Monday, January 31, 2011

Duck, duck...goose?

I never knew how different Minnesotans were compared to everyone else until I moved 1,500 miles away. By different I don't mean worse, weirder or inferior, but I also don't mean better. Just...different. Specifically with words. Everyone knows about the great pop-soda debate that rages coast to coast while no one out here could identify a hot dish.

Last night, another example.

Louise told a story. At one point she talked about the children's game "Duck, duck, goose." I chuckled. My poor foreign wife, all confused again over a classic American game. Duck, duck, goose?

"You mean duck, duck, gray duck, right?" I asked. She insisted it was goose. My mockery soon turned to pity. I wondered if she also chanted "Blue rover, blue rover, send Kyle right over," with her Cape Town schoolmates.

"Honey," I explained, "we played it all the time in school. Teachers taught us. It's definitely duck, duck, gray duck." But while I pitied and mocked her, she did the same to me.

"Shame," she finally said, with a tone of voice she'd use if I told her I still believed in Santa. "You really believe you're right."

To the Internet. Wikipedia, first paragraph of the, hmmm, duck, duck, goose entry:
Duck, Duck, Goose is a traditional children's game often first learned in pre-school or kindergarten. The object of this game is to walk in a circle, tapping each child's head until you finally choose one to be the new picker. It is called different things around the world. In Minnesota, it is called 'Duck, Duck, Gray Duck.'

So there. I was right. But wait. Only in Minnesota do children play gray duck? A fact that's apparently so odd it has to be called out in a Wikipedia entry? So we were both right, but I suppose, since Louise has the rest of the world behind her as supporting witnesses, she might have been more right. In fact, it gets worse for my side of the argument. Wikipedia's anonymous writers and editors report, "In parts of the US state of Minnesota the game is called Duck Duck Gray Duck, with "gray duck" replacing "goose" as the designation for the next picker." Now it's not even every town in the Land of 10,000 Lakes? How small is this part of Minnesota? Did just southern Minnesotans play gray duck? Just Janesville kids?

Duck, duck, goose. Never heard of it. Really, that's what everyone else plays? Which Minnesotan changed it, and why? Is it the same person who insisted on calling casseroles hot dishes?

Incidentally, Duck, Duck, Goose (gray duck) has a 1,600-word entry on Wikipedia, which is excessive by about 1,356 words.

The Fury household has been home to several of these types of debates. A few months ago, Louise refused to believe me when I told her you used your mouth to frown. She said it had to do with the brow. No, you furrow a brow, I said, you frown with your mouth. Turn that frown upside down, etc., a line an eternal optimist like Louise should be familiar with. Again we hit the Internet. And again...we were both right, and both wrong:
The appearance of a frown varies from culture to culture. Although most technical definitions define it as a wrinkling of the brow, in North America it is primarily thought of as an expression of the mouth.

Again, though, Louise was more right. It's humbling, being a writer and copy editor who's often stumped and topped by his wife's knowledge of the language.

We've had other disagreements over definitions and more serious difficulties over interpretations. A year before our wedding, we drove from New York to Fargo, where Louise would spend several weeks living like a Midwestern housewife. We'd be around each other all the time, except when I was working. Somewhere in Ohio, Louise started worrying about our upcoming attempt to play couple. She wondered if I'd get sick of her being around so much.

I took the next exit off the interstate and pulled my Cavalier into a rest stop. Turned the car off. Took her hands into mine. Looked into her eyes. Looked into her soul. Took a deep breath. Smiled.

"Honey, I can't spend too much time with you."

"Oh," she replied.

Turned the ignition on. Pulled back on the interstate, satisfied that my statement qualified as the most romantic event since Richard Gere hauled his gal out of the factory at the end of Officer and a Gentleman. If I didn't have my hands on the steering wheel in a classic 10-2 fashion, I might have given myself a pat on the back. After 15 minutes of silence, I couldn't understand why Louise still seemed depressed, mopey. When I asked, she said, "You can't spend too much time with me? That's supposed to make me feel better? That you can't spend too much time with me?"

Wait, wait, huh? I went over the sentence in my head. I can't spend too much time with you. Ah, I see the misinterpretation. It sounds like I'm saying spending much time with her would be a drag, that I can't picture being stuck with her for too long. But what did I mean? That no matter how much time I spent with her - even if it was 24 hours a day for six weeks - it wouldn't be enough. Not close to enough time. There, doesn't that sound better? She finally understood, and believed me. A few minutes later, Delilah came on the radio with her soothing voice and a relaxing song and all was fine.

Then a few years ago, it was Louise's turn. As I lamented something about a writing project - probably wondering when I'd write another book and why hadn't it happened yet - she said, lovingly, "How much potential do you think you have?"

Well, I thought quite a bit, until you put me in my place with that statement and convinced me that I was delusional, a fool. How much potential do I think I have? Not much, I guess. Thanks, honey. That's what I heard. But she meant that I'd already accomplished a lot, that I was already ahead in whatever imaginary career game I was playing in my head. I'd written a book, done some other things. In other words what was I upset about, what was I supposed to have done at that point? Surpassed Frank Deford?

Again, interpretations.

I'm sure more incidents like that will come up, although even with those two examples, I think her shot hurt more than mine. We'll eventually talk our way through these confusing debates, explaining what we really meant.

But some disagreements will remain forever unresolved, destined for debate. But I know I'm right. You frown with your mouth. And when a group of small kids sit around a circle tapping each other on the head before chasing each other, they're playing Duck, Duck, Gray Duck.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

The time Duke led UNC 7-0 at halftime

When played correctly - the "right way," as Larry Brown loved to say at all 37 coaching stops in his career - basketball is fast-paced, often beautiful to watch. But basketball's also unique, in that one team can slow the game down to accentuate its strengths, or hide its weaknesses. No matter how long a pitcher takes between pitches - an average of 49 seconds it seems during an average Yankees-Red Sox game - he eventually has to confront the hitter. Football teams can milk the clock with a running game, but it's not the same. Stalls are unique to hoops. In the pros and college it's now impossible for teams to execute them. But in high schools, where most states don't utilize a shot clock, it's still possible for one team to take the air out of a ball and turn a hoops game into two hours of torture.

Last week in Texas, a highly ranked team won three overtimes. Flower Mound survived to defeat Plano West, which usually held the ball for more than a minute and maintained possession for the final 2:30 of regulation. It's the kind of game that, if you saw it, say, every 10 years, might be entertaining. Watch that type of effort on a consistent basis and you might be calling for congressional hearings to shut down the sport.

But nothing compares to the slowdown efforts perfected by North Carolina legend Dean Smith, whose four corners offense gave the Tar Heels numerous victories but earned them few fans. Smith's teams usually possessed superior talent, and those superior players killed the clock as helpless foes chased the ball and point guards like Phil Ford. The four corners usually appeared at the end of games. But not always.

At the end of the 1979 season, the Tar Heels hit the road to face rival Duke, in a game that set the game of basketball back to about five minutes after Naismith put up the first peach basket. North Carolina had defeated Duke 74-68 earlier in the season. Yet in the rematch in Durham, Smith's troops held the ball. And held the ball. Then held it some more. Duke scored after gaining the tip, surging to a 2-0 lead. The Tar Heels held the ball for the next 11 minutes. The reason? Smith wanted Duke to come out of its 2-3 zone. The Dukies finally deflected a pass but after inbounding the ball, North Carolina held it for two more minutes, before turning it over. Mike Gminski hit a free throw to make it 2-0 with 5:43 remaining.

The Blue Devils added a pair of field goals before the buzzer and went into halftime leading 7-0. North Carolina took two shots in the first half, including a half-courter at the buzzer. Neither hit the rim. The first, by Rich Yonakor, led to the Duke crowd chanting "airball." Basketball historians who specialize in such trivial matters, believe that's the first time a crowd chanted "airball." Considering the Tar Heels entered the game ranked fourth in the nation, it should have also turned into the first game where a crowd chanted "overrated."

In the second half Carolina played a real game, but still lost, 47-40.

It's a game that will never be forgotten, even if it should have been. And now, thanks to YouTube, the game - two minutes of it, anyway - can be seen forever.

Behold, basketball at its...well, it's basketball. Sort of.

There's no sound on the clip, which adds an eerie element to one of the oddest games ever. Some nice bounce passes by the Tar Heels, good hustle by the Blue Devils. Following this game, you'd think the NCAA would have implemented a shot clock in time for the following week's games, but the 45-second clock actually didn't appear until the 1986 season. In 1982, Sports Illustrated wrote a story pleading for a shot clock, citing games such as "Missouri beating Kansas 41-35 and 42-41; Virginia beating North Carolina State 39-36 and 45-40; Notre Dame making 213 passes before shooting in one possession against Kentucky; and North Carolina making 15 foul shots and no field goals in the last 12 minutes of its game at Clemson."

Two hundred and thirteen passes? And Hickory's players thought Norman Dale was too conservative.

Low-scoring games still exist, of course. But blame ineptitude for those games, not obscene coaching. Stalls live on in Texas and in high schools across the land, but they're thankfully extinct everywhere else. Dean Smith won 879 games. But it's one of his losses that remains one of the most memorable games of his career. Or at least, the most infamous.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Putting things in perspective

Last Thursday, a high school basketball player in Minnesota named Zach Gabbard collapsed on the court during a game. Spectators, including a nurse and a doctor, rushed to help Gabbard, a junior at Perham High School. They used a defibrillator but he still didn't have a pulse when paramedics arrived at the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton gym. Paramedics rushed him to a hospital in Fargo, where he underwent heart surgery. A few days later he was transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he remains in critical condition.

Online, tens of thousands of people - nearly 60,000, in fact - have visited a Caring Bridge website dedicated to Gabbard. More than a thousand have left messages of support for Gabbard and his family. The messages come from those who have known Gabbard all his life and those who have never met him. They express condolences, wish him well and pray for his recovery.

It's a heartbreaking story, crushing, devastating to his family and friends, but also to the entire state and, really, athletes everywhere. Gabbard is being treated at one of the best medical facilities in the country, but there's no guarantee the story has a happy ending.

And inevitably, someone will say events like that put sports in perspective. It's the same line you always hear after a tragedy, whether it was the shooting in Tucson, a car accident that kills several teenagers, someone being hit with a cancer diagnosis or even September 11. Perspective. Yes, tragedy puts sports in perspective.

I hate that line. Whoever says it or writes it is obviously sincere and well-meaning. It's a way to say health and life and family and friends are the most important things in our lives, not the result of a basketball game. All true.

But we only seem to hear it after a death, or a near-death. And by saying it then, the line begins to sound less like a declaration of correct priorities, and more like gratitude for a tragedy.

Without this event, we wouldn't be able to put sports into perspective. It makes the victims of the tragedy - whether they were in the Trade Towers, a Tucson parking lot or a high school basketball game - sound like they almost needed to be sacrificed so that we could finally put sports into their proper context. Without these tragedies, the thinking seems to go, we would lose sight of the fact they're just games. So, while we're sorry for your loss and for the heartbreak and for the fact your life will never be the same, your loved one's death served a greater good: it put sports in perspective for the rest of us.

Do people really mean that when they say it? Almost certainly not. But that's how it ultimately sounds.

Another question: Wouldn't one tragedy be enough to gain perspective? Instead, a person who says that line after one event, will probably say the same thing years later after another horrific event. So the first death put things in perspective, but then you forgot and needed another tragedy to be reminded? And in 10 years will need another?

Maybe for some people an event like Gabbard's collapse really does alter their outlook. Maybe a college kid who was thinking of becoming a coach changes their major to nursing. But most often it simply sounds hollow, a space-filler.

Sports are important. They do matter. Just like art, music, acting, dancing, laughing, writing and teaching. Sports still matter for the kids at Perham because they can bring people together. When the basketball team returns to the floor, Gabbard will be with them in so many ways, even though he's not there in the most important way. The next game Perham plays will be the most emotional of the season, the toughest of the players' lives. The game will unite the team and the town, the players and the parents. It will remind them why sports do matter, why they do invest so much in them - physically, emotionally and financially.

Yet at the end of the game and the end of the night, Gabbard will remain in a hospital room at the University of Minnesota, his future uncertain.

Is there anyone who really needed that outcome to keep things in perspective?

You shouldn't need to read about a high school kid collapsing to realize how lucky you are to be in good health. You shouldn't need an untimely death to appreciate life. And even when sports are your life, you shouldn't need tragedy to put them in perspective.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Books & Buckets

This afternoon, my uncle's Minnesota West women's basketball team lost a heartbreaking 68-66 game against perennial power Anoka-Ramsey, which is the No. 1 team in the nation in the NJCAA's Division III rankings. Minnesota West came into the game ranked ninth. At one point the Lady Jays led by 20, before the Golden Rams - who have been beating teams by 20, 30, 40, 60 points during the year - put on a furious rally and survived a last-second 3-point attempt.

During the game, my cousin kept me up to date on the game with text messages. So I followed from afar as she reported on the happenings, which she only knew about because someone was texting the scores to her from the gym. Up five early. Up 12 late in the first half. Only ahead by five now, but a key player fouled out. Up four, then tied. Then the next text didn't arrive for a few minutes. I could have almost predicted the result: Anoka-Ramsey wins. The last time my cousin texted me results of the Lady Jays' games was 11 months ago at the state tournament. That night, just like today, Minnesota West lost a close one, that time in the semifinals. The lesson? A superstitious person might think it's bad luck having my cousin text me updates.

Minnesota West will face Anoka-Ramsey later in the regular season. And, if both teams take care of business, they could again square off in the state tournament and again in the region. From there? Minnesota teams have won 11 of the last 19 national championships. If the Lady Jays and Anoka do meet in the state tournament, they'll fight to see who's the best team in Minnesota. And one of them could then very well be the best in the nation.

I wandered down to our local library today and came back with four books. One is "The Complete Poetical Works of Keats." The library doesn't stamp the books anymore when they're checked out, so perhaps the book has left the premises in the past 30 years. But in the front, where the kindly, bespectacled librarians used to stamp it, is one lonely entry: Nov 9 1981. Wonder who took it? And did they return it on time or pay a fine? The book possesses that Old Book Smell, which is neck-in-neck with New Car Smell for best scents. How old is this book? It came out in 1899. This one isn't a newer version; the only listed copyright is the 1899 one and the Editor's Note was also written that year, 78 years after Keats' death. Keats only lived 25 years, but his works have lived on forever. And, in Inwood, so too do his collected works, even if very few people know it.

Bemused, bordering on morbid, curiosity sparked my interest in another book. "Apocalypse Next: The End of Civilization as we know it?" Well, at least it included a question mark. William R. Goetz wrote the book and it first came out in 1981. Thankfully this has nothing to do with the Mayan 2012 End of the World nonsense that will become unbearable next year, although, hopefully, people will stop believing in it once the calendar hits January 1, 2013. Goetz deals with the Bible, a favorite source of inspiration, guidance, spirituality and mass death.

Fanatical believers in the apocalypse fascinate me, provided they don't go out of their way to bring about an event they can't wait to arrive. A guy named Harold Camping has been in the news lately because he believes the world is ending on May 21 of this year. In other words, if you've been putting off that trip around the world or buying that big-screen television, go ahead and charge it all to the credit card. No one's going to be around in five months to harass you on the phone for payment. Camping's actually traveling with an "End Times Caravan," spreading the good word about the bad times ahead. He's done this before, previously predicting that the world would end in 1994. When it comes to predictions and guarantees, Camping's record is only slightly better than Patrick Ewing's. Yet many believe him. And when the sun rises on May 22 - well, likely rises - he'll readjust his readings of the Bible and come up with another new date. And when that time comes, he'll find plenty of people willing to hop on another caravan, perhaps one called End Times Caravan: This Time It's For Real.

Goetz relies on the Bible too. In the version I have, the 10th printing of the book, Goetz doesn't offer any exact dates, only readings of Scripture. Goetz writes about a rising Babylon, red, white and black horses and all the other standards of Revelations and the Rapture. He does give some predictions:
An invasion of Israel by "the Russian confederacy." Then the leader of the revived Roman Empire - toga! toga! toga! - "collaborates with the global false church in the initial stages of the Antichrist's rule." Things get worse from there.

Stories about Camping and other Rapture revelers often report that scholars say end times prophecies thrive during times of war and economic struggle. In other words, they thrive at all times. The world today, with high-profile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and low-profile ones in other places, coupled with the economic debacle of the past few years, convinces people that our times are the worst ever, so of course Jesus - or whoever - will come down and put an end to things. But there have always been wars and economic trouble, the severity of which depended on where you lived. The 1400s were a time of peace? The 1700s? The 1910s? The '40s? Wars and economic troubles aren't any excuse to believe in the Rapture. If you want to believe it, offer more proof than the type of headlines that could have been written at any point in human history.

The world might end in 10 years or in a million. Or maybe not for a few billion when the sun finally burns out. And if it does end when humans are still around, the only good thing is the zealots will only have a few seconds when they can say, "Told you so."

Saturday, January 15, 2011

How spam boosts a writer's confidence

Last week I emailed a book proposal I've been working on to Louise, hoping to get her thoughts on the content and the format. Louise has always been my most trusted editor, even if she's reading about sports, a subject that's so foreign to her, the only thing she really knows is that the word itself is spelled with six letters. But she knows writing. She knows what works, and, more importantly, what doesn't.

But she can be a brutal editor. Straight-forward, occasionally tactless, always honest - even when I simply want her to lie to me.

And even from Cape Town, her edits and thoughts have the ability to eviscerate my confidence. She offered a few suggestions and she delivered them in a cheery voice with a great accent. Still they cut. Like always when she offers critiques, I felt like crawling into a ball on the couch while cursing everything about writing. Why do I do this? Why did my old English teacher ever encourage me? Why does my mom always say she loves my writing? Can I still go to law school, and, if so, would Louise be this harsh when reading my closing arguments? Eventually I calm down and regain my poise, if not my confidence. I consider Louise's suggestions and realize they're perfect edits and that she's only helping me. She's not trying to break me down. In fact, this is why I go to her for advice, because she is so spot on with her thoughts and words.

But a guy could use a confidence boost. So I turn to the spam comments on my blog. This isn't the traditional spam, the ones everyone's so familiar with. There are no pleas from Nigerian princes or housewives for money and no products offering up unique - and cheap - ways to enlarge male genitalia. No, these messages are more subtle, kinder. They soothe and encourage. They flatter and praise. And they can make anyone believe they've written something worthwhile.

The comments appear on my blog and occasionally break through the spam detector and get published. But most get caught. Maybe I should let them all slide through.

"I am really glad I came across this blog. Added to my bookmark!"

So kind, especially the exclamation point.

After a blog post about New York, some anonymous computer or bored Russian said, "What a nice post. I really enjoy reading these types of articles. I can't wait to see what others have to say."

Sure, perhaps Louise thinks one of my chapter ideas needs to be fleshed out a bit, but why should that make me question my projects when someone writes - in response to a blog about newspaper comments - "Fine article! Could you follow up on this great matter!" I could, and did, and why wouldn't I when a spammer is so eager to see more of my work?

In a post centered on high school basketball records, a spammer said, simply yet eloquently, "Beautiful post, great ))" I don't know if the double parenthesis were supposed to be smiley faces or what, but the sentiment is still appreciated.

Occasionally the comments do have concerns, they're not always encouraging. But they're still not as harsh as Louise's edits:
"Hey, great post. Though I'm not sure I agree with you 100% Keep em coming. Are you interested in having anyone guest post opposing views?"


Another added, "Nice post, kind of drawn out though. Really good subject matter though." Kind of drawn out? I realize I sometimes write long, but do the robots have to point it out? Or, if written in the form of spam, do the robots have to point it out, though.

Even those from other countries appreciate my posts. "British isn't my main language yet I could comprehend this when using the google translator. Terrific publish, have them coming. Say thanks!"

A spam that demands good manners. So, thanks. British isn't my first language, either, and, really, that comment is more a compliment for the engineers at Google. Still, it's a nice thought, something any writer would enjoy.

In the end, of course, Louise's critiques are much more valuable than the ones offered up by some computer located thousands of miles away. And she's actually mostly encouraging. She's my most enthusiastic fan, in addition to being a brilliant editor.

The spams are a mirage, offering up praise without, I'm guessing, really reading all of the material. Does the spam really agree with me about the absurdity of the comments on newspaper websites? Was it really a brilliant post? I wonder.

Besides, I sort of suspect those comments aren't really spam at all. I think mom left them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Still arguing over calls from the 1980s

The worst call in the history of basketball. Eight words, one sentence. But a phrase that conveys so much. Use it while watching in a gym or in a recliner at home. Yell it at refs or mutter to friends.

My old college coach always used that line, sometimes after calls that really were horrendous, sometimes when he simply wanted to utilize some hyperbole. Over the years I've said it dozens of times, usually jokingly, but not always.

But now I think I have found the worst call in the history of basketball. Or, you know, at least one of them.

And for it, we go back to the 1987 NBA Finals. It's Game 6, the game when the Lakers ran past the Celtics in the second half and clinched their fourth title of the decade, capping one of the most dominant seasons in franchise history.

There are actually three horrific calls in this clip:

First, a charge call when Magic bumps a flopping Jerry Sichting.

Then, the next time down the court, the other guy who saved the NBA gets called for a terrible charge as well, when Bird bumps into Mychal Thompson on a drive. As Chick Hearn said, it was a "cosmetic call," a makeup for the atrocity against Magic. The Bird call is terrible. But not the worst call in the history of basketball. For that, go to the end of the video. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who already has four fouls, knocks into Bird. The Lakers get called for a foul, although it probably could have been called on Bird.

Okay. Bad. But what makes it the worst call in the history of basketball? The ref gives the foul to James Worthy. Watch it again. The play happens right in front of the ref, but as he walks toward the scorer's table, he signals that it's on Worthy, who was several feet away from the play! Amazing. It seems possible the ref realized it was going to be Kareem's fifth foul and gave it to Worthy, who looks perplexed. Bizarre, no matter what the rationalization.

And now a few words about a play that was not the worst call in the history of basketball. Earlier today I again discussed with someone the final seconds of Game 7 of the 1988 Finals. The Lakers edged the Pistons by three points, earning a repeat title. The controversy happens in the final two seconds and for 22 years, Pistons fans - and other people who perhaps don't always support the purple and gold - have contended that the Lakers got away with one.

To the video. The controversy comes just past the 1:40 mark:

Bill Laimbeer drains a 3 to cut the Lakers' lead to 1. Magic takes the inbound pass, and finds AC Green for a layup that puts the Lakers up 3 with two seconds left (Green probably should have just dribbled out the clock). It did not, despite Dick Stockton's words, win the game for the Lakers. Pistons could still tie it. But as the fans and photographers swarm the court - and as the Lakers bench begins to run off it! - Laimbeer throws a pass downcourt to Isiah Thomas. Thomas falls, the buzzer sounds and the Lakers, finally, do win it.

Pistons fans always complain about two things: The fans came onto the court before the game ended, and that Magic fouled Isiah on the last play.

One complaint is legitimate, the other isn't. It is a bizarre ending. There were still two seconds left, the Pistons - who were out of timeouts - could still tie it. Yet there are fans on the court. A dweebish ballboy jumps up and down - on the court. The Lakers players are on the court. Pat Riley, who perhaps should have been worrying about the defense still, is on the court, headed to the locker room. Laimbeer actually has to throw the full-court pass while a photographer snaps pictures a few feet in front of him - on the court. Obviously the refs should have cleared the court. Would the Pistons have tied it up? Highly unlikely. But they should have had a court setting that didn't resemble Walmart at the opening of Black Friday.

As for the alleged foul on Magic? That's where Pistons fans should shelve the whining. It's impossible to tell from the camera angle if Magic hit Isiah. It looks just as likely that Isiah, who played on a badly sprained ankle and hobbled around all game, fell as Magic stepped near him. I've seen that game dozens of times but have never seen any other angle on the play. Maybe a different camera tells a different story.

But even if Magic had fouled him, it wouldn't have been a shooting foul. And if the refs had somehow made the worst call in the history of basketball and called it a shooting foul, Isiah still couldn't have tied the game at the line. Why? Because in 1988 the NBA still only gave a player two free throws if he was fouled on a 3-pointer. The three free throws rule didn't come into play until the 1995 season. So Isiah would have had to make the first, miss the second and hope that Buddha Edwards or Laimbeer or Salley or Rodman or Chuck Nevitt or someone, anyone, could have tipped in the ball for the tie. Possible? I suppose. But hardly likely. And hardly reason to still complain 22 - make that 23 - years later.

And there's more. But not much, I promise.

Watch Laimbeer's pass again. As he throws it, he steps over the line, an obvious violation. The refs should have cleared the court, yes. But they let it play out. And because they did, they should have whistled Laimbeer for the violation. Was the pass made more difficult by the fact he fired it over the head of a photog? Well, sure, although, to be honest, the photographer was short. But still, Laimbeer's right leg goes over the baseline. The game should have ended with the Lakers throwing the ball in under their own hoop.

Poor crowd control by the stripes? Of course.

The worst call in the history of basketball? Nah.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Science of Sports - in 1962

Louise is still half a world away so doesn't know this yet, but during my trip to Minnesota I again raided my parents' basement and dug through some of my old boxes of books that are still taking up space. I brought seven or eight, maybe nine or ten, back with me, as I slowly reacquaint myself with the volumes I'll again be in possession of whenever my folks finally make good on their threat to downsize to a smaller home.

The books I brought back? Couple of David Halberstam classics - The Best and the Brightest, and The Powers that Be - along with a few Stephen King books.

But another one that made the cut came out long before I started collecting books. My dad or, more likely, one of my uncles must have bought it and it stayed out on the farm for decades, before I took a couple of boxes of my grandpa's collection. It's called Here's Why: Science in Sports. A man named George Barr wrote it and it was published in 1962. Barr, according to the inside of the book, served as a "consultant in elementary science Board of Education, New York City."

The book cost 45 cents.

And what did it promise you for a quarter and two dimes? The answers to these questions:
Ever wonder why most fast-ball pitchers are tall?
A football lineman crouches?
Basketball shoes are like "4-wheel brakes?"

The book deals primarily with the big sports: Baseball, football and basketball, along with a section on "the athlete's body." Other sports, including the broad jump, are lumped together in a single chapter, relegated to the back of the book, though they too receive the complete scientific treatment.

Barr provides the words but the book's illustrations are just as valuable for young athletes and budding scientists, and those were provided by Mildred Waltrip. The baseball section begins with pitching.

"The pitcher is one of the most important players on the baseball team. Upon him usually depends the success or loss of a game. Because of the sensitive nature of his work, all his teammates pamper him. They try in every way to save his strength and his nervous system."

And just think, Barr wrote those words four decades before starting pitchers were pampered to such a degree that they're now universally applauded anytime they go past six innings. I'm guessing solid fielding and eight runs per game would save a pitcher's nerves. Barr does note that "on average, 100 to 150 pitches are made by one pitcher during a game." A hundred and fifty. Yes, the game's changed.

Wanna know the diameter of a pitching mound? Barr offers up an experiment anyone can do at home, provided they own a No. 2 pencil and lack friends:

"Hold a pencil or a stick vertically at arm's length. Sight past this object toward the pitcher when he is in the center of the mound. Compare the height of the pitcher and the diameter of the mound by making reference marks on the pencil. Suppose you find that the mound diameter is about three times the height of the pitcher. Assuming that the pitcher is about 6 feet tall, the diameter of the mound would be 18 feet. Try this next time you see a professional game on TV or at a stadium. You will find that not all ball parks have similar pitchers' mounds."

Only three more months and you can try it yourself.

When Barr wrote his book, baseball obviously ruled America. The NFL was still years away from becoming the most popular sport in the country and basketball, for the most part, was still being played completely on the ground and wasn't even close in popularity.

Like a modern scientist, Barr confronts player safety in football. Again, an experiment, this time when explaining how helmets absorb punishment:
"Strike your skull with the eraser part of a pencil. Use enough force to make it annoying. Now place a stiff piece of cardboard, or a thin hard-covered book against your head. Strike the book with the pencil held in the same way as before. Use the same part of the head and, of course, the same force. You will find that your head does not feel the annoying shock in one spot. You will also find that the pressure is decreased."

Barr must have been one of the leading pencil scientists in the country. No matter the sport, give the man a pencil - and an eraser - and he could break it down like John Madden with a telestrator. I'm picturing my dad reading this book when he was 15 years old, standing in his bedroom, hitting himself in the head with a pencil, then again, only this time with a stray piece of cardboard acting as protection. Hey, during bad winters they were occasionally stuck out on the farm for days at a time. No cable, few provisions, no Internet, you did science experiments during your free time to keep from going mad.

A football, Barr wrote, can be called "a prolate spheroid," which sounds more like a dinosaur than a ball. It also sounds like a phrase a husky former lineman who recently finished a crossword puzzle would use in the announcers' booth today, something like, "I tell ya, Joe. When the prolate spheroid hit Owens in the abs, it took the wind out of him and he landed on his gluteus maximus."

On to hoops. "Basketball is one of the fastest foot games on earth. Only players who are in topnotch condition can play the strenuous game."

Barr obviously didn't anticipate my Wednesday night basketball league.

"Many players use two hands for set shots. In recent years, more and more of these shots are being made with only one hand. Some coaches feel that with one hand there are fewer muscles used which can upset one's aim." My friend Mike, a master of the two-handed set shot, or at least a practitioner, should have played thirty years before he did.

It's possible that Barr was a guy on the short side. Or he lost a lot of girlfriends to taller guys who also blocked his two-handed set shots. When talking about the competitive nature of the sport, he wrote, "Many people say that to make the game competitive, there should be an attempt made to match teams of approximate heights." Did many people say that, or just Mr. Barr after being victimized by a giant going over his back for offensive boards? "The elimination of the frequent center jumped helped matters somewhat. But in the main, little has been done about the problem of unmatched teams."

And little's been done since.

The book is actually extraordinarily informative, even if many of the passages today sound as awkward as lessons from old books on etiquette. Barr explained how a basketball bounces and a baseball curves. He dissected spirals and punts. Any young athlete - with a somewhat nerdy side that's interested in science - would enjoy the book today, nearly 50 years after it was published.

Just make sure the kid's got access to plenty of pencils.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The exploding sex toy: Only in Waseca County? Only in Waseca County

A few weeks ago Janesville made the news when an elderly woman conned a young man into acting as a getaway driver during a bank robbery. This time, it's not Janesville but neighboring Waseca that's making headlines among true-crime fans. A disturbed 37-year-old named Terry Lester was arrested for attempting to turn a sex toy into an explosive device. There's really not much more to add to a sentence like that, is there? Apparently upset with several women he used to date, the innovative - if dangerous - Lester, "made some modifications to a sex toy. He put gun powder, BB shot and buck shot from shotgun shells into one with black and red wires that connected to a trigger with a battery port," according to the Waseca County News story.

Has this been attempted before? Probably. Everything's been tried before. Still, this sounds like the type of plan dreamed up during a long night at the bar, perhaps while in the company of an old friend from work who was also recently dumped by his girlfriend. The two start talking, badmouthing their exes and dreaming up schemes. As the Hamm's flows, the revenge fantasy grows.

"She said she didn't need me no more. Said she didn't need me at all, not my paycheck, not in bed, nothin'."

"You know what you should do? She don't need you in bed? Bet she uses one of them devices, right? I know my old lady loved them damn things. What you do is, rig that thing up with some buck shot, a little gun powder, and there you go." (insert man's friend making the type of grunting sounds popularized by Tim Allen on Home Improvement).

This could have national implications. Two weeks ago, as I prepared to fly back home to Minnesota, I watched a TV report detailing the TSA's concern about terrorists putting explosives in thermoses. Thermoses. How long before we read the following story, from CNN or ABC or CBS or anyone else eager to frighten - and arouse? - fliers:

"U.S. authorities are warning air travelers to expect greater scrutiny of vibrators and other sex toys at security checkpoints after intelligence suggested they could be used to hide explosive devices.

A notice on the TSA's website - which is not accessible to anyone whose office blocks pornographic sites - warned about the possibilities that explosives might be hidden inside the sex toys and said the warning was "based on intelligence," originally acquired during an investigation into an unintelligent small-town Minnesota man named Terry Lester.

While there is no intelligence indicating the notoriously prudish Al-qaeda plans an imminent attack using the devices, authorities are worried about an increase in terrorist "chatter," which has been accompanied by giggling and bad puns.

A top military official told The Associated Press that the new warnings were examples of officials trying to anticipate terrorist attacks by imagining the most ridiculous scenarios, thus providing terrorists with an idea they never would have thought of on their own. Those carrying the toys can expect additional screening, particularly in the Bible Belt."