Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pippen Needs to Get Over "Bad Boy" Pistons

It's been about 20 years since the Pistons did their infamous walk-out on the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, and still Scottie Pippen can't get over it, or the "Bad Boy" Pistons themselves.

Pippen's Bulls won the next three NBA championships, starting in 1991, and eventually six of the next eight from '91 to '98. You'd think all that hardware would help mend Scottie's wounds.

Apparently not.

Pippen is still whining about the Pistons, some two decades after some of their starters walked off the floor before time ran out in Game 4 of the Bulls' sweep.

Pippen recently told the Chicago Sun-Times:

''The Pistons were a nasty team. You always had to expect them to play dirty because, remember, they were the Bad Boys of Motown. They'd go out of their way to be mean and try to hurt you.

"And because we had better athletes, coach Chuck Daly just let them play the way they had to play to win. Bill Laimbeer was no real athlete. The same for Rick Mahorn and Joe Dumars and James Edwards. We were faster, quicker, more competitive and smarter."

The only thing Pippen got right in the above comments was the one about Bill Laimbeer not being much of an athlete. No one in Detroit, though, propped Laimbeer up as athletic. He was, however, one of the best rebounders in the history of the league because of his positioning, technique and, yes Scottie, his basketball IQ.

And do I see Joe Dumars's name in there as being "no real athlete"? That's a lot of Bull.

And let's clear up, once and for all, this misconception of the Pistons being thugs who deliberately tried to hurt you. I think there's a line between aggressive, hard-nosed basketball and thuggery. I seriously doubt that the Pistons played the game with the idea of deliberately hurting opposing players.

If anything, blame the Celtics for the Pistons' style of play.

The Bulls needed four post-seasons before finally beating the Pistons in a playoff series, and the Pistons needed three (1985, '87 and '88) to unseat the Celtics for supremacy in the East. And it was during those rugged playoff series that the Pistons learned the same hard-nosed, physical brand of play that has been misconstrued by the Bulls and other NBA observers as being sadistic.

You think the Celtics of Bird, Parish and McHale were more finesse than physical?


Did the Pistons turn it up a notch in the physicality department? You betcha. But they needed to, in order to finally topple the Celtics.

The Bulls of Pippen and Michael Jordan---that was probably the first time any writer put Pippen's name before MJ's, by the way---were indeed less physical. But it also took them one more try to dispatch the Pistons than it took the Pistons to eliminate the Celtics.

The Bulls' defeat of the Pistons in the 1991 ECF was less about the Bulls' supremacy than it was about the Pistons' fatigue. The Pistons had played into late-May or June since 1987. They came off another brutal series with the Celtics in the '91 East semis, and the Pistons simply hit the wall. They had nothing left.

I find it amusing but also annoying that Pippen and others still whine about the Pistons, even after 20 years and after all those Bulls championships. It's too bad that all that success, and time, hasn't enabled Scottie Pippen to soften a little and be more philosophical than psychotic about those "good old days" of Pistons-Bulls basketball.

Get over it, Scottie. The Pistons are still in your head, and it's pretty pathetic.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Otto's Tale Reminds Us: Not ALL NFL Players Are "Millionaires"

In his finest hour, Jim Otto moved mountains. Actually, he moved defensive linemen, but they were mountainous men, and Otto used leverage, strength and sheer will to clear them out of the way.

Otto, the Hall of Fame center for pro football’s ne’er-do-well Oakland Raiders from 1960-74, played football at knee level. His world on the gridiron was mostly lived 24 inches off the ground.

Otto touched the football on every play, but in the same way that a bell is involved in every boxing match. Nothing happened on the football field until Jim Otto said so. No one was to flinch until Otto made his snap to the quarterback.

He wore the unusual number of 00, to represent the first and last letters of his last name. Where others in the trenches had helmets adorned with criss-crossed cages in front of their faces, Otto eschewed all that protection in favor of the simple, two-bar face mask that was worn by wide receivers and running backs.

For 60, 70 snaps every Sunday afternoon, Otto gave his heart and soul to Da Raiders, hiking footballs to everyone from Tom Flores to Daryle Lamonica to Kenny Stabler to Father Time himself, George Blanda.

He won league championships, and he won over his teammates. Jim Otto was the stabilizing force on so many great Oakland Raiders offensive lines.

You couldn’t fit a beach towel on the area of turf that Otto worked on as he fended off a bull rush by Merlin Olsen or plowed enough daylight for a Raiders running back to squirt past him for a gain of four yards. Otto’s office was a patch of grass for an offense that loved to traverse acres of it at a time.

He gave the Raiders everything he had, then he retired and owned some Burger King restaurants for a time, making some actual money.

After Otto quit playing football, everyone moved on in Raider Nation. The fans cheered a new center, a guy named Dave Dalby—who was pretty damn good in his own right.

Otto was done with pro football, but pro football wasn’t done with Jim Otto.

Otto played the most brutal of games in the most ferocious of ways, and he paid dearly for it.

As today’s pro football forces battle it out in boardrooms instead of in stadiums, trying to hammer out an agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) so that there won’t be a labor stoppage, I can’t help but think of Otto and others like him who literally sacrificed their bodies’ well-being in the name of beating the other guy on Sunday.

Specifically, I recall a documentary I once saw years ago, with Otto as its tragic hero.

Maybe it was on “60 Minutes” or some such program. Regardless, the cameras and narrator told the story of Otto, now retired, and what the man had to put himself through—just to get out of bed in the morning.

His knees ravaged, his joints creaking, the pain relentless, Otto was shown how he wakes up every day.

It was a slow, rudimentary, agonizing process.

As the cameras rolled, we saw Otto do his level best to swing his unbent legs across the mattress, his feet’s eventual destination being the bedroom floor. We saw him wince, stop and grimace as what would take most people seconds encompassed several minutes of Otto’s existence.

This was just him getting out of bed. You could barely watch him put on a pair of pants. Having a life was a whole other deal.

In the feature, we saw Otto pay a visit to his doctor. We saw, up close, his gnarled kneecaps and crooked joints. We saw a man in enormous pain, on a daily basis.

In his finest hour, Jim Otto was a human wall for his quarterbacks and running backs. He was the offensive line’s rock, its most reliable man. He put in his rugged time and on most days, you didn’t notice him. You didn’t say his name.

That meant he played great—again.

But when I saw Otto in the TV special, it wasn’t his finest hour. He was a sack of old, used bones. The wall had crumbled.

Otto has undergone some 28 knee surgeries—nine as a player. He’s had multiple joint replacements. He also fought off three life-threatening bouts of infections due to his artificial joints.

In August 2007, they cut Otto’s right leg off because it was ravaged with infection.

I don’t have the numbers, but I’d be willing to put down a sawbuck or two that says that Jim Otto didn’t make, in his entire football career, half the dough that some of today’s centers make in one season—who are half his talent.

I bring up Otto so that when you hear of the NFL wanting to go to an 18-game regular season and you hear the players balk at such a notion, don’t be so quick to label them as petulant, rich crybabies.

In fact, don’t be so quick to narrow your eyes at the players in general and call them “millionaires” and ask that they keep their mouths shut.

Otto was considered a star, as validated by his bronze bust in Canton, Ohio. He played all those years. And he was by far, the exception to the rule.

The typical NFL player is employed for an average of 3.5 years. This means he’s done with his primary source of income by age 26 or 27—at best. Most of them are nameless, faceless guys filling out a jersey until they’re replaced by someone younger, healthier and who can stand upright for more than five minutes at a time.

Not every player makes the really big bucks. A salary of $400,000 might seem like a lot of dough to you. But do you really think that a man making 400 grand and whose career is done by age 27 is set for life?

NFL players are masochists. There’s no other way to describe it. What they put themselves through—the jolting collisions, the muscle strains, the concussions, joints that look like God put them together in the dark—so that we can enjoy the spectacle of the sport in between trips to the refrigerator, is mind-boggling.

I don’t know what side you’re on in this owners vs. players dispute. I understand that neither side is exactly a great source of sympathy. But if you look deeper, you should find that only one side is truly making as much cash as it can while it’s still physically capable of making it.

Jim Otto gave his leg—literally—to the game of professional football. He played 15 seasons, or about four times the average. Yet he made his real money by owning restaurants.

Think about that the next time you choose to lump the haves with the have-nots when it comes to pro football players.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Poof!! Red Wings' Hudler Has Reappeared

When the Red Wings brought forward Jiri Hudler back after a one-year exile to Russia, it was assumed that the diminutive Czech would simply pick back up from where he left off and start pumping goals into enemy nets.

It was assumed that Hudler would be a key "acquisition" (the Red Wings never really lost his rights) and his offense injected into an already formidable lineup would make the Wings, once again, Stanley Cup contenders in the most serious of ways.

It was assumed that Hudler might even be better than before he left, coming back to North America with an even greater appreciation for how good he had it in the NHL.

For the better part of half of this season, the assumptions were wrong.

You know what can happen when you assume.

Hudler was the magician who reached up his sleeve and pulled out nothing but lint. He was a ying without a yang. The emperor had no clothes.

Goal scorers, and Hudler is certainly one, don't know what to do with themselves when the pucks don't find the net. The hockey scorer is the baseball slugger. And Hudler, for about 50 games, was popping up pitches that he normally swats into the seats.

Then sports' vicious cycle kicked in: the harder he tried, the worse Hudler became.

He was benched. He was passed from line to line, like a stale bag of chips. Nothing worked.

Was some of it bad "puck luck," as the hockey people like to say? Perhaps, but Hudler was not only not scoring goals, he didn't seem to have all that many good chances to score, either.

The trade deadline has come and gone, and the Red Wings predictably passed, having little money to spend and not wanting to carve into their NHL roster.

Besides, observers said, the team was getting healthy. Mike Modano just returned Saturday after a three-month absence. Brad Stuart, Danny Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Val Filppula have all been re-inserted into the lineup after recovering from injuries.

But the Red Wings have made another "acquisition" at the deadline.

Jiri Hudler is warming up.

The puck is starting to go in off Hudler's stick once again. When he's not scoring, he's on the ice when his teammates do, and often his name is in the parentheses on the scoresheet as one of the assisting players.

Hudler was, for all intents and purposes, absent for 50 games. He was hiding in plain sight on the ice, skating his 45 seconds every shift and posting goose egg after goose egg.

Fortunately, the Red Wings have been so good this season that Hudler's vanishing act was more of a nuisance than a crisis. It almost became, "Well, if he scores, great. If not, well, look at our record!"

Yet it's clear that as good as they've been, the Red Wings are much better with a Jiri Hudler who is contributing offensively.

Goal scorers in hockey rarely stop scoring altogether. Rather, they pause for extended periods, at worst. Then they're back on a tear before you can blink.

Hudler stopped altogether. He was Miguel Cabrera swinging at whiffle balls.

Bit that bad stretch seems to be behind Hudler, and at just the right time, to boot.

The Wings will take it.