meta name=”robots” content=”index, follow” Meschery's Musings of Sports, Literature, and Life Meschery's Musings on Sports, Literature and Life: 2010-12-12

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.

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.