NOW WAIT A MINUTE…(Occasional Sports Moment #31)

From the third round of the U.S. Open last night. The point of the tournament so far….provided by a couple of Wild Cards who were both born in Russia and grew up in Florida. It must be the Meldonium! (Inside joke for tennis fans….the rest can just enjoy the moment)…And boy do I wish I could hear more matches in some language other than ESPN English. I could sit through three hours of this without my ears bleeding once.

There’s now a very good chance that Maria Sharapova can win this tournament. In which case, many heads will explode.

PERCEPTION, THE GREAT DECEIVER (Occasional Sports’ Moment: #30)

Some time in the past couple of years, someone ( I think it was Chris Fowler) asked tennis announcer, and former player, Mary Jo Fernandez, whether Simona Halep, who was playing that day, was faster than Serena Williams, who wasn’t.

Fernandez immediately and unequivocally said Serena was faster.

She specifically said she thought Serena was faster sprinting from the baseline to the net (which is the longest sprint routinely made in tennis).

In my lonely room, a world away, I immediately said: “That’s crazy.”

It’s been a common occurrence, over the last fifteen years, for announcers covering a women’s tennis match to talk a lot about Serena Williams, whether she is playing or not. It’s also been common for announcers to talk about Serena in terms that treat her as existing somewhere off the human scale.

Simona Halep is one of the fastest players in the history of the WTA (easily top five, possibly top three, which I can say with some confidence since I’ve been following the tour, which began in the late sixties, religiously since the early seventies). She is, moreover, in her mid-twenties’ physical prime and has had no serious injuries.

Serena, at the time of Fernandez’s crazy talk, was well into her thirties, has had numerous injuries to her legs, and several surgeries on her knees and feet. She was probably never as fast as Simona Halep and is nowhere near as fast now.

The question itself, who is faster right now, wasn’t even a sensible one–or wouldn’t have been, if tennis announcers were used to seeing Serena Williams through a human lens, rather than some combination of Super Woman and Spoiled Child.

So why was it nonsensically asked?

And why was it answered even more nonsensically?

Because Serena Williams is….black. That’s why. Oh, and Simona Halep is white.

And, you know, black people are faster than white people. At least across short distances. Look at those sprint results in the Olympics. Look at those receivers in the NFL. Look at those base-stealing records in Major League Baseball.

And, because black people (at least those of West African descent) are, in fact, demonstrably faster across short distances than white people (look again at those sprint records), it follows that the black woman you see playing tennis (a sport where sprinter speed is awful handy) at an elite level, must be faster than even the fastest white woman playing the same sport at the same level at the same time.

In other words, this person…

cannot be faster than this person (and significantly faster at that)…

…because that would be a confusing, if not unacceptable, narrative.

I only bring this up now because proof has emerged and because I have a small point to make.

Mary Jo Fernandez, whose observation basically went unchallenged (Fowler–I still think it was him–only expressed some surprise that she was so certain) and would have been accepted by ninety-nine percent of the people who cover tennis (Martina Navratilova, who has a knack for seeing things as they are and not being afraid to speak of what she sees, might be an exception) is crazy.

The linked article shows a study done at the Australian Open across several years.

The study shows, conclusively, that Halep is the fastest player on the WTA.

No duh.

Serena is in the middle of the pack–is, in fact, a touch slower than Maria Sharapova, who has never played a match without some “expert” mentioning that “movement is not her strong suit.” (Angie Kerber, the woman who incidentally took the top spot in the world rankings from Serena in 2016, has the most consistent top speed, but that speaks more to endurance than sprint speed…no one who has seen Kerber play, or even seen a snapshot of her legs, will be surprised that she endures like no other.)

It’s true that our eyes fool us, of course. But they usually fool us because we have something invested in what they can and cannot see. What Mary Jo Fernandez–and the legion of tennis announcers and fans who would have immediately agreed with her if they had been asked–has invested is simple enough.

She’s invested in the complex set of mythologies that don’t allow some white people–mostly Good Liberals like herself–to see black people in purely human terms.

Too bad. Because the reason Serena Williams is in the argument for the greatest women’s tennis player ever owes relatively little to her “athleticism.” Of course she’s a great athlete. No one gets themselves into the position of being called the greatest ever in a supremely athletic sport without being a great athlete.

But the sport is filled with great athletes. Simona Halep, a really fun player who has yet to win a major, being one.

The sport is tennis, so it’s always filled with great athletes.

You don’t become–or remain–Serena Williams, though, by being the “best” athlete, which she’s probably never been and certainly hasn’t been for more than a decade.

What you really need is a whole lot of qualities that can’t be measured by a stop watch.

Curt Gowdy once spoke of a conversation he had with a baseball scout, who told him that scouting would never be an exact science, because there would never be a way to measure the two things that mattered most: the head and the heart.

However much Serena is lauded for her toughness (often) or her tactics (occasionally) or savvy (almost never), such plaudits still fall under the shadow of the plaudit that is applied most frequently of all: She’s the best athlete!

Meaning, you know…. (whisper)...she’s black.

I don’t mean it’s only that. Other black tennis players have come and gone–and pretty much the first and last word on every one of them is that they were/are “great athletes.” But Serena is different because she has won to a level that means she has to be somehow explained.

And she has been.

That’s why, when Good Liberal white tennis announcers (the overwhelming majority–at least for the sake of public consumption), talk about the Serena Williams who has won twenty-two major titles, they speak of her as Super Woman. They speak of her as such, even when the evidence of their own eyes would plainly tell them otherwise if they only let it.

You know: She wins because she’s more than human.

And it’s why, when those same announcers talk about the Serena Williams who has failed to win the forty-three other major tournaments she’s entered (about the same percentage of failure experienced by other all-time all-timers), they speak of her almost exclusively as they might of a great Spoiled Child who has let them down by failing to live up to her inhuman potential.

You know: She loses because she’s less than human.

Or at very least, less than grown up.

They have eyes and they cannot see. Even a tennis match.

Thus they are eternally surprised.

Lest we forget: The same minds cover politics.

It’s the same minds, even if they don’t belong to the same people.

And they went a long way towards getting us into this mess, with their failure to see.



Strange how lives intersect and history moves in their wake.

These days, my alma mater, Florida State University is a football factory, expected to compete with the historical giants of the sport–Alabama, USC, Ohio State, et al–year in and year out.

It was not always so. It wasn’t even so long ago that such was unimaginable.

The man most responsible for the transformation was Bobby Bowden, a coaching genius who came to FSU in 1976 and, remarkably, when the signature programs (specifically LSU and Alabama) came calling and backed up dump trucks full of cash to his door, decided to stay on here.

That’s another story for another time. The story for this time is a reminder of just how improbable Bowden’s re-imagining of a down-at-heels, southern independent, which had little history of its own and ranked third historically in its own state while being far removed, both culturally and geographically, from the state’s famously rich recruiting grounds in South Florida and the I-4 corridor, really was.

FSU fans of a sufficient vintage know the story well enough. For the rest of you it can be shorthanded this way.

Before Bowden’s arrival at FSU, none of the state’s big three programs had ever posted a ten-win season. Bowden chalked up three of those in his first five years. Out of that came what Bowden himself later dubbed The Big Florida, a behemoth that eventually accounted for eleven national championships between the three schools in a thirty-year period stretching from 1983 to 2013, with a number of those teams having a single loss hung on them by one of the others.

A sea change, in other words.

It is hard now, to remember how it all began Harder still perhaps to believe it, even if you were there to bear witness.

Because it began with guys like Monk Bonasorte.

Bowden was an offensive genius, the most innovative coach in postwar college football (again, a story for another day). But for his innovations to work–to actually consistently win games, especially in those early years, when the talent was short–he needed stout defenses.

He got them.

He got them without a surfeit of elite talent. On the stellar teams from 1977–80, which set Bowden, FSU, and, ultimately, college football on the course where it still runs, there was little anybody else wanted. The defenses that sparked those teams contained only three really top recruits–a nose guard, Ron Simmons, a cornerback, Bobby Butler, and a linebacker, Paul Piurowski. They were all brilliant.

But Bonasorte–a buck-eighty safety who could just about outrun your dead grandmother–was more typical of both the spirit and the reality of those teams.

He made his way down from Pittsburgh, a hard-nosed steelworker’s kid who had spent a year playing sandlot ball after receiving no scholarship offers from FSU or anywhere else. Eventually, he walked on to the football team. After that, he worked his way into the starting lineup during his freshman season, from whence he went on to put himself high on the school’s lists of interception records for career and single seasons, where he still sits among names like Terrell Buckley, Deion Sanders and a few others who never had to worry about whether they would be invited to the training table.

It was in those years that FSU became the little engine that could and no one embodied that ethos quite like the unrecruited walk-on from Pittsburgh, who went on to devote much of his life to the school where he made his chance.

There was a specific moment, in Bonasorte’s senior year (which happened to be my junior year), when everything became possible.

That moment was when FSU–having lost one of the strangest games ever played to Miami the week before, a fluke-of-the-century game that would keep FSU from playing for the national championship that year (a pattern that would repeat itself several more times before the century was out)–traveled to Nebraska.

In those days Big Red was the sort of implacable power that FSU is now (all glory is fleeting…even in college football) and Florida State came from fourteen down in the first half to win 18-14 when that defense full of Monk Bonasorte types (Jarvis Coursey, Keith Jones, Gary Futch, Reggie Herring, I’ve not forgot) held at the goal line in the game’s waning seconds.

Monk Bonasorte passed away from brain cancer last week at the age of 59. I believe he is the first member of that defense to travel to the next plane. God knows if all the times he lowered his head to deliver one of those hits that made all those speedy receivers he couldn’t keep up with in the open field not want to catch the ball anymore sped his passage.

Time is merciless.

One thing I do know: There is no true Florida State fan my age or older who would trade “Nebraska 1980” for the three national championships we’ve won since, or any number we might win in the future.

Because if I close my eyes, I can still see myself back in my tiny, roach-infested apartment next to the FSU campus in the fall of 1980, leaping for the ceiling.

And, if listen close, I can still hear the horns honking–and honking and honking–all over town.





Like nearly all who have ever been entrusted to close a game with a Major League pennant or World Series championship on the line, Ralph Branca was a fine pitcher trying to cap a solid season when he yielded “The Shot Heard Round the World” in the final game of the three game series that decided a tie between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers at the end of the 1951 regular season. Yes, he had been in a slump, but his manager had entrusted him with the first of the three game series and Branca had lost a tough pitcher’s duel to the Giants’ Jim Hearn. Plus, he was basically the only option left when the third game came down to the bottom of the ninth and Brooklyn needed someone to relieve their tiring ace Don Newcombe.

What happened next is still arguably the most famous moment in American sports history, when Branca (nearly as used up as Newcombe), gave up a home run to Bobby Thomson and elicited this….

…likely the most famous call in American sports.

Whether the issue was physical or psychological, Branca, who had been a three-time All Star and a thirteen-game winner that season, never recovered and spent the rest of his career in mediocrity, with no chance for redemption.


Years later rumors that the Giants had used the age’s version of electronic spying to steal pitch signs, in a manner that some players themselves credited with helping them mount a miraculous comeback during the regular season, were more or less confirmed (that is, as confirmed as any conspiracy ever can be). Thomson may or may not have been tipped when he hit his famous home run. He claimed not.

Branca remained sanguine. He was from the old school. Thomson still had to hit it, didn’t he?

Even if he knew what was coming.

Funny thing. If Bobby Thomson had lined out to third, he wouldn’t have been remembered by anyone but hardcore baseball fans when he passed in 2010. If Branca had retired the side–that is, been successful–he would likely not have been remembered any better.

Baseball is the greatest sport because it’s the cruelest. No other sport tests the nerves quite as much because no other sport is so defined by failure. And in no other sport is one man’s failure so deeply tied to another man’s success.

The really memorable failures belong mostly to pitchers. Nobody would have remembered if Bobby Thomson and the guy on deck behind him–a rookie named Willie Mays–had struck out.

Every pitcher knows this on some level. Every pitcher knows in his gut that lasting failure is one pitch away and he knows it in a way that no hitter or fielder ever quite does, unless and until they make their own spectacular mistake. In baseball and every other sport, everybody else finds out the hard way.. or not at all.

The pitcher always knows. Even if that moment hasn’t yet come for him, he knows it might. And if that moment never came, he knows it could have.

Nobody was forced to live with a colossal failure longer than Ralph Branca, and no one could have borne such an unfair stigma with more grace.

In his own quiet way, he made a memory even better than Bobby Thomson’s.



I almost had to say I told you so again.

In the epic seventh game of the World Series played between baseball’s two most beleaguered franchises, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon took out his hot pitcher not once but twice, thus sparking not one but two rallies from the opposing dugout he insisted on waking and re-waking (or, as John Smoltz might have it, making happier and happier).

The beauty and absurdity is that he got away with it.

Cubs win! Cubs win!

First time since 1908. In case you hadn’t heard.

Which means these two men are the only ones in the 114-year history of both the National League Chicago team being called the “Cubs” and the major league baseball championship being called “The World Series” who have ever managed the one to a victory in the other…


Jun 24, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (70) fields questions from reporters in the dugout prior to the game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Wonder if Frank Chance ever took out a hot pitcher in any game…let alone two hot pitchers in one game (one of whom had overcome a shaky start after he replaced the first hot pitcher) which happened to be the deciding game of a World Series?

I’m sure we’ll never know. Record keeping in 1908 wasn’t quite what it is today. Besides, there being scant, if any, video evidence of those years, a term like “hot pitcher” can only rest on the shaky evidence of stats. Stats don’t always tell the story. My definition of a hot pitcher is that I know one when I see one.

Part of the reason Joe Maddon got away with taking the two hot pitchers me and John Smoltz saw out of a deciding World Series game (the second being removed so he could bring in a “closer” who had been exhausted by extensive mop-up duty in a blowout the night before–did I mention that managers are gonna manage?), was he had David Ross on his roster.

I was not surprised, after Ross’s thirty-nine-year-old catcher’s body was inserted in the middle of an inning, that he struggled defensively, or that those struggles resulted in two runs. A glorious last name can only get you so far when your manager’s gonna manage.

But neither was I surprised that Ross, a .229 lifetime hitter with barely more than 100 career home runs, came back a short while later and hit a monster home run over the center field wall, or that the home run ended up being enough to keep the Cubs tied when Maddon took out his second hot pitcher (and that pitcher’s designated catcher, Ross), so that his exhausted reliever could give up three more runs. Meaning Ross’s home run was the only thing that kept the Cubs from losing in nine.

The only time I saw David Ross play in person was in 1997, when he hit a two-out, bottom of the ninth, game-winning home run against FSU in the driver’s seat game of a college regional in Tallahassee. His Auburn team went on to the College World Series that year. The next year he transferred to the even more hated Florida Gators and they went to the College World Series.

Did I mention he was a Tallahassee native? Yep. Born in Bainbridge, Georgia, but he went to high school here. At the FSU lab school no less.

So that game-winning home run was a “take that.” Kind of a “if you wanted to go to the College World Series, you probably should have given me a scholarship.”

Clutch is still clutch.

I don’t know where David Ross is going to live after he retires, or what he is planning to do. But it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if he came back here and coached our baseball team.

After he gets done being Mayor of Chicago.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this was the first season I caught John Smoltz’s game analysis. It was akin to witnessing a miracle. He knows pitching, no surprise there. But he also knows every aspect–and physical or psychological challenge–of hitting, fielding, base-running, managing and selling popcorn. He even made Joe Buck sound intelligent. Plus he kept saying “Don’t make the other dugout happy,” which is even better than my longstanding “Don’t wake them up!” More than all that, I learned things from him. I think the last time I learned anything from a baseball announcer was some time in the early seventies, right before I turned thirteen. The only other announcer who has ever taught me anything about any sport I follow is Martina Navratilova, who provides similarly refreshing insights on the Tennis Chanel. I’m not sure if “well, there’s two then” is a sign of civilizational decline–after all, among hundreds, there’s only two–or a reason for hope to once more spring eternal. Maybe I’ll figure it out next season!)

SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST (Occasional Sports’ Moment #28)

Vis-a-vis the Giants-Cubs game of 10/1//16, let me repeat the rules from the Giants-Mets game of last week, when the shoe was on the other foot.

First, the new scenario: Giants lead 5-2 going to the ninth at home, trying to stave off elimination. Manager Bruce Bochte (one of the game’s best) takes out pitcher Matt Moore, who has pitched eight innings of two-hit ball with ten strikeouts (and clearly gotten stronger as the game has gone on).

The result, one inning and five pitchers later?

Book the Cubs for the NLCS.

Now for the new rules, same as the old rules:

  1. Never take a hot pitcher out if you’re tied or ahead (no, not even to pinch hit for him). This goes double for a post season game.
  2. If the other dugout wants you to take your guy out….you shouldn’t.

Yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

And now, for a little ditty:

AND NOW, FOR A GENTLE FOLK SONG (Occasional Sports Moment #27)

Ho hum, another baseball post season (this time, the play-in game between the Mets and the Giants).

Another manager (this time, the Mets’ Terry Collins) takes out another dominant pitcher after seven innings with his team tied or ahead (this time in a scoreless game).

His opposing manager (this time, the Giants’ Bruce Bochte) leaves his dominant pitcher in.

Book the Giants for Friday night at Wrigley Field.

Once again my two basic rules for changing pitchers were ignored.

  1. Never take a hot pitcher out if you’re tied or ahead (no, not even to pinch hit for him). This goes double for a post season game.
  2. If the other dugout wants you to take your guy out….you shouldn’t.

Once again, the team that ignored my two rules lost. They don’t always lose, of course. But, usually, they do. And they wouldn’t always have won if they followed my advice. But they would have always had a better chance.

No skin off my nose. Buster Posey went to Florida State. I always want the Giants to win as long as he’s playing for them (though I won’t be heartbroken if the Cubs finally get the century-plus monkey off their back).

But at least the song I always dedicate to the knucklehead losers in this situation is appropo. Nice San Francisco connection and all.


WONDER WOMAN (Penny Taylor Says Goodbye: Occasional Sports’ Moment #26)


Penny Taylor played her last WNBA game yesterday, a loss in a playoff elimination game. I wrote most of what I had to say about Taylor here, a couple of years ago, when it looked liked her Phoenix Mercury team was about to redefine the possibilities of what women’s basketball could be.

That didn’t happen, for reasons I partially delineated in the UPDATE to the linked piece. But Penny Taylor was Penny Taylor down the bitter end.

When Holly Rowe approached her before what turned out to be her last game, she asked Taylor if she was having any reflective thoughts or perhaps feeling a bit sad about the now-imminent end of her career.

“No. I’m thinking about getting a *&%#ing win,” Taylor said.

That pretty well summed up every minute of Taylor’s career.

I had the privilege of seeing her play on television maybe fifty times. In maybe forty-five of those games there was what I can only describe as at least one “Penny Taylor Moment.” Some lunatic dive on the floor that turned out to have a point, some twisting layup in the lane, some no-look assist from her butt, some improbable rebound snatched from a gaggle of taller, “more athletic,” players that seemed to occur only when the game was on the line.

Some moment like the one in the videos I linked in the above piece (where she tied up a shooter with less than a second on the third quarter clock of a two-point game, forced a turnover, and then watched as Diana Taurasi sank a half-court shot off the in-bound to break the game open).

Not surprisingly, there was such a moment in her last game, too.

It came in the first half, when the game was still competitive but the tide was turning against her team.

No YouTube is available as yet, so I’ll have to describe it:

Taylor reached in on a burgeoning fast break being generated by the other team after a turnover near the mid-court line. After tapping the ball away, she dove on the court and secured possession. Just as she did so, the nearest player from the other team rolled over her and “accidentally” slammed Taylor’s head into the court with as vicious a close-range elbow as you’ll ever see. Taylor wasn’t quite knocked unconscious but she lay writhing on the floor for several minutes while the refs sorted out who the foul was on.

When it was finally decided that Taylor should be awarded two free throws, the announcers began pointing out that if she left the game for a concussion protocol, she would not, under league rules, be allowed to return. Then one of the announcers noticed that Taylor was wobbly on her feet when she was finally able to stand up. They doubted whether she would be able to continue, let alone make the free throws.

I laughed out loud and said: “Good God you morons. It’s Penny Taylor!”

Thirty seconds later, Taylor drained her two free throws. About sixty seconds after that, on an ensuing possession, she drove the lane, got knocked down…and drained two more free throws.

Down to the end, the people who cover the WNBA retained their complete state of ignorance regarding who Penny Taylor was, and why, as a gender re-write of that old classic line about Reggie Jackson would have it: “Winning just seemed to follow her around.”

Again I say, for the last decade-plus, the hardest-nosed basketball player in the world was a woman. A woman with her admitted share of all-star credentials, who, except when she was leading Australia’s national team, sacrificed superstar scoring stats, of which she was perfectly capable, in order to provide all the intangible things no one else could for championship teams in the WNBA and elsewhere.

And again I say, it will be a crying shame if the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame–the most prestigious of the sport’s several halls–follows the “journalists” who failed to recognize who she was, just because such an impossible lot of it didn’t show up in the box score.

Sayanora, Madam That-Ball-Is-Mine.

God it was fun!


“I’M DUMBER THAN YOU!….NO YOU’RE NOT!….AM TOO!” (Occasional Sports Moment #25)

Sept. 24, 2016.

Arkansas visited Texas A&M for a college football game.

The following happened.

  1. Arkansas lined up for a field goal. The line of scrimmage was the two-yard line, so it was basically a glorified extra point, except the ball was placed near the left hash instead of the center of the field.
  2. Arkansas’ coach, Bret Bielema decided to take a delay of game penalty. The purpose was to back up the kicker’s contact point. This is supposed to “make the angle better.”
  3. Texas A&M’s coach, Kevin Sumlin, being give a chance to back up the opposing kicker, refused the penalty, leaving the ball on the two.
  4. An Arkansas lineman, probably on instructions from the bench, moved early and created an illegal procedure penalty.
  5. Texas &M’s Sumlin, having refused the obviously intentional penalty, accepted the “unintentional” penalty, therefore allowing Arkansas to back the ball up the same five yards he had refused to accept a moment earlier.
  6. Arkansas lined up and made the kick.

For the record Texas A&M won the game and I had no dog in the hunt.

Now for the main points…

I’ve been watching football since about 1970. I’ve seen the “delay of game” gambit tried on numerous field goal attempts from inside the ten (never from further, which should tell you something) and seen it turned down every single time. This is the first time I ever saw a subsequent penalty accepted (therefore negating the logic of refusing the first penalty, which was for the same yardage).

It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine that this happens most often in college games, because presumably, every single university that plays major college football has a math department where they should be able to locate at least one person who is familiar with basic geometry.

And that means “I’m a football coach” should not excuse any man’s ignorance of mathematics, which dictate that, in every single instance, the odds of your place kicker missing a field goal attempt rise with every yard further from the goal posts you place him.

It’s called math and you don’t really need a degree in its applicable branches (probability, geometry) to know it’s true. For a quick test, just stand in front of your television and imagine the the sides of the frame are the goal post. Stand two feet away and place the heels of your hands together at your waist line. Then move your fingertips until they are aligned and observe the severity of the angles. If somebody were kicking a football off your waist and aiming between those imaginary goal posts, then anything that left the foot and stayed inside that angle would be good.

Now back up to ten feet. Place your hands the same and spread your fingertips until you have the “goal posts” lined up.

You will notice that the angle of field within which the ball must remain in order to go between the imagined goal posts  is much narrower.

And what that means is, all other circumstances being equal (wind factor, curvature of the ball in flight, etc.), as they will be in this case, the further away you get from a fixed range of possibilities, the harder it is to keep a flying object properly aimed within that range!

This means that it would be the height of stupidity to deliberately back up your place kicker in any circumstance….except that a further height will always be obtained by the opposing coach, who, having also dedicated his life to football, will automatically refuse to let you decrease your chances by refusing to let you do what you want to do, not for any logical reason, but just because he knows you want to do it.

Until Sept. 24, 2016, this last bit was just a forty-something year old theory of mine. But today, I was provided with proof. Because as soon as one coach was given an opportunity to take a second penalty, which differed from the first only in being perceived as a mistake, rather than a deliberate act, he took it.

For the record, Bret Bielema and Kevin Sumlin are not less intelligent than normal. Every one of their actions was perfectly predictable to anyone who watches a lot of football. Including all those math professors who seem to have sat silently by and never once manged to get off a note to the athletic department explaining the realities of this oft-repeated circumstance.

And I’ll bet that if Bielema, Sumlin or any of those math professors, were put in charge of the Pentagon tomorrow, not one person alive would be able to tell the difference.

ON PASSING THE TORCH TO NO ONE (Occasional Sports Moments #24)

I’ll pay tribute to the swashbuckling spirit, which is also vanishing, some other day. For today, another ode to a stoic.


“When Tim Duncan retired from the NBA”


I’ve been following the NBA since 1970. That means I missed Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell and saw Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson only in the twilight of their respective careers.

I caught most or all of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the still-going Lebron James.

If you asked me which player I would start a team with if my life depended on them winning a championship in the next five or ten or fifteen years, I’d pick Tim Duncan, who just announced his retirement after nineteen years, all spent with the San Antonio Spurs.

During that nineteen years, Duncan’s teams had the highest winning percentage of any franchise in the four major sports. This was despite being in one of the smallest pro sports’ markets (bottom ten percent); despite playing in a league which is built to reward large market teams like no other (outside San Antonio’s five championships, small markets have won a combined total of three titles in the last sixty years); and despite never playing with an in-prime teammate who was an elite all-timer. (Duncan did play the first few years of his career with an aging, past his prime, David Robinson).

I detailed some of Duncan’s unique greatness here (he did not win the championship that year but went on to win another the following year–it’s one measure of his greatness that he was 2-1 against LeBron in finals, and it was only an epic meltdown from Duncan’s Hall of Fame coach that kept it from being 3-0).

I put up most of what Duncan did in the linked post–the most impressive stats being leading those five small market teams to championships and leading four title winners in both scoring and rebounding, an achievement he shares with Jabbar.

But, impressive as they sometimes were, he was never about stats. All he ever cared about was winning–low post, pick-and-roll, run and gun, big stats, not-so-big stats, my best teammate is a center with creaking knees, a crazy swing-man who gives you twenty-five points with eight assists one night and five points with eight turnovers the next, a flashy point guard who can’t shoot or play defense.

Just win. Any which means. Any which way.

Let me enumerate just a few of those ways and means:

For nineteen years, defeat was his fault. Victory belonged to the team.

There was no fanfare. In the league that defines bling, he showed up to receive an MVP trophy wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.

When Kobe Bryant retired from the Lakers this year, he did it with a pre-season announcement accompanied by a rock star-style farewell tour, complete with gifts from all the teams he was visiting for the last time.

When Duncan retired today, in the middle of the off-season, he sent a text.

When Michael Jordan got tired of carrying the weight, he went to a bad team and settled for being an exhibition. Tim Duncan, playing longer, never got tired of carrying the weight. The Spurs won at least fifty games every year of his career except a strike-shortened season in which they won the championship.

Unlike Jordan and Bryant (and Magic and Bird and LeBron) he never ran off a coach, even though his coach made blunders that probably cost him two championships. Not only did he not run off his coach, he never said a bad word about him. He never said a bad word about that crazy swing-man Manu Ginobli either, even though Ginobli’s mental blunder in one playoff probably cost him yet another championship. None of the other players i mentioned, ruling in dynastic NBA cities like Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago would have let any of that go.

Like I said. Defeats were his, no matter who caused them.

The result?

He got called boring. He didn’t care. He got jibed for failing to market himself. (As Garry Trudeau once said: “America is the only country where failure to promote yourself is seen as a sign of arrogance.”) He didn’t care.

Excepting Robinson, his Hall of Fame teammates will be there because they played with Tim Duncan. His Hall of Fame coach will be there because he coached Tim Duncan. That’s one of those “subjective” achievements that really isn’t subjective at all.

I can’t speak to hockey, but, in the three team sports I watch, only Duncan and Russell consistently raised the level of their teammates’ play to such an extent.

If mental toughness is the hardest to achieve (and it is), and mad consistency is the truest measure of that toughness (and it is), then, along with Russell and Chris Evert, Tim Duncan was, from first day to last, the toughest athlete to play a major American sport.

Like them, he will never quite get the credit for it. This is not coincidence, because, like them, he was a supreme stoic. Maybe the two qualities–stoicism and mad consistency born of attention to detail–stem from a basic personality type. I don’t know. But I suspect Timmy is the last of his type we’ll see rise to such heights. There’s too much pressure to conform to the preferred self-promotional style in this better world we made for his like, once common in type if not degree, to come round again.

He played beautiful basketball, much of it beyond the comprehension of the experts who spent two decades failing to make that beauty evident to the average fan.

He didn’t care about that either. Great as the basketball was–fun as the basketball was–I’ll miss that more.