Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pistons' Next Coach? Why Not Big Ben?

The NBA head coach is like a child in his terrible twos.

He's up, he's down. He can't sit still. He always has something to say. He's constantly asking his players, "Are we there yet?"

He stomps and screams and makes faces. He won't eat. He wants everything right now. Sometimes he needs a time out.

The NBA head coach has typically been a former player, and one who likes to touch the basketball a lot.

Point guards and small forwards have enjoyed the most success. Perhaps they're the most cerebral players. Nobody tell any behemoth I said that.

The NBA head coach, as a rule, hasn't been a former center or power forward. At least not the ones who've won a lot of basketball games wearing Armani.

These things happen. Goalies haven't traditionally made good hockey coaches. Pitchers aren't normally the best managers in baseball. When's the last time a running back became an NFL head coach?

So Ben Wallace has the odds against him. It's not the first time.

Wallace, the Pistons' soon-to-be 36-year-old center, went to Virginia Union, which sounds like something that should be in a Civil War Museum. Nobody drafted him, which isn't surprising, because nobody knew where to look.

Undrafted NBA players are lucky to latch on to a roster, let alone stick in the NBA for 14 years, as Wallace has.

Wallace found a place in the NBA because he could block shots and intimidate in the paint. It takes him a week to score 20 points, but that's not his game. That was odds-defying, too; not too many players stick around for 14 years being as offensively challenged as Ben Wallace.

Wallace found his niche and decided to be a master at one thing rather than try to be a jack-of-all-trades. He's been named the Defensive Player of the Year four times, and has made four All-Star teams. He has a championship ring, and came very close to snagging a second.

Not bad for an undrafted, undersized (he's 6'9", which barely qualifies as a forward nowadays, let alone a center) player from Virginia Freaking Union.

He's defied the odds, and will have to do so again, if what I'm about to suggest is to come true.

Ben Wallace ought to be the next coach of the Detroit Pistons, right after whoever is coaching them when he retires. Now bring your jaw back up from the floor and put your eyes back into their sockets.

I don't mean this season, or next. He just agreed to terms on a two-year contract as a player, anyway.

Wallace has a coaching gene in him, I'm convinced of it.

I've taken him to task in the past for failed leadership, but that was a few years ago. Since he returned to the Pistons last summer, Wallace has been a gem, counseling the younger big men. He can't wait to sink his tendrils into rookie Greg Monroe.

Wallace is a Piston, and always will be, despite not starting his career in Detroit, and fleeing for a couple of seasons as a free agent. He'll retire as a Piston. Whoever is the head man at that point, whether it's John Kuester or someone else, ought to hire Wallace to his staff, let him work with the bigs, and Ben should stick around until there's an opening a few seats down---which there invariably is in the NBA.

Wallace would make a good head coach because he had to work his ass off to attain the success he found as a player.

Bill Laimbeer is mentioned a lot as a possible NBA head coach. I agree with the mentioners. I see Wallace as Laimbeer with a mute button.

They're similar, in the sense that Laimbeer was a lumbering oaf with the sad-sack Cleveland Cavaliers who no one could have predicted would turn into a multiple All-Star and a two-time NBA champion.

Wallace was a lumbering oaf who couldn't score who was playing for the irrelevant Washington Wizards because no one else would have him.

No one talks about Wallace as coaching material because he doesn't have that "terrible two" side to him. Laimbeer certainly does.

But if yelling and screaming was all it took, John McEnroe would have been the next Red Auerbach.

Wallace was never a guard. The offense never ran through him. He never called plays, or even for time outs. His words can be measured by the handful.

But he's won, and he's been around a lot of different coaches. He can pull the best from many of them.

I wouldn't put anything past an undrafted multiple All-Star and NBA champion who played a position that he's several inches too short for, from Virginia Union.

Pistons coach Ben Wallace.

It's just crazy enough to work.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hall of Famer Spielman Was Born Too Late

We did it all wrong, the way we watched Chris Spielman play football for the Detroit Lions.

How dare we enjoy Spielman’s eight seasons with the Lions under a Teflon roof with climate control!

How dare we have him play the game on phony grass, without a snowball’s chance in Hell of even a raindrop splatting onto his helmet?

How could we watch him in the lap of the Silverdome’s luxury, an ice-cold drink in one hand and a red hot in the other?

Spielman should have been crunching ball carriers and blockers on a muddy field under a sheet of rain, wearing a leather helmet and shoulder pads made of the latest Sears catalogues.

He should have been wearing a jersey made of wool, and shoes that went over his ankles. The football should have been more rounded.

The other team should have been from Canton, not Tampa.

The on-field officials should have been wearing all white with floppy hats, not stripes and baseball caps. They shouldn’t have been armed with penalty flags—just whistles.

The playing field should have literally been a gridiron, sans hash marks. The goalposts should have formed an “H.”

There shouldn’t have been an ambulance on standby. Instead, just a megaphone and a call for “Is there a doctor in the house?”

The fans should have worn fur coats and twirled noisemakers. And they should have gotten there by horse and buggy, or at least not until hand-cranking their automobile engine started. All the men should have been wearing hats, many smoking cigars.

There should have been no facemasks or elbow pads. The forward pass should have been considered radical. The drop kick should have been part of the playbook.

The games should have been heard on radio, not seen on television. The accounts should have been read from a newspaper, not the Internet.

The players should have played both offense and defense. There should have been one coach per team.

Red Grange should have been around for advice. Jim Thorpe, too.

Chris Spielman was born too late. Like by about 50 years. To say he was a throwback isn’t enough. Spielman wasn’t a throwback; he was a pro football player from the 1920s and ‘30s who somehow was transported to our time. Robert Zemeckis ought to give him a call for the next “Back to the Future” treatment.

It’s a good thing something called football was invented, because without it, I’m not sure what Chris Spielman would have done with himself. Maybe strap on a hard hat and ram himself into a brick wall.

Spielman played football as if it was his duty. He treated the sport with respect and was mindful of its history and tradition.

One time, he scored a touchdown at the Silverdome and rolled into the end zone, pounding the football into the turf, like they did when FDR was president.

Touch. Down.

They put Spielman, the great former linebacker from the Ohio State University, into the College Football Hall of Fame last week.

Considering Spielman last played a down of college ball 23 years ago, I’d say someone was asleep at the switch on this one.

He’s finally in, but damn them for being late, because Stefanie Spielman wasn’t around to enjoy it.

Spielman got everything he wanted on the football field by willing it to happen. Everything except an NFL Championship, that is.

But aside from that, Spielman cracked heads every Saturday, then every Sunday, with behemoths from the other side. If there was a problem, he’d take care of it on the field.

Then his wife Stefanie got sick with cancer.

Spielman quit pro football in 1996 to take care of her. No word on who took care of him, however. It had to kill him, to be so helpless for the first time ever.

"People say, 'It's a great thing that you're doing,' " Chris Spielman said at the time.”I always say it would be a terrible thing if I didn't."

This was one opponent Spielman couldn’t beat into submission, but Stefanie proved to be as tough, if not more so, than her husband.

She gave breast cancer all it could handle. She was Joe Frazier and the cancer was Muhammad Ali. She’d win a round, and then cancer would take a few. It would land a big blow to the head, and Stefanie would counter with a jab to the face.

On and on it went for years.

Four times the cancer came and went. When she lost her hair to radiation, Chris Spielman shaved his head, too, in an act of solidarity and love.

But when it came back for the fifth time—cancer is as stubborn as the day is long—Stefanie didn’t have any more counter-punching left in her. She died last November, at age 42.

She had started an awareness group and became a spokesperson. The Spielmans became a sports couple to be admired and by whom to be inspired.

Her husband went back to the grind of pro football, but he didn’t last long. Chris Spielman retired in 1999 as a Cleveland Brown, his back and neck no longer in proper condition to withstand the head-on collisions that occurred every week.

So Stefanie wasn’t at last week’s ceremony in South Bend, Ind. At least, not physically.

Spielman was a Buckeye, and then he went to the Lions, which was like being plucked from the crystal waters of the Caribbean and being dunked into the swill of a swamp.

The losing killed him in Detroit. But there was just enough winning, eventually, to keep his hopes up. The Lions would make the playoffs, and then get drummed out in the first round, usually convincingly.

The last straw was the 58-37 thumping in Philadelphia in the first round in 1995—after the Lions had won their last seven games in a row to make the playoffs.

Spielman was 30 and he had had enough. He went to four Pro Bowls and led the Lions in tackles in all eight seasons he played for them, but after the playoff disaster in Philly, Spielman said the Lions were “spinning their wheels.”

He went to the Buffalo Bills for the 1996 season, and about a year after that, Stefanie was diagnosed.

Spielman probably won’t go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The collegiate honor will have to suffice.

Ironic, really, because Spielman was an old soul, more in tune with the players who were in the NFL during its inception than those he played with and against.

We had him for eight years in Detroit. We watched him play on plastic grass in perpetual 72-degree weather that was dry and sans wind.

That was just plain wrong.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

LeBron James's Act of Cowardice will Forever Tarnish His Legacy

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Literally, in the sad, pathetic case of LeBron James.

James, the mercurial star who jumped to the Miami Heat a couple weeks ago, has already, at age 25, tarnished his legacy in an irreparable nature.

Even if James manages to win an NBA title as part of the Heat's new triumvirate of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he's a loser.

The kid, by fleeing Cleveland, has put himself in a lose-lose situation.

Never will his legacy shine as brightly as those of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan. Not even close.

Especially not when two of those---Magic and Jordan---have already come out publicly as saying that they would never have dreamed of joining their rivals simply to form a powerhouse team.

"I came out of college wanting to beat Larry Bird," Johnson said of his plunge into the NBA after his sophomore year in 1979, when his MSU Spartans beat Bird's Indiana State Sycamores for the NCAA National Championship.

And thus was born an individual rivalry that injected the NBA with much-needed sizzle for a decade, when by that time Jordan was about to start winning championships---with a Bulls team that he paid his dues with.

Magic never once considered phoning Bird, suggesting a truce and a partnership.

Jordan, for all the heartbreak he suffered as a Bull trying to get past the Detroit Pistons in the late-1980s, didn't bail on the Windy City.

It would have been unthinkable.

What if Coke and Pepsi threw down their arms and teamed to form an uber-cola?

LeBron James is taking what he thinks is a shortcut to greatness. He's 25 but in a hurry, apparently. He's been led to believe, by someone, that he won't be considered truly great unless he wins the brass ring.

But James is too young, immature, and just plain short on brains to realize that by going to the Heat, he's done the exact opposite.

Anything LeBron James wins with the Miami Heat---and it's not fait accompli that he gets his championship, by the way---will be tarnished. It will be sneered at and derided.

James turned down more money to stay with his hometown Cavaliers, and went to the Heat instead.

It was a cowardly act.

James's Cavs surprisingly made the NBA Finals in 2007. They were swept away by the San Antonio Spurs, but making it was a high accomplishment. The last two seasons have ended in bitter disappointment in Cleveland---tons of regular season wins but playoff flameouts.

James's body language was abhorrent in the 2008 and 2009 playoffs when things began to go sideways for his Cavaliers. He has a "pouting gene" that the aforementioned superstars, plus many others who never won titles (John Stockton, Karl Malone, et al), never possessed.

The only glares and sour looks Magic or Bird or Isiah or Jordan had were reserved for the officials or for their opponents---not for their own teammates or their coach. And they certainly never sandbagged it on the court, as James did.

James's absconding to Miami was an act of cowardice because he didn't have it inside of him to stick it out in Cleveland. His impatience is only matched by his gutlessness.

James had an opportunity to never turn his back on the folks in northern Ohio, and to see the journey to an NBA Championship all the way through. He had the chance to be a genuine hero, and to be placed shoulder-to-shoulder with other true NBA greats.

LeBron James can't hold the jock straps of any of the superstars who won championships in the 1980s and 1990s. His heart is infinitely smaller. His fortitude is laughable.

James can't win by playing for the Heat. If he never wins a championship, that speaks for itself. But even if the Heat do manage a title, whose titles will they be?

The Lakers' titles were Magic's first, then closely followed by Kareem, Worthy, and the rest.

The Celtics' championships were Bird's first, without question---despite the Hall of Famers he played with.

Same with Isiah and the Pistons.

Certainly the same with Jordan and the Bulls---all six times.

But LeBron James and the Miami Heat?

You don't think that the Heat is still Wade's team?

Perhaps none of this is important to James---he couldn't care less about journeys or loyalty or missions. His Ohio roots mean nothing to him. He wants his ring and he wants it now. He thinks it cements his legacy as an NBA great.

This is where it gets pathetic, because James couldn't be further from reality by holding this misguided viewpoint.

LeBron James can win as many championships as his calculated plan can muster.

But never can he be held to the same idyllic reverence as those champions who preceded him. For they took the truest, most proper route to greatness---a route filled with pride, guts, honor and distinction.

James is taking a short cut, and all he'll find is a dead end when it comes to his legacy.

Shame on him.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pistons Could Have Left Detroit When No One Was Watching

They were a ramshackle pro basketball franchise, with a history of slapstick. Their story seemed to have been written by Mel Brooks in collaboration with Albert Camus.

Since moving to Detroit in 1957, the Detroit Pistons in 1974 had, at various times: hired their radio guy as the team’s GM; made a 24-year-old player the head coach; played playoff games in a Grosse Pointe high school gym; had a coach quit on the spot after just 10 games into the season; and had an owner that was so absentee, he only knew of his team’s nightly fate via the wire services.

All that, and more, played out against the backdrop of losing in a vacuum. A typical Pistons season in those days finished at 26-56, with home games attended by only a few thousand of Metro Detroit’s most curious. The Pistons didn’t have fans, they had gawkers.

But Bill Davidson liked pro basketball in the worst way, so the Detroit Pistons were perfect for him.

It was a perfect time, too. 1974 was pet rocks and mood rings and polyester and Richard Nixon out, Gerald Ford in. It was Patty Hearst with a machine gun and boycotts of lettuce. It was like the country threw up in its throat a little bit.

So what better time to lead a group of investors in buying the Pistons, the NBA’s deadbeat son? 1974 did very nicely in that regard.

Davidson, the millionaire from Guardian Industries, came from a world where a deal was a deal. So imagine his umbrage when Dave Bing held out for more money.

Davidson wasn’t the Pistons owner for more than a few months when superstar guard Bing wanted a raise from his 1973-74 salary, even though Bing was under contract at that rate.

Davidson didn’t understand. In his world, a contract was a contract.

The Pistons had just completed, finally, a relatively successful season in 1974. They went 52-30. Their coach, Ray Scott, was named Coach of the Year. The blind squirrel had found its nut. Every dog really did have his day.

Now Dave Bing wanted more money. He threatened not to attend training camp unless Davidson ripped up Bing’s contract and wrote another one.

Davidson looked at Bing and saw a petulant player who was using his team’s only good season in Detroit as leverage.

A year later, Davidson traded Bing away—for Kevin Porter. Davidson went from the frying pan to the fire; Porter’s photo could have been found next to Webster’s entry for petulant.

Such went the beginning of Bill Davidson’s foray into pro sports ownership.

Somehow, the Pistons remained in Detroit throughout the 1960s and early-1970s after moving from Fort Wayne, Indiana, even though the teams were lousy and the crowds were skimpy. The Pistons were dinner theater; the Red Wings, Tigers and Lions were Broadway.

Davidson’s predecessor, Fred “The Z” Zollner, was committed to Detroit. It would have been so easy to up and move the Pistons. He could have fled town with them and had gotten a one year head start before the team would have been reported missing.

But Zollner stayed in Detroit. He’s one of the most under-celebrated figures in Detroit sports history, for showing such resilience.

Today, Bill Davidson’s widow has shown how smart she is.

Karen Davidson, from the moment her husband passed away in March, 2009, made no bones about it: she wanted no part of being the owner of an NBA team.

Women usually are the brains of the group.

Karen Davidson has no delusions of grandeur, like her late husband did when he purchased the Pistons in 1974, thinking owning a pro team would be swell. She knows how shark-infested the waters can be.

“I think you need an owner that’s passionate, engaged,” she told the media during the latest basketball season.

What she didn’t add because she didn’t have to, was that she is not the passionate, engaged owner that the Pistons need. She’s the Accidental Tourist.

The Pistons are for sale. Only those sleeping under rocks don’t know that.

Karen Davidson stands to make quite a haul when she gets someone’s signature on a receipt. The Pistons are just part of the deal. She’s selling Palace Sports & Entertainment (PS&E), too—which includes the DTE Energy Theatre, Meadowbrook Theater, and the Palace itself.

The irony is that, after all those wretched years in Detroit in the pre-Davidson era, after all the times Fred Zollner could have moved the Pistons elsewhere, there are rumblings that after this upcoming sale, the Pistons might not have Detroit as their prefix.

“It’s always our preference to keep the sold team in its market,” NBA Commissioner David Stern told the media this week. “But we haven’t always been successful in that endeavor.”

Cue the foreboding music.

The Pistons would leave Detroit now , after all they’ve been through and all they’ve overcome? It’d be the couple divorcing after 53 years of marriage.

For what it’s worth, Karen Davidson doesn’t think that will happen. She thinks the lure of PS&E would make moving the Pistons unattractive to potential buyers.

But the fact that Stern didn’t slam the door shut on such a notion is a little troublesome.

The Pistons leaving Detroit? After 53 years?

We’ve already lost Stroh’s and Uniroyal and Towne Club. Vernor’s, too. And Hudson’s.

Karen Davidson thinks that’s not going to happen. David Stern says, cavalierly, who knows?

If the Pistons leave Detroit now, decades after having no business even being an NBA franchise—and after three championships and many near-misses—then the franchise’s story will not have been written by Brooks and Camus, after all.

It sounds like something LeBron James’s biographer would pen.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Modano-to-Detroit Will Work, If Given the Chance

Ken Holland comes from a world where the TV announcers say, "He'd probably like to have that one back."

He comes from a world where, when you make a mistake, they turn a red light on and 15,000 zealots with leather lungs might try to boo you out of the building.

It's a world where you're assailed with dozens of vulcanized rubber discs every night as the last line of defense. And when Holland played goalie for the Red Wings, he was often the only line of defense.

It was 25 years ago this summer, when the goaltender Holland became the scout Holland. The Red Wings assigned him to Western Canada, mainly because that's where he was born and reared.

Then it was 12 more years of working his way up in the organization, this time wearing a suit instead of the tools of ignorance.

Holland bided his time, learning how to put a hockey team together, as the apprentice of Scotty Bowman, no less.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997 and it was determined that Bowman would no longer hold the dual titles of coach and general manager. Holland was promoted.

Almost immediately, the naysayers were out.

Keith Gave, mostly right than wrong as Red Wings beat writer in those days, pegged it badly.

No way, Gave wrote, could the Red Wings stay on top with a rookie GM.

Gave fretted over the return of Bowman to strictly coaching duties.

Holland then went out and made some astute trades---several at the March deadline---and the Red Wings repeated as Cup champs, despite the loss of Vladimir Konstantinov to a tragic car accident.

It was following that Cup when Holland returned to his goaltender days and made a move that I believe he wished he could have back.

He didn't name it specifically, but I hit Holland with the question late in the 2005-06 season.

Go back into goaltender mode, I said into the phone, and tell me what trade or signing you'd like to have back, looking back on your almost-nine years as Red Wings GM.

He acknowledged there was one, for sure, that made him wince.

He wouldn't tell me what it was, for fear of embarrassing the individual involved.

I submit that the soft goal he let in was the signing of defenseman Uwe Krupp in the summer of 1998.

Krupp was a hulking man who, on skates, could almost have looked over the glass without even stretching. He wasn't a hockey player, he was a building on blades.

The German-born Krupp was signed from the hated Colorado Avalanche, where he had scored the Cup-winning goal for them in overtime in 1996. He wasn't known for being extraordinarily physical, given his size, but how physical does have a building have to be? You're still going to bounce off it.

Krupp came to the Red Wings, his wallet stuffed and before long, his back got creaky.

Krupp dressed for only 22 games during the 1998-99 season. He wasn't heard from the next season, or the season after that, his back too painful.

Then it was discovered that Krupp, while he was supposedly too hurt to play hockey, was participating in dog sledding.

That made the Red Wings mad.

It got ugly and into the courts. In 2001, Krupp said he was healthy and wanted to come back to the Red Wings. The Red Wings told him to stick it in his five hole.

Showing more fight in the courtroom than he had shown on and off the ice for the Red Wings before and after his injury, Krupp finally won the right to play for the Red Wings, after all.

He suited up for eight games in the 2001-02 season, Bowman not thrilled with him at all.

Bowman gave Krupp a shot in the playoffs, putting him into the lineup for Games 1 and 2 of the first round against Vancouver, in Detroit. The Red Wings lost both, and Krupp was minus five.

Bowman yanked Krupp and declared privately that the tall German building would never play another game for the Red Wings. And Krupp didn't.

Holland threw a ton of money at Uwe Krupp, when the Red Wings really didn't need another defenseman, despite Konstantinov's loss the year prior. The '98 Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, but Holland, in the pre-salary cap world of the time, couldn't keep from tweaking.

I believe it was the signing of Krupp to which Holland referred as being his "mulligan"---Holland's word to me in 2006.

Holland hasn't had too many mulligans in his 13 years of managing the hockey club in Detroit.

There are those who fear he might be on the verge of another one, if he's able to entice 40-year-old Mike Modano to play this season, and do so as a Red Wing.

The signing of Modano doesn't look as olly-olly-oxen free as it did a couple weeks ago. Where the Red Wings looked to be Modano's only suitors then, other teams have been mentioned lately as sniffing around the Westland native; the Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks are the two late entries.

There might not be enough money, when all is said and done, at Holland's avail to sign Modano, when put up against what the Wild and/or Sharks could possibly offer.

If that's the case, then the hand-wringers who worry about adding a 40-year-old center to the Red Wings roster need not fret.

The worry warts would have more credibility, to me, if Holland's track record with aging veterans was pocked with cautionary tales.

Instead, it's the polar opposite.

"We feel Mike Modano can help us," Holland told the papers. "We feel like he has some hockey left in him."

Those might have been the exact words Holland spoke in the late summer of 2001, when the Red Wings brought Brett Hull in when the interest in the veteran sniper was less than overwhelming.

Hull wasn't exactly fending off teams with a hockey stick when the Red Wings called. He was 37, and even though he had just scored 39 goals for the Dallas Stars, teams were put off by Hull's run-ins with coaches and his loud mouth.

Holland took a swing with Hull, and that swing didn't result in the need of a mulligan.

Hull scored 30 goals and the Red Wings won another Stanley Cup.

The worry warts think the Red Wings need to get younger, and the last thing they need now is a 40-year-old Mike Modano clogging the pipeline for players like Darren Helm and Val Filppula.

I've written it before: they do something funny with the water that flows from the Detroit River and into Joe Louis Arena. Somewhere in the bowels of JLA lies a fountain of youth.

Dominik Hasek. Luc Robitaille. Chris Chelios. Dallas Drake. Joey Kocur.

Shall I go on? I can, you know---for quite some time.

The Red Wings are more successful than other NHL teams with aging players because those players are brought in to play specific roles; they're not asked to do what they did when they were 10 years younger.

Compare that to the Detroit Lions, who all but embarrassed DBs Todd Lyght and Eric Davis during the Matt Millen administration, because the Lions wanted Lyght and Davis to be the players of their mid-to-late 20s, not their early-to-mid 30s.

There were times when I actually felt sorry for Lyght, especially, who was asked to cover, with his 33-year-old legs, receivers nearly ten years his junior. The results weren't pretty.

That kind of nonsense doesn't go on with the Red Wings. With the exception of Hasek, who was brought in at age 36 to be the starting goalie, the Red Wings make sure the aging guys are signed only if there are enough other pieces surrounding them to camouflage their deficiencies.

Mike Modano might not be a Red Wing, after all. The longer he takes to decide might mean the decision doesn't bode well for the Red Wings.

Doesn't mean it wouldn't have worked.

Kenny Holland feels Modano can help the Red Wings.

That's good enough for me, and ought to be good enough for everyone else.

Holland is a man of few mulligans, after all.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

For Once, No QB Controversy in Detroit

Take a good look at Matthew Stafford. Better yet, take a photo and store it in an airtight frame and lock it up in your safety deposit box.

Take a good look, because not much longer will Stafford have the boyish good looks that he currently possesses.

The young NFL quarterback comes into the league like a newborn—soft and smooth and with chubby cheeks. His legs kick a lot. He leaves with sandpaper for a beard, a limp, and with joints that need to be oiled daily. He has to be shoe horned into his clothes every morning.

Stafford, the Lions’ kid QB, still has his looks. He’s only in his second season, you know. He won’t resemble this 10 years from now. We’re talking about a position that ages you like the presidency.

Brett Favre used to be OK looking, to show you.

What has accelerated the aging of Lions' quarterbacks over the decades hasn’t just been Deacon Jones, Dick Butkus, Reggie White, or the Minnesota Vikings.

It’s been the enemy within.

Friendly fire has done so many of them in.

Milt Plum spent more time battling Earl Morrall and Karl Sweetan than he did the Lions’ opponents every Sunday. Same with Greg Landry, who was so busy fending off first Bill Munson then Gary Danielson, he hardly had any energy left for the Packers, Bears, et al.

On and on it went.

Danielson and Eric Hipple. Hipple and Chuck Long. Rodney Peete and Erik Kramer.

The Lions liked to think the competition was good. But the battle to be the starter was so intense and so time consuming and distracting, it was like winning a marathon and being told there were 26 more miles just around the bend.


The Lions had quarterback tryouts every summer—and into the fall—because they never had a quarterback. It’s similar to the old adage: If you have to ask how much it is, you can’t afford it.

Even Stafford, as last year’s No. 1 overall pick of the NFL Draft, wasn’t immune to the Lions’ inane insistence on annual quarterback tryouts.

Hard to imagine that, a year ago this time, Stafford—the gunslinger from Georgia—was in a life or death struggle with...Daunte Culpepper!

Culpepper’s out of the NFL now. Hardly seems like it should have been a fair fight. But the Lions wanted to make sure, so they ran the two out there during the exhibition season and the clear cut winner was Stafford.

If things go as planned, Matthew Stafford won’t have competition for his job for the next ten years. At least.

Now, finally, the Lions have a quarterback who needs only to worry about preparing to beat his opponents, not another quarterback.

Training camp starts later this month, and for a change, there’s no question who the No. 1 quarterback is in Detroit.

What will we do with ourselves?

Maybe we’ll marvel at Stafford’s arm, which is part God’s creation, part catapult.

Stafford doesn’t throw the football, he propels it. He could stand on Belle Isle and hit a receiver cutting across Windsor.

Maybe we’ll enjoy watching him mature, that ancient sports word.

The quarterback in his second NFL season is like a man who just walked through a car wash. It’s legalized hazing. He comes out battered, disoriented, and unable to see straight. Everyone tells him he’s better for it.

Stafford’s rookie season is under his belt. He made it through with all his faculties. That alone is a reason for a party. Now it’s time to become the young veteran leader.

Maybe we’ll get inspired by his toughness.

Last year, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day, Stafford led the Lions back from a huge deficit against the Cleveland Browns. He threw for the winning touchdown after briefly passing out from the pain of a brutal hit the play before. His throwing shoulder was separated and on fire when he jogged back onto the field.

Detroiters eat that stuff up.

I remember Scott Mitchell, softer than Charmin, in a playoff game in Tampa, back in 1997. Mitchell tried a quarterback sneak, and then he died.

Well, that’s what it looked like, anyway.

Mitchell lay on the ground so long, he started to take root.

I believe that moment is what finished Mitchell, for all intents and purposes, in Detroit. Coach Bobby Ross started Mitchell the next season, but pulled him after just a few weeks and that was it for Scott as a Lion.

Stafford has some continuity, too; he has the same head coach and offensive coordinator, two years running. That ought not to be such a big deal, but in Detroit that’s reason to feel flush.

But mostly, he won’t have any competition.

For the record, the backup QB is a guy named Shaun Hill. The Lions got him from the 49ers and he’s not a tomato can—he can actually play.

Still, I just as soon we not see him—no offense, Shaun.

The quarterback in Detroit is Matthew Stafford, and should be for years to come. Future signal callers will be drafted just so the Lions can be polite.

We haven’t had it this way since Bobby Layne took on the Bears and Cutty Sark back in the day.

This is all so new. We can’t go to bed without having our quarterback controversy.

Please sir, may we have another?

Sorry, folks. He’s fresh out.

The quarterback controversy is dead in Detroit. It’s gone the way of pay phones and Lindsay Lohan.

Nehru jackets will come back before another QB battle breaks out in these parts.

So NOW what do we talk about?

Friday, July 09, 2010

James Flees, and Cleveland Takes Yet Another Hit

Lucy pulled the football away again. The nerd got rejected by the homecoming queen. The house wins again.

Good got shutout by evil. The check's not in the mail, after all. It's a week of Mondays.

Cleveland isn't a city, it's a syndrome. It's pocked. The whole town should be enclosed in a plastic bubble. It's so tainted, you need to be inoculated just to drive by it.

It's OK to wonder now: what did Cleveland do to the Big Guy upstairs?

Judas didn't even get it this bad.

Cleveland, where every headliner has closed after one night.

The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot.

Now, The Decision.

Even the locals can't wait to beat it out of town.

LeBron James, the biggest thing out of Akron since rubber, has bounced out of Ohio.

This was fait accompli. It's Cleveland, after all.

You've heard it all before, like the story of the Hindenburg or Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign.

You've heard the tale of Cleveland, where no sports championship has been won since 1964. Where even the city's athletes caution against the town.

"The best thing about playing in Cleveland," one former Indians player once said, "is not having to make road trips to...Cleveland."

The story right now is bookended nicely.

It began with another superstar's defection.

Jim Brown, aka The Greatest Running Back of All Time, led the Browns to the 1964 NFL Championship and retired a year later, fleeing to Hollywood to chase an acting career, despite opposing defenders still not having figured out how to stop him.

Now James, aka The Greatest Basketball Player Currently Who's Never Won Much of Anything, is hightailing it to South Beach, to play for the Miami Heat.

Poor Cleveland. The Land That Time Forgot.

Well, someone isn't going to take this lying down. Someone is trying to rally Clevelanders.

Revenge of the Nerds.


The words are those of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, in an open letter to fans. The all caps are his, too.

Gilbert then got downright sinister.

"The self-declared former 'King' will be taking the 'curse' with him down south," Gilbert wrote. "And until he does 'right' by Cleveland and Ohio, James [and the town where he plays] will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma."

Is this the NBA or the Old Country? Is Gilbert a team owner or a voodoo magician?

You know it's an ugly breakup when the jilted owner says, in essence, "You'll get yours."

Only in Cleveland---a city that doesn't have fans, it has outpatients.

The town's sports teams since the Browns' title in 1964 have taken turns at messing with the minds of their faithful.

The Browns, Indians and Cavaliers have won divisions, some playoff games and playoff series. They've drizzled water onto the parched tongues of their fan base, then kicked the canteen over and spilled it all onto the desert ground.

Now James has fled, and even though there was no guarantee that the Cavs would have won a championship had LeBron stayed, it's pretty damn certain that they won't without him.

Look at what happened to the Chicago Bulls after Michael Jordan left.

But at least the Bulls won championships. The Cavs got good at winning 60+ games and then taking pratfalls in the playoffs.

According to the jilted owner Gilbert, you can look cross-eyed at one guy and one guy only if you're searching for reasons for the post-season flameouts.

"He quit," Gilbert said of James and his performance in the 2010 Conference Semi-Finals series against Boston. "Not just in Game 5, but in Games 2, 4 and 6. Watch the tape. The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar."

Relax, Danny Boy. LeBron James is the Miami Heat's headache now. He's going to a team with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and two other players under contract. And only one basketball to play with.

The Heat has to fill its roster, and after coughing up the dough for its three superstars, don't be surprised if you find a voice mail from Pat Riley, asking if you can give him 8-10 minutes a night.

Cleveland lost Jim Brown when he still had some football left in him. They now have lost James, the local kid, at age 25. In between they've lost fumbles, World Series leads, NBA Finals series, Joe Carter, the Barons, ALCS series leads, the Browns, and sleep.

What did Cleveland do to deserve all this?

It's the only sports town in America that ought to hold a telethon, complete with slow montages of its poor, pathetic fans, with morose music playing in the background.

Won't you please give?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Probert Not Most Talented, But Most Popular For a Time

They threw a party at Joe Louis Arena on January 2, 2007. The guest list was A+.

Alex Delvecchio. Gordie Howe. Ted Lindsay. They brought Sid Abel's ghost in, too.

It didn't stop there.

Dino Ciccarelli. Brett Hull. Luc Robitaille. Scotty Bowman. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

And on and on. Dozens of Red Wings players, coaches, and management types---past and present.

All the former players wore Red Wings jerseys with their name and number sewn on the back.

The occasion was the retirement of Steve Yzerman's No. 19, which was raised to the rafters that evening, prior to a match against the Anaheim Ducks.

As each of the stars was intoduced, and as they made their way from the Zamboni entrance to the dais, the ovation was of the deafening variety. These were the Who's Who of Red Wings history. They should have served a feast.

One player was late. The festivities were beginning, the introduced principals seated as the first speaker opened his mouth.

Bob Probert rushed by me, past my position near the Zamboni, where I was stationed helping out the Fox Sports Detroit crew that night. My job was to snag players for between-play interviews.

"You're late Probie!" someone yelled.

Probert's face was sheepish. He didn't want to go out there, initially. Someone nudged him, literally.

So Probert hastily pulls on his No. 24 sweater, jogs onto the ice, and you'd have thought Terry Sawchuk had been reincarnated and would be playing goal for the Red Wings that evening.

The ovation was as long and as loud---at least---as those for the Hall of Famers whose numbers Yzerman's would soon be joining near the catwalks.

Even Probert didn't know what to make of his reception. He blushed, acknowledged the crowd, and took his seat.

NOW the program could begin!

Bob Probert, the former Red Wings and Blackhawks player who died Monday at age 45, wasn't a great player. Hundreds of men suited up for the Red Wings who had more talent in their left pinky than Probert possessed in his mammoth body.

But none of them owned Detroit like Probie owned it.

Probert wasn't a hockey player, he was a spectacle.

Time was, you had a few pops in Greektown or the watering hole of your choosing, hopped on the People Mover to the Joe, and took in Probert first, the Red Wings game second.

"Who's in town?" was the question, but it wasn't what team was in Detroit---it was which goon from the other side was here.

The NHL of Probert's heyday---the late-1980s, early 1990s---was also an unashamed circuit of fisticuffs. They barnstormed through the league: Tie Domi. Craig Coxe. Troy Crowder. Mick Vukota. The championship belt was mythical, but no less tangible.

Probert took them all on---and won most of the time. He was an ambidextrous pugilist, which made him so dangerous. You wrapped up Probie's right, but then got pummeled with his left for your trouble.

Probert skated with a wide berth. Some nights, he looked like he was playing by himself. The nearest opponent was skating in Flin Flon.

Which is what made him such a great teammate.

Probert mixes it up with Tie Domi of the Rangers in a celebrated bout

Anyone who chose to take liberties with the Yzermans or Fedorovs of the Red Wings should have had his head examined. Or maybe the guy was just a hopeless masochist.

Bob Probert had one good offensive season. One.

It was in 1987-88, when as a 22-year-old on a line with Yzerman and Gerard Gallant, Probert scored 29 goals and made the All-Star team. He was so much a presence at the front of the net, I'll bet his 29 goals traveled a grand total of 90 feet.

He continued his scoring prowess in the '88 playoffs, tallying 21 points as the Red Wings made the Final Four.

That was pretty much it for the offense. Probert became the NHL's Heavyweight Champion, so goal scoring got knocked down the totem pole of importance.

He popped an occasional puck into the net, but he popped out eyeballs more often.

Bob Probert owned Detroit. Pure and simple. He was every bit as popular as Yzerman for a time.

When he got caught with cocaine and when his drinking came to light, it didn't hurt his popularity one bit. Typical of Detroit sports fans, for good or for bad.

But there was an empathy for Probert, underlying, among the fans in Detroit. They genuinely wanted to see Probie kick the bottle, dump the drugs.

He never could quite do it.

The Red Wings cut him, and the Blackhawks signed him. He thrilled the Second City folks for a few years.

Then Probert retired and he was married and was having kids and was trying to stay clean. He was growing up, finally.

He traveled overseas a few years ago, as a hockey ambassador of sorts, interacting with our military troops in Afghanistan. He began to write for a local sports magazine.

Probert was a Windsor kid, admiring the Red Wings from across the Detroit River. It was a dream come true for him to play for them.

He could have been much more, said Red Wings Executive VP Jimmy Devellano in the wake of the news of Probie's sad passing from an apparent heart attack.

Jimmy's probably right. But Probert was still a pretty damn big deal in Detroit, as it was.

God better look out for that left.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Today's Pistons Sans Identity

We can recall them now like all the infamous gangs—crews of James, Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, and the Black Hand.

Call Warner Brothers. Commission the first draft of a screenplay. Start casting the principals. Find a sexy femme fatale.

The godfather was called Daddy Rich. He wore $500 suits whose creases could slice an apple.

The wise guys were led by a runt that went by Zeke. His seconds were a big oaf named Laimbeer, a sharp shooter called VJ, and a quiet assassin named Joe D.

The minions had names like Spider and Worm and Buddha.

The architect of the whole operation, they called Trader Jack.

This marauding, brawling posse reigned terror throughout the National Basketball Association some 20 years ago or so.

The Detroit Pistons, aka The Bad Boys.

They were on the NBA’s Most Wanted List. G-men like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson were powerless to stop them, when the Bad Boys were in their heyday.

Enter the lane at your own risk. Zeke’s gang gave no quarter, showed no mercy.

They pulled jobs at all the NBA burgs. They were detested, feared, but celebrated—in that infamous way that we’ve reserved in twisted fashion for the likes of Charlie Manson and Robin Hood.

The Bad Boys didn’t play basketball, they committed it.

They squeezed the life out of you, 48 minutes at a time.

The Pistons of the late-1980s, early-1990s. Legendary now. Forget the Hall of Fame; their exploits should be in the Smithsonian, in the American crime history wing.

They traveled the league in their own jet plane, the first NBA team to do so. It was their getaway vehicle, parked on the tarmacs of all the airports around the country, the engines running. The pilot could have been prosecuted as an accessory, unless the Bad Boys held his family hostage in exchange for unmitigated destination-to-destination travel.

They were branded as thugs, bullies, heathens. They hardly denied it.

Zeke and the Bad Boys would swing into town, mug you for 48 minutes, and make off with another victory. You can practically imagine them in their getaway plane, cigars in mouths, swapping stories of infliction, as they jetted to their next stop.

They carried on in this manner, thumbing their noses at NBA Commissioner David Stern, Jordan, Bird, and anyone else who had a problem with they way they conducted themselves.

It was fitting that they were around courts so much.

Was there shame? Ha!

Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn—Ricky was one of the heavies, part of the muscle—once posed for a magazine cover with a deflated basketball and one of them was chewing on a rim. They wore dark glasses and sleeveless shirts. They all but dared Stern to arrest them.

Daddy Rich, Chuck Daly, was the coach but he wasn’t so much coach as he was boss. Daly was a hands-off administrator. He let Zeke and the Bad Boys police themselves.

When Trader Jack McCloskey traded for Mark Aguirre in 1989, Laimbeer and Zeke’s other seconds took the new guy to dinner. They may as well have taken him to a backroom and shined a bright light in his face.

Throughout dinner, Aguirre, whose reputation as being a team player was less than sterling, endured a third degree. He was warned: play nice here or we’ll break your legs.

And I might not even be exaggerating.

Whether you liked them or not, admired them for their brashness or were disgusted by their tactics, the Bad Boys had one thing that no one can ever take away—besides their two NBA championships.

They had an identity.

So did Creepy Karpis and Baby Face Nelson and Bugsy Malone, I know. But at least you knew who those guys were.

One of the Bad Boys alums—the one they called Joe D—is in charge of today’s group of Pistons. It’s not the easiest of gigs these days.

Joe Dumars has seen the highest of highs as a player, and as a team executive. He’s one of the few who’s won NBA titles as both player and GM, for the same franchise.

He was the quietest Bad Boy. Every gang needs one of those, who doesn’t say much. Daddy Rich would give an order, and Zeke would gather his seconds and minions to carry it out. And Dumars was the one leaning against the wall, chewing on a toothpick, nodding when given his assignment.

Last year’s Pistons finished an unsightly 27-55. They were Pistons in tank tops only. The franchise’s once-appropriate motto, “Going to Work”—leftover from the championship of 2004 and the near miss of 2005—fit it last year like a Speedo on Rush Limbaugh.

It was a team of no leaders, no guts, no passion.

And no identity.

Dumars’s charge is to rebuild his team into a winner, like the glory days. But right now he has no Zeke, no Laimbeer, no Spider and no Worm. The players wander around aimlessly, looking for their leader. It’s a bunch of Joe Pescis waiting for their Robert DeNiro.

At last week’s draft, Dumars grabbed Greg Monroe, a six-foot-eleven, skilled big man from Georgetown University—the school of Ewing, Mourning, and Motumbo. Georgetown used to be a Big Man Factory. John Thompson, the old coach, was a center’s kindred spirit. And Thompson sent some of the very best to NBA greatness.

Thompson’s kid, also named John, coaches Georgetown nowadays. And he says the Pistons got a whale of a player in Monroe.

Monroe isn’t the leader type—at least not now. But he should be a competent, steady player. A big—literally—piece to the puzzle.

I submit to you that Dumars needs to find an identity for his team. Right now, there’s no “there” there, as was once complained. The basketball clothes have no emperor.

It doesn’t have to be “Bad Boys, Revisited.” Not necessarily “STILL Going To Work.”

But it has to be something.

Dumars needs to figure out in what mold he wants today’s Pistons to be cast. The great teams all have their identities.

He ought to know.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Lions Play Scared When it Comes to Haynesworth

At the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, as the Soviet ships turned around and headed home, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk uttered the famous words that bottom-lined what just happened, when the world was led to the brink of nuclear war but averted it at the 12th hour.

"We just went eyeball-to-eyeball with the Soviets," Rusk said, "and they blinked."

The Soviets didn't have the temerity to push any further.

The Detroit Lions, some 47 years and change later, went eyeball-to-eyeball with the prospects of acquiring defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. And the Lions blinked.

The official team colors for the Lions are Honolulu Blue and Silver. You'd better add yellow to the scheme.

The Lions, according to a source identified by, are no longer interested in the huge talent and sometimes headache Haynesworth, who the Washington Redskins might be willing to trade.

The source says that Lions GM Martin Mayhew acknowledges Haynesworth's abilities and that those abilities could work wonders with No. 2 overall draft pick Ndamukong Suh on the Lions' interior defensive front.

But, the source added, "(The Lions) don't want any negative influences around" Suh.

Yellow management. A chicken excrement way of doing things.

The Lions, still talent deficient despite another draft and a busy off-season, looked at the potentially dominant Haynesworth and shook their head no---all because they're afraid.

I've supported Mayhew from Day One, when he fleeced Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys out of a No. 1 draft choice for WR Roy Williams way back in October 2008. He's been bold, aggressive, and has exhibited personnel savvy that defies his being an underling to Matt Millen for so many years.

But not this time. I can't go with Mayhew on this one. Mayhew regressed, playing try-not-to-lose poker instead of the trying-to-win kind.

An upper echelon team, one that's elite, can maybe afford to pass on a guy like Haynesworth and cite his track record of being a prima donna. They can afford to be a tad more picky.

The Lions don't have that luxury. They need talented football players, first and foremost. First you get them here, then you figure out how to deal with them.

I thought that the history Haynesworth has with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz from the pair's days in Tennessee would provide the final push over the hump, and that the Lions would actively pursue a trade for big Albert.

But I was wrong. The Lions not only blinked, they lost their nerve. They kept their chips and folded.

The Lions have won 33 games in the past nine years. If it wasn't so painstakingly sad, it would be frighfully funny.

Thirty-three wins in nine years, and they're going to pass on acquiring a player who could make their front four one of the best in pro football?

They're cowards.

This is pro sports, not college. Losing isn't tolerated in pro sports. This is America, where losing is despicable. And in no other sport is losing as horrible as it is in professional football.

All the planning, all the film sessions. All the strategy, all the practicing. For six days this goes on every week. Coaches work 20-hour days. Players work themselves into a rabid froth from Monday thru Saturday. On Sunday (or Monday) there is an accounting.

You play 60 minutes and when it's over and you're on the wrong end of the score, it's damn near disgusting.

Nothing is better than winning a pro football game, and nothing is worse than losing one.

The Lions are bottom feeders, and that means needing the intestinal fortitude to take risks in order to return to respectability.

By taking themselves out of the bidding for Haynesworth, they're handing out indictments all over the team.

They're saying that Sc hwartz can't handle a sometimes-headache player---one that he's coached before, no less. They're saying that Suh, so praised for his maturity and for being a quote-unquote good kid, is easily manipulated. And they're saying that the teammate support structure is broken.

They're afraid of bringing in Albert Haynesworth.

Guess what? They don't have that option.

You can't win 33 games in nine years and play scared when it comes to improving your roster.

The Oakland Raiders---the old version, not this New Coke recipe that plays at being Raiders today---made a mint and won some Super Bowls by signing and trading for some of the league's most notorious miscreants.

If you needed a career resuscitated, if you were a player who was being figuratively blackballed, you told your agent to give the Raiders a call.

The Raiders of the 1970s and most of the 1980s were a bunch of vagabonds. They were a snarling team made up largely of men who played with chips on their shoulders and with hate and vengeance on their minds and encircling their hearts.

They were like the team of prisoners in "The Longest Yard" and all their opponents were the prison guards.

The Raiders could only have been owned by Al Davis---before he started losing it upstairs. Davis prowled the field before the game with his sunglasses and slicked back hair and bling and he wore black and you were tempted to ask him where they buried Jimmy Hoffa.

His players were of that image---irreverant, sneering, distasteful.

Just win, baby.

That's what the Raiders did, with their miscreants and cast-offs and has-beens.

Jim Plunkett won not one, but two Super Bowls with the Raiders, and he did it on bad legs and with a passing arm that needed two throws to make it 50 yards. Plunkett was a two-time NFL loser, with the Patriots and the 49ers, when the Raiders got their dirty mitts on him. Then look what happened.

The Lions could have had Haynesworth at a relatively decent price, since the Redskins would be picking up most of the tab. They could have added a guy who, combined with Suh, might have made Detroit go crazy.

Haynesworth and Suh, together, could own Detroit.

What do they think, he's going to come here and act like a goofball on principle?

Elite teams can afford to think like that.

Bottom feeders like the Lions need good football players, not good people.

Sometimes the two are mutually exclusive, unfortunately. I will grant you that.

I want a team that wants to win---not one that's afraid to lose.

The Lions passed on Albert Haynesworth.

They lost their nerve. Shame on them.