Tuesday, February 18, 2014

One heck of a win for my Comeback Kids!

Amazing come-from-behind victory for my Scholars Academy Eagles ... and now it’s on to the conference semifinals!

Playing without one of our starting guards, who is on a family trip this week, we only had eight players. And four of those girls ended up getting charged with four fouls each. Still, we overcame staunch opposition, plenty of our own mistakes and some horrendous officiating (and probably a little mediocre coaching) to score the game’s final 7 points and win by 2!

We were down by 5 with less than 4 minutes to go. Our 1-2-1-1 full-court press, which had been effective all game, really ramped up the pressure down the stretch. But what really decided the game – as it so often does in basketball – is that our girls finally started making some shots.

Celeste, our center, made a free throw. After a steal, Sienna, our power forward/point guard/do-everything girl, hit a layup. After another steal, Ritika, our diminutive 5th-grader – and the best shooter on the team – calmly swished a 17-foot jumper from the baseline to tie it with about a minute to go. Finally, Ritika stole a pass and made a layup with about 40 seconds left to put us ahead. We then survived a couple of late turnovers to hang on thanks to our defense and rebounding.

Phew! There were a couple times I thought I might have the big one – especially after the ref ignored an obvious 5-step travel on an opposing player and compounded the mess-up by calling a foul on us – but I lived to coach another game.

On Thursday, we play the top seed -- a team that defeated us twice, including once handily. But I’ve learned to never doubt the toughness and resilience of my girls. I know we won’t be out-worked or out-hustled. If we can make a few shots ... well ... as former MLB pitcher Joaquin Andujar famously said:

There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, "You never know."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

U.S. hockey win over Russia was great fun ... but not miraculous

No matter how many flashbacks NBC showed or how many references its announcers made, yesterday's thoroughly enjoyable U.S.-Russia hockey game had pretty much zero relationship to the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

Thirty-four years ago, the U.S. team was made up of a bunch of kids either in college or fresh out of college. The Soviet Union team was comprised of mature, well-compensated (by Russian standards) professionals who had dominated international play for years. When Herb Brooks' squad prevailed, it was on the very short list of greatest upsets in sports history.

Today's U.S. team is made up of multimillionare superstar professionals. One could argue quite convincingly that the U.S. roster has more talent top to bottom than the Russian team does. Beating Russia, even on the road, was hardly an upset, let alone a miracle.

Having said that ...

The U.S. and Russia pros staged one of the most exciting sporting events I've seen in quite some time. The game featured drama, outstanding individual performances, controversy and just enough political intrigue to make for an extremely entertaining three hours. I only wish NBC had shown Putin and his minions after T.J. Oshie's fourth and final shootout goal -- as the network earlier had shown Putin celebrating Russian scores.

The game even had a nice little twist for me: The victorious U.S. goalie, Jonathan Quick -- who was accused of cheating by some Russians -- was born in my hometown, Milford, Conn.

So that makes five pretty nice contributions to society for our sleepy little burg:

Bic pens, Schick razors, Subway sandwiches, Jon Quick and Mike Nadel.

OK, maybe four.


That game was only the first part of an extremely enjoyable sports doubleheader for yours truly.

A few hours later, Robbie and I met a dozen or so fellow Carolina Marquetters at a sports bar to watch our alma mater's hoops team defeat Xavier. It was "National Marquette Day," and our Golden Warrior Eagles played one of their best games of the season.

Our lads had such a poor nonconference season that we're still looking at almost must-win situations for the rest of the season if there is to be a ninth straight NCAA tournament invitation.

But hey, every winning streak has to start somewhere. Marquette now has three wins in a row, and an upset of Creighton this coming Wednesday will go a long way toward determining how good this season still can be.


One reason hockey is among my favorite Olympic sports is this: You score the most goals, you win the game. It's not a matter of some judge deciding whether or not you had a proper landing on your pretzel 270 or triple toe loop.

Although I enjoy watching figure skating, I freely admit I'm no expert. Still, I'm trying to figure out how Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu won the men's competition the other day after he stumbled and fell more often than I did during a typical Marquette weekend bender. I'm sorry, but it felt like the fix was in.

Any competition in which the champion is decided by judging rather than head-to-head competition is inferior and hard to be taken seriously.


For the tens of folks who might be wondering about how the girls basketball team I coach did in the playoffs, well, we're still waiting to play.

Mother Nature dumped 8 inches of snow on Charlotte this past week, effectively shutting down the city and postponing our quarterfinal game until this coming Tuesday.

We face a team that has beaten us by only 4 and 6 points this season, so I certainly think we can advance if we play well. But the weather delay was costly, as one of our top players will be out of town all this week.

Darn weather. I moved to N.C. to get away from snow. I sure as hell didn't move here for its enlightened political scene!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Getting ready for a major sporting event, and saluting a great man

By next week, one of the most important sporting events in the world will be in high gear.

Yes, that's right ...

My Scholars Academy Eagles will be competing in the quarterfinals of the Charlotte Gastonia Athletics Association girls' basketball tournament.

Unlike the Olympics, our event doesn't have to pretend to be about sportsmanship, character and the spirit of pure competition. Because, unlike the Olympics, our event actually is about all of those things -- as opposed to being about the pursuit of big-money endorsement contracts and about the host nation trying to prove it is more than one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

With the Eagles, what I say goes, so I guess that makes me kind of a dictator. Nevertheless, I have yet to go shirtless while riding horseback and I have yet to threaten to jail people just for being who they are.

I also have yet to use my kids to make a political statement ... unless asking them to pass to their teammates instead of to the girls wearing the other uniforms is the equivalent of taking a stance against redistribution of wealth.

OK, enough about the trivial event taking place in Putinville this month. Back to an All-American event featuring the Eagles ...

After last week's massive 1 1/2 inch Snowmageddon, which closed school for 2 1/2 days and resulted in two games being postponed, we had a nice dry week and were able to make up those games.

In the first, we took a big lead but foolish coaching strategy contributed to a near collapse. I thought the game was in the bag in the fourth quarter and tried a lineup combination I hadn't used all season -- for one thing, it didn't include either of our two experienced point guards. We promptly gave up most of the lead, and by the time I rectified the situation, we had lost all momentum. Our opponent tied the game with about a minute to go and we were reeling, having scored only one point in the entire quarter. But with about 15 seconds to play, one of our captains, Sienna, stole the ball near the top of the key. Her 15-footer didn't go in, but her teammate Margaret grabbed the rebound, drove and made the tiebreaking layup with 5 seconds left. Our opponents were so dejected, they didn't even attempt a desperation shot.

I later apologized to the girls and explained that just as they make mistakes and referees make mistakes, coaches make mistakes sometimes, too. It is a coach's job to put every player in the best position to succeed, and I did the opposite of that! We were fortunate to come out with a victory.

The next day, things went much better. We got a big lead early and kept adding to it. We typically have at least one very good quarter and one very bad quarter every game, but this time, we scored 9 points in the first quarter, 9 in the second, 10 in the third and 10 in the fourth. It was nice to see.

With that two-game winning streak, we take a 6-8 record into the tournament. Given that on the first day of practice I was worried that my debut season as a head coach would be a winless one, I'll take it.

Our opponent Tuesday has beaten us twice -- by 4 points and by 6 points. The first time, we had a small lead but gave it away during a poor third quarter and couldn't quite pull even again. The second time, we fell behind 14-0 but used our intense full-court press to rally like crazy before falling short. If we somehow could combine the first game's first half and the second game's second half, we'd be in great shape!

We will have to play well to defeat this opponent, but we know we can do it. We will outwork them and outhustle them and badger them and battle them ... all the while hoping that a few more shots fall than in each of our losses to them.

I have to admit to being a little nervous going into my first ever playoff game. At least I know that this time, I won't use a lineup without a point guard! Wish me luck.


Today is the birthday of the greatest man I've ever known -- my dad, Jerry Nadel. If he were still alive, he'd be 95 years old.

Dear Dad:

You were such a warm, loving, intelligent, hard-working, funny, passionate, caring, talented man, and you set an incredible example for me and my brothers. Every time I think of you, I ask myself if I'm being as good a person as you were. It's an almost impossible standard for me to live up to ... but believe me, Dad, I'm trying.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

My Super Bowl pick, but first: The greatest NFL team nobody talks about

It's time to make my 2014 Super Bowl prediction, but first ...

A look back at the 40-year anniversary of my favorite team of all time, a team that also is one of the most overlooked in sports history:

The 1973 Miami Dolphins.

"What?" you're no doubt saying. "Every time a team goes 5-0 or 7-0 or 10-0, all anybody talks about are the undefeated Dolphins. They are legendary."

Well, I'm not talking about those Dolphins. The 17-0 team was the 1972 model, capping the season with victory in the '73 Super Bowl.

I'm talking about the following season's team, which went 15-2 and repeated as champs.

What a lot of people don't know is that the '72 Dolphins had an incredibly easy schedule and still struggled to win several of their games. They had to rally to beat a mediocre Minnesota team, squeaked out a one-point victory over a Buffalo squad that would finish 4-9-1, and barely got past both the Jets and Giants, neither of whom made the playoffs. Some of the "struggles" -- if one can say an unbeaten team struggled -- came about because QB Bob Griese was lost in the fifth game with a broken ankle. Although Earl Morrall played superbly in his place, he wasn't Griese.

In the postseason, the Dolphins hung on to beat an OK Cleveland team, used a 37-yard run on a fake punt to get past Pittsburgh and needed to stop a potential game-tying drive by Washington in the Super Bowl. (Don Shula benched Morrall in favor of Griese at halftime against the Steelers with the score tied at 7; Morrall had thrown a TD pass in the first half. How many coaches would have the cajones to do that?)

Hey, I don't mean to tear down the accomplishments of those '72 Dolphins. They did go 17-0, after all, and no team before or since in the history of North American major pro sports has been able to get through an entire season unbeaten and untied.

Plus, it was that team that captured the heart of a 12-year-old kid from Connecticut who was just starting to become a big-time sports fan. (Like many kids, I chose to root for a winner.) So believe me, I loved the '72 Dolphins and respect them to this day.

Still, I needed to discuss how they went 17-0 to put things in perspective.

Confident, skilled and healthy, the following season's Dolphins were a steamroller. Yes, they lost their second game 12-7 to Oakland, but they avenged that defeat in the playoffs by crushing the Raiders. They also lost their next-to-last regular-season game when Shula chose to rest most of his stars. In their 12 regular-season victories, the Dolphins were never seriously challenged.

My aunt and uncle, who lived in Miami, regularly mailed me newspaper clippings so I could keep up with my team. (Note to parents: Please explain to your kids what a newspaper was and what mail was.) I cut out pictures of my favorite players and taped them all over my walls. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.)

The Dolphins began the playoffs with an 18-point rout of the Bengals at the Orange Bowl -- a game witnessed by a sellout crowd that included yours truly. I was visiting my aunt and uncle, and they knew linebacker Nick Buoniconti's secretary, and she delivered a game ticket for me -- one of my all-time thrills as a sports fan. That was followed by a 17-point beatdown of the hated Raiders for the AFC title.

And then came the almost anticlimactic 24-7 thrashing of the Vikings in the Super Bowl. The Dolphins led 24-0 before the Vikings knew what hit them and my all-time favorite pro athlete, Larry Csonka, rushed for a then-record 145 yards. The Dolphins so dominated the line of scrimmage that Griese only needed to throw 7 passes all game.

What a team. Csonka, Griese, Buoniconti, Paul Warfield, Mercury Morris, Jim Kiick, Bill Stanfill, Manny Fernandez, Jake Scott, Dick Anderson, one of the great offensive lines ever assembled (Wayne Moore, Bob Kuechenberg, Jim Langer, Larry Little, Norm Evans), Garo Yepremian, Larry Seiple and, of course, Shula.

Before the 1972 season, the Dolphins were still called the No Names. By the end of 1973, every football follower everywhere knew who they were: two-time champions.

They could have made it three straight but they were seriously distracted in 1974 after Csonka, Warfield and Kiick decided to play out their contracts and leave for the fledgling World Football League. Still, the Dolphins went 11-3 before falling in the final minute to the Raiders in a game regarded as one of the best ever. By '75, with Csonka & Co. gone, the Dolphins no longer were among the elite.

I remained a Dolphins fan for about two more decades. I was energized in 1979 after Csonka returned for one more season. They went 10-6, including lopsided victories over Chicago and Green Bay -- which were important for my ego as a Marquette student surrounded by Bears and Packers fans.

In 1983, the football gods delivered Dan Marino, who somehow went undrafted until Shula grabbed him with the No. 27 pick. I loved watching Marino pass the football so flawlessly and accurately. With a flick of his wrist, the ball would go 50 yards into the arms of Mark Clayton or Mark Duper. I was living in Madison, Wis., at the time and on Oct. 30 of that season, I took my new bride Roberta to the garden spot of Rockford. Why? Because the Dolphins-Rams game wasn't on TV in Madison but was in Rockford. The Dolphins won, with Marino passing for 2 TDs and even running for one. (Poor Roberta had little choice but to be a Dolphins fan, and my kids would be, too, at least for awhile.)

In 1985, I went to Minneapolis to be AP's sportswriter there and, over time, I became less of a fan of the teams I had followed in my youth. I gradually dropped my allegiance to the Yankees, Knicks and Rangers, but it took quite a bit longer to get the Dolphins out of my system. When Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga forced out Shula so he could hire Jimmy Johnson after the 1995 season, I lost most interest in the team. When Marino retired after the '99 season, I was officially done with the Dolphins.

These days, I could give a flyin' hoot if the Dolphins win or lose. I'm a Panthers fan! But I will never forget the thrills I had watching Csonka and the rest of them -- my first "sports crush."

And I honestly do believe that the 1973 Dolphins were better than their undefeated predecessors.


OK, that was one long introduction to my prediction for tomorrow's big game.

Seattle will control both lines of scrimmage and will make things difficult for Peyton Manning. He will end up with better stats than Russell Wilson, but Wilson will be named MVP after having led an efficient attack and having made a couple of big scoring plays.

Although I like Manning and won't mind being wrong about this, he hasn't seen a defense quite like Seattle's all season.

Seahawks 24, Broncos 19.

See, now wasn't it worth getting through all that stuff about the 1973 Dolphins and my history as a fan?

Now go call your bookie and get rich.

You're welcome!