Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nelson's Redemption

When I first heard of the imminent return of Chris Webber to the Warriors, I was stunned. In 19 years of covering sports in the Bay Area, the absolute devastation of the Warriors following the trading of Webber to the Washington Wizards in 1994 symbolizes a franchise collapse that, so far, not even Al Davis has been able to duplicate with the Raiders.

Webber, as any longtime Warriors fan can recall, was a breath of fresh when he helped lead the Warriors to 50 wins, while capturing NBA Rookie-of-the-Year honors in the '93-94 season. He was electrifying on the court, he had a winning smile and personality off the court, and it seemed that he'd be the team's franchise player for many years to come.

Unfortunately, what most Warriors fans have conveniently forgotten is the fact that it was Don Nelson, far more than Webber, who was essentially responsible for the deteriorating relationship, and eventual divorce between the two. Webber, of course, has been blamed for what happened, for having the temerity to show up Nelson, who had effectively conned the local beatwriters and columnists (with the notable exception of the Merc's Rick Bucher), into believing that he could do no wrong.

In reality, though, it was Nelson who refused to meet Webber halfway, to work through their differences, for the better of the team. It was Nelson who ignored the candid advice of some of his most trusted associates, including Al Attles and Ed Gregory, that he needed to sit down with Webber and talk things out, that Webber was an intelligent and articulate young man who could be reasoned with, and that it was critical to do so for the future of the franchise. And it was Nelson who turned his back on all of them, because his ego was simply to big to see the larger picture.

All Webber really wanted was to be treated with respect, particularly in public, where Nelson was legendary for his screaming tirades against rookies and other young and impressionable players, i.e., Sarunas Marciulionis, Tyrone Hill, Chris Gatling, etc. Webber was the first player of his generation to openly stand up to Nelson, to say, in essence, that it wasn't necessary to act like Bobby Knight, in order to drive home a point. But Nelson wouldn't listen.

The news now that Nelson and Webber are reuniting after 14 years is heartwarming. How much Webber can help the Warriors remains to be seen. His knees bear no resemblence to the ones he had when he was the Rookie-of-the-Year, nor when he was at the peak of his game with the Sacramento Kings during a spectacular six-season run that ended in 2004. So he can't be expected to run with the Warriors' up-tempo offense. But he's a very smart player, an excellent outside shooter, and one of the best passing big men of his generation. Moreover, if he can help make life inside the key difficult for the Western Conference's leading big men, i.e., Tim Duncan, Carlos Boozer, Marcus Camby, Dirk Nowitski, etc., Nelson will be ecstatic.

Ironically, if Chris Cohan hadn't pulled his successful power play at the time, to take over the franchise from Dan Finnane and Jim Fitzgerald, it's highly likely that Nelson's plan to get rid of Webber would have failed, because Nelson would have been told point-blank to work out his personal differences with Webber for the benefit of the team. Instead, Cohan caved in to Nelson's whims, and the Warriors fell into the depths of disaster for the next 12 seasons.

But give Nelson credit now. He has spoken openly in recent days of how he has mellowed over the years (as all of us can see), and how he wishes he had handled the relationship with Webber differently. Perhaps part of his motivation in reaching out to Webber is to get rid of his own guilt, for recklessly tearing apart what might have been. If so, it's never too late for redemption. Whatever the motivation is, as Nelson said, they're both old men now--Nelson's an old coach, at 67, and Webber's an old player, at 34. And what they have in common is the desire for that elusive NBA championship. Here's hoping this turns into a highly successful move for both of them.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Most Dysfunctional Operation in Pro Sports

   Assuming ESPN and others are correct over the last 24 hours in reporting that Al Davis sent Lane Kiffin a letter of resignation to sign, one has to assume that Kiffin is more popular right now with the Rational Raider Nation than ever before.  That's because the rational Raiders fan knows that Big Al is the cancer that continues to eat away at this once-great franchise.  Since losing big to Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Bucs in Super Bowl 37, the Raiders have lost 61 games in five years.   Every year Big Al fires his head coach, hires a new head coach, and promises the press and the fans that the new head coach will "bring back the greatness of the Ray-duhz." Gag me.  The Raiders were a mess before Gruden arrived, they've been a mess since he left, and we all know the reason he left was because Big Al was an impossible meddler to work for.  Now Big Al wants Kiffin to resign, so that he doesn't have to pay the balance of his contract. Kiffin won't oblige.  That's why Kiffin is immensely popular right now with the rational wing of the Raider Nation.
   On the other hand, what about the Irrational Raider Nation?  Which one is bigger?  I've already encountered two Raiders fans in my neighborhood, since late yesterday, who think that these latest media reports are all part of a vast conspiracy to bring down the Raiders.   Of course, this is exactly what Big Al wants, and that is exactly what he has tried to cultivate over the years--an us against the world mentality, which manifests itself in blaming the officials for always trying to screw the Raiders with bad calls, because the NFL Hates Al Davis.  
   Those who subscribe to this warped and jaded philosophy believe they have to stick together, and that means always standing behind the Leader of the Cult--Big Al.  That's what the Raiders have become--a cult.  It's beyond unreal.  It's like nothing we've ever seen. This is, without a doubt, the most dysfunctional operation in the history of professional sports.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Giants Singled Out by Congress

   If you opened up your morning paper today, you know the Giants are in hot water with commissioner Bud Selig.  And it doesn't even matter whether you live in Northern California.     Newspapers all over the country have headline stories about the Giants--specifically, about Selig's pledge to a congressional committee that he is committed to punishing not just players for steroid use, but upper-level management figures as well, for looking the other way while their players were bulking up illegally.
   The Giants are being singled out here, of course, because of compelling evidence that Magowan&Company not only rolled out the red carpet for Barry Bonds' personal trainer Greg Anderson--giving him full run of the Giants clubhouse and beyond--but ignored repeated warnings from team trainer Stan Conte that Anderson was making steroids available to players.  As committee chairman Henry Waxman noted, the Giants apparently were more interested in protecting Bonds than they were in respecting the law, and the integrity of the game.
   My esteemed colleague Stan Bunger believes that any punishment handed down to the Giants by Selig would be benign in nature, because to do otherwise would be to open Pandora's box, because there were undoubtedly management officials from virtually every other major league team that had knowledge about the use of steroids within their own confines. However, I disagree.
   While it may be entirely true that management officials from most teams had such knowledge, very few such figures are specifically identified in the Mitchell Report, and that document is what Selig is using as his primary source of evidence.  Stan assumes that Sandy Alderson and Tony LaRussa knew of steroid use by Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.  That may be true, but there is no such documentation of that in the Mitchell Report.  To the best of my knowledge, after reading through most of that report, the only team with high-level management figures identified as having knowledge of the probable existence of steroids within their own clubhouse--and failing to do anything about it--was your San Francisco Giants.  And so Bud Selig, with the Mitchell Report in hand, will go after the Giants, and quite possibly no other team, with no qualms about doing otherwise.
   Selig pledged to Waxman that if he determines the Giants are guilty, they will face serious punishment.  Other team owners will not worry that they might be next, because they aren't cited in the Mitchell Report.  Keep in mind, too, that Selig is not nearly as interested in uncovering all the culpable figures in this steroid scandal as he is in saving his own reputation, as the anti-steroid commish.  So, whether he fines the Giants millions, or suspends key individuals, or docks them a draft choice--or some combination thereof--Selig will act accordingly.  There is no such Pandora's Box in the Mitchell Report.
   Furthermore, Selig is forever faithful to the legacy of Henry Aaron, and was very unhappy that the Giants signed Bonds for the record-breaking 2007 season.  Finally, Magowan's fellow owner are not happy with him for building his jewel of a ballpark with private money.  It all adds up to Magowan&Company being suitably punished, or being made a major scapegoat, depending on your point of view. And no other team owner will lose an ounce of sleep in the process.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Diarrhea of the Mouth

   Like just about every other NFL playoff fan, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the four divisional games over the weekend.  The two Sunday contests went down to the wire, while on Saturday Jacksonville played evenly with unbeaten New England well into the third quarter, and Green Bay entertained all of us with a one-sided win in the snow at Lambeau. 

   And yet, I missed John Madden.  Not as much as John missed being at one of those games, the snow in Green Bay most notably.  But I missed John, as the pre-eminent analyst in the game. Some critics think he's not as sharp as he was when he was younger, but I disagree.  His ability to understand and dissect a game is second to none.  Moreover, whereas John revolutionized the job of the NFL network analyst, leading to generations of imitators, beginning (as I recall) with Matt Millen, very few if any of them really understand what it is about John that makes him so special.  

   John Madden is funny.  He's irreverent.   He's entertaining.  Most other analysts just aren't. Hey, that's a lot to ask for.  But Madden is also marvelous at analyzing key plays.  Key plays. And that's where virtually all the Madden imitators over the years come up short.  Take Phil Simms.  Please.  The man does not know when to shut up.  There were approximately 120 plays from scrimmage in the New England-Jacksonville game, and Phil Simms analyzed approximately 120 plays.  One yard up the middle, and a cloud of dust.  Is such a play really necessary to analyze?  Of course not.  But that's the crux of the issue.  Somewhere along the line, beginning with Matt Millen I believe, the networks all paraded "the next John Madden" on the air, and erroneously believed that one of the necessary requirements was to analyze every damn play, as soon as the poor play-by-play announcer finished with his description.  CBS obviously considers Simms one of the best in the business, because they've got him paired with Jim Nantz as their number-one NFL broadcast team.  I understand why.  Simms is bright, he's articulate, he understands the game.  

   But what Phil Simms and CBS do not understand is that sometimes less is more.  Sometimes it's not necessary to take apart a play.  Sometimes it would be nice to hear nothing but the crowd.  After all, we can see what's going on.  And sometimes it would be nice to hear a little more from Nantz.  It's the same for nearly all the broadcast teams on CBS, and on Fox as well. Throw in NBC and the NFL Network.  They're all suffering from the same disease.  Shut the hell up, already!  And, in the process, be more spontaneous and less predictable.