meta name=”robots” content=”index, follow” Meschery's Musings of Sports, Literature, and Life Meschery's Musings on Sports, Literature and Life: 2010-12-26

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.