Monday, June 13, 2011

James, Once Again, Shrinks From the Spotlight in NBA Finals

Nearly a year after we had The Decision, we need to have The Incision.

How else are we going to find out if LeBron James has heart? Or guts? Or brains?

Those things certainly didn't materialize on the hardwood of the NBA Finals, where Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks stormed into Miami and took, right from under James's nose, that which LeBron has long desired but clearly has no idea how to attain---an NBA championship.

This was supposed to be the coronation of a King, but we found out that James is instead an emperor with no clothes.

James fled Cleveland last summer, turning his back on his hometown, conspiring with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a trio of stars that LeBron saw as a fast track to a ring. His 2007 Cavaliers were outclassed in the Finals by the San Antonio Spurs, and subsequent Cavs teams fell short of the Larry O'Brien Trophy, a round or two shy of the Finals, largely because of James's confounding disappearing acts in the most crucial of times.

But all is forgotten and forgiven once you win. After you win the title, everything prior to that is conveniently filed under "learning experience." Sometimes you can even manage to be portrayed as having lived a hardscrabble NBA life, culminating in that previously elusive championship, thanks to the requisite blood, sweat and tears.

LeBron James's days of fooling even the foolish are over. He is fraudulent---a paper lion, if you will. He's a player with shoulders that narrow and a heart that shrinks in the most important games of his life. He quit on the Cavs last year, "took his talents to South Beach"---and won't those soon become some of the most notorious, inglorious words ever spoken by a pro athlete?---and tried to take cuts in line.

How much more moronic does Scottie Pippen look this morning?

Pippen caused a stir recently when he suggested that James might be better than even Michael Jordan---Scottie's old teammate, six-time NBA champion, and three-time Finals MVP.

What else, Scottie? Saccarin is better than sugar? "Caddyshack II" was a better gift to motion pictures than its predecessor?

The Heat showed flashes of greatness in these playoffs, and James played OK for stretches of time. But Jordan's jockstrap dwarfs LeBron's hands.

James's supporters believed he would eventually take over one of the Finals games, loading the Heat onto his back and almost single-handedly beating the Mavs. You know, like how Michael Jordan did in big games.

Those folks are still waiting.

"It's now or never," James Tweeted after the Heat lost Game 5 in Dallas.

Well, "now" just left town. All that's left is the booby prize of bad Karma.

Shed no tears for the phony superstar who didn't even have the decency to shake hands with his vanquishers following the 105-95 loss in Game 6 Sunday night. Cry not for James and his failed mission. Don't you dare try to aggrandize his quest by attaching to it even a shred of valor.

James wanted this. He wanted the biggest stage, once again, on which to showcase his skills. He wanted to validate his place in the annals of NBA history.

Well, he got it, and when the heat---pun intended---got ramped up, LeBron shriveled like newspaper tossed into a fire.

Where WAS he, anyway? He missed a good series. As soon as you find his fourth quarter production, let us know.

The Mavericks, on the other hand, played like the more desperate, more driven team that was truly on a mission, and they were. For five years, Nowitzki and Jason Terry have relived those awful memories of the 2006 Finals, when the Mavs darted to a 2-0 series lead and had Wade's Heat on the ropes in Game 3, before Miami stormed back to snatch the championship.

That was Dwyane Wade's team then, and it still is, today.

That's what makes this Finals loss by the Heat all the more hilarious in its irony.

James made a mockery of his free agent choice last July with the whole made-for-TV thing as he slowly eviscerated the Cavaliers and their fans. But you want to know the punch line?

James left Cleveland for Miami and he did so to be a caddy for Wade. Don't buy if someone tries to sell you that James's decision was proof of his team-first mentality---that he doesn't need to be "the guy."

It's not that James doesn't need to be the guy---he doesn't want to be. Which is just as well, because he's incapable.

The Heat are still Dwyane Wade's team, but wait, there's more.

It's Wade's team and yet LeBron James will get all the flak for this series loss, as he should.

So let's get this straight. James leaves Cleveland, where he was "the guy," goes to Miami so he doesn't have to be--so he can win a championship---and is still expected to be some semblance of "the guy," but he's derelict in that duty and gets all the blame normally assigned to "the guy."

Some Decision, LeBron.

James has lost on more fronts in this whole escapade than Custer did on his last stand.

James was a cockroach in the Finals---scurrying away as soon as the lights got turned on.

Yet he still had a shot at redemption, despite the Game 5 loss in Dallas. LeBron had, potentially, two chances to rescue his legacy. Two chances to be something that he's never really been: a clutch player who could kill, with one stone, the two birds of doubt and derision by lifting the Heat past the Mavericks in seven games.

James's critics would have had a sweat sock stuffed into their mouths. No longer would they have been able to say, "LeBron can't win the big ones."

Today, they not only can still say it, it's going to shouted from the rooftops---splashed all over the Internet and burning up the phone lines of all the sports talk radio stations across the country. This isn't going to blow over in a few days.

Despite our fascination and fanaticism about sports, we still have a hard time remembering the names of the teams who finish as the first runners-up in any championship round. It's not that we can't---just that it sometimes takes some brain-racking.

Not so this time.

The Miami Heat won't soon live this one down, folks. Maybe not ever. History, me thinks, will be in a cranky mood when it passes judgment on the 2010-11 Miami Heat---the team LeBron James couldn't wait to join. The team that so easily seduced him, but that he also disappointed by leaving---during the NBA Finals.

Until he wins a championship---and there's no guarantee that he ever will---LeBron James should go down as one of the most laughable "superstars" that pro sports has ever seen. He should go down as a less-than-brilliant, heartless, gutless player who managed to fool his public even while hiding in plain sight.

But LeBron didn't just fool them---he failed them.

His name doesn't belong in the same sentence as Michael Jordan's, unless it's to create a grocery list of reasons why it doesn't.

Here's to you, Cleveland Cavaliers fans. You had to wait almost a year for this. God bless you.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Like Davidson in '74, Gores Has Work Cut Out For Him

Bill Davidson was a graduate of that old school you keep hearing about. Whatever it was, that’s where Davidson learned about business.

It was a school that said loyalty meant something, and a contract was worth not just the paper it was written on but the forest that produced the trees that made that paper.

It was a school that mandated that you represent your company with the utmost dignity and respect, and that no one individual was greater than the whole.

Davidson brought these credos to the NBA when he bought the Detroit Pistons from Fred Zollner in 1974.

Zollner, for his part, had brought the NBA itself to Detroit, bringing with him his Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and staking out his big top inside Olympia Stadium, which would be his basketball team’s home whenever the tradition-rich Red Wings weren’t in town.

The Pistons immediately became Detroit’s redheaded stepchild of pro sports.

Zollner’s team failed to draw at Olympia, and then the Pistons moved into brand-new Cobo Arena in 1961 and they failed to draw there, too. Pro basketball wasn’t moving the sports fan in Detroit, not like it did in hoops-rich towns like New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Zollner’s franchise was Goofus to the other Detroit teams’ Gallant. It seemed to exist only to serve as a cautionary tale. It was perpetually the “before” in one of those before and after success stories.

The Pistons went through coaches like a Broadway cattle call audition. They made trades that were outshined by the contestants on “Let’s Make a Deal.”

The Pistons couldn’t do anything right. They drafted funny.

By the mid-1960s, it was touch and go as to whether Zollner would pick up his tent and move to another burg.

Then the Pistons got lucky, even when they thought they hadn’t, and drafted a skinny guard from Syracuse named David Bing, when the guy they really wanted, forward Cazzie Russell from Michigan, went to the New York Knicks. This was 1966.

The Pistons lost a coin toss for Cazzie, and so settled with Bing, who only happened to become the man who would save pro basketball in Detroit.

Still, by 1974, Zollner had become a recluse owner, jetting to Detroit from his home in Florida maybe twice a year to see what his basketball players did to earn the paychecks that bore his signature.

Zollner’s was an unsuccessful franchise, though it had two big stars: Bing and center Bob Lanier.

Bill Davidson, Zollner’s neighbor in Florida, had wanted into the pro sports ownership business in the worst way. You know the rest of the joke.

Davidson had bid on Tampa’s World Football League franchise in 1974, but the price was too high. So he turned his attention to his neighbor’s pro basketball team.

The Pistons hadn’t made a dime of profit in the 17 years they’d been in Detroit. Even a 52-win season in ’73-74 failed to spin the turnstiles with much speed or frequency. They were the Edsel of Detroit sports.

Davidson forked over a grand total of $6 million to buy the Pistons from his neighbor Fred Zollner.

The team Davidson purchased was still mostly dysfunctional and by far the fourth favorite in a city with four choices for pro sports.

Fast forward to Thursday afternoon at the Palace, the House That Bill Davidson Built.

On the dais sat a tanned, handsome, 46-year-old man—only five years younger than Davidson was when he bought the Pistons in 1974.

Tom Gores spoke to the media on his first day as Pistons owner. Gores, the day before, had finalized a transaction of mega proportions. In the package came the Palace Sports and Entertainment Group and a dysfunctional basketball team that is by far the fourth favorite in a city with four choices.

The parallels between the state of the Pistons now and their state when Davidson bought them 37 years ago are uncanny.

The Pistons were off the radar in ’74, and they pretty much are now, too. The TV cameras don’t lie. Games televised from the Palace the past couple of seasons were conspicuous by the absence of fans in the stands. The camera shots looked like an NBA game in the closing seconds of a blowout. Only, it was like that for entire games.

In fact, you could make a case that the Pistons of ’74 were in better shape than the ragtag bunch of today, because at least the former had two bona fide superstars in Bing and Lanier.

The Pistons, 2011 vintage, have no one remotely close to being a star, let alone a superstar.

But Gores is plunging into the NBA waters anyway, a Flint kid made good—and how many of those are there? Flint has been kicked, crapped on and stripped of its economy for the better part of 20 years now.

Yet here’s Gores, a Flint guy, with hundreds of millions of dollars to throw at the Pistons and the entertainment conglomerate of which they are part.

The price tag that Gores paid for the entity that Bill Davidson paid $6 million for in 1974 is thought to be in the $320 million range.

Oh, and Davidson managed to turn a profit a time or two—along with winning three league championships.

The Pistons team that Gores has inexplicably bought is filled with unlikable, petulant players who have defiled the team’s motto of “Going to Work.”

It’s a bunch that has won a grand total of 57 games over the past two seasons, not coming close to the playoffs in either year. Attendance is way down, befitting the overall interest in the team throughout metro Detroit.

It is, in effect, 1974 all over again when it comes to pro basketball.

From this embarrassment of non-riches, Tom Gores plans on making money and winning another championship and leading a resurgence of NBA basketball in a town that could, right now, pretty much take it or leave it.

Just like what Bill Davidson hoped to do 37 years ago.

Oh, and there’s a lockout looming in less than a month.

Gores is either about to show off his mad skills as an astute businessman, or he’s a damn fool.

But a guy from Flint who’s just managed to come up with $320 million couldn’t be a fool, could he?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Downfall of Tressel Good, But Solves Nothing

Ding, dong the warlock is dead.

One down, how many to go?

The demise of Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel is a blow struck---a blow struck for honesty, decency, ethics, and playing the straight and narrow. That much is true.

But if you think now that Tressel is gone---having resigned in shame from OSU---we have eradicated cheating in college sports, well, I just hope you're not that naive.

Tressel wasn't the only cheater, and he won't be the last to be caught. You're also naive if you think that the other cheaters are now scared straight. As nice of a thought as that is, it's just not realistic.

College sports are just pro sports without the players salaries. And without the integrity, steroids be damned.

Tressel had himself an amazing 10-year run in Columbus, and now we suspect that at least part of that success was due to his being able to play the system like Perlman with the violin.

Now we see quarterback Terrelle Pryor driving around in cars that would make a multi-millionaire pro athlete blush.

Who knows how many ineligible athletes the Buckeyes played with over Tressel's decade of Big Ten dominance? Who knows how many were on the take? This isn't over with, by a long shot---the discovery of grisly stories of largesse and hubris flowing from Columbus.

It may turn out that Tressel was operating a football factory in the Third World sense---full of corruption and disregard of labor laws. Only, this was no sweat shop. OSU's football players were taken care of, it seems.

Combining Tressel's decade at OSU with the revelation of what happened with Pryor and other players last year begs the question, "Do you HAVE to cheat to win big in college sports?"

It's tempting to say, yes, you do.

It's also tempting---and I've been one of these to say so---to strongly suggest that athletes get compensated while making their institutions lots of money. Those opposed say that it's not just athletes who make the dough---the best and brightest students do, too, via research grants and other forms of money that are bestowed based on academics.

And those eggheads don't make a dime, either.

And what about the free room and board and training facilities and medical care the college athlete receives? Isn't that "compensation," too?

Well, yes, it is.

But it's not enough. My opinion.

Let's please be real. Let's stop pretending that college athletes---of the money programs like football and basketball---are just some kids passing through town for a few years who should be thankful for the opportunity, while the institutions rake in piles of cash using their likeness on TV, in magazine ads and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the athletes risk injury, just as the pros do, and work every bit as hard at their craft as the eggheads do at theirs, if not more so---physically, at least.

The athletes should be paid, plain and simple. And with a compensation system comes a wonderful opportunity to establish new rules and regulations that are easier to monitor and harder to look the other way from.

Don't buy the argument that paying athletes is "throwing money" at a problem that money can't solve. Don't buy the notion that with salaries comes more greed and corruption.

Do NFL teams have to cheat to get personnel? NO---because they have an equitable compensation system.

As far as how MUCH to pay college athletes, that's part of the regulations that would arise with the advent of such a system.

Sure, there'd still be some cheating initially, as less-than-ethical schools decide to test the system. But if the NCAA does it right, and tweaks it as necessary, they should be able to create a good enough filter to catch the scum.

I know that the mere thought of paying college athletes draws the ire of many and strikes at the core of what lots of people believe college athletics to be.

But tell me, how is that idealistic, doesn't-really-exist-anymore model of college athletics working out for you nowadays?

Jim Tressel is just a symptom. Getting rid of him has solved nothing, other than making the Big Ten winnable again in football for 10 other schools.