Sunday, November 28, 2010

EMU Football's Futility Dwarfs That of the Lions

Ypsilanti, Michigan is 45 minutes west of Detroit, a dreary drive from downtown along I-94, a stretch of freeway that is as hard on the eyes as Rush Limbaugh in a Speedo.

You’d think you’d get rewarded for traveling such an unpleasant interstate, but when you exit the freeway toward Ypsi, you actually consider getting right back onto 94.

Ypsilanti is the town you pass through on your way to Ann Arbor, similar to how a root canal is something you have to endure before your toothache goes away.

Ypsi is a burg with sniffles and pain in its joints. The faucets in town should release NyQuil, not water. You can spend a weekend there and keep the change.

Its culture is a cross between down south country and the red light of Times Square. If they charged a toll to leave town, the city would make a mint.

Michigan Avenue is the dividing line; north of it is 1985 and south of it is 1967.

No one settles in Ypsilanti; they give up there.

But despite all this, the city does contain Eastern Michigan University, my alma mater (class of 1985). The home of one of the best teaching colleges in the state and a football program that should lose accreditation.

If anyone cared about EMU football, you’d have a real story on your hands. For what has gone on in Ypsilanti over the decades when it comes to football makes the Lions’ situation seem like a 24-hour virus.

At EMU, the season records every year look like ranges of numbers, not won/loss marks.

1-11. 0-12. 2-10.

When I arrived at Eastern as a freshman in 1981, the football team was in the throes of a losing streak that had passed adolescence and had entered the teens.

By the end of my freshman year, the (then) Hurons had lost 19 games in a row. During that season, the president of the student body delivered a petition to school president John Porter calling for the firing of head coach Mike Stock.

Porter passed on the suggestion.

The Huron losing streak reached 27 before they finally won a game on November 6, 1982—a 9-7 decision at home over Kent State, who was in the middle of their own 21-game losing streak.

EMU and KSU had quite a thing going on in those days.

EMU broke its 27-game streak by beating Kent, which was the Golden Flashes’ 11th loss in a row at the time. Kent’s last win before the streak began was against EMU.

Kent would go on to lose 10 more games in a row after the 1982 game in Ypsilanti, the losing streak reaching the aforementioned 21 games. Their next win wouldn’t be until November 5, 1983—over Eastern.

If it hadn’t been for each other, the losing streaks of EMU and Kent State in those days would have been even more outrageous.

It got so bad in Ypsilanti that the Mid-American Conference (MAC) looked at EMU’s football program and threatened to boot Eastern out of the conference.

They called it the “MAC Attack.”

We had some clever folks at EMU, eh?

It’s surreal even now as I recall the state of football at EMU circa 1982-84, when the program turned to desperate acts of marketing just to get fannies into the seats, thus meeting the MAC’s quota for attendance so the school could stay in the conference.

They brought in B-list acts like comedian Skip Stephenson and singer Lynn Anderson and even the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders to perform at halftime of games.

I remember the male fans booing the poor cheerleaders because instead of wearing their famous fringed halter tops and go-go boots, the girls came out in spandex bodysuits to combat the chilly weather.

Lynn Anderson was a joke, as she resorted to lip-synching—quite poorly I might add—her big hit, “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” She, too, was booed.

Football games at EMU back then were about 25 percent football and 75 percent circus.

But it worked; the school met the MAC’s attendance requirements and was allowed to remain in the conference.

Aside from a brief rise to power that occurred between 1986 and 1989, EMU’s football program has been among the worst in the country. Despite being closer to Detroit than its fellow MAC schools in Michigan like Western and Central, Eastern routinely gets its ass kicked in recruiting the PSL high schools.

CMU and WMU’s campuses are no nicer than Eastern’s, and the enrollment is about the same. But both of those schools have enjoyed more football success—by far—than Eastern has, and as an alumnus, I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of seeing EMU’s losses reach double figures every year while CMU and WMU can seem to field competitive teams almost routinely.

After the 2008 season, Eastern went looking for another head football coach—think Joe Dumars and the Pistons when it comes to frequency in this area—and hired Ron English, who was minding his own business as the defensive coordinator at Louisville University when EMU came calling.

English was known to the higher ups at EMU because of his time spent down the road in Ann Arbor, coordinating defenses for Lloyd Carr at the University of Michigan.

English seemed like a good hire. I applauded it, for whatever that’s worth to you.

English’s inaugural season in 2009 didn’t go so good. The (now) Eagles went 0-12. English had done something that I thought was impossible—he took over EMU’s sorry football program and managed to make it worse.

This year’s squad played its final game of the season Friday, at home.

Northern Illinois beat them, 71-3.

I don’t have the school’s football media guide handy, but I’m pretty sure that’s among the worst losses in EMU history.

Eastern finished the season 2-10. As usual.

And as if the Eagles needed something else to make recruiting Detroit high schools hard on themselves, English opened his mouth a few months ago and inserted a big football cleat into it.

Speaking to a reporter, English basically said that he didn’t think a man could properly coach kids raised by a single mother. It was his sloppy way of trumpeting the virtues of kids who come from dual-parent homes.

Guess which city’s football-playing kids have a low percentage of dual parents?

English managed to offend not only single mothers but also the PSL coaches who coach those mothers’ boys.

Eastern Michigan University’s football program has had one winning season in the past 21 years. In just about every one of those 20 losing years, they haven’t come close to .500.

It’s a school plopped in a depressing town that has the amenities of a motel on Eight Mile Road and the culture of yogurt. The least they can have is a winning football team for the people sentenced to live and go to school there.

More than once every 21 years, that is.

Friday, November 26, 2010

If the Lions Want to Stop Stinking, They Must Stop Stinking at the Top

Leo Durocher said it, though they got The Lip's word cockeyed a little bit. Still, the spirit is there.

You probably think that Durocher, the legendary baseball manager, said, "Nice guys finish last."

Not quite.

Leo, managing the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time (1946), was talking about his cousins from Manhattan, the New York Giants. Leo noted that the Giants were full of nice guys, like Mel Ott, but that they'd finish last anyways, as was their wont in those days.

"Nice guys," Durocher said of the Giants. "Nice guys; finish last," he added.

Thus was born "Nice guys finish last."

But I digress---as is MY wont.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz is, by all accounts, a nice enough fellow. So is his boss, Marty Mayhew, who hasn't done or said anything to indicate that he's anything but a decent sort.

I'm sure the Lions players are a bunch of dudes that you wouldn't mind hanging out with. There don't appear to be any bad apples among the bunch. The police blotter doesn't contain any of their names.

Yet they'll finish last in their division this year, as they pretty much have done this entire century.

It's easy to pound away on a keyboard and dictate who should stay and who should go when the subject is any professional sports organization.

So I shall, but I don't take this lightly.

There's evidence now, in the wake of the Lions' latest Thanksgiving Turkey, that there is discord among the troops. There seems to be two factions, based on the post-game comments from players uttered after the 45-24 loss to the New England Patriots.

There's the "We are tough and we'll bounce back" group, and their counterpart, the "Some guys need to get called out and take this more seriously" circle.

Two high profile Lions spoke words similar to those after the game: QB Shaun Hill, of the former group, and DT Corey Williams, of the latter.

This is all understandable, of course. The Lions have perfected losing football since 2001. They have that down pat. What they're having a hard time getting a hang of is this business about winning.

I've been a big supporter of Mayhew, the Lions' aggressive, means-well GM. He's had a couple of nice drafts in two years, and despite being the understudy for one of the worst sports executives of all time, the village idiot gene hasn't been absorbed by Mayhew through osmosis, thank goodness.

But the frustrated comments of Williams and the counterpoint by Hill indicate that the losing is taking its toll, even on an organization that's trying desperately to shed its old skin.


This "losing culture," a term that has been affixed to the Lions for the past 10 years like Velcro, can only be disposed of if the man on top of the mountain has been, well, to the top of the mountain.

No, I'm not talking about owner Bill Ford Sr.

The Lions have been a franchise that's subscribed to the "blind leading the blind" method of operating for too long. It's a twist, actually; the modus operandi with the Lions is more the "losing leading the losing."

Mayhew is a fine man, but he hasn't won in the NFL, wearing Armani.

Schwartz had never been a head coach before being hired by the Lions.

The team's stalwarts---basically players who've been Lions longer than this season---have never won on the field with anything close to consistency.

My opinion: the Lions, if they ever hope to truly shed their losing skin, must bring in a high-profile man upstairs with a reputation of getting it done. Williams, among his words of anguish, cited a lack of accountability in his diatribe.

The Lions don't win, haven't won, because they have no winners in the two positions where it matters most: in the executive's chair, and wearing the headset of the big cheese on the sidelines.

You can shuffle players in and out all you want; you can even have some nifty drafts, on paper.

It won't mean a hill of beans if there isn't anyone in the Ivory Tower who exudes accountability, winning, and success.

There are men like that who are out there, available---who could be coaxed.

A couple of years ago, Bill Parcells reached out to the Lions, i.e. Ford. Parcells wondered if his expertise might be welcome in Detroit.

Ford blew him off.

I think Mayhew has a nice eye for football players coming out of college. He hasn't hit on all his draft picks, but who does?

If the Lions looked---and they wouldn't have to look too hard---they'd find some folks who'd drop what they're doing and fly to Detroit to have a chat with Ford, who has a reputation among the NFL's circles for being one of the finest men you could ever work for.

That's one of the reasons why Parcells dialed up Ford; The Tuna knows a good owner when he sees one.

Ever since the hiring of rookie GM Millen in 2001, it's been the blind leading the blind.

Millen hired a rookie head coach, Marty Mornhinweg. Then, whether due to hubris or stupid pride, Millen failed to bring in a seasoned NFL personnel guy to help him with his first few drafts.

Those guys were out there, too---and they would have come to Detroit in a heartbeat, for this was way before Millen's stock plunged like Enron's.

But that's all water under the proverbial bridge.

I'm not calling for the firing of Mayhew. I'm not even asking for Schwartz's head. Not yet, anyway. Ford hates firing people, I know.

If Bill Ford Sr. could somehow be convinced that bringing in a top-notch NFL man who's had a history of building winning football teams would be a neat idea, then the Lions might have something.

Let Mayhew run the draft. Give Schwartz another year, at least, to see if he has the chops to be a quality NFL head coach.

A winner at the top who is teeming with success, accountability and no regard for the losing history in Detroit would be the best thing to hit the franchise since Bobby Layne stumbled here with whiskey on his breath in the 1950s.

Parcells, by the way, was recently quoted that he feels he has one more rebuild in him.

And he's not the only one who could make a difference with the Lions. Nor is he the only one who would love to come to the Motor City. Turning the Lions into a winner is the white whale that several quality NFL men would dearly love to slay. That individual would be set for life, whether with the Lions or any other franchise.

To be known as the Man Who Made the Lions Into Winners Again is a delectable prospect for the right guy.

That man is out there. The Lions just have to ask.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Kitna's Predicted 10 Wins Only Recently Realized By Woeful Lions

The declaration grew a life of its own. It would be used first as a rallying cry, then eventually as a weapon of mockery, rubbed in the face of the source of the words.

Jon Kitna's delusional expectations for his Detroit Lions in the spring of 2007, once it hit the airwaves and the Internets, spread like wildfire. Or cancer---depending on how you look at it.

The Lions of 2006, Kitna's first season as Lions quarterback, rode in at 3-13. Their third win came on the season's final week---in Dallas.

So here was Kitna, talking of his expectations for his team in 2007.

"I think we can win 10 games," Kitna said.

The daffy prediction drew ire, praise, and derision---depending on to whom you served it up.

The words made it into the ears and through the eyes of the entire fanbase within minutes, it seemed.

But Jon Kitna first spoke them to me. True story.

He was on the phone, chatting with me as I gathered info for the "A Few Minutes With" section of the Detroit sports magazine I was editing. Kitna was the subject. After several questions of eclectic variety, I put one more to him.

"What would you say," I said through the phone, "to the long-suffering Lions fans reading this?"

He thought about it briefly; there were several seconds of dead air.

Then he spoke with excitement, as if he had just remembered the answer to a trivia question.

"I would tell them that we're gonna win 10 games next season," Kitna said.

I reminded him that his words would not be printed in invisible ink.

"That doesn't bother me at all," Kitna said.

Well, a few days later, speaking to one of the radio stations in town, Kitna repeated his assertion about the 10 wins for the Lions in 2007.

That's when all of Detroit became awash with their quarterback's delusional giddiness.

Kitna's words, so infamously uttered, became so only after he spoke them into a phone through the radio. His conversation with me had been much more private.

Same declaration, totally different result.

Over three-and-a-half football seasons have gone by, and the Lions have only recently surpassed Kitna's 10 win total, predicted in the spring of 2007. The win total that Kitna thought the Lions could reach in a single season---not three-and-some-change seasons later.

Since the beginning of the 2007 campaign, the Lions are 11-47; they're 5-45 in their last 50 games. It's unbelievable in its ineptitude, that in today's NFL, a team could average just one win for every 10 games for over three seasons.

Kitna still wears blue and silver, but it's a different shade of blue, and there's a Texas Lone Star on his helmet---not the futile rampant Lion.

Kitna on Sunday was the latest quarterback to make mincemeat of the Lions, a team he so once gallantly led.

It took the Dallas Cowboys more than a half, and a flukey punt return to kick start them, but they had more than enough in the end to subdue the men in Honolulu Blue and Silver, 35-19.

The Lions, once again, used a suicide cocktail of penalties, a poor rushing attack and a second half swoon to blow a football game that they, if ever so briefly, held in control.

After a safety early in the third quarter put the Lions ahead, 12-7, the Cowboys' sparkling new stadium was cast with a pall. Kitna and his offense were mostly a rumor, aside from the opening, 98-yard TD drive.

When Kitna spoke his delusional words to me over the phone that spring day in 2007, he'd only been a Lion for one season. He had no idea how bizarre Lions football could be.

That bizarreness was on full display during a punt by Nick Harris in the third quarter, not long after the aforementioned safety.

Just when you think you've got a favorite bad/weird play in Lions history to hold up as a sampling of the franchise's bungling, along comes another one.

This one came courtesy of Bryan McCann, a three-time NFL loser who is suddenly one of the most dangerous return men in the league.

McCann, playing in just his third NFL game Sunday, nonetheless had the presence of mind of a grizzled veteran and took off running with the football at his own three yard line, following what appeared to be yet another great special teams play by the Lions' John Wendling, who batted the ball from the evils of the end zone.

A touchback never looked so good, after what McCann did.

Up the sidelines McCann scooted, 97 yards to paydirt. Maybe one of the strangest punt returns you'll ever see---and it went for six points. Against the Lions, natch.

I remember Lem Barney against the Cincinnati Bengals at Tiger Stadium in 1970.

Barney, punt returner extraordinaire in addition to being a shutdown cornerback (Lem was Deion Sanders before Deion was out of diapers), watched along with a group of Bengals as a Cincinnati punt rolled to a stop.

Just before the Bengals went to touch the football, Barney bent over, scooped it up, and zig-zagged about 50 yards for a touchdown.

There was a time when the Lions inflicted odd punishment, believe it or not.

Momentum is one of the most overused words/phrases in sports, right up there with chemistry and unsung heroes and "on the same page" and "at the end of the day."

But sometimes those words are appropriate in their use. After McCann's "excuse me" punt return, momentum indeed shifted, like San Francisco's terrain during the 1989 World Series.

You just knew the Lions were cooked, even though McCann's dazzling play only put the Cowboys up, 14-12.

Jerome Felton poured gasoline on the Cowboys' fire by benevolently fumbling on the Lions' next possession. Before long, it was 21-12, Dallas.

Goodnight, nurse.

How's this for the epitome of "same old Lions"?

After a week of talking and preaching and practicing in order to cut down on the before snap and after whistle penalties, the Lions had the Cowboys pinned on their own two yard line for their opening possession.

On the Cowboys' first play, Detroit DT Corey Williams jumped the snap and was flagged for encroachment.

The Lions are 5-45 in their last 50 games. It took them over three years to reach Jon Kitna's predicted 10 wins in 2007.

So when you see plays like what Bryan McCann made Sunday, shame on you for being surprised that they happened to the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver.

It would be more surprising if McCann had done that to a team other than the Lions, when you think about it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kuester in Quicksand Coaching These Bratty Pistons

Herbie Brown, when he first came to town in the mid-1970s, was a frenetic, nervous man with wide, plaintive eyes, long curly hair, and a mission.

He arrived in Detroit in 1975 as the new assistant to Pistons coach Ray Scott, who performed the task for two years without any help.

But Ray, one of the finest men you’ll ever meet, did a favor for a fellow coach and long story short, hired Brown to be Ray’s assistant.

That favor would come back to bite Scott in the you-know-where.

“I guess I didn’t see it coming like some others did,” Ray once told me.

You might know Herbie Brown by way of his more famous coaching little brother, Larry.

So Herbie comes to Detroit, joining Ray Scott, and before long it’s obvious to some of the sportswriters in town, like the Detroit News’ Jerry Green, that Herbie is gunning for Ray’s job, the “it” that Scott says he didn’t see coming.

Ray told me of a meeting he had along the Detroit Riverfront with Green, in a car near Cobo Arena, in which Jerry tried to warn Ray of Herbie’s intentions.

In January, 1976, Ray was fired, the Pistons tumbling from first place toward oblivion in the latter part of December and early January.

Herbie Brown’s mission was accomplished; he was the new Pistons coach.

For better or for worse.

The Pistons actually played hard for Brown initially, using a late-season run to squeak into the playoffs. Then they upset the Milwaukee Bucks in a best-of-three series before taking the defending champion Golden State Warriors to six games.

The following season, Brown was still frenetic and manic and he still wore shoes with no socks and open-collared leisure suits. He looked like a reject from Studio 54, coaching the Pistons in Cobo Arena and throughout the arenas of the day.

One day in practice, according to Green in his book “The Detroit Pistons: Capturing a Remarkable Era,” Brown was overseeing a ball movement drill and noticed one of the Pistons being checked in a mismatch by point guard Kevin Porter.

Porter was an angry, simmering player who scowled a lot and distrusted coaches. He and Brown were very similar people, which was part of their problem.

Brown saw the mismatch and implored the bigger player to shoot.

“You got a midget on you! Shoot the ball! You got a midget on you!”

Kevin Porter didn’t like being called a midget by the disco-dressing Herbie Brown.

That was part of the tenuous, stormy relationship between coach and point guard, which at times nearly turned physical in its confrontations.

Brown would sit Porter during games and not call on him for chunks of minutes at a time. Porter would glare and scowl. Herbie would finally call for Porter and it was even money whether Kevin would actually acquiesce and enter the game.

This went on for most of the 1976-77 season, a year in which the Pistons managed to win 44 games despite several key players (like Bob Lanier) holding Herbie Brown in complete disdain.

Herbie was eventually fired in December, 1977.

Herbie Brown rubbed his players raw, like a cheese grater. He yelled a lot, which even back then wasn’t the best way to get through to NBA players, even before they made salaries that would make a lot of corporate magnates blush.

Unlike Herbie Brown, Chuck Daly got it.

Chuck, the Pistons coach from 1983-92, knew his place. He knew that NBA players weren’t seventh graders who needed to be taught basketball and scolded. Rather, they were, in Chuck’s own words, 12 different corporations who responded to diplomacy and empowerment, even if the latter was disingenuous.

Chuck Daly’s brilliance was that he made it seem like the players were in charge more than he was. He let them police themselves, realizing that if you have tough-minded leaders like Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer on your roster, you might as well have them work for you rather than against you.

Once, during the 1985-86 season, the Pistons in a terrible slump, rumors were abound that Daly was to be fired—soon, any day now.

But Thomas went to bat for his coach. He encouraged GM Jack McCloskey to give Daly some more time.

A couple years later, the Pistons were in the NBA Finals. The next two after that, they won them.

Daly would end up as the greatest coach in franchise history, not that any of us saw it coming when he was hired from obscurity in 1983.

I can’t help but think of the cautionary tales of Herbie Brown and Chuck Daly as I watch John Kuester wallow in his tenure as the coach of today’s bratty Pistons.

No one seems to have Kuester’s back, as Isiah and Laimbeer did for Daly, back in the day. Rather, the coach appears to be surrounded by a lot of Kevin Porters.

As I write this, the Pistons have played 12 games. It seems like 112. The drama that has occurred so far is enough to keep a soap opera writer on retainer.

Guard Rodney Stuckey, who started yapping in training camp about being tired of not yapping enough previously, has already spent a game tethered to the bench as punishment for not leaving a prior game upon Kuester’s request.

Forward Tayshaun Prince has already verbally sparred with Kuester via the press, then cut out the middle man and sparred with him face-to-face during a game at Golden State last Monday. The coach had to be restrained during that delightful encounter.

The Pistons cannot compete with the league’s elite. There was a sorry blowout loss at home to the Celtics, which was one of the worst efforts I’d ever seen from a Pistons team.

Then the ultimate indictment came on Wednesday night.

The Pistons entertained the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, and they did so in every sense of the word. The Pistons laid down for the Lakers. They all but brought out appetizers and cocktails before serving them a main course of an easy win.

Afterward, Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who’s been at this NBA coaching thing for over 20 years now, delivered the worst zinger of the year.

“It looked like some of their guys weren’t playing very hard,” Jackson said.

They ought to put that on the 2010-11 Pistons’ epitaph.

It was the worst, cruelest blow. Jackson’s words, coming from a spoiled victor, ought to embarrass the Pistons to no end.

But you want to know the worst part?

Jackson’s charge won’t embarrass this group of petulant Pistons one iota.

John Kuester is no Chuck Daly, but he’s no Herbie Brown, either.

Still, Kuester is likely to suffer the same fate as Brown, eventually.

That’s usually what happens in the NBA, when you can’t get all the corporations that Daly spoke of to play ball—literally and figuratively.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kobe Bryant the Greatest Laker, and Maybe the Greatest, Period

He's the greatest Laker of them all, and in case you didn't know, that franchise hasn't exactly had chopped liver playing for it over the generations.

It all started with No. 99, George Mikan, the NBA's first Redwood. That was when the lakes the team played near were in Minneapolis, not Los Angeles. Mikan was 6'10" at a time when any player whose head top rose more than six feet from the ground was considered basketball-ready.

Mikan played among relative Lilliputians, but that doesn't take away from the trail he blazed in the NBA; that is, being the first true big man who wasn't as immobile as a pylon, and who was dominant.

Mikan only played seven seasons in the NBA, but that's like saying Godzilla was only in Tokyo for half an hour. George left his mark, make no question.

Then there was the terrific duo of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, once the franchise moved westward to Southern California. The ole lefty from UCLA, Gail Goodrich, joined them in 1965 and soon afterward did Wilt Chamberlain, and key role players like Happy Hairston, Jim McMillian, Keith Erickson and Leroy Ellis, and that's how you win 33 straight games, as the Lakers did in 1971-72---and Baylor only played in nine games that season.

There was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who came over from the Milwaukee Bucks in 1975 and who would become the league's all-time leading scorer. Earvin "Magic" Johnson went from an NCAA Title with Michigan State in 1979 to an NBA Championship with the Lakers one year later.

Kobe Bryant trumps all of them. Heck, he might trump just about anyone who wore any uniform, except for Michael Jordan---and it's not a slam dunk (pun intended) that MJ was the better player.

The Lakers are in town to play the Pistons tonight. Once upon a time that meant a playoff-like atmosphere and a possible preview of the NBA Finals.

Thanks to the schedule makers, Western Conference teams only invade the Eastern arenas once a season, and vice-versa. So if you miss Kobe and the Lakers tonight, and with the state of the Pistons, you'll have to wait till next season to see the Greatest Laker of Them All.

It may seem like you've been in a time machine going backwards when you look at Bryant's age and see that he's only 32 years old. For opposing teams, that's like having the week from Hell and realizing that it's only Tuesday.

You don't have to like Kobe Bryant as a person. You don't have to include him on a list of folks you'd like to have dinner with, or to marry your daughter. It's OK if you keep a dart board in the basement with his photograph taped to it, or a voodoo doll with a Lakers No. 24 jersey on it.

It doesn't change the fact that Bryant is the greatest of all the Lakers, and when he calls it quits, he might have supplanted Abdul-Jabbar as the player who's tallied the most points ever.

It's quite possible, you know.

Kobe has a little more than 26,000 points as I write this. Kareem finished his brilliant career with 38,387 points, with only one measly three-point field goal among them.

So Bryant needs about 12,000 points to surpass the second greatest Laker of all time and become the No. 1 scorer in NBA history.

If he plays at a relatively high level---scoring between 1,800 and 2,000 points per season---Bryant can become the all-time leading scorer in six or seven seasons. He'd be 38 or 39, and you'd be foolish to bet against him still being an impact player at that age.

Remember when Shaquille O'Neal left L.A. and smirked that Kobe couldn't become a champion without the Almighty Shaq?

The Lakers are two-time defending champs and Bryant is two-time defending Finals MVP, nipping at the heels of Shaq, who won three straight of those from 2000 to 2002.

Kobe Bryant pops in about 25 points a game (at least), grabs five boards, and dishes off about that many assists. Every night. Been doing that for, oh, 12 years now. That's all.

He'll shoot his 45 percent from the field, his 84 percent from the stripe, and break your back with an occasional three-pointer at the worst possible time. He commits 2.4 fouls per game and draws about three times that many on any given night.

Has he had his moments with coach Phil Jackson? Has he feuded with teammates? Has his personal life left something to be desired?

Triple yes, but he wears five rings and has come in second place twice. You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

They say Kobe Bryant is petulant and thinks about himself first and is, frankly, a spoiled NBA brat.


He's been all those things, at one point or another. But show me an NBA player who's never been selfish, and I'll show you an unemployed NBA player whose only rings are around the collar.

You think pro basketball is a team sport first? You think you can win in today's NBA without a megastar?

Then you must be a fan of that other team that plays in the Staples Center.

Kobe Bryant is the Greatest Laker of All Time. It says here that, before you know it, he'll be the NBA's All-Time Leading Scorer, too.

And at that point, Michael Jordan's legacy as the NBA's greatest player ought to be under a cloud of doubt.

Like it or not.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hill's Gaffe Joins the Lions' Slew

Somewhere near Houston, Texas, Dan Orlovsky is breathing a sigh of relief.

When last seen by Lions fans, Orlovsky, now a backup with the Texans, was dancing out of the end zone in Minnesota, inexplicably running out of the field of play with the football and into the Lions Hall of Shame, perpetrating the funniest safety in the history of pro football.

Orlovsky is so yesterday. Shaun Hill is all the rage this morning. Poor Drew Stanton; he was trendy for all of one week, until Hill came along and shoved Stanton's mistake (throwing an ill-advised pass instead of taking a sack and killing clock) from last Sunday aside.

Hill wiped Stanton and Orlovsky's gaffes off the Lions' map as if they were written on a dry erase board.

Whether you had little or no confidence that the Lions would convert a two-point conversion Sunday against the Buffalo Bills in the waning moments of the game, or that you thought it was doable, chances are you didn't have "throw the ball out of the end zone" in your mental pool of possible outcomes.

Yet that's exactly what Hill did.

Once again a quarterback who should know better suffers from an attack of cranial flatulence at the worst possible time for the Lions.

The Lions were on the verge of perhaps tying the 0-8 Bills after driving down the field for a touchdown with 19 seconds left, making the score 14-12, Buffalo.

Then Hill struck, like lightning on a golfer.

Doubtless Hill's first option on the conversion attempt was Calvin Johnson, but apparently CJ was unavailable. So Hill scrambled, surveyed the end zone, and took his time exploring his options, for the Lions' offensive line did its job admirably.

Finally, Hill let loose with the football, just barely underthrowing the guy in the first row behind the end zone.

Hill's target was Brandon Pettigrew, who would have had to have been a Transformer in order to even get his mitts on the football.

No word on whether Hill was expecting to get another down.

So add that to your List of Ways to Collapse into Defeat in the NFL, by the Detroit Lions.

Hill's curious chuck joins Stanton's curious decision to throw and Orlovsky's curious decision to scramble out of the end zone. It joins Take the Wind and Go for Two and I Don't Coach This Stuff and The Bar is High.

It joins What Does a Guy Have to Do to Get Fired Around Here? and Pound the Rock and Take Barry Out of the Game at the Goal Line.

It joins Let's Record "Another One Bites the Dust" While We're 4-0 and I Just Have to Hire Marty Mornhinweg Before the Browns Do.

It will forever take its place with Drafting Andre Ware and Chuck Long and Joey Harrington and Charlie Rogers. It now joins Aaron Gibson Can Block out the Sun and We're Married to Charlie Batch.

It now resides with 0-24 on the Road and its cousin, 0-25 on the Road.

It fits perfectly with 5-44 since the eighth game of 2007 and We Let Matt Millen Have Almost Eight Years Before We Realized Something Was Terribly Wrong.

Hill's grenade is now asking Let's Sign Daunte Culpepper to move down a space.

It joins Put Suh in to Kick and I Can't Figure Out this Whole Clock Management Thing.

And it, of course, now is in the rarefied air of the sacred 0-16 Cow.

Shaun Hill threw the football out of the end zone on a two-point conversion. It should be engraved on his tombstone. Give me the chisel. Someone should sew a scarlet HTTFOOTEZOATPC on his jersey. Fetch me a Singer machine, forthwith.

Maybe the football slipped out of his hands, the Devil's Advocate in you might say. It WAS rainy, after all.

That's kind of you, but I'm not buying it.

Hill has ten whole yards to work with, when throwing a football into the end zone. If you call throwing it nearly 15 "slipping out of his hand," then you're either his mother or giving the biggest pardon since Ford excused Nixon.

Throw an incompletion IN the end zone. Hell, throw an interception. While those two results aren't desirable, either, they're a helluva lot more digestible than throwing the football halfway to Toronto.

Hill gave the Lions a chance to tie the game then took it away seconds later. Who made him God?

Only the Lions, right?

0-16 is safe for another year. Pop the Vernor's.

0-25 on the road, however, is alive and well and looks to be promoted to 0-26 in Dallas next week.

I like his chances.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Isiah's Obsession with the Knicks Almost Disturbing

Ladies, how long would you stay married to a spouse who continues to pine for his ex? How much would you put up with it, if said spouse was so bold as to go public about his desire to get back together with the one who jilted him?

What would you do if hubby said, when asked if he ever thinks about returning to his ex-wife, “Every single day of the week”?

Jack would be hitting the road, would he not?

Florida International University is the abused, neglected wife of schools. FIU must have the self-esteem of a bullied adolescent. And it’s taking its abuse lying down.

Isiah Thomas is the school’s basketball coach. For now. Until the New York Knicks call; after that, it’s sayonara.

Thomas says so—plainly, boldly.

There was a time when Isiah Thomas was beloved in Detroit. He was a runt, but he was our runt. He came to town as a 20-year-old kid drafted by the Pistons from Indiana University, off the streets of Chicago. He had a smile that lit up a room, but that smile hid the heart of an assassin.

Isiah bounded into Detroit and there didn’t seem to be any B.S. about him, except what was on the degree he would one day receive, having left college after his sophomore year.

Isiah spoke honestly and with an edge. He smiled a lot but you wanted him to be smiling with you, not at you. There was a big difference, as we would come to find out.

He arrived in the summer of 1981 and it didn’t take him long before his honesty made us squirm a little.

After looking at the Pistons’ roster—the team finished 21-61 the year before Isiah joined them—Thomas had a question.

“Who,” he wondered without any hint of sarcasm, “will I pass the ball to?”

He was serious. And he should have been. The Pistons were devoid of talent, as thin as onion skin in the depth department. Isiah’s creativity was at its apex when he led Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA Championship.

Pistons GM Jack McCloskey drooled when he thought of what a player of Isiah Thomas’s personality and basketball magnitude could do for his squad.

But Isiah was right; the Pistons didn’t really have anyone worthy of his whirling dervish style or his pinpoint passes.

Once he got Isiah signed, McCloskey went to work assembling a roster more befitting his new point guard’s skill set.

Within a year, McCloskey acquired Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson to complement Isiah and fellow rookie Kelly Tripucka.

The Pistons jumped from 21 wins to 39 in Isiah’s first season.

You know the rest. Isiah—some around town called him Zeke—passed and scored his way into the NBA’s elite, slowly but surely. And he took the Pistons along with him. Thomas’s Pistons won two straight championships, and could have won a third.

Thomas was cold and calculating on the basketball floor. He didn’t want to beat you, he wanted to humiliate you. He had the Napoleonic Complex to the nth degree.

Isiah was as tough as an undercooked flank steak and as competitive as a hungry stray dog.

Isiah Thomas was, quite simply, the single greatest player to ever play for the Pistons. Still is, truth be told. He’s been retired for 17 years and no one has come close to him as an all-time Pistons great.

You could make a case that Isiah was the greatest small guard to play in the NBA. Ever.

That was then.

I don’t have much use for Isiah nowadays. I haven’t really for many years. His life and career post-playing have left too much to be desired. My opinion.

Now Isiah’s at it again, giving us way too much information about his obsession with the Knicks, which borders on disturbing.

Thomas was fired by the Knicks as team president in 2008 after nearly five years at the helm, on the heels of poor performance on the court and in the courts.

The Knicks team that Thomas constructed was a disaster, with its revolving door that ushered in both players and coaches—and he was one of the coaches. Isiah had a chance to bring the hallowed Knicks name back into relevance, something the NBA to this day would kill to make happen.

But he blew it. Isiah helped make the Knicks a cartoon, an embarrassment to the world’s greatest city and to the league.

Isiah was a bully in a china shop, running the Knicks. Yes, I said bully.

There’s a dark side to Isiah Thomas, you see. Ask anyone who hasn’t been the recipient of his famous smile. Ask anyone who’s dared to disagree with him on matters of relative importance.

One such bully victim was Anucha Browne Sanders, a bright female marketing executive with the Knicks before being fired, who sued the franchise and Thomas and who won, claiming sexual harassment that took place with the alleged complicity of Thomas.

The Knicks were losers in Madison Square Garden and in the courthouse. All that losing got Thomas fired.

Yet Isiah still pines for the Knicks.

Earlier this year, the Knicks tried to hire Thomas as a consultant, until the league stepped in, waggled its finger, and said “Nuh-uh—not while you’re under the employ of a university as its basketball coach.”

That should have put an end to Thomas’s fixation with the Knicks but it didn’t—not even close.

In a recent interview with ESPN New York, Thomas admits that he thinks about returning to the Knicks as team president “every single day of the week.”

There’s more.

Thomas says that if he was left in charge of the Knicks, LeBron James would have come to New York, and James would be bringing Dwyane Wade with him.

It was hardly the first time that Isiah has publicly admitted to still being smitten with the Knicks, a franchise with which he has fallen into irreversible lust.

All this, and FIU—his employer, by the way—doesn’t say a word.

It’s a classic case of the abused wife who everyone says should leave her husband, yet she doesn’t for whatever warped and pathetic reasons.

Thomas has been the coach at FIU for one season, a year in which his team went 7-25. He says he’s committed to bringing a winner to the Miami-based campus, but how can that be when he thinks about the Knicks “every single day of the week”?

If Florida International University had one ounce of self-respect for itself and for the kids on the basketball team, they’d fire Isiah yesterday. They should have canned him when Thomas tried to take that consultant’s job with the Knicks.

FIU should say, “You think about the Knicks every day, Isiah? Now you can have as much time as you want to think about them.”

FIU deserves better. Those kids playing basketball deserve better. They need a coach interested in them, not the New York Knicks.

Oh, Isiah!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ageless Lidstrom Still NHL's Best

The best hockey defenseman in the world is 40 years old, but that's by birth certificate only. He has the shell of a 40-year-old but the insides of someone 20 years his junior.

Nick Lidstrom isn't a human being. I've come to that conclusion. He's a robot, the result of some mad scientist's secret project. Mike Babcock doesn't coach Lidstrom, he just makes sure Nick's battery pack gets plugged in after every game.

The paperwork will tell you that Lidstrom was drafted in 1989. Don't believe it; that's when he was animated.

The Red Wings keep Lidstrom in storage all summer and then break him out in October for another 82-game sojourn through the NHL. Babcock sends him over the boards to the tune of 25-30 minutes a night and that's the end of the coach's worries about Lidstrom's performance.

Lidstrom has played in the league for about 20 years and there isn't a scratch on him. In a game of ramrodding and elbows to the mouth and crosschecks to the back, Lidstrom has emerged virtually unscathed after two decades. He's not human.

It may be among the most unbelievable feats in all of sports that Nicky Lidstrom can be the best defenseman in the league on an annual basis yet not hit anyone, not even by accident. You'll get jostled more at the mall during the holiday season than the physical damage Lidstrom has doled out in 20 years.

In a game of speed and collisions, Lidstrom sees the hockey rink as a giant chess board surrounded by billiard cushions. He doesn't have to hit you because he plays the angles; he knows where the puck is going because he sees where it's coming from. He doesn't bother with bodychecking because why check someone after you've stripped him of the puck?

Lidstrom is 40 and is playing this season fresh as a daisy. In 13 games so far, he has two goals and 13 assists for 15 points. He's been whistled for all of six penalty minutes. Lidstrom is the only player in the league who the refs apologize to on his way to the penalty box, because surely there must have been some kind of mistake.

Lidstrom plays hockey with the efficiency of a coffee filter, and with about as much effort. He plays 30 minutes a game but he doesn't actually play them, he conducts them, like clinics. Have you ever seen him sweat?

Lidstrom isn't human, I'm telling you.

This is a man who ends opponents' rushes into the Detroit zone like an altar boy with a candle snuffer. Some Fancy Dans have tried stickhandling past him, but that's like trying to beat a frog in a staring contest, or a man trying to win a fight with his wife.

Others have tried sucking Lidstrom into them and then passing the puck, but Nick's hockey stick is more precise than a surgeon's scalpel. He's ruined more passes than a girl in a bar full of drunks.

Lidstrom isn't human; how else to explain why he's playing at the highest of levels, still, at age "40" (snicker, snicker)? How else to explain why he doesn't lose the Norris Trophy, he only lends it out?

Lidstrom isn't slowing down because neither do rechargeable batteries.

It's not just the defending that makes Lidstrom unworldly.

On Monday night in Detroit, the Red Wings were trailing 2-1 in the third period with about seven minutes left in the third period. They were tired and worn from having jetted from Vancouver the previous day. When the players woke up to drive to the arena, their bodies said, "Are you kidding me?"

Except for Lidstrom, of course.

His team needing a goal, Lidstrom teed up one of his signature slap shots from the point and blasted it where Phoenix goalie Ilya Bryzgalov wasn't---in the lower right corner of the net.

That's the other thing---Lidstrom is the Wee Willie Keeler of defensemen; he hits them where they ain't.

Lidstrom tied the game and the weary Red Wings managed a winning goal in overtime, after which Lidstrom skated off the ice and back into his charger.

Lidstrom is 40 and they've been asking him for several years now how much longer he's going to play. He's long been accused of wanting to return to his native Sweden and enjoy his golden years there.

They started this kind of talk four or five years ago and look who's still in Detroit, still in the NHL, deflecting passes and getting in the way of shots and popping in about 12-15 goals a year.

Not that they're going to stop asking. Lidstrom isn't getting any younger, you know.

But he's not getting any older, either.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Lions Robbed, and It Was an Inside Job

The Lions were nursing a slim lead late in the football game. They held the ball and needed to only eat some more clock before relinquishing the pigskin with a punt deep into their opponent's territory.

They do that, and victory would almost certainly be theirs.

Suddenly, the addled quarterback faded back to pass.

"What is he doing?" the Lions' Hall of Fame linebacker asked on the sideline as he watched in horror as the play unfolded. "Why is he passing now?"

The pass on the muddy field in Green Bay was intercepted. After a long return and a few obligatory running plays, the Packers' Paul Hornung kicked a chip shot field goal and the Lions, victory once so close, let the game slip through their hands.

That was the scene in Green Bay in October, 1962, when the Lions lost a gut-wrencher that effectively killed their Western Division title hopes. The loss divided the offense and the defense. Defensive tackle Alex Karras, in a blind rage, threw his helmet at QB Milt Plum's head in the locker room afterward. Joe Schmidt, the aforementioned Hall of Fame linebacker, was angry and confused.

The talented Lions, playing their hearts out in Green Bay, were clotheslined by their own coaching staff. Everyone knew a running play was in order, not a pass.

Fast forward 48 years and some change later. The situation was eerily similar.

Center Dominic Raiola struggled to find the words to describe what happened on the Ford Field playing surface in the latter stages of the fourth quarter and overtime of Sunday's poisonous 23-20 loss to the New York Jets.

"This is," Raiola finally said, "the worst loss I've ever experienced here."

Raiola has been a Lion for 10 years now. The team's record since his arrival from college is a ghastly 35-117. So when Raiola says Sunday's loss to the Jets was his worst ever as a Lion, that's like a TV critic calling William Shatner's latest performance the worst he's ever seen from Captain Kirk.

But who can blame Dominic?

The Lions and their fan base have complained about the officials conspiring against them. They've had their wind sucked out of them because of injuries. They've cursed themselves for taking a gun out and firing it at their foot, repeatedly.

They shouldn't have to worry about their own coaches placing the gun in their hands.

The Lions were robbed yesterday, only it was an inside job. Friendly fire got them.

The Jets didn't beat the Lions Sunday. This game was embezzled from them, from within. The coaching staff cooked the books and left the team winless.

Head coach Jim Schwartz ought to be arraigned this morning, not giving a press conference. He took a football game from his team that they fought like mad to grab. The Lions were sitting on the brink of respectability, until Schwartz pushed them off the cliff.

How else to explain it? How else to atone for what happened at Ford Field, when the Lions had the football, their opponents sans timeouts, and an easy way to bite off 40 seconds or so from the game clock?

How else to explain the goofball decision to try a bootleg pass on a 3rd-and-five with a third string quarterback who hadn't played until the last few minutes? How else to explain why you would try a pass instead of a run? How else to explain why you'd be so gracious as to stop the clock for your guests?

The Lions shouldn't have tried that pass in Green Bay 48 years ago, and they shouldn't have tried it yesterday.

Maybe with Matthew Stafford in the game, you might entertain thoughts of a pass in that situation; after all, a first down would have effectively sealed the Lions' win. But with the less-than-accurate Drew Stanton---and that's when he's been playing all afternoon---behind center, it's Football 101 to hand the ball off and consume clock.

Or, at least I would have thought so.

You know what happened. Stanton's clumsy rollout and badly thrown pass fell incomplete, and the clock stopped cold, like a bad heart.

1:54 remained when the Lions lined up for a punt. The clock should have had at least 40 seconds shaved off that total when Nick Harris took the snap.

As it was, the Jets got the football back with 1:43 left, instead of the sub-1:00 that should have been remaining.

Sure enough, Jets QB Mark Sanchez took advantage of the extra time and led his team to a tying field goal at the end of regulation.

The Jets won the coin toss and marched forthwith to the game-winning field goal.

And that's why the Jets are going to the playoffs and the Lions are among the NFL's dregs.

This one hurts bad, maybe more than all the other losses this season. Heck, maybe Raiola is right; maybe this is the worst loss since 2001.


Where do you want me to start?

The Lions were looking at a 3-5 record, and three wins in their last four games, including three straight at home. They were looking at 3-5 with the usually woeful Buffalo Bills and newly-woeful Dallas Cowboys next on their schedule. They were looking at, perhaps, 5-5 when the fans reconvened at Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day.

How would that have been, huh?

The Lions would have, finally, beaten an elite team, one that folks are pumping for the Super Bowl. They would have gotten people talking about their resurgence. The players would have gained untold confidence.

The North Division would have been back in play. The Packers are 6-3, but a 3-5 record doesn't put you that far out of the hunt, for either the division or for a Wild Card spot.

The second half of the season would have been as interesting as it's ever been around here in years, if not the most interesting since B.M.---Before Millen.

Instead, the Lions are a yawn-inducing 2-6 with nothing to play for---again.

There's oh-so-much difference between being 3-5 and 2-6 in the NFL.

Schwartz admitted he blew it. He's pleading guilty and throwing himself on the mercy of the court of public opinion, which isn't likely to be too receptive to his confession.

Schwartz is every bit as culpable for Sunday's loss as the NFL rulebook was for what happened to the Lions in Chicago in Week 1.

But this is worse. The Lions were backstabbed by their own coach.

Schwartz, in trying to describe what happened during the two-minute warning timeout, told the media that he didn't do a good enough job impressing upon Stanton how OK it would have been to even take a sack, rather than throw an interception or incompletion.

Again, with Stafford in the game (he went down with another shoulder injury minutes earlier), Schwartz likely wouldn't have had any concerns impressing the circumstances upon his franchise QB. Stafford gets it.

Remember, this is the young man who scrambled off the ground last year against Cleveland and ran back into the game, his left shoulder on fire, because he knew the rules: the Browns called timeout so Stafford could re-enter the game instead of missing one play due to injury.

But even with Stafford in the game, a run would have been the correct call, because it was the safest call. Some have already publicly defended Schwartz's "aggressiveness" (i.e. MLive's Tom Kowalski, for one), going so far as to say it was refreshing to see a coach depart from the norm.

To those folks I say, how "refreshing" does 2-6 look this morning?

Sometimes the play-it-safe way of coaching in the NFL is the surest path to victory. And I'm sorry, but at the end of the year coaches are judged by wins and losses, not by how aggressive they are.

Jim Schwartz went FUBAR on the Lions at the worst possible time.

They sit this morning in the NFC North basement, 2-6 with their hearts ripped out.

Add the coach to the growing list of their antagonists.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Dempsey Was the Unlikeliest of Sports Heroes

Did you hear the one about the guy with half a foot and no right hand who walked onto a football field?

The Detroit Lions are used to being the NFL’s punch line.

In recent years, a struggling comedian, if he feels the crowd getting ugly and turn on him, only has to say “the Detroit Lions” and the room will immediately be filled with guffaws and knees being slapped. Tears will start streaming down the faces of the patrons.

Only, this was in 1970 and the Lions were far from being the league’s laughing stock.

Time for another 40-year anniversary retrospective.

A couple weeks ago, I regaled you about the Tigers’ heist when they foisted Denny McLain onto the poor Washington Senators in October, 1970.

On November 8, 1970, Tom Dempsey trotted onto the field at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. There were just two seconds remaining and the Lions were leading the Saints, 17-16.

The football was on the Saints’ 45-yard line.

Dempsey was a football player. It said so on his contract. He wore a uniform, with his name on the back. You could do the DNA if you wanted, but that was him, alright.

But Dempsey was a football player the same way Henny Youngman was a violinist; the same way the Italians had armies.

Dempsey, the Saints kicker at the time, had half a right foot, a deformity since birth. He also had no hand at the end of his right arm.

You’re not supposed to be maimed until after your football career is finished. Dempsey didn’t get the memo, apparently.

It’ll be 40 years on Monday—40 years since the football gods used Dempsey as the purveyor of one of the game’s all-time great practical jokes. Forty years since Dempsey swung his half foot toward a football and blasted it 63 yards for a game-winning field goal.

The Lions, a very un-laughing stock-like 10-4 in 1970, had been defeated by the Hail Mary of kicks.

This wasn’t a field goal, this was theatre of the absurd.

But I don’t think Ionesco or Camus or even O. Henry could have thought of an ending like this.

Dempsey had a special shoe fitted to make his half a foot look like a hoof. The shoe was squared off, so that the surface which clubbed the football was like a golfer’s fairway wood.

Dempsey was the only kicker in NFL history who needed a good lie.

The late, great sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, George Puscas, had just arrived at Metro Airport from a European vacation on November 9, 1970. He asked someone at customs who won the Lions game of the day before.

“You’re not going to believe it,” the customs guy told George.

“Try me,” Puscas said.

Imagine telling this to someone who didn’t know anything about it.

“Yeah, a guy with half a foot and a stub for his right arm kicked a 63-yard field goal at the final gun and the Lions lost.”

OK, that’s the punch line—what’s the set-up?

Prior to Dempsey’s record-setting kick, the longest field goal in league history had been a mere 56 yards. Dempsey obliterated that by 21 feet.

It was like someone running a three-minute mile, or getting a hole in none.

A 63-yard field goal? Are you kidding me?

“(Dallas Cowboys President) Tex Schramm said I had an advantage because of my shoe,” Dempsey once related. “Heck, I didn’t ask to be born this way!”

The shoe is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There’s more to the joke of an ending that occurred on that November day in 1970.

Dempsey was an erratic kicker. Apparently he didn’t have an advantage after all, because of his deformity, as Tex Schramm whined.

“Before the game I saw this guy Dempsey missing short field goals, extra points, you name it,” Lions kicker Errol Mann told reporters after the game. “He was all over the place with his kicks.”

Yet on the game’s final play, Dempsey straightened things out enough to drive the football 63 yards between the uprights—and not one yard further.

Dempsey’s kick didn’t travel end-over-end like so many field goals do. Rather, his started end-over-end and then flattened out, like a football in suspended animation. After about 20 yards, it just kept going, on that flattened trajectory. Finally, just before it dropped over the crossbar (with barely a foot, no pun intended, to spare), it returned to an end-over-end journey.

If you want to see it for yourself, go to YouTube and search for it. It won’t take long to find.

The Saints were an awful football team in 1970, and won just two games the entire season. In fact, the week of the Lions game, the Saints had fired coach Tom Fears and replaced him with someone named J.D. Roberts.

What a way to win your first game as a coach, eh?

Dempsey, to this day, is in my mind the most unlikely record holder in all of professional sports. Heck, he’s also the most unlikely athlete in all of pro sports.

Yet you could also say that Tom Dempsey was made by God to be on that football field on November 8, 1970, standing at his own 37-yard line—his own 37-yard line—with two seconds left on the game clock, ready to swing his fairway wood hoof into the pigskin.

Every practical joke needs a plant from the audience. Every con needs a grifter.

The football gods got the Lions good on that day. They sent out a dumpy guy with half a foot and half an arm and by the time the Detroiters had stopped laughing, the football had flown over the crossbar and between the uprights and the Lions had lost.

Dempsey, of course, can recall many details of that moment. Perhaps this one is the, ahem, kicker.

"The goalposts," Dempsey said, "did look kind of far away."