Friday, May 30, 2008

Pistons Maybe On Verge Of Change For Change's Sake

There is no shame in not winning an NBA championship. A cynic -- and I've been that -- would tell you that the way pro sports works is this: There's a first place winner, and all the other teams in the league are tied for last. The only thing that changes is the length of everyone's off-season vacations. But the truth is, you can not be crowned the king and still consider yourself having had a successful season. Some of the time, anyway.

The Pistons are on the verge of being tied for last in the NBA. They're down, 3-2, heading into tonight's Game 6 of the Final Four. If they lose this series -- and they probably will -- they'll have all summer to beat themselves up for letting the Boston Celtics off the mat in Game 3 after working so hard to wrest home court advantage away in Game 2. Game 3 was a mind-numbing, MIA performance that should haunt this team all the way until they manage to win another title. It was a disgraceful, absolutely baffling display -- more befitting a cold January night in New Jersey than at home in the Final Four. Whatever.

Joe Dumars was asked by in an interview played on their website recently about coaches and job security.

Is it fair, Joe D was asked, to issue an edict to a coach that goes something like this: Win the whole enchilada or pack your bags?

Dumars didn't think so. He pointed out how only one team can win, and that no coach should be working under that kind of pressure. Fine. Agreed. But the more apt question would have been, Is it fair to place a coach under such an edict -- or something close to it -- when he's seemingly had the talent to pull it off yet has been toppled three straight years in the Final Four?

Read: is Flip Saunders on the hot seat? Should he be?

In 2005-06, the Pistons went 64-18, including a crazy 35-5, 1984 Tigers-like start. Yet they were extended to seven games by the inferior Cleveland Cavaliers in the Elite Eight and ran out of gas against the Miami Heat. Last season, another inferior Cavs bunch toppled them, despite the Pistons putting them in an 0-2 hole (which they did in '06, too) in the Final Four. This season, a shaky start against the 76ers had the Pistons scrambling right out of the gate. Then, a corrected series against the Orlando Magic and a gutsy Game 2 win in Boston preceded Game 3's nastiness, and the Pistons have been playing catch-up with the Celts ever since.

So: after reading the above paragraph, what do YOU think about Flip's impending return to the Pistons' sidelines?

This isn't just about Flip, though -- despite his head-scratching rotation that doesn't seem to have any pattern or rhythm. It must be terribly frustrating to play for Saunders if you're not on the floor when the game begins, for you may play five minutes, 25 minutes, or none. Jarvis Hayes and even Jason Maxiell, at times, have been ignored with mystifying regularity.

No, it's not all Flip. It's the players, stupid. Time to let go of nostalgia and take a long look at the roster -- the starting five portion. The Pistons rightly let Ben Wallace walk two summers ago, and now it's time to move others -- and yes, I mean for the sake of change. Sometimes that's the last bullet left in the chamber.

Saunders cannot be judged an innocent, but neither can the players -- some of whom should be gone if the Pistons bow to the Celtics, as expected (starters included)

Keeping a quintet together is great if you're the San Antonio Spurs of today (yes, I know they lost to the Lakers but they're still the closest thing to a dynasty the NBA has had since the Chicago Jordannaires), or the Celtics or Lakers of the 1960s or 1980s -- because those teams consistently won championships. The Pistons are almost certainly on the verge of dropping to 2-4 in the Final Four, and where's the fun in that? Where's the warm-and-fuzzy appeal there?


Dumars has built his reputation as one of the NBA's best GMs because of his almost spooky and uncanny ability to properly blend aggressiveness with restlessness and intuition. He's done it with his coaching firings and hirings, and with trades. He has, more than once, upset the apple cart and fixed what none of us saw as being broken in the first place. Then, six months later, we see that there needed to be repair, after all. And that's why Dumars is one of the best in the business.

It's time now for that to show through again.

No one -- no one -- should be an untouchable this summer. Everyone should be in play. A wire should be sent throughout the NBA from Auburn Hills that reads something like, "If there's any interest in anyone on our roster -- anyone -- give us a shout. Let's talk."

What is there to lose, at this point? To have this burdensome streak of six consecutive Final Four appearances end? Is that what we're striving for now? To play through Memorial Day and then break for the summer?

I'm telling you, I'd be a whole lot happier with Dumars if the Pistons made a blockbuster trade and be eliminated earlier in the playoffs next season, if there was greater payoff down the line. Better that than to stand pat and lose in another Final Four. But that's just me.

Only one team can win it all. But that doesn't mean that the others should ever stop trying -- even if it means breaking up the gang in order to do it.

The best starting five in the NBA? And where exactly has that gotten the Pistons lately?

Tied for last, that's where.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Penguins Get Unsurprising Game 3 Win, But It Won't Change End Result

So the Pittsburgh Penguins proved, for one game at least -- one desperate, gotta win, no tomorrow, backs against the wall kind of game -- that they can kinda sorta play with the Red Wings, and get a couple of bounces along the way.

It wasn't a terrible effort by the Red Wings last night, as they fell 3-2 to the Pens in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals. But it wasn't one of their best, and against a fired up, playing-at-home Penguins team determined not to go down 0-3, it just wasn't quite good enough.

But the Red Wings' ceiling is far higher than the Penguins' right about now -- meaning that Detroit can play a whole lot better, and I'm not sure that Pittsburgh can raise their bar all that much. Which all adds up, to me, to a 3-1 series lead coming back to Detroit for a clinching Game 5 on Monday.

Ahh, the bounces. Detroit's Brad Stuart zipped a pass straight to Henrik Zetterberg ... but to Hank's skates, not his stick. And as Mickey Redmond would say, "Bingo-bango -- the puck ends up in the back of your net." The turnover was neatly and swiftly converted into a 1-0 Pens lead. Sidney Crosby scored it, added a power play goal, and the Red Wings played catch up. And they almost caught all the way up. More bounces: Pitt's third goal was purposely banged off Chris Osgood's legs and into the net.

The Red Wings waited too long to pull Osgood, however, and by the time they did, less than 30 seconds remained to mount an attack on the Pittsburgh net. There were chances to get the sixth attacker onto the ice with over a minute remaining, but perhaps coach Mike Babcock got a little, ahem, cocky, and put too much faith in his team's ability to score the tying goal while playing 5-on-5. Regardless, the Wings blew it.

But they have hardly blown the series. I doubt too many folks in Hockeytown are surprised by last night's result. Game 3 is a tough one for the 2-0 team to win, on the other team's ice -- although the Red Wings were 2-1 in that department going into last night.

Yes, the Penguins have a smidgen of confidence now -- at least they've seen the brick wall Osgood surrender some pucks past him -- but the Red Wings can still smell this latest Stanley Cup. Half the roster has won it before. You think they're going to let the Penguins off the hook here? Besides, even a Game 4 loss, while unseemly, wouldn't be disastrous. The Penguins don't look ready to beat the Red Wings in Detroit any time soon.

So the Penguins got off the schneide. They scored a few goals. The puck bounced their way. They were more aggressive. Looked comfy at home. Upped their confidence a bit. Now they're 9-0 at home in the playoffs. Good for them.

Detroit in five, that's all. Or six. But Detroit, nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Babcock's Hunch Might Win A Bunch, After All

The other day, I was thinking about some of the most exhilarating and most disappointing playoff series in Detroit sports history. I did the Pistons and the Red Wings in my scattered brain. Obviously, the '87 conference finals -- Pistons/Celtics -- is right up there in the disappointing category, for it was the series of Isiah's "pass" to Larry Bird.

Anyhow, I rattled some of these around and I came to one conclusion: ALL playoff series are disappointing when you lose. There just isn't a worse feeling. Yet winning a series mostly seems to bring out feelings of relief, at least in me, instead of any pure exhilaration. Funny how that works.

But one Red Wings series sticks out in my mind, and it's the 0-4 effort in the 1995 Cup Finals against New Jersey. Oh, how that series gives me the creeps when I think of it! A powerhouse Red Wings team going up against a defensive-minded Devils club with the brilliant young netminder Martin Brodeur. Detroit was the clear favorite, though some more level-headed folks went with the Devils and their trapping play as their predicted winners.

The Red Wings lost both Games 1 and 2 at home, and both by one goal. I can still see Paul Coffey lying on the ice, trying to draw a penalty, while play continued and the Devils scored late in the third period of Game 2.

The series just got worse and weirder when it went to New Jersey. Seemed like the Devils would score on every one of their few scoring chances, while Brodeur kept stoning the Red Wings and their vaunted offense. The Wings led briefly in Game 4 but couldn't hold it. They got swept.

Chills. Creeps.

Not that the Pittsburgh Penguins were favorites going into this series, but I imagine Pens fans must be getting that creepy feeling, watching their team go 0-for-2 in Detroit -- and by that I mean no goals, let alone victories. How maddening must it be to watch your team play for the Stanley Cup and not even be allowed the common courtesy of occasional puck possession?

Back in the glory days of the 1950s in Montreal, it was once said of the Canadiens' success: "They play a funny brand of hockey in Montreal. They never let you have the puck."

Same kind of hockey that they're playing in Detroit nowadays.

I don't want to gloat (yet I will), but I predicted a Red Wings Cup wayyyy back as the playoffs began. Just had a hunch -- though I thought the Wings would have to go through San Jose to do it. But I must confess that my visions of Lord Stanley didn't include Chris Osgood in net. And, I'm ashamed to admit, had I thought it would be Ozzie in goal for almost the entire playoff run, I might have been a little skittish. Yes, shame on me.

Why is that, I wonder? Osgood has won a Cup. He played magnificently for almost the entire season. He made the All-Star team. Yet I was content to place my eggs in Dominik Hasek's basket and take my chances.

Now, a word or two about Hasek. First, just because he was replaced after Game 4 of the Nashville series doesn't mean that he wouldn't have gotten it together and led the team to the same place it sits right now -- two wins from the championship. Second -- and this word is actually more about coach Mike Babcock -- Hasek was replaced on a hunch, more than anything else. Kind of like my hunch that the Red Wings would win the whole thing.

As we look back on this 2008 playoff run, we might want to put Babcock's decision to replace Hasek with Osgood on the same mantel as Tigers manager Mayo Smith's dare to put Mickey Stanley at shortstop in the 1968 World Series. It's a move that Colorado's now ex-coach, Joel Quenneville, didn't have the man-berries to make after Jose Theodore stunk up the joint in Detroit in the first two games of the second round.

This Stanley Cup Final isn't over with. Not by a long shot. Every playoff hockey series is always just one strange bounce/fluke goal, hard hit, or costly penalty away from being turned around. But it's hard to imagine that these Red Wings are NOT the NHL's team of destiny this season, Osgood capturing another Cup ten years after his first. By the way, what IS the longest gap between Cups for a goalie for the same team?

Oh, and since that Devils Debacle of '95, the Red Wings are 14-1 in Finals games against their Eastern opponents.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend Hockey Once Yzerman’s Time

They sat all in a row, in one of the cramped cubbies adjacent to Joe Louis Arena’s ancient and too-small press box. Five suits – the stuffed shirts of Red Wings hockey. Hall of Famers and icons.

Scotty Bowman, nine-time Stanley Cup winner and one of the all-time greatest coaches in any game, from hockey to tiddly-winks. Jimmy Devellano, as Red Wing as you can get without ever having slipped a hockey sweater on. Kenny Holland, one of the deans of league GMs. Mark Howe, three-time Cup finalist and a fine defenseman who toiled in pro hockey for 22 years, yet is still only the second-best player in his own family.

And SteveYzerman, the youngest and newest of the stuffed shirts.

Bowman is still employed by the Red Wings, in that purposely ambiguous role of consultant. Devellano is an executive vice president. Holland is in his 11th year as GM. And Howe was back in town – a rarity, as he is usually elsewhere, scoping out other teams in his duties as an advanced scout.

I looked over at the stuffed shirts often during breaks in play of Saturday’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and four of them looked relaxed and seemed to be enjoying the action as easily as if they were watching the game from their sofas. Only one of them tended to lean forward, hand on chin, at times looking like he wanted to jump from his seat. Not until late in the third period, the game well in hand for Detroit, did the fifth and youngest stuffed shirt tend to relax.

Playing hockey on Memorial Day weekend is a privilege – earned and not assumed, as if a right. And it was the youngest of the Red Wings’ management core who knows that better than anyone.

Steve Yzerman was that fidgety stuffed shirt last night. And I can only imagine what must be going through his mind right about now. Down below, the next captain, Nicklas Lidstrom, played his usual robotically brilliant game on the blueline – a predictably major reason why the Red Wings smothered and shutout the star-struck Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-0, to move in front at the end of the first turn in these 2008 Finals. But I doubt that seeing how Lidstrom had things under control somehow lessened the angst Yzerman experienced last night.

This used to be Yzerman’s time – when hockey was a diversion from the holiday grilling and was sharing the headlines with the Indianapolis 500. Not always did Stevie Y’s teams make it to Memorial Day, but when they did, it all started with the one wearing the “C”.

There was the occasional locker room pep talk – given when Yzerman felt things slipping away from his hockey club. They were few, but because of their rarity, they became legendary. Some words in St. Louis, one year. A gathering in the friendly skies, jetting out to Vancouver in an 0-2 series hole in 2002. And some others. But words were never Yzerman’s deal. He was about pushing himself, physically and emotionally, and leading by example.

Lidstrom is that way; he’s eloquent in his speech but he’s no Knute Rockne. He, too, prefers to just play hockey to the very best of his ability and be a pied piper that way.

Yzerman says he doesn’t miss the game on the ice. Hasn’t really even put his skates on, to hear him tell it. He’s content to be a stuffed shirt and learn about front officing. And there are dumber folks to learn from than Holland, Bowman, and Devellano.

But what must Yzerman be thinking now, his team on the verge, perhaps, of another Stanley Cup? Can he truly say this morning, without crossing his fingers behind him, that he doesn’t miss playing? He might not miss the physical pain he put himself through in order to be in the lineup, but is he really impervious to the allure of playoff hockey competition, some of the toughest, most draining in all of sports?

I would have asked him these things but he was huddled up, away from the media, along with the other stuffed shirts. There are no more post-game comments from Yzerman, no more patient, hang-on-every-word answers coming from him under the brightness of the TV lights and the pushiness of the hand-held microphones shoved into his face. Post-game for Steve Yzerman now is an office and a few of his management types, hashing over what just happened; what else is there to do? All the work by the shirts is done. All that’s left now is for the coach to coach and the players to play. And for the sophomore vice president to perhaps gaze longingly at the other side of the hall, where the Red Wings’ dressing room is located.

If the Wings capture this Cup, which they should, it will be the first one since 1955 that didn’t have Steve Yzerman on its roster. There was a time when no one thought the Red Wings could win a Cup WITH Yzerman, and now we are wading through a period where some have wondered if they could win one WITHOUT Yzerman. No disrespect to Lidstrom, of course. But look how long it took the team to win one after Gordie Howe retired.

Memorial Day weekend hockey. Some of the best – for players, coaches, media, and fans. Oh, it’s fun for the stuffed shirts, too, but maybe not as much for the one who only two years ago was on the other side of that hallway.

Steve Yzerman had his time. I just wonder how tough it is for him to let go of it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Cool As A Cucumber Stuckey Playing Like A Playoff Veteran

I'm beginning to think that if you slice Rodney Stuckey open, you could use the contents that spills out as a refreshing drink. Ice water.

Stuckey was fearless yesterday in the Pistons' series-squaring 103-97 win over the Celtics in Boston in the NBA's Final Four. Never was it more apparent than in the fourth quarter.

The Pistons' Ice Cube: Rodney Stuckey

Stuckey stuck jumpers -- tossing well-aimed daggers into the belly of the playoff beast -- with the calm and confidence of a ten-year veteran. And they were big jumpers -- the kind that muzzle crowds and keep that 400-pound gorilla, aka momentum, from shifting into the other direction. Tape over the jersey number and you'd have thought No. 1, Chauncey Billups, was draining those shots. You know, Mr. Big Shot himself.

But it was Stuckey, and the axiom that says a rookie isn't really a rookie by this point of the season has never been more true when it comes to the, ahem, rookie guard from someplace called Eastern Washington. In fact, I'd say Stuckey has not only shed the traditional rookie label, he's somewhere in the middle of his third season, the way he's been playing in this year's playoffs. Never before -- not even during the title run of 2004 -- have the Pistons had the luxury of entrusting crucial playoff minutes at point guard in the hands of anyone other than Billups, Lindsey Hunter excepted. Yet Stuckey has thrived this post-season, competently running the team and deftly seeking his shot when it's appropriate. Oh, and sticking those 18-to-20 foot jumpers when it's needed, too.

Rodney Stuckey is not why the Pistons beat the Celtics last night, stealing home court into the Boston night. But his on-court presence has yet to be why they've lost -- which is just as good.

Lemieux The Reason We Don't Say "Kansas City Penguins"

There wasn't much to like about the Pittsburgh Penguins, much less love, when Mario Lemieux joined them in 1984. They were a 17-year-old franchise with a history that mirrored that of a 17-year-old kid: growing pains, some Terrible Twos, a period of petulance, followed by maddening apathy. Its parents wondered when it was going to quit being lazy and do something with its life. Once, the team was even given a 3-0 series lead in the playoffs and managed to fritter it away like an allowance.

Then along came Lemieux, and the Penguins were relevant again. They grew up, and married the Stanley Cup in 1991, at the age of 24. Pretty much on schedule. They had a second honeymoon with the Cup a year later.

Lemieux saved the Penguins franchise back then, and he saved it again, nine years ago, when there were whispers that the Pens, having cash flow problems and deep in debt, would relocate. But Mario Lemieux, cancer survivor and Mr. Pittsburgh Hockey, would have none of it. He wasn't going to allow his franchise to move after already once bringing it back from the brink. So he did what most of us would do, if we had the dough: he bought the team.

Pittsburgh hockey -- past, present and future; Lemieux is both of the first two; Crosby is both of the second two

Lemieux, into his first retirement as a player, became owner in the fall of 1999, only after insisting that all the creditors to which the Penguins owed cash, were paid in full. He also vowed that the team would never leave Pittsburgh.

Then he came back a couple years later and played some more, hanging on until halfway thru Sidney Crosby's rookie season -- retiring for good in January 2006. And by that time those Penguins-to-relocate winds had started to blow again. And again Lemieux rode to the rescue.

In 2003, the team was back to its pre-Lemieux ways of losing in bunches, and attendance was plummeting. It was said that the good folks of the midwest, in Kansas City, were ready to welcome the Penguins with open arms -- should there be a breakup in Pittsburgh. But Lemieux again ensured that the Penguins would never leave. He acknowledged putting the team up for sale, but only with the proviso that it remain in Pennsylvania. There was no way Mario Lemieux would let his hockey team move to Missouri, to a town that had tried and failed once already as an NHL entity.

Should the Penguins somehow upset the Red Wings in the Finals, Lemieux will have pulled off quite a trifecta: winning the Cup as a player, buying the team, and then winning the Cup as its owner.

Mario Lemieux is why there's hockey in Pittsburgh. It was true in 1984, and it's even more so today.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thursday's Things

(on most Thursdays at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things I Remember Most About The Pistons-Celtics Playoff Rivalry Of The Late-1980s, Early-1990s)

Things I Think Of When I Think Of The Pittsburgh Penguins

That their colors used to be blue and white before changing them -- in mid-season -- to black and gold in response to the Steelers and Pirates' championships of 1979

2. That for some reason I know that Gordie Howe scored his 700th goal in Pittsburgh -- even though I was too young to remember it

3. That they are one of the two NHL teams that blew a 3-0 series lead (in 1975 against the Islanders)

4. That they're yet another one of Scotty Bowman's Cup-winning teams (1992); Larry Murphy, too.

5. That not too long ago it looked like they'd be kicked out of Pittsburgh due to poor teams and a stalemate over a new arena

6. That TV analyst Eddie Olcyzk once coached them, B.C. -- Before Crosby

7. That the throwback sweaters they wore in Buffalo for that game played outside were awesome

8. Their TV announcer, Mike Lang, and his colorful calls of goals, i.e. "He beat him like a rented mule!"

9. That the Civic Arena was once known as The Igloo for several years

10. That I have an early-1990s Pens jersey with my name on the back -- because I have a thing for penguins (I collect penguin stuff)

11. Mario Lemieux

12. Ken Schinkel (don't ask me why; I always thought the former Penguin player and coach of the 1970s had a cool name)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pistons' Goal: Make Celtics Play Their 1st Series Of '08 Playoffs

The Boston Celtics are the first team to reach the conference finals without having played even one series on the way there. Pretty slick, huh?

Oh, I know the record books will show otherwise. There it is, forever captured for posterity: Celtics 4, Hawks 3. Celtics 4, Cavaliers 3. But neither of these were series.

It's been said that a best-of-seven series doesn't really get going until a road team captures a game. Not a bad notion, really. The games definitely seem to ratchet up in pressure when a favorite has to scramble to win home court back. The Celtics have yet to have to do that; then again, they've yet to win on the road. But that's why you go out and win more games than anyone else in the league -- to afford to go winless on the road. As long as you TCB at home. History says, though, that sooner or later the Celtics will have to actually play a playoff series before they entertain thoughts of hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Pistons are just the team to force the Celtics into a series.

They didn't do it last night -- didn't really come close, actually -- falling to Boston, 88-79 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. But, with all due disrespect to the Atlanta Hawks and none to the Cleveland LeBrons, the Celtics aren't playing a tune-up any longer. The Pistons, despite last night's hiccup, aren't likely to go 0-for-4 in Boston. Which means the Celtics have to figure out a way to win a road game in the post-season (they're 0-6 so far), and you could pick some easier places to do that than in Detroit.

The Pistons lost at home to Boston way back in the wintertime, but that was mainly due to the out-of-the-blue contribution from rookie Glenn Davis, who has been relegated to spot duty in the playoffs. And, as far as that goes, the Pistons snatched a game in Boston in January.

But the Pistons won't make it a real series with Rasheed Wallace continuing his confounding tendency to go into hiding at the most inopportune moments. Sheed was sheet in Game 1, and it's anybody's guess why. Sometimes I think the world of Rasheed Wallace is a world that none of us have ever inhabited. Which is fine, except that in that world, something obviously grabs his attention more than the task at hand on the basketball court -- you know, in our little place called the real world. I won't regurgitate Wallace's numbers here because I'm sure you'd rather not sneer at your computer, but let's just say that it's also just as likely that Game 2's Wallace numbers will dwarf Game 1's. Because Sheed's World Order rarely allows two sub-par performances in a row. So that's good.

Oh, and Boston's Ray Allen still isn't off the dime yet. He went 3-for-9 last night, his shooting woes continuing. Chasing Rip Hamilton around isn't exactly the tonic to fix that, either -- despite Rip's rather quiet presence last night.

This Eastern final isn't a series yet. Chances are that it may not become one until Game 7. But the Pistons will take 1-for-4 in Beantown, because they're a good bet to go 3-for-3 in Detroit. Even I know that adds up to four.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

OOB At The Cup Finals

Congratulations to the Detroit Red Wings on their 23rd appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. Out of Bounds will be making its first.

Thanks to my gig at SET Magazine, I'll be attending the Finals games in Detroit. So I'll provide you with some behind-the-scenes stuff. First report will be filed next Sunday or Monday.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Game 6 Is Really A Matter Of K.I.S.S.

Here's something you'll be force-fed ad nauseam between whenever you're reading this and tonight's Game 6 of the NHL's Western Conference Finals. And if you're reading this AFTER the game, how was that Pepto-Bismol, anyway?

Ready? Here comes.

The team that has scored first has won every game of this series so far.

A compelling stat, no? Something tangible for the microphone types to blather about throughout the game, right? Only one problem. It's not true.

Oh, officially it's true. But as far as I'm concerned, the Red Wings scored first in Game 4. The refs, sadly, didn't see it the same way. Too much junk in Tomas Holmstrom's trunk for their liking.

But enough about that.

Chris Osgood, bless his heart, tried this misguided logic after the Wings lost Game 5. It shows that it's all a matter of timing.

"If you would have told us that we'd be in the conference finals going to Dallas up 3-2, we would've taken that," the goalie said -- trying to prove how wise he's gotten from his 15+ years in the league. But not so wise for this old curmudgeon, who pointed out to myself that had you presented Osgood with that scenario after Game 3, it wouldn't have sounded so alluring.

"So, Chris -- your team has just won the first three games of this series. How would you like to come back to Dallas up 3-2?"

I doubt he'd have said, "We'll take it."

See? Timing.

Enough about that as well.

I'm old enough to know that tonight's Game 6 isn't about spilled milk in Game 4 or Osgood's Beltway-like spin doctoring or bemoaning Johan Franzen's now notorious "concussion-like symptoms." It's not about being a-scared of Marty Turco or fretting over the ice conditions in Dallas.

Time to quote that legendary sage and soothsayer. You know, the Pistons' Rasheed Wallace.

"Just playin'."

That's what Sheed likes to say after big Pistons victories -- especially the ones on the road.

Just playin'.

It's not bad advice, really -- especially for a team that might be teetering a bit. MIGHT be.

Just go out there and play Red Wings hockey. Coach Mike Babcock, spoiling the media's fun by actually speaking words that are soaked in logic and common sense -- how DARE he, anyway? -- said as much yesterday, quoted in today's Free Press.

"Guys, we directed 58 shots at the net yesterday," Babcock said. "They directed 28. Let's not make things bigger than they are or smaller than they are. We had clear-cut opportunities that didn't hit the net. That's being too fine. Pound it off the goalie and shoot the rebound in the net."

The man clearly has no future as a TV analyst. Or a sports talk radio blabbermouth. Or a bottom-feeding blogger.

Babcock's assessment was the Canadian's version of Rasheed Wallace's "just playin'." To do otherwise would be to, as Babcock said, "make things bigger than they are or smaller than they are." In other words, be like Goldilocks. Don't make things bigger. Don't make things smaller. Ahh -- make them just right.

Oh -- and score first. Just to be safe. Not that I believe in that stuff or anything.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Some Announcers Leave Me With A Score To Settle

You might want to challenge my taste in movies, but one of my favorites is a 1984 send up of gangster pictures, something called Johnny Dangerously. It stars Michael Keaton in the title role, and I just think it’s funny as hell. The late, great Maureen Stapleton as Johnny’s mother was never better.

There’s a scene in the film where the main antagonist, played by Joe Piscopo (whatever happened to HIM?), wants to know the schedule of Johnny’s brother, the district attorney, that night, so he can whack him. So he turns on the radio.

“Should be great weather tonight as D.A. Tommy Kelly attends the premiere of the new James Cagney movie,” the announcer intones. Piscopo turns the radio off.

“Which theater?,” one of Piscopo’s minions asks. So the radio is turned back on.

“At the Savoy, at 38th street and fourth avenue,” the announcer says on cue before being turned off again.

Ken Kal may as well be that radio announcer.

I don’t have too many hard and fast rules when it comes to listening to sports on the radio. In fact, I just have one.

GIVE THE SCORE. You can insert some of those comic strip symbols for cussing in between “the” and “score”, too.

But no such worries with Kal, the Red Wings’ radio play-by-play guy since the 1995-96 season. We’ll discuss who he replaced in just a moment.

Kal doesn’t break my hard and fast rule. Ever. In fact, he just set a new record the other night. I was climbing into my car – Game 4 of the Red Wings-Dallas Stars series already underway. I flicked on the radio. I didn’t have to wonder for very long what the status of the game was.

“ score as Lidstrom fetches the puck ...” Kal said, literally the moment I turned the thing on. It was better than the announcer in that scene from Johnny Dangerously.

See how simply brilliant that is?

Ken Kal (right) and radio partner Paul Woods

Now, I’ve listened to some of the baseball guys in town over the years – the ones not named Ernie Harwell – and you’d think that the score was some sort of secret, only to be given out on a need-to-know basis. For minutes on end I’ve listened, practically in tears, begging them to tell me what the &%$!# score is. Often I’ve had to wait till the end of the inning before they finally condescend to my request – which by that point has been violently yelled inside my car, with words not fit to print here.

Why, oh why, is the score of the game treated in such a cloak-and-dagger fashion by some of these microphone types?

Speaking of Harwell, Ernie once told me that it was the legendary Red Barber who taught him a trick. Barber used to keep a three-minute egg timer in the broadcast booth. When the grains of sand ran out, he’d flip the timer over. And he’d give the score, too. For that tip alone, Red Barber should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame – of life.

Red Barber

Hockey on the radio can be a fascinating, heart-pounding thing to hear. Without the visual, you have to rely on the tone of the announcer’s voice. And when it reaches a crescendo or rises an octave or two, your heart flutters. For something exciting has just happened – and only the radio guy knows for sure. Kal possesses that change of octaves. But no one was more exciting in that department than Bruce Martyn, who preceded Kal for the 30 years prior to 1995.

Martyn had a voice made for hockey announcing, although he started out as a DJ, spinning records on WCAR. The late George Puscas said that Martyn, who also did Michigan State football games, was the best football play-by-play guy he’d ever heard, bar none. But I only know Martyn as the Red Wings’ radio and TV voice, and I simply can’t imagine him being placed on this earth to do anything else.

“He shoots ... he SCORES!!” Martyn would crackle in that nasally, octave-changing pitch of his, and there just wasn’t anything more fetching on the dial at that particular moment. Oh, and he gave the score, too. It would go something like this.

“Puck sent back into the Detroit zone...picked up there by tie...Bergman head mans the puck ...”

Didya catch it?

Kal does it the Martyn way – blending the giving of the score with the play-by-play monologue. It’s seamless and genius and what’s so $#@!& hard about it, anyway?

Television, a few years back, abided my hard and fast rule, capitalizing on its advantage of being a visual medium. Now it’s commonplace to flip on a game on the tube and see the score permanently embedded onto the screen. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when that wasn’t the norm.

Now if we can just get the radio folks to cooperate.

Dan Dickerson, the Tigers voice, does a pretty decent job in this area. Not so his partner, the wretched Jim Price, who’s one of those secret-keepers when it comes to the score. George Blaha, thrilling us with his descriptions of Pistons basketball for over 30 years, not only gives the score, he does so with accoutrements.

“Five and forty-five to go in the third....Chauncey on the right wing...six on the shot’s the triple’s through! And the Pistons lead ‘em by eight, 76-68!”

Blaha has been giving us the score the same way Gallagher gave us comedy: with flair, drama, and a distinct lack of finesse. But always with the accompanying oohs and ahhs.

A simple egg timer. That’s all Red Barber and Ernie Harwell needed to remind themselves to clue their listeners in on the most important statistic of any ballgame. They still make those timers, you know. I saw one at Target the other day. So it can still be done.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Once Again, The MSM Misses The Boat

I don't know who the referees are that have been assigned to tomorrow's Game 5 of the Red Wings-Dallas Stars series, but I suggest they utter something like this prior to dropping the puck, to both centers in the face-off circle at center ice:

"OK, we're Even Steven now, alright? Detroit, we let you have a goal that should have been disallowed earlier in the series. Dallas, we took one away from Detroit that should have counted. Everyone should be happy. Now let's play some hockey!"

The fact that Pavel Datsyuk's disallowed goal in Game 4 was so blatantly a make-up call for what happened in Game 1 somehow has eluded many in what my friend Big Al likes to call the MSM (Mainstream Media). Big Al's favorite columnist, Mitch Albom, wrote an entire chronicle of the disallowed goal -- the referee said that Tomas Holmstrom was in the crease when he clearly wasn't -- without once mentioning that it MIGHT have been a make-up call from Game 1, when Holmstrom's body was significantly in goalie Marty Turco's personal space. All Albom did was bellyache about the call, which without question was a turning point, wiping out a 1-0 Wings lead. But his omitting the obvious over-reacting by the zebras as being made in make-up fashion made me wonder if Albom had even seen Game 1 -- or had at least overheard a discussion about it at the Free Press water cooler. HA!! As if Albom has set foot in the Freep's building on West Lafayette even once in the past 15 years -- unless it was to have a check signed, or to be presented with another award based on popularity rather than skill.

Sorry -- I digress.

But it wasn't just Albom. The "make-up theory" didn't get much ink, at least not like it should -- especially when it appeared to be so blatant. Versus analyst Eddie Olczyk -- I like him a lot, by the way -- picked up on it as the Stars exhaled after the decision had been rendered.

"Maybe a make-up call from what happened in Game 1," Olczyk said. Ya think?

So, even up in the "goals disallowed" column. At least, it should be. Tonight's game should start with a clean slate. And Holmstrom should keep doing what he does best: camp out in front of the Stars' goal. Coach Mike Babcock has rightly announced that the Red Wings will keep doing what needs to be done, and that includes crashing the net. He's not going to let one bad call stop his team from playing its game.

By the way, Albom has been splitting himself in two lately, penning columns about the Red Wings and Pistons, sometimes on back-to-back days. Clearly, some things are falling through the cracks.

Oh, and I had a feeling the Red Wings would lose. The franchise record for consecutive wins is nine. They've reached it a few times over the recent years, never able to get that 10th straight win. It happened again this season. So when the playoff streak reached nine this week, I felt a disturbance in the force. So with that loss out of the way, expect a conference trophy presentation at JLA tomorrow evening.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Thursday's Things

(on most Thursdays at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things Dominik Hasek Does Now That He's The Backup Goalie)

Things I Remember Most About The Pistons-Celtics Playoff Rivalry Of The Late-1980s, Early-1990s
(in honor of a likely matchup with the Celts in '08; in no particular order)

1. Bill Laimbeer bringing a sickle in a satchel into the Silverdome in 1988, symbolizing the need to "cut the snake's head off", in reference to the Pistons' 3-2 lead in the conference finals. The Pistons won.

The Pass. Of course, I'm talking about Isiah Thomas's errant inbounds pass in '87 that Larry Bird picked off and turned into a Celtics victory. And GM Jack McCloskey saying, "On my deathbed, I'll probably say, 'We shouldn't have made that pass.'"

3. Game 6 of the conference semis in 1991. It doesn't get much notoriety, but it was one of the best games in the rivalry's history. The Pistons won an overtime thriller; I remember watching it at a watering hole near the Detroit River.

4. Kevin McHale's pseudo-three. It came late in Game 2 of the 1991 conference semis, in Boston. The Pistons were looking for a 2-0 series lead. McHale's toe was clearly on the line, but the refs gave him a three anyway; a crucial call that enabled the Celtics to win.

5. Dennis Rodman's mouth. After the Pistons were eliminated in '87, Rodman said that Bird gets the praise he does because he's white.

6. The Pistons winning Game 5 in Boston in 1988 -- their first win in Boston in years. It enabled them to advance to the Finals.

7. Celtics announcer Johnny Most screaming into his microphone about the Bad Boys: "OH, THE WAY THEY DO THINGS HERE!!"

8. Vinnie Johnson lighting up Joe Louis Arena in the 1985 conference semis, earning the nickname The Microwave from Danny Ainge.

9. Robert Parish slugging Laimbeer across the head and face in the lane in Boston.

10. Adrian Dantley and Johnson crashing to the floor and butting heads, chasing a loose ball, knocking both players silly, in Game 7 in 1987. The Garden Leprechaun at work once again.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pistons Roll Dice, And Magic Craps Out

Didn't I just write about Antonio McDyess? Didn't I just praise him for his monstrous offensive rebound late in Game 4 against the Orlando Magic -- a board that kept a Pistons possession alive long enough for Tayshaun Prince to pull a baby hook out of his sleeve and beat the 'Gic? Didn't I just drone on about how his on-court personality is just about 180 degrees opposite of his off-court demeanor, which earns him the nickname McNice?

Guess I'll have to write about him -- and Prince -- again.

Last night, in the Pistons' clinching Game 5 win over The O, McDyess came up huge in the same way that Lassie used to when Timmy was stuck in a well. Again I have to chuckle at Orlando's Dwight Howard and his nickname, Superman -- for it was Dice who (again) donned the cape and swooped in to save the day. He jump-started the Pistons' offense early in the fourth quarter when the Magic had opened up a fragile five-point lead by hitting two 18-foot jumpers in succession. Then he swarmed the offensive glass -- either grabbing a board or inducing undersized defenders like Rashard Lewis into taking loose ball fouls. Dice was a big reason the Magic was in the penalty situation with 6:30 left in the fourth quarter.

I watched the game not knowing about the death of McDyess's grandmother -- a sad revelation that he received hours before the game. It was only in reading accounts that I found out about the heavy heart with which McDyess played. I missed the first half, so maybe it had been mentioned at the top of the broadcast. I don't know. Regardless, it was hard not to think of McDyess's boss -- and the man who brought him to Detroit -- Joe Dumars, who played an NBA Finals game in Portland in 1990 as the only Piston who didn't know that Joe D's father had passed away earlier in the day. McDyess knew his bad news, and Dumars didn't, but the sobriety of the situation is almost the same, for Dumars was taken into a private room after the Pistons walked off the court as winners in '90 and was given the news by coach Chuck Daly and GM Jack McCloskey.

As for Prince, what can you say? He's racking up big-time blocks the way Michael Jordan did with big-time shots. You can add Hedo Turkoglu to Prince's list of victims. But I gotta ask: didn't Turkoglu realize who was guarding him? Didn't he know that he had the equivalent of a velcroed octopus as a defender? Yet Turkoglu drove the hoop anyway, Prince matching him stride for stride, then tried a half-dunk, half-God knows what that Tayshaun EASILY disposed of. As far as importance, the rejection ranks among Prince's finest, but as far as ease, it surely must be in the lower percentile. That's two awful shots by Turkoglu in the clutch in that series. Thanks, Hedo!

So now it's on to Boston, or home against Cleveland in Game 1 of the NBA's Final Four. The Celtics, as one writer astutely pointed out, are apparently trying to become the first team in NBA history to win a title by going 16-12: 16-0 at home, 0-12 on the road. Don't laugh. The Celts are 6-0 at home, 0-5 on the road in the '08 playoffs. And as TNT's Mike "The Czar" Fratello pointed out last night, they'd better figure out a way to win on the road, because sooner or later some team is going to steal a game in Boston. And if it's Cleveland, then the Pistons may not have to worry about the Celtics after all.

No complaints here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

McNice's Rebound Was Simply Nasty

They call Antonio McDyess, McNice -- for his pleasant, courteous off-the-court demeanor and his overall reputation as a hard worker who doesn't grate on the officials. He's the anti-Sheed in that respect.

But there was absolutely nothing nice or pleasant about the manner in which McDyess snared a crucial offensive rebound late in the Pistons' 90-89 win in Game 4 of their series with the Orlando Magic. McDyess's grabbing of the carom -- a result of yet another missed shot by Rasheed Wallace, who missed plenty of them down the stretch -- enabled the Pistons to get one more chance with the clock having less than 20 ticks left in its arsenal. The Pistons were down, 89-88, and staring a 2-2 series tie square in the face. Their court general, Chauncey Billups, was styling in a beige suit, but of no use to the team, out with a hamstring injury. Sheed had gone cold.

Enter McDyess. They call Dwight Howard Superman in Orlando, but it was McDyess who earned that moniker, swooping in from nowhere like a super hero to grab Wallace's miss and keep the possession alive. It was one of the most impressive, clutch offensive rebounds I've seen in recent years. McDyess simply wanted it more, and he got it. Tayshaun Prince made the rebound count with his running baby hook, and now Detroit has a 3-1 stranglehold on the series.

McDyess's rebound, to me, is on par with Prince's block of Reggie Miller in the 2004 Eastern Finals. Both plays changed games, and McDyess's board just might have sealed the series for the Pistons. Certainly Prince's maniacal effort on Miller changed the tone of that series with the Pacers.

There's a time for nice; the playoffs aren't it

Yet McDyess's play hasn't gotten the notoriety it deserves. Prince's hook shot rightly was heralded, as was the team's overall play minus Billups. Even Howard's disappearing act (hey, he plays for a team called the Magic, after all) has gotten more ink than The Rebound by McNice. But no board there, and the Pistons probably don't win that game. Simple as that.

All of which would make it criminal and injust poetically if the Pistons can't somehow find a way to get McDyess his championship. He was brought here after the '04 title, and came within minutes of winning it all in 2005. Who can forget the image of McDyess sitting on the Pistons bench, in disbelief, after the team blew Game 5 of the conference semi-final to Cleveland in 2006? That was the famous drive-home-in-my-uniform experience that McDyess confessed to. The Pistons recovered to win that series, but that display was merely one example of how badly McDyess wants that ring. This was a guy who wasn't even supposed to be playing as much as five years ago, due to numerous knee injuries and surgeries. Yet here he is. And let's not forget his comeback from a broken nose after Game 3 in the Philadelphia series a couple weeks ago.

Antonio McDyess is a nice guy. But when that ring is there for the taking, like Wallace's missed shot in Game 4, don't be fooled: Dice knows that Nice doesn't cut it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Like Martin Did, Maybe Time For Leyland To Pull A Rabbit Out Of His Hat

Eddie Brinkman was a fine fielding shortstop, one of the best of his time. He once played nearly half a season – 72 games – without committing an error. His glove was about as dependable as you’ll ever find.

The only problem with Brinkman was that he couldn’t hit a lick. He might as well have been swinging a limp noodle at the plate, rather than a piece of lumber. Edwin Albert Brinkman had nearly 6,000 official at-bats in the big leagues, and finagled them to the tune of a lifetime .224 average. In 1972, playing everyday for the Tigers, Brinkman managed a .203 mark – his steady glove keeping him in Billy Martin’s lineup. He had six home runs in 516 at-bats.

So you can only imagine the stunned looks on the faces of Tigers fans who crowded into Tiger Stadium on August 13, 1972 when it was announced over the public address system by the late, great Joe Gentile: “Batting fourth, playing shortstop, number 8, Eddie Brinkman.”

Eddie Brinkman??!! Batting cleanup? The spot of Horton and Killebrew and Aaron and Stargell? Skinny Eddie Brinkman, the man with the Golden Glove and the aluminum foil bat?

Today’s Tigers manager, Jim Leyland, has been reaching deep into his bag of tricks while his talented team struggles under the pressure of too much pre-season praise and regular season underachievement. He’s tried players switching positions. He’s tried yelling and screaming. He’s tried reminding them that they’re good. He’s tried players changing spots in the batting order.

Ahh, that last one – Martin tried that, too. But his method was a bit less scientific. And it’s why Brinkman was the Tigers’ cleanup hitter that August day.

The ’72 Tigers were an old, fragmenting team, still built around the core of the 1968 world champs. Precious few new, young players were being injected into the lineup, mainly because the Tigers’ farm system wasn’t growing any. And it was Martin’s charge to cajole this group of aging vets into one more act of triumph. That he pulled it off should go down as one of the greatest managerial displays ever seen in Detroit. But then again, no one said Billy couldn’t manage. I certainly never did.

So when Martin’s graybeards lost five out of six to slip into second place behind the Baltimore Orioles in the divisional race, Martin had an idea. And when Billy had an idea, there really wasn’t anything that was going to stop him from implementing it. Such headstrongness cost him a few jobs – in many different cities.

What would happen, Martin wondered, if he selected his next batting order out of a hat?

That’s right.

Place the names of the eight position players (there was no DH in 1972) into a baseball cap, and have someone reach in and pluck the names out. And that would be today’s batting order. No joke.

So Martin did that, and here’s what resulted:

1. Norm Cash 1B
2. Jim Northrup RF
3. Willie Horton LF
4. Eddie Brinkman SS
5. Tony Taylor 2B
6. Duke Sims C
7. Mickey Stanley CF
8. Aurelio Rodriguez 3B
9. Woodie Fryman P

Martin’s experiment could have been even more skewed, really. Besides Stormin’ Norman Cash batting leadoff (that was weird) and Brinkman hitting fourth, the rest of the lineup wasn’t all that out of whack.

Oh, and the Tigers won, beating the Indians 3-2 – Cash with two hits and Brinkman doubling home a run. Told ya Billy could manage a little bit.

Martin's impulsiveness worked; will Jim Leyland follow suit?

Martin worked his magic through the end of the regular season, nudging his old-timers a half-game ahead of the Boston Red Sox to claim the AL East flag. Then they lost a heartbreaking ALCS, 3 games to 2, to the Oakland A’s. No more lineups drawn out of a hat, but maybe there should have been.

Jim Leyland won’t resort to such chicanery – I don’t think – in order to shake his team out of its malaise, which is now entering its second month. Leyland’s impulsive at times, but he’s no Billy Martin in that sense. Few ever were.

The other night, his Tigers again going gently into the night with nary a whimper, Leyland tried yet another tactic as he spoke into the tape recorders and microphones from behind his desk. He, in one breath, combined sober self-reflection with hope and optimism.

“It’s not that anybody’s not trying. We’re a slow team. When he don’t hit we look lethargic. But we’re a good team. I believe that. But it’s not because of lack of effort.”

The game before, the Tigers awoke from their daze long enough to rally for a 10-9 victory over the vaunted Red Sox. They did it against closer Jonathon Papelbon, who’s a genuine door slammer. Then they went back into hibernation the next night, prompting Leyland to wax sage and wise.

It’s only May 10, and Jim Leyland has run through most of his gamut with his maddening ball club.

But he hasn’t tried drawing a batting order out of a hat. Maybe he’s saving that one, like something in a glass case with the words “Break only in emergency” painted on it.

The old St. Louis Browns, owned by crazy Bill Veeck (as in wreck), once let their fans manage a game, complete with large placards that had the words YES and NO on either side. An attendant would flash a piece of poster board with a question like, “Infield in?” and then wait for the response from the section which possessed the placards. The Browns won that game, too.

Funny, huh?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Cup For Red Wings Fait Accompli

Check with the Wayne County Road Commission. Make sure there aren't any plans for Woodward Avenue the first week of June. Tell 'em to get any and all orange barrels out of the way. While you're at it, tell them to not mess around too much with I-75, the Lodge Freeway, I-94, or I-96 until we're done; we want as many people as possible to make it into downtown. Might as well confer with the Big Guy, God himself, and put in our request for sunshine and blue skies to drench ourselves in.

I can't make any such assurances for the Pistons -- far from it, actually -- but I've made up my mind about the Red Wings. Stanley Cup no. 11 for the franchise will be hoisted into the air by captain Nicklas Lidstrom sometime within the next four weeks. It's money in the bank. May as well give the engraver the Red Wings' roster and have him start doing his thing.

This isn't the first time I've felt this way during these playoffs; just the first time that I'm going public -- and not just for some sort of shock value to get a discussion thread going at some online forum. The Red Wings' karma is right. They're healthy, happy, and wise -- and that's a tough combo to beat in springtime. Oh, and they have goalie Chris Osgood -- who's all three of the above, and on a mission. Don't kid yourself that he's not. How's this? He last won the Cup 10 years ago, and he had to beat the Dallas Stars in the conference final in order to do it. Weird, huh? But in a good way. By the way, I wonder what the longest gap is between Cups for one goalie with the same team. Ozzie's ten year chasm between champagne baths surely must rank right up there. What's more, he's been gone and come back again. His would be a remarkable story -- correction, WILL be a remarkable story -- when the Red Wings again call themselves champions. Think of it. 35-year-old backup figures to play maybe 30 games this season, then not only exceeds that, but starts in the All-Star game. Then not only THAT, he starts the playoffs as the backup anyway. Then not only THAT, he steps into the fray in the post-season's fifth game and proceeds to rack up seven straight wins. Whew! This would be the easiest movie script anyone could ever write, because it's penning itself.

The Red Wings were systematic and opportunistic -- again -- in grinding the Stars into the Joe Louis Arena ice last night in Game 1. As usual, Osgood could play the role of interested observer at times -- especially in the first period, when the Red Wings outshot the Stars, 12-4. And, as usual, when called upon to put his mask back on, slip on his glove and grab his stick, Osgood made one key stop after another. It's been the same formula as in Games 5 and 6 versus Nashville, and in the rumored series against Colorado.

I never feared the Stars; in fact, I was much happier for the Wings to play them than San Jose, who still scares me, even though they're eliminated. If the Sharks, who had a monstrous second half of the season, would have escaped an 0-3 hole against Dallas, then there's no telling what they would have been capable of against Detroit. But the waters are clear of Sharks -- I'm pretty sure -- and so it'll be on to the Cup Finals, where I've also made my choice: bring on the Flyers. I want no part of Crosby, Hossa, Malkin and company. But even if the Red Wings draw the Pens, they'll win. See the opening paragraph.

Call me counting my chickens before they're hatched. That's fine; they'll be cute little chickies when they do. I've gone out on a limb, and I rather like the view from here, thank you. Seven more wins to make it official.

Save me a spot near Hart Plaza.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Thursday's Things

(on most Thursdays at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things I Like [and don't like] About Sports Coverage On TV)

Things Dominik Hasek Does Now That He's The Backup Goalie

Extra time to catch up on back issues of Senior Living magazine

2. Scratches itch to play by flopping on kitchen floor to stop errant bagel

3. Still waiting on that Chris Osgood voodoo doll to come back from Haiti

4. Unsuccessfully trying to convince Mike Babcock that his first round troubles a result of too much partying at the Grand Ole Opry the nights before Games 3 and 4

5. Dominator clothing line coming out with new custom-made seat cushions

6. Will start live blogging from bench during games

7. Daily chants of "The best goalie is the one not playing; the best goalie is the one not playing"

8. Still smarting from that awkward moment recently when everyone in dressing room shut up when he walked in

9. Works on reflexes by channel surfing around commercials

10. Asked for trade to Colorado after second period of Game 4 to shore up their goaltending situation

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Stars' Hull Faded In Detroit Before Emerging As An Exec

I've seen Brett Hull wear many sweaters slipped over his street clothes, sitting in a chair at center ice, as he participates in a tribute -- be it for him, or for someone else. His no. 16 is in the rafters in St. Louis, retired. He wore the winged wheel a year ago January when the Red Wings shuttered no. 19 in honor of Steve Yzerman. And he wore a Dallas Stars sweater proudly over his streets when they celebrated a Stanley Cup in 1999.

Now Hull just has the suit, not the sweater, as he will watch his Stars -- he's co-GM -- take on the Red Wings in this year's Western Conference Final. He still, to me, seems too much of an oddball to be a general manager -- not that he won't be a good one.

When last seen around these parts -- prior to the Yzerman tribute -- Brett Hull was a washed up, malcontent forward who vanished into thin air during the 2004 playoffs. A coach with a stronger resume, i.e. Scotty Bowman, almost certainly would have benched him; he was simply awful. But the Red Wings were in the post-Bowman Era, and Dave Lewis opted for sticking his head in the sand while Hull loafed. Communication broke down between Lewis and Hull, which is ironic, because if there's anything Brett Hull does better than score goals, is communicate -- whether you want him to or not.

So Hull faded away, and turned up with the Phoenix Coyotes after the lockout, though he only played in five games before retiring at age 41. He tried his hand at TV, but found it too suffocating, under NBC's intermission format. Then he landed the Stars' gig, and it'll be interesting to see how long he lasts there.

Hull gave the Red Wings three solid seasons (scoring 92 goals), and one lousy playoff. Sadly, my lasting image of him in Detroit is the Hull whose mug should have been on the side of a milk carton, rather than the one that will rightfully be on display in Toronto, at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Maybe that's my baggage that I'm making him carry, but that's how I feel. I think after seeing him for nearly 20 years in the NHL, I had just grown weary of Hull's outrageous mouth. He quit on a first-year head coach, letting his team down in the process, and that's just not cool.

But what's past is past.

There's no questioning Hull's knowledge of pro hockey, and he may even be a pretty astute judge of talent. Those two things are a good start for an aspiring GM. But while being outspoken and brash and abrasive might be good traits for a superstar player -- or even a coach -- it's hard to see that translating to the front office. Likewise, it's difficult to imagine "Hullie" toning his act down, even if he's wearing a tailored suit rather than a hockey sweater.

We'll see how quotable Hull is -- or isn't -- during this conference final, a series in which his team will lose in no more than six games.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Magic is This Year's Hapless Fourth Seed In East Semi-Finals

I suppose you have a conference semi-final because the mathematics say half of eight is four and half of four is two.

We're down to the FInal Four in the NBA's Eastern Conference, but only three teams are semi-finals worthy. The fourth, the Orlando Magic -- whom the Pistons will spend the next week or so toying with -- is only there because league rules say four teams must participate.

The Boston Celtics, winners of 66 games in the regular season, didn't exactly get their bye thru the first round, but their total domination of the 37-win Atlanta Hawks in the games played in Boston shows that, even though the series went seven games, it really wasn't a series, because the neophyte Hawks never came close to stealing a game in Beantown. The Celtics, with their Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce, are certainly Final Four material.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are always Final Four-ish as long as King James, LeBron version, suits up for them. It'll be interesting to see how the Celtics handle James, seeing as how they struggled to contain Hawks guard Joe Johnson at times. The Cavs are worthy of being a conference semi-finalist.

The Pistons show up to these conference semi-finals every year, usually just waiting to get their ticket punched to the REAL Final Four, NBA-wide. Five straight trips to the conference finals, including two wins and a championship, cements their place in these second round matches.

The Orlando Magic are the fourth team, and it's only because the East has such slim pickings that the Magic are allowed to the party. Last year the Chicago Bulls were here. Once, the New Jersey Nets were frequent visitors. Same with the Indiana Pacers. The Magic are this year's fourth entry, and it's anyone's guess whether they'll be back next year or the year after that.

Oh, the Magic are a nice little team, but this is their first trip to the second round in quite some time, and already they seem unsure of what to do now that they're here. They made it here by playing an up-tempo, frantic game built around the three-point shot, but in Game 1 on Saturday, the Magic tried to ugly it up and get all Bad Boys-ish on the Pistons. It backfired. Badly.

It's not smart money to wager on this series lasting more than five games. Maybe next year, the Magic could give the Pistons a little go-round. Not this spring. The Magic won more games than James's Cavaliers, but it would be hard to argue that Orlando is a better team than Cleveland. There's no question, in my mind, who I'd fear more right now, if given the choice between Dwight Howard and the Magic, and James and the Cavaliers. We all still have ghoulish memories of what James did to the Pistons in Game 5 of last year's conference final.

They must allow four teams into the conference semi-finals -- if only because it would be unfair to give one team a free pass while two others engage in battle. This year, it's the Orlando Magic playing the role of the fourth seed. Next year, might be somebody else. Either way, no. 4 is going home soon.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

“Tippy Toes” A Fingertip Away From Denying Dempsey His Place In History

Funny how your brain connects dots.

One of my sports writing heroes, George Puscas, passed away last weekend at age 81 after a bout with diabetes. The official cause of death was congestive heart failure, but that’s what happens when you’re too sick to sleep in a bed and have to spend nights propped up on a reclining chair. So says his widow, Delphine, to whom I spoke briefly at George’s viewing. George had been in and out of the hospital often in the last couple of years, and though Del was hoping he could make it through another season of Tigers baseball, this last hospital stay lasted just four days before he passed away.

So many thoughts occurred to me as I thought of Puscas and his influence on my wanting to write about sports. Not the least of which was a marvelous fall afternoon I spent at his home in 2005 along with another of my favs, Jerry Green. George and Jerry regaled me with memories of the last Super Bowl played in Detroit before the XLth. It was Super Bowl XVI, in 1982 in Pontiac. I was working on a magazine piece, and the three of us spent several hours together in George’s kitchen; me mainly listening. Which was fine; gave me more time to sip the cold ones Del brought me as my tape recorder whirred.

Puscas was tight with a lot of the Lions. He became particularly close to Alex Karras, the old defensive tackle – and who is, for my money, the best lineman NOT enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Several months after Karras was forced into retirement by the Lions after being cut at the end of training camp in 1971, he collaborated with Puscas on a two-part memoir that ran in the Free Press. Both parts were preserved for history in Puscas’s book, Dandies, Eh?, which was a compendium of his favorite columns.

In the memoir, Karras covered a variety of subjects, from his rookie year of 1958 (when he served as QB Bobby Layne’s designated driver and drinking partner throughout camp) to the heartbreaking loss in Green Bay in ’62 which torpedoed the Lions’ title chances, to his relationship with Lions coach George Wilson (whom Karras called one of the finest men he’s ever known).

But there was another Karras moment that I thought of, and it wasn’t covered in the Free Press two-parter. Still, George’s account of it made it into the book. Maybe it wasn’t really Alex’s moment, per se, but Karras played a key role.

I’m talking about Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal that beat the Lions at the final gun in November, 1970.

First, I’ll never forget how George began his article – seeing as how he wasn’t even in the country when it happened. The excerpt is in italics, and is only slightly paraphrased. It was written in 1992.

I was coming through customs at the airport in Detroit, after a vacation in Europe.

“Who won the Lions game yesterday?” I asked.

“You’ll never believe it,” the customs guy said.

“Try me,” I replied.

“Well, a kicker with half a foot kicked a 63-yard field goal on the final play of the game. And the Saints beat the Lions, 19-17.”

George’s account is remarkable, as it includes quotes from Dempsey, who was recalling the kick some 22 years later – as well as those culled from men like Joe Schmidt (Lions head coach at the time) and athletic trainer Kent Falb, among others.

Dempsey said something in that 16-year-old article that came back to roost in my brain – that dot-connecting to which I referred – as I thought about George Puscas.

“There’s a photo I have framed of the kick, which shows Alex (Karras) stretching, almost blocking it,” Dempsey told Puscas.


I know the photo of which Dempsey spoke. It’s taken from Dempsey’s left, and clearly shows Karras, who played left tackle, breaking through the blocking and extending his right arm, a look of determination on his face. They called Karras “Tippy Toes” for the odd footwork he used on the line, trying to rush the passer. And Tippy Toes was perhaps a fingertip away from blocking Dempsey’s kick, which still stands as the NFL record (though Denver’s Jason Elam tied it in the late-1990s).

If you choose to use that video version of Google called YouTube, simply type in “Tom Dempsey” in the search field and you can see a clip of the kick. And if you watch closely, you’ll see Karras bursting through the line as if unblocked, and barely missing getting his paw on the football.

The image is also interesting because when Karras used to do the talk show circuit back in the 1970s, he liked to chat about how his teammates were supposedly laughing and taunting the Saints and their half-footed kicker (Dempsey was born with half a right foot and wore a special shoe. He also didn’t possess a full left arm) as they lined up before the snap. That may be so, but Karras, at least, gave it a full effort. Yet he just missed it, and the ball traveled end-over-end on a low trajectory before dropping over the crossbar with inches to spare.

“IT’S GOOD! IT’S GOOD! THE SAINTS HAVE WON! THE SAINTS HAVE WON! TOM DEMPSEY HAS JUST KICKED A 63-YARD FIELD GOAL!,” the Saints’ announcer is heard on the clip as the Lions players wandered around midfield in disbelief. Karras is seen simply walking back toward the sideline.

Another inch or two on Karras’s reach, and nobody would have heard of Tom Dempsey.

“What can you do after something like that?” said Schmidt in the article. “You take a left turn and go home.”

I left a message for Karras at his home in California, notifying him of Puscas’s death. I just thought he should know.


Here's Dempsey's kick. Watch Karras, no. 71, busting through and nearly blocking it.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Slam Dunk And Buried: Pistons, Red Wings Move On In Laughers

Whatever Barry Melrose was on, I'd like to partake.

Melrose, the venerable hockey yakster for ESPN, last week predicted the Colorado Avalanche would bury the Red Wings in six games. His more sane partner, writer EJ Hradek, picked Detroit in six. Melrose forecasted a "nasty" series that he felt the Avs would win because ... well, I can't really remember why; I tuned him out after he made his selection. Hradek, for his part, looked at the Red Wings' experience and determination and the way they closed out the Nashville Predators and made a cooler-headed pick.

Was this ever a series? Aside from the Avs making Game 1 interesting after falling into a 4-1 hole, this was NFL Champs vs. College All-Stars; the Packers at home vs. the Lions; Israel vs. the 1967 Arabs. Magic Johnson's late night talk show run looks like that of 60 Minutes compared to how long the Avs-Red Wings series was competitive.

I don't think I've ever felt sorry for the Avalanche or their fans, but last night's 8-2 pasting the Red Wings put on Colorado made me come close. By hockey standards, this was a driven, well-oiled machine led by a forward as hot as a firecracker against a depleted, hurt, overmatched opponent. By history standards, this might be the series that pretty much ends the era of the Avs-Red Wings rivalry. It had a good run; time to move on.

It's hard to justify any four-game sweep having a turning point, but Colorado coach Joel Quenneville will -- and with good reason -- have to answer some questions, notably: Why the hell was Jose Theodore the starting goalie in this series, certainly after Game 2?

By contrast, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock played a hunch before Game 5 of the Preds series and switched starting goalies. Dominik Hasek wasn't awful in Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, but he wasn't very good, either. A case could definitely have been made to stick with Dom at home in Game 5. But Babcock coached for the moment, believing that you can't win the Cup if you're eliminated in Round 1. So he chose to worry about the future in the future, and inserted Chris Osgood. Ozzie has been solid, and the Red Wings are 6-0 since the move.

Quenneville, on the other hand, started a sick goalie in Game 1 against Detroit (it wasn't reported that Theodore was ill until after he'd been pulled), and after declaring him all better for Game 2, Theodore was again lifted in favor of Peter Budaj, who played well in both games. Yet Quenneville still had a chance to make amends when the series shifted to Denver. He could have (and SHOULD have) started Budaj in Game 3. The Avs were hurting, demoralized, and needed a spark. A goalie change would have provided that. Budaj certainly couldn't have played much worse than Theodore. Sometimes change for change's sake is what's needed in a playoff series. It can shift momentum. But we'll never know, because Quenneville stubbornly stayed with Theodore, who played OK in Game 3 but not well enough to steal a win. Then what happens? Quenneville STILL stuck with Theodore in Game 4, and Jose got pulled for the third time after giving up two goals late in the first period. Budaj didn't fare any better, but that's not the point. All summer, Avs fans will wonder, "What if the coach had called Budaj's number for Game 3?"

Oh well.

The Red Wings went 8-0-0 against the Avs in 2007-08. If this is still a rivalry, it is in the way that the Coyote is rivals with the Roadrunner.

Coming Monday (or Wednesday, depending on the Stars-Sharks series): a look ahead to the conference finals.

In the end, the 2007-08 Philadelphia 76ers will go down along with the 1987-88 Washington Bullets and the 1990-91 Atlanta Hawks as teams who put a scare into a superior Pistons team, only to still go home after Round 1. The Pistons needed the full five games to beat those Bullets and Hawks (3-of-5 back then), but each time recovered to make it to the Eastern finals. Neither year, though, did the Pistons win the championship. Whatever, right?

The Sixers, after halftime of Game 4, were like those magic trick victims pulled out of the crowd and helped on stage, only to have the magician relieve them of their wallets, undershirts, or pants while the audience laughs. The Pistons seized control of the series in the third quarter of Game 4, and never relinquished it. That infamous, mythic "switch" that everyone keeps talking about became stuck in the ON position.

Philly fans, not exactly known for their compassion, reportedly gave their team a standing ovation after Game 6's 100-77 slaughter. They were recognizing an effort that resulted in a 22-12 season-ending run and a surprising pair of wins over the Pistons in the playoffs. Makes you wonder: did the Wachovia Center ventilation system get injected with nitrous oxide? Talk about out of character.

So now it's on to face the Orlando Magic, who aren't the runts the Pistons swept last year in Round 1. Dwight Howard has more confidence, and also a series win under his belt. The Magic properly took care of the inferior Toronto Raptors in five games. The anticipated matchup with the Celtics isn't fait accompli. The Pistons will beat the Magic, but don't be surprised if it takes all of seven games to do so.

Also, I give Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks high marks. He had his team ready to play at the beginning of the series, and he was loose -- joking with the Palace crowd frequently. That his team fell apart isn't so much an indictment against him as an affirmation of the Pistons' superiority. Way to go, Mo!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Thursday's Things

(on most Thursdays at OOB I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things That Former Avalanche Players [and coaches] Are Doing Nowadays)

Things I Like (and Don't Like) About Sports Coverage On TV

The idea of miking up players and coaches during games
Don't Like: When the sound bites are played back, and they're about as exciting as putting a mike on Marcel Marceau

Like: Pierre McGuire standing between the benches during NHL games
Don't Like: McGuire's constant reporting of each team's "body language", especially after goals -- as if he's giving us something we don't already know

Like: The fact that networks have more cameras at games than ever before
Don't Like:
The fact that networks have more cameras at games than ever before; too tempting for directors who are constantly fixing what ain't broke; discretion, gentlemen

Like: Goal cams inside the net
Don't Like: That half the time, you can't see what the hell happened from their perspective

Like: Those "pitch by pitch" breakdowns after certain at-bats
Don't Like: That there's no suspense; I already know the outcome! How about a pitch-by-pitch of an at-bat I HAVEN'T seen? NOW you're talking fun!

Like: Studio halftime shows with experts
Don't Like: That the panels are getting bigger and bigger; you need a panoramic view to capture everyone sitting at the desk; the host and the dude on the far right are in different area codes

Like: Interviews with managers live, between innings
Don't Like: The fact that they didn't come out with this when Earl Weaver and Billy Martin and Sparky Anderson were doing their thing

Like: Interviews with hockey players between periods
Don't Like: That they don't seem to ever have those towels around their necks anymore, sweating profusely and wiping their face every other answer; THAT was a hockey interview!

Like: Video replay for officials
Don't Like: That the first angle we see at home usually seals the deal right away, but the officials don't seem to know it until 10 minutes later

Like: That yellow line they super-impose on the screen during football games that tells you where the first down marker is located
Don't Like: That they don't have something similar at the stadium, to let you know where the nearest men's room is located

Like: "Any re-broadcast or re-transmission of this game without the expressed, written consent of the National Basketball Association is strictly prohibited"
Don't Like: That there isn't a similar policy requiring MY expressed, written consent before any hiring of Bill Walton for NBA analysis