Saturday, April 26, 2014

NBA 2013-14: Fourth Quarter Power Rankings (3/4 – 4/16)

What’s up with this year’s NBA Playoffs? With today’s Dallas Maverick home victory over San Antonio, seven of the eight underdogs, including both No. 8 seeds, have held a lead in their opening-round series—not in points, but rather in games won! Only Miami has progressed thus far unscathed, due perhaps to Big Al Jefferson’s unpronounceable foot injury.

For fun, let’s suppose for a minute that the NBA’s playoff participants and pairings were determined by the results of the season’s final six weeks of play. The Western Conference would offer the same eight teams, but matched as follows: San Antonio (1) vs. Portland (8); LA Clippers (2) vs. Houston (7); Memphis (3) vs. Dallas (6); and Golden State (4) vs. Oklahoma City (5). The East would give us two series actually occurring, Toronto (4) vs. Brooklyn (5) and Chicago (3) vs. Washington (6). As a second seed, Charlotte would face Atlanta (7), while the eighth-seeded Miami Heat would have begun defense of their title in Madison Square Garden. Indiana might have become historically infamous for tanking, huh?

Of course, ignoring 75 percent of the playing schedule is ludicrous.

But investing some comparative analysis in the last leg of the long journey can provide some predictive insight.

Power Rankings --The Measurement Instrument

Our team-ranking tool utilizes four elements. Two scales are based solely on team wins and losses; the others are measures of the efficiency of team performance in comparison with the competition. First, we’ll simply use win-loss record irrespective of conference or division.

The second criterion will be the difference between a team’s road wins and its home losses. Since this cute little metric is said to be a personal favorite of long-time NBA coach and current ESPN voice George Karl, let’s call this the Karl Kount (KK).

Criterion No. 3, Conversion Quotient (CQ), involves the rate at which a team converts its possessions into successful field goals or free throw attempts. Like the KK, the computation is simple subtraction—a team’s rate of offensive efficiency minus that of the other guys.

Lastly, please allow Horatio N. Proportion to introduce his “SPOR-t” score. SPOR-t stands for “Shooting Plus Offensive Rebounds minus turnovers.” Add a team’s FG percentage and its offensive rebounding percentage (o. boards divided by missed FG’s). Then subtract the percentage of a team’s possessions lost to turnovers. For example, a team shoots field goals at a .488 clip, its offensive rebounds account for .199 of its missed field goals, and .143 of its possessions result in a turnover. So its SPOR-t is (488+199-143) or 544. Once again, our measurement will be the difference between the SPOR-t scores of a team and its opposition.

We’ll rank the teams from 1 to 30 in all criteria and simply add up the rankings. Low score wins, naturally.

Teams in BOLD are 2014 Playoff Participants

No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (8)
19-4, .826; 1st in Western Conference / 1st overall
KK:  +7; (8 Road Wins – 1 Home Losses) / No. 1 overall (tied*)
CQ:  +37; (.516 [8th] - .479 [3rd]) / No. 3 overall
SPOR-t:  +71; (573 [6th] – 502 [1st]) / No. 2 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 17

No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies (10)
16-7, .696; 3rd in Western Conference / 5th overall
KK:  +7; (7 Road Wins – 0 Home Losses) / No. 1 overall (tied*)
CQ:  +41; (.519 [5th] - .478 [2nd]) / No. 2 overall
SPOR-t:  +89; (606 [1st] – 517 [5th]) / No. 1 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 1

No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers (13)
16-5, .762; 2nd in Western Conference / 2nd overall (tied)
KK:  +5; (7 Road Wins – 2 Home Losses) / No. 4 overall (tied)
CQ:  +42; (.532 [1st] - .490 [8th]) / No. 1 overall
SPOR-t:  +45; (587 [4th] – 542 [14th]) / No.  5 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 5

No. 4 Charlotte Bobcats (17.5)
16-6, .727; 2nd in Eastern Conference / 4th overall
KK:  +4; (6 Road Wins – 2 Home Losses) / No. 6 overall (tied)
CQ:  +31; (.511 [13th] - .480 [4th]) / No. 4 overall
SPOR-t:  +59; (566 [10th] – 5107 [2nd]) / No. 3 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 13

No. 5 New York Knicks (23.5)
16-5, .762; 1st in Eastern Conference / 2nd overall (tied)
KK:  +7; (9 Road Wins – 2 Home Losses) / No. 1 overall (tied*)
CQ:  +20; (.519 [6th] - .499 [12th]) / No. 6 overall
SPOR-t:  +7; (569 [8th] – 562 [19th]) / No. 13 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 23

No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder (31.5)
14-8, .636; 5th in Western Conference / 9th overall
KK:  +5; (6 Road Wins – 1 Home Loss) / No. 4 overall (tied)
CQ:  +18; (.512 [11th] - .494 [10th]) / No. 7 overall
SPOR-t:  +23; (546 [21st] – 523 [7th]) / No. 11 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 4

No. 7 Golden State Warriors (32)
15-7, .682; 4th in Western Conference / 6th overall (tied)
KK:  +12; (6 Road Wins – 4 Home Losses) / No. 12 overall (tied*)
CQ:  +17; (.506 [18th] - .489 [7th]) / No. 8 overall (tied)
SPOR-t:  +48; (559 [15th] – 511 [4th]) / No. 4 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 12

No. 8 Houston Rockets (35.5)
14-9, .609; 7th in Western Conference / 12th overall
KK:  +3; (4 Road Wins – 1 Home Loss) / No. 8 overall (tied**)
CQ:  +23; (.524 [3rd] - .501 [14th]) / No. 5 overall
SPOR-t:  +28; (570 [7th] – 542 [14th]) / No. 9 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 2  

No. 9 Chicago Bulls (36.5)
15-7, .682; 3rd in Eastern Conference / 6th overall (tied)
KK:  +3; (6 Road Wins – 3 Home Losses) / No. 8 overall (tied**)
CQ:  +17; (.491 [24th] - .474 [1st]) / No. 8 overall (tied)
SPOR-t:  +15; (525 [23rd] – 510 [3rd]) / No. 12 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 7

No. 10 Phoenix Suns (45.5)
13-10, .565; 5th in Western Conference / 15th overall
KK:  +4; (8 Road Wins – 4 Home Losses) / No. 6 overall (tied)
CQ:  +9; (.512 [12th] - .503 [15th]) / No. 14 overall
SPOR-t:  +24; (563 [12th] – 539 [12th]) / No. 10 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 14  

No. 11 Washington Wizards (46)
13-9, .591; 6th in Eastern Conference / 13th overall (tied)
KK:  +2; (6 Road Wins – 4 Home Losses) / No. 12 overall (tied*)
CQ:  +14; (.502 [19th] - .488 [6th]) / No. 12 overall
SPOR-t:  +33; (560 [13th] – 527 [9th]) / No. 7 overall (tied)
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 9

No. 12 Toronto Raptors (51.5)
15-8, .652; 4th in Eastern Conference / 8th overall
KK:  +3; (6 Road Wins – 3 Home Losses) / No. 8 overall (tied**)
CQ:  -6; (.509 [14th] - .515 [23rd]) / No. 20 overall
SPOR-t:  +4; (548 [14th] – 544 [16th]) / No. 14 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 9  

No. 13 Dallas Mavericks (55.5)
13-8, .619; 6th in Western Conference / 11th overall
KK:  +1; (6 Road Wins – 5 Home Losses) / No. 15 overall (tied)
CQ:  +10; (.516 [10th] - .506 [18th]) / No. 13 overall
SPOR-t:  -2; 580 [5th] – 582 [25th]) / No. 16 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 8  

No. 14 Cleveland Cavaliers (59.5)
9-12, .429; 10th in Eastern Conference / 22nd overall
KK:  -2; (5 Road Wins – 7 Home Losses) / No. 19 overall (tied*)
CQ:  +16; (.507 [16th] - .491 [9th]) / No. 10 overall
SPOR-t:  +33; (554 [17th] – 521 [6th]) / No. 7 overall (tied)
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 15  

No. 15 Portland Trail Blazers (60.5)
13-9, .591; 8th in Western Conference / 13th overall (tied)
KK:  +3; (5 Road Wins – 2 Home Losses) / No. 8 overall (tied**)
CQ:  -3; (.501 [21st] - .504 [16th]) / No. 18 overall (tied)
SPOR-t:  -13; (556 [16th] – 569 [21st]) / No. 19 overall

Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 19

No.16 Sacramento Kings (65.5)
7-15, .318; 13th in Western Conference / 23rd overall
KK:  -2; (3 Road Wins – 5 Home Losses) / No. 19 overall (tied*)
CQ:  +2; (.508 [15th] - .506 [17th]) / No. 16 overall (tied)
SPOR-t:  +34; (560 [13th] – 526 [8th]) / No. 6 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 21  

No. 17 Miami Heat (68)
11-14, .440; 8th in Eastern Conference / 19th overall
KK:  -2; (3 Road Wins – 5 Home Losses) / No. 19 overall (tied*)
CQ:  +15; (.501 [20th] - .486 [5th]) / No. 11 overall
SPOR-t:  -8 (524 [25th] – 532 [10th]) / No. 18 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 3  

No. 18 Brooklyn Nets (68.5)
15-9, .625; 5th in Eastern Conference / 10th overall
KK:  +2; (4 Road Wins – 2 Home Losses) / No. 12 overall (tied*)
CQ:  -3; (.507 [17th] - .510 [20th]) / No. 18 overall (tied)
SPOR-t:  -51; (525 [23rd] – 576 [23rd]) / No. 27 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 16  

No. 19 New Orleans Pelicans (69)
11-11, .500; 12th in Western Conference / 16th overall (tied)
KK:  -3; (2 Road Wins – 5 Home Losses) / No. 22 overall (tied)
CQ:  +8; (.523 [4th] - .515 [22nd]) / No. 15 overall
SPOR-t:  +2; (565 [16th] – 563 [20th]) / No. 15 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 22  

No. 20 Denver Nuggets (73)
11-12, .478; 11th in Western Conference / 18th overall
KK:  0; (3 Road Wins – 3 Home Losses) / No. 17 overall
CQ:  -10; (.501 [22nd] - .511 [21st]) / No. 21 overall
SPOR-t:  -6; (548 [19th] – 554 [18th]) / No. 17 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 27

No. 21 Indiana Pacers (84)
10-13, .435; 9th in Eastern Conference / 20th overall (tied)
KK:  +1; (4 Road Wins – 3 Home Losses) / No. 15 overall (tied)
CQ:  -21; (.474 [30th] - .495 [11th]) / No. 23 overall
SPOR-t:  -44; (495 [29th] – 539 [12th]) / No. 25 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 5

No. 21 Minnesota Timberwolves (84)
10-13, .435; 12th in Western Conference / 20th overall (tied)
KK:  -4; (2 Road Wins – 6 Home Losses) / No. 24 overall
CQ:  +2; (.518 [7th] - .516 [24th]) / No. 16 overall (tied)
SPOR-t:  -26; (569 [8th] – 595 [27th]) / No. 23 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 11

No. 23 Atlanta Hawks (87.5)
12-12, .500; 7th in Eastern Conference / 16th overall (tied)
KK:  -1; (5 Road Wins – 6 Home Losses) / No. 18 overall
CQ:  -23; (.477 [29th] - .500 [13th]) / No. 25 overall
SPOR-t:  -60; (478 [30th] – 538 [11th]) / No. 28 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 26

No. 24 Detroit Pistons (92)
5-17, .227; 11th in Eastern Conference / 25th overall (tied)
KK:  -3; (2 Road Wins – 5 Home Losses) / No. 22 overall (tied)
CQ:  -22; (.516 [9th] - .538 [29th]) / No. 24 overall
SPOR-t:  -14; (605 [25th] – 619 [30th]) / No. 20 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 18  

No. 25 Milwaukee Bucks (99.5)
3-20, .130; 15th in Eastern Conference / 30th overall
KK:  -6; (0 Road Wins – 6 Home Losses) / No. 25 overall (tied**)
CQ:  -14; (.526 [2nd] - .540 [30th]) / No. 22 overall
SPOR-t:  -16; (597 [3rd] – 613 [28th]) / No. 21 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 28

No. 26 Orlando Magic (106.5)
4-16, .200; 13th in Eastern Conference / 27th overall
KK:  -8; (0 Road Wins – 8 Home Losses) / No. 29 overall (tied)
CQ:  -30; (.480 [26th] - .510 [19th]) / No. 26 overall
SPOR-t:  -32; 521 [26th] – 553 [17th]) / No. 24 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 20

No. 27 Utah Jazz (107)
4-18, .182; 11th in Western Conference / 28th overall (tied)
KK:  -8; (1 Road Win – 9 Home Losses) / No. 29 overall (tied)
CQ:  -37; (.495 [23rd] - .532 [26th]) / No. 27 overall
SPOR-t:  -21; (550 [18th] – 571 [22nd]) / No. 22 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 25

No. 28 Boston Celtics (108)
5-17, .227; 11th in Eastern Conference / 25th overall (tied)
KK:  -6; (1 Road Win – 7 Home Losses) / No. 25 overall (tied**)
CQ:  -53; (.479 [28th] - .532 [27th]) / No. 30 overall
SPOR-t:  -47; (541 [22nd] – 588 [26th]) / No. 26 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 24  

No. 29 Los Angeles Lakers (108.5)
6-16, .273; 14th in Western Conference / 24th overall
KK:  -6; (3 Road Wins – 9 Home Losses) / No. 25 overall (tied**)
CQ:  -48; (.488 [25th] - .536 [28th]) / No. 28 overall
SPOR-t:  -114; (499 [28th] – 613 [28th]) / No. 30 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 29

No. 30 Philadelphia 76ers (113)
4-18, .182; 15th in Eastern Conference / 28th overall (tied)
KK:  -6; (2 Road Wins – 8 Home Losses) / No. 25 overall (tied**)
CQ:  -49; (.480 [27th] - .529 – [28th]) / No. 29 overall
SPOR-t:  -68; (512 [27th] – 580 [24th]) / No. 29 overall
Third Quarter (1/21 – 3/3) Rating: No. 30 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Some Astrological Alignment that Nourishes, Entertains and Reveals

Sometimes one’s stars do align themselves just “so.”

Here’s a modest example:

While fixing lunch (which is really breakfast: sausage, bacon, eggs and pancakes), I switch the TV over to the last 10 or 15 minutes of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Preparing and delivering plates to ill grandson and wife allows for TCM to have begun its subsequent feature attraction, a Fred Astaire musical.

I step over Blackjack and settle onto the couch next to little man’s feet, salivating, the TV mere background noise.

I’d considered eating upstairs in my office amid sports talk, maybe get some more detail on the college hoops coach who’d ranted the day before on his own team’s sense of entitlement.

But I’m really hungry, the baby’s sluggish and a bit sad, but currently pre-occupied with a game on Grandma’s cell phone.

Whilst luxuriating in a deliciously sloppy brunch, my ear and mind recognize a familiar melody. (Actually, the recognition may have originated in my toe, but that’s neither here nor there.)

A glance at the screen brings an abrupt halt to that frustratingly sweet sensation of “What tune is that?” The immediate “Aha!” is elicited by the words “The clown with his pants falling down” revealed by the closed captioning. Now that’s entertainment, I’d say – both the scene (colorized, as in the clip linked below?) and the song.

“The plot may be hot, simply teeming with sex,
A gay divorcee who is after her ex.”

I may be a bit partial to this particular page in the Great American Songbook – the song leads off a weird but wonderful CD of movie music rendered by the weird but wonderful Michael Feinstein – since it so cleverly works Oedipus Rex into the lyric (to rhyme with “ex” and “sex,” you see). The Oedipus story is one of a number of tales from Greek Mythology that regularly found their way into my classroom patter.

I enjoy the tune – now struggling (to no avail) to identify the familiar faces rather than the familiar notes – while still ravenously munching my mis-timed meal.

A fitting dessert to this robust repast is the discovery of the existence of an equally clever second verse to "That's Entertainment!" The literary reference there-in fast-forwards from Sophocles to Shakespeare.

Check it out.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Friday Night Box Scores

Two things caught my eye of a Saturday morning while reviewing the box scores from a very busy (13 games) final Friday of the 2013-14 NBA regular season.

In Miami, the evening of the Pacer-Heat season series (the home team won all four games), LeBron James’s 36-point effort, even the peculiarity of Udonis Haslem’s emergence as the game’s leading rebounder garnered the attention of the pundits and number-crunchers.

Here, though, is the number that tells the story of this 98-86 Pacer defeat – 85, as in Indiana possessions for the game, their second-fewest total all season. Indeed, through the season’s first 19 weeks, the Pacers played exactly one game (out of 63) in which they’d amassed fewer than 90 possessions, a victory over Memphis (11/11, 89 poss.).But last night is the fourth time this fate has befallen them since March 11, losses to Memphis (3/22, 83 poss.) and San Antonio (3/31, 88 poss.) along with a victory over Boston (3/11, 87 poss.)

It would appear the struggling Mid-westerners fell victim to their more savvy foes last night in how this particular athletic contest would be conducted. Since St. Patrick’s Day – and omitting a double-overtime marathon against the Minnesota Timberwolves – the Heat have totaled more than 91 possessions during a game but once.

Let your opponent set the tempo, play the other guys’ game? Not a good plan, generally speaking.

Certain teams seem to find a way to win, especially when it matters.

Is that what happened in Chicago last night?

The Pistons entered the fourth quarter with 80 points on the board. Unfortunately, it took over seven-and-a-half minutes for them to crack 90. In the interim, Detroit had turned a double-digit advantage into a two-possession deficit that would never shrink. During that pivotal stretch – and as is their habit – the Pistons watched their foes drain seven of eight free throws while they misfired on two of their three attempts.

The Bulls’ eight-point victory, accentuated by a 36-18 closing-quarter shellacking, disguises a stat-line that reveals quite a bit of similarity. For example, each team made exactly 40 field goals, each team made exactly five three-pointers, each team totaled exactly 11 turnovers, each defense “stopped” the other guys exactly 51 times, each squad earned exactly 23 foul shots.

Only one team missed exactly two of the latter, only one team found a way to win a 50/50 game.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Age-Old NBA Gripes

The two biggest complaints about pro basketball have always been (a) the season’s too long, and (b) those guys don’t play any defense.

Regarding the latter (as well as any notions that NBA ball is merely a traveling trick-shot show), I’d recommend some selective reading from the Jack McCallum archive in Sport’s Illustrated’s vault. One can be quite certain that an NBA team takes a strategic approach to everything from defensive rotation to nutritional balance.

Measurements of teams’ offensive and defensive efficiencies through the season demonstrate a certain balance between offense and defense – as well as a distinct pattern.

During the first six weeks of the NBA’s 24-week schedule (Oct. 29 – Dec. 9), eight teams were converting half or more of their offensive possessions. Nine units were allowing conversions at a 50 percent clip or better

The NBA’s second six-week grading period (Dec. 10 – Jan. 20) saw the number of teams exceeding the midpoint in efficiency rise to 15, while 17 were getting stops in less than half their tries. That’s almost twice as many of each.

As the season proceeded through its third quarter (Jan. 21 – March 3), 17 offenses were clicking at 50+ percent, and 18 team defenses were yielding that level of efficiency.

The defending champion Miami Heat, again the league’s best field-goal shooters, head a list of six clubs that have maintained 50+ efficiency in each of the season’s three sub-sets. Houston, Oklahoma City, the Clippers and Detroit round out the list. (Alas, the Pistons hand back this advantage at the charity stripe.)

The consistently low-performing defensive units represent the Knicks, Sixers, Bucks, Lakers, Mavericks, Pelicans and Jazz. Only a couple from that bunch sniffing so much as the entrails of the playoffs.

So, are NBA offenses just too good to be stopped regularly – even if it seems to take a month or so for them to collectively catch their groove?

Does the grind of playing nearly every other night for weeks on end take its toll on the defensive will and skill of players and teams.

Age-old questions.

A more readily accepted age-old notion goes as follows: Defense Wins Championships.

Can you guess which six teams have held their opposition below 50 percent in conversions in each of the season's three quadrants?

The Bulls, Pacers and Thunder are almost “gimmes,” but who had Golden State, Charlotte and Minnesota on their short list?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Old School 101: Duty? That’s part of a Job. This … this is an Adventure!

A schoolhouse perk, desired by many, but generally reserved for department chairs, the outrageously tenured, and Bossman’s latest squeeze, was always to gain Oh-mission from the list of Homeroom Teachers.  Despite 4 or 5 years as a middle-school department chair (that’s a whole ‘nother journey down a whole ‘nother path), I always made the list; but in the balancing scales of hindsight and reflection, I was the winner.  What perk?

In my first public school gig, my bright eyes and bushy tail were assigned to teach primarily 7th graders (the babies of the school), but somehow wound up with a homeroom of 9th graders, the Royalty of this old-fashioned junior high school.  I must have appeared innocent, cuddly and / or desperately in need of help because a few of those kids all but adopted me, and as a group they made me feel comfortable – and on rare occasions even knowledgeable and helpful.  In the grand scheme of things, I believe it was beneficial to be only Homeroom- and not classroom-teacher for them.  This (and whatever Hands control Fate) allowed for development of a consistently positive rapport free of academic tension.  I was able to tap into this distinction more fully in Act II of my public school career.

‘Twas an even dozen years later that a mid-career crisis / decision (yet another path) placed me in front of a 10th grade Homeroom in a senior high school.  All the Whos down in Whoville welcomed Christmas never so heartily as they did me.  Turns out that my predecessor the previous spring semester, in the kids’ eyes, bore a striking resemblance to a pre-closed-heart-surgery Grinch, so even Snidely Whiplash would have been cool.  (Given my penchant for head-gear, I more fancy myself The Cat in the Hat.)  Since I was again assigned to teach the babies of the school, the freshmen – was somebody trying to tell me something? – a rapport similar to that with my Originals was able to develop.  Three years of hard work, laughs, and a few tears later, all but a couple of that group graduated from a challenging, college-prep, magnet program.  (It was the first time I personally had ascended a graduation stage in 23 years.  ‘Twas nice.)

Simple and convenient rotation positioned my name under Freshmen on the afore-mentioned “dreaded” list for the following year.  I’d experienced the teaching team / cluster concept in my prior pedagogic incarnation, so teaching my own Homeroom kids wasn’t unfamiliar to me.  But with all three of the subsequent Homerooms that I helped steer through commencement, I underwent, if only in my own mind, a subtle but significant transformation.  Now, in my interactions with all the kids in our program, when they put English I in their academic rear window, I would tend to morph from their every-day-in-class, gotta-get-a-grade-from-him teacher into a crazy uncle they’d see only sporadically.  Quadrennially, when there’d be Homeroomers going through the change, for them I’d become the absolutely insane big brother they loved to hate, and hated to love sometimes.  Pretty quickly, in the high school environment, I’d acquired the habit of hand-writing a comment to the student, expressed from the Homeroom Teacher / Big Brother persona, on each kid’s report card before I’d distribute them.  Once, only once, did a parent complain to me about this practice – though I fear in the “don’t sue us” bureaucratic mindset that permeates today’s schools, I’d be required to gain prior parental approval before pen could touch grade report.  The gist of her objection was that I was “rubbing salt” in her wounded son.  With regret – fearful about perhaps making him stand out in the eyes of his peers – I refrained from joking with this child for the remainder of his one-year stay in our program.  C’est la vie, and even Jesus couldn’t save ‘em all.

That guinea-pig, first freshman Homeroom included an interesting, industrious young man who faced his share of challenges as well as a set-back or two on his path to Grade 13.  The nicknames I’ve hung on students over the years have been many, but this particular kid gave me one, one that can be repeated in mixed company and that he was cool using with his absolutely insane big brother.  Actually, he took our “relationship” a step further.  He dubbed me Vince McMahon, the professional wrestling guru, and himself his (and therefore my) son Shane.  For over two years, we were Vince and Shane, and not just to each other.

The letter of recommendation I prepared for Shane wasn’t easy to compose.  Not a genius, his unique talents and varied interests didn’t truly reveal themselves on a transcript or resume.  My mind can still conjure a vision of the small but satisfied smile that came to his face as he read my final product.  Given the persona (and antics) for which I became notorious, I thought it important, in dealing with both Homeroom kids and others, to share a letter of recommendation with the student before submitting it.  If a parent had made the request on behalf of the kid, I’d often share it with Mom or Dad first.  My reasoning is that if I can’t allow such preview, then maybe I shouldn’t be the one writing the recommendation.  Aside from overlooked typos and an occasional factual error, complaints and suggestions were non-existent (as far as I know, anyway).

One morning Shane’s senior year, during one of those stretches where the nice little groove into which everyone’s worked themselves is threatening to become a rut, he was standing outside my classroom at his locker shortly after 1st  Period, long my “Free” Period, had begun.  In response to my inquiry after his wellness and his tardiness, he informed me he was merely “gathering his thoughts.”  With no hesitation, but with Spike Jones and His City Slickers mischievously playing “You Only Hurt the One You Love” on my mental stereo (talk about Playlists!!!), I responded, “That shouldn’t take long.”  Back off in his thoughts, Shane was oblivious to my wise-crack.  Not so the lone student passing by on the hallway.  He was smiling and shaking his head at his crazy uncle.

Maybe Snidely Whiplash did replace the Grinch.

And sure, I’ll take a Homeroom.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

‘Rasslin’ 2014: Insanity, Vanilla Midgets and Expectation

Doing something the same way over and over, and expecting the outcome to be different?

That’s insanity.

Expecting anything and everything to happen, and still coming away shocked – even dumbstruck?

That’s ‘Rasslin’, even if the McMahon Clan of Connecticut insists on calling it “Sports Entertainment.”

The essence and appeal of a professional wrestling promotion is that moment that makes you say, “Tell me I didn’t just see what I just saw.”

Vince McMahon and his creative crew manufactured one such moment two nights ago. One did not even need to be watching (either on Pay-per-View or the newly launched WWE on-line network) to emit a hearty “Say what?”

Amidst all the hoopla in the so-called Internet Wrestling Community regarding the presence of Bryan Daniel and the absence of CM Punk (a couple of 190-pound six-footers in a land of giants, guys who’d initially risen to prominence on the “indy scene”)…

Amongst all the generations of “Superstars” being trotted out (even posthumously, e.g. Andre the Giant, perhaps even Scott Hall or Jake Roberts) to hype WrestleMania XXX in New Orleans…

With all the angst about WWE Executive Paul Levesque (aka HHH, Vince’s son-in-law) instituting his own little “old-boy” network, case in point the not-so New Age Outlaws…

Overlooked was the oldest and most respected of “The Boys,” the Undertaker. Sure, he had his spot on the card, paired up this time with fellow part-timer and former MMA titlist Brock Lesnar. Sure, a segment here and there on the “Road” had been provided for promotion of the match and ‘Taker’s 21-year undefeated streak. They even utilized “heat magnet” Paul Heyman to drum up a few more buys for what all assumed was a sure bet in a world of pre-determined outcomes.

No way was an “outlier” like Brock Lesnar going to be the performer given such a career-defining WrestleMania Moment. Considering the death-defying nature of the very character, it seemed more likely that the streak would continue in perpetuity. It’s not as if the business has never passed on character portrayal from one performer to another. (Anyone else recall JR’s new Diesel and Razor from back in the Monday-Night-Wars days? Didn’t think so!)

But it appears that Big Brock reversed an attempted second Tombstone Piledriver into his own F-5 finisher, and…No Way became Way!

Who’d’a Thunk, huh?

Perhaps a couple of seeds had indeed been sown. Atypically, it was UT who issued the challenge this time. Then there was the untimely death last year of William Moody, better known in wrestling circles as Paul Bearer (even to older fans like me as Percy Pringle), long-time manager and mentor to both the character and the man.

Maybe the inevitability of such an outcome was established almost twelve-and-a-half years ago, on Nov.26, 2001 in Oklahoma City and on live TV.

The Evil Mr. McMahon, in an obvious grab for the voyeur demographic, had decided to induct announcer Jim Ross into his Kiss-My-Ass Club. In the course of the segment, the Undertaker heroically strode to the ring and rescue. Alas, the big guy “turned heel” on Good Ol’ JR and the ceremony went on as planned.

Well, maybe not entirely as planned…

In the course of this “heel turn,” the following words (or pretty darn close, I’m trusting recollection for now) were uttered: “I’ve been kissing your ass for ten years.”

There’s little doubt that the antecedent of the pronoun “your” must be Vince McMahon (rather than the Evil Chairman character – McMahon was still playing the baby-faced broadcaster for the likes of Ventura and Heenan in the early ‘90’s).

But I’ve always wondered whether “I” was Undertaker or Mark Calloway.

If the latter (and given McMahon’s penchant for holding a grudge), perhaps it was inevitable that such an iconic feat have such an “anti-“ to its climax.

In the grand scheme of things, it probably is, as the new generation of WWE Authority prefers to say, “Best for Business.”

Saturday, April 5, 2014

From Abacus' Bookshelf: Frank Deford's "The Old Ball Game"

Oddly, inaugural Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson became a member of the New York Giants, Major League Baseball’s gold standard during the first two decades of the 20th Century, before John J. McGraw, his manager, mentor and close friend-to-be.

This little anachronism, though, is hardly the most peculiar component in the personal and professional relationship that lies at the heart of Frank Deford’s The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball.

Matty, all 6’2” and 195 pounds of him, was the epitome of Christian muscularity,” right up there with Teddy Roosevelt and the fictitious Frank Merriwell. A product of stout, rural Pennsylvania Protestant stock, Mathewson was well aware of Muggsy McGraw and his battlin’ band of Baltimore Orioles, multiple champions of the National League, even as he was lighting up the ball fields and gridirons of Bucknell University.

The 5’6” McGraw, on the other hand, was a first generation Irish Catholic immigrant, second-oldest of a large clan from the village of Truxton, NY. Motherless and on his own before the age of 13, the little “mucker” was a big-league ballplayer at 18 (after having already barnstormed Cuba), a champion at 21, a manager at 26.

As Deford puts it, “Matty was the All-American boy grown up; Muggsy as the All-American striver (or, well, hustler).”

McGraw’s Oriole teams of the Gay Nineties were known for their aggressive and innovative style of play.  Muggsy and Wee Willie Keeler mastered the hit-and-run attack. He and an inventive groundskeeper developed the “Baltimore chop.” Indeed, few opportunities for gamesmanship, or “muckerism” as it was called, were missed at a time when the rules and conventions of the game were still evolving. Confrontation, even suspension, was no stranger to the Little Napoleon.

Mathewson, conversely, was almost a de-facto “partner” to the lone umpire who worked a game in those times. (Maybe that’s why, in that era, a pitcher who dominated an opponent was said to “officiate.”) Never did “Big Six” officiate better than during the second World Series against the Philadelphia A’s of Connie Mack in 1905. In a six day span, he crafted three complete-game, shutout victories, allowing but 14 hits and one measly walk—on the heels of a 32-8 season.

Muggsy McGraw had taken command of the Giants in July of 1902, hired by owner Andrew Freedman, himself described by Bill James as “George Steinbrenner on quaaludes, with a touch of Al Capone.” Symbolic of the team’s dysfunction, Horace Fogel, Matty’s third manager in less than two calendar years in New York, had just converted the pitcher, who’d notched 20 of the Giants’ 52 victories in ’01, into a first baseman.

Courtesy of a bum knee, the Little Napoleon’s playing career was effectively over by the time he settled into the Big Apple. But his managerial magic rebuilt and revitalized the rag-tag Giants to a 36-game improvement in his first full season, abetted by a 30-win performance from that no-longer-first sacker, Mathewson.

For that 1903 season, Matty and his newlywed bride Jane took the unusual step of sharing living arrangements with Blanche and John McGraw. (The meeting of the wives that year in spring training is among the many anecdotes and cultural references by which Deford enlivens his narrative.) This in-season set-up would remain in place until Mathewson left the Giants in 1916 to pursue a managerial opportunity in Cincinnati.

In those intervening years, through triumph and improbable defeat—Merkle’s “boner” in 1908, Snodgrass’s “muff” in 1912—led by those Giants, baseball evolved from a disreputable occupation peopled by an unsavory immigrant element into our national pastime, fit for college men like Matty.

Deford’s well-researched narrative details many key games—including Matty’s mostly ceremonial swan song with the Reds against old rival Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. That research also yielded this bit of McGraw wisdom: “Very few ballplayers are ever as valuable to a team the first year they are married as they are before or after.”

Each man contracted illness that contributed to a pre-mature death. Christy Mathewson developed Tuberculosis from exposure to poisonous gas during military service in World War I. Appropriately enough, Big Six succumbed to his illness during the 1925 World Series, at the age of 45.

John McGraw was exposed to malaria as a young player in the 1890’s while barnstorming the Caribbean. A variety of health issues, exacerbated by more frequent alcohol consumption, induced McGraw’s sudden mid-season retirement in 1932. Death soon took him at 60 in February of 1934.

Neither man ever saw the Baseball Hall of Fame, but both laid its foundation.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sports Literature We Have Known and Loved

Can’t anybody here play this game?

Now there’s a refrain that reverberates from ballyard stands and barroom stools just about anywhere the sun shines, the sentiment most oft accompanied by expressions of exasperation and utterances unrepeatable.

The nature of sports and the human frailty of the participants ensure us a glimpse of the full range of emotion—the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as ABC Sports used to tell us every Saturday afternoon.

For every saga of success, there’s a juxtaposed tale of woe—and the real-life people who lived them.

One such tale actually bears the title Can’t Anybody Here Play this Game?—acerbic New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin’s hilarious account of Casey Stengel’s original (and ever so hapless) New York Mets. Stengel’s unique style produced few victories but helped groom the manager that would lead the franchise to the promised land before the close of that tumultuous decade.

Here’s a brief tale about someone who really could play his game:

As the euphoria of a national championship triumph is winding down, “Coach A” overhears a reporter fishing for a critical remark about the losing squad’s star player. Coach summarily dresses down said scribe, concluding with the prediction that the kid will have a long and successful NBA career.

About four years earlier, newly-hired assistant “Coach B” tracks down an inordinately talented but equally withdrawn recruit in his small home town. Grandma’s old-school ways get Coach in the door, but the kid stares at the floor and barely responds. At one point, he pitches another, slightly older local player. 
“Everyone said he’d have been good in college.” Seizing the moment, Coach points out to the recruit, “They’ll be saying that about you pretty soon.”

For the first time that day, the young man looked his future coach in the eye. In less than a week, Larry Bird had packed up and moved from French Lick to Terre Haute.

For those keeping score, the protective and prophetic “Coach A” is Michigan State’s Jud Heathcote, the opportunistic “Coach B” Bill Hodges of Indiana State. The two vignettes are extracted from When March Went Mad, the Seth Davis contribution to the Magic & Larry shelf at your local library.

The annals of sports literature are replete with the experiences and philosophies of managers and coaches. One of the more entertaining is Life on the Rim by David Levine, a year in the life of the 1988-89 Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. While head coach George Karl was no doubt the focus of any marketing pitch, basketball lifer Gerald Oliver, Karl’s over-worked assistant, is the cornerstone of this narrative. All who have ever been involved in the operation of a youth-ball team will relate to the trials and tribulations of the gregarious Southerner…and understand why he loves every minute of it.

The stories of our games touch all manner of tangential issues, from competitive equity to social justice—even to love and marriage.

Did you know, for example, that the New York Knickerbockers’ first NBA title bears the stain of performance-enhancing drugs—that the details were revealed in a highly-acclaimed book published that very year?

Did you know, for example, that a Hall of Fame manager held to the notion that there is a perceptible decline in a ballplayer’s production during the year in which he gets married? (No one seems to have told LBJ, huh?)

On a monthly basis, They Keep Feeding Me Straight Lines will attempt to fill in the details to these and other sports stories that have been preserved in print (and occasionally on film).

Feedback, suggestions and especially original contributions to this project are most welcome.

Reading, after all, is FUN-damental!