All posts by Scott Hirsch

Born and raised in the mean streets of East Memphis. Don't take sports too seriously unless you count all the times I have cried or thrown things after a painful loss.

Super Bowl Party Manifesto

Super Bowl parties are quickly heading the way of New Year’s Eve in popular culture, obligatory national celebrations that are hackneyed and overrated. But what are you gonna do, sit at home?

No.

So because you’re inevitably going to attend or host a Super Bowl party, here are some essential guidelines to follow in order to maximize your experience.

Tips for hosting a good Super Bowl party:

Plan according to the amount of space you have. I’m not here to judge – a good Super Bowl party can be held in a tiny apartment or a mansion. That being said, if you have one TV and six seats don’t invite 30 people. I don’t want to have to hold my pee til halftime worried my seat is going to get snaked as soon as I get up. By the same token, if you have six TV rooms and a media room with twelve reclining movie theater seats don’t have four people at your party, it’s depressing.

Don’t mess up the food situation. This is not the sole responsibility of the host, but you should provide a good base. Three or four solid offerings, let’s say a cheese and cracker spread with minimum three types of cheese, some type of meat, could be chicken wings, could be pulled pork sandwiches, could be meatballs, doesn’t really matter. Then one lighter fare type item, maybe a vegetable spread with dips, something to make people feel slightly less glutinous. Then, coordinate with your guests to make sure there’s not a ton of overlap. You can’t have Susie and Natalie both bringing their famous buffalo chicken dip. Things could get ugly if one dish gets all the love.

Offer your guests some kind of gambling opportunity. Squares are pretty much the go-to, easiest thing here.  Make sure you collect up front though, the drunker and fuller your guests get the more likely they are to ghost early and leave you short.

Diversify according to interest level. If you have the space, have at least two rooms for viewing: one for serious “watchers” of the game and another for more casual observers and chatters. If I’ve got way more money on the game than I should, I really don’t wanna hear about Steve’s cross-fit routines or Lily’s kid’s summer plans.

Tips for guests:

Speaking of kids, uhh, can we keep them to a minimum? Kids are great, especially if they belong to you, but this isn’t a birthday party with a moon bounce. This is a disgusting bloated American holiday where we celebrate violence, brain damage, gambling, intoxication and overindulgence. Hire a babysitter.

Please, enough already with evaluating every commercial. This is the nadir of the Super Bowl Party. Invariably some time around the middle of the second quarter someone will say, “Gee is it me or are the commercials just not as good this year?” I guess fifteen years ago the Super Bowl was the only time of year advertising agencies really tried, and therefore some Super Bowl commercials really stood out. But now they try all year round, so we can stop giving a shit about Super Bowl commercials, okay? YouTube them the next day if you really care, but spare the rest of us.

Other Do’s and Don’ts:

Do make fun of every dumb thing Phil Simms says.

Do not party hop, pick one and stick to it.

Do bring something, but don’t half ass it and bring a bag of chips or ice, unless specifically requested to.

Don’t bring booze and then take home what’s left.

If you’re at a majority fan of one team party and you’re rooting for the other team, keep it to yourself, don’t be obnoxious.

Finally, do invite me to your party, I’m non judgmental and a great time.

Tiger Basketball YouTube gems (ETSU, 1991)

Tuesday night’s win over Temple aside, we’re in the middle of another garbage Josh Pastner season.

All the hallmarks are present.

Compete hard but lose against a few really good teams, thus engendering some excitement? Check.

Disappointing efforts and eventual losses to inferior competition? Check.

Inconsistent execution and strange, sudden changes to the rotation? Check.

Disciplinary issues and suspicious injuries and illnesses? Check.

Cliched recycled answers in post game interviews? Check.

Because we are in the middle of another basically depressing season, I thought we should take a look at some YouTube gems and find an exciting Tiger game from the past.

Shout-out to @roll1697 for pointing out  a 1991 match-up between Memphis (Memphis State) and East Tennessee State University. Now, I should note that this particular season was not necessarily a more successful one than the current campaign. The Tigers finished only 17-15 and 7-7 in the Metro Conference. Luckily for Larry Finch, Penny Hardaway would show up the next year to extend his tenure several years.  Nevertheless, this game was extremely entertaining and well played.

Here are just a few reasons for you to watch this game on YouTube.

  1. There are two incredible individual performances in this game. Keith “Mister” Jennings was a 5’7 point guard for ETSU who was absolutely electric. Jennings made seemingly every play in this game, either with incredible passes or great shot making. He is a great, forgotten college basketball player. On the Memphis side, Elliot Perry was a one man team for Memphis State. He made something like 13 shots in a row down the stretch. I had forgotten how much of a shoot first guard he was. I’m not sure I saw him make a play for a teammate the whole game but that was quite alright because he got serious buckets. I believe both players ended up with 40 + points.
  2. This was a very well played and entertaining game. The pace was absolutely frenetic. There were very few half court possessions, but also very few turnovers and tons of great shot making – especially by ETSU, who was on fire for much of the game.
  3. The Tigers made a great, late second half comeback after trailing the whole game by double digits. It seemed like every time Memphis State made a run, ETSU had an answer. Memphis finally broke through late in the second half and the Coliseum crowd was LIT. I had forgotten how bonkers that place could get.
  4. The announcers are a gem. The YouTube video is of an ETSU feed, so it’s their local announcing team. They are homers, but not comically so. The color analyst has a thick southern accent and employs many amusing colloquialisms. These dudes became pretty apoplectic during the Memphis run. Let’s just say they didn’t like that the refs swallowed their whistles – it’s pretty amusing. They had a point, the refs seemed totally intimidated by the crowd. They also consistently refer to Jennings as either “Mister” or “The Mister” which I thoroughly enjoyed.  At one point they come back from the break and the camera is focused on an attractive woman in the crowd and the guy says, “There are a lot of pretty women in Memphis, Tennessee and that’s one of them.” Brent Musburger would be proud.

Looking back 25 years, here are some other random thoughts about this classic game:

    1. Billy Smith was absolute garbage in this game. I have no idea why he got so many minutes. He reminded me of a right handed K.J. Lawson in that he has absolutely no conscience and shoots the ball every time he touches it.
    2. College basketball seemed like more fun back then. Maybe it was just this game but the up and down, frenetic nature of the game was refreshing. There wasn’t much coaching interference, aka a bunch of timeouts to draw up plays that don’t work, etc. This was high level, skillful and entertaining, something that teams like Kansas and Kentucky (and a few others) can deliver, but that we don’t see consistently enough from CBB. Obviously some of that has to do with the fact that in this game the two best players were both Seniors.
    3. The 3pt point line wasn’t as big of a deal back then. ETSU actually took a bunch of 3’s but Memphis State attempted very few. There were also 3 lines on the court, a college one, international and an NBA line. It was a bit of an eye-sore.
    4. Todd Mundt was not terrible. I had forgotten that. I think I confuse him with Brett Mundt who was, in fact, terrible.

In summary, if you clicked on this article you’re probably kinda bored anyways, so go ahead and commit to the 1:15 it will take you to watch this classic College Basketball game. The video in part 1 starts off pretty rough but it improves.

 

The Game of A Thousand Storylines

The National Championship Game Between Alabama and Clemson was a Sportswriter’s dream, a game of a thousand story lines.

The angles were everywhere, all you had to do is pick one.

There were the pre-game angles. Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, the ‘Bama boy who played for Gene Stallings in 1992 as the Crimson Tide beat Miami in the Sugar Bowl to win a National Championship.

Swinney would now face off against his alma mater to try and win one as a coach. The Dabo backstory, of hardship, determination and triumph certainly got plenty of play in the lead up to the game.

So did the contrast in styles. Dabo the rah rah let’s dance after every win and B.Y.O.G. vs. the buttoned up, all business, ruthless football monster that is Nick Saban.

There was also potential symmetry.

Many people point to Bama’s 34-10 beat down of Clemson in 2008 as the beginning of the Saban dynasty. That game probably cost former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden his job and led to Dabo becoming interim, then full time head coach at Clemson. Would the Alabama dynasty end against the same team?

Once the game started, pre-game story lines faded to the background and the in game story lines and angles started to take shape.

Early on it was Derrick Henry, Alabama’s Heisman winner, bursting through the Clemson line on 3rd and short for a 50 yard TD run. The ‘Bama ground game dominates story line started to take shape. But it was quickly erased after Clemson QB Deshaun Watson promptly lead two TD drives capped off by incredible passes thrown into super tight windows.

New story: Electric mobile quarterback, Alabama’s kryptonite, takes over in biggest game. (Did you know that Nick Saban struggles with great mobile QB’s? Unlike other teams, which apparently just shut down great college quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Deshaun Watson.)

Or maybe the story was going to be that former Clemson walk on WR Hunter Renfrow dominated his match-up with 5 star, all-everything freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick.

I don’t see color so I’m not sure what race Renfrow is but let’s just say he has a ton of grit, is heady, plucky and has sneaky athleticism (might remind you of Wes Welker or Steve Largent).

As the game progressed the story line seemed to be that Alabama, who has built a dynasty chiefly on dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, is not dominating on either side of the ball.

The Tide defense wasn’t exactly playing bad, but the Clemson O-line held up reasonably well and Deshaun Watson covered up for any mistakes with breathtaking play making that hearkened back to Texas QB Vince Young vs Southern Cal – a comparison that was only made a few hundred times during the night. Nevertheless, the similarities were definitely there.

Side note:  If you don’t remember the 2005 National Championship Game between Texas and Southern Cal, it’s literally the only thing that is ever broadcast on the Longhorn Network. Check it out sometime, they just show it over there on a continual, never ending loop.

Anyway, Watson seemed to glide out of trouble and had a great sense for when to take off and run and when to scramble and throw – eerily reminiscent of Vince, whose team was also an underdog to a dynastic College Football team.

Furthermore, the ‘Bama offensive line was getting destroyed by the Clemson D-line, especially on the right side. The Tide running game was completely ineffective in the second half.

Just when the narrative was taking shape in your mind, something new happened. Nick Saban happened. The old school, traditional conservative football man called for an on-sides kick in the 4th quarter of a National Championship game with the score tied.

Most importantly, it worked.

A legendary gamble that will be talked about forever, it was the perfect on-sides kick.

‘Bama cashed in immediately. A long TD pass to O.J.Howard, his second of the game. Howard was yet another potential story line: a ballyhooed (have always wanted to work ballyhooed into a column) 5-star recruit disappoints for three years then has the game of his life in the biggest game of his life.

The story lines refused to stop there.

Back down the field comes Watson, this time settling for a field goal. It was now a 4-point Alabama lead.

Kenyan Drake then took the ensuing kick off 95-yards for a touchdown.

Ahhh, the redemption story line is here. Yes! Kenyan Drake broke his leg last year, came back this year then broke his arm two months ago. Due to the injuries, his career never got on track the way many thought it would. Then he makes the biggest play of the game and of his life. That’s a great story.

But the game still wasn’t done yet.

Watson and Gallman, the Clemson running back, lead a quick drive back down the field for a touchdown. At this point, the ‘Bama defense seemed basically helpless against the Clemson offense.

The vaunted depth of the ‘Bama defense didn’t seem to be helping. The Tide defenders were gassed and started missing tackles you rarely see missed from a Saban coached unit.

‘Bama got the ball back with about 4 minutes left needing to secure a few first downs to put the game away. On first down, Henry lost two yards.

Every ‘Bama fan in the world was cursing – because they know that the Tide doesn’t convert first downs after a negative play. Alabama was near the bottom in the country on 3rd and long conversions. So this second down call would be the biggest of Lane Kiffin’s tenure at Alabama.

This was the same Lane Kiffin who, at Southern Cal, called the 4th and 1 run to Lendale White in the 2006 BCS game versus Texas (and Vince Young). The score of that game was 41-38. The score of this game was 38-33 and if ‘Bama didn’t convert they’d have to punt it back to Deshaun Watson.

You see where this is going?

Kiffin had been quoted saying he’s been waiting ten years for a shot at redemption. And here it was, in eerily similar circumstances.

Kiffin called a play I’m certain was not run all year: a Tight End screen that initially looked doomed, but that was perfectly blocked on the edge allowing O.J. Howard to get around the corner and take off for a huge gain. It set Alabama up in the Clemson Red Zone.

Lane Kiffin came up huge in the biggest moment of his tenure at Alabama.

The game wasn’t over yet though, Jake Coker wanted his story line too.

This game was a mirror of Coker’s entire year at Alabama. Early in the game he was shaky and fairly awful. He doesn’t have a great clock in his head or innate feel for the rush the way someone like Watson does and he ends up taking sacks when he could throw the ball away. His throws were off target early.

Coker eventually settled in after a huge third and long pick up on a pass down the sideline to Ardarius Stewart. That seemed to get his confidence up. He made several great reads and throws after that. On 3rd and 3 near the goal line, with Clemson desperate to hold ‘Bama to a field goal to keep it a one score game, Coker came up with one of his now trademark ugly, improbable, man on a segway scrambles. He somehow juked the defensive end, Dodd, who had harassed him all day and dove for the first down.

Maligned Quarterback proves haters wrong and comes up big when his team needs him the most!

The game finally ended, but not before another Watson TD and an on-sides kick attempt that could have led to a Hail Mary for the win. Hey, stranger things have happened.

Alabama wins another title, and now the post game story lines started. Is Nick Saban the greatest College Football Coach of all time?

So there were a myriad of stories and they’ve probably all been written. Yet the real, true story of the night was the game itself. How great, how unpredictable, how tense, how spectacular the performances, how legendary it was.

Story lines are great, but the game, the game’s the thing.

And when the game rises to that level, it transcends everything. And that’s what we want out of sports, that’s what sports gives us that nothing else can. Real, live, unpredictable ecstatic drama, and no sport does it better than College Football.

 

The Saban Gambit

Nick Saban has built one of the greatest dynasties in college football history, the main tenets of which are a suffocating defense and a ball control offense that relies heavily on the run. Even casual fans of college football could probably tell you that.

Saban will always talk about being balanced but when push comes to shove his teams generally rely on a strong run game and quarterback who “manages” the game with timely throws and few errors. Yet in some of the biggest games of Saban’s tenure, Alabama has outflanked their opponent by coming out with a pass first attack, and it’s worked every time.

Just look at the history.

In 2009, the year of the first championship of the Saban era, the Tide were breaking in a new QB in Greg McElroy. McElroy was pretty much the template for game manager. He ended the year with only 4 interceptions by routinely taking sacks instead of forcing the ball into coverage. Alabama ended up running the ball 526 times that year and throwing it 343 times. During one stretch of the season, in the meat of SEC play, McElroy threw for 148, 154, 92, and 120 yards in successive weeks. In the second half of the South Carolina game the offense went entirely to RB Mark Ingram in the Wildcat formation and he closed out the game. McElroy watched from the sideline.

McElroy started to pick it up near the end of the 2009 season, leading a game winning drive against Auburn to advance to the SEC Championship Game. In that game they would face Florida for the second straight year and contend with the juggernaut that Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow had built. The rhetoric entering the game was clear. Can Alabama stop Tebow? Can Florida shut down the ‘Bama run game and force McElroy to beat them?

‘Bama came out in the first series in a 3 receiver set, and Mcelroy hit Julio Jones for about 15 yards. The Tide ended up throwing it 5 times on the first drive which resulted in a field goal. On the next drive McElroy hit Colin Peek for a 30 yard gain on first down. After that, the play calling became more of a 50-50 split until the Tide took control of the game at which point the attack went back to more of their traditional run heavy style, but a seed was planted that night.

In 2011, Alabama was once again breaking in a new starter, A.J. McCarron.  McCarron appeared to have more natural talent than McElroy but, true to form, Saban held the reigns pretty tight on him. Saban preferred to rely on his superstar running back Trent Richardson (you might remember him as disastrous NFL flop Trent Richardson but I assure you he was actually awesome in college). Of course, Saban also relied on one of the best defenses in the modern era of college football.

Over the course of that 2011 season Alabama ran it 456 times and threw it 346 times. In their regular season meeting with LSU, the only loss of the year, Mccarron threw it 29 times, completing 16 of those attempts for 96 yards. The next game against MIssissippi State he was 14 of 24 for 223 yards. Going into the National Championship game, a rematch against LSU, the Tide had thrown it more than 30 times on just three occasions and two of those were vs. Kent State and Vanderbilt. They didn’t rush it less than 30 times in any game the entire season.

Entering the epic rematch vs. LSU, the narrative was familiar. Can LSU stop the ‘Bama rushing attack and force A.J. Mccarron to beat them? With the kind of NFL talent LSU had on defense  – 14 (!) LSU defenders who played that day were eventually drafted – if the Tigers wanted to commit extra players in run support they were most likely going to be successful stopping the run.

On the first drive ‘Bama started with a play action bootleg pass, easy for McCarron. Next play, another easy play action pass. The next play was an inside hand off, and then it was back to the pass, two in a row before the drive stalled. Next drive, deep in LSU territory, started the same way, a play action pass. The whole game played out in similar fashion, with McCarron making all the big plays on offense. The running game only took over once the game was in hand.

McCarron ended up throwing 34 passes, completing 23 for 234 yards. They ran it 35 times for 150 yards. Once again, Saban and his offensive coaches anticipated the defensive plan, conceded that the defense would be able to stop the run if they wanted to and switched the game plan to a pass heavy attack.

Cut to 2015. Once again Saban is breaking in a new quarterback, this time 5th year transfer Jacob Coker. During the season Coker has proven even less useful than McElroy and McCarron. Consequently, the offense has leaned even more heavily on Heisman tailback Derrick Henry.

This year, prior to the Michigan State game, the Tide ran it 481 times, and threw it 389 times. Towards the end of the season the balance really shifted towards the running game. The last 4 real games Coker threw it for 184, 144, 179,  and 204 yards while the team ran it for 250, 235, 286 and 233.

Going into last week’s Semifinal the narrative was (and stop me if you’ve heard this) Can Michigan State stop the run and force Jacob Coker to beat them?

Once again, Alabama and Coker come out throwing the football. Coker threw it the first five plays. He threw again on first down the next drive, and after Alabama ran the ball twice, Coker then threw or dropped back on the next two plays. On the Tide’s first touchdown drive Coker threw it 4 of the first 5 plays.  On and on this went, until the game was well in hand. Coker ended up throwing it 30 times, completing 25 for 286 yards.  Alabama ran the ball 35 times for just 154 yards but won the game 38-0.

Over and over, in the biggest games, Alabama under Nick Saban has broken trend and become a pass first offense. Saban and his Offensive Coordinators slowly build the confidence and work load for their QBs throughout the season and then eventually put it on their shoulders to win in the biggest games.

I’m not trying to overstate this strategy, it’s not revolutionary. It’s basically second level thinking. You think I’m going to do X so I do Y. Nevertheless it’s been an effective strategy that no defense has really adjusted to. Perhaps it’s hard to adjust to as it would be pretty easy for ‘Bama to switch course if they started to see good looks to run into, but it is curious that no team has come out anticipating this adjustment from the Crimson Tide.

Clemson would be well advised to pay attention to history as they game plan for the Championship Game.

 

Definitely Not a ‘Best of’ List

Best of lists are everywhere this time of year, for obvious reasons.

One, it’s a logical time to talk about what happened during the calendar year. Two, and more importantly, it makes for an easy column.

Hell, now we have whole websites that do nothing but listicles. I, of course, would never be so unoriginal.

So without further ado I bring you my Favorite Things of 2015!

(Way different than a best of list).

My favorite sports moments of 2015:

RJ Hunter three pointer to beat Baylor.  This shot was March Madness at it’s best. Underdog Georgia State pulls off a miracle, beating Baylor in the opening round of the tourney after being down 12 with 3 minutes to play. Georgia State goes on a 13-0 run, capped off by a deeeep three from RJ Hunter while his dad, the head coach, is on the sideline. His dad had injured himself in the conference tourney celebrating, so he was sitting on a stool during the game due to a torn achilles. As the shot went in his dad literally fell off the stool. A perfect sports moment.

I’m not much of a baseball fan but the Bautista bat flip was awesome. A player coming up clutch in the biggest moment of the season and defiantly flipping his bat. It actually made me care about baseball for a few minutes. Plus it pissed off baseball curmudgeons who hate any expressions of joy on a baseball field.

The Arkansas 4th and 25 miracle. This one holds a special place in my heart as it led to Alabama getting a berth in the SEC Championship Game and subsequently the College Football Playoff. Though this play stands on it’s own, it is a play I have never seen in 30-something years of watching football. It’s indescribable. Even watching it for the 100th time I can’t really believe it happened. Just watch.

My favorite albums of 2015:

I don’t consume a ton of music during the year, maybe two albums a month or so. I prefer to find things I really like and wear them out as opposed to mowing through a ton of albums. My favorite album, the one I was the most obsessed with for the longest time was definitely Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Many of these songs could have existed just as great short stories. Incredible, hilarious, insightful and odd lyrics all pulled off with a deadpan delivery that will scratch itself into your soul. Great classic rock-y hooks and punk energy. I love every track on the album though the first one is probably my favorite.

My other favorite album of 2015 is Vince Staples, Summertime 06. The title makes it sound like a fun record of summer beach jams. Not so much. Vince is pretty dark. I like how he’s just as interested in setting a mood as he is showing you how great of a rapper he is. It’s several tracks in before Staples really lets loose on some lyrics. I still probably slightly prefer his 2014 release Hell Can Wait but this album continued to grow on me the past few months. Here’s my favorite track.

Favorite TV shows of 2015:

There’s an insane amount of good tv these days so I’m bound to forget ten or so shows I loved, but these are the ones that came to the top of my head.

Fargo: This show is on virtually every best-of-2015 list, and for good reason. It was damn near perfect. The first season of this show was really good but this season just hit every mark. Incredible ensemble cast, pristine writing and servicing of the whole cast, great plotting and pacing. The whole thing could be taught as a masterclass on television.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: I will watch pretty much anything that Tina Fey is involved in. This show is both reminiscent of 30 Rock but also totally original. The reminiscent part is the joke density and absurdity. I always thought 30 Rock had the best joke writers in the world and they appear to now all be working on Kimmy Schmidt.  Ellie Kemper as Kimmy brought a different energy than 30 Rock, a relentlessly, foolishly positive attitude that was infectious. Also, I had the Pinot Noir song stuck in my head for a solid month.

Broad City: This show isn’t for everyone but it cracked me up. I love that the main characters actually like each other and their friendship is the main relationship of the show. I also love that they are sex positive and talk about things you generally think of as the domain of men on tv, e.g., bathroom, sex and drug humor. It’s kind of the anti-Sex and the City. It seems like these could actually be real people really living in New York.

Rick and Morty: I love pretty much everything Dan Harmon does. This show is no exception, hilarious sci-fi adventures led by a filthy irresponsible genius sociopath and his kinda dim grandson. The show can pretty much do whatever it wants in a given episode, which is great because it can borrow from every great sci fi idea ever. But much like Harmon did with Community, he grounds the absurd scenarios with an emotional center so that you actually care about the characters. My favorite episode was ‘Get Schwifty’, about an intergalactic American Idol type competition.

Favorite Book of 2015:

People read? I guess so. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was one my favorite book of the year. A flu like virus wipes out 90 percent of the world’s population, then the story jumps forward 20 years and follows a group of survivors who have formed a traveling Shakespeare troupe. The story yo yos between their story and the story of an actor who died on stage the night the epidemic broke out. The book is low on apocalypse terror but there’s a great mystery to keep you turning pages. It’s well plotted and it’s filled with little ruminations and insights about civilization, culture, nostalgia and performance.

Favorite Movie of 2015:

I didn’t see a ton of movies in 2015 but my favorite was Sicario. It’s really a theater experience though, not sure it would translate on the small screen. The intensity, the score, the subverting of expectations, the incredible performances by the three leads, the tense atmosphere, incredible cinematography and the way it was shot made it really tense and enjoyable.

Favorite Meals of 2015:

I could probably name a top 50 or so here but I’ll just mention two. One was at Lotus of Siam in Vegas.  I had lunch there in June and this is probably my favorite restaurant in the country. It’s gotten pretty popular these days but it still delivers the goods. Incredible Thai food, and pretty much everything here is great.  We had Papaya salad, Northern larb, Thai red chili dip, Issan style beef jerky, and Tom Yum. If you like Thai food and are ever in Vegas, Lotus is a must.  http://lotusofsiamlv.com/

The other was at Bayona in New Orleans. There’s no beating the food in New Orleans and Bayona is a standout in a city full of great dining options. I had the crispy smoked quail salad and the veal sweetbreads. If you’re a little iffy on sweetbreads this would be the ideal spot to give ’em a try. Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.  Every bite at this place is perfection, and it’s in a great location in the quarter.

Curses Aren’t Real

Curses aren’t real. Neither are jinxes, hexes, or voodoo.

There’s bad luck though, and it sure seems like great Memphis Tiger basketball players have suffered more than their fair share of it after leaving college.

I’m going to limit this mostly to players during my lifetime. The obvious place to start here is Keith Lee.  If you are somehow not familiar with Keith Lee, first off shame on you, secondly you should know he’s unquestionably one of the greatest college basketball players in history.

Lee was a four time All American at Memphis State. He averaged around 18 and 10, and was a stretch four before that was a thing that even existed. In high school, in West Memphis, Lee won 60 straight games and two state championships. He had great hands, great touch and a high basketball IQ. Unfortunately, Lee had bad knees and flamed out in the NBA. He played three unremarkable seasons after being drafted 11th and then was forced to retire.

As great as Lee was, he might not have been the most talented player on his college team. William Bedford was a 7-foot, extremely skilled player.  He had touch around the rim, was a terrific shot blocker, and ran the floor like a guard. Bedford averaged 17 and 8 his last year (1986) at Memphis State and was then drafted 6th by the Phoenix Suns in the subsequent lottery.

Things went south pretty quickly for Bedford in the NBA.  His performance on the court was poor: he averaged about 4 points and 2 rebounds.  Off court things were much worse as Bedford struggled mightily with a drug problem.  He was arrested several times and eventually, in 2003, after numerous drug arrests he was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

The next in the line of great Memphians is Anfernee Hardaway. This is obviously a different kind of story from the previous two. Hardaway was a Memphis legend by the time he was 16.  His high school games were events.  He was Lebron before Lebron, 6’7 with the passing vision of Magic and the athleticism of Jordan. He was a force.

Hardaway dominated in college and carried an otherwise not very talented team to an Elite 8. He averaged 22.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 6.4 apg, 2.4 spg his Junior year.  He was basically the number one pick in the NBA draft. (Chris Webber was selected 1st by Orlando and Penny 3rd by Golden State but the teams then traded the players to each other.)

Hardaway’s pro career started off incredibly. In his 2nd year he averaged 20.9 ppg, 7.2 apg, 4.4 rpg, and 1.7 spg. He was an All Star starter and 1st team all-NBA. The next year he was all-NBA first team again, and finished 3rd in the MVP voting.  The next year Shaquille O’Neal left for the Lakers and Penny’s numbers suffered, but only slightly.  He finished All-NBA 3rd Team.

Hardaway dragged his team to the playoffs only to fall to Jordan’s Bulls.  He averaged 31 points, 6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.4 steals in the playoffs.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw after the first 4 years of Anfernee Hardaway’s professional career is that he had a chance to be one of the greatest players in NBA history.  Other than outside shooting, there were no holes in his game.

In 1997-1998, Hardaway was entering what is considered a player’s basketball prime – 24-29 years of age. Early that year he suffered a massive knee injury and basically never recovered to his previous form. He ended up having four more surgeries, two microfracture, and lost a good deal of his athleticism.

Penny still managed to put up decent numbers and have a 16-year NBA career.  He made an insane amount of money as well, buoyed by one of the richest contracts in NBA history. He also had an iconic Nike shoe campaign. Still, it’s hard not to look back and wonder what could have been had injuries not derailed his playing career. At minimum, it seems he would have had a Hall of Fame career. At most, you’re looking at a possible basketball immortal, remembered forever.

Here’s another kind of story: Lorenzen Wright. Most of you are probably familiar with this one.  Great college career, 7th pick in the NBA draft.  A very solid if unspectacular 13 year NBA career, including a productive stint with his hometown Grizzlies. Then, the ultimate tragedy. A year after his retirement, he went missing. Ten days later, his body was found dead in a wooded area off Hacks Cross Road. The homicide remains unsolved, though Wright had financial troubles, marital troubles, and had ties to known criminals.

The first big time player of the John Calipari era was Dajuan Wagner.  Wagner was another high school legend, a cult hero in his hometown of Camden, NJ.  He reportedly scored 100 in a high school game, and averaged 42 points a game his Senior year.

Wagner’s lone year at Memphis was a little disappointing as the team never gelled, but they did win the NIT. I’m sure everyone remembers the parade Calipari threw for winning that championship.  Wagner averaged 21 points that season and was subsequently taken with the 6th pick in the 2002 NBA draft, by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Wagner had a mediocre rookie season, scoring 16 a game but shooting a pathetic 37 percent from the field. Things only got worse. The next year he was hospitalized for ulcerative colitis.  After not responding to medication he eventually had to have his colon removed.  Wagner attempted a few comebacks after that but they never materialized. His professional career can only be described as a total disappointment.

That brings us to Derrick Rose.  Having only logged one year at Memphis, he cannot be remembered alongside some of the other Tiger greats but in terms of sheer talent he’s probably just below Penny.  Rose was a free throw away from winning an NCAA Championship and was subsequently the number one pick in the 2008 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls, his hometown team.

Rose was terrific right away, an All-Star in his second season, an MVP in his third, the youngest player to ever win that award.  Much like Penny, the sky was the limit for Rose. He had won the MVP before entering the prime of his career.

In the playoffs of Rose’s 4th season, he tore his ACL. He missed the entire next season in a prolonged rehabilitation. The following season he came back but tore his meniscus in November and missed the rest of that year also. It’s been one setback after another since the first injury and Rose hasn’t come close to the form he showed in his MVP season.

Rose injured his orbital bone before the start of this season and currently ranks as the WORST veteran starter in the NBA. He’s shooting 36 percent from the field.  He simply doesn’t resemble the player he was.

Injuries, drugs, murder, illness. The fate of some of the greatest talents in Memphis history is pretty depressing.

I have, of course, glossed over some players who have had less turbulent success. Tyreke Evans is having a nice NBA career. Will Barton is turning into a real NBA player. Back in the 70’s Larry Kenon had a long and successful career, although his teammate and fellow Memphis legend Larry Finch had only a disappointing three year ABA career.

I didn’t even get to Shawne Williams, another extremely talented product of the Calipari era who has had endless legal troubles since getting into the league, including a recent DUI arrest.

I don’t really draw any larger sweeping conclusion from this list but maybe others do. I think it’s basically just odd, rotten luck. Though it’s certainly a tempting tableau for those who want to see Memphis as a cursed, sad sack, never-can-quite-get-there city.

Luck can change though. Hopefully the next Memphis stars, maybe beginning with Dedric Lawson, have long, successful, productive NBA careers, not marred by injury or scandal.  One can hope.

 

Take it easy on Referees

For as long as I have been watching sports, people have been complaining about officiating.

They have also been complaining about coaches, players and analysts. Complaining goes hand in hand with being a sports fan. But of all of those who have had scorn heaped upon them, the vitriol for officials and referees stands apart and above.

It seems for as long as there have been sports people have thought referees have been doing a bad job. From this, I can only draw the conclusion that it’s really hard to officiate sports at the highest levels.

Why are we so hard on officials? Everyone makes mistakes all the time in sports, but when it’s the refs who blow something it’s an outrage and something has to be done and we have to re write the rule books, etc.

Coaches who are paid exponentially more than officials screw up every single week. Whether it’s a game plan mistake or the more obvious and seemingly ever present game management blunders, every week these millionaires do something that defies belief.

Just this past week the Cowboys got the ball with a minute and change on Washington’s 10 yard line, in a tie game. The obvious game theory appropriate move was to kill the clock and kick a 99 percent field goal, leaving Washington 10 seconds and virtually zero win percentage. But instead Dallas scored with a minute left and Washington had time to come back and tie the game.

I’m not saying people didn’t criticize Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett for this – but it didn’t come close to reaching the level of derision heaped upon, say, the officials who screwed up the off sides call in the Clemson vs North Carolina game.

Players screw up all the time as well. Failure is a pretty big part of any sport and even the best of the best fail regularly. Some players are great, some are good, some are average, and some are terrible (relative to their competition). Why should it be any different for referees? Why do we expect them to be perfect automatons?

We employ selection bias as well.

You will often see a referee make an incredible call in real time where say a player just got a second toe dragged down before going out of bounds. A play that you had no idea which way it was going in real time, and they nailed it.  That play goes down the memory hole.

But when a ref blows a call that we all see so clearly in super slo mo replay, we lose our minds. That ref is either dirty or incompetent!

Maybe he is, either one is a possibility, but it’s also possible that when super fast strong and large athletes are moving at high speeds it’s easy to miss a call.

There is also the obvious bias of fandom.  Every call against your team is terrible, every call for your team is great.  Two fans can watch the same game and both come away convinced their team was screwed by the refs.

I think i know why it is that officials are so closely scrutinized by fans. Basically the job of a referee is to watch. Hey, that’s what we do!

Most of us can’t really fathom playing a sport professionally, or coaching, but just watching them play? How hard is that?

I think this is the root of most of the contempt for referees. We feel like we could do their job and do it better. We are spurred on in this belief by most play by play and color analysts who also apparently think they can do a better job than most refs because they treat most of the game as a forum for them to discuss whether they think every single call was right or wrong.

In recent years TV networks have employed expert referee consultants, who even with the benefit of multiple replays, manage to only be right about half the time or so.
Again, all this information suggests the job of officiating high level sports is incredibly difficult.  That is not to suggest we shouldn’t be looking at ways of improving officiating, whether it be through recruiting and training methods, salary, accountability, rule tweaks, transparency, etc, but maybe the next time a terrible pass interference is called we should just all shrug our shoulders and say, “Welp, that’s ok boss, you’ll get em next time.”

 

Everybody Cheats

Cheating is a central facet of sports.  Your team cheats, your rival cheats, the team you think is the greatest of all time cheated.

Cheating and sports go together like banana and chocolate.

The pertinent question though is, do you care? Is your enjoyment of sports tied to an ideal of fair competition and honest sportsmanship? If it is and you still love sports, you’re burying your head in the sand.

Let’s look at some historic teams…

The John Wooden UCLA Bruins. One of the, if not the most dominant dynasties of all time. A shadowy figure named Sam Gilbert was the bag man for the Bruins. Whether or not you believe that John Wooden had no knowledge of what Gilbert was up to or didn’t want to know is irrelevant. There is no real disagreement about what he did.  Do you care? Does this ruin the Wooden legacy for you? Or are these just college rules that are stupid to begin with and players should get paid anyways?

Jim Boeheim got nailed last year, Jim Calhoun had his issues, John Calipari, well I doubt I need to elaborate on his doings.

How about College football? Surely Notre Dame, that hallowed institution, does things differently? Ehhh, not so much. We can do one of these for every team. My favorite team is Alabama, who have had a long history of excellence and cheating.

But that’s college athletics, everyone knows that’s a wild west atmosphere of corruption and silly rules and unpaid labor and handlers exploiting kids and coaches desperate to win and keep million dollar jobs. Surely in the professional ranks, where there is no pretense of amateurism, these issues don’t exist. Uhh, guess again. The best team of the last 15 years has an incredible record of various types of cheating.

In Baseball, cheating is an ingrained part of the sport as much as “Unwritten Rules” are. Pine tar, corked bats, vaseline, scuffed balls, amphetamines, PEDs, etc. Baseball even has the ignominious distinction of a team throwing a World Series. The Cardinal Way now includes hacking another team’s database.

Does it matter?

Barry Bonds was the best before he cheated, was the best after he cheated. Same for Clemens. If the guy across from you cheats, are you going to take the high road when millions of dollars are at stake?

The sport of cycling is basically built on cheating. It turns out it’s impossible to ride a bike really fast for 100‘s of miles up and down hills without using PED’s.

Track and Field is riddled with doping scandals, as are many other Olympic sports.

I haven’t even mentioned soccer, mostly because I don’t know that much about it but I do know that FIFA is considered to be the most corrupt sporting organization in the world.

Marathoners have snuck into the race at the end and acted like they were racing the whole time.

People even pretended to be handicapped to win in the Special Olympics.

The sport of Boxing is basically synonymous with shady dealings and fixed fights.

In Tennis, they start early.

Cheating is as old as sports are, I’m sure they were cheating at the first Olympics in Greece.

This list doesn’t even include corruption inside a sport independent of teams or players. How many times has an official been slipped some money to shade calls one way or another? How many Donaghys are out there?

Why should sports be any different? They cheat on Wall Street, they cheat at Enron, they cheat in Government, they cheat in Banking.

Anywhere there is money to be made there will be people and institutions willing to cheat to get it.  Sports are in a way just a reflection of societal values, they don’t stand apart from them.

Cheaters win, and win big.

 

 

The NFL is Boring

NFL football is boring.

The NFL is stale, it’s safe, it’s monochromatic, everyone is .500 and everyone is hurt. Take away the fact that you either root for a specific team, your fantasy team, your daily fantasy teams, your point spread bets, your survivor pools, your picks pools, and try and assess the game in an objective detached way. The product is kinda meh. How many truly exciting games have there been this season? Can you name five?

Week 12 may have contained two such contests (New England v. Denver, Pittsburgh v. Seattle), but it’s hard to recall others and it doesn’t change the reality that the NFL’s product has grown tedious.

Football is the game we know the least about. Each team has dozens, if not hundreds, of plays, different formations, different options off those formations and plays depending on the different situations, on each side of the ball.

On TV we get to see about 30 percent of the action on the field. We’re screaming at the quarterback to throw the ball when the pocket is collapsing but we have no idea if anyone is open. Unless you are someone who really studies the all 22’s each week or has a background in football it’s hard to have an opinion more sophisticated than, “We need to run the ball more,” or “We need to air it out!”  That’s why everyone harps on game management mistakes, because it’s one of the things we can actually evaluate. As opposed to how the right guard is grading out on run blocking assignments.

All that to say, I’m sure NFL offenses are quite varied, but by the time the product gets to the field on Sundays it all basically looks the same. You either have a great quarterback and can move the ball or you have an average one and are mediocre or you have a terrible one and you suck. That’s obviously a simplification but it’s not that far off.

Contrast that to college football. Obviously the players are not as good, they aren’t even close to as good. But the product is so much better. First off, there’s tremendous variety. There’s the spread attacks in all their myriad forms.  There’s option teams, there’s pro style, there’s run first teams. There are teams that try and beat you with pure deception, there are teams that try and beat you with pure speed. There’s so much innovation in college football that by the time you see something go mainstream (read-option, pistol) there are five new philosophies percolating in the mid major levels.  It’s like hip hop dances, by the time you’ve heard of them they are already lame.

There is also just so much insanity on the field, such a variance in results. Double digit underdogs regularly win games they have no business winning because it’s hard to predict what 18-22 year olds are gonna do on a given day.  And the crowds are ferocious, the atmosphere on game day in many college towns is unparalleled by anything in the NFL. That doesn’t mean every college game is going to be great. Often it’s an incoherent mess, but that’s part of the fun. You don’t know what you’re gonna get. College football is psychedelic rock, you might get transported to another dimension or you might watch some guy noodle around aimlessly and sing tone deaf lyrics for four hours. You just don’t know.

The NFL is smooth jazz, corporate, safe, boring.

In college, the coaches might actually have personalities and make the game more colorful.  A few of em might even have the balls to go for it on 4th and 2 on the opponents 45 yard line occasionally.  In the NFL you got Rex Ryan and 31 boring middle managers spouting empty cliches after every game.

Sure, the NFL will be good again in the playoffs, when the stakes are ratcheted up and all the mediocre and below teams (well, except for the three or four of those that get into the playoffs) have been dispatched and the good teams battle it out. But college football is nuts from day one, and stays that way till the end.

The NFL is America’s favorite sport by a wide margin, but I wonder how much of that relies on fantasy, betting pools, gambling on games, etc.  Impossible to know, but i know what I see on Sunday is often about as interesting as the Electric Slide.

 

Nobody is the Greatest Ever. #unpopularopinions

It’s the classic bar conversation, the most pure of sports arguments. Who is the greatest ever, the GOAT?

In basketball it’s some combination of Jordan, Lebron, Magic, Bird, Russell, Kareem, Chamberlain, Robertson, Kobe.

In football it’s Montana, Elway, Manning, Brady, Rice, Sanders, Taylor, White.

In baseball it’s….ah who cares, it’s baseball.

I’m sure there’s a hockey version too but my hockey knowledge is limited to players featured in NHL 94 Sega Genesis.

Regardless, finally we can put this issue to bed as I have the definitive answer.

No one.

There’s no such thing as the greatest ever, it doesn’t exist. There are great players, there might be greatest player of his era, but there is no such thing as the greatest of all time.

There are a litany of reasons this is the case.

First off, in the case of the major sports, they are all team sports, and although we’ve come a long way with advanced metrics there’s really no way to measure the way an individual and his team mesh as opposed to how he theoretically would have meshed with another group of teammates, and coaches.

Different eras had different levels of competition. Sometimes this was just attributable to luck, like being in the Western conference rather than the Eastern. Sometimes it was due to the advent of free agency or expansion diluting the competition. Sometimes it was just due to when transcendent players happened to be born.

Another factor is rule changes. You obviously can’t compare the stats of today’s NFL Quarterbacks to those of the past as rule changes have made racking up gaudy stats infinitely easier. There have also been massive advancements in sports medicine, training regimens, diet, exercise, etc.  There’s also tremendous luck and variance in results, but that’s a topic for another time.

Even in the sports most amenable to these debates, namely Tennis and Boxing, the true head to head, one on one sports, it’s difficult to assess. Federer vs Sampras in their primes? Djokovic vs Borg? One guy was using a wood racket, who the hell knows how they would have fared if they were in the same era.  Watch Chris Evert lollipop the ball around and think oh god Serena would murder her, but it’s impossible to really know what would have happened if one were transported to the era of the other.

In Boxing there’s many of the same issues, plus there are weight classes, that’s why they have to invent the “pound for pound” title, as if there’s any way to really assess that.  Honestly, if these guys couldn’t come to a consensus how are we supposed to?

The root of this age old debate, the enduring nature of it, is generally just, the guy who i loved in my particular era was the best and better than this new guy that you people love, or this old guy you geezers keep talking about. 

How on earth is someone supposed to have an intelligent conversation about whether Bill Russell was better than Lebron, when 80 percent of us have literally never seen one game Bill Russell played?

Comparing players in the same era is a fraught enough task. Unless they played the same position and were the same type of player, (think maybe Kobe vs Dwayne Wade) then you’re just making stuff up.

But to compare players to guys you never actually saw play? Why?

How bout the next time this debate sparks up you just say something really boring like, Gee i dunno, both players were pretty great, one had  more skill in this area the other a tad more in this area, blah blah blah.  This probably wont get you a PTI spinoff show but it will make a lot more sense.

I saved the best for last. The ultimate fake trump card in these debates. RINGZZZ.  Jordan’s got six, end of discussion.  Brady has 4, end of discussion.

Except it’s not because Russell’s got 11, and Bradshaw has 4 too, and Eli has 2 and Peyton has 1. But you’ll tell me no see that’s different because…..and whatever you say next it doesn’t matter because you’re just making my point for me.

There is no definitive metric, there is no trump card, there are just opinions soaked in personal bias and nostalgia. There’s no such thing as the Greatest of All Time.

Sports are Dumb

As we enter the 2015-16 season, remember this: being a fan is silly and sports are dumb.

Now, if you’ve found your way to this site you’re probably a sports fan, and you’re likely a Memphis Tigers fan, so you may find these statements offensive. That’s not my intent. I’m a sports fan, I’m a Memphis Tigers fan. But lets level with each other. Sports are absurd, the rules are arbitrary, and the stakes are made up.

You might counter with an argument about fostering teamwork and learning leadership and becoming part of something greater than yourself, blah blah blah. Sports are distraction, they are entertainment, they are here to make you forget about the daily realities. Being a fan is even crazier, you invest time, emotion and money into people you dont know playing a made up game against other people you dont know. The only real excuse for being a fan of a team is that you were brainwashed into being one at a young age. I hate Tennessee because i was born to people who hated Tennessee.(good, clear thinking people).

Fandom offers you membership into a tribe, a society of people united in a common cause.  But if you’ve been a fan long enough, a real fan, one who invests in a team with no guarantee of reaping dividends, then you’ve no doubt been in a situation where you’ve been devastated by a loss your team incurred. Real emotional devastation.

In a car after the 2008 championship game someone remarked to the rest of us that it felt like a family member had just died, and we all solemnly nodded our heads in assent. What?? What lunacy is this, it’s just a damn game, played by people who dont care about you. Mickey Mantle don’t care about you, Derrick Rose dont care about you.  So why do we do it? For the high of winning? Perhaps. It’s a great feeling when you invest and are rewarded for your investment, you stand tall and puff your chest out, you’re part of the thing, you revel in the glory.  Maybe it’s cause we love to gamble, the ball is tipped and for the next two hours you don’t know if you’re gonna end up happy or sad, there’s a thrill in that limbo not often found in the drudgery of every day life.

A lot of people have checked out emotionally on the Tigers for this year, and who can blame em? Morale is low, players are jumping ship, recruiting is in the tank, the coach has lost the city, the team is overshadowed by the successful pro franchise, the college game is largely unsightly until the three weeks of March Madness.

But if you’re still out there, living and dying with every win and loss this season, remember this: sports are dumb, being a fan is silly. But thats ok, not everything you do has to make sense, and maybe sports operates outside of the logical universe, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be rewarded with a magical season. (but you probably wont:))