Monday, June 8, 2009


The Lakers and coach Phil Jackson were heroes last night. The Magic and coach Stan Van Gundy were losers.

What makes someone a hero. In this case, what makes Jackson a hero is a missed shot and a pass that was not perfect.

With .6 of a second left in regulation and the score tied the Magic was inbounding the ball at half court. A brilliant play was set up by the Magic coaching staff. Several players came toward the ball and Magic player Hedo Turkoglu faked to each. Then a back screen was set up which allowed a Magic player to run unchecked to the basket. Turkoglu threw the pass, but it was off by inches. The Magic player caught the ball, but missed the shot. Had the pass and catch been executed, the Lakers and Kobe are goats, because they allowed themselves to be duped by misdirection.

Instead the Lakers are heroes and winners. Today they feel good about themselves. The difference, it seems to me, between heroism and failure often has a whole lot to do with external factors beyond our control. This does not relieve us from making right choices, but the fact is that had a pass been on target, Phil Jackson would be taking heat for not defending the play appropriately and Van Gundy might earn more money next year.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Phil at the Mike

After the Lakers defeated the Magic in overtime tonight, Phil Jackson the coach of the Lakers, met the press. I wonder if at President Obama's news conferences there are as many journalists. I do hope that the nature of the inquiries at the president's conferences are a bit more sophisticated.

"Phil, John Smith, West Daniels Times, can you talk a little bit about the camaraderie between Kobe and Gasol. It seemed like they had a little special something going there tonight".

"Phil, William Jones, WBVD, at the end of the first quarter the score was 15-15. That is a low scoring first quarter. What do you think was going on there."

"Coach, Pat Johnson, Sullivan Daily Record, I noticed in the overtime that Odom seemed to be laboring some and perspiring profusely. Any comment on that."

My sense is that Phil Jackson would like nothing more than to say, "Tell me you are kidding me with these questions. Kobe and Gasol are teammates they play together as teammates should. What was going on in the first quarter is that the ball was not going in the basket. Yes, Odom was perspiring, we were in an overtime game and he had played many minutes during it."

The questions reflect the relatively high level of interest in basketball and sports in general. Somehow I believe that tomorrow after the kindergartners are dismissed from grade schools throughout the country, no elementary school principal will be asked: "Dr. Harris, tell me. Missy and Davey seemed to work well today during the hokey pokey dance number. You have a comment on that?"

viva la federer

The NBC announcer commented at the end of the French Open that "viva la federer" may finally be the chant in Paris. Roger Federer, after several failed attempts in the finals--including an ignominious defeat last year when he just got shellacked--won the only Grand Slam tennis tournament that had previously eluded him.

If you don't understand the appeal of sports you are probably not reading this blog, but in case you are still curious about the attraction of march madness to sports fans, or why people spend four straight days watching basketball games--you might have gained some insight after watching the last few points and moments of the French Open.

Federer was serving for the match at 5-4 and had an easy volley at 30-30. He not only missed it, but missed it badly. Having lost four consecutive french open finals, this miss made viewers wonder if he was tight.

What could he be tight about? The guy is loaded. He is probably the best tennis player ever to play the game. He has won Wimbledon, The Australian, the USOPEN, and dozens of other tournaments. Why should he be tight? The camera swung to his mother in the stands and then his wife. Both looked apprehensive. At break point, Soderling--the opponent--miss hit a shot and brought the game back to deuce. All viewers could sense Federer's relief.

When Federer won the next point bringing the game to match point, it looked like he started to tear. The fans were cheering for him to prevail. When he did, Roger Federer--a man who has more money than anyone needs--dropped to his knees and cried. The stadium exploded with congratulations.

So, what is the appeal of sport? Why does a man who wins matches and tournaments more regularly than mail is delivered, drop to his knees when he wins another tournament. He does because sport, for players and spectators, engages our emotions. And we humans are emotional beings. Our hearts, not our heads, run the show. Despite any and all attempts to map out our lives on the basis of rational wisdom, we succumb--when we are wise--to the realization that we are driven by emotion. The lucky ones of us are smart enough to drop to our knees and tear when someone, something, or we ourselves have nourished our hearts.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Randy Smith

I heard last night and read today that Randy Smith, a former NBA basketball player, had passed suddenly while working out on a treadmill. Smith is a contemporary and whenever I read about contemporaries passing it reminds me that time is precious and limited. Smith was a favorite of mine so the loss made me think a bit longer about the good fortune of life and the potential all have to make an impact while we are here.

Randy Smith played for the Buffalo Braves when I was going to graduate school in Buffalo. He had played college basketball at Buffalo State College. Not to be confused with what is now Division I, the University of Buffalo, Buff State was a division II school before there was anything lower than division II. Smith was not heralded in college but did get drafted by the Braves in the 7th round. In college Smith was known for his outstanding soccer play more than for his basketball skills. I read today that in the late sixties and early seventies--when soccer was not on radar screens of most Americans--fans would flock to Buffalo State to watch Randy Smith play the game.

As a professional basketball player he was an outstanding streak shooter who seemed almost always to be on a streak. In 1978 he was the mvp of the NBA all star game during which he hit one shot after another from several spots on the court. After the game his coach, Jack Ramsay, remarked that Smith's performance was not a surprise to him as he saw Smith shoot brilliantly on a regular basis. That was exactly my reaction as well. My recollection is that Smith had the capacity to grab a pass in motion and then set quickly for his shot, or when he could not set on the ground, somehow find a way to get set while he was in the air and hit nothing but net on a jumper. Smith played on the great 73-74 Braves team with Bob McAdoo, Jim McMillian, Garfield Heard, and Ernie DiGregorio. McAdoo got most of the ink for good reason and McMillian and Ernie their share as well. Garfield Heard is remembered by NBA fans for the last second jump shot he hit for the Phoenix Suns pushing an NBA finals' game into triple overtime. Yet, for me, it was Randy Smith --(who for a long time held the record as the iron man of basketball not missing a game because of injuries for several seasons) who was the key to the success of the Buffalo Braves. A team player who did not seem to squawk for the ball, nor grouse about a lack of respect, he may have been the most talented athlete on a very good basketball team.

It is Kobe and the Lakers who are front and center on the consciousness of basketball fans today and likely for the next fortnight as the NBA championship series between the Lakers and Magic has begun. But for fans of sport and really all others, I'd recommend thinking about someone who never did get much press, but who made a mark, seized the day, and passed too soon.