Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hot in Charlotte ... and in Blue Valentine!

70 and sunny in Charlotte today! I miss lots about Chicago, but the weather ain't one of them!

On another note ...

I mentioned in yesterday's post that Roberta and I saw Blue Valentine. Though the movie is more than a little depressing as it chronicles a couple falling out of love, it is powerful. The acting, with Michelle Williams and Ryan Goslin in the lead roles, is top-notch. It's not anywhere near my Oscar choice, but it's still worth seeing ... with a disclaimer:

If you are even a little prudish or the least bit uncomfortable seeing naked bodies grinding on the big screen, this is not the flick for you.

The sex scenes were intense and graphic. The soft-core porn HBO shows late on weekend nights (from what I hear) leaves more to the imagination than Blue Valentine's many sex scenes.

There. You've been forewarned. Now, did I mention that I wore shorts and a t-shirt on the long walk Roberta and I took today? Nice!

All this ... and the Pro Bowl, too?

Had a very nice Saturday.

The wife and I joined a couple dozen fellow Charlotte-area Marquette alums to watch our beloved Golden Warrior Eagles beat Syracuse. Then we (not the dozens, just Roberta and I) went to see "Blue Valentine" -- a tad depressing but still very good.

Now I just hope I'll be able to get a good night sleep. I mean, it's hard not to be too excited to rest, what with the Pro Bowl so close to kickoff!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Just one of the girls

Going in, I was a little worried. I was afraid the final buzzer would sound and I might turn into a weeping, sniffling mess of a man.

Kind of like John Boehner, only less orange.

Thankfully, when the last game of my first season as a basketball coach ended, I mostly held it together.


When one parent thanked me and I responded, "I wish the season wasn't over," I could feel my lower lip quivering just a little. But I got ahold of myself and was able to fill the next several minutes with thank-yous, hugs and smiles before leaving the arena with a bag full of sweaty jerseys to turn into the athletic director.

It truly was a great season for the mighty 7th grade Lady Bucs of Charlotte Country Day.

Although we could have won a few more games -- we finished 7-5 -- we grew so much from the first day of practice to the season's end.

Just as I had never coached high-level, competitive hoops before, many of these girls had never been a part of such a program. Several of them had trouble even catching the ball. Layup lines were an adventure, with girls bumping into each other and basketballs bouncing every which way.

As for running the three-man weave, well, we might as well have asked them to split atoms.

Slowly, thanks in great part to the guidance and patience of our head coach, Diana Cromartie, and also to the intelligence and work ethic of the girls, we figured things out. Together.

After a 1-2 start, we reeled off five straight wins, each more impressive than the one before. Our best players took ownership of the team and their teammates followed. Most of them have been friends for years, playing other sports and just hanging out together, and that bond was paying dividends on the basketball court.

In the last two weeks, the level of competition rose significantly and we lost 3 of our final 4 games. But we fought hard in every one of them. We didn't always make the best decisions and our shots didn't always fall, but nobody worked harder than we did. Nobody.

In Thursday's finale, we fell behind by 9 points but came roaring back to trail by 2 in the final seconds. We couldn't quite pull it out, but we didn't quit. We never quit. The girls -- and their parents -- should be extremely proud.

It was cool to watch the girls grow individually, too. Diana is an excellent teacher of shot mechanics, and every single girl improved under her tutelage. I preached the fundamentals of rebounding -- one of the few skills I had in my playing days, back when the ref had to take the ball out of the peach basket after every successful shot -- and by season's end, several of our girls were terrors on the boards.

Not a practice or game went by without us coaches getting a good laugh. We'd be in the middle of an intense huddle in the final minutes of a close game, and as Diana was drawing up a play, one of the girls invariably would ask: "Um, is this offense or defense?"

I like to think I grew as a coach, too. Frankly, before the season started, I thought I might be in way over my head. My main goal was to reward the trust Country Day (and the girls' parents) put in me. My secondary goal was to not embarrass myself.

Those who know me might not believe this, but I mostly kept my yap shut during the first couple of weeks. This was Diana's team. I was only along for the ride. Writing about others playing basketball was a whole different ballgame than being involved in the day-to-day operations of a team.

As I got more comfortable with the system and with the players, I relaxed. I absorbed as much knowledge as I could. My confidence grew, as did my voice. Again, Diana deserves credit; she encouraged me to make suggestions in practice and take a bigger role in games.

Maybe I'm delusional, but I now actually think I could handle being a head coach at this level next season should the opportunity present itself. If I'm an assistant again, that would be cool, too. I've still got so much to learn.

One thing I did learn is why life-long coaches become life-long coaches. It's addictive. I really am sad the season's over.

Mostly, I will miss the girls. They were fun and funny and smart and goofy and enthusiastic and classy. Above all, they never cheated themselves or their parents or their coaches or their school. They cared.

I hope I'm wrong, but I now realize I might coach for 20 more years and not be lucky enough to work with kids I like this much.

Next up: Monday's farewell party at one of the girl's homes.

If I make it through the night with dry eyes, it might be the season's biggest upset.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Happy 50th to Wayne Gretzky, a great one on and off the ice

The Great One turned 50 on Wednesday, meaning he is just a few months younger than me. Makes me feel younger. Or older. I'm not sure which.

Some of my fondest memories of my years as a young AP hockey writer came from my many trips to Edmonton covering The Greatest Show on Ice.

Those immensely talented and entertaining Oilers were hockey's version of the Showtime Lakers, and Wayne Gretzky was his sport's Magic Johnson. Only better.

After Gretzky moved on to L.A., I made a trip to Winnipeg to cover his 2,000th point. It was an unheard-of achievement at the time ... and he went on to score nearly 1,000 more before he retired. And those don't even include the records he holds as hockey's all-time postseason goal-scorer and assist man.

I also got to cover him almost singlehandedly lifting the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals -- only Wayne Gretzky could make Los Angeles a hockey town -- and his one Olympics as a player (Nagano in 1998, which also was my last Olympics).

As often was the case in my job, though, my favorite memory involving Gretzky was of something little, not of a big event like the Stanley Cup or Olympics.

He got off to a dreadful (for him) start in the lockout-shortened 1995 season. When the Kings came into Chicago for a game against the Blackhawks that March, I decided to do a story on him.

I didn't have to beg the Kings' media-relations people for access after the game-day skate. I simply waited for practice to end and for him to step off the ice. I asked if he had a minute; he gave me almost 15. And when another member of the media tried to join in, Gretzky politely waved him away and said, "I'm talking to this reporter now. Let us finish, please."

I never felt more important.

After he answered the many very tough questions I asked him about his rare slump, he shook my hand and said, "Thank you" even before I could thank him. He then spent a couple of minutes with others in the media before leaving the United Center.

This is an example of why most folks who have spent any time around Gretzky consider him one of the classiest, least-pretentious superstars in sports history.

No team sport athlete -- not Michael Jordan, not Babe Ruth, not Jim Brown, not anybody -- dominated his sport as completely and as long as Wayne Gretzky did.

That he was (and still is) such a good guy, too ... well, it seems almost impossible.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Here's hoping Cutler has learned a thing or three

Crutches. Yeah, that's the ticket.

If only Jay Cutler had been smart enough to limp around the sideline on crutches -- maybe wincing a little as he did -- he wouldn't now be known as the biggest wimp this side of Milhouse Van Houten.

Judging from Cutler's two seasons with the Bears, he didn't learn much about being an NFL quarterback. He still tries high-risk-low-reward passes far too often. He still holds onto the ball too long and still doesn't know how to throw it away to avoid sacks. He still has body language suggesting anything but leadership.

At the very least, however, here's hoping he's learned a few things since Sunday.

His back-stabbing peers, not the evil media, are his biggest critics. Chicago fans, like all others, want to embrace you when you're up but live to crush you when you're down. (Once upon a time, Rex Grossman was a Soldier Field favorite, too!) Only a moron -- or a glutton for punishment -- goes out on the town hours after being the perceived goat of the season's most bitter defeat.

Oh, and for cryin' out loud, use crutches next time.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hey, Cutler critics ... karma can be a bitch

Jay Cutler is an overrated, coach-killing diva who never has been a winner at any significant level.

And you know what else he is? A victim.

Think what you want about Cutler -- I already have shared my thoughts in the first paragraph -- but he doesn't deserve to be the target of abuse by couch-potato doctor-wannabes who are questioning his pain tolerance and manhood.

Cutler has taken a beating for two years behind the horrid offensive line his GM and coach put in front of him. He has gotten up nearly every time, never once publicly questioning his bosses or teammates. And yet when he left Sunday's playoff loss to a superior Packers team with a knee problem, thousands -- maybe even millions -- of people immediately questioned his toughness and his willingness to fight through adversity.

Fellow NFL players (such as Darnell Dockett, an admitted criminal during his Florida State days) and ex-jocks (such as Deion Sanders, who for his entire career was afraid to tackle anybody bigger than he was) quickly tweeted their thoughts.

Their theme: Jay Cutler is a wimp who has no heart.

Ten years ago, big-league blowhard David Wells accused White Sox teammate Frank Thomas of jaking it ... only to learn shortly thereafter that Thomas had suffered a season-ending shoulder injury requiring major surgery. Karma was a bitch; Wells had a brutally bad season full of physical woes.

Five years ago, folks within and outside the Cubs organization accused Mark Prior of giving in to small aches and pains ... only to learn that Prior was suffering from injuries that might have been misdiagnosed and very possibly were caused by the Cubs over-using him.

And now we have NFL players -- who should know better -- not to mention many idiot fans accusing Cutler of being a pussy and a quitter.

In the regular-season finale three weeks ago, Lovie Smith chose to play Cutler the entire game even though it was completely meaningless to the Bears. It wasn't meaningless to the Packers, however, who used the occasion to beat the QB's alleged protectors over and over again en route to beating Cutler to a pulp.

Instead of quitting that day, Cutler kept getting up. Later, he defended Lovie's decision and his offensive line's ability.

But now, on Sunday, in a game he desperately wanted to win to prove he could be an impact player at the highest level, Cutler simply took a pass?


Were I a Bears fan, I'd be upset that Cutler played like doo-doo before he got hurt, missing an open Devin Hester three times on what could have been huge plays. I'd be livid that the team's braintrust thought Todd Collins was a viable NFL backup. I'd be spittin' mad that Mike Martz called that ridiculous end-around to kill a potential tying drive in a game the Bears had no business winning.

Oh, and I'd temper my enthusiasm about third-stringer Caleb Hanie, who did his darnedest to rally the troops but also threw two interceptions, including one that was taken in for a TD by a 400-pound lineman.

What I wouldn't be doing is questioning the toughness of Jay Cutler or any other player without knowing some facts.

I know, I know: In this Internet age, "fact" is the ultimate four-letter f-word, to be avoided at all costs.

Why worry about facts when we can be instant, brainless twits, right Neon Deion?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Prediction: A Super Sunday Parity Party

Whichever QB gets pounded less will win.

It says here that will be Aaron Rodgers, who also happens to be a significantly better QB than Jay Cutler.

Packers 17, Bears 13.

Also: Jets 20, Steelers 17. Why? Why not?

Two No. 6 seeds in the Super Bowl ... Pete Rozelle's dream finally will have come true.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Notre Dame seeks Texas-sized payday

Well you had to expect this:

Minutes after ESPN gave Texas $300 million for the rights to All Longhorns All The Time TV, Touchdown Jesus had his people on the phone to NBC.

And let me tell you, Touchdown Matthew, Touchdown Mark and Touchdown Luke were pretty demanding in negotiations.

NBC didn't end up ponying up any more dough, but play-by-play man Tom Hammond will have to mention the pope three times a game. Oh, and sideline reporter Alex Flanagan will be wearing Catholic Schoolgirl garb next season.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Belichick: From genius to choker

Umm ... how do I put this subtlely? How 'bout this:

Bill Belichick choked.

With his Patriots trailing the Jets by 10 with 12:55 to play, ol' Hoodie McHoodster let Tom Brady and the great Pats offense take their sweet time meandering down the field. The ChowdahHeads kept running the ball, kept taking full huddles, kept milking the clock.

Tick ... tick ... tick. If you didn't know any better, you'd have thought the Pats were up by 10 points rather than down 2 scores.

Nearly 8 minutes later, the Patriots gave up the ball on downs. Didn't even get off a stinkin' field-goal attempt. Game over.

Yes, Brady had a less-than-stellar game. Still, on New England's previous possession, he guided the team 80 yards in less than 4 minutes, passing on almost every down.

There seemed to be plenty of time left for some patented Brady magic ... until Belichick & his offensive braintrust used up nearly all the time, 3 and 4 yards at a time.

It was a choke of Cubbian proportions, and it's all on Hoodie.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Today's High 5 - NFL Playoff Edition

5. Just wondering if Cam Newton's father will be his agent in the NFL, too. And, if so, will Mr. Newton manage to get his son even more money than he did at the Triple-A level?

4. Ray Lewis vs. Ben Roethlisberger ... now there's a matchup of upstanding citizens. Can we root for both buses to run out of gas on the way to the stadium? As good as the Steelers are, they were no better at home this season (5-3) than the Ravens were on the road. So I'm smelling a road upset here. Either that, or Troy Polamalu needs to change shampoo brands again. Ravens 20, Steelers 19.

3. If the Packers really do have a running game, as certainly seemed to be the case in their playoff opener, they could run the table this postseason. Aaron Rodgers and their D are that good. Won't be easy to win in Atlanta, though. I mean, just ask any of the Atlanta franchises how difficult it is to win playoff games there! Packers 24, Falcons 20.

2. Despite going 7-9, the Seahawks got to host the Saints in their playoff opener. If only they had gone 4-12, they'd have gotten to host the Bears this Sunday, too. I'm trying to figure out if there is any possible way the Bears can blow this one, and I'm failing. We'll see if Jay Cutler proves me wrong by throwing to the same DB 4 times. Bears 27, Seahawks 10.

1. Gotta love all the trash-talking leading up to the Jets-Pats game. But enough about Rex Ryan. Given that Mark Sanchez usually messes up about four times a game ... and Tom Brady doesn't ... I'm going with Brady. Besides, without that player-tripping dude on their sideline, what chance do the Jets really have? Patriots 23, Jets 13.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Don't stifle dese memories, Edith

Forty years ago tonight, All in the Family made its network debut. I loved that show, and to this very day Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker remains my choice as the greatest character in television history.

Whenever I happen to catch an episode on Nick at Nite or whatever network shows such stuff these days, I remain amazed at the quality of the acting, writing and directing that made All in the Family so great way back when.

And I especially remain amazed at how relevant the show still is.

Sure, Watergate and Nixon and Vietnam and all the other things Archie and Meathead argued about now are ancient history. But the way the show dealt with subjects such as race relations, gay rights, abortion, sex, recessionary times, human emotions, family issues, job insecurity and patriotism ... well, let's just say today's TV honchos could learn a thing or three about how to effectively put on a show that really matters. Not to mention a show capable of making the viewer laugh hysterically five or six times every half hour.

As Archie and Edith sang before every episode, "Those were the days."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

They told me Charlotte's avg Jan temp was 51!

Here's our new(ish) car -- which we bought after our last one got totaled in an accident -- covered in wintry fun after our lovely snow/ice storm.

Jeesh ... I moved south for this?

Here's hoping my fellow ex-Chicagoan, new Panthers coach Ron Rivera, knows what he got himself into.

And on another note ...

That was a hell of a game Monday night, wasn't it?

Of course I'm not talking about the pretend college football championship game. Everyone who knows me knows I didn't watch that.

No, I'm talking about Marquette taking Notre Dame behind the woodshed for a good ol'-fashioned whuppin'!

The most fun a Golden Warrior Eagles fan can have with his clothes on.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Oh, man! White Sox impose their Will on rest of MLB

Despite telling the White Sox about 10 times that I have moved to North Carolina and no longer need to be on their e-mail list, this press release just popped into my in-box:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Monday, January 10, 2011


CHICAGO – The Chicago White Sox have agreed to terms on a two-year, $4-million contract with free agent relief pitcher Will Ohman. Under terms of the deal, Ohman will receive $1.5 million in 2011 and $2.5 million in 2012.

Ohman, a 33-year-old left-hander, went 0-2 with a 3.21 ERA (15 ER/42.0 IP) and 43 strikeouts in 68 combined appearances with Baltimore and Florida in 2010. He began the season with the Orioles, going 0-0 with a 3.30 ERA (11 ER/30.0 IP) in 51 games before being traded to the Marlins on July 31 in exchange for pitcher Rick VandenHurk, where he was 0-2 with a 3.00 ERA (4 ER/12.0 IP).

The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder held left-handers to a .229 (19-83) average and opened the season with a streak of 25 consecutive scoreless appearances covering 15.2 IP. He threw less than 1.0 IP in 45 of his 68 outings last season.

Ohman has gone 11-11 with a 4.19 ERA (124 ER/273.0 IP) and 269 strikeouts over eight major-league seasons with the Cubs (2000-01, ’05-07), Atlanta (2008), Los Angeles-NL (2009), Baltimore (2010) and Florida (2010).

Ohman has limited lefties to a .208 (104-500) career average with 154 strikeouts.

He originally was selected by the Cubs in the eighth round of the 1998 First-Year Player Draft.

With the move, the White Sox 40-man roster is at 37.

That about clinches it, no?

I mean, why should the other 29 teams even bother showing up for the 2011 season?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tragedy doesn't only strike famous

While keeping Congresswoman Giffords in your hopes and prayers, don't forget that many less-famous people and their families were gravely affected by the horrific act that took place Saturday in Tucson.

These victims matter just as much and deserve our sympathy and attention.

Sports? Now there's something that doesn't matter. Not at times like these.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Hall call was worth the wait for Blyleven, Alomar

As a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, I'm often asked how it's possible that a BBWAA member fails to vote for a guy one year but then changes his/her mind 12 months later. After all, the perfectly sane argument goes, the player's stats didn't change during those 52 weeks.

The newest enshrinees announced Wednesday, Bert Blyleven and Robbie Alomar, exemplify why it happens ... and demonstrate that it even makes some sense.

This was Blyleven's 14th year on the ballot, meaning he'd have had only one more try after this one. I didn't vote for him his first 10 years but became a convert four years ago. For the longest time, I had trouble reconciling the fact that if the likes of Jim Kaat and Tommy John weren't in, why should Blyleven? The three had similar stats and similar impact on teams.

Over time, however, several fellow voters made reasonable cases for Blyleven, and I finally saw their points. They emphasized his strikeouts, complete games and two World Series rings, as well as the relative weakness of many of the teams on which he played. And they correctly said that just because Kaat and John didn't get the votes, that was no reason to take it out on Blyleven.

I am not the least bit ashamed that it took me 10 years to come around. Justice was served in the end. (And not David Justice ... he ain't getting in!)

Alomar was the best second baseman I ever saw and, for more than a decade, one of the great offensive catalysts in the game. I enthusiastically voted for him last year, his first on the ballot.

Several of my BBWAA colleagues who shunned him last year checked the box next to his name this time - and I have absolutely no problem with that. Keeping Alomar from being a first-ballot Hall of Famer was perfectly fitting punishment for a jerk who spat on an umpire.

As for other Hall tidbits ...

++ The only other player to earn my check mark this year, Jack Morris, got 53.5 percent of the vote - far short of the 75 percent every Hall of Famer needs. I fully respect the fact that Morris is a borderline case, a big-game pitcher with an excellent winning percentage who excelled for a decade but lacked an eye-popping win total and ERA.

++ The only other guys I seriously considered this time were Barry Larkin and Tim Raines. Maybe I'll change my mind about one or the other someday. Or maybe not.

++ Mercy! Harold Baines finally fell 2 votes shy of remaining on the ballot for future years. He simply isn't a Hall of Famer, despite the arguments on his behalf by my SouthtownStar buddy Phil Arvia.

++ Jeff Bagwell, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy were all very good players for a very long time but it's unlikely that any will make the Hall. That shows how difficult it is to get in - which, of course, it should be.

++ Mark McLiar actually lost support from last year to this. Good. He did one thing well ... and did that well only because he made a pin cushion out of his buttocks for years and years. One-dimensional idiots do not belong in the Hall of Fame.

++ I can understand why some of my peers voted for Rafael Palmeiro, who had very good stats over the years (but was a juicer who rarely helped his teams succeed). That 30 of them voted for Juan Gonzalez, a steroid-swilling clown whose numbers relative to his era were unimpressive, is more of a head-scratcher.

++ Two voters checked the box next to B.J. Surhoff's name, one gave Bret Boone a vote and another chose Benito Santiago. Something there helps explain why both Dubya and Blago each got elected to major executive offices ... twice!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Today's High 5 - NFL Edition

5. Interesting strategy by Lovie Smith: preparing for the playoffs by letting the Bears' QB get pummeled again and again and again in a meaningless game. Maybe he was thinking that if Jay Cutler gets smacked upside the head often enough, he'll stop throwing the football to the other team.

4. Several other coaches whose teams previously had clinched playoff positions didn't play their QBs the whole way and gave numerous starters the week off. Every year, there is a debate about which strategy is the best, and the evidence is pretty inconclusive. Still, were I in this situation, I would minimize the risk to my QB and other important players. But hey, I'd also make my players stop carrying guns into nightclubs, so what do I know?

3. How would you like to be a Panthers season-ticket holder? The owner, Jerry Richardson, threw away the season by employing a lame-duck coach and letting some of the team's best players leave last offseason without getting any compensation in return. A contrite Richardson thanked fans for their loyalty and said he'd make it up to them by building a team they can be proud of again, but I'm guessing he won't reduce ticket prices. He's also one of the hard-line owners in the fight against the union that could cancel the 2011 season. Yep, a real man of the people. Makes me proud to be a Carolinan.

2. Eagles-Packers is going to be a great first-round playoff game. Mikie Vick is fun to watch and the Eagles have a lot of offensive talent, but I wouldn't want to be playing the Packers right now. They bring it on D, and have a pretty good QB themselves.

Given that Brett Favre looked 41 going on 65 this season, I finally believe him when he says he is retiring for good. In many ways, it's a shame he didn't leave after last season, when he was sensational, but it's hard to blame him for returning to try for an encore. Although Favre came out of 2010 looking like a scumbag for some off-the-field shenanigans, nothing that happened on the field diminished his legacy as one of the great QBs and competitors of all time. I'll miss watching him play.