty, I didn't actually serve on a trial. I did go to a potential case - a heroin deal - but never even went into the jury box for questioning by the attorneys. I do remember that the defendant was glassesless. I don't remember thinking that fact made it more likely he was guilty.

And if I was on a jury for the trial of a notorious defendant, I might actually have an opposite reaction if he or she wore glasses. In many famous cases, glasses add to the creepiness factor of a defendant, especially if they spectacles are slightly tinted.

This past Christmas morning, we opened presents at my parents' house shortly after I woke up. I wandered downstairs and put on my first present, a bathrobe from Louise. That's what I wore the rest of the morning. Blue robe, messy hair, unshaven. And my glasses, which I rarely wear. A few weeks later my mom sent me the photos from that day. I'd say she caught me at a bad angle, but there weren't any good ones that day. My first thought, and one Louise agreed with? I looked like Mark David Chapman. And it was the glasses that completed the horrific look.

Glasses help murderers in the eyes of the jury? Again, weird story.

Maybe it's just my own bias against glasses. After first refusing to admit I needed them, and then only wearing them in certain classes, I eventually realized I'd inherited terrible vision from my parents and needed corrective wear full-time. But I went with contacts 20 years ago and have stayed loyal ever since.

But what happens if I ever find myself in front of a jury, defending myself against trumped-up charges brought by a publicity-hungry DA with eyes on a Senate seat? Well, I've never worn a suit in my life, but I will for the trial. I'm never clean-shaven, but I will be for the trial. And when I consult with my low-rent defense attorney and gaze at the documents on the table and stare at the jury and glare at lying witnesses, everyone in the courtroom will see that I'll be looking at them through four eyes, instead of two.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The best buzzer beaters, the worst collapses

Last night, Rutgers somehow defeated Villanova in Big East action, despite trailing by five points with 11 seconds remaining. Rutgers drained a 3 with seven seconds to play, and after Villanova made just one of two free throws for a three-point lead, Rutgers hit a 3 with .8 seconds left. Standard comeback stuff.

Except on the Rutgers 3, Villanova fouled the shooter, who hit the free throw for a four-point play and one incredible 77-76 victory.

These types of games are stunning because they appear out of nowhere and the losing coach goes from happiness to contemplating retirement while the players wonder if some of their teammates are actively throwing games. A standard buzzer-beater is exciting enough, but it usually comes at the end of a game that's been close throughout, a game where neither team grabs more than a 3-point lead in the final minute. Collapses are even more fun to watch, unless it's your team on the losing end.

Some of the more memorable comebacks.

This is one of the more memorable offensive explosions in NBA history. Tracy McGrady scores 13 points in 33 seconds against the Spurs. Houston trailed 76-68 with 35 seconds left when McGrady drilled a 3. For the Spurs, it went downhill from there. The opponent made the comeback even more improbable. McGrady, who had 20 points in the first 47 minutes, did it against the best defensive team of the past decade, a four-time NBA champion. Bruce Bowen, one of the best individual defenders of the past 15 years, guarded him, but proved helpless against McGrady.

This next game is probably still painful for my uncle and cousin. My uncle was a longtime professor at Winona State in Minnesota and remains a hell of a basketball player, even at 70. Winona State dominated Division II for three years, winning two titles. But the year they didn't win is the most memorable. In 2007, the defending national champs, who were riding a 57-game winning streak, led Barton 74-67 with 45 seconds remaining. From there...

Until I started searching YouTube for crazy endings, I had never seen a clip of the following game. It might be the craziest of all. It's from 1999, USC at Oregon. With 2.8 seconds, USC had the ball but trailed by five points. They hit a three from the corner. Oregon then, inexplicably, attempts a long pass, which is intercepted by a Trojan, who knocks in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer. It seems like the clock operator might be partly to blame, even though the game was in Oregon. How does the guy catch the ball and get a shot off in .8 seconds? Look out for future Celtic great Brian Scalabrine.

In the 2001 Final Four, which was held in the Metrodome, long before the stadium became a metaphor for the Vikings' 2010 season, Duke trailed Maryland 39-17 in the first half, before rallying for a 95-84 victory. Two nights later the Blue Devils won the national championship.

But Maryland was used to blowing big leads against Duke. In January of that year, the Terrapins squandered a 10-point lead in just a minute, on their home court, before losing in overtime. Duke guard Jason Williams led the charge, helped along by some horrific Maryland ballhandling and passing.

These comebacks in the final 30 seconds should be more common in the pros, where teams take the ball out at halfcourt after timeouts. But maybe the college game lends itself to more improbable finishes, as inexperienced players crumble in the final minutes with bad free throw shooting and worse ballhandling.

But the pros aren't immune, as the Spurs proved against McGrady and as bad teams prove several times a season. Earlier this year, Sacramento coughed up a four-point lead in the final 8 seconds. More accurately, the Kings lost a four-point lead in the final four seconds as the Warriors managed to pull off a feat that probably hasn't happened more than five times in basketball history. Trailing by 4, Golden State's Reggie Williams made the first first free throw and missed the second on purpose. When Sacramento fumbled the rebound out of bounds, the Warriors threw in from under their own basket to former Laker Vlad Radmanovic, who hit a tying three at the buzzer. Golden State prevailed in overtime. It's tough enough missing a free throw on purpose in hopes of getting a tip to tie. Missing one and draining a game-tying 3-pointer? Seems completely implausible. But not against a bad team.

As far as I know, no film exists of one of the best comebacks ever, which, as always happens in those games, doubled as one of the great collapses of all time. My college coach Mike Augustine now coaches high school ball in Colorado. A few years ago his team held an 8-point lead with 14 seconds remaining. The opposition hit a three and got fouled. Augie's player complained about the call and the ref slapped him with a T. Three free throws later, Augie's team now only led by two and the opponent had the ball out of bounds. Inevitably - because any team that sees an 8-point lead cut to 2 in a second is seemingly destined to lose - the other team drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer, their ninth point in 14 seconds, giving them the victory and leaving Augie wondering about his chosen profession.

Epic collapses happen to high school teams and NBA champions, to bad teams and good. And it even happens in the movies. Remember South Bend Central going scoreless in the closing minutes of the Indiana state title game against Hickory and losing a six-point lead? As the Spurs, Kings, Terrapins and Augie know, when you don't put a team away, you leave an opening for guys like McGrady and Williams. And for Jimmy Chitwood.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fletch might finally live

I visit this page a lot. It's the IMDB quotes page for one of my favorite movies, a cinematic classic, a legendary effort by one of the top stars of the '80s.

Fletch. I also own the DVD, so if I get sick of reading the quotes and need to actually hear them, I pop it in and watch Chevy Chase in action

It's all ball bearings nowadays; 6-5 with an afro 6-9; Babar, two b's or one?, etc., etc.

And now, after 26 years, Fletch could be returning to theaters. Warner Bros. has made a deal to start the franchise again. But deals such as this have been in the news many times the last three decades. Scripts are written, stars mentioned, and then the movie dies, in the same way the franchise expired after the unfortunate sequel, Fletch Lives. According to an Entertainment Weekly story, there's even a curse of Fletch.

Like many fans of the original, I'm a bit leery of a remake. No one can replace Chase in the iconic role. He is Fletch, the same way he is Clark W. Griswold. The movies were based on the novels by Gregory McDonald, a former newspaper reporter in Boston who quit his job to write his books about an investigative journalist who inevitably stumbles into a mystery. McDonald, who died in 2008, wrote 11 books in the series, providing Hollywood with plenty of material. The books are worth a read on their own.

But like so many, when I think of Fletch, it's impossible not to picture Chase. Fletch was a childhood hero. The movie helped convince me that I should follow my dreams of being a newspaper reporter and a member of the Lakers. One of them eventually came true, though I wish it had been the other.

Fletch made the life of a newspaper reporter look exotic, thrilling. Forget Woodward and Bernstein in All the President's Men. Yes, they helped take down a president, but did they have a basketball hoop in their apartment? Fletch went undercover, lived on the beach, had tickets to Lakers games and charged steak sandwiches to the Underhills' account.

In fact, Fletch is one of the greatest movie reporters in film history. Some other memorable scribblers:

* Sam Waterston as Sydney Schanberg in The Killing Fields. An extraordinarily powerful movie about a pair of real people. Schanberg worked for The New York Times when Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge. Schanberg won a Pulitzer for his work. Haing S Ngor portrayed Dith Pran. Ngor, who, like Pran, survived the Khmer Rouge's horrific regime, won an Oscar for the movie, but was murdered in 1996 during a robbery attempt. Pran died in 2008. Although the movie features the work of a newspaper reporter, it's really about the spirit of Pran, Ngor and the Cambodian people who lived through the horrors of the 1970s.

* Clark Kent. It's part of the disguise, but Kent comes off as a reporter who wouldn't be qualified to be the lead reporter at a weekly shopper, much less at a major metro paper. He's passive, shy and has never really shown any ability to turn a good phrase. Did he work at smaller papers before moving up? And if so, what kind of criminal masterminds did he stop in towns that supported newspapers whose circulation was likely below 50,000 and possibly even below 10,000? Or was he a journalistic superstar who went right from college to the Daily Planet? Hard to picture the mild-mannered Kent being such a superstar. And did he ever win any journalism awards, or did Lois Lane hog them all?

* Sally Field played dogged reporter Megan Carter in Absence of Malice, co-starring Paul Newman, who gets wronged by the local newspaper. Reporters and papers don't come off well in this movie. But the opening scene is like newspaper porn for old-school, ink-stained wretches.

* The Paper focuses on Michael Keaton's character, a daily tabloid editor in New York. But reporters do play a big role, especially Randy Quaid's seen-it-all, drunk, disheveled columnist Michael McDougal. Over Christmas, this was on sale - as a VHS - for a buck at the Janesville convenience store. Well worth it. Would have paid 10 bucks. A few scenes are a bit over the top and Quaid's character is occasionally too much of a caricature. Still, good flick for newspaper folk. The saddest thing about the scene below is that, in real life, Quaid has become a paranoid man who's convinced everyone is out to get him.

* Russell Crowe as Cal McAffrey in State of Play. When the movie came out in 2009, many newspaper people adored it, particularly Crowe's portrayal of a street-smart reporter. People who don't like newspapers - the ones who love to describe papers as dying or break out the "dinosaur" cliche, usually in the comments section of the newspaper's website - laughed at the old newspaper fools clinging to the idea that papers can occasionally make a difference. I really liked it. And I loved Crowe's character.

Still, Fletch's apartment hoop makes him cooler.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Every pro sports transaction ever made - in one place

Think the Lakers can land Carmelo by trading Artest?
It's time to trade Pau Gasol! So sick of watching how weak he is out there!
Could Mitch somehow get Kwame back as a good backup center?
Fisher, Bynum, Gasol, Odom, Artest must go!

Some of the things you'd read on Lakers message boards these days. Like fans of every team in every sport, Lakers fans love conjuring up possible trades when their favorite squad struggles. Rage fuels many of the trade ideas, along with that unique overconfidence that oozes off of guys who have won their fantasy football league three years running. Hey, they figure, if I can outwit six of my old frat buddies, my idiot brother-in-law and Joe from accounting, why can't I come up with a trade idea that will spark the Lakers to a three-peat while also adhering to concerns about the collective bargaining agreement and team chemistry?

While looking up some old trade info, I stumbled upon the type of site that could hold a sports fan prisoner for days.

It's a no-frills site, at least as far as design. But the content is incredible. Since the 2004, the site has attempted to index every transaction that's ever taken place in pro sports. Basketball and hockey are the most complete, the site says. Football and baseball aren't quite as complete, simply because there are so many more players - and in the case of baseball, years - involved. It's an ambitious, if not insane, endeavor. But completely fascinating.

Take the basketball entries. You can search every coach and executive by name, to see all the deals every GM's been involved with. You can search the all-time injured list, or every DNP due to personal reasons. You can search by team and by year. Or you can search all of them, all 1,518 pages worth of transactions. Some tidbits:

The first transaction recorded on the site? The Knicks hired Mike Saunders as the assistant to player care, in 1899 (who was the director of player care?). The same day the Knicks hired Saunders, they drafted Gene Berce. Or did they? Gene Berce, at least the one who played for the Knicks, was born in 1926. Drafted 27 years before he was born. And Celtics fans think Red Auerbach did a great job of looking ahead when he drafted Bird a year before he entered the draft. Not sure what's going on with Jumpin' Gene.

Red makes an appearance of his own on the first page. The BAA's Capitols inked Auerbach to a one-year deal for $5,000 in 1946.

On July 27, 1947, the Pittsburgh Ironmen - who went 15-45 in their only year in the BAA - folded. Press Maravich - Pistol's old man - was one of the players "relinquished" by the Ironmen. In his one year of pro ball, Press shot 27 percent from the field. He hit 51 percent of his free throws and had a McHale-like six assists in 51 games. Press turned Pete - who was born a month before the Ironmen went under - into a basketball genius but he thankfully didn't give Pete his shooting touch or passing eye.

It's easy to see the beginning of the Celtics dynasty when paging through the transactions. The team signed Red to a two-year deal in April of 1950. A few months later, they acquired Bob Cousy in a dispersal draft, for $8,500. However, the site doesn't list the first time Red fired up a victory cigar, or the first time an opposing player or coach dreamed of shoving it down his throat or up somewhere else.

To the Timberwolves...

The team hired Bob Stein as president on June 15, 1987, and Bill Musselman as its first coach a year later. In the expansion draft, the Wolves picked up David Rivers, Brad Lohaus, Eric White, Gunther Behnke, Mark Davis, Maurice Martin, Rick Mahorn, Scott Roth, Tyrone Corbin and a handful of others. They drafted Pooh Richardson and, regrettably, Gary Leonard. The transactions don't get any better from there.

Back to the Lakers. In 1976, the Lakers received compensation when the Jazz signed an aging Gail Goodrich. LA received a first-round pick in 1977, a first-round pick in 1979 and a second-round pick in 1980, which they used on Sam Worthen. In 1977, the Lakers picked Kenny Car. In 1979 they drafted Magic Johnson with the pick, which happened to be the first one in the draft. Goodrich averaged 12, 16 and 12 points per game in his three years with the Jazz and was out of the league by the time Magic filled in for Kareem in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. This is the type of trade current Lakers fan dream of when they suggest dealing Joe Smith for Dwight Howard.

In another move that turned out well a few years later, in 1980 the Lakers acquired Butch Lee and a first-round pick in 1982 from the Cavaliers, in exchange for Don Ford and the first-round pick in '80. The Lakers ended up with the No. 1 pick in 1982 and took James Worthy. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, went 23-59 in 1984, became respectable in 1985 under George Karl, excelled in the late '80s with Mark Price and Brad Daugherty, got crushed by Jordan's Shot in 1989, staggered through much of the 1990s, went to the Finals in 2007, lost LeBron in 2010 and are on their way to breaking their own record for most consecutive defeats by an NBA team. So the trade didn't work out well for Cleveland, although Don Ford did average 3 points per game in 1981.

Cleveland suffered through a lot of strange years under strange owner Ted Stepien. But 1982 had to be one of the oddest. The team went 15-67 - which gave the Lakers the top pick - and went through four coaches. Bill Musselman went 2-21, Chuck Daly went 9-32, Bob Kloppenburg went 0-3 and Don Delaney finished 4-11. Kloppenburg got another chance to coach 10 years later, when he took over the Sonics in 1992. He went 2-2.

For fans of the American - and Stern - legal system, you can also search legal and criminal incidents. The first one noted on the site, though surely not the first time a pro basketball player ran afoul of the law, is from 1970, when Rich Johnson of the Celtics was arraigned in court on a charge of passing counterfeit $10 bills.

In 1971, Al Bianchi, Charlie Scott and Jim Eakins of the ABA's Virginia Squires were all found guilty of assault and battery and fined for their roles in a fight on December 23.

September 1988 was a bad time for a pair of Nets. Dwayne Washington was arrested for cocaine possession on September 26, while a day later, Duane Washington - different player - was arrested for possession after being found with several vials of coke.

And I never remember seeing this on the Come Fly With Me videos, but in 1989 Michael Jordan was cited for driving 90 miles per hour and not having a driver's license.

Yes, the site has everything. You can see the rise of the Celtics and Lakers and the demise of the Timberwolves and Cavaliers. You can look at the genius of Auerbach and the folly of Stepien. You can see Kareem being cited for pot possession. But I'd still like an explanation for Gene Berce.