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Archive for Omnibus

Jan. 23, 2020 — Morgan Wootten, 1931-2020

There are some people in various Halls of Fame whose work transcends their line of work.

One such person was Morgan Wootten, who coached basketball at Hyattsville DeMatha Catholic (Md.), a small campus just south of the University of Maryland, for 46 years.

His longevity was just one of the hallmarks of his career. There was also his loyalty: despite overtures from North Carolina State, Duke, and Georgetown, he remained at DeMatha (although it’s been said he might have taken up an offer had there been one from Maryland, his alma mater).

He was also one of only a handful of coaches to have ever exceeded 1,000 wins at any level, joining figures such as Don Nelson, Tara Vandeveer, Bob Hurley, Mike Krzyzewski, Pat Summitt, and Gregg Popovich.

But he is also known for touching many lives, getting his players to college on scholarship, and for the loyalty that has been given back to him over the years.

One of the best exhibits never played an NBA regular-season game.

Back in the early 1970s, when UCLA was stringing together seven consecutive NCAA Division I men’s basketball championships, it was thought that one contender would be, of all teams, Harvard. There was one year when a press poll made the Crimson the preseason No. 1 team in all the land. That team was led by, amongst others, a player named James Brown, who has become an icon in TV broadcasting. And he was a former player at DeMatha.

The problem for Harvard (as well as many other contenders for UCLA’s crown) was that the NCAA Tournament was a Tournament of Champions, where you didn’t get to go if you were not your conference champion. Brown’s senior year, a Penn team led by head coach Chuck Daly (a man who once got to coach the greatest team in the history of team sports) won the Ivy League.

Years later, in discussing life and basketball, Brown’s touchstone example of goodness and integrity was Morgan Wootten.

“Morgan Wootten was such a wonderful example and influence in my life, because he modeled the behavior that he preached,” Brown says. “He set the example, yet he was a master motivator. He worked harder than he wanted us to work. He was well-read. He put in the hours necessary to be the excellent coach that he was, not only a coach of basketball, but a coach who helped to shape us and influence us for the game of life. I can look back and say: “Coach, thank you.'”

Jan. 20, 2020 — A seismic shift north of the border

I ran across a statistic the other day, one which, given the culture of the Dominion of Canada, is incredibly shocking.

The figure is that in the last few years, participation in ice hockey nationwide is down 15 percent. In Canada.

In a nation which sees ice hockey as something akin to a birthright and a sacred trust, this should be absolutely alarming — not only for Canadians, but for anyone who sees sport as something which is a democratizing force that brings people together.

But there are other larger forces which are changing the way the game of hockey is scouted, coached, and administered.

Yep, Canada is slowly going towards a pay-to-play system, which favors players from major cities and whose families are well-off.

“People used to say it was the everyman’s game, and it’s certainly not that anymore,” says Sean Fitz-Gerald, author of the new book Before The Lights Go Out. “Dave Keon doesn’t get down to the Maple Leafs from Rouyn-Noranda unless he has a skating and skills instructor when he’s 10.”

You can say the same thing about Bobby Clarke being discovered from the tiny mining town of Flin Flon, Manitoba.

Canada’s results on the world scene have not suffered — yet. The Leafs won its 18th World Junior Championship earlier this month with a 4-3 win over Russia.

But the question is, for how long?

Jan. 16, 2020 — From sad-sack to hope?

Today, the National Women’s Soccer League draft occurred in Baltimore. With it, the nine teams in the league added to their rosters from the available pool of college players, plus a number of teams made trades in order to either move up or down in the draft order.

Or, in the case of SkyBlue FC, perhaps make the moves necessary to win the 2020 NWSL title.

Yup, THAT SkyBlueFC, which not only has never finished above sixth place in the history of the NWSL, it’s the SkyBlue FC which:

  • Lost 50 games in the last four years;
  • Saw a supporters’ revolt when the team didn’t respond to calls to upgrade its facilities or hire a new coach;
  • Found itself being owned by the current governor of the state of New Jersey, creating a number of possible conflicts of interest.

And yet — and yet — SkyBlue FC has agreed to move its home matches to the state-of-the-art Red Bull Arena in 2020, and traded for U.S. women’s national teamers McCall Zerboni and Mallory Pugh during the draft. Add those two pieces to national team veteran Carli Lloyd, and it’s entirely possible that the team can finally shed its sad-sack fortunes.

Those fortunes were in contrast to how the Sky Blues entered into its life as a pro team in the days of WPS. In the first year of the league, 2009, the team sneaked into the playoffs by one point over the Boston Breakers, then took advantage of the “stepladder” format of the league, getting better every week until beating a well-rested (and rusty) Los Angeles Sol in the grand final.

More than a decade later, and after much heartbreak, is it possible that the supporters of this team will be on Cloud 9 once the league final is decided this summer?

Jan. 15, 2020 — The WNBA makes an aggressive move

Yesterday, it was announced that the WNBA and its player’s union had reached an accord on an eight-year collective bargaining agreement.

Though the league has been around since 1997, the league has been in a structural and financial quagmire. There are just 12 teams in the league, down from the peak of 16 teams in 2002.

The league started, and remains, a summer basketball league, one which has paid a lot less than many European and Asian league.

That is, until the new agreement. WNBA teams will now be able to fully compete for the best women’s talent around the world instead of feeling as though the are renting out their players to foreign leagues.

Too, the WNBA is finally spending money on travel and accommodations for its players. Time was, players in their first four years in the league were required to share a hotel room with a teammate. No longer.

Also, a player nursing a new baby would have to pay out-of-pocket in order to go on the road and get a private hotel room and bring along a family member or a nanny. But the new agreement gives new mothers a $5,000 stipend for child care.

Given the fact that the league is heading into its 24th season this spring, the one question that comes to mind is, “What took the WNBA so long to improve the working environment?”

Better late than never, I guess.

Jan. 13, 2020 — An unprecedented punishment, but was it really necessary?

With one month until pitchers and catchers report for spring training, Major League Baseball is in a state of chaos.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred slapped an extremely heavy punishment on the Houston Astros, winners of two of the last three American League pennants, for an alleged cheating scandal that involved the stealing of catcher signals for individual pitches, then relaying information to the dugout so that an audible signal could be sent to the batsman.

The punishments for the scheme have been costly: manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year, the team’s former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman is going on baseball’s ineligible list, the club fined $5 million, and the top two draft picks in the next two entry drafts were revoked.

(The Astros later in the day fired both Hinch and Luhnow).

There has been every indication that Alex Cora, the current manager of the Boston Red Sox, may also be disciplined in this matter. As a bench coach in 2017, it is alleged that he was the mastermind behind the scheme.

Despite the heavy-handed punishments, no game results were overturned, no championships were vacated.

Cheating scandals have been part of baseball lore for a century and a half. Bribes were allowed in townball games. When the curveball was developed at Harvard, the university president, Charles Eliot, thought it necessary to address the issue of deception.

Sign-stealing is its own form of artistry, whether it is a man on second relaying signals to the batter (since he gets a front-row view of the signals), or number-crunchers trying to gain tendencies from the movement of the catcher to predict a certain pitch.

Heck, it was alleged in a newspaper story a few years ago that the 50s-era New York Giants would steal opposing signals in the Polo Grounds and relay information to the batter in the form of a series of lights.

Now, I’m not justifying the Astros in their cheating. I just want to point out a couple of things.

One, any cheating scheme like this would only affect 1/4 of a baseball team’s effort over the course of a season. The Astros only did this during home games, and only when they were at bat. The scheme is, of course, useless whenever the Astros were pitching, and (so far as we know) was never done in road ballparks.

Two, (and most important) the batter still had to try to hit the ball, something which is still pretty hard to do even in the best of circumstances. Indeed, there are many players regarded as one of the best to ever play the game, but have a failure rate of 70 percent in terms of putting the ball into play safely.

I get the fact that technology is threatening to upend a number of athletic competitions, everything from motorsports to the simple 100-yard dash.

But I’d like more information as to the edge that Houston got in being able to steal signs, and how batters were able to take advantage of the system.

Jan. 4, 2020 — Retrospectives, writ large

This morning, I was watching a block of programming on The Olympic Channel called “Take The Podium.”

Each episode is made up of four stories, which pretty much run the same arc: an athlete is introduced and interviewed, with text written over the screen explaining that the athlete was being awarded a different color medal than what s/he had won at a previous Olympics.

The reason: doping.

The thing is, for every prominent athlete like Carl Lewis and the 2000 U.S. women’s gymnastics team that receive upgrades like this, there are dozens upon hundreds of athletes across the years who are having ceremonies in places large and small.

One Lithuanian boxer chose to have the ceremony in a glitzy auditorium with the Prime Minister in attendance. A Japanese relay team had their ceremony at an outdoor track in Yokohama.

Since 2018, the IOC has been implementing a mechanism for the re-awarding of medals because of doping violations. These are violations which have only multiplied after both the BALCO scandal and the discovery of the Russian Olympic Committee’s state-sponsored doping mechanisms — and the Russian Federation’s unwillingness to do anything about it.

I have a feeling more and more of these are going to have to be made — not only to publicly point out dopers, but to inspire athletes who may have just missed the medals stand that they are still champions.

Jan. 2, 2020 — David Stern, 1942-2020

For many sports fans, David Stern was the short guy who handed first-round draft picks a baseball cap and posted with them for photos.

But Stern, who died yesterday, was more than just a sports commissioner. He was part tinkerer, part visionary, and part disciplinarian.

When he took the role of NBA Commissioner, the league’s NBA Finals weren’t shown live on TV; they were tape-delayed and shown at 11:30 p.m. after the late local news on the East Coast.

Today’s NBA, as a product, is valuable enough that there are television partners in some 200 countries.

Stern’s efforts to globalize the game has vaulted it past volleyball and field hockey as sports played in more countries around the world; only soccer has more in terms of participating nations.

The NBA stars welcomed players Manu Ginobili, Vlade Divac, Yao Ming, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, all of whom were born outside the United States.

The marketing of the NBA has been copied in many other sports leagues in north America. These days, the weekend of any midseason All-Star game is not just about the game, but about the gathering of sponsors and league executives, often to make decisions about the future.

NBA-style marketing is found all over professional sports, such as a Player of the Week and Player of the Month awards, league-assembled features on players, and sales of all sorts of team merchandise.

But as much as Stern was a marketer in the corporate world, a story about Stern during a reception at an NBA function tells you something more. A buffet table at a dinner was shoved against the wall, allowing only one very long line of attendees to eat. Stern noticed this and asked the caterers to pull the tables away from the wall to allow a second line to form on the other side. That was his thinking.

Stern, I think, will be most remembered by the general public for his work with FIBA to bring professional NBA players to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The Dream Team, which had 11 Hall-of-Famers, was likely the single greatest team ever assembled in the history of team sport.

But I think there’s going to be one thing Stern did that will enrichen basketball even further: the founding of the NBA’s Developmental League back in 2001. It started very modestly with eight teams in the southeast U.S., but has grown to become a nationwide league with league affiliations often in the same market. The Boston Celtics, for example, have their affiliate an hour and a half away in Portland, Maine. The Washington Wizards, similarly, can call up a player from its developmental team which also plays in the District of Columbia.

I think the league, now known as the G-League, is going to eventually become the basis for a 60-team NBA with 30 teams in a lower division and 30 teams in an upper division, allowing for promotion and relegation.

Wouldn’t that be something?