Week of April 24, 2020

TOB is Klay at every pickup game.


The Silver Lining to Shelter-in-Place

The last month has been difficult. Fifty thousand people have died in this country. That’s a nearly-full football stadium, just wiped away. For the loved ones they left behind, it’s been devastating; life-altering. 

For others, like us, it’s been merely an adjustment, and thankfully nothing more. But I miss so many things: the periodic visits from my parents; weekend trips to get coffee and donuts with the boys; hours-long brew days and chats with Phil; daily strategy sessions and shop-talk with my buddy Kevin at work; pickup basketball in my neighborhood on Sunday mornings.

But more than all of that, I try to ignore what my kids are missing out on. My oldest, who wants nothing more than to play sports, got to play exactly one spring soccer game and zero baseball games. It was his first baseball season, and he sure seems snakebit. Last season, I got him onto a team and after the first few practices were rained out, we showed up to the first game, ready to play, and he was turned away for being too young. This year, he went to opening ceremonies, then had his first game rained out, and the rest of the season canceled. My youngest, who for two years was desperate to attend school, had his first year of preschool cut in half. He talks about all of his friends daily – giving us random stories about something one of them did to him, or said to him, or how he handled it. And he begged me Thursday to “go to class” via Zoom with his teacher again, which he did the day before and absolutely loved.

Because even with all of that going on, I’ve tried to be very conscious of how unbelievably lucky my wife and I are. We have our health, as do our friends and family. We have our jobs. We have incredible childcare help that allows us to do and keep those jobs.

But more than that, we are so lucky because after a few weeks’ adjustment period, things are … kinda great. My wife and I work a lot, and now I get to spend so much time with her, and our kids, because we no longer have a 40-min trip each way to the office  The kids, especially, probably hope the shelter-in-place never gets lifted. I enjoy the lazy mornings, listening to the funny things they say to each other as they play. I enjoy the walk upstairs at lunch, knowing they’re about to scream, “Daddyyyyyyy!” with glee when they hear the door open. I enjoy the hours of board games and chess and baking. And, of course, the baseball out front. With the lessened traffic, I now let them just hit directly into the street, after which I chase the ball down the hill. Sometimes, my wife even pitches and I stand in the street playing outfield. 

I try to be mindful of all of this, even as things around us are so difficult. And I thought a lot about it as I read this wonderful article by Dwayne Bray, about how he and his 17-year old son, who long ago gave up baseball to focus on basketball, which he plays at a prep school far from home, have used the shelter-in-place to rediscover the simple joy of throwing some batting practice to each other:

I began by tossing Nick some balls that he could hit into the fence above the backstop. That was always how we started things, back in the day. Next, he walked through the crabgrass and out to the mound. I crouched behind the plate and caught about 25 fastballs — some high, some wide and some down the middle. Years earlier, I’d let him send 50 pitches my way, but bending down to catch 50 pitches isn’t in the cards anymore.

We moved to short toss and, once our arms were loose, we tossed the ball long. I hit him some infield grounders and he fielded most of the balls cleanly, given that he was working with uneven turf and tricky hops. Then we got to our main activity, which was dad hitting long fly balls to son, who would roam center field and shag them. We only had two baseballs and that was plenty.

“Hit it farther,” Nick yelled after my first few flies were more shallow than he wanted. “Make me run.”

After about 10 minutes in the outfield, Nick sprinted in and said, “Let’s switch up. You go to the outfield and I’ll do the hitting.” After about another 10 minutes we switched back.

After about an hour, I was spent. I knew we had one more thing to do. I pitched Nick a fastball and he jacked a screamer into deep left-center. I ran as fast as I could after it. By the time I reached the ball, he’d already crossed the plate. He didn’t slow down to give me a chance. He just wanted to crush the old man. We laughed.

If it weren’t for the isolated world of coronavirus that we live in, I doubt that Nick and I would have ever revived our baseball ritual. This was about dad and son and a game that we both love.

“I had forgot how much fun baseball is,” Nick said to me as we packed up our equipment. “When I have kids, I’m going to make sure I play baseball with them.”

“And when MLB comes back, I’m going to watch more of it,” he said.

As I headed off to my car, and he to his, he had one more thing to say.

“Dad, as long as things are shut down, let’s keep doing baseball, OK?”

Three days later, we were out there again.

The world is a weird and scary place right now, but it’s still a beautiful place, too. -TOB

Source: Under the Coronavirus Lockdown, a Father and Son Rediscover Their Love for Baseball,” Dwayne Bray, The Undefeated (04/21/2020)

PAL: We’re closing in on Week 7 of shutdown mode. Week 7! Sheesh. While our families and friends have avoided the worst of the health scare so far – thank god – the wake of this thing is so wide, and it’s no doubt being felt by loved ones in painful ways. It rolls over everything. Each day feels fragile. Everything must balance: some news (but not too much), a work out (but not at lunchtime or 5pm when everyone’s out), get through a to-do list for work (step 1: make to-do list), cook a good dinner (but let’s be aware of how often we’re going to the grocery store, and let’s make sure to get takeout from our favorite local spots), driveway visits (but let’s keep it 15 feet apart just to be safe), not watching 3 hours of television.

And I wonder about when I can safely visit my parents in Minnesota. I want to give my mom a hug.

So with all of that in mind, this story and TOB’s write-up got my day off to a good start. I think it will do the same for you. I’ve seen TOB in action during the shelter (from a safe distance). My pop-a-shot record at the O’Brien’s house has been bested (most notably by TOB’s 6 year-old), and the security cam videos of the family playing baseball in the driveway are a highlight, too. There is a lot of playing going on over there. A lot. Wish like hell I could join in!


Mike Jordan

On Sunday, the first two of ten episodes of “The Last Dance,” a documentary chronicling the final season of the Jordan-era Bulls’ dynasty in 1998. I didn’t think there was anything groundbreaking, but it was an entertaining and quick two hours that left me wanting more. We’ll likely be writing about it a few times over the next few weeks, because a lot has been written about it so far. 

Before he was Michael Jordan, or Air Jordan, or His Airness…he was Mike Jordan. One of my favorite parts of The Last Dance’s first two episodes was seeing clips of the sheepish and young, the confident but quiet, Mike Jordan. Before the commercials and the Beatles-treatment everywhere he went, he was a kid from North Carolina.

My earliest memory of Michael Jordan was watching him and the Bulls lose to the Pistons in the 1990 playoffs. I remember being so mad. I was eight. By that time, he was all-caps MICHAEL JORDAN, even though he wouldn’t win his first championship until the following year. So I really loved the footage of young Mike, in college and in his first couple years in the pros, before he found his voice, before he was sure of his place atop the game.

One of the many articles written about the first two episodes was by Sam Smith, the former Bulls beat writer who in 1992 wrote “The Jordan Rules,” an inside look at the Bulls under Jordan that was not exactly flattering. Smith’s article touches on much of what I liked about the first two episodes, as he waxed on young Jordan, before he became too famous to function:

As I’ve related at times, I had a good relationship with Jordan writing about the Bulls for The Chicago Tribune in the 1980s. He was great fun to be around, the so called man’s man with whom every moment was a test, a contest, an action, an event.

As unlikely as it seems now, back then hardly anyone believed you could win a title with Jordan on your team. He’s just a scorer! the columnists instructed. You need to make others better like Larry and Magic did.

Hey, I’m being asked to make Mike Smrek, Gene Banks and Steve Colter better, Jordan would lament. But there may not have been a better interview, few players more welcoming, cordial, engaging and relentlessly interesting. Jordan loved the media give and take. He didn’t like shooting before the games because crowds would gather like with the Curry dribbling shows. He preferred to verbally engage, challenge, get that last word.

Obviously the documentary is about the 1998 season, long after Jordan could no longer be that guy. So I doubt we will get much more of that era, but I really enjoyed that aspect of the first two episodes.

Also: in the article, Smith gives context to one of Jordan’s most infamous quotes (“Hey, Republicans buy sneakers, too.”). Jordan said it to Smith, and as Smith notes, people have bashed Jordan over it for decades, arguing he’s a corporate tool. But Smith disagrees. It was just a joke. He should know; after all, Jordan said it to Smith. And, as Smith notes:

After his career I do know he was seriously involved with Barack Obama’s campaigns and has supported more social causes than most. Mostly quietly or anonymously.

I didn’t know that, and I appreciated it. -TOB

Source:The Story Behind One of Michael Jordan’s Most Misunderstood Quotes,” Sam Smith, NBA.com (04/15/2020)


Always Watch The Credits (more on The Last Dance)

I will say, it’s always a red flag when the subject of the doc is the one putting it out. Hey – I know I’ll enjoy the hell out of this documentary series, but it is worth noting that, (A) nothing went into this doc without Jordan’s approval, and (B) Jordan’s production company is a partner in this thing. 

What’s more:

Commissioner Adam Silver, who in the 1990s was the head of NBA Entertainment, told ESPN that a condition of allowing the film crew to follow the Bulls around during the 1997-98 season was that none of the footage could be used without Jordan’s permission. Optically, very little of this is unvarnished.

I’ve heard multiple times from Dan Patrick and Bill Simmons (both former ESPN talent) that everyone had know about the tapes for years. No one thought this thing would ever get done, because Jordan would never approve it. 

Well, in 2016, Jordan finally gave the thumbs up. He did so on the same day Lebron James and his Cavelier teammates were having their championship parade. Hmmmmm. 

And later:

“I am reminded of that viral clip of Jordan and Tom Brady playing pickup basketball with other unidentified players from 2015 in the Bahamas.

“Hey, man, you guys still have YouTube?” Jordan, in his early 50s, says to one of his defenders after making a flawless jumper over him. “You better put on Michael Jordan for real.”

“That’s what “The Last Dance” is: Jordan reminding us who he is, or was, as James’s legacy emerges. Not just as a basketball player, but culturally. Would a documentary about James’s career attract multiple former presidents and A-list celebrities?”

To be fair, I should wait until I’ve watched the entire series before teeing up this stuff. But also, to be fair, THERE ARE NO OTHER SPORTS GOING ON! – PAL 

Source: Is Michael Jordan Playing Defense in ‘The Last Dance’?”, Sopan Deb, The New York Times (04/20/20)


I MISS KRUK AND KUIP

I miss ‘em! And I’m not alone. The Athletic’s Steve Berman (nee the Bay Area Sports Guy) wrote up a nice story on Kruk and Kuip, and how they are staying busy, and in touch, during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a nice read, with lots of Kruk and Kuip being Kruk and Kuip. I recommend it.

But I especially liked this anecdote about how they got their start together, broadcasting games:

Their other connection, of course — one which started as players on road trips when the dugouts were spacious enough to stay out of trouble — is broadcasting.

Krukow and Kuiper loved calling games together as teammates, but they had to pick their spots. First, only certain locations made it even feasible without getting reprimanded by a cranky manager.

“It was the real broadcast,” Krukow said. “There was lots of profanity and lots of cutting-edge observations on our opponents, many of whom we weren’t that fond of. Same thing, we would have cutting remarks about our own teammates, which would entertain our teammates sitting close to us. So we had fun with it.”

“Language that at times we wish we could use (today),” Kuiper said. “Certainly not appropriate for people watching in their living room. But that’s dugout language. That’s not language I used in catechism. It was a language that I used in the dugout. So it kind of fit perfectly for where we were sitting.”

There was a problem — one which has suited Krukow and Kuiper quite well since they retired: Sometimes, they were a little too entertaining.

“We would actually get (teammates) that would come over,” said Kuiper. “And it was kind of odd, because Frank [Robinson, the manager] would look down the bench and he had nobody sitting around him, but there would be like eight guys sitting next to Mike and I. And then we had to break up that group because then it was pretty obvious something was going on down there that was a lot more fun than what was going on behind Frank.

I would pay $100 per season to hear them call a game like that.

Source: From the Dugout to Zoom: The Friendship of Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper Endures,” Steve Berman, The Athletic (04/12/2020)

PAL: $100? $100 is not enough. Show some damn respect. I love how they could only do it at stadiums with long dugouts. Philly? Nope. Pittsburgh? Not a chance. Montreal? Long dugouts. They could have some fun for an inning or two in Montreal. Outstanding.

TOB: LOL. I almost said a dollar a game, but that seemed low – it’s worth more than that. Then I thought $200. But that’s more than MLB’s league pass. So even though $100 for 162 games is than $1 per game, I  don’t sit down and watch from start to finish 100 games per year. These days I often have to flip through after the kids go to bed. So $100 for the season to pop-in and hear them talk some shit sounded right.


Is NCAA Basketball About to Get Knocked Out?

A year and a half ago, the NBA announced a new option for elite high school seniors not yet eligible for the NBA Draft: the G League (formerly the NBDL) (*If you’re rightfully wondering why the NBA won’t just lift its rule preventing players from entering the draft until one year after they finish high school, it’s because the NBA wants to protect its teams from investing millions in players who they’ve only seen play against high school competition.) The money was far less than for an NBA rookie, but at a then-announced $150,000 per year contract, it was about even with what players get to play at a school like Arizona ( ;), Casey).

It was certainly newsworthy, but many were rightfully skeptical – it takes a lot to turn a tanker, and the NCAA is one of the biggest. Decades of history, and endless TV exposure that the NCAA provides, were seen as too difficult to pass up. Sure, a few players have gone to Europe or Australia in recent years, but the G League has a bit of a stigma, and its games are rarely on TV, or covered at all. It would take a true star to turn this ship, and this week, the G League got it. 

Jalen Green is that dude. Green is the top-rated prospect in the 2020 high school class. Originally from Fresno, California and playing his senior year at Prolific Prep in Napa, Green is a 6’5 combo guard who many believe would be the #1 pick in this year’s draft, if he was eligible. But he’s not. So instead of having to clandestinely take $100,000 or ply his trade in exchange for a useless half-year of education in college, and instead of traveling across the globe, far from family and friends, Green took the G League up on its offer. 

His contract is reportedly worth upwards of $1,000,000. Other prospects who join the program will apparently make at least $500,000.00. And instead of having to fake their way through classes for one semester and be limited in the time they can work on their craft, they will be instead placed in a program designed to develop them, as they play a select few exhibition games. This is great for Green.

It’s not great for the NCAA. If this becomes commonplace, the already depleted talent-level in college will get so much worse. While watching the Jordan documentary, I was struck by the talent in the 1982 NCAA championship, when Jordan hit the game winning shot. You’ve got Jordan, the greatest ever. But you’ve also got Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing and James Worthy, plus Sam Perkins and Sleepy Floyd. You just don’t see that kind of talent in college anymore, because the best players leave before they develop. I often think of guys in their third year in the league (like Jason Taytum this year), and just imagine him as a senior this year at Duke. LOLLLLLL. He’d be DESTROYING everyone. Of course, there’d be lots of other older players, too: De’Aaron Fox, Lonzo Ball, Bam Adebayo? Seniors. Bagley, Ayton, Trae Young, and Gilgeous-Alexander? Juniors

The talent level has already been so poor for two decades now, but it’s about to get worse if all those players don’t even play a single year. You can argue that it will create better basketball because there will be more continuity. But you don’t see anyone clamoring to watch D-II basketball, do you? Or even the Ivy League? 

The NCAA is like an aging fighter who just got a cut above its eye in the fourth round. Are they going to get pummeled for the next few rounds before collapsing a bloody heap in the tenth? Or are they going to throw a haymaker that wins them the belt? In this case, the haymaker the NCAA needs is to agree to pay players. They are now in direct competition with the NBA for the dozen or so very best players each year. If they don’t do something drastic, to not only get the best players into college but also keep them for a few years, they’re going to stagger around the ring for a few years before the ref stops the bout. -TOB

PAL: It’s far from perfect, but something along the lines of the baseball draft seems like a decent solution. Here are the simplified rules for first year players in U.S. and Canada (some dudes get drafted multiple times): 

  • High school graduates who haven’t enrolled at a college are eligible
  • Junior college players are eligible 
  • College players, over 21 (odd speculation to me), who have completed their junior or senior year

For basketball, maybe they adjust to something like: 

  • High school graduates who haven’t enrolled at a college are eligible (or they can play in the G-league or wherever they want)
  • Junior college players are eligible (seems like a far rarer scenario, but – hey – we JUST wrote about Shawn Kemp, who was a juco guy)
  • College players who have completed their sophomore year 

In other words, either you go after high school, or you have to play 2 years in college. The best 5-10 don’t play college ball: either they get drafted or join a professional league, but there’s some continuity to college teams with players staying for two seasons. You miss out on the phenoms, but some very good players and teams can sprout in two years together. 

Maybe the best 50 prep players eventually chose routes alternative to college. You make an interesting point about Ivy Leagues and D-II ball not getting a lot of attention. I would argue, at least partially, that’s due to it being an inferior form of college basketball. At least for the foreseeable future, people will watch the best college basketball available, because watching college ball is also about nostalgia to some extent. It’s a reminder of our college days. And people love reminders of the glory days. 


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Song of the Week: Pure Prairie League – “Amie”


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-Michael Scott