Monday, March 28, 2011

The birthday boy

My dad Pat turned 64 today. I don't know that I've ever referred to him as "my old man" and now that he's getting dangerously close to having that phrase qualify as an accurate, dreaded description and not just a term of affection, I won't start now.

Dad taught me how to shoot a basketball, catch a football and field a grounder. He passed down his values, sense of humor and political beliefs. He's the second-biggest fan of my writing and the only reason he's not No. 1 is because my mom makes it impossible for anyone else to gain the top spot. Dad retired three years ago, at least in theory. He no longer drives 10 miles each day to Itron in Waseca. Instead he drives hundreds of miles a week, operating a van for a local bus company, ferrying kids to area schools. He always loved driving and he's loved retirement, but I'm not sure he's the biggest fan of driving during retirement.

He's stubborn, sometimes grouchy and always suffers from a "head full." He's a great dad and a better husband - he married my mom in 1968 and they're still together. I hope I'm as good of a spouse today, and some day I hope to be as good of a dad. He's also an awesome grandpa to my sister's five kids, though only one - my niece Brandi - has him wrapped around her finger.

Dad's 64. Seems hard to believe, since I can remember when he was my age - 35 (the Lakers won the title that year). But here are some thoughts that don't fit on a birthday card.

* Growing up, my dad idolized Eddie Mathews and Elgin Baylor. He loved the Milwaukee Braves and the Minneapolis Lakers. I'm sure he can still recite stats from the 1957 World Series, or at least the Braves' lineup. He cherished an autographed picture of Elgin. Minnesota lost the Lakers in 1960, Wisconsin said goodbye to the Braves five years later. He still sort of pulls for the Braves, the Atlanta version. I guess there are still some memories there of Mathews' left-handed swing, or maybe years of exposure to TBS finally broke him down.

But the Lakers? He stayed a fan through the torturous '60s, when Boston tormented Lakers players and fans, those in California and the ones left behind in Minnesota. Yet by the time I became a fully fledged Lakers fan - at the age of 5 - he had pulled away. And when the Celtics and Lakers renewed their rivalry in the 1980s, he cheered for the Celtics. A stunning reversal, which he never adequately explained. It might have had something to do with Kevin McHale's presence on the Celtics, the local boy-angle and all. Mostly, though, it gave him the chance to engage me in sports debates and arguments, which we've done from the moment I learned to talk, discussions that will continue until the day one of us stops talking forever.

A Lakers fan cheering the Celtics. Still baffling. And if Elgin knew about it? He'd ask for that autographed picture back.

* In 1995 and 1996 I spent the summer months playing on the Itron softball team, a ragtag group of has-beens and never-weres that lost much more than they won and looked bad doing both. But we had a blast.

Dad manned first base and I played shortstop. The first game I played with the crew, we upset one of the better teams in the Waseca league, a game that proved to be the highlight of the team's tenure. We made a nice combination in the field. At the plate, he actually outhit me. That's not as disgraceful as it sounds. Dad played softball for decades, I only started in '95. He always swung a good bat - for average, not power - and even at the age of 49 he routinely drilled shots into the outfield.

We only squabbled occasionally, usually because of the failures of a teammate. One time he complained after I threw it home to catch a runner, only to watch the ball bounce off the glove of our overmatched catcher. "Don't make that throw," he said, with a familiar edge in his voice, the voice I'd heard numerous times growing up, usually when talking about one of my turnovers or a missed free throw. I told him I'd keep making it, unless we were willing to surrender every time a runner rounded third base. But mostly we just had fun, no matter how lopsided the results on the field. I'd like to think that if we played together on a team now, I would be able to outhit him. But probably not. He had game.

* One trait I didn't pick up from dad: Guy's something of a neat freak, especially with his vehicles. You could eat off of the floor mats in his cars, if only he allowed you to have food in them. When he cleans his car inside and out, he looks like a man who's preparing for a first date or a trip around town with the president in the backseat. I always felt a little bad when he climbed into my car. Pick up the soda cans. Throw away the McDonald's bags. Hunt for a stray McNugget rotting under a seat. Vacuum - at least the front. His looks passed harsher judgment than his words.

* At a certain age, dad stopped playing me in one-on-one basketball. That age being whenever victory became impossible for him. I grew, he didn't, my jumper improved, his didn't, I gained a bit of quickness, he lost a bit more, and that was it. Yet long after those battles ended, he remained infuriatingly difficult to beat in H-O-R-S-E and free-throw competitions. He proved especially tough on his old homecourt, the farm he grew up on in southwestern Minnesota. Improbably, he'd hit hook shots and bank shots, straight-on bombs and sideline jumpers. The old basket attached to an older barn acted like a magnet for his shots, easing them through the battered net. My grandpa often watched these games, standing in his overalls off to the side, silently taking in the action. I think he was probably pulling for his grandkid, but I bet when I stalked off swearing and dad celebrated with a little cheer, he probably felt happy for his son. And now, when dad watches me battle my nephews, he's probably pulling for them, but I bet he's a little happy when his kid prevails.

* My mother-in-law Patricia only met my parents the weekend of our wedding. Being separated by an ocean cuts down on the family get-togethers. But during that lone meeting, she described my dad as a "quiet thunderstorm." You don't see him coming until it's too late. She said this after dad had consumed a few glasses of wine at our wedding reception. I'll say no more.

* Dad loves Dancing With the Stars. It's his new Milwaukee Braves. It's strange. I don't understand it, I barely accept it. Big fan. Strapped-into-his-seat-don't-dare-call-during-the-show type of fan. Gets upset about results. For all I know yells at the judges the same way he yells at basketball refs. And I thought his Celtics fandom was baffling.

* After I graduated from Saint John's in 1997, dad helped me land an interview to be a technical writer at Itron. The interview didn't go real well. I could write, but not technically.

"But I'm eager to learn."

I had answers, but not the ones they needed to hear.

"The best part of Microsoft Word? Well, Spellcheck is really handy."

I had the requisite desperation but probably didn't hide it well enough.

"I can start immediately! Today, in fact!"

I didn't get the job, which would have paid something like $38,000, a ransom for a recent college grad who majored in the vague arts of communication. Dad helped me get a foot in the door, but the people doing the hiring quickly - although politely - closed it. Regardless, I appreciated the opportunity. A few months later I landed a newspaper job and found a gig suited to my skills, if not my economic desires. I'm not sure how it would have worked if we shared a work building. If he complained about my throws to home plate on the softball field, what would he have said if he didn't like my description of the proper way to build an ERT? And would my response have been a fireable offense?

* Unless something's replaced it recently, I think Cool Hand Luke remains his favorite movie - and Luke himself his favorite character. That's cool. Better than listing Dancing With the Stars as your favorite show.

* For years we had a running joke in the family about dad's desire to write a letter to the editor. Whenever something upset him - whether on a national, state, local, neighborhood or household level - he threatened to write a letter to the editor. Which editor? Who knows? A paper's, presumably. We compared him to an odd man in our town named Fred who penned a letter-a-week to the little Janesville paper, thousand-word missives that touched on the Book of Genesis, wars, Jesus, death, crops, weather, Democrats, Republicans, vikings and Vikings, the Twins and kids these days.

But one day dad actually followed through. He wrote a letter to the editor and, more importantly, the paper published it. Like me, he learned the thrill of seeing your byline. He's since made other appearances, in newspapers like the Mankato Free Press and Minneapolis Star-Tribune. They're usually brief, simple shots that sting. I think he secretly hopes they'll bring out a response from someone on the other side of the issue. When he retired I worried about him spending his days writing manifestos to nonexistent editors at imaginary newspapers, but he's maintained a normal pace. And now, when he threatens to write a letter to the editor, we take him seriously.

* A few years ago I navigated my mom's junk room in the basement - I'm calling it mom's because dad sort of disavows it, even though a lot of the stuff in it is, in fact, his - and came across a box of love letters from way back when. Back to when my dad was out of high school and my mom still in it. He romanced and courted her, usually writing once a day.
Historians cherish long-lost letters and so do mourning children. But it
can definitely be a bit awkward reading letters from people who are still alive and well and sitting upstairs watching TV. Yet I didn't really feel weird. I won't go into the details - they weren't dirty, anyway; this was small-town America in the '60s, the Catholic Church probably censored the letters - other than to say dad didn't just win over mom with his goofy-yet-endearing looks. He had a way with words. Did he think some kid would rummage through the letters 40 years later? Probably not. But I think he believed he'd still be with that same girl four decades later.

* I've attended thousands of sporting events with dad. Little League baseball, town team baseball, T-ball, college, semi-pro, Major League Baseball, 7th grade basketball, 8th grade basketball...and onward, college basketball, pro basketball, junior college basketball, women's hoops and elementary kids basketball. All levels of football. We've consumed more bad popcorn than a hundred movie critics. He brought me along when I was a little kid and helped me learn how to count while looking at basketball scoreboards. When I was in school, he attended nearly every game I ever played, from first grade through college. Today he'll drive two hours to watch a grandkid play an hour-long game, then drive two more hours back home. In snow and ice.

If I was back in Minnesota today, I couldn't think of a better way to spend dad's birthday than attending a basketball game with him. We'd stop for a little dinner beforehand, get to the game, occupy our normal seats - either in the top row or near the court, depending on the arena - and then watch and talk hoops for two or three hours. On the drive back home we'd dissect the game and parts of the countless other ones we've seen over the years.

We'd get home, mom would have cooked up a little snack and we'd watch more sports on TV. At some point I'd wish him a happy birthday. He'd grumble about getting old, complain about his sore back.

But I'm 1,500 miles away, so I can only do one of those things.

Happy birthday, old m...Happy birthday, dad.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A tribute to The Captain

My dad turns 64 in about a week - even if he denies this - and that means in a few weeks Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will hit the same age. It's how I remember Kareem's birthday, because he's a few weeks younger than my dad. Or maybe it's how I remember my dad's birthday, because he's a few weeks older than the big fella.

You don't see a lot of Kareem these days, at least if you're looking on TV broadcasts or NBA sidelines. He never did land a head coaching job in the league and his calm, measured way of speaking probably wouldn't earn him an audition for studio jobs, where volume often trumps all else. But he's been popping up recently, promoting his documentary On the Shoulders of Giants. More Kareem's always a good thing.

Twenty-two years after his final NBA game, Kareem remains one of the most remarkable athletes in sports history. Like many Lakers fans who came of age during the Showtime Era, I worshipped Magic Johnson while also realizing Kareem was just as important - more important in some ways - to the team's success. He was unstoppable, but also seemingly unknowable, no matter how many times fans quoted his lines from Airplane. He didn't care much for the media, meaning the media didn't have much reason to care for him. He possessed the most unstoppable shot in the game's history, developed as a kid and perfected after college basketball's lords tired of his dominance and banned the dunk. He remained the Lakers' go-to player at the age of 40, even while playing with two fellow Hall of Famers. He owns the career scoring mark, but even that impossible-to-comprehend figure didn't protect him from criticism, as many attributed it simply to good genes. For certain stretches, he was the best player in his sport in three separate decades. He was The Captain. Here then, a few thoughts on Kareem, or, as Dick Stockton called him on Return to Glory, the Begoggled Wonder:

* Kareem grew up in Inwood, about 15 blocks from where I now live. But he went to high school at famed Power Memorial, which was at 61st Street but closed in 1984. Kareem - then Lew Alcindor - led Power to 71 consecutive victories. He graduated in 1965. Jack Donohue coached Kareem's team and left Power for the head job at Holy Cross in 1965. Probably a coincidence.

There's a great video on YouTube that has footage of DeMatha snapping Power's long winning streak. The first few minutes are filled with people in glasses jumping up and down, as the cameraman was apparently under directions to not film the actual game, no matter what was happening on the court. I think you'll figure out which player was Kareem.

Here's Big Lew as a high school sophomore with the other top prep players in the country. They appeared on Ed Sullivan's show in 1963, probably right before a family of jugglers.

Ed says Kareem's being compared to Wilt Chamberlain. A 15-year-old being compared to the most dominant player the game had ever seen. Just a little pressure. Yet 21 years later, that kid drilled a skyhook in Utah and passed Wilt on the all-time scoring list.

* A star forward named Edgar Lacey joined Kareem on that All-Sullivan squad. Kareem later played with him on the UCLA dynasty. And in 1969, Kareem, now an NBA rookie, wrote a remarkable story for Sports Illustrated, where he talked about his Olympic boycott, his debate about which pro league to join and the final UCLA title of his career. But he also criticized the one saint of college basketball, his own legendary coach, John Wooden.

Kareem criticized Wooden for his treatment of Lacey. When Houston defeated UCLA in the Game of the Century in 1968, Elvin Hayes dominated Lacey in the first half of the game, before Wooden benched Lacey in the second half. Kareem wrote that Wooden had a "blind spot" when it came to players who didn't completely agree with Wooden's view of the world. If you weren't morally in tune with Wooden, he might not play you or he'd make your life difficult. Lacey, Kareem believed, suffered unnecessarily because of it. After the Houston game, Lacey left the team. Kareem wrote:

"Lace was very much his own man. He did his own thing, and he did not alter his personality to suit whatever coach he was playing for. He would never become anybody's 'boy,' in the sense that Shack became Coach Wooden's boy.' So he found himself fighting for a starting position, while Shack got his automatically. And so help me, if I'm any judge of ballplayers at all, both Lace and Mike were better than Lynn Shackelford, despite the fact that Shack was one of the fine college players."

Later in the piece, Kareem wrote that he believed Wooden had, finally, changed and was not so unbending. And there's no doubt Kareem respected and admired his old coach. But he also always had the guts to criticize - he repeated those thoughts about Lacey years later in his autobiography. Imagine a Duke player writing a piece like that about Coach K today, seven months after winning a third national title. And in the same piece he discusses his conversion to Islam and his boycott of the sacred Olympics. Whose head explodes first? Coach K's, Dick Vitale's or Glenn Beck's?

* Kareem won 71 straight games at Power and 47 straight at UCLA. And in the pros, he led the Bucks to a then-record 20 consecutive victories. He also led Milwaukee over the Lakers during the 1972 season, snapping LA's record 33-game winning streak.

* His career high for points in a game? 55, against the Celtics in 1971. Kareem scored 50 or more points 15 times with Milwaukee, but never with the Lakers. His career high with LA came in 1975, when he scored 48 against Portland.

* Kareem appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated 22 times. The first one's below. Yes, that's him. No, not in the cheerleader's outfit. That's his leg and hand. SI used to run a lot of strange covers. It actually opened up to reveal all of Kareem. Still.

* You can't talk about Kareem without talking about the skyook. You can't even think about Kareem without thinking about the shot. It's the first image that comes to people's heads when hearing his name, with the second probably being his goggles.

He could shoot it with both hands and used it effectively while swinging to the baseline or gliding to the middle of the lane. It enabled him to be one of the few big men who was regularly called on in clutch situations. Especially today, but even throughout the game's history, guards usually dominate the ball in the closing minutes and final seconds. But Kareem's teams could throw it down to him, because unlike most post players, it didn't matter if opponents swarmed him. The skyhook was as effective over two guys as one. And he didn't need to be three or four feet from the hoop to score. The hook was good from 12 to 15 feet, more if The Captain felt especially frisky. Even in his later years with the Lakers, when he really only had the skyhook in his arsenal (along with an occasional drop-step move), the Lakers still went to him in the clutch. In Game 4 of the 1987 Finals, Kareem took the shot with the Lakers down 2 after Larry Bird's 3-pointer gave the Celtics the lead. He drew the foul but made only 1 of 2 free throws. Boston couldn't grab the rebound, however, and Magic hit a famous hook of his own. A year later, in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals, with the repeat in jeopardy, the Lakers again went to the old man. This time he drew a foul - a questionable one at that - on Bill Laimbeer. His two free throws gave the Lakers the victory and a game later they had back-to-back titles.

J.A. Adande wrote a good story on the hook. And here's a video on it.

In the video, several people lament the fact no one shoots a skyhook regularly today. My question: Where were all the skyhook experts in the 1980s? Or even in the 1970s. It's not like anyone challenged Kareem's dominance of the skies back then. Magic probably owned the second-best hook of the '80s, even though his was more of a rolling hook. It's always been a difficult shot to learn and nearly impossible to master. Really only one guy ever did. That shouldn't be used as an indictment against today's players. It's okay to wonder why players today haven't implemented it. But you could ask the same question of pretty much every player throughout the game's history.

Coincidentally, my dad's best go-to shot in H-O-R-S-E was always a hook. So maybe you had to have been born in 1947 to possess the skills for it.

* The 1985 Finals remain Kareem's greatest achievement. At 38, he averaged 25 points, nine boards, five assists and 1.5 blocks, as the Lakers defeated the Celtics for the first time and clinched it at the Boston Garden. And all of that came after the Memorial Day Massacre.

That series also produced my favorite Kareem story, which happens to be my all-time favorite story in Lakers lore.

The Celtics embarrassed the Lakers 148-114 in the first game. Pat Riley crushed the team at the next film session, especially Kareem. He kept rewinding the tape to show Kareem's mistakes, to show Robert Parish beating him up and down the court. Kareem usually sat in back at film sessions but for that one he planted himself right in front and took every Riley barb.

Before Game 2, one of the most important games in the Showtime era, Kareem got on the bus and asked Riley if his dad could ride to Boston Garden with him.

In his book Madmen's Ball, longtime LA Times writer Mark Heisler wrote:
"Riley had long rigidly enforced a rule that kept everyone but the traveling party off the bus. Now, he saw Kareem, who'd had his issues with his father, asking to keep his dad next to him and was moved to make an exception. In Riley's pregame speech, he recalled [his own dad] Lee's order to make that stand and told his players to remember what their dads had told them. As trainer Gary Vitti would note, 'We were into, like, this father thing.' It was May 30, 1985, the night the Lakers' world changed."

That image of Kareem riding to the game in silence with his dad - Big Al - next to him has always been one of the defining moments for the 1980s Lakers.

In Game 2, Kareem had 30 points, 17 boards and 8 assists. The rest was history. And so were the Celtics.

Kareem's highlights are never as jaw-dropping as Jordan's, Bird's, Magic's or Kobe's. They consist of long strides and a skyhook. And then more skyhooks. But if you threw every NBA player in history into one draft, why wouldn't you pick Kareem? He dominated the game in his youth, and he dominated it near the end of his career. He owned the one shot that could never be stopped and his will to win was as great as Jordan's or Magic's. He performed with mind-numbing consistency in the never-ending regular seasons and was even better in the clutch.

He was The Captain. And he might have been the best the game's ever seen.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Yeah, but could Salk sell a used car?

Lakers message boards aren't just filled with people demanding Kobe Bryant's retirement and Phil Jackson's firing. There are rational conversations about the real world as well.

For instance, someone posted a bizarre six-year-old poll that is as embarrassing to read today as it was then. In 2005, in a poll organized by interns at the Discovery Channel and AOL, nearly 3 million Americans who skipped a lot of history classes voted on the Top 10 Greatest Americans of All-Time. The results?

10. Franklin Roosevelt
9. Oprah Winfrey
8. Elvis Presley
7. Bill Clinton
6. George W. Bush
5. Ben Franklin
4. George Washington
3. Martin Luther King
2. Abraham Lincoln
1. Ronald Reagan

Now that's a hell of a list. The vote came a year after Ronald Reagan's death, so perhaps there was some nostalgia for the Gipper. In other words, if this poll had been taken in 1978, there's a decent chance three million people would have said Elvis was the greatest American of all time.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams? Who? Hemingway, Twain, Eisenhower, Susan B. Anthony? Important people all. But did they ever give cars away to a studio audience?

I thought of another omission: Jonas Salk. And this led me to read up a bit more on the famous scientist. And I started wondering about other made-up awards, such as Time's Person of the Year. A while back I wrote about Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, an honor that has had some dubious winners over the decades. Perhaps most notable? Jerry Lucas winning it in 1961 over Roger Maris. But SI had nothing on Time.

In 1955, Jonas Salk introduced his polio vaccine to the world. It's one of the greatest scientific accomplishments ever. Polio was a modern-day plague, nearly as feared, according to a PBS documentary, as the atom bomb. Only, with polio, school children couldn't survive it by hiding underneath tiny wooden desks. Salk's vaccine saved millions. The guy had a pretty good year.

Time's Person of the Year in 1955? Harlow Curtice. Old Harlow was the head of GM. In 1955, GM became the first corporation to earn a billion bucks in a year. Here's Time's story on Curtice. The money line:

"Harlow Curtice is the Man of 1955 because, in a job that required it, he has assumed the responsibility of leadership for American business. In his words, 'General Motors must always lead.'"

Curtice certainly had a good year, a memorable 12 months. Showed outstanding leadership. Helped GM dominate.

Didn't come up with the polio vaccine.

And it's not like Time had a bias back then against scientists. Five years later, the magazine named "American scientists" as the Person (sic) of the Year. The magazine picked 15 scientists, but Salk couldn't even make that cut. They came from all fields, including Edward Teller, who invented the hydrogen bomb, which might not have prevented tens of thousands of polio cases, but did scare the Soviets. It makes me wonder what Salk did to Time magazine. Cancel his subscription in 1954? Insult Henry Luce?

Every so often the magazine makes choices seemingly designed to make people talk. In 2006, it picked "You," which represented individual content creators on the Internet. So if you've ever written an email or left a racist comment on a newspaper website, put that honor on your resume. Earth - the Endangered Earth, to be exact - won in 1988, though it's unclear who picked up the award on the planet's behalf. Baby boomers were honored as a group in 1966 and they haven't stopped talking about it since.

The Award goes to the person who "for better or for worse...has done the most to influence the events of the year," which is why people like Stalin and Hitler have won it (Stalin actually won it twice, which surely made Hitler jealous). In recent years the magazine has shied away from controversial figures - in 2001, Rudy Giuliani won it over Osama bin Laden, who, most would agree, influenced events that year a bit more than New York's mayor.

An odd award. Still, not as strange as a poll that had Elvis being named the 8th-greatest American and Ronnie earning the top spot.

One other little-known fact about that 2005 poll. Number 11 on the list of the Greatest Americans of All Time?

Harlow Curtice.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Thoughts on the tourney, from Guy Lewis' towel to Big Lew

Following in the small footsteps of last year's NCAA tournament preview, here are some more notes on the upcoming festivities.

* I've written before about the old ESPN Final Four shows that the network started in the 1980s. Hosted by a young Bob Ley, they all followed the same format: first semifinal, commercial, second semifinal, commercial, final. In between, lots of shots of cheerleaders and coaches, classic '80s instrumentals and what often seemed like fake crowd noise, as if ESPN had some guy in a studio going, "Haaaaaaaa," and then spliced it in to, say, highlights from the 1987 final between Indiana and Syracuse. ESPN always had marathons of these shows around tourney time.

Here's the 1983 program, broken down into three parts. This was one of the classic Final Fours, with one of the more memorable semifinal games - the dunkathon between Louisville and Houston - and the most memorable buzzer-beater in tourney history: Lorenzo Charles's putback dunk.

This YouTube user has many of the Final Four films.

Back to 1983. On the first video, go to just past the 7:05 mark. It's one of the oddest moments in Final Four history, when Houston coach Guy Lewis threw his famous checkered towel at Louisville's Scooter McCray as he dribbled past the Cougars' sideline. Technical. Woody Hayes with a linen.

North Carolina State's run to the title is primarily remembered because of the amazing ending. But their entire final month was filled with improbable victories. This old ESPN story recaps the run. Among the tidbits:
- In seven of their last nine victories, the Wolfpack trailed in the final minute. Against Pepperdine in the tourney, N.C. state rallied from a six-point deficit in the final 25 seconds.

The entire Pepperdine game is online, but here's the relevant portion. It starts with the Wolfpack down two with 20 seconds to go in overtime. No three-point line remember.

* At some point in this tournament, a player expected to go high in the NBA draft will struggle and someone will use this as evidence that the guy isn't made for the big time. Too slow, too short, too ugly, too something. It shows they don't have the ability to shine when it matters most. And it may all be true. But I'm leery of those types of proclamations. Why? Because of Michael Jordan's final game. It came in the 1984 Sweet Sixteen, against Indiana, when the heavily favored Tar Heels fell to the Hoosiers and Indiana's Dan Dakich contained Jordan, holding him to 13 points on six-of-14 shooting. Did Portland perhaps use that game as evidence that maybe they should take Sam Bowie? Surely no; they used other, even stranger criteria to take the big fella from Kentucky - "Sure, he's suffered broken legs a few times, but now he's got them out of the way!" But still, if the Internet was around back then, someone would have said that performance proved Jordan didn't quite have what it took to dominate at the next level. He didn't know how to seize the moment, didn't know how to handle an inferior foe. Some top player will underachieve the next three weeks. We might never hear from them again. But they also might become an NBA All-Star.

* How about that 1984 North Carolina team? Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith in the starting lineup. The Tar Heels went 28-3, with a one-point loss against Arkansas, a two-point defeat against Duke and the four-point loss to Indiana. If any team was built to be the only one since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated, it was that team. And even if they didn't go unbeaten, they had to have been an overwhelming favorite for the title. But Indiana did have Dan Dakich. And Uwe Blab.

* John Wooden's numbers remain incomprehensible. Yet it's still jarring seeing UCLA's year-by-year records during their annual stampede through the NCAAs. When the Bruins won seven straight titles, a run that went from Alcindor to Walton, they racked up an overall record of 200-5.

* Only three teams with 10 or more losses have won the title. And those all came within a six-year span: North Carolina State went 26-10 in 1983, Villanova 25-10 two years later, and Kansas finished 27-11 in 1988. In fact, Arizona in 1997 and Indiana in 1981 are the only teams to ever lose nine games and still win the title. As much as the NCAA tourney is about upsets, in the end, the teams that win are the teams that have been dominating all season.

* Trivia question: When was the last time the Final Four was not held in a dome? East Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1996.

* I like this old SI cover, commemorating UCLA's victory in the 1968 tournament. Houston had defeated the Bruins earlier that year in the Game of the Century, a game where Kareem - Lew Alcindor - played with an injured eye. Lew was healthy for the rematch and UCLA drilled Houston 101-69 in the semis.

* ESPN just broadcast a two-hour show called Bracketology. Of all of ESPN's occasional crimes against sports, journalism and sports entertainment, the popularization of that word ranks somewhere between The Decision and the old shouting matches between Sean Salisbury and John Clayton. There are bracketologists, but rarely have I seen anyone called a bracketiatrist, who has more schooling and can prescribe downers to Digger Phelps.

And now here's the first time CBS played "One Shining Moment." The song might have outlived its usefulness. But who would have ever thought that a song that began with a video highlight of Dwayne Schintzius would become the anthem for an entire sport?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Offensive art

The above commercial is one of the classic ads from the 1980s, perhaps up there with "Where's the Beef?" and Apple's 1984 Big Brother ad. "Do you like to draw, or paint. Or maybe just sketch or doodle?"

If you did, you might have had what it took to be in the Art Instruction Schools. The Art Instruction Schools sent out a free test for students to see if they qualified. By the looks of it painters, sketchers and doodlers had to draw things like a house, a dog and a pirate. As a kid I sort of wish I had called the toll free number to get my free test.

It would have been interesting to see if I would have been the first person to ever score a zero on their exam.

Thousands of students have walked through the halls of Janesville High School and Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton. There's a decent chance I'm the worst art student in the school's history, someone whose projects might still be mocked by the poor teachers who were forced to grade them. My incompetence is one reason I so admire anyone with any semblance of art skill, whether it's the troubled geniuses whose works hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the drawings of my cousin Matt or nephew Brock. My friend John always made funky little projects - they combined things like toilet paper and Coke cans - that I thought were art, though a good friend of ours occasionally disagreed. Louise paints really cool abstract work that hangs in our apartment and always catches the eye of visitors. These people have the imagination and skill to pull these things off. I couldn't think of the projects, and even if someone thought of them for me, I never would have been able to execute them.

How could my hands, which effortlessly picked up ground balls on a baseball diamond or masterfully handled a ping-pong paddle or easily dribbled a basketball behind my back, fail me so miserably when asked to draw nothing more complicated than a human face?

I knew from a young age I had no skills with a paint brush or charcoal pencils. As I made my way through school I regressed instead of progressed. Someone, perhaps the state, should have stepped in early in my school days when I struggled to cut out a snowflake. Things only got worse.

My parents' basement holds all the key evidence; the projects, or, "projects," rot away down there, tucked away in boxes, like long-forgotten murder trial files collecting dust in a county courthouse basement. Only a mother could love these works, but if mine ever said she did, it would have been one of the few lies she's ever told in her life. But if she lied, she lied out of love, because only the cruelest of parents would have ever delivered an honest assessment of the work.

A few years ago during a trip home, I stumbled upon a bowl that had my sister Lisa's name on it. Maybe that meant she made it. It didn't look good. That probably meant I made it. I asked mom and she said I crafted it and gave it to Lisa as a gift, which sounds cute but when you look at the damn thing for more than three seconds begins to seem cruel. On the bowl, I scratched a series of letters that appeared to form the name Lisa Fury. The confusion over the bowl's creation is probably why it resides in the bowels of my parents' basement and not on a mantle in my sister's home. At least, that's probably the publicly stated reason. Shame is probably more likely.

One of the sculptures, which I think came in 7th grade, was, in theory, a turtle. It's nothing more than a green blog with black spots. And maybe a head. When the teacher saw this she must have experienced rage at my inability to execute her lessons, pity over my incompetence, or heatrbreak at her choice of profession.

In ninth grade, I drew a large picture of Nolan Ryan in action. For years I had it hanging in my bedroom, though I don't know why. To punish myself? In the picture, the Express appears to weigh 485 pounds and it's all in his gut. He spills out of his Rangers uniform. He possessed tiny arms in the drawing that didn't fit his body, the type of appendages you might have seen on a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but not on a Hall of Fame pitcher. I do have him throwing right-handed, so I got that part right. It's the little details.

It'd be unfair to say I underachieved in art class. I simply didn't have the physical ability to do it, just as surely some people don't have the physical ability to hit a baseball.

I blame my genes. My parents gave me a lot of great things - art skills were not among them. My occasionally indecipherable handwriting looks just like my dad's; I'm assuming his clay sculptures from school probably looked like mine too.

I struggled with the fine arts. The industrial ones were even worse. At Janesville, we had to take Industrial Arts in seventh and eighth grade, two quarters each year, alternating with home economics. The teacher once told my parents that he feared allowing me near the bandsaw. An unnecessarily cruel statement, albeit accurate. While other students in class constructed bookshelves that belonged in the libraries of presidents, I plodded along, attempting to make a little key holder. My final quarter I built a functioning bird feeder - which, like all of my projects never appeared in public but was instead stashed in a closet - but I think the only reason the teacher ever passed me was because I was good at hoops and he was the former girls basketball coach.

The arts remain a mystery to me. I admire anyone who can paint or draw, sculpt or sing. I admire them because I know how difficult it is to do any of those things well. And if I ever doubt how tough it is, all I have to do is visit my parents, head down into the basement, pull out an old box, and wince.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


A few days ago Louise said something I'd never heard from her before.

"Honey, I was speechless."

It happened while she took part in a rather strange business call with a man who wanted to talk with her about agenting. During the conversation, the man's arguments, complaints, proclamations and threats left her, as she said, "speechless."

Louise speechless. It hasn't happened often. In third grade, an exasperated teacher in South Africa chastised little Louise for speaking too much and called her a chatterbox, seconds before sending her out of the classroom and into the hall as punishment. Twenty years later, now in America, a professor called Louise a chatterbox, though he did not eject her from the classroom for her talkative ways and actually appreciated her contributions.

Louise can talk, and thank God, because if both of us were quiet, our marriage would consist of silent nights broken up only by occasional cursing during Lakers' games. At the same time, it's good she's married to me - she's guaranteed a receptive audience. And I'm lucky because Louise's speaking skills are surpassed only by her listening skills. Great speaker, great listener, great mixture.

She combines superb speaking abilities with a missionary zeal when it comes to getting a good deal, creating one of the most powerful consumer rights advocates in the free world, a job she actually dreamed about holding when growing up in South Africa (strange child). She's Ralph Nader with a sexier accent and better hair. Her beloved late grandpa - who taught Louise everything he knew, from working the system to picking locks - used to tell her not to be intimidated by anyone, because hardly anyone out there knows what's going on in the world. She's fearless, confident and quick on her feet. She's a master of improv but also always well-prepared - a potent combination. She can charm or prod doctors, dentists, telephone companies, celebrities, politicians, banking millionaires and music billionaires.

When our cell phone bill was 200 dollars higher than we expected, Louise spoke with an unfortunate nameless, faceless soul who eventually erased all of the extra charges, but not before telling her, "Ma'am, I'm going to take care of all of this, but you have me a little flustered and I just want to settle down for a few minutes."

When I lived in Fargo, Louise often traveled on Greyhound to see me, trekking across the country while calling every four or five hours to remind me of the sacrifice she was making out of love. On one never-ending trip across this great country, the bus driver kept the big rig on the road even after a young man suffered a seizure in the walkway. Louise demanded that the bus driver stop the bus so someone could call for medical attention. When the driver hesitated - there are schedules to keep and slogans to live up to, after all - Louise said she worked as a producer for a TV show that helps those who have been wronged by nefarious individuals or greedy companies.The driver stopped the bus. A passenger called 911. An ambulance arrived.

Her greatest speaking accomplishment happened two years ago, before her return flight from Cape Town. Delta canceled the scheduled flight and representatives from the airline told Louise and the other passengers to return the next day. There was a chance they'd be able to catch the next flight out. And there was a chance they wouldn't. Louise rallied the other passengers, priming them for a fight. The airline didn't have any right to treat them like this! Like, like, like cattle, to be herded in and out of hotels and terminals. With Louise leading the charge, the airline agreed to pay for hotel rooms and meals for everyone who had been bumped. They all agreed to meet at the terminal the next day to demand that everyone left behind would be guaranteed a seat on the next flight out of the country.

But Louise arrived earlier than everyone else. A lone representative from Delta stood at the gate. Again Louise used a lot of charm and a bit of bullying. She laughed with the employee behind the counter and praised the woman for her hard, thankless work. Louise bonded with the woman, but also didn't let her forget the horrors Delta had put her and the other passengers through 24 hours earlier.

The woman upgraded Louise to first class, for no additional cost. The 20-hour torture flight turned into a day of luxury. The other passengers wandered to the gate after Louise and stood dumbfounded as she boarded first. By the time attendants ushered the other passengers toward the back of the plane, Louise had already downed a glass of champagne and was reclined in her spacious seat, covered in a blanket.

In the classic movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, John Candy's character spends much of the movie making ends meet by selling shower curtain rings. Along the way, he picks up a little extra cash and a ride. But eventually Steve Martin's character realizes the shower curtain ring gig can only go so far. When asking about a rental car, he asks Candy, "How could you rent the thing anyway without a credit card? You couldn't. How could you do it?"

"I gave this gal behind the counter a set of shower curtain rings."

"You can't rent a car with shower curtain rings," Martin replies, and he was right, Candy's character couldn't, and didn't.

But Louise could. Because she can talk her way into anything or out of any situation.

So Louise speechless? It might have been the first time in 33 years Louise found herself in such a state. It will likely be 33 more before it happens again.