meta name=”robots” content=”index, follow” Meschery's Musings of Sports, Literature, and Life Meschery's Musings on Sports, Literature and Life: 2010

What my musings are all about...

Blogging might well be the 21st century's form of journaling. As a writing teacher, I have always advised my students to keep a daily journal as a way of organizing their thoughts for future writing projects, a discipline I have unfortunately never consistently practiced myself. By blogging, I might finally be able to follow my own good advice.

The difference between journaling and blogging is that the blogger opens his or her writing to the public, something journal- writers are usually reluctant to do. I am not so reticent.

The trick for me will be to avoid cluttering the internet with more blather, something none of us need more of. If I stick to subjects I know: sports and literature, I believe I can avoid that pitfall. I can't promise that I'll not stray from time to time to comment on ancillary subjects, but I will make every attempt to be interesting and perhaps even insightful.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

From Africa with Love

     Manute Bol, the 7'7" center from Southern Sudan passed away this year. Manute played with the Warriors and later with the Baltimore Bullets. An NBA fan favorite, he ended his life better known as a humanitarian who spent most of his salary helping to build schools in his war ravaged country than as an NBA impact player.
   Manute never reached the talented heights of Hakeem Olajuwon nor did he possess the defensive skills of Dikenbe Mutombo, but he blocked enough shots to worry most players driving to the basket. As far as his shooting, I remember watching in amazement as he thrust the ball over his head and flung it like a spear at the basket from beyond the three-point line. (Manute once admitted to killing a lion with a spear in his tribe's initiation ritual.) As improbable as those shots of his were, they often hit their target much to the delight of fans and teammates.
    West Africa has provided the NBA with a number of basketball players, the aforementioned Hakeem the Dream from Nigeria, and Dikembe Mutombo from the Republic of the Congo, and Manute. Today there are six active players from the continent of Africa in the NBA, Mbah a Moate/Cameroon; Ibaka/Republic of the Congo and Deng/Sudan  playing significant minutes.
    Although I am fascinated by the number of international players now contributing to the NBA, I'm particularly interested in the African players. For me it's personal. I am pleased to remember that I was part of the initial growth of basketball in West Africa.
    In the summer of 1962 Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Red Auerbach became the first group from the NBA to travel to West Africa to coach and promote the game. The following year John Havlick, Casey Jones, and I made the trip, spending one week coaching and playing exhibition games in five different countries: Senegal, Mali, Guinee, Ivory Coast, and Liberia. We put on clinics and played exhibition games. For games we conscripted a few embassy and Peace Corps folks to round out our team. Some of the Peace Corps guys, such as Chris Appel of USC, had played high school and college ball.
   Of all the  terrific experiences I've every had in professional sports, my African trips rank in my top five. In those early days of basketball, we encountered no Olajuwans or Dengs, but we did work with plenty of enthusiastic men and women eager to learn about the American game. (The French had introduced their version of basketball earlier - Le Basket - to their former colonies, but their version of the game reminded me of French cooking recipes, too complicated.)
   We were working with novices under conditions that were rudimentary. In some places, the players played without shoes. All the courts, except one in Ivory Coast, were outdoors. We practiced in the mornings before the heat of the day became too much to bear and before the afternoon rains flooded the courts. Still, every morning we were met by dozens of hopefuls, all eager to learn.
   The following year I flew over again, this time with Siugo Green, of the St. Louis Hawks. This time we started in Algeria and almost got trapped there in the middle of a national coup. We escaped to Guinee on the last plane leaving the country. From Guinee we worked our way, country by country, down the west coast.
    Much later, in the fall of 1984, I traveled back to West Africa by myself for an extended stay. I spent Christmas in Bamako at the American Embassy singing Jingle Bells under a lighted palm tree in 95 degree weather. Very strange, but far closer to the original landscape of the Christ's birth. It had been twenty years since my last visit to West Africa, and I could see remarkable improvement. Hakeem Olajuwan had just started his first year with the Houston Rockets. I knew it wouldn't be long before more players from Africa would be following his example.
    After 1984, I never returned to West Africa. Sadly those early years of national enthusiasm and optimism have disappeared, replaced by more cynical political and economic realities, but unlike the countries, the game of basketball has not regressed. Most of the young African players John, Casey and I worked with back then are in their late middle-ages by now, their own dreams of greatness in the NBA long gone, but hopefully passed on to their children or grandchildren.

Hakeem the Dream     by  Tom Meschery

In Africa each morning practice starts
with warm-ups. The youngest on the team,
perhaps sixteen, waits patiently for me,
sitting in the thin shade below the backboard,
reading the latest article about Hakeem.
We stretch ham-strings, then slow-jog
around the court. He keeps pace, all the while
talking about The Dream. "Dis donc," he says,
"With The Dream we would defeat  Senegal
and be champions of West Africa.
Que pense, toi, entraineur?" What do I think?
I can't, about anything more than the red
and smoky sun rising over the opposite basket,
the heat already sweating my shirt, and how
the rains suddenly begin half way through practice.
I shag his jump shots, the ones he swears
are like Hakeem's. He says he will also attend
the University of Houston, later play for the NBA.
"Vous m'assistez?" But his shots are ugly, too flat.
They lack the back-spin, the softness of the Dream's.
I nod my head, whatever I can do, I say, my best shot.
I am in the country of Burkina Fasso.
It's name means, land of up-right people.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Forty-Niners Should Have Known Better.

     What are the requirements that make for a successful professional sports coach? Apparently being a star ex-player (emphasis on Star) is not one. Especially in Football. The facts tell the story. Of all of today's NFL's coaches, Mike Singelary is/was its only super-star player. Jack Del Rio and Ken Whisenhaut played in the NFL but could hardly be called stars. Sean Payton played sparsely.
    The most successful NFL coaches: Shanahan, Belichick, McCarthy, Turner, Reid, Tomlin, Smith, Coughlin, not only didn't play in the NFL, they never played for any major university. Belichick was the captain of his college Lacrosse team. Of the ten greatest coaches in NFL history, not one ever reached anything close to stardom as a player. Of all of them, Bud Grant was probably the best athlete having played both professional basketball for the Minniapolis Lakers and football as an adequate wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. George Halas played baseball for the Yankees. Lombardi learned about football as an assistant coach at Westpoint. Bill Walsh, my favorite coach of all time, played football at San Mateo Junior College and San Jose State, neither school known for its football programs. Marv Levy hired Walsh as an assistant at the University of California, Berkeley. Levy, a darn good pro coach, earned his BA in English Literature from Coe College - not known as a college football powerhouse - and held a Masters Degree in English History from Harvard University.

    Perhaps understanding history is a requirement. Speaking of history, what is it historians say? If you don't study history, you are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. That's not exactly right. In the case of NFL football, none of the NFL owners ever hired a coach who was a great NFL player, let alone a Hall of Famer - except the 49ers.

    In the future there might very well be a great NFL ex-player who becomes a successful pro coach as there have been in professional basketball. But even in the NBA there aren't many. Lenny Wilkins, Tommy Heinsohn, Billy Cuningham, KC Jones and Bill Russell. (Russell may not count since a lot of his winning stats were achieved while he was coaching himself.) Of the five above mentioned players that became coaches, only Lenny Wilkins proved his skill over an extended period of time. However, unlike the NFL, many NBA coaches had long careers as pro players, but they were not superstars. I'd be willing to bet that most of the NBA superstars could not succeed as coaches. Just imagine Charles Barkely trying to coach anyone. Magic gave it a shot and it didn't work out.

    The great managers in baseball, on the other hand, have mostly been ex-players of some notoriety, but not necessarily Hall of Famers. I wonder if coaching skills in baseball are honed during all the time baseball players have to think about the game in between pitches or while waiting those interminable hours before they get to bat?

    Hockey is a Canadian sport, so I'll let someone from up north tell me whether NHL superstars make great pro hockey coaches or not, but I do know that Al Arbour was a terrific player, while the all-time greatest NHL coach, Scotty Bowman played only briefly in the minor leagues. Even the superlative NHL Hall of Famer, Wayne Gretsky, didn't fare well as a coach.

    The moral of this story, if there is one, is that if you're an owner in the NFL (or NBA) in search of a coach it is best to hire a thinking man like Bill Walsh, Marv Levy, or a Bill Belichek rather than a super star ex-player, especially a fiery, confrontational, disorganized, petulant Hall of Fame linebacker.

    I found this great football poem years ago.

Necessity is the Mother of the "Bullet"    by  Patrick Worth Gray

Our quarterback kept throwing higher
And higher. Finally, the ball
Would just squirt straight up
Thirty yards and straight back
Down into the arms
Of the other team's astonished center.
It was Banana City for Coach Boyle-
"Gray," he said, "Straighten
Rodriquez out." I couldn't speak
Spanish; Rodriquez couldn't speak
English. We drank beer
Until we woke up walleyes
In a recruiting station, signing
The papers. Six months later,
On the slopes of Nui Ba Dinh,
Rodriquez saw a hand-grenade
Rolling down toward our hole.
He pitched that thing forty yards
Right into the arms of an eternally
Astonished Viet Cong. After
The echoes died, I said,
"Rodriguez, why the hell didn't you do that
Back at good old P.S.U.?"
"Ah, there," he said, "There, I didn't have to."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Lost Hero

   Today's Sunday sporting green mentioned in an article entitled "A Year of Lost Heroes"... the passing of Franklin Mieuli. The writer says, "It's safe to say we won't see the likes of Franklin Mieuli again." If only this were not true. Wouldn't it be great if sports had hundreds of Franklins? Wouldn't it be fun? Characters instead of business men. Bottoms up instead of bottom line. Handshake deals instead of deals requiring legions of lawyers. Violin concertos and champagne instead of flying pizzas and rolled T-shirts shot from canons. Sherlock Holmes garb instead of Armani suits. I know, I know. I'm being sentimental and naive. There were lawyers back then and those handshake deals were not all they were cracked up to be. But wasn't it something when Franklin set out the first two rows of the Civic Center with tables, served champagne to his season ticket holders and serenaded them with string quartets? You don't remember those evenings? Ah, well. You'll have to settle for memories of flying pepperoni.
    Franklin managed to keep professional basketball in the Bay Area, shoe-stringing it along until the game came of age and attendance skyrocketed. For his struggle and for bringing us an NBA Championship, why haven't the Golden State Warriors honored the man? Why isn't Franklin's name retired along with his players' high above the arena, inscribed between Chamberlain and Barry.
    I've tried a number of times to write a poem about Franklin, but never quite pulled it off. But here is a poem I wrote about Eddie Gottlieb, owner of the Philadelphia Warriors who sold  the team to Franklin and his group in 1962. Eddie was almost as colorful as Franklin and easily as much of a character. I figure Eddie, Franklin, and Wilt are together somewhere checking out today's NBA. I'd love to be privy to that conversation, but I think I'll hold off a while before joining them.

Eddie Gottlieb   by Tom Meschery

The first words he said to me were
"You'll want to buy lots of things.
Whatever you do don't, I repeat,
don't buy anything retail. Buy
holesill, y'hear, holesill."
I heard all right. All the way
on the long drive to my first
training camp through the fall
countryside, leaves turning red
and gold. I listened to the man
behind the wheel, amazed
at what I didn't know
about the game, how little
it would cost me - and how much.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Larry Brown

    Last night on TV I listened to Michael Jordan give the prepackaged, tired, bland "parting of the ways" explanation General Managers and owners offer the public when firing a coach, and I was disappointed. Larry Brown and I came into the NBA together eons ago. I admired his playing, and I especially admired his coaching. Brown was Jordan's pick to be coach; they're both Dean Smith, North Carolina alums. They're both basketball men. Jordan knows good coaching, but he made it sound as if the Bobcats' losing season was Larry's fault. I understand that somebody must fall on his sword; it's the way things work in sports, and I admit in the past coaching changes often did help. But I believe Larry's Brown's firing represents something new and more troublesome that's happening in the NBA.  Something that bodes poorly for the league's future.
   Don't get me wrong, I love the modern game of professional basketball; its speed and athleticism makes for a thrilling sport. But, the same attributes that make today's game so exciting might also be its weakness, a weakness born of an increasingly heavy reliance on "go-to" Super Players. A weakness that could, become the League's Achilles heel.
   Certainly, the NBA has always relied on superstars, but every season, as the speed and athleticism of players increase, the chances for less athletic teams to even moderately succeed diminishes. This trend has recently been exemplified by the Miami Heat's acquisition of LeBron James and Chirs Bosh, and the Knicks aquisition of Amare Stoudemire. Now Carmelo Anthony is about to bolt Denver for better climes - rumors say he wants to join forces with Stoudemire in New York. Who can say where Dwight Howard will go if Orlando doesn't win a championship soon? (The Magic's recent trade is only a marginal improvement).
   Thank God Dirk Nowitzki stayed put in Dallas. Could you imagine if the Knicks had landed Nowitzki?  If you haven't noticed, the NBA is already so lopsided that only a very few elite teams exist. The rest of the teams have virtually no chance against them, even though some, like the Atlanta Hawks, have a number of excellent players. Even the Mavericks with that magnificent German will not prevail against the likes of Boston, LA, and Miami.  Whoa, you say,  Miami is not ready yet. Really? We'll have to wait for the last month of the season to find out. And what about the Heat next season?  And the season after? I'm taking bets there is a championship in store for them.
   What does this have to do with Larry Brown? I'm afraid that Larry and many other good coaches in the NBA are going to be fired in the future because the playing field on which they are coaching is no longer level.  Teams are increasingly stockpiling the best players.  You can be a smart and innovative coach but how do you win in such an environment? Kurt Rambis doesn't have a chance. Neither does Sacramento's Paul Westphal, or San Diego's Vinnie Delnegro. You can name a number of other coaches who are doomed to failure and will be, like Larry Brown, replaced by another coach who will, in his turn, be replaced, unless the NBA provides them with some tools to compete against the elite teams. Unless they do, small market franchises without deep-pocket ownership will remain perennial losers.
   The league can not wait much longer to solve this problem.
   One thing the NBA can do right now that would have an immediate impact is to change its 24-second clock rule to 35 seconds. The extra 11 seconds would allow intelligent coaches (such as Larry Brown) to compete for more points by creating complex offensive patterns that could allow a less athletic, but smarter team, to withstand the pure athleticism of the elites. Yes, it would slow the game down, but not by much. No basketball fan that I know of complains about the 35-second clock in college basketball.
   One last comment about Larry's firing. When did Larry Brown become a bad coach? From 1973 to 2005, across three decades of basketball players, he consistently won.  This poem is specifically for Larry, but any coach, I'm sure, can relate.

Ulysses   by Claude Clayton Smith

There is yet some elastic
in this tired old jock,
enough to toss the ball
around and teach my son
Telemachus the subtle art
of looking left - while
thinking right. To catch
the opposition napping,
to cross them up and leave
them guessing. Elastic
yet to flip the pages of
faded clippings and narrate
tales that live as legends:
the hours of practice,
the hard-fought game,
the occasional moments
of glory.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Biggest Mistake a Coach Can Make

   I was a pretty darn good basketball player, but a terrible basketball coach. My one season as the head coach of the 1971/72 American Basketball Association (ABA) Carolina Cougers was a cornucopia of mistakes that I don't need to or care to enumerate. But the biggest one and the one that set me on the path to disaster is the lead-in to today's blog.

   If coaches don't set the bar high and demand excellence from their players, they are doomed to failure. I wish I had realized that when I started coaching. Instead of demanding my players correct obvious mistakes, I tried to persuade them. Persuading never works. My key player back then was Jim McDaniels, a highly sought after 6'11" center whom the Cougars drafted number one and paid enough bucks to that he opted for the ABA over the NBA. He possessed loads of talent, but his game had flaws. I knew what they were from the very first practice. I did everything I could to persuade him to correct his errors that mostly had to do with footwork. I persuaded, cajoled, implored, explained, but I didn't demand. Jim never grew as a professional basketball player, and it was my fault.

  Last night as I watched the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings play, I think I saw a possible example of this kind of coaching error. Last year I believed Paul Westphal did one heck of a job fixing some of the obvious wrongs on a team that had gone through a disastrous season the year before. With Geoff Petrie, the GM, trading for a solid power forward in Carl Landry, a reasonably good shot-blocking center in Samuel Delembert and picking talented rookie Demarcus Cousins in the 2010 draft, I felt the Kings were a team on the rise.

   As of today, the Kings are 5-18 and last in the Pacific Division. So what's the problem? There are a number of them, but the most obvious is this: Kings rookie phenom Tyreke Evans - last season's Rookie of the Year - has not improved his game over the summer. What he had to work on couldn't have been more clear. Every player and every coach in the NBA could have told him. The custodians and popcorn venders in the arena could have told him. My old grandmother could have told him. Tyreke, you have no jump shot. You sling your shot as if you're trying to knock down Goliath.

   I am sure Paul Westphal must have said something at the end of the last season to Tyreke about improving his shot, but did he demand it? It sure doesn't look like it to me. This is what Westphal needed to say to the Rookie of the Year: Tyreke everybody in the NBA knows what your strength is, so from now on throughout the rest of your career, defenses are going to play you for the drive and concede the jumper. So, young man, you must spend your entire summer mastering the jump shot. As a coach that is not only what I expect, that is what I demand. Without a jumper you will inevitably become a liability, and you will sit on the bench next to me until you learn to shoot.

   Clearly, Tyreke didn't work on his jumper this summer. If he did, he certainly never worked with a coach who knew anything about how to teach a jump shot. I am actually amazed at this since Geoff Petrie was one of the NBA's premier jump shooters. His form was classic. I know, I coached Geoff when he was a Portland Trailblazer. Westphal was not a bad shooter either, although he was more of a scorer than a pure shooter. As an ex-Golden State Warrior and a Warrior fan, I shouldn't feel so badly about a Sacramento King's player, but it breaks my heart to see talent wasted. The way Tyreke can drive to the basket, if he ever developed a jumper, he would be unstoppable. Coach Westphal, you need to do some serious demanding. You need to raise the bar and make Tyreke leap over it - for his own good and the good of the team.

Here's wonderfully funny poem about coaching.

First Practice    by Gary Gildner

After the doctor checked to see
we weren't ruptured,
the man with the short cigar took us
under the grade school,
where we went in case of attack
or storm, and said
he was Clifford Hill, he was
a man who believed dogs
ate dogs, he had once killed
for his country, and if
there were any girls present
for them to leave now.
      No one
left. OK, he said, he said I take
that to mean you  are hungry
men who hate to lose as much
as I do. OK. Then
he made two lines of us
facing each other,
and across the way, he said,
is the man you hate most
in the world,
and if we are to win
that title I want to see how.
But I don't want to see
any marks when you're dressed,
he said. he said, Now!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Spit on it!

     In their fear of losing a valuable commodity, have NBA owners, general managers, coaches, and player- agents created a bunch of malingerers? I'm not talking about players with serious injuries. God knows the speed and strength in the NBA these days has increased so dramatically that serious injuries often can't be avoided, and coaches have to factor injuries into their game plans. However, I can't help noticing as I read my sport pages that there are lots of injuries that seem pretty darn vague. Here are some examples: Jamal Crawford, back spasms, ditto Andre Bargnani and Sonny Weems. Rodney Stucky, sore toe, ditto, George Hill.  Brandan Wright, lower back pain.  Jermaine O'Neil, ailing knees.  Joey Graham, strained quad. Tracy McGrady, sore groin.  Dan Gadzuric, strained groin.  Josh McRobers, lower back strain.  Jose Calderon, strained foot.  Amir Johnson, sore back.  Anthony Morrow, strained hamstring.  Nenad Kristic, lower back strain.  Jason Williams, sore foot.  Peja Stojakovic, swollen knee.  John Wall, bone bruise. Not to mention the numerous sprained ankles.

     Now, I know sprained ankles can be serious. I've seen enough of them when I played. Back then, the question most players asked themselves was did the sprain need rest and rehab or could they tape it up and go out and play? Is this question relevant today? I guess I'm concerned with words such as "strain" "sore" "ailing" "spasm" "swollen" "bruise" These are suspicious words lacking any conviction or sense of urgency. And I hate to be suspicious because I'm afraid of sounding like one of those retired players who is always talking about how much tougher his generation of athletes was. Still, I've been reading about these mysterious injuries for some time. Last season I remember reading that Tyson Chandler missed a game against the
Boston Celtics because of a "stiff neck," and Travis Outlaw, then of the Blazers, missed a game against the Clippers because of a "bruised tail bone." A stiff neck, a sore quad, a bruise - for goodness sake! Don't coaches have enough of a problem having to figure out their line-ups and rotations without having to consider every booboo?. Sorry guys, your injuries don't sound that significant to me. You might want to consider the remedy my old high school coach prescribed for most of his players' injuries: "spit on it".

    OK, I hear the groaning now. But here's a little aside: Scientists have now proven that saliva contains a healing agent called hestatin, which may or may not have any effect on stiff necks or sore hammies. But what the hell, it might help a sore toe. I present this possible curative with a slightly straight face.

    The key to a successful team in the NBA these days, unfortunately, has as much to do with a team remaining injury free as it does with the team's game plan. And I'm not talking about injuries to star players. A team can be negatively impacted by missing reserves - a back-up center, for example. What happens during a game when a starting center fouls out, and the reserve center is out with a sore buttock? For lack of important back-ups at every position, a game can be lost.
    In the army soldiers caught AWOL suffer severe consequences. It looks to me as if some NBA players are absent from games without leave.
    This kind of malingering reminds me of children who make-up stomach aches so their parents will allow them to stay home from school. Mommy I don't feel well. Don't worry, darling, you stay in bed.
    What can I say to malingering players except, Night, night, fellows. I hope you're well enough to play tomorrow.

    Here's a poem about a bull rider, but it says everything about being a professional athlete. Last night I watched Brett Favre finally succumb to injury. Finally, but not without giving every ounce of his courage and spirit. And for what? A game he really didn't have to play, a game that meant nothing to the Vikings. I wonder how many bruises and sores muscles Favre sustained over his career, that he ignored, and spit on, so he could lead his teammates onto the field to play the game he loves?

The Bullrider's Advice    by  David Allen Evans

What I'm saying is
you can't take this thing light
and there's no saddle to sit in

you can do it one of two ways
as far as I'm concerned
if you want to do it

you can get on just for the ride
take hold of the rope like it was
any old rope and pray for a quick 8 seconds
and no spinning

or you can wrap your fist into his back
so deep he knows you plan to stay awhile
dig in with your whole soul
until the sonofabbitch is sick of you
and lets up

what I'm saying is
it's up to you

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cal Bears Baseball Stuff

   I was talking to Larry Colton, once one of the University of California Golden Bears' greatest pitchers, and he was lamenting the University downgrading the baseball program, as are all of the Bear baseball alumni. Sad, really sad, he said. But the upside he told me, is no one will ever break his record of striking out 19 players in one game. Larry has a sense of humor. It's probably what kept him going after he broke his arm and lost his promising pro career with the Philadelphia Philies. I can't imagine what it must feel like to know you have everything it takes to be a pro, and an injury prevents you from becoming one. I suspect it's every college greats' nightmare, and why college players today can't wait to be eligible for their sport's pro. drafts.
    I met Larry in Portland in 1974 when I was the assistant coach of the Portland Trailblazers. He wrote one hell of a book about Bill Walton's Trailblazer NBA Championship team. His recent book, Counting Coup, about a Native American women's basketball team is not just meaningful, it's profound, tragic, and superb. Read it!
    On the subject of the University of California Bears, I read something absolutely pitiful about the basketball team, something over which the university and the team should hang their heads in shame. Nigel Carter, a walk-on player for Mike Montgomery's Bears' basketball team, because he's a walk-on and a non-scholarship player, cannot eat with his teammates at their training table. He's on his own--Chipolte before games, for goodness sake. Are you kidding? Here's a guy who was admitted to the Univ. of California, one of our country's most prestigious schools, on academic merit, has the courage to try-out for the basketball team, makes the team, becomes a valuable asset to the team for the last two years, and yet the team tells him he's not welcome to break bread with them. Not only am I shocked, I am repulsed. I have no idea what kind of player Carter is since I've haven't seen him play, but he recently scored 16 points in 21 minutes against Southern Mississippi.
     Did I miss something reading my sporting green this morning? Did he really say Chipolte? How is it possible his teammates aren't up in arms? Is it possible that Mike Montgomery is that insensitive? What the hell is going on? At its most basic level, sports is about teamwork and camaraderie. Have things changed? If this is what camraderie means for the Bear's basketball team, then maybe the university should consider dropping basketball down to a club team and bring baseball back up.
   Here's a fine and wonderfully strange poem about baseball I'm sure Larry Colton will appreciate.

Dream of a Baseball Star    by  Gregory Corso

I dreamed Ted Williams
leaning at night
against the Eiffel Tower, weeping.

He was in uniform
and his bat lay at his feet
-knotted and twiggy.

'Randall Jarrell * says you're a poet!" I cried.
'So do I! I say you're a poet!'

He picked up his bat with blown hands;
stood there astraddle as he would in the batter's box,
and laughed! flinging his schoolboy wrath
toward some invisible pitcher's mound
-waiting the pich all the way from heaven.

It came; hundreds come! All afire!
He swung and swung and swung and connected not one
sinker, curve, hook, or right down the middle.
A hundred strikes!
The umpire dressed in strange attire
thundered his judgment: YOU'RE OUT!
And the phantom crowd's horrific boo
dispersed the gargoyles from Notre Dame.

And I screamed in my dream:
God! throw thy merciful pitch!
Herald the crack of bats!
Hooray the sharp liner to left!
Yea the double, the triple!
Hosannah the homerun!

* Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) was one of America's greatest

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Boxer I Never Was.

I read a powerfully moving boxing poem recently, and it made me wonder if I had anything to say about the sport. Not a lot, although I did participate in one boxing match in my life. It was for a Saint Vincent De Paul School fundraiser. I was in college and my basketball coach would have had a fit had he known I was participating. My opponent, who reminded me of cross between Rocky Marciano and Rocky Balboa, thrashed me for two rounds so badly that toward the final third round I kicked him in the groin and was disqualified. I never boxed again, unless one counts the times Rudy La Russo of the Lakers and I mixed it up, a common occurrence when our teams played each other. Elgin Baylor once said that no Warrior/Laker game officially began until Meschery and LaRusso fought. Ah, those glory days of fisticuffs.

I never gave fighting on the basketball court a second thought since my teammate on the Warriors was Al Attles, pound for pound, the meanest, toughest man in the game, who always had my back. Without him I could have been roadkill any number of times. I take this opportunity late in life to publicly thank him for saving me from being slaughtered by Zelmo Beatty. On the other hand, I didn't need much help with Darrell Imhoff.

I used to watch boxing, but not much anymore. Back then, there were fighters worth watching, pugilists such as the graceful Sugar Ray Robinson, Willy Pep, Rocky Marciano, Archie, the mongoose, Moore, the magnificent Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Roberto Duran. The last modern day fighter I watched was Oscar de la Hoya. If all boxers were as skillful as the two Sugar Rays and Archie Moore, and that wonderful Frenchman, Marcel Cerdan (I wonder how many people remember him?), I might still be watching the sport, but probably not. In my old age, I'm reluctant to witness the body and brain being battered when I know that nature and age are as relentless as any boxer.

Here's a poem about boxing honoring one of the sport's legends. I think it says everything about the terrible toll boxers pay on their way to uncertain glory.

On Hurricane Jackson   by Allan Dugan

Now his nose's bridge is broken, one eye
will not focus and the other is astray;
trainers whisper in his mouth while one ear
listens to itself, clenched like a fist;
generally shadow-boxing in a smoky room,
his mind hides like the aching boys
who lost a contest in the Pan-Hellenic games
and had to take the back roads home,
but someone else, his perfect youth,
laureled in newsprint and dollar bills,
triumphs forever on the great white way
to the statistical Sparta of the champs.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Gaels of St. Mary's College

I wouldn't be a good Galloping Gael if I didn't blog about St. Mary's College basketball team and the success they've been having under Coach Randy Bennett. First of all, a belated congratulations (I wasn't blogging last season) to the Gaels for their impressive 2009/10 NCAA Championship run. Making the Sweet Sixteen was an accomplishment that only one other Gael team--our 1958/59--equaled. We made it to the elite 8, but in an era when there were only 16 teams to begin with. Last year's Gaels were victorious through two extra rounds, defeating a strong Villanova team on the way.

It looks as if this year is going to be a good one for the Gaels too. Much has been written about the Gaels Australian connection, and that's fun and perhaps significant, but I'm of the opinion that the credit for the Gaels success belongs to the coach and his staff. Great players are necessary to win, but going beyond mere wins to championship-type wins requires a strong, intelligent coach who can sell his brand of basketball to his players. It seems clear that Randy has done just that.

I've always been interested in what makes a great coach. I've played for several superior coaches in my basketball career, starting with my high school coach, Benny Neff, who was a little man and a fierce competitor. (He called me a sunavabitch so often I began to think it was my middle name). Such intimidation would not be tolerated by today's players, more's the pity. But his wild personality was beside the point. Neff possessed a genius for preparing teams to play. Every other coach I admired possessed that same practice-first approach to winning. I suspect it is the common denominator for all coaches, whose personalities vary so greatly. I'd bet the bank that Randy Bennett's practices are thorough and intense and his players walk onto the court feeling prepared to play their best.

Last night I was watching one of Randy Bennett's best ex-players, Patty Mills, playing for the Portland Blazers. Mills, who unfortunately came out one year too early in a draft year where there was a plethora of great point guards, has been languishing in the development league and/or taking up Portland bench space. I always thought he was an excellent point guard. In the last St. Mary's game Patty played--the 2008/09 season--the Gaels defeated Davidson, and Mills outplayed Steph Curry. In last night's game I saw flashes of the old St. Mary's Gael Mills, coming off the bench to speed the game up and distribute the ball quickly and wisely. His uptempo game was the reason the Blazers were able to catch up with a powerful Maverick team, and the decision by Nate McMillen, the Blazer coach, to pull Patty in the forth quarter and bring back the more ponderous Andre Miller might have cost them the game. Still, it was a pleasure to see the speedy little Aussie back on the court. As soon as Mills becomes more comfortable shooting the deep J, he is going to have a long future in the NBA. You can't teach speed and you can't teach intelligence, two attributes Patty Mills possesses in abundance.

Of other great Gael players. Anyone interested in the whereabouts of Omar Samhan and Diamon Simpson, two Gael greats, Randy Bennett told me Omar is playing in Lithuania and Simpson is playing in Turkey, and doing well I am happy to report.

The sports poem selected for today's blog is by Bob Hass, Poet Laureate of the United States, and fittingly, a graduate of St. Mary's College. It's a section from a poem entitled "Dragonflies Mating" from his book Sun Under Wood.  What I like most about this excerpt is how it rings so true for all of us for whom basketball was so important.

...I'd bounce
the ball two or three times, study the orange rim as if it were,
which it was, the true level of the world, the one sure thing

the power in my hands could summon. I'd bounce the ball
once more, feel the grain of the leather in my fingertips and shoot.
It was the perfect thing;...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

False Stats

    Statistics don't always tell the story. Recently I've been reading all the hoopla over Kevin Love's super rebounding feats. He's a tough hombre all right, but his rebounding totals are misleading as are the rebounding totals of most basketball players, from high school to the pros. Here's the way I see it: There are two kinds of defensive rebounds - the ones that are uncontested and the ones that are contested. Why should uncontested rebounds, those that fall into a player's hands or the ones that inside defenders during free- throws usually get for free, two or three times a game.  For those easy rebounds, a player should be awarded half a rebound. The player would have to acquire two halves before one full board would be recorded in the stats book.
   The contested rebound, one that a player struggles with one or more opponents to control, is the only one worthy of an immediate full recorded rebound. All offensive boards would receive a full recorded rebound because offensive boards have a lot more to do with hustle and positioning than luck. Perhaps you're saying, is this guy serious? You bet I am. It's not Kevin Love I'm thinking of so much as I am about Dwight Howard and an earlier Shaquille O'Neil. Most opponents, once they see Dwight going for the rebound don't even try to contest him. So what kind of an effort is that, considering he can jump effortlessly over tall buildings? While Pau Gasol simply extends his ten foot long arms and voila, he's got the ball. Lot's of effort there.
    And how about assists? Could the same criteria apply?  So often I see a passer receive an assist for a simple straightforward pass to a standing shooter. For what? I'm not even sure if a dribble-drive through the paint and a kick-out pass to a waiting shooter should be awarded an assist, at least not a full assist. Only those passes that set up a shot that would not have been there otherwise should be awarded a full assist. All the rest should be awarded a half.
   Now that I'm on a roll, I also believe that the NBA should adopt the European slanted lanes for the key. Let's force the giant centers and no-talent low-post players to be more mobile and learn some post moves instead of encouraging them to simply back their defenders, most of whom have already established good defensive positions, into the paint with their butts often knocking the hell out of them. OK, OK, I understand the NBA has too much pride to admit the Europeans are right, so I'll settle for more fouls called on those types of low post players.

    Here's a fun poem for all of you who played basketball by yourselves on your driveway court.

Air Ball                             by Peter Sears

Here on the driveway basketball court, I loft
a soft jumper: good arc, nice back-spin, but
it falls short, touching nothing. Air ball lands
on the end of  the gutter pipe, caroms into
the street, and rolls down the hill. Nuts!
I go get it and dribble on back, imagining

the seconds ticking down - 10,9,8 - I'm
struggling to pick my man off - 7,6,5 -
finally, daylight! - 3.2.1 - hoist! Up goes
the shot, just in time. It clangs the back
of the rim. I'll try again -6,5,4, - I take
my man off the dribble, break clear, lift

a running onehander, in and out. But refs reset
the time clock. 5 seconds. I look my defender
in the eyes and go straight up over him.
The shot doesn't reach the rim. One bounce
and the ball is arcing out-of-bounds. I leap
for it, teeter on the out-of-bounds line.

The pricker bush won't hold me up. I topple
into the bush. A whistle! Maybe I was pushed
out. Refs are putting a few seconds back
on the clock. I pull prickers from my shooting
hand. After the time-out I'll probably be
double-teamed. that's O.K. There'll be time.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Alpine Skiing

   The first time I Alpine skied I was thirty-six years old, retired from playing professional basketball and living in Truckee, California, the Gateway to the Sierras. The NBA did not allow players to ski, so I had never tried it. After retirement, I was under no league constraints. I told myself I was a pro athlete, how hard could it be? Harder than I could have imagined. Muscles I had used to play contact sports were not the same muscles I needed to ski.  The instincts that I relied upon to play basketball did not help me on the hills. Yes, I had taken lessons and conquered the bunny hill, but now I was on an intermediate run.
   I felt as if I was looking down from the top of Mount Everest. I must have started at least a dozen avalanches as I tumbled my way to the bottom. I did not give up, but I'm afraid the mountain gave up on me. At the end of the day, I threw my rented skies into a ravine, wrote the ski rental folks a check, and left the lodge, never to down-hill again. Later, I did learn to Nordic ski, a sport that requires the mental attitude and stamina of a long distant runner. Again, not my cup of tea. Still, you can't live thirty-five years in the mountains without learning to appreciate all forms of Alpine skiing.
   The last two months have been wet. As I write this blog from Alameda, California, worrying over the state of the Golden State Warriors, the snow is falling in the Sierras, and men and women, boys and girls are shushing down the ski runs oblivious to seven foot tall Andres Beidrens having a problem being a consistent rebounder.
   Years ago I came across this poem, which is one of the best I've ever read about skiing.

Skier   by Robert Francis.

He swings down like the flourish of a pen
Signing a signature in white on white.

The silence of his skis reciprocates
The silence of the world around him.

Wind is his one competitor.
In the cool winding and unwinding down.

On incandescent feet he falls
Unfalling, trailing white foam, white fire.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Sports Guy

    If you haven't read The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, and call yourself a basketball fan, you need to rethink your definition of the word fan. Simmon's book is one of the funniest sports books I've read in years. It's also opinionated, irreverent, hyperbolic, caustic, cynical, sarcastic, and goofy, while the rhythms of his language are something like Run-D.M.C. meets Samuel Johnson, which makes for one hell of a good read. The Book of Basketball is also a serious attempt to define the world of professional basketball from its prosaic beginnings to its complicated present.
   Is Simmons book successful? For the most part, yes, even when he stretches his analogies to the breaking point, or misses a point or two or three, or four, probably because, as a writer, no matter how good, he was never in the game. When he's at his best, he's perfect. For example, he couldn't have chosen a better way to explain the difference between NBA eras than by comparing them to the different eras of comedy - Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart and the Smother's Brothers representing the 60's when I played. So, Sports Guy, who is Earl the Pearl, Lenny or Woody? Clearly Havelick is Newhart and are the Van Arsdale Twins, the Smothers Brothers?
    However, his adoration of the Boston Celtics, understandable because he was the wide-eyed kid weaned on Celtic Green - prejudiced his view of Wilt Chamberlain.
    The verbal beating Simmons gives Wilt troubled me a lot, and it is the subject of this blog.
    I was Wilt's teammate for five years. I came to the Philadelphia Warriors as their first-round draft choice in 1961. I played in Wilt's famous hundred-point game. I played with Wilt in the Bay Area when we had a lousy season and again when we won the Western Division Championship. After that I played against Wilt. One time I tried to punch Wilt. Believe me, I tried, but he stretched out his arm and held my forehead as I yelled and punched wildly under his arm, while he implored me to stop acting like a fool. My teammates rescued me. But I'm pretty sure Wilt couldn't have hit me because he was laughing too hard.
    I can't argue with Simmons that once the ball went to Wilt, it rarely came back out, at least not until much later in Wilt's career when he decided he could be an effective passer. It may have bothered other members of our Warrior team that Wilt saw it as his mission to be the principal scorer, but I didn't. I always figured I could find ways to get my own shots. Russell could never have been the scorer Wilt was. Russ had no touch. Wilt, on the other hand, possessed a lovely fade-away bank shot, and an effective finger roll from every angle.
   Who was the better center? Russell, of course. Who was more valuable to his team? Both were. I think Russell, as spectacular a shot-blocker as he was, would not have fared so well had he not been with the Celtics, coached by Aurebach and surrounded by teammates like Cousy, Havlick, Heinsohn, the Jones boys and Satch Sanders.
   Not that our team was dog-meat. Arizin was a sensational scorer and Rodgers a fine point-guard, while I was a damned good power-forward. And the other guys on our team were solid players, but over-all we weren't as deep as the Celtics. Simmons does not mention that had it not been for a stupid decision by our coach Frank McGuire, in the last two seconds of the 7th game of the 1961/62 Eastern Division Championship, the Philadelphia Warriors might have gone into overtime to defeat the Celtics and gone on to beat the LA Lakers, a team we had dominated the entire year.
   Talk to any of the guys from our team, Sports Guy, and they'll tell you about being in that huddle, Gola pleading with Frank to let him guard Sam Jones instead of allowing Rodgers (who was defensively dis-functional) to guard him for the last play of the game, with the score tied. Had we won that game, would history have treated Wilt differently? I believe so. I even wonder if the Warriors would have been sold. Wilt outplayed Russell in that series and deserved the victory.
    As for Wilt's personality. Let me recount one story. The summer after my first season in Seattle, I ran a two week youth league in the inner city. I asked a certain big-name basketball star if he would come to Seattle and throw the ball up to start the first game. He asked me how much it paid and when I told him we had no budget, he turned me down flat. I called Wilt. He came up from his home in LA at his own expense, and not only threw up the first ball, but stayed an extra day to referee. One of my favorite photographs of Wilt is of him standing in my backyard in Seattle, holding my two-year-old daughter, Janai, over his head in the the palm of one of his enormous hands.
    Wilt was not as single minded as Russell was and early in his career not as mature. If Russ was a Rembrandt, Wilt was a Caravaggio and, like him, a flawed and maganificent virtuoso. I admire both painters, I admire both centers.
     I wrote this poem for Wilt the day after I heard he died.

Mourning Wilt the Day After His Death     by Tom Meschery

                            "The game's not over until the fat lady sings."
                                                                                            Dick Motta

In the dawn, I woke up thinking big:
Time to crack a dozen eggs, fry all the bacon.
I think I'll never shave. Let my beard grow
as long as an Epic. Dust off those books
with thick spines: Gibbon's Rise and Fall,
Gone with the Wind, The Summa Theologica.
Spend the afternoon with Aquinas' five proofs
for God's existence: The Uncaused Cause,
or was it The Divine Plan that toppled Wilt?
It might help reading about the Prime Mover,
but I doubt it. Words are never enough.
Let the day end as it began with a red sun,
and let there be a blonde soprano
with big bosoms belting out her last aria.

Friday, December 10, 2010

1972 Olympics, Russia Wins Gold

   Here are two names, Vladimir Kandrashin and Alexander Belov, that Doug Collins, the Philadelphia 76ers head coach, never wants to hear again. Why? Because Collins was the starting point guard on the U.S. Olympic basketball team that lost to the Soviet Russians coached by Vladimir Kandrashin, and whose star player was Alexander Belov. It was the first time an American basketball team lost a Gold Medal in the Olympics.
   I don't blame Collins for being bitter. After Collins sank two free throws to put his team ahead by one point, the game turned into a fiasco of mismaagement. The game clock was reset three times in favor of the Russians, and the referee's rulings were bizarre at best. Still, with 3 seconds on the clock and the U.S. up by one point, it's hard to imagine how our team allowed the Russians to throw the ball (unchallenged) the length of the court and how our players allowed Alexandr Belov to catch the ball so close to the hoop and score the go-ahead basket. 
   The entire American team and coaching staff refused to accept their silver medals. Na-na, Na-na Na-Na!! I guess that showed the Russians.
    Not one iota.
    In Saint Petersburg, every year in the early fall, the Kandrashin Family sponsors the Kandrashin/Belov Basketball Tournament in honor of the deceased coach and player; which officially begins their professional basketball season. All the extant players from that 1972 Olympic Team are honored at half-time. The arena is packed with basketball fans, young and old, paying homage to their heroes.
    In 2007, I was invited by the Russian Basketball Federation to attend that tournament. Although I was not born in Russia I was born of Russian parents in China and am a naturalized U.S. citizen. One could argue, and I have, that I'm the first Russian to play in the NBA. (Jim Luscatoff was born in the U.S.) In any case, that was the status accorded to me by the Russian media prior to my arrival in Russia, and who was I to argue? I am proud of my Russian heritage.
    I had never traveled to the birth place of my parents. Now I would get the chance to visit my ancestral home and meet two cousins on my mother's side who lived in Moscow. I would also be able to meet a friend Valery Diev, an ex-player for the Saint Petersburg pro Basketball team Spartak, who lived in Saint Petersburg, or Peters as the locals call it.
    In early August, I traveled to Peters, where I took a refresher course in the Russian language, then on to Moscow to visit my relatives. By the time the tournament came around on September 28th I felt I was speaking proficiently enough that I wouldn't make a fool of myself in front of 15,000 plus people. But what would I say? I was tempted to tell them that there was no way that last desperation basket would have made it, had Kareen Abdul Jabbar been playing center. Or that the game would not even have gone into overtime had any of our NBA players been allowed to play in the Olympics. It was tempting. I stood in center court. The announcer introduced me and handed me the microphone. I hesitated, then I thanked the Kandrashin family and the Russian Federation for inviting me. As I looked at the row of old men, survivors of that winning team, holding bouquets of flowers in their arms, standing proudly under banners of the their old coach and teammate, there was only one thing I could do. I congratulated them on their win, and I said the Russian people should never forget them.
   Between weekend games, the Kandrashin family, surviving members of the team, and my friend Valery and I, crowded into a bus for the annual trip to the cemetary where Kandrashin and Belov were buried. The bus stopped and we unloaded a folding table, and enough food to satisfy the Russian army: caviar, hard boiled eggs, herring in cream sauce, borscht, meat pies, cabbage rolls, shikabobs, and pickles. There is an old Russian saying that whereever there are pickles there must be vodka. Standing solemly around the grave sites of their fallen heros, we toasted them with neat vodka. More than once. Some of the ex players wept. I toasted my parents homeland. Later as we ate, I asked the players about that controversial game. Most of them agreed that the calls were bizarre, but they blamed the German clock managers and the Brazilian referee for their lack of communication. As for the outcome of the game, they voiced the belief that they won fair and square. Ivan Edeshko, who threw the final down-court pass said, "The Americans were favored to win. That we were virtually tied by the end of the game was in itself a victory. I have no idea why your McMillen never guarded me out of bounds.  I had a clear view of the basket and threw a perfect full court pass. Belov caught it despite two American players guarding him, and made the shot. I feel bad for the Americans but Alexandr [Belov] made a spectacular play." The next day the tournament ended and I departed Russia.

Tall Men    by Tom Meschery

                        for my father

I admit sleeping in late at the Hilton,
ordering room service,
handing out big tips while other men
are opening their lunch buckets. I know
you would have scolded me
Какая работа это для человека
"What kind of work is this for a man?"  *
Old immigrant, I admit all of this
too late. You died before I could explain
newspapers call me a journeyman.
They write I roll up my sleeves
and go to work. They use words
such as hammer and muscle to describe me.
For three straight years on the job
my nose collapsed. My knees ached,
and I could never talk myself out of less
than two injuries at a time. Father,
you would have been proud of me:
I labored in the company of tall men.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

You Can Go Home Again

    I thought I'd test Thomas Wolfe's premise that you can't go home again by coming home again after I retired. I almost made it. My wife Melanie and I got as far as Alameda before putting down our roots. But we are only a Bay Bridge away from visiting San Francisco where I grew up, so in a sense it is a kind of homecoming.
   Recently, Mel and I drove into The City for a morning at the DeYoung Museum and lunch at the Russian Bakery on Geary Boulevard, enjoying their deep fried pirochki and trying not to think about our rising cholesterol.
   The bakery is equidistant from where I grew up on 9th Ave and Clement, and Saint Monica's School out on the avenues, where Fred LaCour and I used to play a lot of basketball on its outdoor court.
   From 1953-56 LaCour was the star basketball player from Saint Ignatius High and I played for Lowell. We were rivals and best friends. Aside from Jason Kidd, I can't think of another prep in all of Northern California that was as skilled at that age.
   It's hard to imagine today's budding basketball stars playing ball on outdoor courts, not with all the youth leagues and semi-professional coaching and scouting of youngsters that goes on, and I'm not nostalgic enough to bemoan the fact that they don't. But those outdoor courts were the training ground for the players of my generation. All over the Bay Area there were outdoor courts with playground directors supervising and after-school players rushing to be first on to play. The games of three-on-three were called "hunch". I have no idea why, but I love the word.
   There were gyms too: Lawton, Booker T. Washington, Saint Vincent de Paul, Anza, Salesiens but mostly it is the outdoor courts that remain fixed in my memory. We played on concrete or asphalt and learned to avoid dribbling on cracks and to test the direction of the wind before we shot the ball.
    And there were the outdoor court players, plein-air gym rats, most of whom were not skillful enough to play in college but who joined up with those of us who were, to form some of my best basketball memories, those days of fierce competion on the outdoor courts. This poem goes out to them.

Ex Basketball Player   by John Updike

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth's Garage
Is on the corner facing west , and there
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps -
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low,
One's nostrils are two S's, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all - more a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In '46
He bucketed three-hundred-ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae's Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward the bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Odd Jocks

    Normally I end my blog with a "Sports Poem of the Day". Today's poem leads into the Blog.

To an Athlete Turned Poet     by Peter Meinke

                     (for James Dickey)

Fifteen years ago      and twenty
he'd crouch          linebacker          going tackler
steel stomach flexing for
contact       contact       cracking
through man after man         weekend hero
washing the cheers down
with unbought beer

and now his stomach's soft       his books
press out his veins as he walks
and no one looks

but deep in his bone stadium
the roar of the crowd wells
as he shows them again
crossing line after line
on cracking fingers     heart red-
dogging with rage and joy over the broken backs
of words      words     words

    James Dickey (1923-1997) was one of America's finest poets. He won the National Book Award and served as our country's Poet Laureate. Until his retirement, he taught poetry and creative writing at the University of South Carolina. He became known outside literary circles after his novel Deliverance was made into a movie. Dickey had a minor role as the sheriff in that popular thriller. In high school, Dickey played football. In college he played one year before joining the air force and serving in the Night Fighter squadron during World War II.
    While thinking of Dickey's poetry and the incongruity of his being a football player - by all accounts a fierce one - it occurred to me that this poem could have been dedicated to a number of different football players turned artists - Mike Reed of the Bengals, for one; Bernie Casey of the 49ers for another.
    Reed was an All-American from Penn State when he was drafted in the 1st round by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1970. He played there for 4 years and made the Pro-Bowl 2 of those years. His BA was in music. When he retired he followed his musical talent, playing the piano and composing. He performed with the Utah, Dallas, and Cincinnati symphonies. After his classical musical career, he wrote country music, winning the Grammy Award for his song, "Stranger in My House." Reed is enshrined in the Nashville Hall of Fame. On the football field, he was one tough sonovabitch.
    So was Bernie Casey, an All-American receiver at Bowling Green University, the same University attended by Warrirors' great Nate Thurmond.  Casey became the 1st round pick of the 49ers and went on to play six years for the Niners and 2 for the LA Rams before leaving football for an acting career. Casey is also an acclaimed painter.
    The combination of athlete and artist is, on its surface, an odd alliance of mind and body. But Casey and Reed are not unusual singletons in the world of sports. There are many other such "Odd Jocks." Here are just a few: Tommy Hiensohn, Celtics and painter; Florence Kersey Joyner, track and abstract painter; Peter Gent, NFL Dallas Cowboys and novelist; Bernie Williams, Yankees and classical/jazz guitarist.
    Having discovered enough jock/artist combos to conclude such people are not anomalies, I started looking for a commonality. Creativity had to be one, and spontaneity (or improvisation) another, but I couldn't find anything definitive that linked the two disciplines until I came across a blog by Semir Zike, a professor of Neuroesthetics @ University College London. It sites a study published in PLoS One. Scientists studied the activity in brains of jazz pianists while they were improvising and came to the conclusion that the frontal lobes of the pianists' brains were deactivated. "The [frontal cortex] may be involved  in assessing whether behaviors conform to social demands, exert inhibitory control over inappropriate or maladaptive performance." The blog goes on to say, "Any artistic achievement that is tailored to conform to social demands rather than to the real, uninhibited, feeling of its creator, is destined not to reach the heights of achievement, or even fail." It is only when an artist is dis-inhibited that he or she can reach the heights of artistic achievement.
    I don't think it's a stretch to substitute the word athlete for artist in this case. All you need to do is talk to athletes and ask them to explain the "Zone." they can't, fully. And it is not a mistake that the greater the athlete, the more time he or she spends in the Zone, where achievement transcends thinking.
    If this indeed links artist and athlete, Michael Jorrdan and Thelonious Monk, the greatest improvisers in their professions, have a lot in common.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Congratulations Giants

As I embark on my Blogging journey, I wouldn't be a loyal Bay Area sports fan if I didn't use one of my first Blogs to acknowledge the awesome 2010 World Series victory of the San Francisco Giants. Congratulations to all the players, coaches, owners, and fans. Since I have never been much attracted to baseball as an observer, I'm not exactly sure how to blog about it with any enthusiasm. The last time I remember watching an entire game of live baseball, I was sitting in Seals Stadium at 16th and Bryant Street watching the San Francisco Seals, winners of the 1957 PCL Championship. The manager was Lefty O'Doul, and the only player I still remember is Ken Aspermonte, a name that sounds to me like an Italian Village. The next year the Giants arrived and minor league ball came to an end. I did my best to be a fan of the Giants. With players such as Willy Mays and McCovey on your home team, it seemed sacrilegious not to be. How can you not be a fan of the great American pastime? My friend Bill King, the voice of the A's, used to ask. I treated the question as rhetorical since he asked me every time I turned down his offers to give me free tickets. It's not that I don't admire the game of baseball or the talent it takes to play it, or the subtleties of the sport. It's all the down-time that drives me crazy. My personality is far too hyper for baseball. I tried pitching in high school, one of two positions in the game that were constantly in motion, the other being catcher, but I was so wild, the Lowell High baseball coach, worrying about the kind of injuries I might inflict on his players, (not to mention opposing batters), recommended I stick to basketball. I gladly followed his advice. My rejection of baseball continued to befuddle Bill King, at one time the voice of all three major league sports in the Bay Area (in the same year) who insisted that baseball was the most exciting and intellectually stimulating. He always believed me to be an intelligent man, but this was a flaw in my character that made him wonder if he was mistaken about me. (By the way, how come Bill "Holy Toledo" King is not in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame?). Dear Bill, how I miss him. How he tried to make a baseball fan of me, to his utter frustration. Wherever your spirit now resides, this blog is for you, Bill. But the sports poem of the day is for Tim Lincecum, whom I have to admit, I actually turned on the TV to watch him pitch.

Pitcher   by Robert Francis

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at.

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate,
Making the batter understand too late.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Random Thoughts

R.T. #1 - It seems to me that college football is forgetting two important Bowls: The Tinkle Bowl for the two teams with the best even records and The Hemorroids Awareness Bowl for the two teams with the best losing records.

R.T. #2 - My wife, Melanie and I were watching last night's NFL game between the Steelers and the Ravens. With a couple of minutes to go, Troy Polamalu tackled Flacco and stripped him of the ball, which led to a Steeler game-winning touchdown two plays later. "Have you ever seen a player tackle as fiercely as Polamalu?" I asked my wife who is a huge football fan. "And never anyone as gorgeous either," she quipped. Mel is a portrait painter and knows a thing or two about gorgeous.

R.T. #3 - Is it possible that professional sports in general are becoming more violent? Witness a question posed to me by a salesman promoting his brand of cookies at my local grocery store. I was wearing my Warriors' cap, so he might have thought I had some insight."Why are there so many more injuries in pro ball?" he asked. "There are always one or two key players out. It's not that way in college," he said. By his tone of voice, he sounded like one of those guys who believes all pro ball players are prima donnas and keep themselves out of games over the slightest owie. I've heard this question asked a lot these days. I'm not sure why so many fans are skeptical of player injuries. I'm not, although my old highschool coach Benny Neff of good old Lowell had an answer for all injuries,"spit on it." Here's what I told the salesman: In college only a select few on the team are pro material. The players who make it in the pros are the very best in their colleges. So only the fastest, toughest, strongest athletes make it in the pros. That's a lot of "bests" slamming into eachother on the field or on the court. I don't think my salesman bought my idea because there is a certain subconscious belief by many working men (especially in these economic times) that athletes who are paid such extroadinary amounts of money should simply suck it up, no matter what. They themselves would. I didn't buy the cookies.

Here's a poem about a sport that is the antithesis of violence.

The Curlers at Dusk   by David Roderick

At first we look like nomads plodding
against wind, black-booted, fur-clad,
with forty pound stones changed
to our backs, but we have come to shoot
in the hack, to hurl stones
over a glistening ice bed at dusk.
As our quoits slide across ice, one by one,
and knock against others or spin alone,
we bellow songs of warmth and swig
from bladder-bags of cider and gin.
With brooms we whisk ice-dust
to guide each stone into the house:
that faint target we stained to the river
with the blood of a barren sow..
See us now, caught in the torchlit glow
as the final quoit curls from the hand
of a bowed silhouette in the distance,
that decisive stone gliding
across ice, our shadows yoked
in the low arc of the fading light.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Elgin Baylor 12/5/2010

   Now that I'v committed to Blogging, subjects I never imagined seem to be flying at me from all directions. Today I was thinking about some of the great NBA stars I played with and against: Wilt, of course and the Big O and Jerry West, and the entire Boston Celtic team that still haunts my game-time memories. How good were they? That's the topic for another Blog - or two.
   I was reading through a book entitled Sport: Inside Out and came across a poem for Elgin Baylor. What a basketball player he was. Some say it's impossible to compare NBA eras, and I agree for the most part. But certain players transcend time, and Baylor is one of those players. (There are more, of course) With apologies to Michael and Kobe, Baylor could do it all long before they came on the scene. The man was impossible to guard, and I discovered that the best strategy was to foul him as often as possible, that way I could say with certainty from my seat on the bench, having fouled out, that Baylor did not score his thirty-plus point on me, only the first 10 or 12.
   As far as comparisons are possible, I'd like to remind readers that Baylor was barely 6'6" when he was performing his magic. While Russell, Chamberlain, The Big O, and West have been remembered as icons of our sport, I've never thought Baylor recieved the same attention, he so richly deserves. But all of us who had to guard him remember. Appropriately, my sports poem for the day is dedicated to Elgin.

The Poet Tries to Turn in His Jock   by   David Hilton

"The way I see it, is that when I step out on that court and feel
  inside that I can't make the plays, it'll be time to call it quits."
                                            - Elgin Baylor

Going up for the jump shot,
Giving the kid the head-fakes and all
'Til he's jocked right out the door of the gym
And I'm free at the top with the ball and my touch,
Lofting the arc off my fingtertips,
I feel my left calf turn to stone
And my ankle warp inward to form when I land
A neat right angle with my leg,
And I'm on the floor,
A pile of sweat and sick muscles,
Your're 29, getting fat,
Can't drive to your right anymore,
You can think of better things to do
On Saturday aftenoons than be a chump
For a bunch of sophomore third-stringers;
Join the Y, steam and martinis and muscletone.
But, shit,
the shot goes in.

Friday, December 3, 2010

On Aging 12/3/2010

   I have been thinking recently about growing old with all its accompanying aches and pains, something an athlete who has grown up putting so much trust in his or her body finds particularly difficult, and Sachel Page came to mind. He had lots of wonderful things to say about aging. Here are three:
     "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."
     "Age has a mind of its own. If you don't mind, it don't matter."
     "How old would you be, if you don't know how old you are?"
   Then I was reminded of a poem about Page I read a long time ago in a terrific anthology called Sprints and Distances.

To Satch (or American Gothic)  By Samuel Adams
Sometimes I feel like I will never stop
Just go on forever
Till one fine morning
I'm gonna reach up and grab me a handfulla stars
Swing out my long lean leg
And whip three hot strikes burnin down the heavens
And look over at God and say
How about that!


Free Throws 12/2/2010

   The free throws being shot by some of today's NBA players are actually too painful to look at. During those excruciating moments, I find myself gazing into my lap and waiting until the groans stop before I return to the action
   Mostly it's the centers. I played with Wilt Chamberlain, a notoriously bad free-throw shooter. The poor man tried everything, even Rick Barry's underhand toss. Everything, that is, except putting in the time it takes to become skillful. And that may be the problem with today's brick layers. But not entirely.
   There is a question of their technique, equally painful to watch. What I don't understand is that everything these player need to become competent from the free-throw line is right there staring them in the face, if they'd only see it. Pray tell, you say. Ok here's some free advice: Get video tape of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash (there are a few other virtuosos) and copy exactly what they do. And I mean exactly, step by step. If this sounds simplistic, so be it.
   But if a parrot can learn to imitate human speech, a man with some modicum of will power can imitate the exact motions of another human being. If there is any trick to this for tall men to overcome, it is this: seven footers are already so close to the height of the rim (10 feet from the floor) even 15 feet away, that they can't imagine the angle their shooting arm must be in at the end of a shot - at at least a 45 degree angle from the floor. As weird as this sounds, I believe it freaks them out to have their arm reaching up so high. So what do they do? They flatten their arm and that creates a flat shot. Duh!
   Is there anything else they can do to improve their technique? Well, yes. they can keep their shooting arm extended instead of dropping it so quickly. I learned about keeping my shooting arm in the air from the brothers I played with and against in the Bay Area, oh so long ago. They called it "Styling". Looking good meant something to them. And so did making free-throws.

Foul Shots: A Clinic    by William Matthews

      for Paul Levitt

Be perpendicular to the basket,
toes avid for the line.

Already this description
is perilously abstract; the ball
and basket are round, at the nailhead
centered in the centerplank
of the foul circle is round,
and though the rumpled body
isn't round, it isn't
perpendicular. You have to draw
"an imaginary line," as the breezy

coaches say, "through your shoulders."
Here's how to cheat: remember
your collarbone. Now the instructions
grow spiritual - deep breathing,
relax and concentrate both; aim
for the front of the rim but miss it
deliberately so the ball goes in.
Ignore this part of the clinic

and shoot 200 foul shots
every day. Teach yourself not to be
bored by any boring one of them.

You have to love to do this, and chances
are you don't; you'd love to be good
at it but not by a love that drives
you to shoot 200 foul shots
every day, and the lovingly unlaunched
foul shots we're talking about now -
the clinic having served to bring us
together - circle eccentrically
in a sky of stolid orbits
as unlike as you and I are
from the area those foul shots
leave behind when they go in.

Golden State Warrior 2010/11

As most fans in the Bay Area know, the Golden State Warriors' journey since the halcyon days of Nate Thurmond, Rick Barry and All Atttles and his NBA Championship has been less than awe inspiring. Yet the fans have remained loyal and cheering. So I want to say to those fans, "Take heart, you loyalists!" As the Depression song goes, Happy days are here again. Well, not exaclty "here" yet, but around the corner. Well, not exactly around the nearest corner. Still, close enough to allow a very old Warrior to muse approvingly about Keith Smart's 2010 team and its prospects:
*  I like it that the men are trying to play defense.
*  I like the fact that the team has 3 Downtown Freddy Brown    shooters. (You can't win in the NBA these days without accurate 3-point shooters.)
*  I like that the Warriors have a solid power forward with smarts.
*  I like that they have two, maybe three quality bench players.
*  I like the fact that theirr center seems to be coming out of a two year mind-bending slump. (He's no Duncan, but he has potential to grow - IF - he's got the will    power. If not, the corner might be a few extra blocks down the street.
*  I like the soon-to-be added power off the bench.
*  I like the look of the Warrior's first round draft choice.
*  And I like what I see of the coach and a solid group of ex NBA players as assistants.

    Ok, this has probably already been said in one form or another by the press, so let's move on. At the present time, the Warriors may not be the team to bring back those years of Hannum, Sharman, and Attles, but the pieces - not just rooks, but bishops, knights, and castles - are starting to fall into place. That said, this season's wins and losses remain an important measuring stick for future growth. So what can Warrior fans expect? I predict a winning season. This is how the Mad Russian sees it: There are 30 teams in the NBA. Of the 30, there are only 10 elite teams: Lakers, Mavericks, Jazz, Thunder, Celtics, Magic. Hawks, Heat (the Big Tres will slowly reach their potential), and Bulls. Denver, a self-exploder, will fall on its own grenade. And the Hornets will lose their sting. This means that 20 teams are vulnerable. If the Warriors improve, as I believe they will, they can beat any of those 20 teams, or, dare I say it, all of those teams. What the hell, I'm an optimist, why NOT all of them?

Good "D"   by James McKean
     after Edward Hirsch

Their centerr blocks out and the ball
falls into his lap like the coach's book

says it will. Pivot, two-handed chest pass
to the outlet man, his flip

to a guard sprinting up the middle and the crowd
senses a break rolling at half court

and rises now for the finish, the jam
over a nondescript visitor

in knee wraps, invited to play in this gym
well lit on aFriday night in a state

that welcomes him and would send him racing
and bruised except he's hustled back

and turns in their key to wait - all taped fingers
and high tops - before the whole floor,

the forwards in thrir lanes pumping toward him
fast., two points on the stat sheets

written all over their faces, the guard dribbling
too high, head down as if he

needs a script, the guard who loves his right hand,
who pulls up late, who looks where he

passes, drunk on the home court's
din of expectation, everyone on their feet

for a goal good as given
over the nobody in his dull uniform

who stutter rushes the guard left, left
hand up, right down,

and releases the  moment the pass is flung in panic,
the forward rising toward the basket

empty-handed because good defensse reads well,
lives in the passing lane and lifts

the ball from beneath. Now, the forward,
who can't come down fast enough,

and the guard, suddenly tired, find far
up the floor the score turned,

the time gone and the crowd at a loss, fumbling
to sit back down, to say anything

for what's been stolen.