Sunday, February 28, 2010

lucky seat

In order for my university, the Northeastern University Huskies, to win the Colonial Athletic Association regular season championship, two things had to happen yesterday. The first was that Northeastern would have to defeat George Mason University at GMU's gym. The second was that Old Dominion University would have to lose to Virginia Commonwealth. If ODU were to win the game, then ODU would be the conference champs.

Having followed the fortunes of my employer's squad all season, I was excited about the chances for the team's first ever championship. Our team's game was to be played at noon. The ODU/VCU game at 4. Since our game was on television, and because I wanted a workout yesterday, I decided to purge the tensions and disappointments of the week on the elliptical machine at my health club from noon to two. Since each elliptical contraption is equipped with a television, I could simultaneously purge the tension, burn the suet, and watch Northeastern play. As it so happens, an alumnus of the university was also in the gym while I was there. He was on a treadmill and we both gave a yelp and nearly fell off our machines when Matt Janning, a player for NU, buried a three from well behind the three point line to tie the game in the waning seconds. When Chaisson Allen hit free throws with .5 seconds remaining to win the contest, the two of us added more perspiration to our soaked tee shirts as we rejoiced.

At 4 oclock I headed for the Shopper's Cafe to watch the VCU game. I had a great spot. Few people were at the establishment yesterday. I asked the proprietor to put the game on a particular set, parked myself in front of the screen, enjoyed something called an Italian burger (a composition that was delicious but no doubt forced the fellows who toil in my gut to work overtime in order to digest the fare). It looked like VCU would win the game and make NU the champions. Then the unthinkable occurred. A waiter came by and asked for a small favor.

"Listen, I'd like to put these two tables together for this party of 8 behind you). Can you take your stuff to another table, any one you want, and we'll put the game on a screen for you."

How to tell this apparently ignorant fellow, that I was sitting in a lucky seat, and certainly watching a tv screen that had been charmed. How to explain that if I were to move my seat, I might jinx the university and diminish the team's seed in the upcoming CAA tournament. This seat was hot. VCU was ahead. If I move, who knew what would happen.

But gee, I am a college professor. My credit card reads, "Dr. Alan Zaremba". Can I really explain to a fellow that I, a college professor, don't want to move a few feet, because I am sitting in a lucky spot?

"No problem" I say, knowing full well, I was jarring the karma that had been facilitating the victory. "No need to change the screen" I added hastily, "I'll just move back here." It was bad enough that I was relinquishing the lucky seat, but no double whammy would I allow, by having him move the game to another tv set.

So, I go back to another table. VCU is ahead by two with less than a minute to go. Immediately, an ODU player is fouled. He can tie the game up with two shots. He misses both. HA! What whammy. There is no whammy!

Except ODU gets the rebound and they dink around with the ball until there is almost no time left on the shot clock, when a player heaves the ball up and hits a three. Down by one.

VCU races up court to take a shot to go ahead. And they lose the ball. (Like they might have lost the ball if I was sitting in my lucky seat). ODU takes the ball dribbles the length of the court and takes an ill advised circus layup shot. That goes in. Now, sitting in this jinxed seat, ODU is up by three.

I almost did not bother to watch VCU's last second attempt to tie the game.What would be the point from where I was sitting, 750 miles away from the shooter. The ball clanked away.

As I paid my bill and walked away, someone from the table of 8 waved and thanked me. "We appreciate it" he said. Guy was probably an ODU alum.

Monday, February 22, 2010

bracketbuster and fortune

In the Madness of March I write about the value to an institution of getting an NCAA tournament bid. This past weekend, ESPN televised a basketball marathon designed to provide exposure to teams that otherwise might not get attention when the tournament committee decides to invite participants.

My university Northeastern, plays in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). We are a very well coached team with players that play hard throughout the contests. We were pitted against Louisiana Tech in the bracketbuster game.

Northeastern will automatically be invited to participate in the NCAA tournament if it wins the CAA tournament in early March. That is a tall order since the games are played in Richmond with three top combatants all within a two hour drive of the arena. Northeastern is a 12 hour ride from the arena and therefore nearly all games during the tournament will be against opponents who will have what amounts to a home court advantage.

But even if we were to lose the CAA tournament we might have gotten a bid had we won the bracketbuster game last weekend. Here's what happened. With less than a minute left and the score tied one of our players got called for a questionable charging violation giving the ball to the opponent. With 27 seconds left the opponent, LA Tech, threw up a prayer to beat the shot clock. It was off line. Way off line. So much so that it banked in for three points. The shooter could not have banked the shot in if he had tried to do so twenty times. But this off line shot went in and Northeastern could not tie the game in the remaining seconds.

I am typically a proponent of the maxim, "you make your own luck." I think it applies to both sport and life. However, in this case, this was just luck. A lousy shot that was forced by excellent defense, banked in, busting our chances of being placed in a bracket unless we win three away games in three nights in early March.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mind Matters Matter

A while back I bought Phil Jackson's book, Sacred Hoops, in a used book store. I am reading it now and to be clear I am only a little bit more than half way through it.

When the Knicks became good in the late 1960s and early 70s Jackson was a member of the team. Known for his defense and a very awkward looking jumpshot, Jackson was central to the team's successes during those years. When I lived in Buffalo in the mid 1970s I went to what was then called, The Buffalo Aud, to watch the Buffalo Braves play the Knicks. The Braves beat the Knicks that night and I can recall Jackson who seemed kind of lackadaisacal during the game, looking over to the coach Red Holtzman to ask if the team should take a time out. Holtzman waved away at him as if to say, "What's the point, You're not even trying." I don't think that game characterized Jackson's play regularly, but it is an interesting recollection given this book he has written about his coaching philosophy.

I believe that Jackson now leads Red Auerbach in terms of coaching teams that have won NBA championships. So one would think his book would contain some wisdom. So far he has written about techniques he has used to create team unity. They are atypical coaching methods involving meditation and visualization and references to Native American wisdom.

Often he will cite a moment in a game that supports a contention. A player steals a pass to secure a win after a session when he, the player, acknowledged the team based lessons identified in a prior practice session.

Jackson, I believe, is right on when he talks about team cohesion and the importance of seeing basketball as a team game and that winning is a product less of individual prowess but of team awareness.

However, the idea that the techniques are the keys to his success are tough to believe. All things being equal, I believe visualization, team meditation, respect for any spiritual teaching which emancipates one from constraining thoughts--all these techniques will make one team better than others.

Nevertheless, these techniques really work out terrific if you have Michael Jordan when you coach the Bulls, and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal when you coach the Lakers--and your opponents do not have such superstars. Then, I will opine, meditation really helps a lot. I would love to see Phil Jackson coach the New Jersey Nets, winners this season of 4 games out of the 50 plus they have played and try out his meditation techniques in practice. Then we would see how much mind matters matter.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Early in The Madness of March I write about the importance of making a distinction between reality and constructions of reality. I comment that those who wager on games are often enticed to support one team over another not because of their inherent qualities, but because of interpersonal and mediated communications that have led to a construction of reality that could be different from what actually is. In sports, the effects of substituting constructed reality for the real thing are relatively benign, but in life such confusion can be painful when the two unrelated entities, reality and constructions of reality, collide. I point out specifically that notions of family and love are sometimes spurious compositions and when our families and loves do not mesh with the constructions we can be stunned by the contrast. I've been happy to see that on a number of occasions when people have contacted me about the book, this part of the book is something that they have identified as meaningful to them.

Yesterday, classes at my university were cancelled as of noon. A blizzard had been forecast. We were going to get walloped with what D.C. and New York was enduring. When I went to my post office yesterday morning, the chatter on the line was about how many inches we would get and damned if it was tough to get a youngster to shovel snow for you nowadays. When I arrived at work I received a note from a student who was scheduled to come in for a meeting. She wanted to know if given the cancelling of classes our meeting was still on. When I received this note, I was unaware that school had been cancelled. Fortunately, I have a window in my office. I looked out the window and there was not a single snowflake coming down or on the ground. I wrote back to the student saying that I was here and to come by. There was to be no blizzard. In fact, there was almost no snow at all. A good sneeze would have cleared the sidewalk for the women at the post office concerned with shovelling out. The interpersonal talk and media craze had created a blizzard that wasn't.

I went to Northeastern's basketball game last night--still held despite the debilitating blizzard. We won. I saw all but the first minutes of the game. I read in today's paper that one of our defenders had shut out the highest scorer on the opponent's team. This seemed strange to me, because I saw nearly the whole game and I barely remember this defender being on the court. Yes a starter on the opponent's team had been shut out. But by whom? I checked the box score today and see that the shutdown defender was in the game for only 12 of the 40 minutes.

It doesn't matter. He will be forever the defender who shut down the high scorer to all who read the article in the paper, and to all who talk about the article in the paper. He will be our shutdown guard. And yesterday, if you did not experience it first hand, we had some blizzard.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

the old guy

I made my college freshmen basketball team, but I was not much of a factor on the squad. I came off the bench and probably averaged no more than five points a game. I had only one game when I scored in double figures, and I think that the total that day was only 11 points.

I had reached the peak of my basketball playing prowess by September of 1967 just before I went off to college in Albany. During the preceding months I'd played quite a bit at a summer camp and found I could typically hold my own. So, that September before I went off to school to deteriorate, I would go to a local park in the evening where good 17-20 year old players congregated to play. The park, Cantiague, had earned a reputation for quality games. Players I knew of who'd done well at various high schools on the island would travel miles to Cantiague to compete.

The games there were four on four for the most part. And there was always a wait to get on. Two teams would form, and then several groups of four would wait to play "winners." Lose a game at Cantiague and you could wait a half hour to play again. (Once I took my tools to Manhattan Beach to play and there you could wait an hour if you lost a game). So these four on four contests were fiercely competed. You did not come to Cantiague to sit around and wait to play, and if you lost, you would be sitting around and waiting.

One night we'd won a game or two when a foursome came on the court that had an old guy on the team. Three kids around 18 and this old guy. This game ought to be a breeze. Within minutes this old guy was engineering play and taking apart the rest of us with passes and funny looking set shots. I took over and tried to guard the old guy and damn if he wasn't making me look stationary--whistling these passes past me, getting everyone on his team moving and cutting. Occasionally the old guy would take a dribble, stop abruptly to set, and then sink a long range push shot that looked like it belonged on the old newsreels. Typically before each game the players would shake hands with opponents and introduce themselves. The old guy's name, I remembered, was Dick.

Dick killed us. The games at Cantiague were "winners out", which means that if you make a basket you kept the ball. We barely saw the ball with Dick effortlessly and modestly taking us apart. When I sat down, I asked someone who the hell the old guy Dick was. I find out that Dick's last name is McGuire.

I hadn't recognized him. Dick McGuire had coached the Knicks in the mid sixties and played professionally for the Knicks in the 50s. When I came home and told my dad I'd played against Dick McGuire at Cantiague and that he beat us bad, he snorted and asked me if I still had my shorts.

The other day I read that Dick McGuire had passed and I remembered that day at Cantiague. I've done some reading about the old Knicks and know that McGuire had been a humble and well liked man. I remembered that he was humble when he humbled us kids so many years ago.

Later today I drive to Albany for an annual rendezvous with college buddies. We go to a basketball game, and then have dinner where we have cocktails, discuss (and solve) all the world's problems. It's always fun. I am thinking this morning that we revellers this evening will be twenty years older than Dick McGuire was when he was the old guy tearing me apart at Cantiague.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

honey cake

Old sick joke. A father is on his deathbed. The son hears him wail.

"Dad, what is it. Is there something I can get for you?"

Again, the wail but the kid can't understand what is being said. "What is it,Dad? What do you want?"

The father wails again and this time the kid can make it out. "Honey cake" the father wheezes. "honey cake...please...a piece honey cake."

The kid scampers out of the bedroom, races to the kitchen, speaks to his mother, and then darts back up to the dying father's bedroom. Again he hears his dad wail, "honey cake."

"Sorry Dad" says the son. "Mom says that's for after."

I once saw a bumper sticker that said "buy me" immediately. It was on sale from a street vendor and had he had five of them I would have bought them all. He had only one, I bought it and gave it to my brother. He now displays it on his bookcase. The bumper sticker read, "Don't postpone joy."

The players for the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts will square off this Sunday in the super bowl. Years ago I remember a New England Patriot player asserting before a super bowl, that he was going to leave it all on the field during the game. He did not want to leave that game without knowing he had done it all during the time he had, on the biggest stage that he would have. As it turned out, the Patriots got shellacked in that 1986 super bowl game, but the player did in fact leave it all on the field. I recall an opponent saying he had never been blocked during that game as hard as he had been blocked by the Patriot in that game. He had given it all on the stage.

You don't have to be playing in the super bowl, to leave it all on the field. No reason to postpone joy. Every day is a gift of a superbowl. Now is the time for honey cake. There is no after.