Archive for December, 2012

Places Where Time Stops

Posted in life with tags , , on December 30, 2012 by cueball

I love bars.  In fact, bars and good libraries are my two favorite places on earth.  I can sit in both for hours.

I even like chain bars.  They at the least offer a good selection of beers and televisions with sports on them.

However, I mostly love the small neighborhood bar.  Old stained wooden bars with actual brass rails for your feet.  Surly yet friendly bartenders who have been there forever serve you (if you’re lucky) locally brewed beer.  There are usually patrons who know each other, know the staff, and some of whom will actually talk to you even if you aren’t a regular.

Bars are great places to relax and be yourself while enjoying being with and around other people.  Once you come in through the doors whatever else is going on outside is left there.  Entering a good bar is like entering a warm embrace from a friend.  I think I just described the whole premise behind Cheers.

Libraries are different.  A good library is like a cathedral.  It is a sacred place that houses all of humanity, and all the knowledge it contains is free.  All of what came before and what may come in the future is yours if you are willing to accept it.  All you have to do is walk in, pick up the books, find a nice quiet spot, and read.  Today, however, finding that quiet spot is becoming increasingly difficult.  In smaller libraries with the computer labs, wifi connections, and other sundry things going on it is sometimes difficult to find a nice spot to just read.

Whenever I enter either a bar or a library time stops for me.  There is no out there.  There is no hurry to be somewhere or do something.  There is only being in this place and enjoying everything that it provides.  In their own way each provides a sense of community and of belonging to something greater than me.  Bars give you an immediate connection to the world.  A visceral, “you are here” now feeling.  Libraries connect you to the past and to all of human history.  If allows you to debate and wrestle with the greatest ideas and words ever written.

Many will ask, “Can’t you get that in church or with your family?”  Yes, most people do.  Maybe it is some flaw in me or some defect in my emotional state, but I don’t always feel that with church or family.  Maybe there is some screwed up part of me that would rather be with 20 drunken strangers or my favorite dead writers.  I can’t say.  Honestly, I don’t want to say.

All I know is this, many a moment in my life has been spent sitting on bar stools hearing a goofy joke/story or walking down musty aisles trying to find the next old big idea to wrestle with for a couple of hours.  That may be a flaw that will come back to bite me at some point in life, but I’m willing to risk it.

You may be more than one coach away

Posted in sports with tags , , , , , on December 29, 2012 by cueball

American sports fans have the undying belief that they are one coach away from being able to win the championship.  Regardless of sport, Americans believe in the cult of the genius coach who can turn any situation into a trophy presentation.  That is completely false.

Some teams are 2 or 3 coaches away from having a hope of winning a championship.  All coaching situations require different skill sets.  Here are the different types of situations and the different type of coaches needed to make them work.  (The idea for this post came from John Infante (Twitter handle @John_Infante) of www.athleticscholarships.net.)

The Foundation

Sometimes a program, club, or franchise is god-awful.  Either you are an expansion franchise or a franchise whose previous regime made horrible personnel and budgetary decisions.  This situation requires The Teacher.  A person with patience and vision who can help establish a foundation for the future.  This is the most frustrating situation for fans because the team is still going to be bad and will be for a while.  This coach may not be the coach to win a championship but he does create a situation that provides the fans with glimpses of hope.  See the 2012-2013 Charlotte Bobcats.

The Relegation Survivors

This is a subset particular to soccer.  These are the clubs with little financial strength who depend upon the money from being in the top flight of their country for day-to-day survival.  They exist down on the bottom of the top table or at the top of the second table and are always fighting for survival.  There are some coaches who thrive in the weird hothouse at the bottom of the Barclay’s Premiership through some quirk in their personality and style.  This keeps them employed even though fans and owners get tired of the constant drama and fire the coach hoping to get to the next level.  Which is…

Mediocrity

This situation is where a team has been bad, but it has talent.  There was not a lot of discipline or accountability from the previous coaching staff so the players settled into a comfortable crappiness.  This team needs The Grinder.  In English soccer this is the guy who comes into a club that has either just gotten promoted to the Premiership or just staved off relegation and over the course of 2 or 3 seasons establishes the club as solidly mid-table.  They are never in danger of being relegated, but they never threaten to get into position to play in Europa Cup or Champions League.  Think Martin O’Neill at Sunderland or Tony Pulis at Stoke City.  Eventually, fans want a bit more then never being horrible.

Championship Quality

This is the place the vast majority of teams wish they could inhabit.  Actually, most teams are mediocre or just championship quality and float between the two changing coaches accordingly.  Championship quality means the team is always in the discussion at the beginning of the season as a potential championship team or a dark horse championship team.  This team is almost always the bridesmaid, but has the talent and the pedigree to win it all.  The questions about this team almost always center on whether the coach has the acumen to take them over the top.  The thing about these coaches is that they are usually the very best of the previous three skill sets and this may or may not be their ceiling.  Scott Brooks at Oklahoma City is the best example of this coach going right now.  Of course, this is a stage that a team and coach can easily elevate themselves out of into trophies or slip out of into mediocrity.  The first gets a pay raise and the second gets you fired and it is the second hardest place to stay.

Interestingly, it is easier to stay Championship Quality in college sports, especially if you have one or two national championships.  See Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams.  Actually the list in college is really long.  In professional sports staying Championship Quality too long gets you fired.

The Trophy Winners

This is the land of Popovich, Belichick, Krzyzewski, Jackson, Mourinho, and Ferguson.  These are the teams always in the discussion mostly because of the person in charge.  Yes, they all work for quality organization, but it is through this person’s skill and will that their teams are almost always in the discussion to win it all.  Some of these coaches had all the skills needed for the other levels and worked their way to top.  Others are the guys you hire when you have a championship quality team that has not gotten better in a few years. They come in and somehow push the team over the top.  Guys like Phil Jackson and Jose Mourinho may be derided by some as only coaching stars and never building a team, but theirs is a very particular and valuable skill set.  Fans should be prepared however.  Because these guys leave things go bad in a hurry.

Your happiness as a fan is predicated on where your favorite team falls on this continuum and whether you have the right coach.  It is important for fans to remember that one guy is not necessarily going to provide the answers to all of these levels.  No one can know whether Mike Dunlop can transition from teacher to mediocre to championship level.  Scott Brooks is going to get this season and maybe next to prove that he can push the right buttons to win a champion.  If I knew all the answers, I would not be writing this blog.  I would be sitting in Las Vegas at sports book making lots of money.

I Think I Actually Do Love Sports

Posted in sports with tags , , , , , on December 28, 2012 by cueball

Why do we follow sports?  I started thinking about this last night as I watched the surprisingly fun Belk Bowl.  Duke not only managed to lose in spectacular fashion, but also provided one of the greatest “back door covers” for betting enthusiasts around the country.  I texted a couple of friends last night as it was winding down that watching college football during bowl season was like watching football on acid.  You just sit back relax and enjoy the weirdness.

That is part of the reason we like college football.  It is way more unpredictable then the NFL.  That is what happens when the game is played by what may be the most emotionally unpredictable group of people on the planet: 18-22 year old college students.  College football also offers deep traditions and ties to hearth and home.

The NFL by contrast is an adrenaline and gambling filled weekly cable drama.  It has a limited run.  It is filled with compelling characters whose behavior while sometimes predictable is almost always illuminating.  Also, because it has such a finite time and space filled with larger than life characters it is a powder keg of emotion.  Also, it is probably the friendliest gambling and fantasy sport going.

I’m beginning to wonder about college basketball and why we continue to watch.  Where college football seems to be growing in popularity, college basketball is an afterthought for most people until March.  The powers that be in college basketball (and basketball in general) seem indifferent or outright hostile to the sport.  The NCAA, NBA, and NBA Player Association won’t try to create some rules that make everyone happy while giving players the best options for their playing future.  Of course the NCAA is hostile to all of its players in division I and the NBAPA is a dysfunctional mess.

Anyway, we watch the NBA because it is the most player friendly sport going.  There are only 10 players on the court at a time and they are virtually naked wearing only a tank top and shorts.  Night after night, you can see the players’ emotions first hand with no filter.  It seems almost like you develop a personal relationship with them.

If the NFL is a high brow cable drama with a short run, soccer is a long running daily soap opera.  It provides the same personal connection to players as basketball with the outsized personalities of football.  Take the Barclay’s Premiere League; there are 38 games from August to May.  However, most teams in the BPL also play in various cup (tournaments) competitions.  There is the FA Cup, the Capital One Cup, the UEFA Cup (European championship), and the Euro Cup (European NIT).

So fans of English soccer get the chance to watch multiple episodes every week of their favorite characters running into each other, yelling at each other, doing dumb things, and doing brilliant things all with the specter of too much money and too much privilege thrown in to make it interesting.

Yes, they are silly games, but they are so much more than that.  Sports are a form of entertainment played out through athleticism and raw emotion.  We find characters and teams that we love and others that we loathe.  It is constantly moving forward with no repeats.  Sports touch on themes repeatedly across seasons hoping to find resolution, but never quite getting there.  Sports are alternately uplifting and disappointing.  Sports are like life except when a season ends you just walk away knowing a new one is just around the corner.

I may die today

Posted in sports and society with tags , , on December 27, 2012 by cueball

“I may die today,” is a Buddhist mantra used especially during morning mediations to remind oneself that you should live in the present and to the fullest because today may be your last.  That is one of the things I admire about professional athletes.  They are always present and they always play as if this may be their last play.

By the time they reach to professional level, athletes have seen every kind of injury and every type of game loss imaginable.  They understand instinctively not to trust any gambling lines that they should win easily.  They know to never take a play off because that is when you get hurt.

That is one of the things I work on every day.  Living in this moment and not worrying about the things out of my control.  The old saying is, “Half the things you worry about will never happen and the other half are going to happen anyway.”  When you watch the best teams play, the whole team seems to have this very understanding in the front of their minds.

One of the things you often hear from players on the New England Patriots is that everyone just does their job.  Meaning, each player does what he has been told to do on each play without worrying about whether his teammate is doing the same.  They have developed a trust in their teammates through continuous repetition in practice, in the film room, and on the field.

That is one of the things you can gain from playing sports and participating on well-coached teams:  the ability to always be present, to focus on the task at hand, and to take advantage of every moment by doing your best.

I may die today.  Am I doing what I love?  I may die today.  Am I living my life to the fullest of my abilities?  I may die today.  Will this life have been worth it?

Athletes do not ask these questions.  They are too busy living each moment to ask these questions or to worry.  The best athletes always push themselves to use every ounce of their abilities and to do whatever it takes to get better.  This sometimes makes them horrible people to be around.  That is not to say, this expression of that drive is inevitable.  Some athletes spin that drive into more positive ways and do not seem to have demons following them.

For better or worse, athletes have taken their place as our modern pantheon of public gods.  And we let them because we have been taught that we need that pantheon.  We need our heroes.  They make our lives a little happier; they give us hope that things are possible.  They do provide that solace, that hope; however it is only a transient feeling.

Even in this age where we have so much more information about them, we know less about these public gods.  Most of the things we know come from the athletes and their P.R. machines.  We get information from their official Twitter handle or their official Facebook page, and if we get any kind of stories on ESPN, Sports Illustrated, or name your website it is usually some story out to prop up their official hagiography.

Even if we know it is not quite the truth we keep coming back.  Even if you have seen too much and lose that childlike fandom, you keep coming back with the hope of glimpsing something that makes you forget your worries and make it OK that you may die today.

Sports, They are something

Posted in sports with tags , , , , , , on December 26, 2012 by cueball

I cried on January 22, 1983.  My then favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys, lost to the San Francisco Forty-Niners in dramatic Joe Montana fashion.  A year earlier on March 29, 1982, I felt just as much emotion.  This time it was the opposite because my beloved University of North Carolina Tar Heel Men’s Basketball team had won the national championship in equally dramatic fashion.

I wish I could go back to that 8 and 9 year old child’s attitude towards sports.  It was pure.  The games were pure, the players were pure.  Everything was hopeful and everyone seemed to give a damn.

If you’ve been one of the three people who have read any of my posts, you have probably noticed my disappointment in what sports are.  I did not say, “…in what sports have become,” because I suspect sports have always on some level been this disappointing once you skipped past the surface, but we did not know as much.

I do not want to say we know too much, but knowing as much as we do takes away the mystery and some of the joy.  Mickey Mantle was a tragic hero beset by injuries.  Now, we know he was a drunk whose alcoholism exacerbated the failings of his career.

However, how much more do we really know.  We know how dirty, greedy, and hypocritical sports are at every level.  I suspect we don’t know even of half the real dirt that goes down.  Players and teams all have their own Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to get out the information they want us to have and to hide that which they don’t.  We have more information, but are we really learning anything more.

We do know more with statistics.  With computers and instant communication we have to ability to break down a player and his play into quantifiable numbers.  This is actually helpful up to a point.  That point is when you actually put players on the field.  That is why it works best in baseball.  It is the easiest sport to statistically breakdown for individual players because all the skills needed to be successful in baseball are individual and discrete skills performed in isolation from others.  Football, basketball, and soccer are sports each individual’s performance is based upon the performance of the other players around him, making it harder to use advanced statistics effectively.  That is the next frontier of sports statistics.

We also don’t get to know the players as well because of free agency.  Players deserve the freedom to move to a different team for more money, a better chance to win, or just to live in a different place.  However, in life, for everything you gain, you must give up something.  In this case freedom of movement means the loss of a more intimate fan/player relationship.  There is something special about watching a young draft pick grow from a boy to a man, literally.  Now, instead of players we have brands.  Today’s athletes sometimes seem merely like conglomerations of advertisements that blow into your town for a few years before moving on to sell more stuff somewhere else.

That is how I feel in my more cynical moments.  Then I’ll sit down and start watching a game and something amazing/interesting/funny happens and I can almost see that kid sitting in his grandmother’s house crying as Dwight Clark spikes the ball in the back of the end zone.

I’m an owner now

Posted in sports with tags , , , on December 25, 2012 by cueball

My ridiculously rich great grand uncle Scrooge McDuck plays poker with all the major sports commissioners in New York.  David Stern is there a lot, but he has started bringing his soon to be replacement Adam Silver.  Roger Goodell comes by some weeks, but he tries to Bogart the game and come up with all these new rules and crazy wild cards.  Bud Selig shows up rarely.  The games are usually past his bed time.

These are not the kind of games you and I play.  These are actually run by a bunch of the different leagues owners, and a couple of times a month they bring in the commissioners to play a few hands.

Anyway, one night last week the last hand came down to my uncle and MLS commissioner Don Garber.  They brought him to replace Gary Bettman last year.  All the other commissioners underestimate Garber.  They can’t figure out how MLS hasn’t been killed off yet.  Regardless, the last hand came down to my uncle and The Soccer Don.  My uncle put up a string of Bojangles he owns and Garber put up a franchise.  The owners play old school 5-card draw and Garber laid down a spade flush ace high and my uncle dropped aces and eights full house.

I’m going to take this deadly serious.  So, what is the first thing I’m going to do with my shiny toy?  I already know where the team will play and what the name will be.  We are going to put the franchise in Triangle area and name the team Carolina Cougars SC.

First, I’m going to hire a franchise president.  This person will have built a franchise from the ground up or will have worked for one of the more stable and successful franchises.  I don’t like drama.  I don’t want the team to chase headlines over talent and stability.  In other words, I don’t want my team to act like the New York Jets.

Now, I would let him hire his senior staff.  That would not only be a VP of player personnel/general manager, but also a VP in charge of business operations.  Their staffs will be the links to both sides of the front office.  The negotiation team will come from the personnel and business sides to make sure we get the most value out of every signing.  We will also have a topnotch ticket and public relations team.

The last major franchise hire would be the coach.  Not because the coach is not important, but because that position is on field representative of everything we will stand for as a franchise.  That makes him almost the most important employee outside of the players.  He has to believe and buy into the direction of the franchise on and off the field.

The direction and attitude of the whole organization would be that of aggressiveness.  We would stay on the “front foot” at all times in everything we did.  Off the field, the ticket and public relations team that would take an innovative and aggressive stand on ticket sells and public relations.  On the field we would press high up the field to make the other team think and make decisions at speed and under pressure and once we had the ball we would control play through short controlled passing game.

As the owner, that would be my job.  Setting the direction of the organization and hiring the best people to make that direction a reality and say out of their way to let them do their jobs.  Running a sports franchise or any other large organization is about having a plan and a set of values that you use to guide all your decisions.

You know the franchises that have no plan or set of values.  They are the organizations whose signings are guided more by web page hits and Q ratings.  This isn’t to say you always follow the plan without deviation or take chances outside of the values you use to make decisions.  If you do everything else to build a strong and sustainable program you can roll the dice on personnel decisions.

My uncle has given me this opportunity and I will do everything in my power to make this franchise the best in MLS.  There are no shortcuts and there will be no compromises because this franchise will care more about winning then being famous.

I hope I’m not just spinning my wheels

Posted in sports, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 23, 2012 by cueball

I want to be clear.  I do not really care about saving the NCAA.  Any ideas I come up with are to create a better athletic development system, and if the NCAA or an organization like it is part of any of these solutions then so be it.

In the context of the athletic development system, the NCAA’s biggest problem is two-fold.  One, it has become through its own actions and some actions outside of its control in the division I level, the de facto minor league systems for the NFL and the NBA.  Two, the people in charge of the NCAA, the presidents and chancellors, do not understand that.  A small liberal arts division III school like Williams College in Massachusetts may have an athletic department, but its teams are not in the same business as the University of Alabama.

The NCAA cannot continue to treat its division I “professional” minor league schools the same as its division III amateur schools.  It is not sustainable because it doesn’t make logical sense.  I don’t believe the problem is all the NCAA’s making.  The two major professional sports leagues without their own minor league systems are complicit in this mess.

The NFL and the NBA have taken all the money they have made and have not done anything to improve their player development systems.  They each essentially have the same system for player development that they have always had, namely use the NCAA at its highest levels to identify and train potential professional players without having to invest any money in it.

Then we get the farce of NBA executives and scouts complaining that players are not coming in to the NBA ready to play in the NBA because they aren’t getting the proper training in college.  Well, that is the NBA’s problem.  Until recently, at no point in the development system did the NBA do anything to actually develop players in the way they want them to be able to play.  We can only hope that the recent expansion of the NBDL will lead to fewer players who don’t want to go to college to play basketball to forgo that route and become professionals at an earlier age.

My whole thing is this, to try to think of athletic development as a continuum and not separate my thinking as high school, college, and professional.  The goal should be to produce the best players possible.  That is another problem with the system.  It does not think about the players and the player’s needs.

The institutions are always going to do what is best for the institutions and the coaches are going to do what is best for them and their programs.  No one at the NCAA or professional level is trying to create a system that feeds the needs of the players.  Every decision that is made by the powers that be answers the question of whether it helps the program, the institution, the franchise, or the league.  Rarely does anyone stop and ask, “How is this helping the players?”