Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best (and Worst) of Yours Truly, 2011

In a flash, a whirr and a blur, another year in sports came and went. 2011, it seemed, might have been missed had you blinked.

And what a year it was.

Tigers AND Lions in the playoffs, for the first time in the same year since 1935.

Pistons with a new coach (again).

Red Wings almost coming all the way back from an 0-3 playoff deficit against the San Jose Sharks.

Michiganfootball resurging under new coach Brady Hoke.

And I wrote about it all—with varying degrees of premonition and soothsaying.

For the fourth year in a row, I take you through the calendar and share some of my bon mots—and why they were or were not some of my best.


(on Steve Yzerman putting together a winner inTampaBay)

You can dress him however you like, put him wherever you want, but you can’t take the will to win out of him.

There’s quite a story going on in the NHL, not that you’d know it, because it’s happening to a team closer toCubathanCanada.

Yzerman is Vice President and General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a hockey team that really does play in the NHL; I looked it up.

No team with which Yzerman has been associated has had a losing season since 1991.

Now he’s taking the slapstick Tampa Bay Lightning and making them the new Beasts of the East.

Yzerman is turning theTampa(freaking) Bay Lightning into winners in his first year on the job.


Stevie’s team made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, as a matter of fact.

(on why the Pistons should hang onto veteran Tracy McGrady)

McGrady might be a Hall of Famer when all is said and done, except not all has been said, and it doesn’t look like all has been done; not even close.

The Pistons signed McGrady last August and it was the quintessential marriage of convenience. McGrady needed the Pistons so he could show the NBA that he still had game, and the Pistons needed another NBA veteran with a name; a player who wasn’t too far removed from his oohs and aahs days.

The Pistons didn’t need another swingman; in fact, they needed one like a hole in the head. And it wasn’t like NBA teams were knocking McGrady’s door down for

his services. But the Pistons figured they could get McGrady on the cheap (which they did), and maybe he could still score a little and provide a veteran presence.

It’s not a bad idea to keep dudes like this on your roster, if you can manage it.

The Pistons decided otherwise, and let McGrady walk away after one season in Detroit.

(on the once unthinkable retirement of former Piston Dennis Rodman’s number)

He worked as a janitor at theDallas-FortWorthAirportafter high school, but after another growth spurt he gave hoops another shot.

Keep in mind he played little to no high school basketball.

Turns out Rodman could play the game, after all, mainly because he had a fetish for rebounding. He played a semester for some place calledCookeCountyCollegeinGainesville,Texas, averaging over 17 points and 13 rebounds per game.

From there it was on to SE Oklahoma State, an NAIA school—which was not exactly the career path of choice if one hoped to crack the NBA.

The Pistons are going to do something on April 1 that, had you put money down on it in 1986, you’d be breaking the bank right about now.

On that date, Dennis Rodman’s No. 10 Pistons jersey will be raised into the rafters, which is appropriate because that’s often where you could have found Rodman himself, in his salad days as the league’s most ferocious rebounder.

Not long after, Rodman went into the Basketball Hall of Fame, too, for good measure.


(on the long overdue election of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol into the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

Ed Sabol is still around, thank goodness. He’s 94 years old.

I say thank goodness because only last week did the powers that be deem him worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

You heard me; it took them nearly 50 years after he fed his first footage into his 16 mm camera to put Ed Sabol into the Hall of Fame.

This is more overdue than a cure for the common cold.

Ed Sabol doesn’t just belong in the Hall of Fame, he should have his own wing. This is like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame realizing it hadn’t yet inducted the electric guitar.

It was very satisfying watching Ed, with son Steve by his side, giving his induction speech.


(on who should be the Tigers’ starting second baseman)

If I had a vote, I’d cast it for Will Rhymes to be the Tigers’ second sacker.

Rhymes, a lefty bat, is a prototypical second baseman. He’s hard-nosed and the front of his jersey is always dirty. He hit .304 in 191 AB last season, and he only made four errors in 53 games.

He’s a late bloomer, turning 28 on April 1, but that’s still seven years younger than (Carlos) Guillen.

Umm, you can’t win them all. Rhymes did indeed win the job in spring training, but he didn’t hit a lick and was lopped off the 40-man roster earlier this month.

(on the importance of leadoff hitter and centerfielder Austin Jackson to the Tigers’ cause)

Jacksonis the most important because if he gets a case of the sophomore jinxies, and the Tigers don’t have a reliable leadoff hitter, then the house of cards that is the team’s offense gets blown down.

Jacksonstrikes out a lot, which is understandable for a young player, but also more tolerable when that young player is hitting .300. It’s not so great if the batting average is .250 or .260.

Well, the batting average was .249, and the strikeouts jumped from 170 to 181. Yet the Tigers still won their division.


(on the sad state of veteran forward Mike Modano, who was on the outside looking in, for the most part, during the NHL playoffs)

Mike Modano, healthy scratch. For a playoff game.

Not what anyone had in mind when the Red Wings brought the veteran, home-grown kid back toDetroit.

Modano has gone on record as saying that this is likely his last chance at the Stanley Cup, because retirement is beckoning him.

“I can’t stay on the ice as long,” he told the media a few days ago. “I think my body is telling me that I’m near the end.”

Modano only got into two playoff games, and he retired over the summer, after having missed about three months of the season with a badly gashed wrist.


(on my frustration with the stubborn Tigers manager, Jim Leyland)

Jim Leyland, in case you haven’t heard, is a rocket scientist.

He presides over a job so sophisticated, so complicated, that it defies the understanding of those who aren’t rocket scientists.

He stands above all in his knowledge of his very scientific vocation, and therefore has no use for those whose brains simply cannot wrap themselves around the mesmerizing theorems, laws and corollaries that one must know in order to manage a baseball team.

OOPS; did I say Jim was a rocket scientist?

I made an assumption, since that’s how he treats his job, and those who dare question his logic.

The Marlboro Man had the last laugh, of course.

(on the prospects of new U-M football coach Brady Hoke)

Michiganfootball had been living in the penthouse and is now slumming. This is a program whose name wasn’t just spoken, it was said with a sneer—by both supporters and rivals.

Michigandidn’t get hurt, it inflicted it on others.

…But Hoke needs to start beatingMichiganState, too. And continue to beat Notre Dame. And he needs to keep having good recruiting classes. He needs to restore pride and faith inMichiganfootball once again.

Brady Hoke has one charge and one charge only: He has to saveMichiganfootball. That’s all.

And you know what?

I think he’s gouhnna do it.

That last sentence was my attempt at spelling how Hoke pronounces “gonna.” And, for the record, Hoke seems to be right on course, leading the Wolverines to a fine 10-2 season.

(on the Red Wings forcing a Game 7 in their conference semi-final series againstSan Jose, after dropping the first three games)

It’s now the thinkable.

The Red Wings are Secretariat in 1973, the ‘51 Giants, the ‘78 Yankees. They’re the ‘68-69 New York Jets, the 2004 Red Sox.

The tortoise has nothing on them, in that great race against the hare.

Check the calendar for a month of Sundays. Charlie Brown might get that kick off, after all, out of Lucy’s hold.

This isn’t happening, but yet it is. Even Disney’s Mighty Ducks never pulled something like this off.

The Red Wings are going to play a Game 7, which was a fantasy a week ago. Remember a week ago? A gut-wrenching overtime loss in Game 3? Devin Setoguchi with a hat trick, including a penalty in overtime and the game-winner shortly after he fled the box?

The Red Wings dropped that Game 7 to the Sharks, but they made Hockeytown so extremely proud of them.

(on why the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been embraced by fans as a superstar player should)

We love the idea of Miguel Cabrera being on our team. But we don’t love him. In fact, there’s a bunch of us who may not even like him, because he’s not that likeable of a guy, frankly.

Which is all such a shame, because we probably have him figured out all wrong. His teammates liken him to a big, cuddly bear. That may be the case; they ought to know, after all.

But we don’t see that side because we don’t see him. All we see is a big, talented man wearing a Tigers uniform. That may be enough for some, but it falls way short for most.

We don’t know Miguel Cabrera because we never hear from him. This is his fourth season as a Tiger and the man is a blank canvas, save for some splotches that have been tossed onto it.

I stand by this, though he ingratiated himself more as the season wore on.


(on LeBron James, after the Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals toDallas)

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 2010-11MiamiHeat—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.

Why don’t I tell you what I REALLY feel?

(on the death of former Tiger Jim Northrup, and my personal dealings with him)

Jim Northrup always got his hacks in—whether it was at the plate or at the table.

I remember conversing with him on the phone in advance of the roundtable and it was free form Northrup. He was in a mood to talk, as usual, so I obliged, feeding him batting practice pitches and marveling at the results.

I found out that he hated playing for Billy Martin because, according to Jim, Martin was quick to take the credit and even quicker to blame his players and others when the Tigers were in a losing funk.

I found out that when Norm Cash was released in 1974 (the day after my birthday), Norm found out on the radio, driving to the ballpark. Northrup told me that he was so upset about the way his friend and teammate was cashiered, that he burst into manager Ralph Houk’s office to vent.

He was one of a kind, Jim Northrup was. RIP.


(on the potential end of Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood’s career)

So it will be with Osgood, 38, who is likely to be among the last to acknowledge that his days as Howard’s backup are over with.

Osgood is coming off two less-than-stellar seasons that have been pocked with injury, most recently to the groin—a goalie’s worst enemy.

Osgood is another who isn’t making things easy forHolland. Ozzie hasn’t offered to be jettisoned, nor will he make such an overture. At least, it’s doubtful that he will.

But Osgood’s reticence hasn’t stoppedHollandfrom carrying on with his duties as GM. The Red Wings have some money to spend on a new/old goalie. They told Osgood (and Kris Draper) that a new contract wouldn’t be offered until after July 1, the date that free agents can begin to be signed. That is, if a contract would be offered at all.

It wasn’t, and Ozzie retired to help coach the organization’s young goalies.

(on the All-Star season authored by Tigers catcher AlexAvila)

Now I know why they call April 1, April Fool’s Day.

For that was the date, after just one game had been played in the 2011 season, that sports talk radio was lit up with phone calls from loudmouths on their cell phones, calling for the ouster of catcher Alex Avila from not only the Tigers starting lineup, but from the roster, from Detroit, and probably even the state of Michigan—to be on the safe side.

The Tigers had lost on Opening Day to the Yankees inNew York, and I won’t argue that it wasn’t one ofAvila’s crowning moments. He was shaky behind the plate and he looked overmatched with the bat—albeit he was going against southpaw CC Sabathia.

After one game, the callers were frothing at the mouth.

By mid-season, those same callers were urging fellow fans to vote for Avila for the All-Star team.


(on the importance of Lions QB Matthew Stafford staying healthy for the whole season)

Every timeStaffordgets hit, every time he scrambles around in the pocket—hell, every time he jogs onto the field for player introductions—Lions fans will wring their hands and rock back and forth in their seats.

The sales of candles and rabbit’s feet will explode in Motown this football season.

…The Lions are worthy of the buzz for reasons other thanStafford, I will grant you that.

There’s Ndamukong Suh, the wrecking ball defensive tackle, who might be, after just one season, the best in the business. Suh is the godfather of the D-line and sitting with him at the table are some very fearsome lieutenants.

There’s freakishly big Calvin Johnson, the receiver who gleefully gallops across the gridiron, making the football that he’s clutching look like a baking potato.

There’s more talent across the board than any Lions team we’ve been presented with in years.

But Matthew Stafford has to stay healthy. He just has to.

So far, so good.

(on my [then] disappointment with Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera)

Baloney, I say, to those who would tell me that I expect too much from Miguel Cabrera.

Look at his numbers, they’ll say. He grinds out an MVP-like season almost annually.

So how come Cabrera has never truly ever, in his four years as a Tiger, put the team on his back for any extended period of time?

Has he? Go ahead—I’ll wait while you come up with some examples. Or one, even.

Cabrera is doing it again, his timing again impeccably bad.

He has pedestrian numbers, this season, for a man of his talents. He swings too much at the first pitch. He grounds out to shortstop more than I thought was humanly possible.

This is the column that I took the most heat from. And Cabrera turned it around almost immediately and I gladly ate crow.

(on the Pistons hiring yet another new coach—Lawrence Frank)

They paraded another poor sap onto the lectern to be given his death sentence as the new head coach of the Detroit Pistons the other day.

There was Joe Dumars, team president, leading the march, and the way these things have gone over the years, you half expected to see Joe reading from a Bible n Latin, his head bowed.

The scene that unfolded on Wednesday was the seventh one presided over by Dumars since 2000.

It goes like this: Dumars leads his doomed coaching choice onto the lectern, says a few words tinged with hope and confidence that the man seated to his left is “the one.” Doomed coach speaks of work ethic and tradition and fends off questions about his past failures or mercurial history. The proceedings end with Dumars, the coach’s future executioner, shaking hands and smiling with his eventual victim as the cameras snap away.

Let’s hope Frank proves to be something other than just another Pistons coach who stays for a couple years then is jettisoned.


(on Lions coach Jim Schwartz)

Jim Schwartz has been the head coach of the Detroit Lions for nearly three years and I don’t trust him.

He doesn’t have “the look.”

How can he be the coach of the Lions and not look like he just saw Humpty Dumpty fall down and bounce back up?

The Detroit Lions coaches of years past have always had “the look.” The one that speaks the ghoulish thousand words.

...A look further at the hype reveals a common thread—the folks going ga-ga over the Lions do so because they all believe in the head coach.

“Smart” is the word that is most often repeated when describing Schwartz.

Jim Schwartz does know his football. He knows talent. And he knows what he’s doing as a head coach in the NFL.

Now THERE’S a look for you.

Schwartz has the 10-5 Lions in the playoffs, three years after 0-16. Looks good to me!


(on the prospects of the Red Wings without defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom)

Lidstrom, the Red Wings‘ all-universe defenseman, is 41 years old. In human years.

In hockey-playing years, he’s closer to 30, because he hasn’t used his body as a battering ram or for someone else’s target practice.

Lidstrom plays hockey like Bobby Fischer played chess and Minnesota Fats played billiards—literally. No one has seen that 200’x80’ sheet of ice better than Lidstrom, who is always a move or two ahead of his opponent. He’s the geometric hockey player—using the puck’s caroms and angles like Fats used those green felt rails.

There hasn’t been a defenseman like him, before or since he entered the NHL in 1991. I’ll put up a batch of my wife’s Pasta Fagioli that there won’t be one like him after, either. Ever.

Sooner rather than later, the Red Wings will have to pursue the Cup without Lidstrom, a frightening thought indeed.

(on why the Tigers beating the Yankees in the playoffs couldn’t really be celebrated)

It’s tempting to say that this is as good as it gets—that the moment is so savory as to be incapable of being eclipsed.

The problem with beating the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs—on the Yankees home field in a do-or-die game that boils down to the fate of the last batter, indeed the last strike—is how easy it is to feel like nothing can be tougher.

Or that nothing could be better.

As sweet as the Tigers’ 3-games-to-2 victory was over the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series (ALDS), it doesn’t change the fact that the Tigers are still just one-third of the way toward their post-season goal.

And that’s as far as the Tigers got, thanks to Texas’s Nelson Cruz.


(on why Lions DT Ndamukong Suh is good for the NFL’s business, good guy or bad guy)

It doesn’t matter if the publicity is positive or negative. The NFL loves Ndamukong Suh because, for the first time in decades, the league has a Bad Guy.

Suh’s entry into the NFL is the best-timed debut of any pro player since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird splashed onto the NBA scene in 1979. Before Magic and Bird, the NBA was scrambling for media attention. They were like the NHL has always been.

Prior to Magic and Bird, the NBA used to televise its Finals games on tape delay. No fooling.

The NFL has been desperate for a marquee name on defense for several years. The two guys who most fans think of when it comes to tough defense—Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis—are on the back end of their careers.

Suh’s play on the field seemed to take a slight step backward in his sophomore season, but his presence in the league is still high-profile and impactful.

(on former Lions guard—and paraplegic—Mike Utley’s battle to once again walk sans crutches)

Utley then made one of the most famous gestures inDetroitsports history.

His life certainly flashing before his eyes, his fear of his own well-being no doubt palpable, Utley nonetheless thought about the fans and his teammates.

He managed to work his right hand into a position of hope.

Thumbs up!

The gesture just about brought the Silverdome down. The image was beamed onto the big JumboTron screen above the end zone scoreboard, so that the fans could see it, just as those watching at home on television could.

Thumbs up!

Utley’s message of hope became the rallying cry for the Lions, who didn’t lose another game the rest of the year until they succumbed toWashingtonin the NFC Championship game in January.

It’s hard to find a more inspirational figure than Mike Utley.

(on the mid-season struggles of Lions QB Matthew Stafford)

But someone has to get Matthew Stafford right. And fast. There’s no Dave Krieg 1994 or Eric Hipple 1981 standing by. The only way backup Shaun Hill starts is ifStaffordis hurt—there’s no QB controversy here.

Staffordisn’t right. His sluggishness extends back to the 49ers game on October 16.

The Lions have to fix him, or none of this playoff talk will mean a Hill of beans.

The Lions fixed him—i.e., his broken right index finger healed—and Stafford is as hot as they come heading into the playoffs.


(on a new era of Lions football, being ushered in by coach Schwartz, after the team clinched a playoff berth)

It’s a new age of Detroit Lions football. Jim Schwartz aims to make his the next great era. One that will make history not as kind to the Fontes years, after all.

If that happens, we just might look back to Christmas Eve, 2011 as the victory that started the Lions on their way.

We just might.

(on new Pistons coach Lawrence Frank and his dual charge: to make the Pistons competitive and likeable)

From this hodgepodge of a roster, coach Frank has to not only make the Pistons competitive but also make a team that people will want to see perform. He doesn’t have the luxury of a superstar player around whom the rest of the team satellites.

The Pistons’ fan base, I suspect, is ready to embrace a kinder, gentler team—even if it’s one that doesn’t produce a lot of wins right away. That’s how bad things have gotten here since 2008.

Frank has dealt with starting 0-16 inNew Jerseya few years ago.

The Pistons won’t scare him.

The Pistons’ new slogan, to replace the tired and worn “Going to Work,” should be a derivative of Al Davis’s mantra with the Oakland Raiders.

“Just Like Us, Baby.”

After three games, the likeable part looks to be more feasible than the competitive part, for now.

There you have it! 2011 in a nutshell.

See ya next year.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lions Theft in Oakland Biggest Win in Years

The man with half a foot and a stump for an arm trotted onto the field at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans on November 8, 1970. The least likely pro football record holder was a pudgy, roly-poly man with what looked like a block of wood for a right foot.

As Tom Dempsey strode onto the field, with two seconds remaining and the ball on his Saints' 44-yard line, his team trailing the Lions, 17-16, chortles began in the Lions defensive huddle.

Alex Karras has confirmed it, on many occasions. He and his teammates openly mocked the Saints and Dempsey for attempting a 63-yard field goal, when the current record was merely 56 yards.

But the Saints only needed three points for the win, and new coach J.D. Roberts (he took over for the fired Tom Fears that week) figured the chances were just as good, if not better, of Dempsey getting a good "foot" into one, rather than tossing a Hail Mary pass.

So the Saints lined up for the kick. In Dempsey's own words, as told to the Detroit Free Press's George Puscas back in 1992, "The goalposts looked far away."

They were.

Dempsey's kick was square and true. His club foot made a sound like a cannon going off, according to those who were there that day, when it made contact with the football.

The pigskin traveled like a missile instead of a kicked football. It didn't really go end-over-end, like a normal kick. Rather, Dempsey's shot kind of sailed with the ends of the ball parallel to the field. Only at the very end did it return to end-over-end status, and plopped just over the crossbar.

The Saints beat the Lions, 19-17. Karras, who moments earlier was among the mockers, had actually tried his damndest to block the kick but barely missed it with his outstretched hand.

It was impossible for old goats like yours truly to not flash back to that November day in 1970, when Sebastian Janikowski jogged onto the field in Oakland on Sunday, preparing to swing his left foot into a 65-yard field goal attempt.

The CBS announcer in New Orleans was Don Criqui.

"Dempsey will set a new National Football League record," Criqui said into the microphone, which can be relived courtesy of YouTube. "In addition to winning the game."

Janikowski would have set a new National Football League record with his kick. In addition to winning the game.

Could the Detroit Lions fall victim to such crapola twice?

If any franchise could, it would be the Lions, right?

Not this time.

Ndamukong Suh, compared by I earlier this season to the great DT Karras, succeeded where old no. 71 failed. Suh blocked Janikowski's kick, causing it to flutter harmlessly away from the goalposts.

And the Lions had sealed an improbable 28-27 win.

In the euphoria of such a win, i.e. the 24 hours or so after it happens, it's easy to overstate its importance, and its place in history.

It's so easy for those who rap on keyboards and who blab into sports talk radio microphones to get overly giddy about a win like Sunday's, in which the Lions trailed by 13 points with 7:47 remaining.

Go ahead. Get giddy. Everyone has my permission.

This wasn't just a win, after all. The bloggers and radio hosts are right this time.

The Lions franchise has turned the corner, I tell you. Four comeback wins of 13+ points in the same season---never before done in the 90+ year history of the NFL.

It's a team that can look maddeningly undisciplined and neutralized on the one hand, but then look like a juggernaut on the other.

But the NFL is perhaps the most "bottom line" of all the four major pro sports leagues. There are only 16 regular season games, and every one of them is the most important game of the year, starting with opening day.

So the only thing that matters in the NFL is this: did you win, or did you lose?


The Lions have been able to say they won nine times this season. Which, after 14 games, puts them on the precipice of their first playoff appearance since the 2oth century (1999).

The Lions are winning games this season like they've never won before. And the best part is that they haven't really lost like they used to lose, i.e. games they shouldn't have lost.

Look at who's beaten the Lions this season.

The 49ers, who are 10-3.

The Falcons, who are 9-5.

The Bears, who were riding a hot streak at the time.

The Packers. Enough said.

The Saints, who are 11-3.

So it's not like the Lions are losing to chopped liver.

You win for a reason in the NFL, and, more telling, you lose for a reason, too.

No team can look at their record after 16 games and say that luck or flukes played a factor.

You're 3-13 for a reason. And, conversely, you're 13-3 for a reason as well.

The Lions are 9-5 and that's that. They are a 9-5 team for a reason.

And they are tantalizingly close to that elusive playoff appearance. A winning record is already secured, their first since 2000.

Also in the 20th century, by the way.

The Lions are, like so many teams in the NFL, a flawed, imperfect platoon. They are capable of so much greatness, and so much exasperating play, too.

Just like every other team in the league, even the Packers.

A win like Sunday's in Oakland can do so much for the psyche of a football team, just like the crazy comeback wins engineered over the Vikings and Cowboys earlier this season, on successive weeks, both on the road.

Matthew Stafford leading a 99-yard drive with just over two minutes to play, sans timeouts, brazenly throwing the football to the man who everyone in the stadium knows shouldn't beat you (Calvin Johnson), was like Justin Verlander striking out three straight All-Stars with first base open to seal a win.

It shouldn't happen. But it did.

Stafford is the best quarterback not named Bobby Layne in Lions history. Already.

He's just getting started, and when you look at the Lions' young talent and developing depth, it's hard not to say the same thing about this team.

Go ahead, get giddy. It's about damn time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Pistons' Frank Has to Make Team Likable AND Competitive

Auburn Hills is a 35-minute drive north of Detroit. Make that almost an hour if you dare try it in the shadow of 5:00 traffic. It’s a rather uninspiring trek up I-75, with warehouses and impersonal office buildings surrounding you on the east and west.

The starkness of the Detroit city limits gives way to those of the industrialized Troy as you head north, with a lovely view of the Oakland Mall to your right. Your passengers can practically reach out and touch Macy’s.

Then there’s a woodsy interlude before more commercialization, in the form of the Great Lakes Crossing shopping complex. More retail outlets and fast food joints than you can shake a stick at.

Finally, there it is, to your left, off Lapeer Road. The Palace of Auburn Hills, sitting by its lonesome self, like the Silverdome did so infamously in Pontiac.

The Palace, built in the middle of the woods in 1988, is a state-of-the-art facility that continues to be a model of engineering for those seeking out new sports arenas.

It’s a delightful arena with wonderful sight lines and plenty of parking. You don’t have to settle for a space in another part of town and take a shuttle (or a People Mover) to get there. There isn’t a parking structure with which to contend.

The problem is that it’s too far away from…anything.

Certainly too far to travel to watch an unlikable pro-basketball team lose on a snowy January night.

Professional hoops has never been the easiest sell in our town. The Pistons, in their sometimes-inglorious 54-year history in Detroit, have heavily discounted and given away more tickets than all the community theater performances of “Annie” put together.

When the Pistons first arrived in our town back in 1957, they played Olympia Stadium like they were the Beatles’ opening act.

The maintenance crews would throw some would panels onto the ice surface so the folks in the expensive seats wouldn’t slip and fall on their fannies. The court was also laid on said ice, which resulted in some players sliding too.

The crowds were a couple thousand of the most curious, or those who happened to see a voucher on a fast food counter.

Then the Pistons took their act to brand new Cobo Arena in 1961. Cobo, a pill-shaped venue on the Detroit River, was gorgeous in its own way but too vast for the Pistons crowds. Cobo seated about 11,000 for basketball and on most nights about 8,000 of those were empty.

In 1978, the Pistons moved into the Pontiac Silverdome, an even more cavernous facility. It was like moving a mouse into a mansion.

Ten years later, the Pistons inched even further north, into the glitzy Palace of Auburn Hills.

For a time it worked. The team was winning championships—two for two in the first two years in the Palace. The drive north didn’t turn too many people away, as it turned out.

But as soon as the losing returned to a franchise that had been quite used to it—circa 1993-96—the Palace seemed like a faraway place.

The championship of 2004 and the near miss a year later made the Palace seem closer again. Funny how that works.

Today, the Palace is far away, once more.

Lawrence Frank is the Pistons’ new coach. His charge isn’t necessarily just to make a winning team. He has to make people like the Pistons—enough to want to venture to the Palace on a snowy night in January to see them battle the rest of the NBA. On most nights, those battles will likely end up in the other team’s favor.

Some would say that the challenge of making the Pistons likable again is more daunting than that of making them winners once more.

Let’s wind the clocks back to June 2004.

There the Pistons were, championship t-shirts and caps on their bodies and heads, confetti dumping on them from the Palace rafters.

World Champions!

There was no superstar on that Pistons roster, which was greater than the sum of its parts. The Pistons were bucking the trend that said you had to have at least one megastar, if not two or three, to win the whole shebang.

It was all a fluke, as it turned out.

You DO have to have at least one white-hot star on your roster to win an NBA championship. Two would be even better, thank you.

The Miami Heat notwithstanding, that’s the reality of today’s NBA.

The Pistons, who will begin play the day after Christmas to tip-off the truncated 2011-12 season, have no superstars. Not even close. They have a roster full of guys who are 6’8”. No one does anything particularly well.

The Pistons were last in the playoffs in 2008 and that ended in an ugly fashion on a May evening in Boston. The Pistons who had confetti rain on them in the Palace in 2004—Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, et al—had turned into petulant, shameful crybabies.

The 2007-08 season was the culmination of four years of almost greatness that instilled an unattractive sense of entitlement into a team whose players felt like all they needed to do was show up, and a return trip to the NBA Finals would be theirs.

The Pistons made it to six straight Eastern Conference Finals, but in the last three they progressively regressed physically and mentally.

It all ended with an ejected Wallace tearing his jersey off and the Pistons imploding in Boston in 2008. Billups was traded early the next season, and the die was cast.

Since then, it’s been three seasons of bad coaching hires, inmates running the asylum, questionable trades, suspect free-agent signings and general disdain.

Lawrence Frank has a rookie point guard, Brandon Knight, who might be something. He has a second-year big man, Greg Monroe, who showed promise in the second half of last season.

He has a healthy Jonas Jerebko, one of those 6’8” guys, but has some potential as an X-factor or a sixth man.

Frank has Tayshaun Prince, newly signed to a four-year pact. Another 6’8” guy that could have championship pedigree.

Frank also has the disappointing free-agent class of 2009—Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

Frank doesn’t have Hamilton any longer—but this is addition by subtraction.

That’s pretty much it. Everyone else is either a hard-worker, a role guy, or both, like the ancient warrior Ben Wallace.

From this hodgepodge of a roster, coach Frank has to not only make the Pistons competitive but also make a team that people will want to see perform. He doesn’t have the luxury of a superstar player around whom the rest of the team satellites.

The Pistons' fan base, I suspect, is ready to embrace a kinder, gentler team—even if it’s one that doesn’t produce a lot of wins right away. That’s how bad things have gotten here since 2008.

Frank has dealt with starting 0-16 in New Jersey a few years ago.

The Pistons won't scare him.

The Pistons’ new slogan, to replace the tired and worn “Going to Work,” should be a derivative of Al Davis’s mantra with the Oakland Raiders:

“Just Like Us, Baby.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lions Win, But Not Before Their Playoff Hopes Flash Before Their Eyes

The penalty was for one yard. Three measly feet. Yet it seemed like a mile, and it felt like a reminder to us of Lions ineptitude and bad timing.

One more act of stupidity, right? One very Lions-esque thing to do, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and turn what had been a fun, festive Sunday afternoon into something that Stephen King might have penned.

Cliff Avril was the Lions player this time. He was the one looking to the heavens, shaking his head, wondering why he had just done what he had just done.

It's been a question asked too often by and about Lions players of the past.

What did Cliff Avril just do?? Are you kidding me?

Avril had inexplicably jumped offsides, as if he'd been shot out of a toy cannon, with the Minnesota Vikings on the Lions' two-yard line, sans time outs, and the clock heading for single digits.

The blunder stopped the clock, of course, with nine ticks remaining.

The infraction moved the Vikings merely a yard closer to paydirt, but that yard carried a big stick.

It was but a yard, but it appeared to represent so much more.

Avril's gift of a yard to the Vikings looked like it would be the three feet that QB Joe Webb needed to march his team to the winning score. The Lions led 34-28 but never before did a six-point lead look so fragile. It wasn't a lead, it was a fraying rope with a piano tied to it, hovering over the Lions' playoff hopes.

And Avril, it looked like, had just held a blowtorch to that fraying piece of rope.

He did WHAT?

Tell me that your thoughts didn't go back to Bobby Ross going for two or Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind. Tell me they didn't and I'll call you a liar.

Tell me, as the Vikings lined up at the one-yard line with nine seconds left, on the verge of wiping out a 21-point deficit and squeezing the life out of the Lions' season, that you didn't think back to the Matt Millen Era and the Paul Edinger field goal on the last play of the 2000 season which led to said Era.

Avril's random act of madness caused a packed house at Ford Field to cease breathing, which the faithful didn't re-commence doing until Avril, of all people, finally pounced on a football (aka the greased pigskin) that bounded some 50 yards downfield after it was slapped from Webb's hands by a blitzing DeAndre Levy.

The final play of Sunday's game was like the final scene of a horror movie---the kind where the girl is about to get killed and the hero shoots the villain from behind, when you didn't even know the hero was around.

It was a stunning finish to a game that the Lions should have had in their back pocket, except that pocket had a hole the size of Joe Webb in it.

The Lions had no clue as to how to deal with Webb, who bounced around like a pinball in the Vikings backfield, rattling off one would-be Lions tackler after the other, and always ending up in a bonus cup.

Webb ran around and around and around---sometimes appearing to run half the length of the football field, except horizontally and in zig-zag fashion.

As Lions coach Jim Schwartz said afterward as he was still catching his breath, his team tried everything against Webb. And still Webb almost led the Vikings back from a 31-14 second half deficit.

Webb started the comeback by managing to gallop from the pocket to the end zone, some 65 yards away, with no Lions defender within a 10-yard radius. He made Denard Robinson look like Scott Mitchell.

It all came down to the Vikings at the Lions' one, with nine seconds left. Three feet away from a tying touchdown and the near-certain go-ahead PAT.

Three feet from the apparent end of the Lions' season, or certainly the beginning of the end.

Three feet from another brutal loss that this town would be talking about for years to come.

Then Levy struck, blowing up Webb and the Vikes' hopes of an improbable victory.

"I was nervous, watching that football," Schwartz said afterward of Webb's game-ending fumble, his words captured by Fox 2 Detroit's post-game show camera. "I thought (Webb) would pick it up and start running around with it again."

Good thing Webb didn't. I don't think football fans can hold their breath that long.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Not-Ready-For-Prime Time Players

October seems like eons ago.

It was a grand time, October was.

The Tigers were thrilling us in the playoffs. The Red Wings were about to begin another Cup Quest. The Pistons were forcibly removed from our thoughts, thank God.

And the Lions?

The Lions, in October, were on a nine-game winning streak, in a broken arrow way dating back to last season. They were shoving memories of the "same old Lions" further into the recesses of our minds.

They seemed to be handling their new-found success just fine under head coach Jim Schwartz, a humorless sort who really should have been a Secret Service agent.

The Lions got off to a 5-0 jackrabbit start and their heads seemed of the proper proportions. They appeared to understand that Super Bowls aren't won in October, though they can be lost that soon.

Even a two-game stumble at home against San Francisco and Atlanta seemed to be tolerable after the Lions went into Denver and made those who believed in Tim Tebow look foolish.

Then came the bye week.

For whatever reason, the Lions came back from their week off as if they'd been brainwashed at a commune.

"Discipline bad. Thuggish behavior good," is what must have been drilled into their heads.

Since the bye, the Lions are 1-3, their star d-lineman has been shamed, suspended and ridiculed and they've twice embarrassed themselves on national TV with this Bad News Lions act that isn't cute anymore.

The Lions are disintegrating before our eyes, their playoff hopes dying a slow death as their play has been one part dumb, two parts exasperating.

The latest meltdown occurred last night in New Orleans, with all the world---and Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth---to see.

It was a night that saw three---THREE---offensive pass interference penalties on the same receiver. A night that saw the Lions shove, throw footballs and slap face masks. A night with 11 penalties for over 100 yards.

The Lions have had two consecutive shots to show the nation what they're made of. Two straight chances to validate their 5-0 start, and prove that it was no fluke. Two straight games on a big stage, against big time opponents---golden opportunities to wipe the smirks off the faces of football fans outside of Detroit.

The only thing that got wiped on anyone's face was egg on the Lions'.

I've said it before: NFL games are lost far more than they are won. The teams that make the fewest mistakes win on a ridiculously consistent basis.

The Lions' 31-17 loss to the Saints on NBC only stoked the fire that is raging about how the Lions play football on the brink of disaster.

They are like the guy in that old kids game, Tip-It. Remember him? The one who precariously balanced on top of the pinnacle, always destined to fall?

It was always just a matter of time when the Tip-It dude would come tumbling down.

The word is out on the Lions. The book on players and teams in the NFL spreads like wildfire. It doesn't take long for your opponents to catch on, and once they do, you'd better change your ways, and fast.

The book is this: the Lions can be baited. They can be toyed with, almost, until they do something suicidal in nature.

An ill-timed personal foul. A cheap shot. An unsportsmanlike foul. Just a little trash talk, or a slight shove after the whistle, and you can get the Lions off and running---toward their own goal.

One of the Packers players said as much after the Thanksgiving Day game.

Just be patient, the player said, and the Lions will do something stupid.

"They've done it all year," the Packers player, so wise, said.

Indeed they have, but it's getting worse as the year goes on, not better.

In the salad days of October, I heaped praise on Coach Schwartz for keeping his players on an even keel despite the heady 5-0 start.

But then Schwartz himself went sideways against 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh after that loss in Detroit, and ever since his team has followed suit with mind-numbingly stupid play.

If one is to give Schwartz credit for what happened in September and October, then he has to take the heat for the shameful play that has taken place since.

The Lions are 7-5 and even though their playoff chances are tenuous, they have pretty much lost games that we expected them to lose and won most of the games we expected them to win, i.e. against the bad teams.

They will likely beat Minnesota next Sunday and move to 8-5. After that it's a crap shoot.

So it's not that they're doing anything completely unexpected when it comes to wins and losses. Did you have them beating the Bears in Chicago, the Packers on Thanksgiving or the Saints in New Orleans?

I had them losing all three---and they obliged.

It's one thing, though, to get beat by superior teams. It's another to commit football Hari-kari and show yourself to be, in a way, the "same old Lions."

It's not like this is the first time stupid penalties and dumb play has vexed them.

It's just happening when the stakes are higher, that's all.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Red Wings Set in Goal With the Late-Blooming Howard

The most celebrated goaltender in Red Wings history—indeed, maybe in NHL history—was a tormented man. It’s been said that you have to be a little off your rocker to want to throw yourself into the path of vulcanized rubber discs for a living. Terry Sawchuk may not have been crazy, but he wasn’t happy.

It’s been documented—by his teammates, by his son, by those who covered him. Sawchuk, the Hall of Famer who did three stints with the Red Wings from 1949 to 1969, was a tragically sad man, for the most part.

Sawchuk was like the comedian who makes your sides burst with laughter, but who himself is devoid of joy. Kind of like the troubled Lenny Bruce, who, like Sawchuk, was dead by age 40.

Sawchuk dominated NHL shooters in his day, racking up 103 shutouts (a record long considered unbreakable until New Jersey’s Marty Brodeur proved otherwise) and guarding the Detroit goal like an Irish beat cop in the Bowery.

He gave Red Wings fans much joy—and helped lead his teammates to three Stanley Cups—but Sawchuk was joyless in the process. He was afflicted with untreated depression, and nearly had a nervous breakdown in 1957 while playing for Boston.

It should be noted that Sawchuk, at age 37, led the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup in 1967. The Leafs haven’t really come close to winning it since.

Yet even the great Terry Sawchuk was dispatched out of Detroit because there was someone else to take his place. It happened in 1955, when the Red Wings, fresh off another Stanley Cup victory, dealt Sawchuk to Boston to make room for youngster Glenn Hall.

It was like trading Sinatra to make room for a young Perry Como.

The two-headed goalie in Detroit has been a monster seen all too often in the Motor City. The parallel between the Red Wings goalie situations and those of the Lions’ quarterbacks are eerily similar.

Both teams can point to the mid-to-late-1950s as to when the two-headed monsters made their debut.

On the gridiron we had Layne and Rote then Plum and Sweetan then Munson and Landry then…well, you don’t really want me to go on, do you?

On the ice it hasn’t been all that different.

Sawchuk gave way to Hall, then the Red Wings brought Sawchuk back and got rid of Hall, who is a Hall of Famer in his own right.

Sawchuk was with the Red Wings until 1964, then the merry-go-round in the Detroit net really began.

It hasn’t mattered if the Red Wings were atrocious, as they were for most of the 1970s until the late-1980s, or if they were annual Cup contenders, as they have been for the past 20 years.

The two-headed goalie monster has reared its head often, regardless.

Remember the two heads of Glen Hanlon and Greg Stefan? They led the Red Wings to the NHL’s version of the Final Four in 1987 and ’88.

How about Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood? They presided over a 62-win season in 1996, then took turns leading the Red Wings to the Cup—Vernon in 1997 and Osgood in 1998.

Dominik Hasek. Curtis Joseph. Manny Legace. Hasek again. Osgood again. Hasek again. Osgood again.

The Red Wings, with their two-headed monster between the pipes, won four Stanley Cups in an 11-year stretch.

The goalie controversies have been much kinder to the Red Wings than the QB ones have been to the Lions.

But you can say goodbye to both two-headed monsters—the one on the football field, and the one on the ice rink.

The Lions, with the young gunslinger Matthew Stafford, are set at quarterback for the next 10 years, his recent interception fetish notwithstanding.

And the Red Wings have no more worries in goal—provided they can keep Jimmy Howard shackled to a contract befitting his skills.

Howard, from the University of Maine, was the only Red Wing earning his paycheck for the first month of this season. And those are some big paychecks we’re talking about.

Howard is pretty much established now as one of the upper echelon goalies in the NHL. So say I.
He’s in his third full season, a late bloomer of sorts.

Howard is 27, and will be 28 in March. He didn’t become the Red Wings starting goalie until 2009, a full six years after being drafted in the second round.

He’s proving to be worth the wait.

Howard is no Sawchuk, and I mean that in a good way.

Jimmy Howard isn’t tormented. He isn’t in a dark place mentally. He hasn’t had to miss a half season at age 27 from mental exhaustion, as Sawchuk did back in 1957, when the media and fans in Boston rode him mercilessly.

And it’s not like Howard is playing incognito.

You can’t hide in Detroit if you’re a goalie. Or if you’re a quarterback. It’s not unlike other pro sports burgs that have NHL and NFL teams.

Goalie and quarterback, in most towns, are not positions for the faint of heart or weak of character.

Howard took over goaltending duties in 2009, somewhat shoving out the veteran Osgood, the starter for two of those four Cups between ’97 and ’08. There was some concern about Howard’s status come playoff time. Folks wondered aloud if the kid had what it takes to navigate through the choppy playoff waters.

Good thing the water is frozen in hockey, eh?

Howard acquitted himself well in the 2010 post-season, and even more so in 2011, even though the Red Wings didn’t make it out of the second round in either spring.

Now he’s got a stranglehold on the starting job, with only 35-year-old Ty Conklin around to back him up. Conklin will be lucky to appear in 20 games this season.

It took Jimmy Howard a wee bit longer than most NHL goalies to emerge and stake his claim to being the No. 1 guy in net.

Now all the Red Wings have to do is keep him signed and happy.

The happy part shouldn’t be a problem.

Howard is no Sawchuk, after all.